Friday, October 14, 2016

William Gibson on process, recordings, the future, Victorians & trains

David Wallace-Wells interviews William Gibson in The Paris Review. Gibson's process:

And your schedule is steady the whole way through?


As I move through the book it becomes more demanding. At the beginning, I have a five-day workweek, and each day is roughly ten to five, with a break for lunch and a nap. At the very end, it’s a seven-day week, and it could be a twelve-hour day.

Toward the end of a book, the state of composition feels like a complex, chemically altered state that will go away if I don’t continue to give it what it needs. What it needs is simply to write all the time. Downtime other than simply sleeping becomes problematic. I’m always glad to see the back of that.


Do you revise?


Every day, when I sit down with the manuscript, I start at page one and go through the whole thing, revising freely.


You revise the whole manuscript every day?


I do, though that might consist of only a few small changes. I’ve done that since my earliest attempts at short stories. It would be really frustrating for me not to be able to do that. I would feel as though I were flying blind.

The beginnings of my books are rewritten many times. The endings are only a draft or three, and then they’re done. But I can scan the manuscript very quickly, much more quickly than I could ever read anyone else’s prose.
The advent of sound recordings:
My great-grandfather was born into a world where there was no recorded music. It’s very, very difficult to conceive of a world in which there is no possibility of audio recording at all. Some people were extremely upset by the first Edison recordings. It nauseated them, terrified them. It sounded like the devil, they said, this evil unnatural technology that offered the potential of hearing the dead speak. We don’t think about that when we’re driving somewhere and turn on the radio. We take it for granted.
Science fiction and the future; the Victorians and their trains:

Do you think fiction should be predictive?


No, I don’t. Or not particularly. The record of futurism in science fiction is actually quite shabby, it seems to me. Used bookstores are full of visionary texts we’ve never heard of, usually for perfectly good reasons.


You’ve written that science fiction is never about the future, that it is always instead a treatment of the present.


There are dedicated futurists who feel very seriously that they are extrapolating a future history. My position is that you can’t do that without having the present to stand on. Nobody can know the real future. And novels set in imaginary futures are necessarily about the moment in which they are written. As soon as a work is complete, it will begin to acquire a patina of anachronism. I know that from the moment I add the final period, the text is moving steadily forward into the real future.

There was an effort in the seventies to lose the usage science fiction and champion speculative fiction. Of course, all fiction is speculative, and all history, too—endlessly subject to revision. Particularly given all of the emerging technology today, in a hundred years the long span of human history will look fabulously different from the version we have now. If things go on the way they’re going, and technology keeps emerging, we’ll eventually have a near-total sorting of humanity’s attic.

In my lifetime I’ve been able to watch completely different narratives of history emerge. The history now of what World War II was about and how it actually took place is radically different from the history I was taught in elementary school. If you read the Victorians writing about themselves, they’re describing something that never existed. The Victorians didn’t think of themselves as sexually repressed, and they didn’t think of themselves as racist. They didn’t think of themselves as colonialists. They thought of themselves as the crown of creation.

Of course, we might be Victorians, too.


The Victorians invented science fiction.


I think the popular perception that we’re a lot like the Victorians is in large part correct. One way is that we’re all constantly in a state of ongoing t­echnoshock, without really being aware of it—it’s just become where we live. The Victorians were the first people to experience that, and I think it made them crazy in new ways. We’re still riding that wave of craziness. We’ve gotten so used to emergent technologies that we get anxious if we haven’t had one in a while.

But if you read the accounts of people who rode steam trains for the first time, for instance, they went a little crazy. They’d traveled fifteen miles an hour, and when they were writing the accounts afterward they struggled to describe that unthinkable speed and what this linear velocity does to a perspective as you’re looking forward. There was even a Victorian medical complaint called “railway spine.”

Emergent technologies were irreversibly altering their landscape. Bleak House is a quintessential Victorian text, but it is also probably the best steam­punk landscape that will ever be. Dickens really nailed it, especially in those proto-Ballardian passages in which everything in nature has been damaged by heavy industry. But there were relatively few voices like Dickens then. Most people thought the progress of industry was all very exciting. Only a few were saying, Hang on, we think the birds are dying.
When he decided to roll his own:
When I decided to try to write myself, in my late twenties, I went out and bought a bunch of newer science fiction—I hadn’t been reading the stuff for a long while. It was incredibly disappointing. That window to strangeness just didn’t seem to be there anymore. It was like, when I was twelve there was country blues, and when I’m twenty-six there’s plastic Nashville country—it was that kind of change. My intent, when I began to write, was to be a one-man science-fiction roots movement. I remember ­being horrified that critics who were taken quite seriously, at least within the genre, habitually referred to the category of all writing that was not science fiction or fantasy as “the mundane.” It didn’t make any sense to me. If there was mundane literature, then certainly a lot of it was science fiction. You know, if James Joyce is mundane but Edgar Rice Burroughs isn’t—I’m out of here.

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