Cyberspaceman: William Gibson on Life Inside and Outside the Internet

The sci-fi icon talks about the "consensual hallucination" of being online, his new book and why a great first sentence is key

William Gibson Credit: Ron Bull/Toronto Star

It's a bit disorienting to meet William Gibson for coffee. Coffee exists in the physical world; for his millions of readers, however, Gibson seems to reside in the ether. Since coining the concept and term "cyberspace" in his 1982 short story "Burning Chrome," the 66-year-old novelist has become the greatest visionary of life on the other side of our screens. From his seminal first novel — 1984's Hugo- and Nebula-winning Neuromancer — to his current bestseller, The Peripheral, his books read like the dispatches of a writer who just teleported back from some vast imagined future, with pixels on his Converses to prove it.

We met last week in the bar of his SoHo hotel, where he was staying while in New York City promoting The Peripheral, a mix-and-match dystopia tale involving corporate omnipresence, class divisions and Chinese servers. In person, he's affable, bright and eccentric, a lanky ex-hippie with the slight southern drawl of his Virginia youth. He wore a loose-fitting black jacket over a black sweater, and kept his army-green messenger bag hanging around his shoulder for the duration of our interview. It seemed light enough that he probably just forgot about it — although I preferred to think that he kept in on in case he was abruptly uploaded into one of the many screens around us.

You've said that the books of William S. Burroughs, which you began reading at age 12, turned you on to literature. What was it about his work that spoke to you?
Yeah, Burroughs influenced me, and I say this in retrospect, having actually given it considerable thought. His work, for me, was like living in a world where there were electric guitars but there were no effects. And Burroughs was like an electric guitar player who invented effects pedals. He could do things in prose, in the late Fifties or early Sixties, that no other writer on the planet could do. I bought a paperback anthology of Beat writing — I hid from my mother because of bad words and the excepts from Naked Lunch, which I'm sure I initially found almost completely unreadable — but I kept the book and over time, I sort of cracked the code. I recognized it as being akin to science fiction.

You also lost your father when you were a kid. How did that affect your development as a writer?
Well, in the first place, I think there's simply the mechanism of trauma in early life, which as an adult having watched other people go through that now, I can understand as being profoundly destabilizing. But the other thing it did was it caused my mother to return to the small town in Virginia from which both she and my father were originally from. So my earliest childhood memories were of living in a 1950s universe of Fifties stuff, as the construction company my father worked for built infrastructure projects across the South. . .lots of Levittown-style subdivisions. After my father's death we returned to this little place in the mountains where you look out the window and in one direction, you might see tailfins and you'd know you were in the early Sixties. In the other, you'd see a guy with a straw hat using a mule to plow a field — and it could have been like 1890 or 1915. It felt to me like being exiled in the past; I was taken away from this sort of modern world, and partially emerged in this strange old place that, perhaps because of the traumatic circumstances of my arrival, I never entirely came to feel a part of. I observed the people around me as though I was something else. I didn't feel that I was what they were. I can see that as the beginning of the novelistic mind.

In the 1960s, did you really tell the draft board that your goal was to try every mind-altering substance on the planet?
In saying that, I was hoping to put them off.

But it was also true, right?
Well. . .it was true in a kind of adolescent sense. Except even as I told him that, I think it was also probably true that William Burroughs had already convinced me that heroin use was a bad idea! The evidence says that you should never, never do heroin no matter what anyone says. Even Burroughs had constantly become re-addicted to this horrible shit that made his life virtually unlivable. And so I say this in a kind of comical way: William Burroughs scared me straight, at least as far as heroin went.

What about LSD? What kind of experience did you have with that?
I experienced extreme countercultural embarrassment around my discovery that LSD didn't really agree with me to the extent that it seemed to agree with some people. I would become anxious and dysphonic throughout most of the experience, I'd suffer from paranoid notions — all of which was extremely, as we said, "uncool." Once the psychedelics began to take hold, I found myself thinking about Wilhelm Reich's theories of the mass psychology of fascism. The alpha-dude in any commune was almost certain to be a sociopath.

Besides Burroughs, who were your main influences when you first started writing?
Well, I think I probably did what a lot of young writers do: If anybody asked me who my influences were, I'd say "Burroughs, Ballard, Pynchon." But I now see that those were the writers I was hoping that the questioner would associate me with, that I would be considered cool like I thought those guys were cool. But the actual influences, I suspect, the more practical influences, were earlier and I would never have mentioned them because they had no cool cred.

Like whom?
Like Len Deighton's early novels, and John Le Carré to some extent; even in an odd way, Ian Fleming although with Fleming I brought considerable irony to his work [laughs]. I got it that it was, like, ridiculous, ridiculous and arguably fascistic stuff.  But had a certain verve and was an odd and interesting character. But I would never mention those guy at the start of my career. Never. But now I've been doing this for a while, I kind of look back and I think that I was learning to be a reader, which I think you have to do before you learn to be a writer of fiction. All of those writers were having an effect on me.

You want the reader to go "wow" but you don't want the characters to go "wow." And that gets very tricky.

At the time you coined "cyberspace," you'd supposedly barely spent any time on a computer. That's hard to believe.
Oh no, I had scarcely seen one. Personal computers were not common objects at all, and I had been writing short fiction on the kind of manual portable that hipsters are starting to pay really good money for now. And then a friend of mine called from Texas and said, "My dad just gave me this machine called an Apple IIc, and, like, it automates the writing of fiction — you've gotta get one." So I went down to a department store, which was the only Apple dealership in town. I bought the IIc and the printer and the bits you needed to make it work and took it all home in a box, and never looked back. It was a godsend for me because I can't type, and having this endlessly correctable, effortlessly correctable way to write was fantastic.

In fact, you came up with the idea of cyberspace after seeing some kids playing video games in an arcade. What was it about them that inspired you?
It was their body language, this physical manifestation of some kind of intense yearning. And it seemed to me that had they been able to, they would have reached through the screen — like, reached through the glass — and directly manipulated the pixels to get the result they wanted. It was the combination of that seeing these gamers and those ads for early laptops. I made the imaginative leap that behind the screen of each personal computer, there was a notional space. And what if the notional space behind the screen of each computer was a shared notional space? And that was all it took to have the cyberspace idea. I had some vague, vague sense of what the Internet then consisted of, because I knew a few people in Seattle who worked for very, very early iterations of the Seattle digital tech scene. They talked about DARPA, they talked about the Internet. The idea that there was an Internet was less a part of what I was doing than my sense that there could be a shared notional space and that it would be extra-geographical. The space behind the screen was the same space behind the screen in Vancouver or Nairobi.

You've also referred to cyberspace as a "consensual hallucination," but doesn't this imply that it doesn't really exist?
You know, I sometimes think that the phrase "consensual hallucination" doesn't actually compute. But it's interesting in the way that it doesn't make sense. A hallucination is something that emerges from the mechanism of self and others can't see it. Consensual hallucination is impossible and takes us somewhere else — but it suggests something like cyberspace. And I was, in every case, writing Neuromancer and the early stories that preceded it, I would go for the suggestive rather than the accurate. Because I was attempting to evoke something, something that didn't exist, and then I really had no idea.

What surprises you most about what the Internet has become now?
Its utter ubiquity. The banality of the majority of its contents. But, I don't know. . .that's a complex question. When you look at how long distance telephony has been depicted in fiction since the 1850s or how television has been depicted in fiction since the 1900s, often its depicted as being very exciting to the people who are using it in the future. I realized when I was writing Neuromancer that if technology was real, the characters in that future who are using it wouldn't think any more about it than I would think about making a telephone call. That struck me. It's a particular, basic, technical problem in that sort of fiction: You want the reader to go "wow" but you don't want the characters to go "wow." And that gets very tricky. 

So, in Neuromancer, I had to make this stuff exciting and film-noir, very neon-drenched and creepy. But a more naturalistic part of me knew that that would probably not be the case. So there's one little part of the book where [the main character] Case overhears the soundtrack of an infomercial describing cyberspace to children. And what that infomercial says is a nod to what I thought it would actually be, because [in reality] it makes it sound kind of boring.  

In your new book, The Peripheral, you explore the world of online gaming. Are you much of a gamer yourself?
No. Pong was the only computer game I was ever good at. By the time it had gone to Tetris, I was like, "This is too complicated." But I have adult children now, so I watched my kids grow up with these increasing iterations of video games. I watched it go from my daughter with her first Gameboy to my daughter in her 20s, getting up at three in the morning to play Final Fantasy so she could play with these people in Japan who were better at some particular aspect of it than anybody in North America. She was getting jetlagged from gaming.

The first sentence of Neuromancer is considered one of the best openings in science fiction. How important is nailing the first sentence to you when you're starting a new book?
For me as a reader, I think that the first sentence of the first paragraph does the deal. It's like an old-fashioned modem. You see there's a handshake or there's not. You just know right away. It's like when you’re walking down the street, and there's some primitive part of the mind that separates potential sexual partners from other. You don't have to think about it. I'm sort of like that with books. If I find the handshake that work for me, when I'm faced with that huge blank page where's there no book at all, if I find an opening line that gets me through that wall, that's everything. And then I'll hang on to it, even though it continues to mutate and change constantly.