Unless you are under the age of seven or grew up beneath a boulder, you know William Gibson writes speculative science fiction, often set in a post-apocalyptic future, a not-far-from-now where the net has literally become part of the human physical frame. It’ss already part of the psyche, something Gibson predicted in his debut, 1984’s Neuromancer. Gibson knew all this long before the rest of us grokked it, and he knew it 28 years ago (!).
In Distrust That Particular Flavor, a collection of essays, he notes that our grandchildren will not distinguish the net from themselves: for us, there is the machine, increasingly a handheld object, though yours truly is using a larger machine requiring a desk. Whatever the size and sophistication level, the machine requires batteries, or electricity, must receive a wireless signal of some kind, and must (for most) be periodically replaced with a newer, faster model, linking humankind to a disembodied universe awash in information of every possible kind.
Here is where the trouble begins. The most recent piece in the book, a talk given at the New York Book Expo, was penned in 2010. The rest range from 1989 to 2002. For a writer whose primary topic is the immediate present or near future, this means, with important exceptions, that many of the essays in Distrust are as dated as the Commodore 64, still in use when Neuromancer forever changed the lay of the virtual land.
Yet it’s difficult to be critical of Gibson. Taking on a beloved writer is sure to bring in the hate (e)mail. More importantly, we’re discussing a major writer whose contribution to literature transcends the limited “speculative science fiction” aisle. As if this weren’t enough, each essay’s end note proves that despite fame, fortune, and Japanese shopping trips with Michael Stipe, Gibson remains a modest, eminently likeable gentleman whom you’d want to go to coffee with. Starbucks, to be precise.
There is small comfort in Gibson himself, who, in his opening essay, “African Thumb Piano”, writes of his profound discomfort with nonfiction. He begins by describing the long route to writing fiction, including difficulties naming characters, perhaps explaining his tendency to employ gender ambiguous names, sometimes more than once.
But I digress. Gibson slaved over his fiction, and, as the world knows, became extremely good at it. This did not leave much time or inclination for non-fiction, though he accepted the occasional assignment, either for the travel itself or to cover an event he felt would act as fodder for the muse. But Gibson admits to a comfort level with fiction he has never attained with non-fiction. Because mine is an advance review copy, I cannot quote directly from it. (Publishers ask reviewers to refrain, as ARC’s are subject to editing.) I will say Gibson equates writing non-fiction to a situation involving paint, a large room, and a toothbrush.
Not that the essays are unworthy of print. Though Gibson apologizes profusely for the more autobiographical pieces (come to think of it, he apologizes profusely for every piece), they are the strongest works. Autobiography doesn’t suffer from planned obsolescence the way an Apple IIE does. A piece for the Penguin website details his difficult beginnings. Gibson is an only child whose parents were both dead by the time he was 15. He spent years adrift, an American who evaded the draft by landing in Canada, where he married a Canadian woman and had two children. Always a lover of sci-fi, he dusted off his college writing, and the rest is history.
A piece from 2000, “Any ‘Mount of World”, is an ode to Steely Dan, Gibson’s favorite band. His description of hearing “Hey Nineteen” in the supermarket is especially amusing—he wonders who else is hearing “The Cuervo Gold, the fine Columbian” whilst pushing a supermarket cart as “a man of a certain age.” It’s also a fine piece of music criticism.
“An Invitation” describes Gibson’s first experience of reading Juan Luis Borges, right down to the chair he was sitting in, and will resonate with any reader fortunate enough to have read an author who, for them, changes everything. In “Time Machine Cuba”, Gibson evokes the experience of reading H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine and its impact on a Cold War baby.
My favorite of these essays is “My Obsession”, wherein Gibson has a brief if pricey relationship with eBay. He choice object is rare mechanical watches. He becomes fluent in the language of eBay, including “sniping” and autobid bots. Eventually, he decides enough is enough, bids on and purchases a couple of rare, expensive watches, and moves on.
“My Own Private Tokyo” gives an explanation of the city’s role in his work. A city crawl of Tokyo is incomplete without a visit to Tokyu Hands, a department store that sells “everything”, including a drain stopper Gibson is enamored of. (For an excellent explanation of Tokyu Hands, complete with photographs, see this link to Danny Choo’s educational and amusing blog.) Though Gibson claims to have abandoned his collecting ways, professing a hatred of clutter, his obsession with design is clear. Few of us worry about what our drain stoppers look like. And it’s a short leap from the aesthetics of a drain stopper to an entire book devoted to a woman with an uncanny ability to identify popular cultural trends while suffering from a physically violent aversion to the Michelin Man.
Japan, Tokyo especially, figures prominently. “Shiny Balls of Mud”, “Modern Boys and Mobile Girls”, and “My Own Private Tokyo” all attest to Gibson’s fascination with a place that has endured much physically and psychically and, as a result, has been rebuilt many times; a place with a youth culture eagerly embracing the newest of the new. Gibson writes of Otaku, a word with multiple meanings in Japanese, translated here as an individual obsessed with anime, manga, or videogames. He writes of hikikomori, literally translating as “withdrawal”, referring to young Japanese men (there are very few cases of female hikikomori,) who retreat to their rooms for years at a time, emerging, if at all, to purchase survival items from Japan’s extensive vending machine collection, preferably in the middle of the night. The girls of Shinjuku wear starched medical lab coats and stethoscopes over miniskirts as they endlessly text. It sounds, for all the world, like a brightly lit, overcrowded human zoo.
Essays like “Up the Line”, a 2003 talk for the Directors Guild of America, have nothing inherently wrong with them, except, as mentioned earlier, the very nature a nine-year-old talk about the impact of digitalization on film, or any other art form, is engaging only insofar as one might enjoy reading Gibson’s near-psychic abilities in matters technological. “Disneyland with the Death Penalty”, a depressing article about Singapore’s stringent laws, is alarming if somewhat misplaced amongst so much tech-themed work.
“The Road to Oceania”, examines another gifted psychic, George Orwell, whose prescient dystopian writings are alive and then some; it’s also an opportunity for Gibson to extol the virtues of another favorite city, London. Here he cites the rise of the lunacy on the internet, the conspiracy theorists and just plain nutjobs suddenly give a free worldwide forum to propagate the most insane views.
“Skip Spence’s Jeans” gives us the genesis of Cayce Pollard, who appears in two Gibson books. Decades before Cayce was a glimmer, Gibson visited some musician friends in San Jose, a couple of whom later became part of the Doobie Brothers. While visiting, Gibson and company ran into musician Skip Spence. Spence was outfitted in the finest the day had to offer, but what struck Gibson most were Spence’s jeans, custom-tailored, hand-stitched, dry cleaned.
That Gibson held this in his head some 25 years is deep insight into the way a writer’s mind works: the writer sees or hears something, what Julia Alvarez, in her essay collection Something to Declare calls “curiosidades”, and hangs on to whatever that curiosidade might be until the muse hands up Cayce Pollard and her sidekick, Parkaboy (“Middleaged White Guy. Since 1967.”)
“Introduction: Stelarc” is doubtless the seed of Zero History’s Garreth, Stelarc being a performance artist whose medium is his body. Garreth is something of an extreme athlete whose actions are intended as performance rather than acts of pure athleticism. “Net is a Waste of Time,” dated 1996, is alarmingly dated: no Facebook, no Google, no twitter, though eighteen years later, much of the net is still a waste of time. Or a way to waste your time, depending on how you look at it.
“Will We Have Computer Chips in Our Heads?” is a response to an oft-asked question. Gibson feels we will not, as technology will become so sophisticated that external hardware will suffice. Then again, this was written in 2000. In a recent New York Times, there is an article about the creation of a synthetic trachea, grown in a lab from a man’s stem cells, then surgically installed to replace his own cancerous trachea. “Synthetic Windpipe Is Used to Replace Cancerous One”, by Henry Fountain, 12 January 12.) Computer chips in our skulls? No. Robotics and nanotech that help move paralyzed muscles or manipulate artificial limbs, yes.
Other essays include a “filmless festival”—Gibson and friends watching a series of digital films with his then-teenaged daughter, Claire, at the Chateau Marmont. “Johnny: Notes on a Process”, discusses production of the film version of Johnny Mnemonic, while the closing essay, “Mr. Buk’s Window”, contributes to the growing pile of 9/11 literature.
Gibson fans will read this book because we read everything Gibson, and I suspect more than a few, like me, will be a bit disappointed. In the course of trying to recall Garreth’s name, I plucked Zero History from the shelf and found myself newly immersed, happily rereading about a world where people build insanely overdesigned hotels, housing guests that feel deeply in need of perfect jeans and constant infusions of hot black coffee. That I am not one of these people matters not a jot: Gibson’s London, both of this world and something entirely apart from the place most of us live, is completely absorbing.
Distrust that Particular Flavor doesn’t offer such reading pleasure, both by virtue of its form and, unhappily, some of its content. Should you read it? If you are new to Gibson, get thee to Neuromancer, then read the rest of his fiction. Then, and only then, should you consider Distrust That Particular Flavor. Fans, I wouldn’t steer you away, but caveat emptor.