William Gibson Reading “Agency”

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Gibson is on a book tour for his new novel, and I got to see him read from it and take questions in the First Parish Church in Cambridge. There was a big crowd! It was nearly full, largely with people who, like me, read Neuromancer when it came out in 1984. They now have long grey hair or beards. He said “I can’t tell if I’ve read here before, or if there are a lot of churches like this in Cambridge, but it’s really nice.”

He then read Ch. 3 of Agency, “The App Whisperer”, where we first meet the novel’s protagonist, Eunice, a snarky AI cobbled together out of an upload and various military programs by Valley bros. Eunice introduces herself to the viewpoint character, Verity Jane, through an earbud and a pair of AR glasses.  Gibson spoke slowly, and still has a southern drawl after all these decades in Vancouver, and with a fair number of pauses while speaking. He’s now 71, and confesses that these tours are wearing. It’s a fun, dense chapter, like the book as a whole. He then took questions, which I’m reconstructing from memory:

Q: How did Agency end up being on a stub timeline?
A: I had pitched the novel as a parodic romp through Silicon Valley, and then Nov 9, 2016 happened. From one week to the next everything turned stupid. My plot was ruined. But I had an epiphany a couple of weeks later. This is a sequel to The Peripheral, where the oligarchs up in the 22nd century are messing around with timelines for their amusement. One of them could be doing it out of sadism. I could keep this story in a plausible timeline, and leave the actual one to turn into the 22nd century dystopia. Saved!

Q: Would you ever do another collaboration like The Difference Engine? Please do it with Kim Stanley Robinson!
A: I really haven’t done that many: a couple of short stories, that with Sterling, and a script with the actor Michael St. John Smith called Archangel. No one was interested, until it got picked up as a graphic novel. Now people are saying it should be a screenplay! I did some commissioned work in Hollywood, but it doesn’t work for me unless I have a really close relationship with the person. No one but Sterling could stand working with me.

Q: Your style has gotten leaner as you’ve gone along. What is your writing process like?
A: Ugly. I don’t think we as writers are here to talk about it, but to do it. No one else can give you writing advice. But for me, I start with a character, like Verity. I put them in a room like Joe-Eddy’s apartment, and come to know it as well as my own house. Soon they get full autonomy and the story flows from there. It never starts with an idea.

Q: How did you end up with so many female protagonists?
A: When I first started writing SF in the late 70s, I had a Post-It note list in my head of things to do. One was to avoid “The Future is American”. Another was to put literary realism into a genre that really didn’t have it. But another was to get women into the stories. I remember going to Norwescon in Seattle and hearing Joanna Russ talk about feminism in SF. I had never heard the word. I’d read it a few times, but didn’t really know what it meant. On hearing her I got it.   That led to Molly Millions being the kick-ass co-protagonist in Neuromancer.

Q: This will probably be the most boring and nerdy question this evening, but you seem to use a lot of null subject sentences. This comes up in Arabic and Japanese; people say “Jack picked up the apple. Ate.” The subject and object are implied.
A: I’ve never heard it so clearly described! It just seems to pass my internal editor as a natural way to speak. I catch myself doing stuff like that sometimes. I was using “liminal” way too much, and so made sure to put it in the second paragraph here, even though we’re in liminal times.

Q: How do you react when people ask you about the Future?
A: I have a cladding about that. All SF is actually written about the present. It’s like taking an ice cream cone from the store; it’s melting away as you carry it out. People credit me with coining “cyberspace”, but no one except the military uses it without air quotes. The actual Internet is nothing like what I described. In Neuromancer it was still a thing separate from the world, a different space. Some time ago it all everted, and now we’re living inside it. I also used “cyberpunk” with air quotes when it first came out, and parts of that did come true.

He then apologized for fading (this is only the first week of the tour!) and sat down to sign. I had hoped to get my Neuromancer hardback signed, but there were hundreds of people ahead of me.  It’s great to see someone who can still deliver after over 40 years in the field!


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