Distrust That Particular Flavor

William Gibson, author of numerous fictional speculative masterpieces, is a superlative storyteller, able to mint fresh, intriguing characters and propel them through compelling plots. He limns postmodern and futuristic venues with a keen eye. He taps the zeitgeist and spins out its skein of probable trajectories.

But beyond all these skills lies something numinous, something that can only be termed a “sensibility.” Gibson is one of those writers who invariably and ineluctably project a signature affect, diffusing an emotionally charged nanotech utility fog of perceiving. He’s adroit at conveying a mood, an impressionistic ambiance unique to his specific, peculiar three pounds of grey matter. Employing a lens or filter of prose, he creates a world, a Gibson Zone, which you inhabit for the duration of his tales.

Distrust That Particular Flavor, his first book of nonfiction, representing over twenty years’ worth of occasional journalism, book-introducing, and speechifying, features sizable and rewarding dollops of his other talents: narrative, portraiture, cultural analysis, speculation. But its main charm lies in the way the collection takes over your senses and tastes and attitudes, substituting Gibson’s sensibility for your own, allowing you, willy-nilly, to channel the man.

Gibson professes an uncomfortableness with autobiography, but really he’s exposing himself nakedly all the time. Whether he’s writing about his trip to Singapore (“Disneyland with the Death Penalty”) or the future of Hollywood (“Up the Line”), he’s really laying bare his own quirks, tastes, hopes, biases, dislikes, and loves. Although Gibson acknowledges the influence of an early role model, William Burroughs, and ostensibly emulates Burroughs’s cool, removed, unruffled, almost alien dispassion, I kept thinking of a different boho writer, Henry Miller. Although Gibson displays none of Miller’s manic, volcanic, high-volume fervor, both men place themselves at the secret nucleus of all their writings, whatever the topic. And, sure enough, he does namecheck Miller glancingly at one point.

This is not to say that Gibson’s essays are all contentless paeans to self. Far from it. Each contains a plethora of insights into our current condition. In fact, one could extract a slim book’s worth of unforgettable apercus from this outing that would function much like the volume J. G. Ballard: Quotes. It would be a cyberpunk Bartlett’s. This is, after all, the man who famously observed: “The street finds its own uses for things” and “The future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed.”

“The Walkman changed the way we understand cities.” “We are that strange species that constructs artifacts intended to counter the natural flow of forgetting.” “The description of an underlying, literally occulted order is invariably less complex than the surface reality it supposedly informs. Conspiracy theories and the occult comfort us because they present models of the world that more easily make sense than the world itself and, regardless of how dark or threatening, are inherently less frightening.” “We are all curators , in the postmodern world, whether we want to be or not.”

There’s at least one such pithy gem of brilliantly phrased insightfulness on almost every page of this book, and each reader will find themselves compiling their own idiosyncratic Sayings of Chairman Bill.

Because Gibson is often writing about technological change — the driver of all cultural change, he asserts — and because these essays extend across three decades, they often involve scenarios which form “yesterday’s tomorrows,” timelines now divergent from what we actually came to experience. Sometimes these scenarios are presented just as they were written, as little time-capsule snapshots.

At other times, Gibson deliberately references such obsolescent visions as instructive lessons. This can be seen in “Time Machine Cuba,” which looks at how H. G. Wells, late in his career, managed to undermine his earlier insights. (This piece provides the volume’s title, which turns out to refer to suspicions about a certain kind of hectoring science fiction.) And the theme manifests most acutely in “Googling the Cyborg,” which conflates Gibson’s childhood understanding of SF with futurist Vannevar Bush’s mid-century visions with the realities of the internet age as we are currently embodying them (at least as of the piece’s 2008 publication date).

This multivalent, kaleidoscopic depiction of multiversal history, with eternally branching futures (cue Borges, one of Gibson’s acknowledged idols), promotes a sense of instability, of perpetually shifting foundations, of no real certainties. It’s a feeling of both limitless freedom and limitless danger, of potential and constraints, of infinite joy and limitless sadness. “This perpetual toggling between nothing being new, under the sun, and everything having very recently changed, absolutely, is perhaps the central driving tension of my work.” (“Dead Man Sings.”)

And, ultimately, that sensation of the world as doomed and redeemed, eternal and fleeting, is what it’s like to live in William Gibson’s head, a space the lucky reader will share after emerging from this potent trip. 

The Speculator

Paul Di Filippo’s column The Speculator appears monthly in the Barnes & Noble Review.  He is the author of several acclaimed novels and story collections, including Fractal Paisleys, Little Doors, Neutrino Drag, and Fuzzy Dice.