Clichés crop up for a reason. It has become one to say of William Gibson’s near-future novels that he has a genius for picking out the seeds of future in the present, that he writes about the world we already know as if it were science fiction. I remember reading his Pattern Recognition in 2007, when I had a job as a shop-girl in a cyberpunk warehouse in Camden Lock Market in London and feeling the hairs on the back of my arms rise on the bus to work when I came to his description of the Lock as a “Children’s Crusade,” full of shuffling teenagers up from the provinces to buy overpriced pieces of space-kitch and fake fur boleros.
Yes, the lumpen shop fronts with their weird plaster statues of boots and bangles really did look a bit like they’d been modelled by a giant toddler out of plasticine. At the warehouse, we specialised in flogging plastic cyberware headsets and bits of tacky Japanalia to teenagers with pocket money to spare on the debris of the future everyone expected in 1987, 20 years on. We got timed for toilet breaks and occasionally fired for playing with the nerf guns on our breaks. It was the worst job I’ve ever had, and because the shop and the young punks who flocked to it were a paean to his aesthetic, I blame William Gibson for almost all of it.
The Neuromancer trilogy takes place in a vision of 2030 as imagined from the vantage point of 1984 — Gibson explains in this essay collection that all science fiction is really about the time it was written — incorporating a reasonably prescient vision of “cyberspace,” a term with whose coinage the author is credited. By 2008, the closest we had got to that future was selling plastic tat to rave kids and getting meaty tourist hands shoved up my cyber-skirt. I routinely found myself wondering: What was the point? Why we were investing so much energy in this fictional future, this increasingly alien world of tech implants and floating cities and exciting angular haircuts, when it’s hard enough to live in the present on $7 an hour? The modern working world had made a joke of the gritty, glittering “cyber” future William Gibson once imagined, and now it was attempting to sell it back to us.
But the author is not at fault for the commodification of his vision. In Distrust That Particular Flavor, he attempts to explain himself, charting the evolution of his special species of future-narrative. The book brings together essays, reports, speech transcripts and reviews from over two decades. The collection is deeply compassionate and clear-thinking, and laced with a profound uneasiness: uneasiness with the notion of nonfiction — “I felt as though I was being paid to solo on some instrument vaguely related to one I actually knew how to play” — and with the process of collecting and curating that has gone into the book itself. Gibson claims to feel less than “entirely comfortable” with the selection of his own apocrypha, which has been collected with all the weird jumbled-together mania that the author identifies in himself as a young man, shopping in junk-stores for old, worn-out timepieces to re-sell (“My Obsession”).
Every story about the future was written in the past. As such, the pieces in this essay collection are antiques by their very nature. Any article like “Rocket Radio,” written in 1989 about the social importance of such cutting-edge technology as the remote control, would have been a curio by 1995, never mind 2012. The breathless observations about Japanese “mobile girls,” written long before every teenager in the Northern Hemisphere had overdeveloped thumb-muscles from texting, are deliciously archaic, like reading articles from the 1950s about “miracle homes of tomorrow.”
Reading early Gibson today is fascinating in the way that collecting vintage watches would be fascinating: one is struck by a sense of time stilled and held in the hand, of possible futures frozen and suspended as technology brings new ones into being. When Neuromancer and Mona Lisa Overdrive were being written, Japan, as Gibson explains here, was “the global imagination’s default setting for the future” (“Modern Boys and Mobile Girls”). That possible future may not be a place we can actually visit with our bodies, but it is still a part of the long, weird story of humanity imagining itself.
In essays here on Tokyo, on Singapore, on London, Gibson opens the skin of cities like old watches and looks for the peculiar synergy of metal and emotion that makes their gears spin. With each little tick, he sees the future city under the present one, waiting to be brought into being. It’s not really ever about colored hair or robot outfits, but about people and the breathtaking things they have a tendency to do when presented with technology that changes the way they live and communicate.
There is discomfort, too, with the fact of this book as a physical object, with covers and pages to turn. The whole idea, in a collection of essays about future-tech and its implications, is a jarring anachronism — from its shiny silver first-edition cover, like the packaging on a toy robot, to a title so stupendously bad it deserves to be framed on an agent’s wall long into the Gibsonian future.
Everything about this book is existentially absurd.
But then, so are you, reading these words through the damp flesh meniscus of the eyes you were born with, from a backlit screen skinning a device that contains more computing power than the first moon shuttle. So am I, writing them on my smartphone on a rattling New York subway train deep underground. What we’re doing right now is patently absurd, splendidly quotidian and unlikely, and yet this is how we communicate, you and me.
In Gibson’s terminology from the final talk transcript , we are already cyborgs — internoded fusions of meat and machine more miraculous and terrifying than any 1950s robot. As I type, I’m picking up Twitter messages from journalists 2,000 miles away, looking at footage of buildings burning in Bahrain. If we spent much time actually thinking through how staggering the daily facts of our technological lives are right now, not just the phones in our pockets but the food on our plates, the clothes on our backs, the forging frontiers of our collective imagination — well, how could we carry on getting up and going to work every day? How could we avoid the delicious, discomfiting paralysis of future shock long enough to fix dinner and file those reports? If we looked too hard at the system, would it start to collapse? And would we be sorry?
This is why science fiction is dangerous. When Slavoj Žižek visited Occupy Wall Street in October, he drew protesters’ attention to the fact that “in mid-April 2011, the Chinese government prohibited on TV, films, and novels all stories that contain alternate reality or time travel. These people still dream about alternatives, so you have to prohibit this dreaming. Here, we don’t need a prohibition because the ruling system has even oppressed our capacity to dream.”
Žižek’s famous aphorism, often misattributed as an original coinage, that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism has become a shorthand for every insidious affect of capitalist realism — the notion, as Mark Fisher explains in his chapbook of the same title, that there can be no alternative to the cultural and economic lassitudes of post-Fordist production. When theorists like Fisher riff on that line, the implicit question being asked is always why it is so hard to imagine the end of capitalism. We should, perhaps, also be asking ourselves the second question contained within the first: Why is it so very easy to imagine the end of the world?
The answer is: because it has to be. Late capitalism, in its current iteration, relies implicitly on the assumption that there is no such thing as deep time. The debt structure sustaining contemporary neoliberalism, as David Graeber explains in Debt: The First 5,000 years, is built on the assumption that the great dark crunch is on its way, making all deals urgent, all long-term planning futile:
Many Victorian capitalists operated under the sincere belief that they might, at any moment, find themselves hanging from trees…it does seem strange that capitalism feels the constant need to imagine, or to actually manufacture, the means of its own imminent distinction. Presented with the prospect of its own eternity, capitalism — or anyway, financial capitalism — simply explodes. Because if there’s no end to it, there’s no reason not to generate [credit] infinitely.
The end of the world and the impossibility of an alternative to financial capitalism are not just defining features of contemporary global imagination: they sustain one another. After all, if we might all be radioactive smudges on the tarmac come Tuesday, why not be out for as much as we can grab today? Why build a sustainable growth model if it might be underwater in thirty years? Unrestrained free-market capitalism requires that its vassals live in the moment, borrowing against their own futures, and for the past two generations of neoliberal policymaking, there have been logical reasons for us to do so.
A condition of modernity has become the ability to seriously consider from a young age the possibility not just that we ourselves will die but that everything we know and love will be destroyed. For the past 60 years, the child growing up must, soon after she has become aware of the certainty of her own death, consider the possibility of nuclear holocaust, global warming and other full stops hovering over our collective existence, not as myth or artefact of religious faith but as fact, imminent and inevitable.
The end of the world as we know it has become the biggest story we know how to tell. In churches and temples, in books, in films, in comics and shows and series, from hard science fiction to frantic near-future disaster porn to beige pamphlets handed out by swivel-eyed monks on public transport, we tell each other endless stories about the coming Armageddon. The fires, the waves, the epidemics and food shortages and rising seas have partially replaced the retro contours of the mushroom cloud in the popular vision of planetary doom. The late capitalist empires have a particular fetish for the specificities of its own future annihilation; in my first week in New York City, I visited several world heritage sites whose ruins I had previously seen drawn in specific and grisly celluloid detail, besides the one that really is in ruins.
Walking around the New York Public Library, you can see it in a peculiar sort of double vision — once with your everyday eyes, hushed and full of students cadging the free wi-fi on their laptops, and then again packed with CGI ice in The Day After Tomorrow, or hopelessly flooded in Spielberg’s A.I. Of course, the students with laptops are by far the more terrifying prospect – we can imagine the end of the world no sweat, but who knows what those kids are doing on the Internet?
In the flagship essay of this collection, “Time Machine Cuba,” Gibson speaks of the impossibility of the notion of deep time when it encounters the infant nightmares of the Sputnik generation:
I cringed my way through the heating up of the cold war, expecting any moment the wail of the sirens that would call us all into the basement of the post office … three years into my discovery of history, it was announced that Soviet ballistic missiles had been deployed in Cuba. My encounter with history, I absolutely knew, was about to end then, and perhaps my species with it.
The world, however, did not end in 1963, and ever since that point, the “flavor” that Gibson urges us to distrust is one of prophetic doomsaying, of refusing to see the future in anything other than the shapes of smoke rising from rubble. What is perhaps most significant about Gibson’s fiction, then, is what he chooses not to write about. None of his nine novels has been set in a world that requires the annihilation of our own to make narrative sense. The end of the world is nowhere to be found. Instead, there are constellations of possible futures, each of them requiring far more imagination to look at with open eyes than any dystopian fairy tale.
What makes Gibson’s work so vital is its hunger for strangeness, the need to unearth the future in the present like a child digging in dry ground for buried bulbs. We don’t need to see it face to face: we just need to know it’s there, a little under the surface, waiting for spring. It’s only by making the present strange that we can possibly hope to make the future possible.
At some point in 2012, we’re going to have to seriously consider the possibility that the world might not end any time soon — that human society might continue, and that we might have some part to play in that trajectory.
And isn’t that the most frightening idea of all?