Most of what we picture when we think of virtual reality comes from William Gibson’s 1984 masterpiece and debut, Neuromancer. What often goes overlooked is that the Canadian who’d coined the term ‘cyberspace’ continued to brainstorm our near future. In 1996’s Idoru, he pondered such notions as search and synthetic pop idols before we’d heard of Google or Gorillaz.
The 62-year-old keeps our modern world under his microscope in Zero History. Marketing gurus, rockers and mercenaries hunt down one another with iPhones, Twitter and police surveillance drones. It may not be a thriller, but it thrills, as always.
The fashion industry plays a large part in your latest plot. Do you follow fashion?
I’m inclined to agree with Oscar Wilde, who said, ‘Fashion is something so ugly we have to change it every six months.’ What fascinated me is how it overlaps with military contracting. I stumbled upon a strange real-world overlap between skateboard designers and manufacturers of the Marine Corps combat line.
One character says, ‘Designers become machine nerds.’ If that also applies to writers, do you become a nerd on your subject matter?
When I wrote Neuromancer, I didn’t know anything about computers. The book was published and people who knew a lot about computers started volunteering information. In Zero History, a lot of the wowie stuff that replaces my standard science-fiction eye candy is stuff that’s been volunteered by marketing, advertising and clothing-design people who have said, ‘Wow, you’re interested in this, look at this!’
At your readings, a lot of your fans are into cyberpunk and the cutting edge. There’s some shock when they realise you’re not like that.
I’m not a computer guy. I’m like an anthropologist. I’m fascinated with people’s obsessions. I’ve learned to wear them. I’m a good eavesdropper. I listen to what people say and remember all the buzzwords. Then I go away and inhabit that obsession. In the early ’80s, I happened to find myself in the vicinity of people who would work for Microsoft five years later.
One critic of Spook Country complained, ‘All the action happens offstage.’ Which misses the point.
Oh, absolutely. It’s 21st-century naturalism. All of these characters have radically expanded technological sensoria, as we all do. They can watch things across town, watch things in the dark, watch the weather on Jupiter, and switch through those things with a gizmo in their pocket. I’m 20th century enough to find that amazing.
So you wouldn’t classify your book as a thriller?
In a conventional thriller, which this is not, you put the camera on the action. But in real life, we don’t get to see the action. The book pretends to be thriller for the sake of amusement, but you’re expected to get that it’s otherwise. Or it can be pretty disappointing.
We see everything through media filters.
Yes, the action’s in the distance. Our very lives can depend on it, and it’s in the distance. What a conventional thriller does to reward, for bang, is to get you away from that once-removed surveillance world where we don’t have any control – someone is doing something about something. So as a reader you’re able to escape your constant daily anxiety about all the things you can’t control.
Human relationships, if not romance, play a much larger role in the new book.
Neuromancer is very much a young book – I was in my late twenties, early thirties, deliberately channelling my inner sullen adolescent. Nobody has parents or siblings, except for Lady 3Jane, who has semi-dead depraved rich folks in orbit. This is my first book where anyone gets engaged. There’s a gradual movement toward trying to represent an actual range of human emotions… but not that much. No more than Elmore Leonard.
The book opens in South Carolina, your birthplace. This is the first time that setting has appeared in one of your books. Why now?
I’m not really from there. My parents were living there when I was born, though I have some very early memories of the beach. For the first time in my adult life, I had reason to go there when I started writing the book. It seemed like a wonderfully unlikely place for the characters to find themselves.
Zero History is available in stores now, published by GP Putnam’s Sons