WordFest 2010: October 13, Blog 3

Several years ago now, traveling madly about the country and trying to represent it in its various aspects for my literary atlas of Canada, This is My Country What’s Yours?, I’d struggled about whether or not to try and include the quite brilliant Vancouver writer William Gibson. He is the author, of course, of Neuromancer and, most recently (this month, in fact) Zero History, and a cult hero to many—among youth, especially—who see him as a genius futurist who anticipated ‘cyberspace’ (a term he invented) and who, in his ten books of science fiction, understands everything from grim international subterfuge and bullying multinational corporate politics to the street life of London bike couriers. Today he spoke to a full house in the Rosza hall of the University of Calgary. A pro, Gibson read for just twenty minutes, enough to intrigue and amuse the hall and to send a long queue to the book counter to find out more after having won the crowd over completely with a wonderfully ironic session of Q & A. As to my own anxiety about not having included Gibson in my book, one that depended on writers’ ideas to build various impressions of the country, his ambivalence would not have been out of place but suggested he would have been a little uncomfortable with the question, inevitably put to him, of his Canadian pedigree.

“It’s a big question. Sometimes I wonder if I’m either. As I get older and listen to the discourse here, I think, “I don’t get it’. At the same time, when I listen to the discourse in America, I think I totally don’t get it. I was always struck by something David Cronenberg said, years ago, which is that when you live next to a country as iconic as the United States and so persistently itself, it’s impossible not to have what you are moulded so strongly by the knowledge that you’re not that, but at the same time that you are shaped by your adjacency.”

And then, to a good guffaw, “That struck me probably not as the stuff of patriotism but it seemed realistic to me.”

But it was about his own (iconic) reputation as a futurist that Gibson was at his charming, ironic and self-deprecating best. In Neuromancer, he pointed out, there were not just no cell-phones in the imagined near future of that book but, in a critical scene, a bank of payphones—a novel in which, “further proof of my lack of prescience, the Soviet Union looms rusty and slag mountain-like because, well, [I thought] how could anything like that dry up blow away?” The “standard journalistic hook,” said Gibson, was that he had anticipated the cyberspace world when really he had come up with the word and looked for all sorts of meanings to give it. “These meanings are not at all those it now has so that what it means now is not at all what it did then” but there was, he said, a “cultural blindness” around the  fact. “I’m not predictive,” he insisted, “that’s just my inherited cultural role.”

The past, said Gibson, is where the good stuff is in terms of imagining the future but he was loath to bend to the will of some in the audience and make some grim doomsday prediction. He is, he said, a “secret optimist” who started writing Neuromancer in 1981, when the great certainty in the world was that either the Soviet Union or the United States was going to blow it up. “What I do is I look around me in whatever present moment I find myself in, and sometimes I look back at history because you are further away and can see more clearly and have perspective and I look for things that appear to have the legs to make it into some sort of future which of course I’m going to have to imagine because I don’t know what the future is going to be.”

And so what is Gibson certain of? That future generations will think us idiots. “They’ll be totally able to inhabit our recorded digital world. They’ll be able to sit and watch Fox News. What are they going to think? It’s not going to be pretty.”

Great session. I had to buy a book.

– Noah Richler, WordFest’s Official Festival Blogger

Noah Richler is a writer and broadcaster. His book, This is My Country, What’s Yours? A Literary Atlas of Canada won the 2007 B.C. Award for Canadian Non-Fiction. He blogs for WordFest and his column,“The Writing Life,” appears here and on roverarts.com.

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