Saturday, September 18, 2010

Meeting "The Man"

I just can't read in bookstores.  I'll pause to let you unpack that sentence for irony.
The problem rests with my wandering eyes.  I keep looking up from the page to gawk at all of the titles on the shelves, even if I find them uninteresting.  Such is the love of books.  Nevertheless, I sat and read William Gibson's new novel, Zero History as I waited for the author himself to appear in person.
I had journeyed to the Barnes & Noble under gray metallic skies.  It's the same store location that I joined Ghost Dogg at to see his idol, Stephen J. Cannell.  Poor Ghost Dogg was so nervous that night.  Sitting in the audience today, in nearly the exact same seat as that evening, I understood how he felt.  
The crowd was the expected collection of high techs and low lifes. No, not really.  I just wanted to say that as a ham-handed, lame journo means of connecting this experience to cyberpunk.  You know, the way a mainstream newspaper probably would?  In reality, the crowd was a mixed density of techies, artists, people who appreciate good books, and all around geeks like me.  Mr. Gibson took the podium at 2pm.  After a brief bit of tangling with the microphone stand, he read to us a chapter from Zero History.  This latest work follows in the mold of his past two novels, Pattern Recognition and Spook Country, stories that are very much rooted in the here and now but continue his examination of cutting edge technology, keeping him shelved in the science fiction section.  His style of prose probably contributes to that as well.  Gibson could write a recipe for tuna salad and it would sound like science fiction and I mean that as a compliment in the utmost.  He has the best prose style of any author today, bar none.  But I digress.  The name of the chapter he read is "Paradoxical Antagonist."  Yes, it is just as humorous as it sounds in that Kafkaesque sort of way.  I laughed, at any rate.  
He then opened the floor up for questions.  There was a lull for a moment, no one wanting to be the brave pioneer and go first.  In time, I would regret not shooting my arm up immediately.  "He who hesitates..."  well, you know how it is.
I'll attempt to recap a few of the highlights of his talk, but please be aware that they are not verbatim quotes as they are subject to the data corruption of human memory.   

On "the future," he had this to say:
 "I don't think that the future of Neuromancer could happen now.  I mean, there are no cell phones in that book.  If a twelve year-old were to open it and read it, he would get 15 pages in and say, 'now I know what the mystery is.'"

"Science fiction takes a look at what's happening now and tries to see where it could go later.  We're really writing about the present as that is all our imaginations have to go on.  George Orwell's 1984 was not about our year 1984, but about his 1948.  I doubt he could have foreseen reality TV.  It might have killed him.  If we could send a time beam back into his head while he slept in London in 1948, saying, 'George, in the 21st Century there will be a show called Big Brother.  We're going to play a bit of it for you now...' That might've been it for him."

On the viability of the term "cyberpunk:"
"I use it as a pantone chip for cultural reference.  If I say, 'Did you see her pants at the party?  They were totally cyberpunk,' everyone knows what I mean.  Cyberpunk has filtered into other media, becoming more about movies and...pants.
"If you go back and look at Neuromancer and other cyberpunk, none of the characters seem to have parents.  Nor do they have jobs.  It's all sort of adolescent, very punk.  Now we're older and have matured and we have parents and we have jobs and it doesn't seem as realistic to us as it once did."

The questioning ended before I could ask anything, but I was at peace with that.  The line formed for the book signing and I was eager to talk with Mr. Gibson one-on-one, even if fleetingly.  As most writers do, I stretched my ears out and listened to the conversations of those in line with me.  Two gentlemen had driven down from Milwaukee after working the third shift.  They were hopped up on espresso and one feared the enamel on his teeth was corroding away as they spoke due to the sheer volume of coffee.  Yeah, brother.  Been there.  They joked about nodding off during the trip, one awaking to hear the driver say, "I just had the weirdest dream."  Oh the deliciousness of that statement.
Others were texting one another while standing in line only two or three people apart.  Two others were discussing the teaching of art history at the college level.  And one young man said something that will go directly into one of my short stories: "I'm not hacking, I'm just using the operating system to its fullest potential."
The line drew closer and closer to where William Gibson sat at a table, scrawling his name on book after book.  A kind of localized paralysis set into my tongue.  What would I say?  There he was, the author of Neuromancer and the coiner of the term, "cyberspace."  One of my literary heroes.  What could I possibly say to him that he has not heard before?  "So...Neuromancer.  That was pretty cool."  "What are Bono and The Edge really like?" Aside: in case you didn't know, William Gibson was a consultant to them on the design of their Zoo TV stage.  Double nerdgasm for this U2 fan.
Ultimately, I kept myself suitably restrained, fearing the perception of a "fan boy" if not the wrath of mall security.  Mr. Gibson signed my copy of Zero History as well as my battered and well-traveled copy of Count Zero from 1989.  I posed with him for the picture you see above and then handed him a business card for Strange Horizons.  He gave me a friendly smile and said he'd check it out sometime.  I said "very nice to meet you" and walked off to wander the shelves and plant Strange Horizons cards in strategic locations, dispersing my meme like a panspermia meteor shower.
I'd have to say it was a good day.

Oh and my question had I the chance to ask it?  I would like to have known how he got around the Blade Runner conundrum.  I once read that during the writing of Neuromancer, he went to see that film in the theater.  He walked out dejected, thinking that Ridley Scott seemed to have beaten him to the punch.  Yet Mr. Gibson obviously pressed on and wrote a landmark of science fiction, picking up just about every award that the genre offers and then some.  As a writer, I've had those moments were it looks like someone else got there before you did.  William Gibson met that challenge with flying colors and would love to know the secret.
Who knows?  If he visits the blog, we may know.

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  1. I once met my hero author, Robert Jordan (real name James Rigney), and all I could say was, "Thank you".

  2. I'm very glad you got the chance to meet him while he still blessed us with his presence.

  3. From Facebook, Ghost Dogg said:
    "There may be a child out there right now who will have to muster his courage when he meets you. Food for thought."

    I can only hope so, my friend.