Questions : |
Ken Lum, canadian artist, lives in Paris and Vancouver
Date of interview :
WILLIAM GIBSON IS KNOWN TO THE CULTURE-AT-LARGE FOR HIS COINAGE OF THE TERM
«CYBERSPACE,» BUT IT WAS HIS CYBERSPACE TRILOGY (NEUROMANCER, COUNT ZERO,
MONA LISA OVERDRIVE) THAT ACTUALLY CHANGED THE CULTURE. BY PUTTING GRACE AND
STYLE INTO SCIENCE FICTION PROSE—SOMETHING THAT CONCERNED FEW SERIOUS WRITERS
IN THE EARLY 80’S—HE CHANGED THE FACE OF SCIENCE FICTION AND WAS RESPONSIBLE,
AT LEAST IN PART, FOR DESIGNING THE TEMPLATE OF CONTENT AND STYLE CALLED CYBERPUNK.
HE INJECTED SF WITH INVIGORATING DOSES OF EXTRAPOLATED ROCK ‘N ROLL, FASHION, ART
AND ARCHITECTURE, AND IN DOING SO TOOK THE NERDINESS OUT OF THE GENRE. HIS TERSE
DESCRIPTIVE PHRASES CAPTURE THE MOODS WHICH SURROUND TECHNOLOGIES, RATHER THAN
THEIR ENGINEERING. ALTHOUGH IT IS THE NOIR-SIDE OF GIBSON’S VISION THAT IS MOST OFTEN
NOTED, BEHIND EVERY WALL OF BLACK ICE (DEADLY ANTI-VIRAL PROGRAMS) HE OFFERS A
FLEETING GLIMPSE OF THE POSSIBILITY OF TRANSCENDENCE—EITHER IN THE QUASI-RELIGIOUS
MOMENT OF A HUMAN FINDING SELFLESSNESS OR OF A MACHINE FINDING SELF. LIKE
RAYMOND CHANDLER, JOHN D. MACDONALD OR P.K. DICK, GIBSON TOOK A GENRE AND
INSTILLED IT WITH ENOUGH ART AND IMAGINATION TO MAKE US REEXAMINE IT. HE WROTE
«ROAD» NOVELS ABOUT THE INFOBAHN WHILE ITS ENTRANCE RAMPS WERE STILL UNDER
COMING TO THE SCREEN THIS SUMMER IS ROBERT LONGO’S FILM VERSION OF GIBSON’S SHORT STORY JOHNNY MNEMONIC (FROM BURNING CHROME) FOR WHICH GIBSON WROTE THE SCREENPLAY. THE FRENCH TRANSLATION OF HIS LAST AMERICAN NOVEL, VIRTUAL LIGHT, IS NOW AVAILABLE FROM J’AI LU.
The cyberpunk «movement» is now more than a decade old. One could say that it has entered a second phase, which is more developed and quite different from its beginnings. Do you have a name for this second phase? How do you see it today?
I’ve always been quite dubious of the idea of a cyberpunk “movement”. There
was, historically, a cyberpunk “group” in the Eighties: myself , Bruce Sterling,
Lewis Shiner, perhaps John Shirley and Rudy Rucker. But the term itself didn’t
emerge from that group; it was applied, from the outside, as journalistic/critical
label, one I immediatly distrusted. Today the term is of less value as a literary
label than as an identifier of a particular tendency or flavor in popular culture.
One can say “that video has a sort of cyberpunk feel,” and be understood.
Beyond that, it’s become something of a joke, as wonderfully demonstrated, not
too long ago, by Billy Idol’s Cyberpunk album.
The original cyberpunk writers have called it “the c-word’ for years, as though having to hear it one more time was too painful. Which, I confess, it is. Next question.
Fashion, as style of dress and behavior, occupies an important place in your books, as does architecture. Could one say that William Gibson is a virtual couturier? A virtual architect? Are your works influenced by practitioners who operate in such domains?
Fashion was something that traditional American SF was absolutely blind to, and
something that had always interested me. Early on, the extrapolation of fashion
became a conscious technique. Hostile criticism from the traditional American
SF community has often mistaken this for an attempt to create a kind of futuristic
“shopping and fucking” novel, which completely misses the point.
I’d be quite happy being viewed as a virtual couturier, virtual architect, virtual drug-designer, although these aren’t absolutely central to what I do. As far as being influenced, with architecture I’m primarily a fan of traditional vernacular. I’m more interested in clothing-design, actually, and am a fan (without actually wearing their products very often) of Paul Smith, Sean Stussy... I like watching designers play with cultural signifiers. Actually that’s my fantasy job, although I wouldn’t have the talent. The idea of Paul Smith buying a derelict Victorian work-wear factory and bringing out his R.Newbold line just seems like so much fun...
Is a writer of science fiction someone who predicts the future? Someone who keeps an eye out for new tendencies?
This whole idea of the predictive capacity of SF is so tedious and wrong. Very
little SF has ever managed to get the future right. Television was a staple of
imaginary futures from the 1920s on, but I know of only one story that predicted
anything like commercial broadcast television and its impact on society. SF about
computers completely missed the coming of ubiquitous personal computing.
SF is always about the time in which it’s written, really. 1984 is about 1948. Neuromancer is about the Reagan Eighties.
SF is a wonderful tool for the apprehension of contemporary reality. In fact I would argue that’s it practically imposssible to fictively apprehend contemporary reality without resorting to the SF writer’s tool-kit. Something like AIDS, for instance, is an SF scenario.
Is cyberpunk moving more toward the «thriller» genre——particularly in relation to works like The City of Angels, by Greg Bear, and Virtual Light?
To the extent that cyberpunk exists as a genre, it can only become more generic
and less interesting. The original cyberpunk impulse was to shatter genre, to
operate across borders of genre. The impulse was violative, transgressive,
and...fun. We felt, with some justification, quite subversive. But the chances of a
consciously “cyberpunk” fiction interesting me now are pretty slight, while at the
same time a novel like Jack Womack’s superb Random Acts of Senseless
Violence is, arguably, cyberpunk...
Virtual Light is a faux-thriller, a fake that glories in being a fake. (And I love the cover on the J’ai Lu paperback.)
We’ve heard that the most talented computer hackers are sought after by the Pentagon, not only to appropriate their skills, but also to help eliminate other hackers who have intruded upon military-industrial networks. Do you think it’s becoming more difficult to be subversive in world of information and computers?
I suspect that the most talented hackers would like to work for the Pentagon, but I’m afraid the Pentagon doesn’t need them. So they try to set up private security agencies. I’m in favor of law and order in cyberspace. It is, after all, where the bank keeps my money, and yours. But we need civil rights in cyberspace, and we need them now.
Have you considered writing a non—science-fiction novel?
I think I get closer to it every time.
The film “Johnny Mnemonic,” by Robert Longo, will be out soon. What was your contribution to this project? Are you interested in having more of your works adapted to celluloid? What are your feelings about screenwriting and have you considered directing?
I’m the screenwriter.
I wrote the first screenplay for Alien III, none of which was used. I’ve written
several others, all to contract, none of which were produced.
Longo and I thought we could make a one-million-dollar black and white arthouse
film, with little or no studio involvement. Four years later, we’ve made a 35-
million-dollar TriStar feature that stars Keanu Reeves, Dolph Lundgren, Henry
Rollins, Ice-T, and Takeshi Kitano.
Since Longo and I were first-timers, and friends, we were able to invent our own working relationship. I was on the set a lot, participated in the art direction and design. I stayed on through the amazingly long and arduous post-production period, working with computer-graphics people etc. And I’m extremely pleased with the (almost) finished product, which will be released here, May 26th, as TriStar’s biggest film of the summer.
I’ve already been approached to direct, but I don’t think I’d have the required degree of physical and mental stamina. I saw what it did to Longo, who’s a big tough Italian guy from New York. I think it’s the hardest most demanding job I’ve ever seen one human do.
You have cited the affinity between Neuromancer and “Blade Runner,” which was out at the time your book appeared. Are there particular films, or books, or kinds of music that interest you or are influencing you now?
Well, this dates me. Neuromancer was written in 1981, to a soundtrack that consisted mainly of equal parts Joy Division and vintage Velvets. Virtual Light owes a lot to Sisters of Mercy; I had to keep going out and buying more Sisters bootlegs in order to finish it. Currently I’m deep in the marvelous remixed boxed set of everything Steely Dan ever did; they’ve delighted me for twenty years. Techno, which I gather people think I should like, doesn’t do much for me. I wrote the lyrics for one of the songs on Deborah Harry’s last album. I liked that, a lot.
Do you foresee the possibility of «interactive» literature ever having the same reception as books?
I think the CD-ROM game “Myst” is the closest thing we’ve seen to interactive fiction. I think it’s going to become some kind of major historical landmark. For myself, however, I’m strictly a words-in-a-row guy, and expect largely to remain so.
Is cyberspace more interesting to you as literary concept than it is as an instrument of reality? For example, the Internet.
I was mainly interested in cyberspace as a metaphor for what we’ve already
created, in this one crazy century, with electronic media. I actually had to sit
down and coin the phrase, to do that.
I think the Internet is important. Why? Because it’ll change everything, eventually, and because it’s never going to go away. Even if we get sick of the hype, which I already have. I don’t use it myself. I don’t have an e-mail address. I don’t go online with America, as Steve Erickson recently put it, because I don’t want America to be online with me.
Would you ever consider joining Steven Spielberg, David Geffen, Jeffrey Katzenberg of Dreamworks to work on a multimedia project?
These guys aren’t my Dream Team, sorry.
Xanadu, Bill Gates’s cyber mansion, is equipped throughout with the latest technological systems, even including a computerized art collection. Would you like to live in such high-tech splendor?
Please, God, no. But I’m delighted that Gates is willing to expose this kind of Citizen Kane mega looniness; it redeems him; it’s the stuff of legend. I love it.
Recent wars in Somalia and elsewhere——are they not, in some sense,
cyperpunk wars, with their strange mix of raw savagery and technology, which
involves using satellites and high-tech helicopters and constant media reportage
and so on?
With that in mind, what would you say is the positive side of the technologies you exploit in your first books?
These are wars filtered through telepresence; video wars, if you will. Net wars. If the “postmodern sublime” is characterized by the simultaneous apprehension of ecstasy and dread, I think we’re most likely to apprehend it on CNN. The up side of this lies in ubiquitous personal computation and the death of geography. The end of nation-states. The end of borders. I eagerly await intelligent simultaneous online translation, which will be Babel-in-reverse.
Is there a relationship between your writing and your living in Vancouver? You grew up in Texas, which is different from Vancouver, but from here in Europe, at least conceptually, both places seem far away and surrounded by an emptiness that we cannot quite fathom.
Hey, that’s because you still think you’re “in Europe”...But I’m afraid you’re
confusing me with my colleague, Bruce Sterling, who lives in Austin, Texas. I’m
from Virginia. All that big empty stuff out there in the back forty has nothing to do
with what either Austin or Vancouver are currently about. Vancouver is a
postmodern Pacific Rim info-node, swarming with Hong Kong venture capital
and japanese tourists. It’s no accident that Douglas Coupland is from Vancouver,
and I can’t think of a better place from which to write the sort of thing I write. As
much as I love Europe, I always feel slightly disconnected there... “unplugged”.
But I’m glad you’ve got your own MTV now; wish we could get yours, here.
Link? R.U. Sirius offers the Mondo view