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[whitespace] William Gibson Bohemian Rhapsody: "I believe in autonomous zones, but as you can probably see from All Tomorrow's Parties, I also believe that those zones are finally subject to commodification. That argument about the possibility of bohemia in a postindustrial society is something that I take quite seriously."

Photograph by Karen Moskowitz


Apocalypse Later

San Francisco, in William Gibson's 'All Tomorrow's Parties,' is ground zero for the end of the world

By John Alderman

Earlier this decade it seemed like you couldn't pick up anything related to computers, other than maybe PC World, without coming across a reference to science-fiction writer William Gibson and his bleak, powerful vision--the most current future then available. Gibson was heralded as the first author to convincingly articulate the wonders that a vast datascape could bring and how it might feel to be a part of that world.

More than half a decade later, Gibson's latest, All Tomorrow's Parties, is the final volume in a trilogy--including Virtual Light (1993) and Idoru (1996)--that follows the author's pattern of taking current cultural trends and then pushing them a little further to create worlds familiar enough to be convincing, strange enough to be exciting. Adding mystery to Gibson's heady mix in All Tomorrow's Parties are the trump cards of nanotechnology and an artificially intelligent character that becomes an emergent system.

Nanotechnology--currently under development--is a proposed technology in which incredibly small machines could be put to work assembling anything desired, atom by atom. This would pretty much mean the whole world, or any desired part, could be reconstructed at will. An emergent system, on the other hand, is a network of parts, such as a computer code, working together so that unexpected things, like real intelligence or evolutionary properties, develop. In All Tomorrow's Parties, it is an artificially created Japanese female pop star, basically a fancy, engaging computer program, who is the emergent system. Although the effects of both of these remain largely unspoken, they form the heart and climax of All Tomorrow's Parties.

Much of the novel takes place in a post-earthquake San Francisco, using a beautifully imagined Bay Bridge that's been taken over by homeless people after the Big One left it unsafe for traffic. While the Gibsonian San Francisco often feels decrepit and menacing, as our current age witnesses the yuppie-led closure of SOMA bars, it's a relief to see that there's nighttime action of some sort awaiting us.

With All Tomorrow's Parties, you've got a trilogy that you never planned on writing? What happened?

The emergent properties of the text, basically. Writing novels has never been a completely rational process for me. I do one and then there are elements in the text that puzzle me and feel incomplete somehow, and I find myself drawn back into some part the same territory but from a very different angle.

Where the denial gets strange is when I finish the second one, I'm invariably convinced that that's it, it's a two-book set, and the next one will be a one-off. Now I'm sure: Now that I've done three, the next one will be a one-off, or at least the beginning of a series. I hope it will be a one-off. I regard the one-off as somewhat more of a higher game, although I may just have gotten that from being an English major.

You've chosen San Francisco as the location for much of the story. How much of that choice was just the random choosing of a location and how much was something else?

San Francisco, for a long time, was kind of a mysterious place for me, because I had somehow managed never to spend much time there, and it's one of those American cities that everyone knows--it's iconic.

I only really started to hit in on a regular basis when I became a published novelist, and I'd come through on book tours. Book tours are a very surreal and mosaic way to experience cities, because you get a dozen or so cities one after the other, and you just get these odd fragments. You're never free; you're just being driven around staying in hotels. I sort of like that.

I took it as some sort of surrealist montage of American cities, and San Francisco being San Francisco made a very vivid impression on me, but it remained sufficiently unknown that I could project onto it more freely than I could with, say, New York, which I know well enough that my knowledge gets in the way. It was just like a screen. I have the tourist icons and little fragments of personal experience. So I had had this sort of key experience with these three books of looking out of the window of the Clift Hotel and seeing the cable tower [of the Bay Bridge] lifting over the fog, and I thought, "Wow! That's amazing--you could really live there!" and actually the whole of Virtual Light came out of that; it just sort of grew. And Los Angeles features, too, in Virtual Light, and that north/south split. Idoru is Tokyo, and with the third one, to sort of pull it all together, I thought I had to triangulate, so it's Tokyo, L.A. and San Francisco, in a sort of round.

The community of people in the story living on the bridge is an autonomous zone that has reached a fairly safe state of harmony with the city around it. But from the perspective of someone who's lived here awhile, the city now seems to be losing much of its wildness.

Well, that's happening across the board. I'm old enough that I have nostalgia for a time when those elements were a little more prevalent. In this series, I have the excuse of a major, major earthquake, so that the city has been reorganized after the Big One, and the bridge is too damaged to carry traffic and gets taken over by homeless people.

I believe in autonomous zones, but as you can probably see from All Tomorrow's Parties, I also believe that those zones are finally subject to commodification. That argument about the possibility of bohemia in a postindustrial society is something that I take quite seriously. I don't know what we're going to replace them with. The dreamtime of Western civilization used to be housed in bohemia and kept alive there, and now that the mechanism of marketing has become so hideously quick on its feet with regards to such things, I don't know where the dreamtime is; I don't know where that goes.

The flipside of the same question is that in North America and California in particular, everyone at the moment seems busy patting themselves on the back for all the prosperity that computing has given us, and though we've relaxed some of our fears, we seem to have shut off some of our imagination about where technology might lead us, except in some very narrow areas.

Yeah, there is something like that going on, but that's cyclical and at this particular point in time it's probably a healthy balance to millennial tensions. I'm just as happy--the more people thinking things are going OK, the better, for the next little while at least. I mean: major weirdness is cooking as we speak, but people will be much better off if they just go home and make dinner.

It seems like the novel kind of surfs the edge of two periods. On the one hand, you have life going along pretty much how it has for as long as we can remember, and on the other, you have a world totally transformed by nanotechnology. The book's just right there at that moment of change.

That is exactly where I want it to be, and it requires some pretty fancy dancing, because of course I can't imagine what would be on the other side of a technological singularity, and there have been some pretty good stabs at imagining functioning nanotech, but you have to be a pretty dedicated science-fiction writer to pull it off.

My approach to nanotechnology is somewhat like the approach of a certain kind of corporate futurist, who can go around saying, "Well, in 40 years, we're going to probably hit a technological singularity beyond which, down the timeline, nothing can be known. All we can tell you is everything will be different."

Some of the implications of functional nanotech are immortality and the end of wealth, because with functioning nanotechnology, anyone can get anything they want for free. Things like that I just can't get my head around. So there's a part of this book that's like a genuine gesture, that I throw up my hands and say, "A curse on both your houses!" If it's gonna change that much, it's beyond me.

I was happy with how that worked out in the book. I was worried, all the way through writing it, because I knew that some sort of bravura gesture was called for at the end, but I also knew that I wasn't going to be able to envision the transformation and the image of the naked idoru striding simultaneously from every 7-Eleven in the civilized world--that did it for me! I thought, "That's really strange. Now everything will change."

In the book you use the phrase "the mystery of things" and then really work to evoke that.

Yeah. It's sort of an ontological novel in some odd way. It's very personally concerned with the nature of what's knowable and what's not and how people can be in considerable doubt about those things and still continue to sweep up the shop and sell secondhand watches, or whatever.

Back to the horrible marketing machine. I thought it was interesting that in the book, the bad guy is the marketing guy whose desire for a post-nanotech world is pretty much what anyone else would want. He wants things to go pretty much as they have been.

Yeah, he wants a version of it in which he'll have his same role. I don't like to second-guess the material, because I often don't understand these books myself. I kind of think that in some ways there is a direction in which things are headed, and that to resist it or to try to control it yourself is big trouble. The Taoist assassin knows this, and he's the mouthpiece of letting shit happen and being in the moment.

He's a character who embodies what would normally be cast as the bad guy--he's a shadowy, amoral assassin--but he's also very intriguing and very spiritually driven, whereas the marketing guy is much more normal, but he's actually this force of evil because he won't give up control.

It's a dichotomy that's been around for a long time. It surprised me when I saw it emerging, but it seemed to fit the territory.

You became heralded as a prophet of the computer age because you constructed a world in which data was given form and people were able to get inside of it. With the nanotech in this book, the only one who can get inside of it is someone who isn't really human.

I don't think I'm going to repeat my act there with nanotech. In fact, I'm pretty sure that the real nanotech guys find me incredibly annoying if they're paying any attention at all. Actually, I know they're paying attention and they find me annoying because they know that in a way I'm making fun of them, or laughing in my grave, or something.

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From the October 25, 1999 issue of the Metropolitan.

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