half a thought on the writings of william gibson

As the last few years have come and gone, Web Directions (nee Web Essentials) has been a sort of yearly watershed, a tick of the clock, the end of my web year and the beginning of the new.

Every other year, though, I make a session choice I later regret. This year I missed a talk by James Bridle, who apparently discussed the writings of William Gibson. I was in the next room, fate having a sense of humour.

At any rate, from what I'm told James pondered where Gibson could go next... his novels having shrunk from a far future to the present. (Sidenote: I haven't read Gibson's latest novel yet, although I'll be doing so very soon. However the receding timeline has been obvious long enough that I think I can grasp that thread in the meantime.)

I wish I could have been there to hear another view on this. I've long pondered the real place and significance of time and technology in Gibson's writings.

Logically the settings had to be in the future (usually "near future"), but the time is not the key to the stories; just an implication. His later works are logically in the present, dated mostly by the appearance of contemporary technology rather than anything else.

I think technology is part of the setting rather than the point of the story. Particularly as his works evolved over the years, I think the theme - if there is one - in Gibson's work is the interstitial. The in-between.

Characters are regularly stripped of normality, isolated, in a strange space and time between what they knew before and where they will stabilise. Literary theory suggests all narrative follows this path, that is equilibrium → disequilibrium → equilibrium. But I mean this in the more immediate sense of what's happening to the character.

Characters are torn out of their world, or their death spiral, and given an immediate and urgent assignment by mysterious figures. Items and targets given a value understandable only to those paying for it. People are between times, yet with a task to complete under various forms of motivation.

They live in temporary places. Couches, hotels, company-owned houses. Borrowed beds, vehicles, weapons and allies. Momentary tribes. The unfamiliar rapidly becomes the safe, although it often becomes dangerous again before the tale runs its course.

Many of Gibson's characters have very few items in their immediate possession, usually demonstrating a razor focus on the present task. These items become significant in a variety of ways, brands usually noted even if just in passing.

Also, many characters live in unusual places and ways. Warehouses, both in urban and wasteland locations; space stations; reclaimed bridges; entire high-rise floors converted to communal space. Communities built around circumstance, religion, drugs, technology and music.

All of this serves to pull you, the reader, out of the usual and into the interstitial with the protagonist. You are invited to feel the loneliness of of an empty hotel room; or the warmth of a connection found when a character was dropped into a new place.

Or maybe that's just how I read the books. Reading is such an individual process of creation.

Anyway, it's half a thought I suppose. It doesn't really matter what I think the books are about right now, I'll probably change my mind by the time I've re-read them all (which I will inevitably do).

But I do regret missing the chance to discuss it at Web Directions... I look forward to listening to the podcast :)

Update 2010.10.26

James Bridle has blogged on this topic as well - Network Realism: William Gibson and new forms of Fiction | and the podcast of his talk is up at James Bridle – Wrangling Time: The Form and Future of the Book | Web Directions. I'll be downloading that just as soon as my net connection recovers from its present bout of dialup speeds. Ahh the future ;)

Also, I realise now I didn't really address the otaku theme, obsession with detail and the way brand awareness feeds into this. I find this point harder to articulate, but basically pattern recognition and brand awareness seem to highlight the sense of isolation around the protagonists - even within their own tribes.

One character is so pattern-aware they end up homeless in a train station. Another is so brand-aware they are compelled to have the brand marks ground off the studs on their jeans. Awareness of detail dovetails with pared down existence of the protagonists - when they have very few immediate allies and possessions, what they have is brought into sharper focus.

Obsessive attention to detail (and to the task at hand) drives characters further into their strange, in-between days. So I don't know that patterns and observation are really a separate theme so much as motivation for the characters.

So, anyway, the half thoughts continue...


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