“We’re all living in someone else’s past”: William Gibson Speaks at NYPL

NYC-area science fiction fans had a wealth of literary events to choose from this past Friday night. Singularity & Co. hosted the latest “I, Reader,” curated by Tor.com’s own Ryan Britt. In Manhattan, Neil Gaiman stepped in to moderate a Q&A with musician (and spouse) Amanda Palmer at the EMP Pop Conference. Uptown, the venerable NY Public Library opened its doors for William Gibson and a sold out crowd. The “LIVE at NYPL” series has hosted luminaries such as Lou Reed, Joan Didion, Werner Herzog, Patti Smith, and Salman Rushdie, but the genre offerings have been slim. Making the night even more of a rarity was the fact that Gibson made a public appearance without a new book to promote. Guided by popular moderator Paul Holdengräber, the author shared insights on his formative years, his writing, and the time’s ability to transform technology from magical to ubiquitous.

He also shared the first few pages from his work-in progress “probably called” The Peripheral.

Though the crowd was large, credit must be given to Holdengräber, a collector of conversations, for making the evening seem so intimate, so full of new perspectives on an author with such a ravenous fanbase. Always an entertaining speaker, Gibson himself seemed bemused, at times bewildered, by some of the random statements lobbed at him, but all avenues led to frank and funny observations on a wide range of subjects. And hanging above it all was the knowledge that he was being extremely generous with his time because he is in a writing mode, only one-third of the way through his current novel.

Passages from the recent book of essays and video clips provided mileposts for reflections on Gibson’s lonely, bookish childhood and how the early death of his father brought him to rural Virgina and allowed for his further escape into fiction. William S. Burroughs’ “Thanksgiving Prayer” was the jumping off point for a discussion of early, eye-opening exposure to science fiction. “Reading Naked Lunch and Thuvia, Maid of Mars in the same summer” from the spinner racks of a general store was a life-line. “Literary experiences are experiences,” he said emphatically.

Discussing his first novel Neuromancer and the invention of “dataspace, infospace… cyberspace,” Gibson gave a detailed account of the images, sounds, and ideas that inspired an entirely new arena in genre fiction, a niche to carve out and make his own. Advertisements for slick new computers, walking past an arcade and seeing people with a longing to be in the machine—in a better world—coalesced into a new landscape to give his characters agency. A rock ‘n’ roll sensibility was also something lacking in science fiction protagonists of the time. Springsteen (who knew?) Lou Reed, and David Bowie provided an attitude adjustment just as inspiring as the mind-bending fiction of J.G. Ballard, Jorge Luis Borges, and M. John Harrison.

The 1982 film Blade Runner is often cited as an influence of Gibson’s, but he didn’t see the movie until he was already well into his first draft of Neuromancer. Calling it “one of the most beautiful films ever made,” he was grateful that this visionary film was a commercial and critical flop. After its brief theatrical release, no one had the ability to see it again unless it returned to theaters. It’s unthinkable these days, when everything is available online instantly. Years later, Gibson got the opportunity to have lunch with director Ridley Scott—imagine witnessing that conversation—and share their mutual admiration for esoteric passions (“French comics.”)

The biggest reveal of the night was the sneak preview of Gibson’s current project, tentatively titled The Peripheral. He’s hinted about it on Twitter as being an “sf turducken” about drones, telepresence, fabbing, kleptocracy and trailer parks. Self-deprecating and even a bit bashful in tone as he introduced it, the audience was lucky to help Gibson get a read on his evocative opening pages, a chapter titled (probably) “The Gone-haptics.” Set about thirty years from now, Flynne, ex-military, suffers from a form of PTSD and lives in his her brother’s trailer in the Appalachian mountains. There will be another main voice alternating betweeen chapters that is set “way the hell down the timeline” and consequently less familiar and “really hard to write.” The Peripheral is set to release some time next year.

Afterwards, Gibson met with fans, signed books, laptops, Buzz Rickson bomber jackets. He also got his first brief experience with Google Glass:

All in all, it was an incredible, rare night of intimate moments with one of the brightest minds in SF, impossible to fully capture and catalog. One walked away more aware of “the strata of time,” the slow retreat of the past, the brevity of futurism turning one generation’s magical tech into next decade’s dusty joke. All of these moments, like, well, like tears in rain. But of course the interview was immediately uploaded in full on Soundcloud before another sunset. Of course.


Theresa DeLucci is a regular contributor to Tor.com, covering True Blood, Game of Thrones, and gaming news. Follow her on Twitter @tdelucci

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