William Gibson: what we talk about, when we talk about dystopia

Originally published at: http://boingboing.net/2017/08/04/skynet-ascendant.html


Well, this makes for a nice contrast to yesterday’s “everything is awesome” post.

Yeah, that was depressing, but really the first reasonable answer I’ve seen to the question “Why are Trump’s supporters so stupid?”


Nur die allerdümmsten Kälber
wählen ihren Schlächter selber.

— Bertolt Brecht


Gibson’s Axiom: The future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed.

Kaibeezy’s Corollary: The past is still here — its crap is smeared all over the place and we’ll never get the stink out.


You know, dystopia is just a metaphor for Donald Trump is President.

About two years ago I started re-reading W. G.'s books… Mona Lisa Overdrive is the one that really hit home for me…

People famous for being famous…
People totally immersed in their online lives.
Corporatism über alles - (And yes I am looking at you Barack…)
Radical class distinctions…
Designer drugs…

So incredibly prophetic. The sad thing is that no one seems to see that we are still on the same path.


Everyone noticed how the cyberpunks were technologically prescient, everyone ignored the way in which they were politically prescient.

Neuromancer is the optimistic alternative. We’re headed for The Sheep Look Up.


Vulture says:

Those works are often held as seminal works of modern dystopian literature

People have long wanted to use this label, its great for headlines in that its simplistic and attention grabbing.

Gibson is a good interview subject though, here as in the past he refuses to be pinned down to simplistic views. When he was interviewed in The Paris Review, Issue 211 unfortunately no longer online for free, the interviewer asked him about his fiction being viewed as dystopian. Gibson’s response:

I’ve always been taken aback by the assumption that my vision is fundamentally dystopian. I suspect that the people who say I’m dystopian must be living completely sheltered and fortunate lives. The world is filled with much nastier places than my inventions, places that the denizens of the Sprawl would find it punishment to be relocated to, and a lot of those places seem to be steadily getting worse.

As for those who think writers arent writing about far futures, I’ll say you arent keeping up with SF and just want to dwell in the past.


Although it’s a background point in the Sprawl-universe that a (limited) nuclear war happened and at least Bonn and Belgrade were nuked (and presumably lots of other cities unless it was a German-Yugoslav conflict, which would be rather unlikely). There was also a US-USSR war that may or may not been part of the same conflict that Corto/Armitage was involved in and Case was a bit too young for. That’s a bit more dystopian than anything our universe has to offer.

One way one could think of the Cold War is that instead of nuking each other, the US and USSR nuked themselves. How many bombs did we set off? The threats were to nuke cities, but we did set off lots of bombs, and leave an irradiated world. “Don’t make me nuke more of my desert testing these damn bombs, or… so help me you will regret it!”


These, in turn, are the result of extreme market ideology, the idea that markets aren’t just places were you go every other week – they’re moral arbiters that tell us who the worthy and unworthy are among us

Of course! That’s why using markets run by those people is literally investing in one’s own oppression. You start digging your own grave with your teeth, and then its a lot easier to shoot you once you complain from in a hole, than if you never start. It’s gullible to suppose that that makes one safe, but nearly everyone seems to choose the strategically worse option.

The popularity of today’s dystopias might represent the fear of shear between the contradictions of believing in the primacy of the individual (and the idea that our shared destiny is a delusion) and the certainty of the very small and unimaginably large ways in which we are linked.

That’s close, I think. The primacy of the individual does seem to be a delusion. But the way most people discuss notions such as “shared destiny” seem very romantic and also miss the mark. Why is everything a celebration of “humanity” as some grand concept, as if every other living thing isn’t just as much of a participant, with agency and autonomy? As I have joked recently, why do people refer to “human beings” but never dog beings, fern beings, etc? How does “humanity” represent some specific ideal, while “bovinity” apparently does not?

What I am getting at is that people have very selective filters for how interdependence works, because interdependence does not play favorites. Do chickens have a common destiny? Does bamboo? The dichotomy of individualism versus collectivism are both too static and contrived and miss the real goal of interdependence. Saying that “we are all humans, with humanity, and that means something, and gives us a common destiny” is collectivism (which I have no small amount of sympathy for). So this presumes that our connections, our dependencies - even our very character as “human” - are somehow innate, immutable, beyond negotiating as groups. Collectivism as a totality makes smaller groups impossible, unless they can be reconciled into a hierarchy, which then re-creates class and conflict.

Instead of a “we are all members of a group automatically, and will all succeed or fail together” monoculture we need diversity of systems. Inter-dependence means not being passively subsumed into a totality, but actively making and breaking them as-needed, and helping others to do the same.


The future is now
but it’s all going wrong.
– The The, Perfect

That was also addressed in the same Paris Review interview, here is Gibson’s reply in full:

In 1981, it was pretty much every intelligent person’s assumption that on any given day the world could end horribly and pretty well permanently. There was this vast, all-consuming, taken-for-granted, even boring end- of-the-world anxiety that had been around since I was a little kid. So one of the things I wanted to do with Neuromancer was to write a novel in which the world didn’t end in a nuclear war. In Neuromancer, the war starts, they lose a few cities, then it stops when multinational corporations essentially take the United States apart so that can never happen again. There’s deliberately no textual evidence that the United States exists as a political entity in Neuromancer. On the evidence of the text America seems to be a sort of federation of city- states connected to a military-industrial complex that may not have any government controlling it. That was my wanting to get away from the future-is-America thing. The irony, of course, is how the world a ctually went. If somebody had been able to sit me down in 1981 and say, You know how you wrote that the United States is gone and the Soviet Union is looming in the background like a huge piece of immobile slag? Well, you got it kind of backward.

That war was really a conscious act of imaginative optimism. I didn’t quite believe we could be so lucky. But I didn’t want to write one of those science-fiction novels where the United States and the Soviet Union nuke themselves to death. I wanted to write a novel where multinational capital took over, straightened that shit out, but the world was still problematic.

Context is important. As he mentions from the get go, at that time mutually assured destruction was the “certainty” but as he says, he wrote from a position of “imaginative optimism” rather than the SF trope of post-apocalypse.

(I’m really glad I PDF’d this interview, its one of his best)


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