William Gibson on How Science Fiction Portrays Reality

(Photo by Ulf Andersen/Getty Images)

William Gibson talks to Sam Leith at the Guardian about how he got into writing science fiction, how his break-out novel “Neuromancer” was possible because he knew nothing about computers, the subtle, yet striking similarities that make London and Toyko great settings for his work, and the fact that even in science fiction, you’re lost without your phone charger.

His 1981 short story “Johnny Mnemonic” was made into a film starring Keanu Reeves in 1995, but Gibson’s breakthrough only came with 1984’s Neuromancer. He famously wrote this rip-roaring, noir-inflected fantasy of burned out hackers and technologically augmented ninjas – which gave birth to the whole “cyberpunk” genre – on a manual typewriter, and he freely talks of himself as a late adopter. So maybe the poetic, rather than technological, turn in that description of cyberspace is the way to read him. He magpies futuristic sounding stuff.

“I was actually able to write Neuromancer because I didn’t know anything about computers,” he says. “I knew literally nothing. What I did was deconstruct the poetics of the language of people who were already working in the field. I’d stand in the hotel bar at the Seattle science fiction convention listening to these guys who were the first computer programmers I ever saw talk about their work. I had no idea what they were talking about, but that was the first time that I ever heard the word ‘interface’ used as a verb. And I swooned. Wow, that’s a verb. Seriously, poetically that was wonderful.

“So I was listening to it as an English honours student. I would take it back out, deconstruct it poetically, and build a world from those bricks.

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