Following on from Gibson’s talk the other night I’ve got to thinking about his writing. In the section he read on Wednesday, I was struck by the detailed cataloguing of the quotidian environment and the character’s relationships to the physical world around them. I can’t help but feel that he is still writing science fiction, that he is still writing genre books. This got me to thinking about the connection between his science fiction, sci-fi in general and Gibson’s recent writing. What is the link, what is the commonality between sci-fi and the Bigend books?
It seems to me the thing that science fiction has over contemporary fiction is that it ascribes agency and real effect to technology. The core sci-fi ‘what if’ premise gets deployed in a wide and wild number of ways, but the physical changes to the environment are always assumed to have an effect on the people as well as the story. I was stuck by the thought that it is the fiction of Actor-Network Theory, stories that explore our technicity.
This is not to say that they are actually about future technicities, they are very definitely about the now. The old adage that sci-fi is not about the future it is about the now is very much true in this case as it is in any other.
This then is also what Gibson is doing in his recent trilogy, is writing a book about technicity, ascribing agency to the technical environment around us. This time it is not through electrodes in the brain, or the social implications of “the sprawl” it is through the a more subtle observation of the world around us. The fetishizing of the footage, or especially in Cayce’s allergy to brands are good examples of the way in which technology shapes the lives of the characters in his books. This is fiction exploring everyday technicities, which are not necessarily those of advanced physical artefacts, blatant bodily modification or galaxy spanning technologies.
To a certain extent, this approach to writing was what made Gibson’s sci-fi interesting, but it is definitely what makes his contemporary work all the more fascinating. He has done away with the central conceit of sci-fi – to project into the future to tell a story about the technical now. However, by his own words, he had to learn his sci-fi chops before he could write the work he is writing now. So maybe his contemporary fiction will have a wider and more interesting impact and can be appreciated outside of the sci-fi ghetto.
UPDATE: His talk is available to watch on the DShed. I would also recommend watching No Maps For These Territories.