Book Review: Distrust That Particular Flavor By William Gibson

William Gibson is the defining author of our digital age. More than any social media pundit or Popcorn futurist, he has defined the dystopia we can expect once we escape the dystopia we’re in now. His fiction – a trilogy of trilogies that works backwards from the distant future to a world that is ours – is constantly approaching the present while exploring what it means to exist in a culture mediated by electronics. Although his early work owes more to Burroughs and Verne than anyone cares to admit, he was wildly prescient in his prediction that soon we would see the entire world – an entire world – through the lens of gadgetry. While the web isn’t cyberspace yet and the East Coast isn’t the Sprawl, we’re headed in that direction.

And that’s just his fiction.

Gibson’s non-fiction writing is a peanut in the bland Cracker Jack of the dead tree publications where they first appeared. He’s often graced the otherwise leaden pages of Wired with his unique style and many of the pieces in this book appeared elsewhere, whether in magazines or at public talks. His non-fiction is rare enough that we definitely want more, but do we want a whole book’s worth?

If you are a Gibson fan, then yes, this is definitely worth a read. There are a few great pieces in here, like his meditation on watches and eBay in “My Obsession” as well as an excellent look at the growth of a fiction writer in his essay “Since 1948,” a piece that shows us all stages of his growth – from child of a nervous mother to draft dodger to writer to genius. That both of these pieces are available online is a lucky coincidence, not a reason to avoid this book.

The rest of the non-fiction here will be a little less familiar and is, at times, uneven. Gibson’s writing style is as conversational and puffy here as it is flinty and clear-eyed in his fiction. A story by William Gibson about visiting Tokyo involves no super-charged street samurai. Instead it involves mediations on gomi, toys, and colonialism. We assume Gibson to be more plugged in than most of us but instead he seems to have a lot of good, cool friends who show him around. That’s one of the benefits of replacing Tom Swift as the go-to boyhood sci-fi of the tinkerer.

The other stories – the talks, the mediations on futurism and on the dystopian – are beautiful in their own way, well written and often full of telling detail. He notices the “demented, heartbreakingly lyrical, 3D collage of cargo containers, dumpsters, an Airstream trailer, a cabin cruiser, a school bus” on the set of Johnny Mnemonic. To the average sci-fi nut, a wall of junk as a set piece would be as commonplace as a laser gun or a Tribble – it’s the visual landscape we expect in what the set director will imagine as the “hinterlands” and nearly every movie has a compacted wall of junk that stands in for the place where the wild future people live. To Gibson, however, it’s seen with new eyes. Not naive eyes, really. Just new ones.

If you’re new to Gibson, don’t start here. Get the Sprawl trilogy first, then the Bridge trilogy, then, if you’re not done, the Present trilogy, a group of three books that are connected by the Dotcom boom and have a certain airport lounge, endless travel, Razorfish feel that the average start-up drone will love. Those books hae have no overarching geographical locus to hang on just as the late 1990s and the early aughts left us listless and disconnected, pining for a day when everyone – students, surf bums, and even a woman allergic to branding, could find a place in an economy that whirred like a shining VCR read/write head.

Each trilogy moves closer to “speculative fiction of the very recent past.” While you’re in there, hit The Difference Engine as a palate cleanser. Then you can begin to distrust this particular flavor.

I’m probably preaching to the choir, though. Gibson is a gem, our own Jules Verne who planted so many seeds in popular culture that it is difficult to look out across our roiling intellectual landscape and not see his ideas. He knew that the ability to render fluid 3D was coming, that Japan would rise as a major techno-center, that man-machine relations would become seamless. One could argue that cyberspace now exists in the wildly detailed games we play and that we’re a few steps away from really jacking in, as his characters did. He foresaw urbanity as cancer – in the Sprawl – and as Alternative Flea Market/Edgy Disneyland on the Bridge. He saw the world as a grey waiting room populated by the rich and their helpers in his post 9/11 novels, and saw fashion as an expression of commerce.

He does the same here, although on a much smaller scale. He’s talking about real life so there are fewer mirrorshades. Instead we visit with him as he lands in Singapore and makes a movie and walks by a window full of ephemera in lower New York where a jumble of missile identification models was dusted one September morning with “blasted dreams” as it sits in a closed antiques shop. He’s seen a lot, and wants to tell us about it.

My one peeve? Gibson adds these little asides at the end of each piece, explaining just how he failed and how this story “needed a haircut” or how he went off on an odd tangent. It’s like a magician doing a serviceable rendition of the disappearing elephant, and then explaining afterwards that his curtain work was a little sloppy and if you looked under the stage you could see the elephant.

In the end, this collection of essays is a minor addition to the Gibson canon. It’s a worthy one, though, and well worth a read. And while you wait for it to download onto your Fire or your iPad or your Sandbenders, give thanks to the seer of our age who didn’t expect things to turn out that rosy yet still understood the good in both us and, more important, our variegated and ever more cunning tools.

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