William Gibson’s pattern recognition skill is rooted in1950s Appalachia.
The visionary sci-fi writer who coined the term “cyberspace” while most of us still worked on typewriters traces his unique perspective to an isolated, bookish childhood in a small Blue Ridge mountain town.
“I’m a guy from a really tiny culture in a specific part of Virginia,” Gibson told me by phone from his home in Vancouver. “I grew up in a place where you could look in one direction and see the 20th century, and turn in the other and see 1894.”
The place Gibson is talking about is Wytheville, Va., which, oddly enough, is also my hometown. In fact, I was just there at Thanksgiving to see my mom. So when I interviewed Gibson for the Sun-Sentinel last week — he’s the co-keynote speaker at the Key West Literary Seminar in January — I had to ask him about it.
Gibson was born in 1948 in South Carolina, and lived in various places as a young boy until his father died accidentally, and his mother took him to Wytheville, her family home. Wikipedia’s entry on Gibson credits his fascination with science fiction to “the feeling of abrupt exile” he experienced there.
Believe me, I could identify. After all, eight years younger, I too was an alienated boy who read a lot and got out as soon as I could — though I gravitated in the opposite direction, to Florida.
It was only in my 30s that I began to appreciate anew the beauty of the region’s geography, the pungency of its culture, the charm of its people and their values. I could certainly understand if Gibson had unhappy memories of that place and time.
“I don’t at all have bad feelings about growing up there,” Gibson said. “It was a difficult place for someone like me in some ways, but anywhere would have been hard at the time. Not knowing any different I did frame it as driving me insane. Later in life it doesn’t look quite that way.”
Where he grew up, and when, informs Gibson’s entire approach to life, he says.
“About 10 years ago I was googling around the Internet, looking at Wytheville stuff,” Gibson recalls. “And I found a list of marriages that had taken place in the mid 1820s in that area. Every one of the surnames were names I immediately I recognized from my childhood.”
That sense of temporal dislocation enabled Gibson, in the early 1980s, to be the first science fiction writer to pick up on the implications of the then-emerging digital technologies. His debut novel, Neuromancer, coined the word “cyberspace,” established the “cyberpunk” movement, and saw with uncanny prescience the outlines of the world in which we all live today.
“The material was already there, it had already arrived,” says Gibson, “and a fair number of people were noticing it. I saw little bits and pieces of the digital future all the time. But the only people I could find were in some small way involved in the business of it.”
Gibson is refreshingly modest about his ability to predict the future, and indeed, about science fiction in general. He calls the process “fortune telling,” and says science fiction is wrong far more than it’s right.
Science fiction, he says, is best viewed as a lens for exploring the present, not the future.
“The interesting thing about emerging technologies is you just don’t know how people are going to use them,” Gibson says. “The people who developed the cellular system probably didn’t envision pay phones vanishing.”
Neither did Gibson. He notes with a cackle of delight that Neuromancer, set in 2030, does not postulate the development of cell phones.
“I never imagined pay phones would go away,” Gibson says. “There’s a big dramatic scene in Neuromancer involving pay phone technology. That’s the kind of thing you can’t get right. We don’t know what the impact of new technology will be.”
Neuromancer, which has sold more than six million copies, remains Gibson’s best-known work. It was the first sci-fi novel to win all three major prizes — the Hugo, the Nebula, and the Philip K. Dick. But he’s written steadily since, producing novels that are usually well received by mainstream critics.
As for his rural Appalachian origins, Gibson says the time-capsule elements of the region that were so valuable in developing his sensibility are probably gone now.
“For me Southwest Virginia was a place where modernity was not evenly distributed,” Gibson says. “That’s not there now the way it used to be. Media has come in and sort of thinned out the microculture effects. Everybody has electricity and television and the Internet.”
By the way, Gibson has a minor but intriguing new book out, Distrust That Particular Flavor, his first collection of nonfiction essays. Alas, the Key West Literary Seminar has been sold out since summer, but you can go here to see what you’ll be missing.