Thursday, September 9, 2010

William Gibson at Powell's: Cyberpunk, Sex Pistols, Twitter, Jolly Ranchers

By Michael Andersen

(When we heard that Michael Andersen, the heart and mind behind Portland Afoot, made it to the William Gibson reading at Powell's last night, we begged him to write it up for us, what he could remember anyway, begged him right in the middle of the Twitter stream. And he did!)

William Gibson in  Paris, 2008
William Gibson was distributing bon mots like Jolly Ranchers. I spent the second half of the Q&A repeatedly kicking myself for not taking notes during the preceding 45 seconds. I asked the Powell's lady if they still recorded the lectures, and she said no.

I don't know if you'd really want something short, episodic and entirely from memory. (Editor's note: Actually, we would have!) Instead I'll just list my best memory of the high points.  (All "quotes" are heavily paraphrased, though they're my best recollection).

Gibson was at Powell's to sell Zero History, his new novel, and he wasn't signing old books without a purchase of the new one. But unlike most authors I've seen, he was happy to categorize himself and talk about cyberpunk as a subgenre and/or movement. I've been to about 10 Powell's readings, and I haven't seen anyone else who seemed so loose and generous in the Q&A session after the reading.

1. "I didn't want to hurt anybody's feelings at the time, but I never thought anybody (the early cyberpunk writers -- not sure if this was a "they" context or a "we" context) put out anything that great."

2. "I didn't set out to be the Sex Pistols. When I started, I thought of it as Waylon and Willie going down to Nashville (scattered whoops from audience) to say, 'Remember, this is what it's about! Clear out all this plastic crap!'"

3. Gibson was hoping cyberpunk would have more lasting influence than he feels it has. "I don't think cyberpunk has had much influence on the mainstream of the genre. If you doubt that, walk into any specialty SF store in the country."

4. In response to a comment about the number of laughs while he was reading, he said he thinks his books have gotten funnier over time. "I thought Neuromancer was pretty funny. 'Ho ho!' my colleagues and I would say, heartily slapping our knees." (giggles) So why isn't he thought of as a humorous writer?  "Journalists only have room for two hooks in their stories. 'Punky.' Okay. 'Punky, distopian.' Okay. 'Punky, distopian, funny.' Nope. It confuses the reader!"

5. "Can you think back to 1980 and imagine a novel written then, imagining a future in which cellular telephony was the most important, dynamic technology in the world? I can't imagine what that novel would have been like, and I'm supposed to have a pretty good imagination. But we live in a world completely transformed by cellular telephony."

6. On Twitter, where he posts as @GreatDismal: "If you can pick the perfect 100 people to follow with the right array of interests, you get an endless supply of totally wonderful, unpredictable shit. It's like $300 worth of overseas magazines coming at you for free. If you can solve that equation. I really love Twitter."

7. Made the obligatory but seemingly heartfelt comment that he's pretty sure Powell's is the best bookstore in the world.

8. We spotted him signing what we think was a Kindle afterward. Here's his comment about it this morning.

Editor's Note: Yes, you too can journalize on Arts Dispatch. Just drop me a line: