Gary Westfahl is an adjunct professor teaching in the Writing Program at the University of La Verne. His many publications on science fiction include the three-volume Greenwood Encyclopedia of Science Fiction and Fantasy and the Hugo Award–nominated Science Fiction Quotations: From the Inner Mind to the Outer Limits. We asked him some questions about his new book in the Modern Masters of Science Fiction series, William Gibson.
Q: Gibson has written works set in the future, far-future, present, and in alternative versions of the past. Is there a commonality that can be found in each of his works?
Gary Westfahl: In scores of interviews, Gibson has insisted that everything he writes reflects his primary interest in the present – the constantly changing world that he lives in —and the future worlds he creates are based on, and designed to mirror, the current realities that he observes. Even his one venture into an alternate past is very much focused on the present-day world of computer technology. Also, in all his works, ranging from early fanzine articles to his latest novel, Gibson displays a consistent fascination with the details of both actual and imagined worlds—the “hyper specificity” that he regarded as the major innovation in his approach to science fiction. This is one way in which Gibson differs from his critics: they would see a streetwise punk and ponder how such a figure emerged and what broader social phenomena he embodies, while Gibson would be curious about what he was carrying around in his pockets.
Q: Can much of the “cyberpunk” imagery some commonly seen in popular movies and tv today be traced back to Gibson’s Sprawl trilogy?
Westfahl: If Gibson himself were asked this question, I suspect that he would modestly downplay his role as a major influence on the media, maintaining that he had merely noticed and mildly extrapolated developments in the 1980s that would have found their way into popular culture even without his examinations of these possibilities. Yet it is hard to deny that Gibson’s first three novels had an impact on films and television programs that involve computers or virtual reality, including a few—the film Johnny Mnemonic and two episodes of The X-Files—that he wrote himself. Gibson’s works, I think, were especially important because of his unusual mastery of descriptive language; other writers may have imagined computer-generated worlds and other forms of virtual reality, but Gibson had the unique power to make them seem especially vivid—especially real, one might say.
Q: You went back to a lot of earlier material of Gibson’s that is largely unknown. Was his writing markedly different in this early fanzine work?
Westfahl: It is, first of all, hard to discern any aspirations to write fiction in his early material: in the fanzines he published as a teenager, he seemed primarily intent upon becoming a poet, and in the 1970s, he was most prominent as an artist, contributing dozens of cartoons and drawings to various fanzines. But throughout his formative years he also wrote a great deal of prose in the form of articles and reviews, and these pieces reveal that certain aspects of Gibson’s character were already fully developed at an early age. Even at the age of fifteen, he was noticing and thinking about little things that other people overlooked, as evidenced by his article “A Short History of Coke Bottle Fandom,” wherein he points out that, in the 1960s, Coca-Cola bottles had marks indicating what city they were manufactured in, and he envisioned the emergence of dedicated collectors seeking to obtain Coke bottles from every possible city of origin. Another article written in the 1970s, “Devo: A Carrier’s Story,” displays Gibson’s keen interest in cutting-edge fashion, something that would not surface in his fiction until Pattern Recognition and its sequels.
Q: How important was the counterculture as an influence on Gibson’s writing?
Westfahl: In this area, my opinion may be controversial. It is true that the young Gibson spent a great deal of time in Toronto, socializing with other expatriate Americans, and he then looked and acted so much like a countercultural “hippie” that he was chosen as the centerpiece for a short documentary on the movement. He and his future wife were also vagabonds in Europe for a year, and he has attributed much of the purportedly futuristic jargon of the Sprawl novels to what he heard while hanging out with motorcycle gangs. So yes, he had a great deal of contact with various factions of the counterculture, and they undoubtedly affected him to some extent. However, after reading all of Gibson’s fiction, nonfiction, and interviews, I came to the conclusion that, in most respects, he has remained a product of his conventional upbringing in a small Southern town, maintaining a traditional and conservative lifestyle. As he reports, he is never particularly up-to-date in understanding and using the latest technology, he is opposed to the use of drugs and social nudity, and he has lived in a comfortable suburban home with his wife and children for over thirty years. None of this suggests to me that Gibson is fundamentally a rebel or an outsider, even though he is often drawn to such characters in his fiction.
Q: You also cover some of Gibson’s better known work that still never much saw the light of day. What did you find most interesting about his unproduced screenplays?
Westfahl: When I was reading his Alien 3, I was reminded of a unique production of J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan that I acted in while at Carleton College. The director, Ky Lowenhaupt, was so delighted with Barrie’s charming stage directions that she created parts for two narrators, who read his stage directions out loud at the appropriate moments in the play. In Gibson’s screenplay as well, some of the most striking and evocative prose could be found not in his dialogue, but in his italicized instructions to the actors and technicians; I quoted some of the better passages in my book. And while Gibson’s other unproduced screenplays are not available for inspection, his published screenplay for Johnny Mnemonic also includes some memorable stage directions. This indicates, I believe, that Gibson wanted to do everything in his power to influence, or even control, the way that his screenplay was visualized and performed, inspiring him to a special level of eloquence in writing sentences that he knew no audiences would ever hear; and writers who desire such complete authority over their own stories are manifestly best suited to write novels, not screenplays.
Q: There is a new interview with Gibson in the book. What was the most surprising thing he told you?
Westfahl: I was struck by the way that he still spoke about the late Fritz Leiber with admiration and respect, even though this writer, greatly admired by Gibson as a teenager, was very unlike the more idiosyncratic writers that he is more noted for admiring. However, Leiber was an imaginative and skillful science fiction writer who was also determined to keep his readers entertained with fast-paced narratives, and one could say the same about Gibson; perhaps, then, Leiber has had an unheralded impact on Gibson’s fiction that merits some further exploration. In certain ways, for example, the peripatetic adventures of Neuromancer’s Case and his cohorts in the world’s murky undergrounds are not unlike those of Gibson’s youthful favorites, Leiber’s swashbuckling Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser.