Wednesday, January 23, 2008

The Futures that never Were

William Gibson has to be one of the most brilliant thinkers and writers of our age. 'Neuromancer' in particular blew me away when I read it. Most novels can be read effortlessly and one never has to ponder a sentence or an image. If one chooses to slow down, to reread or to pause simply to savour a beautifully crafted sentence or an exquisitely framed landscape, it is a matter of choice rather than necessity.

William Gibson is one of the few novelists who write prose that forces me sometimes to stop briefly and reread a sentence, because of the intricacy and depth of some of his concepts and descriptions. That is not to say that he writes deliberately convoluted prose or ostentatiously crafts obscure words and images into a tortured form. There are writers who do and I abhor them. Gibson is a consummate storyteller whose images are crisp and unforgettable and whose concepts always have been on the cutting edge of reality or beyond. Even so, his sheer brilliance can necessitate a pause to think carefully about a sentence he has written once in awhile.

This is above and beyond the ordinary pauses and rereading of a phrase or paragraph from admiration and delight of the skill of a wordsmith. Gibson forces me to use my brain. He challenges me a little, and that always is a thrill. There are thousands of books that challenge me intellectually or academically, but they are non-fiction, technical treatises for the most part in one arcane subject or another. For a novelist to be able to challenge the mind in such a fashion while managing to create a fast-paced exciting tale has to be one of the ultimate literary achievements.

For an individual like myself who tends to try to ignore the writer behind the work for the most part, I have been reading quite a few interviews with favourite writers recently, all quite by accident, I have to admit.

William Gibson, in an interview about his most recent novel declared:

'I'm sure I must have readers from 20 years ago who are just despairing of the absence of cyberstuff, or girls with bionic fingernails. But that just the way it is. All of that stuff reads so differently now. I think nothing dates more quickly than science fiction. Nothing dates more quickly than an imaginary future. It's acquiring a patina of quaintness even before you've got it in the envelope to send to the publisher.'

When asked if his shift in writing were due to less current interest in imagining a future world on his part or the change in the actual world, he responded:

'I think it's actually both. Until fairly recently, I had assumed that it was me, me being drawn to use this toolkit I'd acquired when I was a teenager, and using my old SF toolkit in some kind of attempt at naturalism, 21st-century naturalistic fiction. But over the last five to six years it's started to seem to me that there's something else going on as well, that maybe we're in what the characters in my novel Idoru call a 'nodal point,' or a series of them. We're in a place where things could just go anywhere. A couple of weeks ago I happened to read Charlie Stross's argument as to why he believes that there will never, ever be any manned space travel. It's not going to happen. We're not going to colonise Mars. All of that is just a big fantasy. And it's so convincing. I read that and I'm like, 'My god, there goes so much of the fiction I read as a child.'

I always perceived science fiction as prophecy to some extent and writers like Philip K. Dick and William Gibson have been truly prophetic in describing a series of futures that have merged into our present reality in the early 21st century.

For all the true depictions of the future, there are as many if not more false futures in the realm of science fiction. On the other hand, it is only in one way that they are false. Even if humanity never colonises Mars in reality, the history of Mars' colonisation has been a long one in literature and film and that has become a part of our collective unconscious for better or worse. In the same way that the vampire culture has been founded and built upon generations of literary and cinematic imaginings to coalesce finally into what amounts almost to accepted 'fact' in terms of their history, habitat, food sources and relationship to darkness and light, there is another Mars that exists apart from the planet that rotates in our skies.

Humanity builds as much upon its fantasies as its realities. Science takes as many leaps by way of imagination's stepping stones as any novelist and although it is the job of Science to fill in the gaps ultimately, very often the pioneers who took those initial leaps were writers of fiction.

Yes, there is a 'patina of quaintness' when we read an old science fiction novel that attempted to depict our contemporary culture and we focus on the little discrepancies and absurdities... but how much of what we live and breathe was conceived initially and brought into being by a vision like that?

Tolkien always averred that he simply rediscovered the 'lost' culture of the British Isles, that what he wrote was not fiction as much as a reconstruction of the myths and tales that would have thrived were it not for the influence of foreign invasions.

What is history after all but the remembrances and prejudices of many individuals painted on a fragile skeleton of 'fact'? How many actors and politicians have become an image fleshed out by the media, the realities of their lives compressed and ultimately lost beneath a weight of popular pseudo-facts that are created over the course of time about any public figure?

'We're in a place where things could just go anywhere,' Gibson declared. How much technological advancement can there be before our species or Nature wipes it all out in some cataclysmic event? Is there a point beyond which our collective stability cannot be trusted, a point at which our weapons outrun our defences, whether in the area of 'weapons of mass destruction', 'biological warfare' or some natural or mutated 'Black Death' or 'AIDs' type of plague?

The 'end of the world' always is floating at the edge of human consciousness. The end of our individual world is death but the end of an era is an end of the world in a way to those who knew a certain way of life. Thus, each new technological revolution marks the end of a world. Mechanisation has put an end to many worlds, from horse-drawn transport to handwritten communications. There always have been those who have believed that mechanisation was not a movement forward but backwards in terms of human philosophy, value and ethics.

The phoenix rises from the ashes of its own pyre. Change both is destruction and the agent of creation. It is possible, of course, that we will continue to advance in technological terms, that we will find replacements for our fragile, human cases or 'live' ultimately in worlds like Second Life that have been fashioned by machines and our minds while our bodies rest quiescent in coffin-like beds all over the globe.

And yet... even in this age, the drive within us to return to Nature is strong. 'Organic' fruits and vegetables, meat untainted by hormones, water that has not been processed... it is not simply a whim on the part of the rich for that which is rare. It is something quite fundamental within us that responds to our roots. Those who long have dreamed of a world where Nature no longer figures as a force will find it difficult to erase humanity's need for our ancient Mother even if we somehow overcome our tendencies towards self-destruction.

Incidentally, for those who may be interested in the intersection of worlds, I have posted a brief video of William Gibson's appearance in Second Life as well as his own opinions of the virtual reality in Second Life. You will find it on my Second Life page at:

William Gibson and Second Life

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