On meeting William Gibson

Okay, so I apologize for leaving the approximately 4.5 people who read this blog daily in suspense about my mystery meeting with a blogroll person. The secret is out: William Gibson, or “Bill” as he was introduced to us, was a guest lecturer at the Very Large Software Company for which I work.

The room was pretty packed, and a few of us who arrived late were standing along the back wall. One guy I didn’t know standing next to me was loudly proclaiming that he would “definitely have paid $5 at least” to buy Gibson’s book in advance as a download rather than have to stand in line, which he refused to do on principle. Another guy came out of the room behind us and said quietly to the first, “You know he’s right behind that door, right?” So much for respect.

That was the only sign of disrespect, actually. Everyone there was a rabid fan, clutching new copies of Pattern Recognition, dogeared paperbacks of Neuromancer, or, in one guy’s case, a printed copy of the samizdat Alien III script Gibson wrote that was rejected. I felt better for not having printed out Gibson’s poem “Agrippa”; now that it’s freely available from his website, I wouldn’t have been able to tell the story about how I downloaded the text from a newsgroup in the early 1990s.

Anyway, Bill came on, and it was a wonderful talk and reading. Some general notes:

  • He says he generally has avoided coming out and talking to computer people because he knows so little about computers (though he says that at lunch today, Greg Bear told him, “You know a lot more than you let on”). But he says that being so far behind the curve gives him a better perspective on its shape and where it’s going. (Strongly reminiscent of Gibson’s character Gentry, the mad artist/hacker who is obsessed with the shape of the “matrix,” of cyberspace. Which in turn reminds me of other things, other people.)
  • On how he got material for his early novels, when the only computer people had ready access to was the Timex Sinclair: he claims to have picked up much of his knowledge from eavesdropping in bars and at science fiction conventions around SeaTac. Unfortunately, he says, that means that he missed details, such as the fact that Microsoft was a company. This explains why in the Sprawl series, in Neuromancer particularly, a microsoft is a silicon wafer on which a program is written that can be jacked into the cranium to download knowledge directly to the brain. “Fortunately,” Gibson said almost straight faced, “Microsoft isn’t a particularly litigious company.”
  • The reading was the Forbes ASAP article, “Dead Man Speaks,” that Gibson published on his blog last Thursday. He introduced it as “an assignment to write 1000 words on whatever I wanted,” which turns out in retrospect to be the one of the first places that he worked out in writing ideas that appear in his latest novel.
  • In the Q&A afterwards, someone asked him where he eavesdrops now. He said, “On the Web. I don’t have to eavesdrop any more, I can Google.” He followed up by saying, “The Zen of search engines is that you are limited solely by what you can think to ask it for,” and compared much of what you find on the Web to the “invisible literature” about which he’s written before, “pieces you come across and ask, am I the first person to ever see this?”
  • I got the last question, somehow, and asked him, “A colleague of yours in SF and blogging, Cory Doctorow, just released a novel simultaneously in print and in free download. It appears to be working well for him. What do you think this says about the future of publishing, or the book business in general?” Which was in retrospect not the wisest thing to ask, since (a) I’m sure someone from his publisher was there and (b) I was almost inviting him to take a stand on DRM in front of a software publisher that does DRM. But hey, why not? —He replied, “Someone said to me, and it’s an idea that I’m sitting on but I’m not entirely sure I disagree with, that piracy is a tax on popularity; it’s only the guys who are already on the bestseller lists who get downloaded.” Which I think is a way of saying that whether books are downloaded or sold in hard copy, there is still the awkward question of fame to determine whether you can make a living from them. I think I need to think about it some more.

Afterwards I stood in line with my hardback first editions of Mona Lisa Overdrive and The Difference Engine. I felt bad about bringing two books until I realized (a) I was close to the end of the line, (b) there was a guy ahead of me with a shopping bag full of books, (c) Gibson said recently on his blog that The Difference Engine is his only book he’ll go back and re-read, because (since it was co-written with Bruce Sterling) he still has moments of discovery in it. So I was justified.

I stepped up with my books and thanked him for coming and for blogging during his book tour, as it gave me some real insight into what that process was like. He said, “Actually, blogging doesn’t feel like work at all.” I wanted to hug him and shout out, “Brother!”—but he looks rather frail in real life, being about 6’4″ and maybe a buck-thirty at the heaviest, and I didn’t want to scare him. But it made me feel happy, somehow, that here across this table, signing his books for me, was a man with whom I had at least this much in common.

Before I stepped away, I said, “I wanted to bring my copies of Isaac Asimov’s in which Count Zero was serialized, but I think I gave them to the library.” Yeah, he said, “those are pretty rare, most of them have crumbled to dust or been consumed by cockroaches.” If someone in the Psi Phi Club at Virginia is reading this, get out that stack of Asimov’s from the library and start going through them, and bring them to one of Gibson’s readings to get signed. I’ll buy them back from you for rather a lot of money.