‘Distrust that Particular Flavor’ by William Gibson

Distrust That Particular Flavor is a collection of over 30 years’ worth of essays, talks and articles by William Gibson, wherein the author uses current commentary to dismiss accusations of prescience whilst being consistently contradicted by the rest of the book’s content.

Okay, perhaps prescience is too strong a word – it’s not like he’s running a sideline in beating the bookies – but as a fan of Gibson’s fiction, the collection confirms what I’ve long suspected: this is a deeply creative man with a singular knack for observing the interaction of science and society, a combination that inevitably codes for those uncannily prophetic visions of the future. (Anyone familiar with one of his characters, Laney – who features in the Bridge trilogy and is able to predict the future in a rational and scientifically explicable way by examining patterns in data – , might also notice autobiographical parallels).

He is humble, of course, as we like our writers to be. Yet you get the impression that Gibson, like many writers, is sometimes truly shocked at his success and reluctant to indulge his publishers in an essentially narcissistic project. As a novelist, he has always been uncomfortable with writing non-fiction. “I felt as though I was being paid to solo on some instrument vaguely related to one I actually knew how to play,” he writes in the introduction, whilst acknowledging the eventual value of the experiences, if only to his first love, fiction. “And yet. Opportunities to visit new places, to meet interesting people. A certain permission to ask questions. These things can prove truly valuable to a writer of fiction.”

Despite these necessary protestations and expedients (what a faux-pas it would be to display conceit on a platform such as this), these works are eminently valuable in and of themselves. Deep down, Gibson knows it too: it’s impossible to write with this level confidence and insight without at least a semblance of self-belief.

The joy of Distrust is not only in discovering the personality behind the creator of some of the most influential science fiction of our times, but also – especially with the older pieces – a kind of distorted nostalgia that comes from reading speculations on a future that has already passed.

In an article entitled Rocket Radio for Rolling Stone way back in 1989, the author alludes to his own past, tracing the influence evolving technology has on the way we interact. He reminisces about a time before television, equating it with an era before what he calls “the Net – the mass culture and the mechanisms of Information.” As it happens, 1989 was also the year Tim Berners Lee wrote a proposal for ENQUIRE, the World Wide Web’s predecessor, but it wasn’t until four years later that the first internet browser came into popular use.

Almost a decade and a half hence, Gibson reflects, “I knew not Net, when I wrote this, though I had friends who talked Net, and fairly constantly. I communicated with them via fax, yards and yards of slippery, oddly scented photosensitive paper, longer docs coming or going via FedEx, either as printouts or on floppies. So I think it’s safe to say that I was pretending to know what “the Net” might be, when I wrote this.”

And so it goes. Insightful article followed by charmingly self-deprecating comments, like a cosy evening spent with a good and talented friend as they show off their portfolio with an endearing mixture of shyness and pride.

Awash with endlessly quotable aphorisms (“The Walkman has changed the way we understand cities.”; “Time moves in one direction, memory in another.”; “Japan is the global imagination’s default setting for the future.”; “While science fiction is sometimes good at predicting things, it’s seldom good at predicting what those things might actually do to us.”;  “The future as flea market.”…), Distrust also provides astute ethnography to back them up.

Disneyland with the Death Penalty, written for Wired in 1993, evokes its subject, Singapore, as a sinister and stifled urban sprawl, where the authorities are attempting to disinfect not only the uncomfortably immaculate cityscape but also the  the human souls who inhabit it. “If IBM had ever bothered to actually possess a physical country, that country might have had a lot in common with Singapore… Conformity here is the prime directive, and the fuzzier brands of creativity are in extremely short supply.” One of the book’s longer works, the article possesses a profoundly anthropological bent and actually ended up being the collection’s most controversial: the Singaporean government at the time reacted by banning the import of Wired.

Fans of Gibson’s novels will probably get a kick from realising how the author’s real world experiences have trickled into fiction, and revel in that metamorphic journey. You’d hope, however, that the reach of this collection extends way beyond enthusiast’s collector’s item and into the realm of valuable cultural product with both historic significance and contemporary relevance. After all, as Gibson is keen to point out, “Imaginary futures are always, regardless of what the authors might think, about the day in which they’re written.”