The Paris Review interviews William Gibson and Samuel R. Delany
December 25, 2011 10:57 AM   Subscribe

This summer, The Paris Review interviewed two science fiction writers at length, Samuel R. Delany and William Gibson. Below the cut there are two passages, one from each interview. They aren't representative, they are just two of the many, many passages which have been going around in my head for the last few days.

Gibson: A friend knew a woman who was having old-fashioned electroshock therapy for depression. He’d pick her up at the clinic after the session and drive her not home but to a fish market. He’d lead her to the ice tables where the day’s catch was spread out, and he’d just stand there with her, and she’d look at the ice tables for a really long time with a blank, searching expression. Finally, she’d turn to him and say, “Wow, they’re fish, aren’t they!” After electro­shock, she had this experience of unutterable, indescribable wonderment at seeing these things completely removed from all context of memory, and gradually her brain would come back together and say, Damn, they’re fish. That’s kind of what I do.

Delany: I still feel that style is important for reading pleasure, and sex is important for pleasure in life. Each appeases a different type of desire. And while I find nothing shameful in taking direct erotic pleasure from reading or writing, I don’t think they entail a necessary relation. The processes you have me describing are contingent psychological processes. Neither marks one end nor the other of any necessary or even philosophical relationship. Do I still feel the tug between the urge to put something into writing and the urge to fend it off? Less so as I get older. I shall always be able to come up with new fantasies. As long as there are people walking around in the street, as long as I have books to read and windows to look out of, I’m not going to use them up. I assume the universe will go on providing me with many more. The man I’ve lived quite happily with for twenty-two years provides me with much of my sexual satisfaction, physical and psychological. But, no, not all—thank Deus sive Natura, to borrow a phrase from Spinoza. Nor do I provide all his. What an unachievable responsibility!
posted by Kattullus (37 comments total) 68 users marked this as a favorite

 
Nice interview. Needs more Peter F. Hamilton.
posted by Fizz at 11:17 AM on December 25, 2011


An interview with Samuel R Delany? Merry Christmas to me, indeed!
posted by hippybear at 11:18 AM on December 25, 2011 [7 favorites]


The Gibson interview is great. Another quote: "I knew that cyberspace was exciting, but none of the people I knew who were actually involved in the nascent digital industry were exciting. I wondered what it would be like if they were exciting, stylish, and sexy. I found the answer not so much in punk rock as in Bruce Springsteen, in particular Darkness on the Edge of Town, which was the album Springsteen wrote as a response to punk—a very noir, very American, very literary album. And I thought, What if the protagonist of Darkness on the Edge of Town was a computer hacker? What if he’s still got Springsteen’s character’s emotionality and utterly beat-down hopelessness, this very American hopelessness? And what if the mechanic, who’s out there with him, lost in this empty nightmare of America, is actually, like, a robot or a brain in a bottle that nevertheless has the same manifest emotionality? I had the feeling, then, that I was actually crossing some wires of the main circuit board of popular culture and that nobody had ever crossed them this way before."
posted by gwint at 11:29 AM on December 25, 2011 [6 favorites]


fuck yeah s. delany
posted by This, of course, alludes to you at 11:56 AM on December 25, 2011 [3 favorites]


"For a couple of years in my early twenties, I was a die-hard believer in the Sapir-Whorf, though I had never encountered the term, or even read a description of it, which begins to hint at what’s wrong with it as a theory."

I love Samuel Delaney so much.
posted by Grimgrin at 12:18 PM on December 25, 2011 [6 favorites]


Delany. I don't know why I keep putting a superfluous 'e' into his name.
posted by Grimgrin at 12:18 PM on December 25, 2011


If I could make love to and marry a book for the rest of my life, it would be Stars In My Pocket Like Grains Of Sand. At this point, even the fact that it's the first half of an unfinished two-book series has taken on significance and seems to be an intended part of the art and message.

*sigh* I should re-read that in 2012. Good for my soul, that book is.
posted by hippybear at 12:32 PM on December 25, 2011 [6 favorites]


Before I read Robert E. Howard’s Conan the Conqueror books and ­stories, I really thought they would be the Nevèrÿon tales, or at least something like them. But I discovered that, rich and colorful as they were, they weren’t. So I had to write them myself.
- Delany

That one hits home for me. I think a lot of my work is about trying to create what I always imagined the comics in "Heavy Metal" were from the few glimpses I had as a kid.

One of these days I need to go on a Delany binge. The bits I've read are amazing. "Babel-17" is probably my favorite piece of pulpy madness in the world.
posted by egypturnash at 1:09 PM on December 25, 2011


You won’t have planned beyond that one sentence?

GIBSON

No. I don’t begin a novel with a shopping list—the novel becomes my shopping list as I write it.


Well that explains some of his plot structures - ahem.

That thing about Chandler however is spot on , I always felt like Chandler was writing porno for prudes, Hammit felt like the voice of experience.
posted by The Whelk at 1:26 PM on December 25, 2011 [1 favorite]


Neuromancer is interesting because it was the first book that treated human interaction with machines not as an activity but as a space you inhabit.

The more I think about it, Neuromacer is a meditation on spaces, and how they effect or define the humans which inhabit them. The capsule hotel, the New York loft where Case meditates that he had been to places like this, where art was not quite crime and crime was not quite art. The Villa Straylight, the beach where Case meets Neuromancer, and the home as the our dwarves that 3Jane describes at the end of the book.

Case is defined by where he can't go, and then by where he can.

I suppose much of Gibson's work deals with this, spaces we create, spaces we carve out for ourselves.
posted by Ad hominem at 1:30 PM on December 25, 2011 [3 favorites]


Great interview with Gibson. I saw him at a book signing in the early 90’s and didn’t talk to him much, even though it was a very small shop with only a few people there. It haunts me, why do I do those things?

The Delany interview was great as well. I’m going to have to take another shot at reading his stuff. Dahlgren was one of those books that I loved 25% of, hated 25% of, and was completely indifferent about the rest, a struggle to get through. I know some people like the struggle, I’m not one of them. Do I need to just try it again or is there a different book to start on?
posted by bongo_x at 1:40 PM on December 25, 2011


Great stuff. From the Gibson interview ...

INTERVIEWER
What’s wrong with cyberpunk?

GIBSON
A snappy label and a manifesto would have been two of the very last things on my own career want list. That label enabled mainstream science fiction to safely assimilate our dissident influence, such as it was. Cyberpunk could then be embraced and given prizes and patted on the head, and genre science fiction could continue unchanged.

INTERVIEWER
What was that dissident influence? What were you trying to do?

GIBSON
I didn’t have a manifesto. I had some discontent. It seemed to me that midcentury mainstream American science fiction had often been triumphalist and militaristic, a sort of folk propaganda for American exceptionalism. I was tired of America-as-the-future, the world as a white monoculture, the protagonist as a good guy from the middle class or above. I wanted there to be more elbow room. I wanted to make room for antiheroes.

posted by philip-random at 1:45 PM on December 25, 2011 [10 favorites]


I’ve read a lot of SciFi in my life, especially when I was a kid, so I’m always surprised when I learn about someone like Alfred Bester, who I’ve never heard of that I can remember. He’s mentioned in both interviews.
posted by bongo_x at 2:15 PM on December 25, 2011


It's interesting how there are many commonalities in both interviews, points of intersection. I suppose that's not that surprising, especially given how they're both about the same age and grew up reading the same science fiction.
posted by Kattullus at 2:20 PM on December 25, 2011


bongo_x, I recommend beginning with his book of short stories Aye, and Gomorrah or the Babel 17/Empire Star double edition that came out a few years back. Much easier than Dahlgren, and many of those short stories have hung about (originally typed "Jung about", which is too good not to mention) in my head for years after reading.
posted by pmb at 2:41 PM on December 25, 2011 [3 favorites]


Do I need to just try it again or is there a different book to start on?

Try Triton.
posted by Meatbomb at 2:42 PM on December 25, 2011


If I could make love to and marry a book for the rest of my life, it would be Stars In My Pocket Like Grains Of Sand. At this point, even the fact that it's the first half of an unfinished two-book series has taken on significance and seems to be an intended part of the art and message.

Yes! Reading that book was a pivotal moment in my life. So much so that it paradoxically almost ruined my ability to enjoy science fiction. For quite a long time, everything I read in the genre after that just struck me as a pale, thin caricature of that book's perfect blend of poetry, speculative ideas, and bold stylistic experimentation.
posted by treepour at 3:49 PM on December 25, 2011


Bongo_x, Bester is definitely worth seeking out. The Demolished Man and The Stars My Destination are two of the best SF books I've ever read.
posted by Ghidorah at 6:02 PM on December 25, 2011


Incidentally, the novel Tiger! Tiger! mentioned in the Delany interview is the same book as The Stars My Destination.
posted by Kattullus at 6:17 PM on December 25, 2011


I found Neveryon at random in a university library years and years ago and have loved Delany ever since. Sooooooo.... good!
posted by kaibutsu at 6:21 PM on December 25, 2011


I didn’t have a manifesto. I had some discontent. It seemed to me that midcentury mainstream American science fiction had often been triumphalist and militaristic, a sort of folk propaganda for American exceptionalism. I was tired of America-as-the-future, the world as a white monoculture, the protagonist as a good guy from the middle class or above. I wanted there to be more elbow room. I wanted to make room for antiheroes.

That's as strong a political statement as I've heard Gibson give. Outside his books that is, obviously.
posted by Chuckles at 9:42 PM on December 25, 2011


How can you not love a book called "Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand"? What are you, unsexy robots??
posted by chrchr at 11:52 PM on December 25, 2011 [1 favorite]


That war was really a conscious act of imaginative optimism. I didn’t quite believe we could be so lucky. But I didn’t want to write one of those science-fiction novels where the United States and the Soviet Union nuke themselves to death. I wanted to write a novel where multinational capital took over, straightened that shit out, but the world was still problematic.

And another strongly political statement. Being a Chomskyite, I'm a little shocked :P

I was painfully aware that I lacked an arena for my science fiction. The spaceship had been where science fiction had happened for a very long time, [...] The spaceship didn’t work for me, [...] So I needed something to replace outer space and the spaceship.

I was walking around Vancouver, aware of that need, and I remember walking past a video arcade, [...] Even in this very primitive form, the kids who were playing them were so physically involved, it seemed to me that what they wanted was to be inside the games, within the notional space of the machine. The real world had disappeared for them—it had completely lost its importance. They were in that notional space, and the machine in front of them was the brave new world.

The only computers I’d ever seen in those days were things the size of the side of a barn. And then one day, I walked by a bus stop and there was an Apple poster. The poster was a photograph of a businessman’s jacketed, neatly cuffed arm holding a life-size representation of a real-life computer that was not much bigger than a laptop is today. Everyone is going to have one of these, I thought, and everyone is going to want to live inside them. And somehow I knew that the notional space behind all of the computer screens would be one single universe.


Brilliant!



I suppose I'll have to read the Delaney interview at some point too :P Meanwhile, "Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand" obviously references Aldiss' "Galaxies Like Grains of Sand", can anybody trace the etymology further back on that notion?
posted by Chuckles at 12:10 AM on December 26, 2011 [1 favorite]


There's that extra E again ;)
posted by Chuckles at 12:10 AM on December 26, 2011


I had read and admired Ballard and Burroughs, and I thought of them as very powerful effect pedals. You get to a certain place in the story and you just step on the Ballard.

...you just step on the Ballard.

I now have the name of my next custom-built pedal. Thanks, Bill!
posted by jet_manifesto at 3:11 AM on December 26, 2011 [3 favorites]


William Gibson is always really good value in interviews. Very thoughtful, and very observant, including when it comes to his own writing process:

"Hubertus's mode of operating actually in many ways resembles my authorial mode, in that he advances his business through allowing more or less random individuals to pursue their own courses. If he sees someone interesting, even passingly interesting, he'll hire them and set them some almost random task. He keeps doing this, and every tenth one produces something of value."

(I was quite taken by a quote of his that's been around for a while, but that I only saw recently: “Before you diagnose yourself with depression or low self esteem, first make sure that you are not, in fact, just surrounding yourself with assholes.”)
posted by reynir at 3:33 AM on December 26, 2011 [3 favorites]


Hubertus's mode of operating actually in many ways resembles my authorial mode, in that he advances his business through allowing more or less random individuals to pursue their own courses. If he sees someone interesting, even passingly interesting, he'll hire them and set them some almost random task
In case he's reading this...

Dear Gabe,

fuck interesting I want HL3!

Fullerine
posted by fullerine at 3:48 AM on December 26, 2011


Do I need to just try it again or is there a different book to start on?

Let's see. I'd say skip his very early works (The Jewels of Aptor, The Fall of the Towers trilogy and Empire Star and start with his middle works. Try any of the following Babel 17 (space opera based on the Sapir-Whorf theory of language as alluded to above), The Einstein Intersection (post-apocalyptic mythology), Nova or Triton, both baroque far future space adventures. In all of these Delany shows worlds and futures that are just different and creates colourful yet plausible societies that only Jack Vance at his best could rival. He's one of the very few sf writers who is actually interested in art and who can write well about it.

Once you've tried these and have gotten to know Delany as a writer should you tackle Dhalgren, because it's a very ambitious book that quite a few people have struggled with (two places humanity will never reach: the heart of the sun and page 150 oof Dhalgren), yet at the same time it has sold more than 100,000 copies and is still in print, so it must be doing something right. It's a book that needs your full attention and unless you are able to give it that, I'd not bother with it.

And for anybody wanting to try Alfred Bester: The Demolished Man/Tyger, Tyger and The Demolished Man are the two novels that cyberpunk cribbed everything from, written some four decades before Gibson; avoid his later novels.
posted by MartinWisse at 4:08 AM on December 26, 2011 [3 favorites]


I think I may have linked to this before, but the Bat Segundo podcast did an interesting hour-long interview with Gibson a few years ago. He talks about some of the same issues, although focusing mostly on Pattern Recognition and Spook Country, which I think was his latest novel at the time.
posted by good in a vacuum at 10:42 AM on December 26, 2011 [2 favorites]


A brief plug for John Brunner, particularly The Shockwave Rider (1975.)
posted by warbaby at 6:03 PM on December 26, 2011 [1 favorite]


I love John Brunner. Did The Paris Review do an interview with him that could be included in this thread about SF authors they interviewed this year?
posted by hippybear at 6:07 PM on December 26, 2011


There's no need to stop a slow thread from derailing :)

Brunner is an interesting writer, whose got many things in common with both Gibson and Delany. He was of the same writerly generation as Delany (they even had novels published together in the the Ace Doubles series). Like Delany, Brunner was insanely prolific and like Gibson, he was interested in how computers affected society. Of course, the differences are even greater, Brunner was British, for one thing. Also, he's deceased now, and has been for a while. Unlike either, he hasn't jumped between SF and fiction set in something that's recognizably the real world. The Paris Review hasn't interviewed many straight-up up genre writers, though many, many that have worked in SF (e.g. Huxley, Lessing and Calvino) but Bradbury and Ballard are the only other writers besides Delany and Gibson they've interviewed who came out of the SF tradition.

Anyway, Brunner makes for an interesting comparison to Delany and Gibson and I'd write more but it's 4 am and I've been lying in bed reading 1Q84 and I really should try to go to sleep now.
posted by Kattullus at 8:06 PM on December 26, 2011 [1 favorite]


I guess Brunner died in 1995. That's too bad. I'd love to read a deep, insightful review by him.

The Shockwave Rider is shockingly prescient, and Stand On Zanzibar is one of the most fascinating books ever.

I actually think SOZ could be really well adapted as a multi-media electronic book experience, with all the news broadcasts and television commercials and such actually created, and the parts of the book which are the novel presented as text, perhaps with dramatic or scripted readings.

It's truly an attempt to create a multi-textured future world in a novel, and I think it succeeds really well. There are shades of Italo Calvino in the way that book is written. (Or is that there are shades of Brunner in Italo Calvino? Influences get confusing when authors have overlapping careers.)
posted by hippybear at 9:52 PM on December 26, 2011 [1 favorite]


Yeah, Stand on Zanzibar is amazing. Gibson was a fan, of course. Here's a quote by him on Brunner:
The 21st century is weird, man! I got there by the slow time machine, living my way to it. In a world like this, what constitutes the mundane? None of this is very mundane anymore, because it's all touched by this kind of multiplex weirdness. We're here, and it's weirder than anything I've ever read in science fiction, except Brunner's The Sheep Look Up and Stand on Zanzibar. That's the closest thing to a prediction of where we are that I can think of. Brunner found a way to have all the overlapping science fiction scenarios of a world like the world where we live in one book. (He borrowed the technique from Dos Passos, but that's good.) But if you had gone to a publisher in 1981 and pitched a science fiction novel where there's this disease called AIDS and there's global warming and this list of 20 other contemporary things, they would have called security!
I've read Stand on Zanzibar three times but I couldn't tell you what the plot was to save my life, but the world Brunner created is incredibly vivid in my head. Also, that central image, that all of humanity could stand on the island of Zanzibar, burned itself onto my mind's eye.
posted by Kattullus at 6:17 AM on December 27, 2011


I've read Stand on Zanzibar three times but I couldn't tell you what the plot was to save my life,

SPOILER ALERT:
it's about a world gone effectively to hell with overpopulation, pollution, random acts of violence, etc ... except for one obscure African nation where something weird is going on. People seem to be evolving.

Well, that's more situation than plot. The plot is more just a bunch of pieces that illustrate aspects of the situation ... but a damned harrowing (and fascinating) situation it is.
posted by philip-random at 8:47 AM on December 27, 2011


(I was quite taken by a quote of his that's been around for a while, but that I only saw recently: “Before you diagnose yourself with depression or low self esteem, first make sure that you are not, in fact, just surrounding yourself with assholes.”)

That's not a quote of his. It's something he retweeted one day that ended up getting misattributed to him. Good aphorism though.
posted by sparkletone at 7:17 AM on December 28, 2011


Wow. The only Samuel R Delany I've read is Dalhgren. That was back in the summer of 1975, when it was one of those books that got passed around from hand to hand among a circle of college students. I read it immersively off-shift while working 12 hour days as a combine harvester driver. I've read it twice since. Until this came along, I never read anything else by or about him. Just wow.
posted by warbaby at 6:09 PM on December 28, 2011 [1 favorite]


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