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William Gibson interviewed in The Vulture
December 5, 2010 11:25 AM   Subscribe

William Gibson offers interesting perceptions of our world The insight on the connection between the perceived threat from terrorism (not his term) and the attraction of lottery tickets (about half-way down) pushed me over to post this, but the rest of it is worth your time, too.
posted by mojohand (82 comments total) 32 users marked this as a favorite

 
A terrorist without a brand is like a fish without a bicycle. It’s just not going anywhere.

I wonder if he understands what he's saying here. This is sadly backing up Nisi Shawl's statement that cyberpunk was a reaction against feminism.
posted by yeloson at 11:35 AM on December 5, 2010 [1 favorite]


I always feel like Gibson is saying something when I read his interviews, but it's like listening to Duran Duran lyrics: the words make up an impression, but when you pick them apart, they don't say much. The fish-without-bicycle line yeloson quoted is a perfect example. What does that even mean other than as an allusion to the feminist slogan?
posted by immlass at 11:38 AM on December 5, 2010


The tea party is like the GOP’s Southern strategy coming back to exact the real cost of that strategy

This is why I read WG. Just plodding along and then he makes this short statement that encapsulates a much larger understanding.
posted by warbaby at 11:41 AM on December 5, 2010 [3 favorites]


I’ve always been, for whatever reason, very conscious of the world of things.

This encapsulates my impression of Gibson as a writer, really. He's most interested in the furniture, and how people react to it, which can turn into a weakness when he doesn't put in the requisite effort to make the plot more than a vehicle for people reacting to furniture.
posted by AdamCSnider at 11:47 AM on December 5, 2010 [3 favorites]


For me, the "fish without a bicycle" line seems like an oops on his part. I don't think it communicates his intent at all. He spoke too quickly and glibly there and used an expression which means the opposite of his intent, if I read it correctly. The para which precedes it all requires that terrorism have a brand. That expression implies the opposite, because of course a bicycle is irrelevant to whether a fish goes anywhere.
posted by George_Spiggott at 11:49 AM on December 5, 2010 [4 favorites]


For me, the "fish without a bicycle" line seems like an oops on his part.

Well, that's why I'm confused. It can be read as a mistake, a horrible misunderstanding of what the phrase was about, or arguing against the idea that women are self-sufficient entities capable of agency and adult, rational decisions without needing a man.

But it's so frickin' weird and non-contextual I'm just, "bwuh?"
posted by yeloson at 11:57 AM on December 5, 2010 [1 favorite]


Even though I've never been a big fan of his writing, I've always respected Gibson's ideas, so it was a pleasant surprise when the guy who regularly comes in to my cafe and seems vaguely familiar turned out to be him. Really nice guy too.
posted by mannequito at 11:58 AM on December 5, 2010 [2 favorites]


What the hell does the use or non-use of "fish without a bicycle" have to do with feminism?
posted by LogicalDash at 12:00 PM on December 5, 2010 [3 favorites]


Some people in this thread need to recalibrate their joke-dar.
posted by DaDaDaDave at 12:01 PM on December 5, 2010 [2 favorites]


LogicalDash: it's a famous feminist slogan "a woman without a man is like a fish without a bicycle"
posted by Infinite Jest at 12:03 PM on December 5, 2010


What the hell does the use or non-use of "fish without a bicycle" have to do with feminism?

If you can't join 'em, Steinem.
posted by joechip at 12:04 PM on December 5, 2010 [4 favorites]


I think it's interesting that this interview from September is just making the commenterati rounds now. Maybe there's something Gibsonian in that -- like that in September, what he was saying was too far into the future for us to understand but in December, we're starting to catch on.
posted by grounded at 12:09 PM on December 5, 2010 [3 favorites]


If you had any experience with interviewing people and transcribing casual speech into the written word, you wouldn't be shocked that people - even Famous Writers - say things that nobody would write without rewriting.

Stewart Brand described transcribing interviews as "like watching people throw up." That's a little extreme, but the temptation to edit quotes is always there. People just don't speak good.

And the origin of the bicycle fish trope was a Sufi saying, IIRC. At least the Steinem link shows it wasn't GS. She won't cop to it and says it was swiped by somebody else.

Another faux feminist mystaque.

(Yup. My dad humorously reviewed The Feminine Mystique for the original Seattle Magazine. My mom never forgave him for titling it "The Feminine Mystaque." She never forgave him for using for using the phrase "League of Women Vipers" in the same article, either. My mom was sort of a power in the League during 60's. Dunno if Dad swiped those phrases or made them up. Probably no on one and yes on two.)
posted by warbaby at 12:24 PM on December 5, 2010 [6 favorites]


Crap. I derailed my own comment. *gak*

Anyway, what I meant to say was that the odds are Gibson was quoting the original: A man without god is like a fish without a bicycle. Then it makes sense.

Pesky feminists. If anything else was this thick, we'd spray for it.
posted by warbaby at 12:27 PM on December 5, 2010 [2 favorites]


Anyway, what I meant to say was that the odds are Gibson was quoting the original: A man without god is like a fish without a bicycle. Then it makes sense.

Not really, it's still saying the opposite of what he means. He's taking it to mean that a fish without a bicycle doesn't go anywhere; whereas the original meaning is that a fish doesn't need a bicycle to go anywhere. As George_Spiggott and others said above.
posted by Infinite Jest at 12:35 PM on December 5, 2010 [2 favorites]


This is sadly backing up Nisi Shawl's statement that cyberpunk was a reaction against feminism.

This statement sounds like hogwash to me, but I am interested in learning more. Sources?
posted by Stove at 12:37 PM on December 5, 2010


I used to get more really intense and kind of destabilized folks. I think that was the hard cyberpunk days. When I started writing more about characters who had parents and relationships and emotions, the black-trench-coat guys kind of faded.

Um.
posted by dersins at 12:51 PM on December 5, 2010


"Mine is a dizzying country in which the Lottery is a major element of reality; until this day, I have thought as little about it as about the conduct of the indecipherable gods or of my heart. Now, far from Babylon and its beloved customs, I think with some bewilderment about the Lottery, and about the blasphemous conjectures that shrouded men whisper in the half-light of dawn or evening.

My father would tell how once, long ago--centuries? years?--the lottery in Babylon was a game played by commoners. He would tell (though whether this is true or not, I cannot say) how barbers would take a man's copper coins and give back rectangles made of bone or parchment and adorned with symbols. Then, in broad daylight, a drawing would be held; those smiled upon by fate would, with no further corroboration by chance, win coins minted of silver. The procedure, as you can see, was rudimentary.

Naturally, those so-called "lotteries" were a failure. They had no moral force whatsoever; they appealed not to all a man's faculties, but only to his hopefulness. Public indifference soon meant that the merchants who had founded these venal lotteries began to lose money. Someone tried something new: including among the list of lucky numbers a few unlucky draws."

-Jorge Luis Borges, The Lottery in Babylon
posted by paradoxflow at 12:55 PM on December 5, 2010 [6 favorites]


This statement sounds like hogwash to me, but I am interested in learning more. Sources?

It is so obviously wrong that I'd be surprised if Shawl actually said it. But you never know I suppose.
posted by Justinian at 1:00 PM on December 5, 2010 [1 favorite]


Interesting thing to me is that even though Gibson is rightly given top credit for creating the cyber-punk genre, his books have always been more about humanity than technology. As time goes on this has become more and more true. The uber-tech environment just gives a foil to point out how humans always have the same needs - shelter, sex, and a buzz. The poor in favellas make their shacks out of cardboard and sheet metal because that is the best thing available. The poor in the Gibson-future make their shacks out of cast-off green circuit board because it is wet and rust proof, the best thing available.

Whatever the time and the tech the masses of the world just keep getting on as best they can. Life is partly defined by the ability to adapt. Gibson refines that definition for humanity. To be is a human is to adapt yourself to whatever is around, and to adapt whatever is around to you.

From Count Zero - Beauvoir on The Projects:
But how this got started, this level, that goes way back. The people who designed these places, maybe eighty, a hundred years ago, they had the idea they'd make `em as self-sufficient as possible Make `em grow food Make `em heat themselves, generate power, whatever. Now this one, you drill far enough down, is sitting on top of a lot of geothermal water. It's real hot down there, but not hot enough to run an engine, so it wasn't gonna give em any power

They made a stab at power, up on the roof, with about a hundred Darrieus rotors, what they call eggbeaters. Had themselves a wind farm, see? Today they get most of their watts off the Fission Authority, like anybody else. But that geothermal water, they pump that up to a heat exchanger. It's too salty to drink, so in the exchanger it just heats up your standard Jersey tap water, which a lot of people figure isn't worth drinking anyway. Finally, they were approaching a wall of some kind. Bobby looked back. Shallow pools on the muddy concrete floor caught and reflected the limbs of the dwarf trees, the bare pale roots straggling down into makeshift tanks of hydroponic fluid. "Then they pump that into shrimp tanks, and grow a lot of shrimp. Shrimp grow real fast in warm water. Then they pump it through pipes in the concrete, up here, to keep this place warm. That's what this level was for, to grow `ponic amaranth, lettuce, things like that. Then they pump it out into the catfish tanks, and algae eat the shrimp shit. Catfish eat the algae, and it all goes around again. Or anyway, that was the idea. Chances are they didn't figure anybody'd go up on the roof and kick those Darrieus rotors over to make room for a mosque, and they didn't figure a lot of other changes either So we wound up with this space. But you can still get you some damned good shrimp in the Projects. . . . Catfish, too"
posted by Babblesort at 1:02 PM on December 5, 2010 [1 favorite]


Aha! I believe yelosan made a thinko and Shawl made her comments with regard to steampunk rather than cyberpunk. That is a more interesting discussion. I'm not sure she called it a reaction to feminism specifically rather than just a reactionary subgenre in general, but in any case that has nothing to do with cyberpunk.
posted by Justinian at 1:07 PM on December 5, 2010 [2 favorites]


Interesting thing to me is that even though Gibson is rightly given top credit for creating the cyber-punk genre, his books have always been more about humanity than technology.

Both of your clauses are true but I'm not sure how they go together. Why do you imply that being credited with popularization of cyberpunk is somehow in opposition to writing about humanity?
posted by Justinian at 1:10 PM on December 5, 2010 [1 favorite]


That was a pretty good interview. I mean... the format doesn't lend itself to really in depth answers. It's someone say, "Hey Bill, what do you think about this," and him giving a two paragraph reply "I think X about this." The last two comments strike me as the keenest:
Basically. The Civil War was scarcely more than 150 years ago. It’s yesterday. Race in American hasn’t been sorted out. This used to be a country that was run exclusively by white guys in suits. It’s not going to be a country that’s run exclusively by white guys in suits, and that doesn’t have anything to do with politics, it’s just demographics. That makes some people very uncomfortable. The tea party is like the GOP’s Southern strategy coming back to exact the real cost of that strategy.
...
It is ominous in the long run, for the GOP. They’re going to have to find a different way to operate or they’ll go the way of the Whigs. Not like next year, but eventually. You can do all sorts of crazy shit when you’re not in power to interrupt what the guy in power is doing. But it costs you down the line if it really was crazy shit.

I just hope that whatever replaces the GOP as middle class white America starts to die off isn't even worse.
posted by codacorolla at 1:18 PM on December 5, 2010 [1 favorite]


Justinian, I went Googling when I read yelosan's comment - all I could find was this, which is second-hand. Found a few links where she calls steampunk 'reactionary' but not specifically anti-feminist (e.g, which discusses the same convention discussion mentioned in the first link).
posted by Infinite Jest at 1:19 PM on December 5, 2010


I wonder if he understands what he's saying here.

I find this reaction interesting.
Gibson talks about there being no omniscient narrative (in a particular piece) which alludes to the perception filtering aspect of perspective. There are other distorted bits in the piece (e.g. "Race in American hasn’t been sorted out" - but we question the subject not the filter. Did Gibson say that? ("in American") Is he losing it because he's getting old? Too much coffee? Is it a typo? Misheard in transcription? Mysogyny?

Obviously we bring our own prejudices to the table. I'm not interested in value judging any of those beyond simply pointing out how they color our own perceptions.

I like his work. His short stories mostly. But his ideas here have been fairly well established and have been examined by others (Baudrillard, Postman, etc, and other writers, Kafka, Yeats, Mann (although Gibson's aesthetic is not really world-rejecting).

I don't think he's going too far afield or has some arch anti-feminist agenda. He appears to think using larger symbols and that tends to translate into a kind of shorthand speech prone to these kinds of relational blips.

A terrorist without a brand, then, is as without context in the world, as misapplied in concept from the perspective of the world, as the "fish without a bicycle" idea.
He could also be thinking "fish out of water."

In any case, he's correct that terrorists need brands. That's Mao 101.

And part of the problem in the equation regarding terrorism, at least in the general public, is that it's a slippery term. Bomb our guys: terrorist. Bomb your own people: terrorist. Leave the toilet seat up: terrorist. (Perhaps the feminist comments are coloring my own thinking there :-) )

But: "If the terrorist can get you to think about what he’s doing as terrorism, you’re already in his win position."
This has always been the problem, politically and in the general public, with the terrorism response.
Not so much that it's "terrorism" but that it's A. effective and B. requires a military response.

If the response to some fanatic nut blowing something up was "Gah! Those crazy assholes again!" and to treat it as a disruption of civil society, a hassle, rather than something which seeks to, and is possibly capable of, taking over civil society, we would be in a better position to react and be more effective in deterrence.

"Situationist Liberation Army" can sound bad-ass. But who wants to be referred to as part of "that gang of idiots" (Gaines publications aside) who can only screw things up. (Obviously there are 'trolls' in the world, but the costs of that psychology quickly become prohibitive and can be rendered pointless through a number of techniques)

There's no real winning though. Gibson sort of falls into his own - trap for lack of a better word - here.
If the opposition rhetoric can get you to use their words (or brand), even in opposition, you're in their win position. In appropriating the Bushco rhetoric on "the terrorists win" he (and others) are keeping that concept in play, lending it some relevance.

Keep invigorating something like that, again, even in opposition, and it will keep coming back like f'ing Dracula.
Which is a sort of neat observation he makes later on driving the stake. Humans seem to be continually reinventing ourselves through the reciprocal nature of technology and society rendering previous methods of seeing the world void and refining new ones.

S'why we don't just keep repeating the "this 'X', it vibrates?" jokes over and over. It stops getting laughs, yeah, but the thing it refers to keeps receding into the past and becomes decontextualized. Irrelevant. Not understandable in modern terms. Bicycleless fish ('but, Smed, fish don't need a bicycle in the first pla...' yeah, let it go, s'joke. The entire dichotomy of it is a moot as Ahura Mazda)

And, importantly, we let it go, there Gatsby.

We haven't really pulled that trick off yet with a lot of other outdated concepts (race, religion, the nostalgic American Dream, etc). And I agree with Gibson that not dealing with that kind of thing and letting those things hook into you will really come and bite your tuchus eventually.
posted by Smedleyman at 1:22 PM on December 5, 2010 [8 favorites]


Nisi wrote about steampunk and feminism here. The article talks more about race/colonialist issues than feminism though and is about steampunk not cyberpunk. It's a good post, well worth reading.

I happen to be re-reading Pattern Recognition now - a book certainly more about stuff and branding than anything else. To me, WG captures more about alienation through lots of acquisition than anything else in that book at least. I haven't read the more recent stuff but the interview seems like a mighty disconnected take on asymmetric warfare: all ideas with none of the bloodshed.
posted by leslies at 1:25 PM on December 5, 2010 [2 favorites]


Both of your clauses are true but I'm not sure how they go together. Why do you imply that being credited with popularization of cyberpunk is somehow in opposition to writing about humanity?

I don't think the two things are in opposition so much. Good sci-fi always uses the sci part as a mechanism to explore humanity.

Just that the thing Gibson is credited with creating is the primary thing that has evaporated from his writing over the years. Cyberpunk was more about style than substance and while Gibson gets proper credit for acing that style, it was really his human insight and pathos that made his work stand out and be remembered long past the late 80's heyday of cyberpunk.

The cyberpunk appelation just seems kind of limiting applied to him today. His writing grew past it. His last few books would be shelved in literary fiction rather than the sci-fi ghetto if they were from an unknown author. It's not a criticism, just noting how his writing has evolved over the years.
posted by Babblesort at 1:50 PM on December 5, 2010


I suspect Mr. Gibson's fascination with branding has more to do with how people react (or not) to it rather than the branding per se. This is not to say he doesn't understand branding itself - certainly he understands branding deeply.

I think a more accurate assessment would be to say that he writes nowadays with the assumption that branding is some kind of all-permeating fact and hence something that most people are barely aware of. Hence Bigend's character in the latest trilogy; he's literally the only one who sees it all at once. And I think Mr. Gibson's implicit assumption is that seeing it all at once does really weird things to people.

Thus the comment on terrorism as a brand: very few people are capable of truly internalizing the depth and penetration of the terrorism brand, so there's few avenues to really address terrorism available to us. At least for now.
posted by digitalprimate at 2:26 PM on December 5, 2010


The last three books are entirely about branding, what makes people react certain ways to "cool" brands, how branding and simulated patina is as a substitute for quality, the nature of authenticity.

I think he may be on to something with the terrorist line. A brand is a way to define a company, it is a set of recognizable marketing materials, logos, colors, but it is also an attempt to associate a company with a concept. In fact it is an attempt by a company to associate with an entire way of life. We see this all the time, minivan ads with smiling happy families. Pickup ads with a hard working Joe. This is not just a target demographic, but an attempt to brand the silverado as the tough working man truck.

As an American I think I would be a target for terrorist marketing and branding. But I haven't seen any. Do any current terrorists groups have logos? No idea. What is their story, no idea. An attempt to define them would limit their effectiveness, they exist as a shadowy other that can be everywhere.
posted by Ad hominem at 2:32 PM on December 5, 2010


Terrorists groups have nearly always had logos and identifying marks. Hezbollah has an actual logo. The KKK has a logo. When he was arrested, Tim McVeigh was caught wearing a T-shirt with both "sic semper tyrannus" and "tree of liberty" slogans familiar to the militia movements.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 2:53 PM on December 5, 2010


WG's remarks about terrorism and branding strike me as right on, with this very important caveat:

Terrorism as a purely informational strategy exists only when interaction between terrorists and their targets is restricted to a very narrow range defined by violence and mediated communication.

Terrorist recruiting, propaganda, fundraising and other social/political/economic activities require social (face-to-face) interaction. It is at this level that terrorism as a strategy can be effectively interrupted. I've done it and so have others.

The best example that comes to mind is a Unitarian minister I knew. She used to live in Florida and the Klan was on a rampage. She started attending Klan meetings. Just to get to know them and give them somebody to talk to who didn't buy their line of bullshit. This wasn't any fluffy sympathy flower child stuff. She went there and disagreed with them without fighting with them. What happened was it broke the bubble of isolation that appears to be necessary for planning acts of sustained political violence.

Political violence isn't spontaneous, it requires planning and lots of preparation. Most people don't want that sort of shit happening around them and there's a lot of resistance (basic human decency) that has to be overcome in order to get the community as a whole to buy into violence as normative behavior.

It's not a comfortable thing to be doing and not many people are able to do it. But is works and this is why violent terrorists isolate themselves. They can't do this stuff out in the open. Restrict it to a narrow channel of violence and media and their game gets a whole lot easier. Couch potatoes and terminal nerds are easy meat for terrorists. They tend to be very off their game in the daylight.

That's what I liked so much about Spook Country: a beautifully executed operation that daylighted the badguys in a way they couldn't escape. Sweet.
posted by warbaby at 3:05 PM on December 5, 2010 [13 favorites]


Yes you are right the kkk has an actual brand. I would say the IRA has a brand as well.

Another point Gibson hammers in his most recent books is that people define themselves by brands. It is not so much all-permeating but the way we identify ourselves with certain groups or values. In which case neo-nazi groups certainly have brands.

Ok, I'm pretty sure he was just funnin.
posted by Ad hominem at 3:09 PM on December 5, 2010


People have defined themselves by brands since the beginning of time. What is a tribe or a religion if not examples of brands? The only thing new here is the way we're using the term "brand."
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 3:34 PM on December 5, 2010


Well his fascination is the construction of brands and self identifying through consuming. Not a tribe or a religion where throughout much of history there was no choice in the matter.
posted by Ad hominem at 4:06 PM on December 5, 2010


Henry VIII created a religion out of thin air because he wanted a divorce. Puritans left England and then Holland because of persecution. Mormons headed west for the same reason. I'd call all of those things defining identity through deliberate choices about the consumption of ideas.

I guess the difference in Gibson's mind may be more akin to defining identity through literal goods and services, not truly abstract ideas.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 4:17 PM on December 5, 2010


I believe yelosan made a thinko and Shawl made her comments with regard to steampunk rather than cyberpunk. That is a more interesting discussion

No, actually, World Fantasy Con (2009? 2008?) she was saying that Steampunk was a reaction to people of color in spec fic just as cyberpunk was a reaction to feminism in spec fic. I'd have to dig for links though, since it'd be transcriptions or accounts from the panel.
posted by yeloson at 4:37 PM on December 5, 2010


Ah, here's one link from someone who was at the panel re: "Cyberpunk as reaction to feminism" - it doesn't actually go into any detail about that though specifically, since the panel was focused on Steampunk. It's been over 16 years since I've read Gibson's stuff, so it's more just that her statement struck me with the complete randomness of his misstatement than me, necessarily arguing that position.
posted by yeloson at 5:04 PM on December 5, 2010


You are right, it was the "Why Steampunk Now?" panel at the 2009 World Fantasy Con. She was trying to draw a parallel between steampunk as a reaction against visible minority presence in SF and cyberpunk as a reaction against feminism in SF. But as far as I can tell the cyberpunk reference never came up again (since the panel was about steampunk) and she provided no support at all for the statement.

So, yes, it turns out Shawl did make a statement claiming cyberpunk is a reaction to feminism in SF but as far as I can tell has never spoken or written at any further length about it, in contrast to lengthy stuff on steampunk.

NS is a smart person but I don't think her claim about cyberpunk is supportable. Which is perhaps one reason she hasn't supported it. Cyberpunk is a strongly misanthropic genre but it is no way a specifically misogynistic one.
posted by Justinian at 5:05 PM on December 5, 2010


Guess we found it at the same time!
posted by Justinian at 5:05 PM on December 5, 2010


Okay, I had to pay $5 to tell you all this. Despite nojojojo's report, I did *not* say on that World Fantasy 2009 panel that cyberpunk was a reactionary response to feminist science fiction. That's pretty close, but no. What I said was that some critics had called cyberpunk a reactionary response to feminist science fiction. This is true. Specifically, I'm pretty sure this is something Jeanne Gomoll, among others, theorized about.

I brought up this point because though I don't personally believe that cyberpunk was a reactionary response to feminist science fiction a) It it's an interesting premise to examine; b) Examination leads me to think that while cyberpunk and the cyberpunks were not antagonistic to feminist science fiction, part of the media hype surrounding it was an attempt to find something, anything to look at other than feminist science fiction; and c) Parallels can be drawn between the popularity/commodification of cyberpunk and the popularity/commodification of steampunk in relationship to, respectively, feminist science fiction and speculative fiction by poc. Also, I was being somewhat provocative, which I think is kind of my job on a panel: to entertain as well as educate.

My statement was probably hard to remember with complete accuracy when heard across a room full of people in the midst of a weekend full of smart thinky discussions. So I understand why what I said has been misinterpreted. I just want you to know what I meant, and why I said it.
posted by nisi_la at 5:54 PM on December 5, 2010 [59 favorites]


There is some discussion of Shawl's statement in the comments on the page linked by yeloson in which someone makes an attempt at supporting Shawl's statement.
posted by Stove at 5:55 PM on December 5, 2010


Right from the horses mouth. Thank you. I've been reading through all of these comments wondering if any of the people trying to argue the idea that cyberpunk was a reaction to feminism have even READ any cyberpunk. I mean, really, Gibson especially has some amazing female characters, to say nothing of totally non-gendered characters, that break the molds of SF at the time quite clearly.
posted by strixus at 6:05 PM on December 5, 2010 [1 favorite]


And I missed a ' on horse's. Damn it.
posted by strixus at 6:05 PM on December 5, 2010


I just want you to know what I meant, and why I said it.

Thank you for clearing up this confusion.
posted by Stove at 6:06 PM on December 5, 2010


Yes, literal goods. There is a reason he fetishizes model number and materials. In the most recent book one person is completely summed up by the type of pants he is wearing. I wear this type of pants, I am the type of person who wears pants like this.
posted by Ad hominem at 6:07 PM on December 5, 2010


Okay, Stove. But as I posted above, that was not my statement. Which if I'd had Google alerts going when nojojojo posted the report that led to the discussion you're referring to, I would have corrected it then. But I didn't. But I'm correcting it now.
posted by nisi_la at 6:08 PM on December 5, 2010


My favorite example of feminism in cyberpunk is Bruce Sterling's Islands In the Net.
posted by nisi_la at 6:10 PM on December 5, 2010 [3 favorites]


Sorry, I didn't preview before I posted my comment, so I didn't see that you had already clarified what you had said at the panel.
posted by Stove at 6:13 PM on December 5, 2010


Feminist SF was stronger during the New Wave era, but while it's interesting to see cyberpunk as a reactionary genre, I have the strong impression that the balance of experimental 70s SF was more transgressive than progressive, and that it could be transgressive in crappy ways, too.

(One example story that I think hits this is Piers Anthony's "In the Barn," in Again, Dangerous Visions, which is pretty awful in a bunch of ways, and foreshadows the fetishes that infect his commercially successful work. Anthony's crap is basically a refinement of the transgressive experiments he made earlier and not a forgetting of his 70s output.)

At the same time, feminist SF really seemed to be stronger before cyberpunk, and it almost seems that it was easy for a sexist readership to jump into it and avoid the challenges posed by feminist SF. At the same time, books like The Shockwave Rider make it seem to me that it was time for *someone* to found cyberpunk. That being the case, you have to ask what people are obligated to carry forth into a genre that seems inevitable.

(Note that I'm not saying anything about POC-focal themes, since I have much less understanding of what that was like in the 70s.)
posted by mobunited at 6:32 PM on December 5, 2010 [1 favorite]


"Fish without a bicycle" is a very relevant phrase in feminist circles. I realize not everyone will have heard of it (sad but true). But it is a very meaningful phrase to many people. Loosely analogous in an emotional and historical sense to phrases like "by any means necessary" or "silence = death."

It is one of those phrases that can never really be used out of context. Even if you use it in an entirely different meaning, it will always be in context, as a call-back to the movement, either in favor or against.

Which Gibson whipped out of his pants, completely without context, and seemingly without understanding the meaning behind the phrase.

You read it and you think, "Is this guy showing his solidarity with the feminist movement of the 1970s? Or is he bashing feminism with a glutinous sneer, Rush Limbaugh-style?"

Then you re-read it five or six times, and finally decide that Gibson probably used it by mistake, or was blind to the historical context, and apparently misunderstood the phrase, to boot.

And that right there? That completely solipsistic, distracting, tone-deaf faux pas that a few moments' thought could have prevented?

That is the problem with Gibson's books, in a nutshell.
posted by ErikaB at 7:30 PM on December 5, 2010 [2 favorites]


I'm sorry, too, Stove. But all is now well, yes?

I don't believe that cyberpunk as a genre was reactionary. Really. I've met some of these folks. Two of them were my instructors at Clarion West (Shirley and Cadigan).

"...it almost seems that it was easy for a sexist readership to jump into it [cyberpunk]and avoid the challenges posed by feminist SF."

Right. But not "readership" plain and simple, w/o the help of those who seek to commodify and profit from a movement.

To be fair, there *are* writers who find cyberpunk's romantic visions of bodilessness via vr anti-woman, and thus anti-feminist. Nicola Griffith for one (see her "Writing from the Body").

And yet Griffith's novel Slow River has been called cyberpunk.

Complicated, isn't it?
posted by nisi_la at 7:31 PM on December 5, 2010 [3 favorites]


It steam engines when it's steam engine time.

My copy of Shockwave Rider has a cover illustration incorporating punch cards, for goodness sake. Bruner was writing before there was punk. The anarcho-hacker ethic was floating around with the phone freaks by that time. All that was lacking was getting computers into the consumer economy and that was underway by the mid-70s.

What wasn't inevitable was the strength of the reaction against authority. But cyberpunk emerged just as Reagan was slamming the lid on the liberal consensus' coffin. So, if there's a reaction here, it's a dystopian reaction against right-wing authoritarianism.
posted by warbaby at 7:36 PM on December 5, 2010 [4 favorites]



-Jorge Luis Borges, The Lottery in Babylon


Can't favorite this hard enough. Gibson, no matter how jaw-droppingly perceptive, has in fact failed to go quite far enough here: what he's speaking of is not the apotheosis of branding (and its associated functional discipline, marketing), but its end. Like the Babylonian lottery, when it finally fully suffuses every aspect of life, it becomes indistinguishable from, and identical to, the operation of chance, of fate, of God, of the ordinary business and clutter of life.

Then it finally wins; then it has us; then we're free.
posted by longtime_lurker at 8:21 PM on December 5, 2010 [2 favorites]


Because yes, yes:

Henry VIII created a religion out of thin air because he wanted a divorce. Puritans left England and then Holland because of persecution. Mormons headed west for the same reason. I'd call all of those things defining identity through deliberate choices about the consumption of ideas.

A discipline that used to be about convincing people that coffee might be a nice thing to drink, or reminding them that my ice cream is made with better ingredients, is so erumpent that is bears comparison to Henry VIII's break with Rome. This happened in less than a century. That's a thing, right there, it really is!
posted by longtime_lurker at 8:29 PM on December 5, 2010 [1 favorite]


Thanks for filling us in on the original context and comment, Nisi. It makes a lot more sense now!

So, if there's a reaction here, it's a dystopian reaction against right-wing authoritarianism.

I don't think one should view cyberpunk as a reaction against right-wing authoritarianism. The defining feature of cyperpunk is generally alienation within the framework of a multinational corporatism and not some sort of Orwellian police state or other autocratic government. I guess you could argue that the kind of corporatism in, for example, Gibson is right-wing but I don't think that's very persuasive given the context at the time it was written. The Sprawl trilogy presents a world of Zaibatsus and not Corporations, hardly a right-wing future in an American or Canadian context.
posted by Justinian at 9:43 PM on December 5, 2010 [1 favorite]


I think we are missing the point of Gibson's fish without a bicycle comment.

The superficial reading is that Gibson either isn't aware of the meaning of his statement and using it out of context, or is aware and is dismissing feminism. However, the larger context of his statement is a discussion of branding and the thing he won't call terrorism.

A true terrorist needs a brand as much as a fish needs a bicycle. Gibson is trying to make the point that terrorism is the wrong label - the not-terrorist does need a bicycle (brand) to get from point A to point B. The fish needing a bicycle comment is a red herring precisely chosen to serve as an example that the use of terrorism is a red herring when trying to understand the goals and motivations of the not-terrorist.
posted by b1tr0t at 10:23 PM on December 5, 2010 [2 favorites]


I guess you could argue that the kind of corporatism in, for example, Gibson is right-wing but I don't think that's very persuasive given the context at the time it was written. The Sprawl trilogy presents a world of Zaibatsus and not Corporations, hardly a right-wing future in an American or Canadian context.

Gibson has stated previously that the Sprawl trilogy was precisely a reaction against Reagen.
posted by b1tr0t at 10:25 PM on December 5, 2010 [1 favorite]


Gibson has stated previously that the Sprawl trilogy was precisely a reaction against Reagen.

He's just the author, what does he know?
posted by Justinian at 12:52 AM on December 6, 2010 [1 favorite]


I wish WG would fork out the $5 to explain himself too...
posted by mhjb at 1:11 AM on December 6, 2010 [3 favorites]


Aahz's law is universal.
posted by Justinian at 1:39 AM on December 6, 2010 [1 favorite]


Welcome, nisi_la! I hope you stick around & find metafilter worth your time...
posted by pharm at 2:02 AM on December 6, 2010 [2 favorites]


The fish needing a bicycle comment is a red herring precisely chosen to serve as an example that the use of terrorism is a red herring when trying to understand the goals and motivations of the not-terrorist.

Buh?
posted by fixedgear at 4:03 AM on December 6, 2010


I think there is an insane amount of scrutiny over a throwaway line on an interview. If it appeared in his fiction or essay, then yeah, beanplating fish and bicycles would be appropriate.

But this is an informal interview, where he used the phrase "crazy shit" to describe political strategy. Given his intellectual proclivities, it's far more likely he was using it as a clever play on from an examination of Sufi thought rather than as a super-secret-codeword-slap to feminism, but to be blunt, it's almost assuredly neither. Using this in any way to examine his works or personal beliefs is insanely, viciously stupid.
posted by Slap*Happy at 4:56 AM on December 6, 2010 [5 favorites]


The truly interesting thing about Gibson's writing to me (as an admitted fanboy) is the closing of the timeline (so to speak). His future thinking was amazing, and we're now living in a time when a real-world scenario where an alleged nation-state writes a software virus designed to spin centrifuges at the wrong speed to mess up nuclear material processing reads almost exactly like the plot line of the short story New Rose Hotel. Here's the metafilter thread (where I originally made this comparison).

Now, Gibson writes about trucks and pants. And marketing. He admits that he's writing about today, rather than tomorrow, and I guess that's true. But I'm still struck by his decision to stop dreaming up future gadgets as plot devices and instead use gadgets that actually exist. Which is a pretty big statement when you think about it.

Also, it seems to me that almost every story he writes is the same: girl-hero/boy-hero is hired/conscripted to find MacGuffin. There are variations, but mostly the main character has become an archetype. And we can see the cool-factor DNA move from Molly to Angie to Mona to Chevette to Cayce to Hollis.

Not that it's bad... I love reading the same story over and over. It's Joseph Campbell 101, innit?

But I think the feminist trope you guys have zeroed in on here is way outta left field. Gibson has shown that he prefers a strong, smart, independent female as a protagonist, and I think over time his female leads have become better drawn... in an anti-Heinlein kinda way. If that makes any sense.

On preview: what slap*happy said, but with more random stuff thrown in.
posted by valkane at 5:42 AM on December 6, 2010 [1 favorite]


Also: Gibson's comments on the Tea Party? Fucking gold!
posted by valkane at 5:49 AM on December 6, 2010


A terrorist without a brand is like a fish without a bicycle out of water. It’s just not going anywhere.

FTFY.
posted by fixedgear at 6:07 AM on December 6, 2010 [3 favorites]


Welcome to MeFi, Nisi! And thanks for correcting the record.
posted by Zed at 6:24 AM on December 6, 2010


I didn't even know Zero History was out. And now I'm reading it. Thanks mojohand!
posted by Ahab at 6:29 AM on December 6, 2010


Thanks, Justinian, pharm, Zed. I'm sure I'll be here lots now.
posted by nisi_la at 6:43 AM on December 6, 2010


"Erumpent" is my new favourite word.
posted by flabdablet at 7:03 AM on December 6, 2010


And I could care less about fish without bicycles.
posted by flabdablet at 7:10 AM on December 6, 2010


So William Gibson needs beanplating like a red herring needs a bicycle?

Did I do that right?

I'm still trying to get my head around what he means by brands and "coded intelligence." It sort of makes sense if the information content of an artifact vastly outweighs the physical product. I think that's the sense of the comment on the Starbuck's cup. An example would be a brand like Pabst Blue Ribbon that is just generic beer made under contract. Pabst doesn't own any breweries, just the brand. What you are buying is more information than beer.

Same with terrorism - it's an information based strategy. The cost of putting one US soldier in Afghanistan for a year is about the same as Al Qaida spent on the entire 9/11 operation.

See Neocortical Warfare for a discussion of how violence and information can put the battlefield inside the opponent's head.
posted by warbaby at 7:12 AM on December 6, 2010 [2 favorites]


William Gibson needs beanplating like a red herring needs a bicycle; he's not going anywhere.
posted by flabdablet at 8:02 AM on December 6, 2010


To be fair, there *are* writers who find cyberpunk's romantic visions of bodilessness via vr anti-woman, and thus anti-feminist. Nicola Griffith for one (see her "Writing from the Body").

I am sure that Griffith has found people who use cyberpunk as a way of expressing their hatred for women, but to equate the distaste of the corporeal form to sexism is insupportable, and I can't believe anyone would bother to make the argument.
posted by TypographicalError at 9:02 AM on December 6, 2010 [2 favorites]


Also, it seems to me that almost every story he writes is the same: girl-hero/boy-hero is hired/conscripted to find MacGuffin. There are variations, but mostly the main character has become an archetype. And we can see the cool-factor DNA move from Molly to Angie to Mona to Chevette to Cayce to Hollis.

Yes, yes. Hired / conscripted by partly unseen forces with obscure motives and tremendous resources. Part of the magic is the implied mystery of the workings of the world, the beasts -- human and otherwise -- who run things or want to. What's most important is sinister, hidden.
posted by grobstein at 9:23 AM on December 6, 2010 [2 favorites]


And that right there? That completely solipsistic, distracting, tone-deaf faux pas that a few moments' thought could have prevented?

That is the problem with Gibson's books, in a nutshell.


I think the only tone-deaf, distracting faux-pas is your completely shallow and somewhat blinkered 'review' of the author based on a single slip of the digital tongue.
posted by FatherDagon at 9:26 AM on December 6, 2010 [2 favorites]


I have a bicycle but no fish. Am I out of luck?
posted by ardgedee at 9:46 AM on December 6, 2010


Where is FishBike when you need it? FishBike could have provided very meaningful data analysis on all of this.
posted by Mister_A at 11:08 AM on December 6, 2010


> I wish WG would fork out the $5 to explain himself too...

He's easy to get in touch with. I've asked him a question on Twitter and had him respond within hours.
posted by The corpse in the library at 11:16 AM on December 6, 2010


If Molly Millions isn't a pro-feminist figure, then I literally don't know what else a feminist could want.

I always saw cyberpunk as being at least as breaking down the need for gender, at most a pro-feminist science fiction movement that realized the strength of women.

At least, that's how I read it.
posted by imneuromancer at 3:04 PM on December 6, 2010 [1 favorite]


I am sure that Griffith has found people who use cyberpunk as a way of expressing their hatred for women, but to equate the distaste of the corporeal form to sexism is insupportable, and I can't believe anyone would bother to make the argument.

What? RTF article. In fact, RTF Western History. Hatred of the body is intimately bound with sexism. The article specifically draws analogies to religious cloistering and the connection between contempt for the corporeal with a specific contempt for women as agents of corporeality. The idea that We're Made of Meat Because of the Sin of Eve has been successfully made secular to the point where you can't see menstruation in TV commercials about menstruating. These attacks on corporeality have always disproportionately affected women.

That said, classic cyberpunk is ambivalent about abandoning corporeality. Cadigan's "Pretty Boy Crossover" is an example, and Neuromancer and "Burning Chrome" both present body-abandoning acts that are opportunities for patriarchy to reassert itself (puppet brothels, Case's return to cyberspace being mediated by exploitative older men, and ultimately by a stand-in for God). Later pro-transhuman fiction has been much less aware of this problem and more thorny in general. Still, early cyberpunk is so breezy about some atrocities, and so embedded in its zeitgeist, that you might ask if this cynical acceptance encourages defeatist attitudes. This is still a problem with Gibson, in that the fact that we can learn about a man from his pants is true, but it also means we live in a disgusting world as absolute subjects of capitalist power.
posted by mobunited at 11:04 AM on December 7, 2010 [1 favorite]


mobunited, you're right about classic cyberpunk, and by extension about most post- or neo-cyberpunk I'd personally classify as "good." But there's a real thread of body-denial in derivative cyberpunk and in a lot of post-cyberpunk / neo-cyberpunk, and I can think of a few examples off the top of my head that aren't (or at least aren't very) sexist -- Rudy Rucker would be my first off the top of the head try. Swanwick maybe, too.
posted by lodurr at 2:42 PM on December 29, 2010


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