In Science Fiction Novel, Present Feels Like Future

Science fiction novelist William Gibson has a talent for making the future seem like the present. But his newest book, Spook Country, does the opposite. It follows a half-dozen characters as they chase after the contents of a mysterious container.

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

The early science fiction work of William Gibson coined a term that would soon enter the vernacular, cyberspace. That was a setting of his first novel "Neuromancer" in 1984.

Gibson has a talent for making the future seem like the present. His new novel, "Spook Country" is set in the present but feels like the future. There aren't many characters, but they're connected by a plot that's as complicated as one of those translated instruction manuals, though it's a lot more fun to read. "Spook Country" picks up where its predecessor "Pattern Recognition" left off.

William Gibson is in the studio. Welcome. It's a pleasure to finally meet you.

Mr. WILLIAM GIBSON (Author, "Spook Country"): Well, thank you. It's a pleasure to be here.

HANSEN: What do readers need to know about "Pattern Recognition" in order to begin to read "Spook Country"?

Mr. GIBSON: I think that you should be able to read "Spook Country" without having read "Pattern Recognition." I always try for the novel as standalone artifact. If you have read "Pattern Recognition," there are few extras and add-ons for you in the course of reading "Spook Country," but they - pretty much standalone.

HANSEN: You have a concept in this one called - is it locative or locative? Locative art?

Mr. GIBSON: I think it's locative art. I'm leaning toward that.

HANSEN: Describe what it is.

Mr. GIBSON: What I'm calling locative art - people in the days of virtual reality, which sometimes is called blended reality. It's a system that allows you to see the world around you, but to see virtual objects in it.

HANSEN: Early in the book, we are shown an example of this - actually several -but one, which is kind of funny, one artist discovers that where there is, I believe, a Virgin Record store now, that was a place where F. Scott Fitzgerald had a heart attack.

Mr. GIBSON: Yes.

HANSEN: And so they create a virtual image of that event, but standing in the Virgin Record store…

Mr. GIBSON: Yes.

HANSEN: …and the artist, with the helmet and everything that he needs, has a really hard time convincing the clerks that he wants to do art in a store.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GIBSON: Well, the funny thing about that is, for me, is that he's already done the art. But they don't know that it's there. As far as I know, there is nothing about the concept as described in the book that would even be difficult to do today. It's not farfetched. You just need to put the right bits of technology together.

And if you did do it, you could place a work of art at a specific location and leave it there. And it could stay there forever. But no one would ever see it, they will never know it was there unless they had some, I guess, the URL and longitude and latitude.

HANSEN: If you had to pitch "Spook Country" as a movie, what would you say?

Mr. GIBSON: Well if I'd have pitch "Spook Country" as a movie, I'd lie because…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GIBSON: …that's (unintelligible) best thing I'd do when you - the best thing to do when you pitch a movie. So if I were pitching "Spook Country" as a movie, I would probably hard pedal it's thriller linear (unintelligible), but it really wouldn't be that honest a description.

HANSEN: Were there events that actually inspired the book? I mean, it's post-9/11. At one point, one of the characters refers to the Department of Homemade Security, and the idea that somebody knows where we are all the time. Technology can exist that can let people know where we are all the time.

Mr. GIBSON: Well…

HANSEN: Like a "Big Brother" sort of thing.

Mr. GIBSON: A couple of years ago on the centenary of George Orwell's birthday, the New York Times asked to do an op-ed, wished George a happy birthday and I wrote about transparency and the impossibility of keeping secrets. So often when, you know, we think about Orwell, we look at the digital world that we live in and think, oh, we're losing our privacy. We're exposed to Big Brother.

And it's true to a certain extent, but the trouble is, I mean, for Big Brother's point of view, Big Brother is exposed to us. And I said in that op-ed piece that if you're a crooked politician today, if you're a politician and you're lying, we're going to know about it. We'll know about it. We're going to know about it somewhere down the road because in the digital world, it's just not going - it's not that easy to keep a secret for very long. Everything is porous. And I like that. I like that idea. I think it may even be true. I really enjoyed saying it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GIBSON: I think it's - I think it might actually turn out to be the case that Big Brother is watching us and we're watching Big Brother. It's getting -maybe getting harder to be Big Brother.

HANSEN: "Neuromancer" was a real influence on the then teenagers who now work essentially in cyberspace. Were you surprised by the reception of that book?

Mr. GIBSON: It was a little bit ahead of its time. But I was - I wasn't expecting it. I wasn't expecting it to have this sort of legs that its have at all.

HANSEN: Yeah.

Mr. GIBSON: I thought it was being published as a paperback original. And I thought it would vanish to the kin of man except for like really gruffy or really crazy science fiction completists. But I was okay with that somehow. I didn't - I wasn't expecting much.

I wrote it in '81 and '82 and it wasn't even published then until 1984. And then it didn't really attract an enormous amount of attention right away, or indeed, for a very long time. The New York Times didn't mention "Neuromancer" for at least a dozen years after its publication. So by the time it had a reputation, I was, you know, a couple of books down the road.

HANSEN: How big of a computer geek are you?

Mr. GIBSON: I'm not much of computer geek at all. I just need to be able to, like, check a few dozen Web sites and then do my e-mails, or anything that refers to that, I get quite grumpy. Beyond that, I had, like, no idea what goes on inside the thing, like, what goes on all that stuff under the keyboard and behind the screen. It's meaningless to me. As long it's working and it's connected to the Internet, I'm a happy camper.

HANSEN: William Gibson, his new novel is called "Spook Country." It's published by Putnam. Thanks a lot for coming.

Mr. GIBSON: Thank you.

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