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The Waterstones Interview: William Gibson

Posted on 24th January 2020 by Mark Skinner

In this exclusive interview, William Gibson discusses his latest novel Agency and its themes of dystopian corporatism and alternate realities. 

You were writing Agency during the 2016 American election and you’ve spoken about that being an important moment for you in the book’s development. How did the outcome and process of that election change how you went about approaching the direction of the novel? 

Originally titled Tulpagotchi, it had been envisioned as a satiric romp through Silicon Valley, “like an upbeat Thelma And Louise”, I told my publishers, set in 2017. The morning after Trump’s election, I saw that that 2017 no longer existed, and assumed I’d have to scrap the entire manuscript. Eventually, though, it occurred to me to wonder what might happen if Verity and Eunice were in fact in one of The Peripheral’s stub timelines.

The novel’s title gestures towards the way it digs into how much control and individual agency any of us have, either in our own lives or in the world at large. To what extent is the novel’s preoccupation with large, shadowy global networks – not just the traditional world powers – playing games with live and futures influenced by the way the world is manipulated today? 

It’s entirely influenced, indeed, is *about* that. 

I found the concept of the ‘stubs’ – or alternative past realities – in the book particularly fascinating as a way to explore a sort of time-travel with multiple different possible endings. It made me think about the sense of unreality that seems to go hand-in-hand with living in a post-truth world. To what extent do you think that sense that we’re all living in a reality that doesn’t feel quite real has been heightened in the last decade? 

I myself had never experienced any suspicion of that sort until Trump’s election, though the outcome of the Brexit referendum prefigured it, for me. 

At one point in the novel Verity’s mother comments to her about growing up in the threat of nuclear war and says ‘Later all of that felt unreal. But the feeling that things became basically ok turns out to have actually been what was unreal’. Do you think we’ve reached an important moment historically in terms of needing to entirely rethink how we define the parameters of what we call our reality? 

Given the way in which our reality is framed by anthropogenic climate change, I assume we are experiencing our species’ worst-ever reality. 

In the ‘stub’ where part of the novel takes place, there are major political and ideological differences in America and the UK from our current present and yet the global picture is coloured by impending apocalyptic disaster. In the past you’ve been quoted as saying, “the future’s already here – it’s just not very evenly distributed”. Do you think we’re too apt to focus on the local picture of domestic politics and perhaps overlook the global overarching changes and threats to our world and way of life? Does Agency reflect that? 

I do, both in the sense that in a stub where Clinton won and Brexit was voted down, we see that people still haven’t much reason to feel particularly secure, given the framing narrative of climate change. 

As a writer who is so familiar with writing about alternate realities and futures, does it feel different to be contemplating those ideas now from the way it did when you first started thinking and writing about them? 

It does, though some of that must simply be the result of my being forty years older now! 

As a reader, I found myself completely drawn in by the character of Eunice, an AI, and the development of her relationship with her human counterpart Verity, the so-called ‘app whisperer’ hired to verify her. How do you go about writing non-human characters? Did you find yourself approaching Eunice differently to the other ‘people’ in the book? 

As “human-AI hybrid” she’s at once human and something else, but that sort of character is far from unfamiliar in my work. 

This novel sees you return to characters and scenarios familiar from your novel The Peripheral, in particular Wilf Netherton. Wilf is somewhat changed in this novel and it struck me that his new role as a father is significant in changing his perspective. To what extent did you want to give Netherton a new reason to reflect differently on the problems of the past and the potential threats of the future? 

In my early work, characters were no more likely to have parents that children. I see Wilf’s new role as a natural progression from that. 

Alongside the serious themes of the novel, some of the things I loved about Agency, were the quirkier, more bizarre developments of the future – like Thomas’s nanny, transforming into rolling pandas. Is that part of the draw for you, writing in a world that allows for such imaginative, fun and playful invention?

It’s certainly a nice break from the grimmer thematics, for me, and I hope for the reader as well! 

Your writing is hugely influential, who are the current writers whose work excites you and that you look forward to reading? 

In no particular order, these come to mind: 

Gary Shteyngart

N.K. Jemisin

John Harrison

Annalee Newitz

Hari Kunzru

Paul MaCauley

Ned Beauman

Lev Grossman

Christopher Brown

 

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