Book #11 for 2012: Distrust That Particular Flavor by William Gibson
I have never read a complete novel by William Gibson. I suspect many people will react to that statement with a simple “So what?”, but a small subset will wonder why I would dare make such an admission in public. Have I no shame?
Gibson, when he arrived as a science fiction writer in the early 1980s, brought to the field a fusion of the traditional science fiction that he’d read when quite young and the beat generation prose of writers like Jack Kerouac and William Burroughs that he had learned to love in his adolescence. In his 30s, Gibson became part of a small group of writers who developed a form of science fiction known as cyberpunk (Gibson himself coined the term “cyberspace”) and in so doing actually succeeded in making science fiction hip. The main point of cyberpunk was to remove modern electronic technology from the hands of geeks and office workers and take it, as the Doobie Brothers once said, to the streets. If the future was going to be about computers in all their possible forms, what forms would they take when they reached the fringier elements of society?
Why I’ve never been able to read an entire Gibson novel has never been quite clear to me. I actually made it halfway through his first one, Neuromancer, when it came out in the mid-80s and then simply didn’t pick it up again. I’ve started a couple of others with pretty much the same results. Yet I still want to read Gibson because I think the man is highly articulate, in touch with some important elements of the technological zeitgeist, and has some interesting things to say. So when I heard there was a collection of Gibson’s essays on the market, I knew I had to read it.
The problem is that Gibson isn’t really an essayist per se. He’s a fiction writer who gets asked by certain publications (often Wired) to write essays or who just writes random pieces of nonfiction to fill spaces where brief bursts of nonfiction are needed, like the introductions to books or as filler pieces in special issues of Time. Distrust That Particular Flavor is a collection of these random pieces and it’s about as mixed a bag of nonfiction writing as one could assemble without leaving the print medium altogether. I suspect if Gibson had ever written copy for the back of cereal box packages it would have been included in this collection, but fortunately he never has.
Some of the pieces collected in Distrust That Particular Flavor are brilliant, and it probably won’t shock anyone if I say that these tend to be the ones that I agree the most with. Gibson is often at his sharpest when writing about the contemporary world as though it were an environment out of a science fiction story. Gibson realizes, as many science fiction writers do, that most science fiction really isn’t about the future. It’s about aspects of the present that the majority of people simply haven’t noticed yet. Much of Gibson’s sf flows out of contemporary Japanese culture and he writes about Japan quite a bit in this book, maybe a little too much, but Gibson sees Japan as the cutting edge of modern pop culture and on that point I suspect he’s right. (Just as pop culture in the latter half of the 20th Century tended to flow out of Southern California and into the rest of the U.S., pop culture in the 21st Century tends to flow out of Japan and into the rest of the world.)
A lot of the pieces in this book suffer from being divorced from the contexts in which they were originally published. An introduction that Gibson wrote for a book of photographs of Tokyo, for instance, would be a lot more interesting if it had been accompanied by even one of the photographs it discusses. And discussions of things like Japanese crime films will probably only be of interest to a small but no doubt passionate cult of readers. (Since Gibson has always been something of a cult writer anyway, I suppose that won’t represent a problem to much of the book’s readership.)
Where Gibson really endeared himself to me, though, was in a short piece on Steely Dan’s album Two Against Nature, written for…well, I’m sure it says somewhere in here who he wrote it for, but I’m too lazy to go find it. It’s clear from this fragment (it’s too short to call an essay and Gibson himself admits that it’s not a review) that Gibson feels about Steely Dan almost exactly the same way that I do, which is to say that they exist outside anything that contemporary music ordinarily offers and are seriously warped in a way that people listening to them don’t always seem to recognize but that precisely matches the way that a few of us listening to them are warped. I’m willing to make another attempt to read Gibson’s fiction just because he claims to have “always maintained that Steely Dan’s music was, has been, and remains among the most genuinely subversive oeuvres in late-twentieth-century pop.” Yes, it is, and if Gibson can do anything as genuinely subversive in fiction at as high a level as Walter Becker and Donald Fagen do it in music, then I owe it to him, and to myself, to read it.