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William Gibson stays rooted in reality to write futuristic fiction

Novelist William GibsonMichael O'Shea (custom credit)/Michael O'Shea

Novelist William Gibson looks to the recent past to see what the future holds in his newest science fiction thriller, “Agency.” Gibson, who is credited with coining the term “cyberspace” in an early work, has long been a dominant force in contemporary science fiction and, as he does in this novel, imagines the darker sides of what technology may hold for us and our future. The 71-year-old author grew up in Virginia, but has lived in Vancouver, Canada, for nearly 50 years.

BOOKS: What are you reading?

GIBSON: I’m emerging from a state that I get into when I’m working on a novel. I can’t read fiction then. That’s not problematic if the novel takes a year or so, but this one took four years. I’ve wound up far behind. I’m still not able to do it. Any day now I’ll open Colson Whitehead’s “The Nickel Boys,” which is at the top of my stack.

BOOKS: What are some of the other highlights in your stack?


GIBSON: This is super embarrassingly far behind. “White Tears” by Hari Kunzru, a writer whose work I really admire. And something else that really intrigues me, Max Barry’s “Providence.” The first couple of pages look like what we used to call super hard science fiction (which is concerned with scientific accuracy). It opens with astronauts in space suits encountering an alien life form. I tend to get my science fiction vitamins from people who are working outside of the genre, like Annalee Newitz.

BOOKS: Can you read nonfiction when you are working on a novel?

GIBSON: I can. The last one that I found utterly fascinating, particularly in light of the dire newsfeed, is “Outbreak!: The Encyclopedia of Extraordinary Social Behavior,” by Hilary Evans and Robert E. Bartholomew. They assembled this whopping thick encyclopedia of every big, crazy, obsessive crowd thing that has ever happened. Reading about those at this time in our history makes me even more convinced that we are in the midst of delusional mass crowd behavior.


BOOKS: How would you describe your taste in fiction?

GIBSON: I don’t really have any meta genre of Bill-reads. It’s just wide open. I don’t know why I do it but I keep going back to an early Cormac McCarthy, “The Orchard Keeper.”

BOOKS: When did you discover science fiction?

GIBSON: When I was 12 or 13. The big three authors then were Robert Heinlein, Ray Bradbury, and Isaac Asimov. I got very into Bradbury, not so much into Heinlein, and Asimov never worked for me. By the time I was in my mid-20 I finally got around to some higher education as an English major at the University of British Columbia. It changed how I looked at science fiction. I learned that I loved science fiction where people had lives and there were naturalistic details.

BOOKS: Who were some of the writers who were using naturalistic detail then?

GIBSON: They aren’t names people know now. Alfred Bester, Fritz Leiber Jr., Theodore Sturgeon.

BOOKS: Do you prefer eBooks or physical books?

GIBSON: I’ve never had a Kindle or Kindle-like device. One thing about paper books is that the carbon footprint is problematic. You have to make them out of trees and then ship them all over the place. People will start complaining about that. That would make me very sad, but the reason people would insist on that makes me very sad as well.


BOOKS: What are some of your reading habits?

GIBSON: Those are really completely dependent on the text. One of the most perfect, seamless novel-reading experiences I ever had was getting in a cab for the airport to get a flight to Berlin with a copy of McCarthy’s “Blood Meridian.” I finished it in this unbroken read in my hotel room in Berlin, which is a city I hadn’t paid any attention to from the airport to the hotel room because I was reading. That was how hard the book grabbed me. I always think of that when people say they need this perfect situation to become engrossed with a book. If a book is going to get you it will get you.

Amy Sutherland is the author, most recently, of “Rescuing Penny Jane’’ and she can be reached at amysutherland@mac.com.