Cyberpunk Fortean William Gibson
“I’m Totally a Fortean!”
“It’s always a pleasure to return to Austin, which in some weird way was definitely the epicenter of my literary career, such as it’s been.”
On Thursday, September 6th, I had the pleasure of finally seeing William Gibson in-the-flesh. Despite his being sick with a cold (he offered to infect any attendees with it who might’ve had such a Cronenbergian desire) Gibson read an interesting piece from his new book, Distrust That Particular Flavor, and regaled the audience with his observations on a few subjects including fashion.
It’s weird, really weird reading any of this stuff because I never read any of it before. I never read it to an audience. These were written for magazine publication. The weirdest of these, I think, the one that is most mysterious to me is an essay called Dead Man Sings that I wrote in 1998 for ASAP, which is a Forbes magazine giveaway or something. … they got in touch with me and said ‘we’d like you to write something’ and I said ‘what’ and they said ‘it doesn’t matter … [write] what you feel like.’ I’d never really gotten that before … so I really took it to heart and I sat down and sort of channeled this thing I’m about to read you and with no idea where it was coming from or really what it was about. I realized, when I was going through all these pieces, this is the one I’ve gone back to more in my writing and as sometimes happens, I think that this thing which I wrote without understanding – I wrote it in a weird kind of trance – because it didn’t matter and it had given me permission to say whatever I wanted to say, which I had never had before in non-fiction. … So this thing just came out, what I’m about to read to you, and its probably the one thing in this book that I discovered more in, over the years, since I wrote it, I suspect in some way its been the program for a lot of the fiction I’ve written since.
The essay Dead Man Sings (published as “Dead Man Speaks“ apparently) that Gibson read for us that evening is certainly evocative of much of what makes Gibson’s writings so telling and important. They grapple with the effects of technology on our culture and our experiencing of memory and history. It reminded me of a video I’d recently seen of him (filmed many years ago inside a moving car) in which he reflects on one of the details he mentioned in the essay, that is the invention of the sound recording and that period of time when there were still humans (backwoods Appalachian Americans in his example) who were being recorded for the first time and the fundamental difference (to his hears) of those recordings to everything since.
We live in, have lived through, a strange time. I know this because when I was a child the flow of forgetting was relatively unimpeded. I know this because the dead were less of a constant presence, then. Because there was once no rewind button. Because the soldiers dying in the Somme were black and white, and did not run as the living run. Because the world’s attic was still untidy. Because there were old men in the mountain valleys of my Virginia childhood who remembered a time before recorded music.
After the reading (and towards the end of his face-time with us and before beginning the autographing line) there was an opening for me to ask him a question that had been on my mind for a while… But before I asked the question I wanted to show my sincere feelings for the words he’d written a couple of years ago when he posted the following to his twitter feed:
“Very sad to learn of the death of @mactonnies. Whip-smart young Fortean surrealist dudes are too thin on the ground to begin with.”
As I began expressing my thanks the look on his face gave me the impression that he hadn’t understood what I was saying – perhaps it was just the idea of someone thanking him for a “tweet” (let alone one from three years ago) that struck him as odd. Once I’d shifted my comment to a question he gave a not surprising to me reply which I’m happy to add to the public record:
SMiles Lewis: I’d like to thank you for your 2009 tweet which consisted of kind words on the passing of Mac Tonnies. There’s things in your book Pattern Recognition and other books that make me ask this question: Are you now or have you ever been a Fortean?
William Gibson: Oh, I’m totally a Fortean! I’ve been a Fortean since I was… actually I’d have to find out. I’ve been a Fortean ever since Ace Books republished Charles Fort’s three great weird philosophical books about strange shit that he’d found in old old newspapers. And I continue to be … That’s Charles Fort for those of you who don’t know him. If you wanna have a really strange experience go find The Book of the Damned by Charles Fort which was published in the 1920s and has two sequels. It’s kind of the mother of all X-Files stuff.