MAY 5, 2012
“The future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed.”
— William Gibson
I NEED TO BEGIN with a confession: I was a late arrival to the cyberpunk party. I wish I could say that, as an avid fan of Nineteen-Eighty-Four (1949), I was keeping my eye out in that year that Orwell made famous to see if some important new dystopian novel would appear. But I really wasn’t doing anything of the kind. Deeply enmeshed in graduate work on Chinese history, I did not even notice the publication of William Gibson’s now world-famous first novel Neuromancer. In fact, I don’t think I read a single word by Gibson during that whole decade. And I have to admit further that, when I finally did first encounter his prose in the early 1990s, it was not by reading a novel or essay, but rather a book cover blurb, the one he wrote praising Mike Davis’s City of Quartz as “more cyberpunk than any work of fiction could ever be.”
Several years later, I read Gibson’s Wired essay on Singapore, a piece that shows, as indeed did his comments on City of Quartz, that urban centers of the Pacific Rim have always offered him a vision — half-alluring, half-cautionary — of our high-tech future. A few years after reading that Wired essay, with its wonderful reference to Singapore as “Disneyland with the death penalty,” I finally read one of his novels. That novel was The Difference Engine, a fascinating steampunk extravaganza that Gibson co-wrote with Bruce Sterling in 1990. The action of that novel is set in Victorian London, back when it was widely regarded as among the most futuristic places on earth. The Difference Engine made me a fan of Gibson as well as of Sterling, and my enjoyment of their writing, plus a recommendation from my computer-savvy son, led me also to Neal Stephenson, whose novels Snow Crash (1992) and The Diamond Age (1995) are, not coincidentally I think, both set in futuristic cites perched on the edge of the Pacific — Los Angeles and Shanghai, respectively.
Still, it was not until I read Distrust that Particular Flavor, Gibson’s first collection of nonfiction writing, that I finally picked up Neuromancer, the book often credited with launching cyberpunk as a distinctive genre. I continue to kick myself for deferring its pleasures so long. And yet, in a way, I’m glad that I ended up reading it when it did. For placing Distrust and Neuromancer side-by-side has helped bring into focus my thinking on three subjects: the ties between travel writing and futuristic fiction, a shift over time from an Atlantic to a Pacific orientation in ruminations on utopian and dystopian urban possibilities, and the links between the writings of Jules Verne and those of some of the leading lights of cyberpunk.
If I had read Neuromancer in 1984, for example, I might not have thought much about the fact that a district named after Jules Verne figures centrally in the novel. Nor would I have necessarily paid much attention to the fact that the first scenes in the book take place in not just any high-tech city of the future, but one that is unmistakably Japanese. Both of those things leaped out at me after reading Distrust. Verne is not mentioned in Gibson’s latest book, but in a sense he haunts it. Throughout Distrust, Gibson is critical of all past writing and current thinking about the future that fails to appreciate the strange and magical qualities of present-day gadgets and modes of life. Verne never made that mistake. And, like Gibson, he rarely felt he needed to venture far from the present when writing in a futuristic mode.
As for Neuromancer’s plot beginning in Japan, where some of the most memorable action in more recent Gibson books such as Pattern Recognition (2003) is also set, Distrust tells us very clearly why we should take note of this. One of the new book’s recurring themes is that Japan has been and continues to be for Gibson what the United States was for Verne — a country that those who want to get a sense of the terrors and pleasures tomorrow holds in store need to keep firmly in their sights. Distrust highlights the futuristic potential of other Pacific cities: Gibson’s classic Wired essay on Singapore is reprinted in it, for example, as is a short piece he wrote to accompany a collection of eerie photographs of contemporary Shanghai, in which he says that, while he had never been to that metropolis, images of it reminded him of the urban landscapes contained in his fiction. But Tokyo seems to be his main geographical muse.
One chapter that showcases this theme is “Modern Boys and Mobile Girls,” which was first published in The Observer in 2001. Gibson begins this essay by saying that people had been asking him for “the past 20 years or so,” why he had set so much of his fiction in Japan. The answer, he says, is simple: “Japan is the global imagination’s default setting for the future,” a place where people “seem to the rest of us to live several measurable clicks down the time line,” where one encounters things that are not yet but soon will be found in Western urban centers. This struck a chord with me immediately for a trivial reason. Around the time Gibson was writing, I was impressed during a short trip to Japan by the seemingly futuristic machines in restrooms that instantly dried just-washed hands by blasting air at them from both sides. I now hardly give a thought to these gadgets when I encounter them in American airports.
Gibson himself offers a more poetic illustration of this idea with his sketch of the “Mobile Girl,” a sociological type — “ubiquitous” on Tokyo’s streets — that is brought to life with a novelist’s flair. In 2001, his Western readers would likely have found everything about her exotic, things done by someone from another time and place; reading about her in 2012, however, some aspects of her behavior seem neither of those things. It is no longer only in Japan, after all, that we might run across a schoolgirl “busily, constantly messaging on her mobile phone … treating a secondary feature (text messaging) … of the cellular telephone” as its main purpose.
Who are the “Modern Boys” in Gibson’s piece? They are the “bright young noblemen” Japan sent off to England in the 1860s, where they found fascinating and futuristic the London that Verne brought to realistic life in Around the World in Eighty Days (1873) and that Gibson and Sterling re-imagined and tweaked in The Difference Engine. These “young men returned,” Gibson writes, “bearing word of an alien technological culture they must have found as marvelous, as disconcerting, as we might find the products of reverse-engineered Roswell space junk.”
The same themes are revisited in “My Own Private Tokyo,” which originally appeared in Wired and is reprinted, with a very revealing postscript, in Distrust. Here is the bracing beginning to the piece, my favorite in the book:
I wish I had a thousand-yen note for every journalist who, over the past decade, has asked me whether Japan is still as futurologically sexy as it seemed to be in the ’80s. If I did, I’d take one of those spotlessly lace-upholstered taxis over to the Ginza and buy my wife a small box of the most expensive Belgian chocolates in the universe.
Then, after riffing on dining in “a plastic-draped gypsy noodle stall in Shinjuku, the classic cliché better-than-Blade Runner Tokyo street set,” and checking out every detail of a nearby diner’s “complexly curvilinear, totally ephemeral looking” phone, with an attached “rosary-like anticancer charm” that the user believed, like many locals, “delfects microwaves,” Gibson sums up Tokyo’s appeal: it has been, for the novelist in him, “my handiest prop shop.” This is because one “can see more chronological strata of futuristic design in a Tokyo streetscape than anywhere else in the world.” He compares looking at the urban landscape to viewing a science-fiction-inflected palimpsest, a location where there are “successive layers of Tomorrowlands, older ones showing through when the newer ones start to peel.”
Distrust includes still other chapters referencing or devoted to Japan, especially its capital city, which revisit the theme of their futuristic qualities. There is, for example, “Tokyo Hands,” the most resonant part of which is a riff on the city’s vending machines, which Gibson describes as constituting a “secret city of solitude” of a distinctive kind. So much can be bought from them, he writes, that one could “spend entire days in Tokyo without having to make contact with another sentient being.” I am still waiting to see if some of my experiences with Tokyo vending machines, such as being able to buy a late-night beer from one in a hotel I stayed in very early in the 21st century, will end up feeling as commonplace a part of American life as those high-tech hand dryers.
Gibson makes it plain that he does not consider those essays on Japan to be still interesting but essentially outdated period pieces. He is clearly ready to double down on the notion that Tokyo remains a futuristic locale. In the postscript to “Mobile Girls, Modern Boys,” he writes about why Japan “fascinates” him (note the present tense). And when he mentions that he saw his first fax machine there, he suggests that a visitor of today should always be ready to see novelties. “Thus,” he says, “is the future distributed” — again, present tense, not past.
A good book about travel, which is largely what Distrust is, often leaves the reader eager to see the places described, whether for the first time or to look at them with fresh eyes. Not surprisingly, then, when I finished the book, I found myself eager to get back to Tokyo, which I’ve only spent time in once. There is another common reaction, however, to reading a compelling work on journeys: you start wishing the author would visit and write about some place where you have gone but the writer has not. In my case, since the piece on Shanghai in Distrust refers to his not having made it to that metropolis, I found myself looking forward to the day when Gibson would write a firsthand account of time spent there. The reason is simple: it is the city that has been the main muse for my forays into historical narrative — which Gibson refers to here as “that other form of speculative fiction” — and the place where I have felt most like a time traveler moving into a different era. There is a radical difference, however, between my Shanghai sojourns and Gibson’s Tokyo ones: we began going to the Asian cities that fascinate us most about the same time, but when I made my first trips to Shanghai, it was like moving into the past. It has only been on recent visits that I feel as if the things I’m seeing offer a window onto the future.
If an editor from Wired is reading this, please commission William Gibson to write about Shanghai. How I would love to see what he makes of that city’s straight-out-of-Tomorrowland, fastest-on-earth magnetic levitation train, and of restaurants where China’s Modern Girls and Mobile Boys rapidly text reviews of the meals they are eating to the Yelp-two-clicks-down-the-line cyber-service that rates not only restaurants but individual dishes in them, is updated instantly, and gets exponentially more use than its American counterpart. That may be too much to ask, however, since — after Singapore — Gibson may perhaps have had enough of theme parks with the death penalty.