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Cities in Fact and Fiction: An Interview with William Gibson

Author of the cyberpunk novel Neuromancer, William Gibson talks about the relationship between his fiction and the contemporary urban landscape



Illustration by Donato Giancola

The city looms large in the fiction of author William Gibson. In the September issue of Scientific American, Gibson's essay, "Life in the Meta-City," details how cities increase "the number and randomization of potential human and cultural contacts" and how they serve as "vast, multilayered engines of choice." Cities that cease to provide choice—or which try to overcontrol their denizens—lose their spark and sometimes perish. In the interview that follows, Gibson shares his perceptions about existing cities and their links to his fiction.

There is a well-known quote from you: "The future is already here—it's just not very evenly distributed." When you said that in 1999, were you thinking of cities, or perhaps certain cities? Do you think that is the case now to a lesser or greater extent?

It's a very scalable observation. We can see it from orbit, as electric light versus its absence. We can see it in the differences in infrastructure in various neighborhoods of a city. I can see it in my house, which was built in 1927 and is in process of having its original wiring replaced. We can see it in a human skeleton: where there's been a joint replaced, the future's arrived.

Your fiction has depicted wide class gulfs in which "lowlifes" co-exist with the rich and feudallike corporations that concentrate mind-boggling amounts of wealth. Can the "vast squatter conurbs" that you mention in your article in the September issue be seen as a symptom of such widening income disparities? If so, do you think that this disparity will continue to greater extremes as they develop further, and could they potentially restructure the current social order somehow?

I depict those socioeconomic gulfs because they exist and because most of the imagined futures I grew up with tended not to depict them. Migration to cities is now so powerful, so universal, that people will create cities, of sorts, simply through migration—cities that literally consist mainly of the people who inhabit them on a given day.

An early theme in your work was that "the street" finds uses for technology beyond what it was originally developed for. Do you see examples of this in places such as Rio, Mumbai, Nairobi, Istanbul, Mexico City?

In less-regulated environments, people may improvise a little more freely, but a perfect example of what I mean would be a detailed technical history of how British tabloids came to discover what could be done with the infrastructure of cellular telephony.

You have focused quite a bit on branding and marketing, particularly in your recent novels. The phrase "building one's brand" is used constantly today in common parlance. Do you think that the "Disneylanding" of major cities, as you call it, is part of the same phenomenon? Many people have talked about a revival for New York and other cities. But do you think these endeavors, often meant to attract tourists, undercut the vitality of these places?

It seems to me that they must, inevitably. Paris, as much as I love Paris, feels to me as though it's long since been "cooked." Its brand consists of what it is, and that can be embellished but not changed. A lack of availability of inexpensive shop-rentals is one very easily read warning sign of overcooking. I wish Manhattan condo towers could be required to have street frontage consisting of capsule micro-shops. The affordable retail slots would guarantee the rich folks upstairs interesting things to buy, interesting services, interesting food and drink, and constant market-driven turnover of same, while keeping the streetscape vital and allowing the city to do so many of the things cities do best. London, after the Olympic redo, will have fewer affordable retail slots, I imagine.

Do you think some of China's de novo cities—and some other built-from-scratch examples, such as Masdar in Abu Dhabi—have any chance of achieving the eclectic mix of people and experiences that foster the type of creative ferment needed to make a city thrive?

Necessity being one of invention's many mothers, I have a certain faith in our ability to repurpose almost anything, provided it becomes sufficiently necessary. Then again, I suspect we've abandoned cities in the past because they were too thoroughly built to do some specific something that's no longer required.

Has the pace of changing technology made the purpose or meaning of particular cities, or cities in general, different for new generations, or is their essential character as places of concentrated choice something that you think remains relatively constant?

The Internet, which I think of as a sort of meta-city, has made it possible for people who don't live in cities to master areas of expertise that previously required residence in a city, but I think it's still a faith in concentrated choice that drives migration to cities.

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