Sunday, June 30, 2013

Reflections on William Gibson's Distrust That Particular Flavor

On first contact I found William Gibson's fiction deeply frustrating. One reason for this was stylistic. (In the pieces with which I first came into contact, like the short story "Johnny Mnemonic," clarity and flow were sacrificed to the principle of showing as flashily as possible--and this was certainly one writer who could have told a good deal more than he did.) However, the content of his stories was also an issue. His Sprawl stories and novels seemed to touch on innumerable major issues, from the Cold War to corporate power to the widening gap between the classes, but he never really said anything about these things.

Gibson was, in short, a postmodernist. Since then I have increasingly thought of him--not just today's Gibson, but the Gibson we've always had--as a postmodernist first and a science fiction writer second, with Gibson's remarks in interviews reinforcing the impression.1 If anything, it has been reinforced yet again reading Distrust That Particular Flavor, the first ever collection of the small but noted body of nonfiction he has accumulated over the years.

As those who have made its acquaintance before know, Gibson is not a scholar or a journalist. Rather what he does in his nonfiction is offer reflections on a handful of experiences--particularly through pieces of travelogue (most of it Japan-set, though his feather-ruffling account of his famous visit to Singapore, "Disneyland With the Death Penalty," is included), and accounts of his contacts with various bits of information technology and media (like "William Gibson's Filmless Festival," in which he shares a number of movies shot on video with his daughter).

At their best, these pieces can be read as a collection of glittering bits, offering a razor-sharp insight in razor-sharp prose, and on occasion even engaging on a human level (as in his tribute to actor Takeshi Kitano, "The Baddest Dude on Earth"). At their worst they seem hopelessly self-indulgent, like "My Obsession," his piece about a period of addiction to shopping for mechanical watches on EBay (which Gibson himself admits went on way too long). Fortunately most pieces come closer to the former than the latter, and while in the end it was not all that I would have hoped for from Gibson's first nonfiction book once upon a time, I still found it a worthwhile read.

1. To put it bluntly, he always seemed to speak at length about trivia (like using EBay), rather than the Big Issues about which I always hoped he would say something.

My Posts on Cyberpunk
My Posts on Postmodernism
New and Noteworthy (Empress of Eternity, 2000 A.D., William Gibson)
New and Noteworthy (William Gibson and Raymond Chandler, Charles Stross, Cory Doctorow)

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