Thursday, June 28, 2007

William Gibson Cracks Me Up

William Gibson’s new novel, “Spook Country,” arrives in stores later this month. I’ve read it, but I’m unsure when, if or how I’ll review it. It’s good, but not a real ground-breaker like “Pattern Recognition.”

I really loved 2003’s “Pattern Recognition.” So much so that I was interviewed on NPR about it. Too bad we had to go and invade Iraq that week, thus delaying the segment’s airdate for months. You can hear me blather about Gibson here.

It’s taken me a long time to appreciate the author of “Neuromancer,” mostly because I’ve been too focused on the wrong elements of his fiction. The days of cyberpunk are long over, but Gibson has retooled his technique to embrace the absurdity of post-9/11 America. He’s consistently funny, but usually in a very understated way.

I never mutilate finished copies, but I cheerfully dog-ear galleys to mark notable passages. “Spook Country” has a lot of turned-down corners. Some of my favorite lines include:

On meeting an impressive old man:

Hollis thought he looked a little like William Burroughs, minus the bohemian substrate (or perhaps the methadone). Like someone who'd be invited quail shooting with the vice-president, though too careful to get himself shot.

On riding in a Zodiac:

This wasn't the Staten Island Ferry. He was bouncing along at some insane speed on something that reminded him of a creepy folding rubber bathtub he'd once seen Vladimir Nabokov proudly posing with in an old photograph.

On Gallic body language:

Odile shrugged, in that complexly French way that seemed to require a slightly different skeletal structure.

I once interviewed Gibson for The Chronicle and really enjoyed speaking with him and his co-author Bruce Sterling. They’re both scarily smart, but each was polite and charming, witty but not aggressively so. I’ve exhumed the review/interview from The Chronicle archives, if anyone’s interested.

By William Gibson and Bruce Sterling
Bantam Spectra; 429 pages; $19.95

During the 1980s, both William Gibson and Bruce Sterling shook up science fiction by inventing high-tech futures unlike anything readers had encountered before. With such novels as Gibson's "Neuromancer" and Sterling's "Islands in the Net," they dramatized the far-flung consequences of the Information Revolution.

In their new collaborative novel, "The Difference Engine," Gibson and Sterling take a decidedly different tack, reinventing Victorian England as a hotbed of cybernetics and industrial espionage. Extrapolating from the mostly forgotten work of mathematician Charles Babbage, who proposed building steam-driven computational machines in the early 1800s, they weave a complex narrative that involves a deadly search for a set of punched cards.

In an interview, Sterling and Gibson said that neither is sure who first saw in Babbage's "analytical engine" the germ of a novel.

"It's an interesting bit of historical trivia," said Sterling. "But then it occurred to us, "Hey, what if he'd actually built it?' This is one of your classic science fiction ideas, and when you get one like that, you need to do it justice."

In imagining a Britain where the computer revolution arrives a century and a half early, Sterling and Gibson twist history in surprising, yet eminently logical, ways. They play with the conventions of the Victorian novel and add references to the latest advances in paleontology, computer science and physics. Such eminent figures as Benjamin Disraeli, Keats and Byron make cameo appearances, but not in the manner one might expect.

It's a heady mix of fact and fancy, one that requires a certain sophistication to appreciate. Although it takes some of its inspiration from sensational potboilers of yore, "The Difference Engine" makes heavy demands on its readers. Sterling isn't kidding when he says, "This isn't a book you can eat like a Dorito."

The novel's structure is especially unnerving. It begins with a 70-page prologue about a prostitute and a shady public relations flack that seems to push the story in one direction. Most of the book follows dinosaur expert Edward (Leviathan) Mallory as he dodges secret agents in a London on the brink of anarchy. Finally, Mallory drops out of the picture completely, and the narrative becomes increasingly less linear and more impressionistic.

It's an audacious, infuriating stunt, which Gibson defends: "If we had structured the book along traditional literary lines, it could never have been as satisfying for us." Sterling agrees. "The whole last section, my favorite part of the book, is like a stew. . . . There's very little in the way of characterization and nothing in the way of coherent plot, but I think that section best captures the spirit of this book."

Readers may or may not concur. What annoys Sterling most are critics who imply that he and Gibson somehow "forgot" to give the book a conventional resolution.

"The Difference Engine" was published a few months ago in England, and Gibson had "a real fear that the British would say, "Give us a break! This doesn't sound remotely like us.' " Instead, the novel was well-received, and the publicity tour afforded the authors the chance to see how closely their imaginations matched reality.

They saw a real difference engine that, Gibson says, is "being built from Babbage's plan, using Victorian technology. We both sprang at it, and the woman who was its guardian said, "No! Not without white cotton gloves!' Which caused us both to collapse in shock . . . giggling."

The joke is that the characters in the book are similarly fussy about dirtying the fragile components of their steam computers. And indeed, it is in the small details that one derives the greatest pleasure in reading "The Difference Engine." While the main plot has its fair share of action and suspense, the novel, like the engine itself, captures the reader's interest mostly with glimpses into its intricate gearwork, rather than through the momentum of its large-scale effects.

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