The rule of exceptions

“William Gibson is a science fiction writer, so is this science fiction? The answer is yes and no. Unlike Vonnegut, who goes to some pains to say he’s not writing science fiction even when he is, Gibson never shies from the label, even though he’s perfectly aware it’s not so simple a tag as it once was. Pattern Recognition is set in the present with no aliens or secret technologies. The plot turns on nothing more exotic technologically than chat rooms and posted film clips in a very recognizable Internet. Recently, Neal Stephenson’s Cryptomonicon, as fat as Pattern Recognition is lean, was largely treated as a science fiction novel by reviewers, bookdealers, and readers, even nominated for sf awards, though the main action involves the breaking of the Enigma code of World War II and isn’t science fiction in the usual sense. China Mieville’s Perdido Street Station, on another end of the spectrum, seems science fictional even though it takes place in a Dickensian steampunk world with no connection to ours.

“Science fiction, in effect, has become a narrative strategy, a way of approaching story, in which not only characters must be invented, but the world and its ways as well, without resorting to magic or the supernatural, where the fantasy folks work. A realist wrestling with the woes of the middle class can leave the world out of it by and large except for an occasional swipe at the shallowness of suburbia. A science fiction writer must invent the world where the story takes place, often from the ground up, a process usually called world-building. In other words, in a science fiction novel, the world itself is a distinctive and crucial character in the plot, without whom the story could not take place, whether it’s the world of Dune or Neuromancer or 1984. The world is the story as much as the story is in the world. Part of Gibson’s point (and Stephenson’s too for that matter) is that we live in a time of such accelerated change and layered realities, that we’re all in that boat, like it or not. A novel set in the “real world” now has to answer the question, “Which one?”

Review | Pattern Recognition, by William Gibson by Dennis Danvers, Blackbird Archive


“One of the things I like about doing book tours is that I get to find out what I’ve been writing about — after a week or so, themes start to emerge. So far the interviewers have been focusing on ‘Is Spook Country science fiction?’ and do I think the present is scary?

“The 21st century is weird, man! I got there by the slow time machine, living my way to it. In a world like this, what constitutes the mundane? None of this is very mundane anymore, because it’s all touched by this kind of multiplex weirdness. We’re here, and it’s weirder than anything I’ve ever read in science fiction, except Brunner’s The Sheep Look Up and Stand on Zanzibar. That’s the closest thing to a prediction of where we are that I can think of. Brunner found a way to have all the overlapping science fiction scenarios of a world like the world where we live in one book. (He borrowed the technique from Dos Passos, but that’s good.) But if you had gone to a publisher in 1981 and pitched a science fiction novel where there’s this disease called AIDS and there’s global warming and this list of 20 other contemporary things, they would have called security!”

Interview with William Gibson – Scifirama

Image: Stephanie Valentin, Threshold, 2009.


3 thoughts on “The rule of exceptions

  1. I love this line: A novel set in the “real world” now has to answer the question, “Which one?”

    I wish I could find the quotation, but I could swear that one of my favourite authors in an interview somewhere pointed out that as history has sped up, Science Fiction has gotten closer and closer to being in the present. I.e. in 1968 they’re talking about 2001 but by the time the 1980s rolls around they’re still pretty much talking about 2001. And then in Pattern Recognition, it’s STILL 2001.

    I like Neale Stephenson’s trick of calling it “SF” which can be “Science Fiction” or Speculative Fiction” (talk here.

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