William Gibson and John Mitchell: Worlds of Past and Future

William Gibson and John Mitchell: Worlds of Past and Future

(Words and pictures by Brendan Adam Zwelling; John Mitchell, left, William Gibson, right.)

This week at the Harborfront Centre’s International Festival of Authors two major writers with new novels were featured under the live reading spotlight before a full house at the Fleck Dance Theatre. William Gibson, icon of thinking-man’s sci-fi, was there with Zero History, the third title in a contemporary series about the often-scary new frontiers of culture, consumerism, and technology. David Mitchell, four of whose five books have been either long or short-listed for the Man-Booker Prize, arrived with The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, set in a 18th-century western commercial enclave in Japan near the end of the country’s isolationist era.

Gibson was first to read, selecting a zeitgeist-checking passage which he unfurled at a gentle pace reminiscent of Garrison Keillor (if Lake Wobegon were an anxious metropolis), sketching out a tense meeting between an agent of the surveillance state and one of its bewildered targets like a baseball commentator’s dramatization of an interrogation transcript. Mitchell followed, but not from his book; instead he brought to the podium an unfinished short story which he introduced as “science fiction but with a streak of folk tale and social realism—you have to think of Gordon Lightfoot guesting with Rush singing a song by The Smiths.” Occasionally pausing to make spontaneous corrections to his manuscript, Mitchell reeled off a sardonically bleak portrait of a Mad Maxian Britain in 2033 having been reshaped by some kind of limited Third World War. Read with actorly passion and a trace of performance art, it was like a chanced-upon late night radio play.

The discussion afterwards, facilitated by the Space Channel’s Mark Askwith, was wide-ranging. Among the themes were the selection of settings (Gibson: “There are no taggers in Plato’s Republic”), upcoming works (Mitchell: “I’m researching the Apollo project—here’s a nice little techno fact: it’s now impossible to buy a mobile phone that has less computing power than the entire Apollo project”) and current fascinations (Gibson: “I’ve happened upon extraordinarily odd scenes where someone’s up at three in the morning in Vancouver playing Grand Theft Auto [online] with a bunch of Australians”).

Acknowledging the freedom of writing from the speculative end of the chronological spectrum, Gibson described his technique as “a kind of sleight-of-hand in what you present to the reader, what you don’t present and the parameters you allow the reader to project within.” It’s a matter of establishing boundaries—various things you can work with as you attempt to make a place for the reader to have an experience that won’t be jarred by having something out of place.” Mitchell added that those boundaries are basically preset by history in his case, but therein have their own narrative challenges where he finds himself needing to account for endless details both large and small, from what money was worth to how people fastened their clothes. “When you make it up, it’s hard to be wrong,” he pointed out.

The effect of technology, particularly Google, on their careers stood out. “When I wrote Neuromancer,” Gibson recalled, “I used all sorts of what I thought were delightfully obscure references that nobody would ever get, except possibly some crazed grad student in the basement of a university library in the distant year 2010. But now all texts are Google-able.” Every book has essentially become a collection of hyperlinks, in his view. And he finds himself in the surreal position of encountering a functioning Twitter account for the fictional Gabriel Hounds designer clothing line from Zero History.

Mitchell’s experience with writing historical fiction has only been enhanced by the search engine. “Fifteen years ago it would’ve taken me Lord knows how many weeks and boxes of chocolate presented to librarians to discover if shaving cream had been invented in 1779, and if it was, could a lower-middle class clerk have afforded it,” he said. “Whereas now it takes me literally five minutes or so, and I usually get distracted on the way anyhow.”

For ticket information and a full IFoA schedule go here.