“Distrust That Particular Flavor” by William Gibson (Putnam, 272 pages, $26.95)
Ever since he coined the term “cyberspace” in 1981, speculative-fiction writer William Gibson has been a go-to guy for people looking to get a jump on where technology is taking world culture.
Turns out being the go-to guy makes for a busy schedule. In addition to his 10 novels — the longer he writes, the closer his stories get to the present — Gibson has been a recurring contributor to magazines, spoken at publishing events and written introductions to and reviews of books he’s admired.
While he doesn’t always spew forth wisdom, Gibson is usually interesting. Which makes “Distrust That Particular Flavor,” a new collection of some of those nonfiction writings, a breezy, engaging read.
Among other things, “Distrust” shows that Gibson isn’t your stereotypical sci-fi guy. Topics range from Japanese culture to the joys of urban life to his pop-music passions (Steely Dan, Moby Grape’s Skip Spence). Sometimes he makes sweeping insights; more often, he’s still working out his reactions to what he’s experiencing — but in a tone that never equivocates.
In 1993, for example, Wired magazine sent Gibson to Singapore to get a read on the Asian economic powerhouse. The lengthy article that resulted, “Disneyland With the Death Penalty,” paints the picture of a country as “micromanaged by a state that has the look and feel of a very large corporation” — a nation which had ambitious technological goals but whose chief creative outlets appeared to be shopping and eating. Singapore, Gibson notes, responded to the article by banning the import of Wired magazine.
Unlike many collections of publishing ephemera from great/influential writers, “Distrust” includes at the end of each entry updates, clarifications or second thoughts from Gibson. Those postscripts underscore what makes Gibson so interesting to follow. In each case, he acknowledges his own limitations at the time he wrote the essay, and then briefly discusses how the thinking and ideas in it have played out since, both in real life and in his fiction.
A haunting piece on New York City, written for the Globe and Mail shortly after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, is followed by a note from Gibson explaining that the writing of the article for the Toronto newspaper helped him decide to continue writing the novel he had just started, with a character whose roots were firmly in the Big Apple. Gibson’s straightforward discussion of his thinking at the time gives both the essay and the novel he later wrote — 2003’s “Pattern Recognition” — an added dimension.
“Distrust” might be better for readers already plugged into Gibson’s evolving fictional worlds. If he’s new territory for you, a better introduction might be Gibson’s Twitter feed GreatDismal https://twitter.com/greatdismal), a smart, curiosity-powered series of posts and retweets mixing the author’s passions (Japanese pop culture, great writing, democracy movements, Vancouver food trucks).
Like “Distrust,” Gibson’s Twitter feed will take you to a lot of places you might not have realized you were interested in till he took you there.