How William Gibson created a post-climate apocalypse London

His latest book Agency has only enhanced the author's reputation as fiction's great soothsayer. But as Alice Vincent discovers, William Gibson is not entirely without hope.

William Gibson
Shot by Stuart Simpson for Penguin, February 2020

The UK has left the European Union. Data is causing political turmoil in the US primaries. The world is gripped by fear over the emergence of the Corona virus. On the morning I meet sci-fi author-turned-social prophet William Gibson, these are the headlines – and they align uncannily with subplots of his latest novel, Agency.

Gibson has been deemed something of a soothsayer since the release of his 1984 debut Neuromancer, largely thanks to his ability to 'predict' aspects of the near-future that have subsequently come to pass. His latest, Agency, entangles the plotlines of two different eras: that of 2136 – a dystopian and grimly believable future of the world as we know it – and an alternative 2017, in which neither Vote Leave nor Donald Trump win their respective votes. 

Between these two eras a thriller unfolds with the assistance of bots, wearable tech and friendly billionaires. But Agency also begs us to posit 'What Ifs' on every scale, from the international to the domestic. As one of his 2136 characters asks the book alternative 2017 world: 'Are people happier there? Happier than they were here, then?' To which Gibson’s antihero Wilf Netherton replies: 'I gather they aren’t, particularly.'

'One of the things I’ve worried about writing this book is that I don’t want to depress anyone,' Gibson tells me, perched on an orange bar stool. He hardly passes for a doom-monger. Gibson is tall - 6’5” officially, although a little shorter with stoop – and wiry. Eyes the colour of familiar tech logos (Facebook, Twitter, Safari) peer through his quietly complicated glasses. 

'There are things I didn't predict - Tinder for one.'

Those familiar with his books will know Gibson’s habit of introducing characters through their clothes, and he dresses both considerably younger than his 71 years and with panache. His paddock boots – impeccable – were made semi-bespoke in Northampton and shipped to New York, where he bought them 'for more than they should cost'; I spy an artisanal denim shirt collar. Throughout our conversation, he rustles about in the kind of fancy anorak enjoyed by San Francisco start-up bros. 

He’s been in the UK for a little over 24 hours when we meet. Is this the post-Brexit Britain he imagined? 'Well, it doesn’t look any different,' Gibson replies. 'But I feel as though I’m now seeing it in a different context. I wonder if this Britain will start to seem very different from the one I’ve known and loved since 1986.'

Half of Agency is set in London, in the cobbled mews of Fitzrovia and the warehouses of Dalston – surprising territory for a septuagenarian Vancouverite to know well. There are also parts of it trapped in an enforced nostalgia; a kind of super-sized, permanent Secret Cinema. The Cheapside of 2136, for instance, has been transformed into 'the most popular cosplay zone. Victorian. Visitors have to dress for it.' When we speak, he lets slip one little regret: 'In Agency, I wanted to get Carnaby Street cosplays. I would have liked to glimpse it but didn’t have time to properly build the set. Swinging Sixties.'

Gibson gives the impression of having witnessed a lot of history. As well as building worlds that span numerous eras, he has also scrutinised those he has lived in. It allows him to play them back to his reader, often within a cautionary framework. 

Take, for instance, The Jackpot, an apocalyptic collision of democratic breakdown, late-capitalist demise and climate catastrophe that results in the eradication of 80 per cent of humankind. 

The Jackpot was introduced in The Peripheral, Gibson’s 2014 novel to which Agency acts as both a prequel and a sequel. It was less of a rapid annihilation than a painfully slow one, as Netherton explains: 'No comets crashing, nothing you could really call a nuclear war. Just everything else, tangled in the changing climate: droughts, water shortages, crop failures, honeybees gone like they almost were now, collapse of other keystone species, every last alpha predator gone, antibiotics doing even less than they already did, diseases that were never quite the one big pandemic but big enough to be historic events in themselves. And all of it around people: how people were, how many of them there were, how they’d changed things just by being there.'

'I can faintly remember a world without plastic'

I remind Gibson of the headlines. They certainly feel quite, well, Jackpot-ty. 'The thing that I think people don’t immediately grasp about the Jackpot concept is that if it is happening, it’s been happening for a long time,' he says. 'I’ve gone back and looked at the span of my life in a different light, in light of the Jackpot. I can, faintly, remember a world in which there was almost no plastic.

'I remember my mother showing me a plastic letter opener that a brush salesman had given her, and she said, "This is made of plastic, it’s a new material, it doesn’t weigh anything. And you could break it, so be careful with it." It still exists in landfill somewhere, whether intact or in little pieces, because each of them would take like 2 million years to break down.

'The whole time we’ve been doing that we’ve been dumping this stuff in the ocean. Even if we didn’t have the climate going on, just what we’ve done with plastic over the course of my lifetime would be affecting life in the ocean in a very serious way.'

What Agency is horrifyingly good at pointing out is how, in the grand scheme of things, the current political turmoil we’re mired in is small fry. It’s chilling how that the only animals that appear in the book are extinct. Gibson’s adept at making this point, too. Even the other universe he creates, the one without Trump or Brexit, he says, 'would still be in deep trouble, because of the climate and the eight or 10 other factors.'

Gibson is used to reality presenting his fictional ideas back at him, like an obnoxious senior colleague in a meeting. There was an uncharacteristically long gap between The Peripheral and Agency (six years, where Gibson’s average is nearer 2.5) because Donald Trump was elected, and then, as he told The New Yorker, the US President 'started fucking with North Korea', thus making his fictionalised nuclear crisis appear comparatively feeble. 

When news of Cambridge Analytica’s involvement in the US election broke, Gibson went back to the drawing board again. 'This is very comical in a way,' he told the magazine, 'but still a huge problem.' Shortly after proof copies of Agency arrived with first readers, the conflict Gibson had originally invented – in Qamishli, Syria – came to pass, as bombs killed five and injured twenty-six in a terrorist attack on the area.

It makes the 'predictions' that Gibson has previously been held responsible for seem a little quaint. He is probably best known for conjuring the term 'cyberspace' with Neuromancer (although it appeared in one of his earlier short stories, too), nudging at the beginnings of what we would recognise as the internet. The book also created the 'cyberpunk' aesthetic, a collision of the tough visual rebellion of the Seventies and Eighties with the technological potential offered by the Nineties. 

Other things to have cropped up in Gibson novels first include San Francisco’s spiralling gentrification and Google Glass. If Agency is to be believed, those of us who survive the Jackpot will have phones implanted into our brains, raise our children with robots and breathe only with the aid of atmosphere-cleansing technology. It doesn’t seem so farfetched.

Gibson would rather point out how often he has got the future wrong than focus on the extent to which he got it right. 'People make a fuss of my having, as they say, "predicted cyberspace", but we didn’t actually get the cyberspace of Neuromancer, we scarcely got it at all.' He admits to failing to predict the rise of the smartphone as well as less 'sexy' but important developments like Uber, AirBnb and – of course - Tinder, not that he thinks swiping right would have made for much of a story: 'If you’d sat down and written a novel about online dating in the 1960s it would have been fantastically accurate and you wouldn’t have been able to get the book published because it would have been boring.' 

William Gibson
Shot by Stuart Simpson for Penguin, February 2020

Such omissions, Gibson says, are the very thing that give him hope. 'I comfort myself sometimes because I am someone who’s been given, all my life, to catastrophic thinking,' he says, adding 'rarely do the bad things I convinced myself were going to happen, happen. In fact, almost none of them ever happened.'

The Jackpot feels like it could be the exception. 'In this case, however, I’m not the one telling myself that there’s a problem,' he says. 'There are other, seemingly entirely pragmatic, much more scientifically literate people telling me that there’s a problem, and I can see that it’s not yet being brilliantly or effectively addressed.'

Gibson’s Twitter feed acts as a handy crib sheet for various Jackpot-ian problems. More than quarter of a million accounts follow him as @GreatDismal. There, he mostly retweets an effusive slew of pro-Democrat, pro-Remain political punditry, news videos about robots and brain-expanding nuggets from scientists, interrupted by what could be loosely termed 'cool stuff from Japan'. He admits to not reading everything he shares ('It’s more a case of "this might be interesting"'). Rather, it’s evidence of his research process, what he describes as a 'kind of constant cruising and browsing through things looking for the next thing that will make me feel as though, that it’s something that might become part of the future.'

Isn’t it all, I ask him, quite profoundly depressing? He tells me he takes positivity from 'being in the moment' – @GreatDismal is also known to share photos of Biggles, his preposterously fluffy cat, and photographs of wildlife in Vancouver’s Vanier Park, taken by his son Graeme. But Gibson also points out that sunny science fiction just doesn’t really work as well: 'Perhaps I’m wrong but when I find optimistic writers of science fiction in the year 2020, and read their optimistic scenarios for how things are going to go, I’m yet to find any very convincing ones.'

And there is the odd positive thing to be found in Agency. I was particularly cheered, for instance, to read that, in 2136, forests grow in the remnants of the London I live in today. There are certainly ideas that nudge at solutions to our current crises. Gibson may say he doesn’t want to depress his readers, but perhaps it’s more important that he make them aware. 'There’s something in me that wants to run the scenarios as pragmatically as I can because otherwise I’ll just be writing escapist fiction,' he says. 'These are just extraordinary times and we’ll just have to see.'

Some good news arrives with the announcement that Gibson intends to write another book: 'Having joined Agency with The Peripheral I think I have an unfinished sequence so there needs to be a third one.' He says it will fill in the century or so in which 21st-century London changed unrecognisably as it fell under the control of a wealthy uberclass. 'I’m not looking forward to having to write, what happened during the worst part of the Jackpot,' he caveats. Whether the news manages to keep up remains to be seen. 

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