Sunday, January 05, 2003

Here we have more advance buzz on William Gibson's new novel Pattern Recognition , which I recently mentioned in passing here . A sample chapter can be found here, and another here. I recently reread Gibson's classic Sprawl novels, and a few months ago I wrote about how vital they still seemed to me. I had expected them to feel dated, but instead I found that Gibson had predicted the mood of today extremely well. Even if the details of the exact communication technologies were wrong, Gibson got the sense of disconnection in an increasingly globalised and omni-communicating world extremely right. Which is why it is interesting that his new novel is set in the present. He is not alone in this. Two of the other most famous "cyberpunk" novelists are Bruce Sterling and Neal Stephenson. It is debatable whether either of them have written anything recently that could be called cyberpunk, but the most recent novels of both have been essentially set in the present: Sterling's Zeitgeist , set in turn of the millenium Turkish Cyprus and the southern United States, and Stephenson's Cryptonomicon, set partly in the Second World War, and partly in what now feels like the dying days of the tech bubble. It is now no longer necessary to use a future setting for the types of things these guys want to write about. It is also no longer necessary to write fiction: Sterling seems to be spending more of his time on futurism and other non-fiction (although he continues to be the most prolific fiction writer of the three, so I am not complaining), and all three writers have spent at least some time on this. You have a tendency to find their bylines in Time or Fortune or The New York Times, too.

So we have the present setting. Also, though, we have the London setting. Fundamentally, Gibson's novels are about finding patterns, and connections, and details in an ever more technologically complex world, and finding structure in complexity of that world. And if you find this type of thing fascinating, there are certain places you go for the most complexity. London is one such place. Tokyo is another. (Gibson talks about both places in this article from the Observer). In both places you find the same obsession with detail, the same types of shops selling ultra-ultra-ultra niche products, that there is a need for a shop that sells them somewhere in the world, but probably only one or two. You find obscure and highly specialist service businesses. You find the height of globalization in both places. (My basic rule of thumb: the more globalized chain stores there are in a place, the more culturally complex the place. London and Tokyo have more global chains than any other cities anywhere. In some instances these are Japanese chains who have few non-Japan stores but many in London, and vice versa). You find the most advanced technological gadgets in both places. Both are media centers. Both seem to be major sources of the global Zeitgeist.

As for other cities, New York lacks the international aspects of London and Japan. Try to buy a German newspaper in New York, or even an English newspaper. (Yes it can be done, but it is hard). New York contains the best examples of particular mainstream stores in the world, but lacks the ultra-specialist quality of some in London or Tokyo. America as a country has more complexity than any other American city, and America has more complexity on average than any other country, but it is more homogeneous in the US. Somehow it lacks the peaks of intensity you can find elsewhere. Perhaps it is simply that America exports its culture to the world, so you can find the best of America in London, but the reverse is less true. Or perhaps it is that America is comparmentalised. New York is New York, Los Angeles exists as a source of the global Zeitgeist but has no other purpose, so its contribution to the Zeitgeist consists largely of movies containing explosions. San Francisco and surrounds is the American tech center, but again is too isolated from everything else. On the other hand, Hong Kong possibly is getting there. Here you have a tremendous mixing of culture from all of greater China, plus western and other Asian influences, being mixed together. You have a film and television industry for the Chinese world. And you have the industrial heartland of the world just down the road. This one is interesting, but perhaps hard for an anglophone to understand.

So somehow London appears one of the epicenters of the type of world Gibson is writing about. He understood this by the end of the Sprawl novels, hence the lengthy section in Mona Lisa Overdrive describing the daughter of a Japanese Yakuza boss wanderting around London which seemingly had little to do with the rest of the plot. And of course he got Japan from the beginning of Neuromancer. Now he has decided to write about London properly, and I can't wait to read the book.

No comments:

Blog Archive