BFI Days Of Fear & Wonder Sci-Fi Season – William Gibson Keynote Talk
Another earth-cycle, another BFI event – proceedings are suddenly starting to accelerate with the BFI’s science fiction season. In a moment of rare serendipity one of my favorite authors William Gibson has just published his novel The Peripheral and was in town as part of his global book tour, so naturally the BFI boffins recruited one of the worlds greatest and influential living speculative fiction authors to pop over to the Southbank and have a chat about his most cherished genre movies. Well, that was the plan on paper I guess, but this was really much more of a free wheeling on discussion on the definitions and constraints of the genre, with a few film clips and discussions thrown in for good measure. Hosted by SF author Nick Harkaway (whom I’m ashamed to say I’ve never heard of but it sounds like he’s quite a talented chap, and his dad happens to be John Le Carré) proceedings commenced with a CPU inevitability, as anyone au fait with Gibson’s particular brand of imagination knows he aureoles around that most transformative of our tools – the computer;
That’s a criminally underrated picture I think, not just the subject matter but also the animation and design techniques which were decades ahead of their time – this is quite nifty for a download. I’ve met Gibson before during a signing of Pattern Recognition a decade ago, I’ve always preferred his terse, intellectual prose to that of the only other SF author I still religiously read – rest in peace Ian M. Banks. He has a mischievous, devilish imagination (where’s the HBO Culture novels Game Of Thrones equivalent eh?, that would be quite something) but Gibson’s cultural imagination is just amazing, he has an incredible mind befitting of someone who invented a whole sub-genre in just one manuscript. The discussion got into some of Gibson’s stock in trade of accreting details in his books to generate plausibility and texture, the evolution of street fashions and designs as well as the technological speculation, a dystopian world away from the silver spandex and frontier mentality of much SF spasms. There was a great anecdote of how he garbed Pollard, the main character of Pattern Recognition in a black Buzz Rickson M1 combat jacket, and soon the letters started flooding into the real Buzz Rickson company demanding to buy the item. The problem was they didn’t manufacture this garment in that color but as capitalism demands a response to market forces they soon did, with Gibson’s blessing and acute amusement.
Ah yes, The City Of Lost Children I must give that another watch, an early screen steampunk inspiration which Gibson also helped invent with his mate Bruce Sterling and The Difference Engine. The talk then turned to Hollywood which he described as a ‘marine coral with its own complex eco-system, haunted with sharks and the wrecks of failed projects, all intertwined in their own paranoid psyches’ – like I said the man is brilliant. He recalled being mildly depressed at the tone of much of the critical consensus around Neuromancer missing the point that although it was a ‘dark, urban, vaguely dystopian’ vision of the future it still looks pretty great compared to surviving in the modern-day slums of the South America or Asia or areas of Africa, after confessing his delight for the freshness of Blomkamp’s District Nine.
Inevitably the talk turned to Blade Runner and that anecdote was downloaded, for you newbs it transpires that Gibson was a third of the way through Neuromancer when he went to see the film during it’s original 1982 theatrical release. Distraught he stumbled from the theatre a mere 15 minutes into the film, paralyzed with fear that Ridley Scott had beaten him to the punch and somehow hacked his vision of the future, and dismayed that even if he finished the book he knew it would inevitably be compared to Blade Runner which he was sure was going to a massive critical and financial behemoth. Of course the film flopped and only found its audience on VHS over the years, so he persevered and published his debut and the rest, as they say, is history.
There was plenty more but I think I’ll wrap things up here, he did touch upon his script for Alien III where he conceived the alien as a weaponised biological delivery system which unscrupulous civilizations could drop on planets and eradicate the indigenous species, before citing Prometheus as a rather ‘primitive’ work which got a round of applause from the crowd. He cited Star Wars in 1977 as not being the era of Lucas but the age of the Sex Pistols as far as he was concerned at that period in his life, and recalled subversively wearing a Vivienne Westwood inspired t-shirt emblazoned with Luke Skywalker with his eyes burned out to some SF convention, and getting quite a verbally violent response. In conclusion then another successful addition to the SF programme, and believe you me there is quite some more exciting things to come…..