Book Review: Distrust That Particular Flavor

By David Larsen

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Distrust That Particular Flavor by William Gibson
Viking $37

Book cover of Distrust That Particular Flavor. Photo / Supplied
Book cover of Distrust That Particular Flavor. Photo / Supplied

Every time William Gibson publishes a book, I wait for some pretentious young indie band to name themselves after the title. It's curious to discover that this master of the offhand cool moniker used to have so much trouble naming his characters that at one point he seriously considered borrowing names from the Ikea furniture catalogue.

That isn't a problem he faces this time. This is his first non-fiction book; but given that it collects magazine articles, public speeches and other bits and pieces of commissioned writing from the last three decades and still only just makes it to book-length, it's probably also his last.

"The itch to become a writer could be scratched, I suspected, too easily, with other kinds of writing," Gibson explains.

"Self-discipline never having been my strong suit, I became uncharacteristically strict with myself about writing only fiction."

This volume brings together all the major violations of "that early prime directive". Followers of Gibson's fiction will find such moments of self-disclosure a major reason to read these essays. Are there other reasons?

The short answer would be "no", but it's worth sticking around for the long answer. Gibson's first novel, Neuromancer, made him an international superstar, the darling of the nascent cyberpunk movement and one of the few young science fiction writers of the 1980s to achieve mainstream name recognition.

His next book, Count Zero, brought howls of disappointment from fans, as did his next two. It wasn't that these were bad books. They simply weren't the hardcore technological dystopian speculations Neuromancer had led most of its admirers to expect.

Gibson is an elusive, subtle writer with an academic turn of mind and an interest in design. One of the pieces here, a speech given to the American Booksellers Association in 2010, describes his then-forthcoming novel, Zero History, as being "about recent trends in the evolution of the psychology of luxury goods ... the wonderfully bizarre symbiotic relationship between designers of high-end snowboarding gear and manufacturers of military clothing". Only Gibson could start with this brief and still deliver a noir crime novel.

Yet, because of Neuro-mancer, and because people can't rid themselves of the fallacy that science fiction is in the Nostradamus business, and because he's the man who coined the word "cyberspace" years before the internet escaped the lab, he's still thought of as a futurist.

Which means he's asked to write futurist spiels; Wired commissioned more of the pieces in this book than any other outfit, and there's a short article for Time, called "Will We Have Computer Chips In Our Heads?" (It will probably be tried, Gibson opines, but it won't catch on.)

At one point, writing about the possible future of the net, Gibson asks, "Do we engage here in something of a tragic seriousness?" It's a piercing question, and the bubble it pops is his own: these exercises in sounding as if he knows what he's talking about mostly ring hollow, written, as he more or less confesses, for the cheque.

His strengths are more to do with surface textures than with deep social or technolgical analysis - with spotting the telling fashion detail on a Tokyo street, picking up the little quirks of language that define local identity in a new city. He's a thinking person's novelist, not a novelist philosopher.

This book offers you a new perspective on the ways he solves writing problems: not a strong draw unless you admire his writing to begin with, but, for fans of his work, a very great pleasure.

David Larsen is an Auckland reviewer.

- NZ Herald

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