Book Review: Distrust That Particular Flavor by William Gibson

Distrust That Particular FlavorReaders familiar with Gibson’s fiction will recognize and admire the eloquent lyricism, as well as the seemingly effortless precision, of the nonfiction pieces collected in Distrust That Particular Flavor. This career-spanning volume of essays contains ruminations on technology, war, culture, and art; it explores through snippets of autobiography the meaning behind various objects in the physical world, and the manner by which we tend to privilege the tangible over that which is simply real; and most importantly, it illustrates the delightfully unique lens through which William Gibson sees the world. The lens, he reveals with constant humility and even a pervasive sense of imposter syndrome, through which he glimpsed the future as far back as 1977, when he published his first short story.

Gibson makes no effort to conceal his endlessly self-aware, introspective nature. Throughout the various pieces, presented achronologically for the apparent purpose of better developing the themes that dominate the whole, he returns to certain keystones in the circumstances of his life: For instance, that he was born in 1948, the same year George Orwell published 1984; and that he published his own debut novel, Neuromancer, in 1984. Having reached the understanding that science fiction is at least as much about the present as it is about the future, he explains that, like Orwell, “I knew that the novel I had written wasn’t really about the future, just as 1984 hadn’t been about the future, but about 1984.”

The evolution of technology, however, in tandem with humankind’s constant repurposing and refining of it, makes the future a necessary topic for Gibson’s thinking — and while he constantly reassures the reader that he is no authority on the topic, his observations are invariably keen and revelatory.

Take the trope of the cyborg, for instance. A symbol, a science-fictional image as well as reality, Gibson argues that in today’s world we fail to see the forest for the trees, so to speak — that our “literalist” sensibilities blind us to the truth of our existence: that the Net, or cyberspace, is itself a very real, very vital, and utterly enormous cybernetic organism.

Questions about the merit of ideas like the so-called Technological Singularity, or transhumanism, posthumanism, et cetera, are rendered moot in Gibson’s view, in light of the reality that we already exist — in a fully physical sense, whether we’re readily aware of it or not — as organic units within a larger cyborg (he employs the metaphor of the capital-B “Borg,” from the fictional Star Trek universe). That we are, quite literally, participants in a global, liminal state of being — transhumanist, if you prefer — that points to the inevitability of science-fictional concepts like human drones with a shared consciousness, or hive mind, and “a humanity where unaugmented reality will eventually be a hypothetical construct, something we can only try, with great difficulty, to imagine.”

Such extrapolations are woven throughout the volume amid similarly shocking, but all too accurate descriptions of our present-day world: examinations of Japan, in its constant state of being one step ahead, technologically, of the rest of our global species; meditations on the sheer addictiveness of technology and its implications for the future of entertainment, whether in film, gaming, or even the most quotidian of daily acts; observations about subcultures like that of the Beat-poet generation, in which Gibson found great resonance in his formative years. No subject is off-limits, so long as it is sufficiently strange and just as profound.

He notes with unflinching honesty and clarity the manner by which we seek obsessions in the context of the mundane, whether it be the undeniable rush of a bid-war on eBay, or the gathering of some idiosyncratic form of expertise, or the act of collecting artifacts from our past, scanning flea markets and online dealers for rare trinkets of nostalgic or historical import.

In one particularly brilliant essay, “My Obsession,” Gibson recounts the years in which he himself caught the eBay bug, and became fascinated with the study and acquisition of rarefied timepieces, circa World War II. His father, he explains, had left behind a fine watch, when he died quite unexpectedly in Gibson’s youth. But in early adulthood, needing money to pay rent, as young college students often do, Gibson sold the watch to a friend for a small sum; sad at the decision, but recognizing that he’d had no choice, he decided that he would one day own “another of similar vintage.”

For fans of Gibson’s groundbreaking fiction, be it the seminal cyberpunk work Neuromancer, the first in what he calls “The Sprawl Trilogy,” or his more recent post-9/11, post-cyberpunk, novels, anecdotes like this, in addition to insightful reflections on his nascence as both fiction writer and futurist, Distrust That Particular Flavor is required reading. But truly, though, the entire volume stands as a unified whole that ought to be appreciated by anyone with so much as a casual interest in culture, technology, art (be it film, video gaming, music, literature, fashion, et cetera), science, or transhumanism.

Although Gibson endeavors continually to convince us that he is no true expert on matters either technological or cultural, the vast spectrum of commissioned pieces in this collection attest to the unwarranted nature of his modesty: Here is an intellectual, an enviable artist and observer, who not only foresaw much of today’s present when he began his fiction-writing career decades ago, but who also continues to dazzle readers with his penchant for understanding both the supermundane and the greater zeitgeist of our increasingly Orwellian — and, indeed, Gibsonian — world.


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