The Burning Chrome EXCLUSIVE "Gibson/Barker" interview
Recorded December 13, 1997 at 3:30 pm (PST)
A FOUR PART SERIES
PART TWO of this interview was momentarily delayed from its originally scheduled date of Jan. 14, 1998. But all can be forgiven as the cause was locating Mr. Gibson for a possible transcription correction and he has been busy running around Vancouver following the X-Files crew taping his episode. And having a good time, I might add. But find him we did, so on with the show.
Clive = Clive Barker
Bill = William Gibson
Charlie = Charlie Athanas
- PART TWO -
Bill: (From the end of Part One) ... I think that something really big is happening to us again. It's something like what happened when we started doing cities ... We're doing something like that and we just have no way of knowing all of the myriad things that will come out of it. It won't be any sort of approved, legislated future. It never is.
Clive: Right. And yet the cities' analogy is an interesting one, because we're sitting, let us say, in a rose-colored cottage somewhere out in the country. And somebody stops by our cottage and says, "Gee, you know they're building London? We should really go and check it out." And maybe you go down the road and see how London is and by sort of staying in the cottage for a little while ... and I guess part of me is feeling as though, by limiting my vision I can keep it intense. And maybe that's a piece of paranoia on my part, but it seems to me that you actually give lots of literary reasons or narrative reasons for me to have that paranoia. I mean, you picture a world incredibly convincingly in which information is coming in on all kinds of levels. Vast pieces of information. Even in the incredible compression of a story like Burning Chrome, you evoke the sense of almost limitless information. In this case, mainly fiscal information.
Bill: Uh hmm.
Clive: And the characters who are in the middle of this still have to deal with credibly universal feelings.
Bill: Uh hmm.
Clive: Right? A sense of loss.
Clive: The moment has passed them by. That physical wounds have come to them. And let's change the subject. You say quite early on in the story that she (the character, Chrome) ... I forget exactly the phrase for the cancers that she induces, but they're rather unique.
Bill: Yeah, they're custom.
Clive: There you go. (laughter all around) They're custom!
Bill: Yeah, they're customized.
Clive: So the sense that you evoke of a world in which the physical and the problems of the physical remain very much intact. And certainly the sense of emotional loss. Separation from the one you loved or thought you loved remains very strong. You don't give the impression that any of this stuff really comforts at a fundamental level. Am I misreading it?
Bill: Hmmmm, no. I think that's correct. Although it depends now on whether we're discussing the techno reality of the story or the techno reality of 1997.
Bill: Because the uses that people have put this stuff to in the mean time are not really the uses that I envisioned it being.
Clive: Could you elaborate on that?
Bill: In a story like Burning Chrome, cyberspace is corporate ...
Bill: ... and military ...
Bill: It's like an office building, but in fact cyberspace is like a city, in that it incorporates libraries, brothels, anything (laughter)! You know, literally.
Bill: Plays. Literally anything and everyone is doing it! Most of what's taking place in cyberspace is completely banal.
Clive: Like any human experience.
Bill: Dull human activity.
Clive: Right. But then taking your... you used cities and the building of the cities earlier on as sort of the semi-evolutionary jump which is analogous to this?
Clive: One of the things you might reasonably say about cities is that they really are a curate's egg. There's good parts and bad parts.
Clive: And that maybe in the concentration of people in relatively small space ... I come from England where there does seem to be a concentration of a lot of people in a very small space. Which I don't actually feel quite so much (now). I'm looking out at greenery and hills here (California) where I'm living right now and I'm grateful for that. When I lived in London I faced gray walls and as soon as I stepped out of the house I was facing other people.
Bill: Uh hmm.
Clive: There was a sense in many ways the city of London aggressed against me. It didn't mean to, but it couldn't help it. So I want to follow that analogy up for a moment and say is there a sense in which this information, this sort of sense of something vast going on in these exchanges ... you were able to look at the lovely lady in the Midwest... is a choice on your part? You can switch off your machine any time you like, but isn't there a sense that behind our lives now there is corporate usage. There is military usage. There is governmental usage of this material, this information, this way of computing.
Bill: Yes, there's a sense of that. Some of the ways this technology is affecting us now are very, very subtle.
Bill: One that I've noticed just in the last month is that because of the Internet and the World Wide Web, in effect, the world's attic is being sorted. It's being sorted with a speed and precision that would have been impossible ten or fifteen years ago. The whole concept of rarities and random finds is disappearing very, very quickly. Every book in every used book shop on the planet will be accessible to a search engine soon.
Bill: And there's something... it's really something horribly sad about that.
Clive: Yes. It really is. (laughter)
Bill: Anything that you're looking for, I can tell you, for instance, I can tell you today in Fort Meyers, Florida, there is a 1948, mint, in-box Rolex Oyster (watch). With the original band. As far as I know, it's the only mint, in-box Rolex Oyster in the world. (laughter all around) Or at least the only one that's currently up for sale. There's not one in New York that I can find on the Net. And there's not one in Los Angeles. And there's not one in London. We're losing something there. Some very magic part.
Clive: So there's no way, going to your attic analogy again, there's no sense that we're going to be able to discover the lost beloved rocking chair up there, because we'll know that it's there. I mean, the magic of it is going? Is that what you're saying? The magic of something which is hidden and covered in dust and ...
Bill: No, the magic of the search.
Bill: I was talking the other night to a VERY wealthy woman who all her life collected just exquisitely arcane books and magazines, mostly surrealist periodicals. And this has kind of sustained her in her otherwise boring existence.
Bill: The hunt for these impossible editions. And the other day she got on her son's web browser and scored about twenty in an hour.
Clive: And it spoiled it.
Bill: Yeah! She was telling me about it and she was very excited and she saying, "I got this and I got that" and then she's saying, "I don't know if I like this though." We talked about it and we decided it commodified it in a different way. All that was involved now was rarity. There was no skill .. relative rarity and value ... there was no longer a skill involved.
Clive: But let me go after this. There is a sense to me that something similar has happened in an area that is my primary area of reading interest, which is the general area of metaphysics. Which will range for the purposes of this conversation from sort of the driest German philosophical tome to the moistest Catholicism.
Bill: (chuckle) Yes.
Clive: And my sense is there is more open discussion and volumes being written about this material in the sort of sense that the mystery of religion ...
Clive: ... the veil has been lifted in a way. In some ways, and I'll go after this one moment longer if I may, may be analogous to this. You're not going to be able to turn a corner and discover a voice from a rock any longer. The details of every religious order and sub-order and practice and ritual seems to be ... to being laid out. We're finding revisionist versions of voodoo being written right now. Revisionist histories, for instance, giving us all kinds of details in something that particularly interests me right now. And I'm looking at this stuff and saying, "Boy, the mystery is gone." And now how do we put the mystery back? It seems to me now the mystery is in the personal choice. By which I mean, maybe now it becomes the rich lady's problem not to be able to buy things, but to choose the things she really wants.
Clive: So maybe now the mystery becomes the mystery of personal decision. If I know all religious possibilities, let's say, that seems in some senses to be rather a reductionist place to be. It's all laid out like a deli counter, you know? But then what becomes important, significant, which one really speaks to me. Where my heart really is. And so instead of the mystery becoming finding, the mystery becomes choosing. Do you see what I'm saying?
Bill: Yes, I do. Although with religion I would think that there would be a certain requirement of practice even now. Simply seeing the precepts laid out on the ...
Bill: Yeah, in the "FaithMart" site. (laughter all around)
Clive: Right, right, right! (laughter)
Bill: Yes. Open this link.
Clive: Yes. Yes. Yes. (laughter)
Bill: My experience has been that seeing those things laid out, well, you know, that the map is not the territory.
Clive: That might be also my point about the surrealist magazine. To know the title of the magazine and when it was produced or whatever. Or indeed its rarity value and maybe the point is about rarity value and how unimportant that finally must be, because if you're truly passionate about surrealism it doesn't matter if there's one magazine or ten thousand of them.
Bill: Hmmm, yes. I know what you mean ....
Clive: Am I being pissy about this?
Bill: No, I think that there's a human, kind of primitive, almost pre-human pleasure in hunting and gathering.
Bill: And that we're losing our ... the attic is being too thoroughly sorted and we're losing our capacity for hunting and gathering. One thing that's fascinated me in the course of my life has been the cataloging of the world's stuff. When I was a young man there was a great deal of stuff scattered across the counters of the Western world. There were many, many treasures. Being young and unemployed, often had nothing better to do than going beachcombing through this stuff. And so much of this sort of thing that I used to pick up and admire and throw away, there's now a specialist shop in London or Manhattan that sells nothing but that sort of bakalite button. And they've all been numbered and a price assigned to each one.
Bill: It's something we're doing this century. It's sort of done, you know, it's a done deal. And that gives me an odd feeling.
Clive: Yeah, me too. I'm not a great hunter ... My point was that I have several copies of Moby Dick here. I don't value the hard cover any more than the paper. And if Moby Dick speaks loudly and complicatedly to my heart, which it does, then the hunting and gathering can still go on because I still have the investigation of a human being to do. And that's sort of different from a bakalite button, I absolutely grant you. But the most profound experience perhaps that we can have are not with objects, which can indeed be cataloged, but with thoughts and ideas which actually resist that kind of cataloging. I mean, to go back to the story ... looking at again, that part of its power is its density and part of the power of its density is that when you revisit it, you find something fresh in it. Because when language is as rich and poetic as it is in many of the most evocative sections of this story, you revisit it and find something fresh. In other words, one of the great wonders perhaps of art is that you can hunt and gather forever there. I mean, there must be pieces of work, and not necessarily just pieces of literary work ... actually I think it's less true of movies than books and paintings, but I certainly know there were paintings which I first saw when I was in my teens, which I kind of cooled on in my twenties and then rediscovered again in my thirties.
Clive: And what had changed was me.
Clive: So perhaps I'm being sentimental here about the idea of what the individual can bring to the discovery process. But a part of me feels as though ... hmm this is going to sound really perverse given what you just said, but I'd like all the cataloging to get done. I'd sort of like very comfortably for it all to get done.(Bill laughs) We all know where everything is. Now the issue is - what do you want?
Bill: Well, yes. It's very nearly done. And the question is, "What do we want?"
Clive: Can I give you an analogy?
Clive: The last time I went into the British Library as a reader ...
Clive: I'd never been to the British Library before, obviously I was intimidated as hell. And I went in and I was actually looking for a book - obscure eighteenth century pornography. It's not actually that obscure, it's a book called "The Autobiography of a Flea". I don't know if you know the book. It's an anonymous book about a flea which jumps from pubic hair to pubic hair and relates on the gigantic experiences that it has.
Bill: Ah, yes.
Clive: You're dwelling in this fine lady or in the pubic hair of this well-endowed gentleman and so on. And this is the tale. And I'd read reference to it in a footnote and I thought I have to get hold of this and clearly the book wasn't in print. So I went to the British Library and they said, "Sure, we have five copies of 'An Autobiography of a Flea', including one illustrated in France, but we only have one copy of each one and you'll have to go into a special room." You've been to the British Library, I guess.
Clive: They make it kind of difficult to read the thing. And they make it even more difficult if it's a piece of pornography. I'm sorry. I should say "erotica". I went in and they had one copy of this book. A particular edition. Several editions were in French. I don't read French, there is literally one in English that I could read. And I sat there reading this very strange text and felt unique. Now the uniqueness of owning the turquoise blue bakalite button made in 1920 doesn't go away if you've got it in your fingers and nobody else has. Right?
Clive: The sense of specialness ... which I want to say has some metaphysical echo to it ... doesn't go away just because you know where that button belongs in a long list of buttons.
Bill: Hmm, yeah. I would agree.
Clive: So what interests me now is your vision is presenting this corporate usage of all this information and your characters seem to move through this world being very particular. Being very severely themselves. It seems like your characters seem to respond to the offensiveness, if I can say that, of the world around them by being, in a very noirish way, strongly, almost caricatures of themselves sometimes. They're very intense. They live very intense lives. They seek out very intense experiences, right? I mean, this constant sense of, I'm gonna feel what I feel as strongly as possible. If it takes drugs. If it takes a mechanism. If it takes hormones. Whatever it takes.
Bill: Yes. I agree with you. It seems that they're driven to that. Whatever they're doing becomes an act of self-definition.
Clive: The Debbie Harry character in Videodrome?
Clive: Says in the interview with James Woods ... the TV interview ...
Clive: "We live over-stimulated lives."
Clive: I always remember hearing that and hmm ... she's wearing a red dress at the time and James Woods refers to the redness of her dress. She says, "We all live over-stimulated lives." To which James Woods says something like, "Well, you shouldn't be wearing that dress for one thing if you're talking about over-stimulation." I remember seeing that movie and really, it being the first time ... Cronenberg has some things analogous to your own vision, particularly in that movie. Of a sense that these people are living headlong, racing headlong into experience because they feel like life will be short and brutish.
Bill: Yeah, I think that's interesting. I think that Videodrome is an interesting thing to compare Burning Chrome to because I think they're very much of a period.
Bill: Yeah, I think they're very much of a period. They're documents of high Reaganomics. (laughter all around)
Clive: Yes. Yes.
Bill: My favorite Deborah Harry line in Videodrome is where she says to Woods, "Do you have a Swiss Army knife or something? Could you cut me a little?" (laughter all around)
Clive: Now just for our slower readers connect that with Reaganomics for me. I mean, we're talking about a kind of response to a severely reductionist world?
Bill: Well, this is the period when we were told that taking the gloves off capitalism would straighten things out and fix the economy and not to worry. And I think there was an initial period in that where there was an interesting kind of panic abroad. As you would expect reflected particularly in the popular arts. And there is a kind of mean early 80's ... weird down and dirty, early 80's popular art. I mean, I'd be quite proud to see Burning Chrome and Videodrome on the same shelf.
Clive: Yes. Yes. Yes. Is that about Cronenberg generally or specifically that movie?
Bill: Oh, that movie is a real standout for me with Cronenberg. I really, really admire Cronenberg tremendously, but I thought that movie was just exquisitely over the top (laughter all around) in a way that he hasn't been since.
Clive: Yes, I guess. I think the insect nation speech from The Fly gets up there actually. You know, the nature of insects speech ...
Clive: ... the Goldblum character, Seth Brundle, gives us. There are times, I think, when David puts onto his characters wonderfully sublime extremes.
Clive: But Videodrome is a great favorite of mine and one of the things that is kind of interesting and maybe is a parallel to Burning Chrome again, is a sort of sense that everybody has to live in their own heads. I'm obviously saying that maybe that's true of all literature, but this sort of sense of everybody living in their own private hell seems very strong in both pieces. It gets pushed to a great extreme in Videodrome because eventually you don't even know what's real and what's not.
Clive: And you've certainly done that too. I mean, because your use of language, and I'd like to go to that in a moment, is so rich it seems to me in some ways to ... and I think only books can do this, Charlie. I'm sorry.
Charlie: (Laughter) Oh, fine.
Clive: But I think books ... the commonality of language, the sense that everything gets dissolved in the common soup of language means that a book can present us with a sense that reality is moving back and forth, in and out. I'm not sure an actor on a stage can ever do what passages in stories can ... actually several of your stories and several of my stories do ... which is just say, "I suppose this is Bill and Clive talking to you now."
Bill: Uh hmm.
Clive: And the language that we're using is rich and poetic language and everything else is going to get dissolved in it. I mean, do you see any ... even cinema can't doing that ... though I think Cronenberg at his most hallucinogenic or delirious does. I remember coming out of Videodrome with a bunch of my pals and they'd just be completely furious that they did not know what was real and what wasn't in the last half hour of that picture. Am I saying, "Isn't that great though?" How often does that happen? Aren't movies dominated by reality constantly? Aren't they dominated by a sense that we're entering a "cinematic reality" and it's going to be a consistent reality. Particularly, I think, American pictures. I don't think that's so true of Fellini for instance, where you're moving back and forth into memory and then it's almost a little Fantasia that is just Frederico's.
Bill: Uh hmmm.
Clive: You know, it seems like art cinema, if you will ... this may be true of art literature, as opposed to pop literature, as well ... allows us to float a little bit in language, in memory, in Bill. If somebody goes to a ... god help us ... a Grisham novel, some popular romance or whatever, part of the point is you get this reality set up for you and the author sort of steps out of it. It seems to me you're constantly present in your fiction, because the language is so dense. Are you aware of that? Do you pursue that?
Bill: I think that I didn't now any better.
Clive: Oh. Cool. (laughter)
Bill: At the start, I knew no different. And I have experimented subsequently with a lighter stylistic mix. Out of a curiosity to see what would happen. I've tried writing very plainly. It's actually fun to do that, 'cause then you can chord it. You can go from the simply spoken to the hallucinogenicly poetic (laughter) in the course of a sentence.
Bill: That's good, too. But really I think that the way I learned to compose fiction left me there. It was the only thing I knew how to do and when I would not quite succeed at doing it, I would feel a certain panic. So I'd crank it up a bit higher.
Clive: That would be linguistic cranking.
Bill: Yes. Yes. I would crank the poetics up a few more notches and see what happened. I think the thing that attracted me to science fiction was the fact that science fiction allows us these episodes of heightened language.
Clive: Oh, I think the fantastique as a genre allows us that or horror fiction allows us that. Fantasy fiction at its best allows us that. Children's fiction ... I'm doing a lot of children's fiction now and I'm aware that you get the freedom to take this linguistic jump into a space where you get great density of imagery and you get this kind of delirious stuff which is wonderful to write. There is also this sense, and I don't know if I'm going to get this right, but there's a sense in which the music becomes the meaning. And there seems to me to be passages in your work where if you were to look at it word for word it would be really hard to take apart. God knows I wouldn't want to be studying it in class. Any more than I would be wanting to be studying Bill Burroughs in class. At the end of the day, the language isn't susceptible to the same kind of analysis, that say, Milton is susceptible too.
Clive: You just have to look hard. It seems to me that that would be really difficult in your work. For one thing you're inventing words, so that's kind of hard. There's also a kind of music and I know there's music in Milton. It's a different kind of music somehow. He wants to be plain, he just doesn't know how. (laughter) I don't know. He wants to be plain and maybe the distance between us and Paradise Lost makes it harder for us to understand what that plainness was. No one is ever going to look back on the collective works of Bill Gibson and say, "Time has made it a little tougher to understand Mr. Gibson," because there's certain times when a logical approach to what you're writing simply doesn't work. Am I being right?
Bill: Hmm yeah ... I would think so. I think I saw myself, and to some extent I still do, as practicing not a lost art, but an art that's been fragmented. Even in the course of my lifetime, I have the sense of something that's been shattered and we're left with the shards of the Miltonian universe and my strategy was to hammer them into pipebombs (laughter all around).
Clive: (Laughter) Oh, that's great!
Bill: Impact them into tiny explosive containers. It's basically the same gunpowder, but he was able to ... sometimes I think of all the lovely prose in fiction of the past as being like Murano figurines. These lovely fragile things that just can't last long in a house trailer in Kansas.
END OF PART TWO