DISTRUST THAT PARTICULAR FLAVOR by William Gibson

Distrust That Particular Flavor is a book with no central thesis or theme, and that’s part of what makes it delightful. While there are certain idea clusters that emerge, and certain observations that surface more than once or twice, the threads that hold the collection together as a whole are simply the obsessions of one William Gibson. You’ll find the Internet in here, of course, and Japan, and the evolution of media. You’ll find Borges and Ballard, Chubby Checker and Steely Dan, 9/11/2001 and 10/14/1962.

As an editor of a Canadian science fiction magazine, I should probably not confess that I followed William Gibson on Twitter before I ever read any of his fiction. But it is after all not entirely inappropriate for a writer who’s almost as well known for such pithy quotables as “the street finds its own uses for things” and “the future is already here; it’s just not very evenly distributed” as he is for his trilogies of novels. Such is Gibson’s gift for the incisive aperçu that clever utterances accrete to him via Twitter “attribution decay” — a phenomenon which Gibson himself so aptly labelled.

In any case, (after having become acquainted with his fiction oeuvre), I very much looked forward to reading Gibson’s Distrust That Particular Flavor, a collection of assorted nonfiction pieces, each somewhere between a tweet and a novel in length. It’s a book with no central thesis or theme, and that’s part of what makes it delightful. While there are certain idea clusters that emerge, and certain observations that may surface more than once or twice, the threads that hold the collection together as a whole are simply the obsessions of one William Gibson. You’ll find the Internet in here, of course, and Japan, and the evolution of media. You’ll find Borges and Ballard, Chubby Checker and Steely Dan, 9/11/2001 and 10/14/1962.

The author’s introduction offers a disclaimer of sorts, an apology or expression of his discomfort at applying the tools of fiction to nonfictional subjects. He needn’t apologize, for he wields these tools well. The same Gibsonian voice is there in these pieces as in his novels, the keenly rendered details that evoke a world both mundane and alien at the same time, the zoomed-in view intercut with larger ideas. These are essays in the classic sense of the world — not the five-paragraph school paper, but authentic attempts at capturing something. Gibson does not tell you what he’s going to tell you, tell you, then tell you what he’s told you. Instead he invites you on a journey, and at some point along the way, it seems, he discovers what it is he’s trying to say. The result is what feels like an intimate way to share some particular scrap of insight, rarely definitive but rather provisional, open to further refinement.

If this technique, in some sense, casts the reader as fellow explorer, Gibson in the brief afterword for each essay also casts himself as fellow reader, looking back with a skeptical eye at these dispatches from an earlier self. I find myself drawn to these candid notes almost as much as I am to the essays themselves, to the way in which they both place the pieces in their original context and unstick them from those fixed coordinates in time and mindset. They are further demonstrations that the view as one pans up and down the timeline in “real life” can be as weird as anything that has been ever been imagined in science fiction.

As a reader I’m often fascinated by what is perhaps the most tedious of questions that a fan can pose to a writer: “Where do you get your ideas?” In the case of Gibson I wish the answer were as simple as “from the Shibuya branch of Tokyu Hands,” one of the strange and wonderful things I encountered in Distrust That Particular Flavor, but of course it isn’t. And yet I feel, having read this book, as though I’m closer to that mythical wellspring of inspiration than before. But if I have the sense that the raw ingredients of Gibson’s fiction are contained, in some way, in these pages, it’s not so much in the specific things examined here, as it is in the evidence of the act — the cultivated practice — of that examination.

“To think in terms of entertainment, or even of art, is probably to miss the point,” writes Gibson. “We are building ourselves mirrors that remember — public mirrors that wander around and remember what they’ve seen. That is a basic magic.

“But a more basic magic still, and an older one, is the painting of images on the walls of caves, and in that magic the mind of the painter is the mirror, whatever funhouse twists are brought to the remembered object.”

He is referring in this instance about cameras and the art of filmmaking, but he could just as easily be speaking about words, the mirror of his own mind, and the processes that, over the course of more than two decades, created this book. The latter is certainly a marvellous kind of magic.

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