Book Review: Distrust That Particular Flavor, by William Gibson

Distrust That Particular Flavor, by William GibsonWilliam Gibson thinks a lot about the future, not so much in a predictive sense, but in terms of the impact of technological change—on culture in general and on individual human beings in particular. He sees patterns emerging everywhere, and many of his stories revolve around characters struggling to negotiate the leading-edge of some impending paradigm shift that nobody else sees coming. He’s one of the godfathers of cyberpunk, and one of my favorite science-fiction writers—he’s the mind behind bestsellers like Neuromancer and Mona Lisa Overdrive, and films such as Johnny Mnemonic, New Rose Hotel, and even two episodes of The X Files.

If you’d like to spend a little time inside the head of one of our most notable futurists, Distrust That Particular Flavor is a good way to do it. This collection of mostly nonfiction essays and lectures span Gibson’s life experience from boyhood to the present day. He listens to voices from the other side of the world through the earphone of a rocket-shaped crystal radio clipped to a barbed-wire-fence antenna. He wanders the nighttime streets of Shinjuku with costumed teens who communicate at the speed of light, and hears tales of others who spend years in the electronic wombs of tiny apartments without seeing another human face. He ponders the inherent contradictions of an increasingly interconnected, information-based, global society in which dead men sing while the living craft an immense prosthetic memory to fulfill a human urge so ancient it was first expressed in cave paintings. Gibson travels from America to the Far East and back again, with stops in Vancouver, Toronto, London, Singapore, Hong Kong, and Tokyo. Along the way, he traces his journey to bestselling author from his first tentative struggle to forge a single, perfect sentence.

You’ll discover why he thinks science fiction is sometimes good at predicting change but always lousy at forecasting what change will do to us, why the speculative world of cyborg-ed transhumanism is not merely imminent but already upon us, why we can only perceive the meaning of technology in retrospect, why the driving force behind innovation lives on the street rather than in the laboratory, and why the Japanese are better prepared than the rest of us to cope with change at its most rapid and intense.

It’s an invigorating, thoughtful read, especially for somebody like myself who dabbles in spec-fic now and then. Gibson has a good handle on the opportunities and limitations of both technology and speculative fiction, and it’s fun to read the musings of an articulate observer who clearly spends many hours watching his environment and thinking deeply about what it all means. The essays are eclectic, with many related themes that connect them but no overarching thread or agenda, and since they weren’t originally conceived as a single volume, some ideas are repeated several times—though in a variety of contexts and across different times. Gibson also offers a bit of interpretive afterword for each piece. Published by Berkley, September 2012.

If you’d like a peek at my impressions of William Gibson’s fiction, check out my reviews of his novels Idoru and All Tomorrow’s Parties.

William Gibson’s author website

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