High Tech High Life: William Gibson & Timothy Leary in Conversation (1989)

The story of Timothy Leary’s conversation with William Gibson is here.  This is most of the text as it was published in the first edition of MONDO 2000 magazine

TIMOTHY LEARY: If you could put Neuromancer into one sentence, how would you describe it?

WILLIAM GIBSON: What’s most important to me is that it’s about the present. It’s not really about an imagined future. It’s a way of trying to come to terms with the awe and terror inspired in me by the world in which we live. I’m anxious to know what they’ll make of it in Japan.


WG: Oh, god. I’m starting to feel like Edgar Rice Burroughs or something. I mean, how did Edgar Rice Burroughs finally come to feel about Tarzan in his own heart, you know? He got real tired of it. Wound up living in Tarzana, California.

TL: You’ll end up living in a space colony called Neuromancer.

WG: That would be OK. I don’t think we’re going to have this kind of future. I think this book is so much nicer than what seems to be happening. I mean, this would be a cool place to visit. I wouldn’t mind going there.

TL: Where?

WG: To the Sprawl, to that future.

TL: Go up the well?

WG: Yeah. Go up the well and all of that. A lot of people think this is a bleak book but I think it’s optimistic.

TL: I do, too.

WG: I think it’s actually gonna be more boring. I think some kind of Falwellian future would probably be my idea of the worst thing that could happen.

TL: Yeah. That was a wonderful scene where you have those Christians who were gonna mug those girls in the subway.

WG: It’s not clear whether they’re going to mug them or just try to force some horrible pamphlet on them or something. Personally, I have a real phobia about guys like that coming up to me on the street . . .

TL: That’s a powerful scene! And you describe the girls as like hoofed animals wearing high heels.

WG: Yeah. The office girls of the Sprawl.

TL: Yeah, and they’re wearing vaginas, and — Oh, God! That’s a powerful scene.

WG: I like the idea of that subway. That’s the state-of- the-art subway. It goes from Atlanta to Boston, real fast.

TL: You’ve created a world.

WG: What you’re getting when you read that book — the impression is very complicated but it’s all actually one molecule thick. Some of it is still pretty much of a mystery to me. You know, the United States is never mentioned in the book. And there’s some question as to whether the United States exists as a political entity or if, in fact, it’s been Balkanized in some weird way. That’s kind of a favorite idea of mine, that the world should be chopped up into smaller . . .

TL: Me too, boy.

WG: West Coast separatism and stuff. In Count Zero, I mention what’s happening in California a little bit. One of the characters has a girlfriend who lives in a pontoon city that’s tethered off Redondo. Kind of like a hallucinated … it’s the Sprawl goes Sausalito — the
Sprawl but mellower.

At the end of Neuromancer, the entire Matrix is sentient. It has, in some ways, one will. And, as it tells Case, kind of matter-of-factly, it’s found another of its kind on Alpha Centuri or somewhere, so it’s got something to talk to. Count Zero starts seven years later, and like Yeats’ poem about how the center wouldn’t hold, this sort of God-consciousness is now fragmented. It hasn’t been able to keep it together. So the voodoo cultists in the Sprawl, who believe that they have contacted the voodoo pantheon through the Matrix, are in fact dealing with these fragmented elements of this God thing. And the fragments are much more demonic and more human, reflecting cultural expectations.

Anyway, I’ve got to do a different kind of book now, because I’m already getting some reviews saying, “Well, this is good, but it’s more of the same stuff.” I’m desperate to avoid that.

TL: Frank Herbert, who was a lovely guy, wrote a book that’s entirely different from Dune. It’s about humans who became insects up in Portland. Did you ever read it? It’s a nice change. In some ways, I like that book as much as Dune. He got into an entirely different situation.

WG: Well, he was trapped! That’s something I’m very worried about. I get flashes of “I don’t want to be Frank Herbert.” Because even as wealthy and as nice a guy as he was, I don’t think he was happy with what had happened to him creatively. He did get trapped. It’s different for somebody like Douglas Adams, where I think that the whole thing started off as such a goof for him that it was just a stroke of good luck that he built on. But Herbert was very serious, at a certain point. And then, gradually, he wound up having to do more of the same, because, I mean, how can you turn people down when something like that gets enough momentum?

TL: Douglas Adams told me that the three books were one book, and the publisher said split them up into three. He made a million dollars on each one of them. And they’re nice. It’s a nice tour.

WG: Yeah. They’re funny.

TL: These big books . . .

WG: I can’t go for that.

TL: I’m glad about that. Norman Spinrad … by the way — I love Norman. But I have a terrible problem with him. He makes them too big. Did you read Child of Fortune?

WG: It was too big for me.

TL: Yeah. If he had divided it down the center. If he could only cut it in half.

WG: He wrote a book called The Iron Dream. It’s a science fiction novel by Adolf Hitler, in an alternate world where Hitler became a science fiction writer. It’s a critique of the innately fascist element in a lot of traditional science fiction. Very funny.


WG: For me, given the data in the books, the keys to Case’s personality are the estrangement from his body, the meat, which it seems to me, he does overcome. People have criticized Neuromancer for not bringing Case to some kind of transcendent experience. But, in fact, I think he does have it. He has it within the construct of the beach and he has it when he has his orgasm. There’s a long paragraph there where he accepts the meat as being this infinite and complex thing. In some ways, he’s more human after that.

TL: In some ways he reminds me of some of Burroughs’ characters.

WG: (Equivocally) Yeah. He could be one of Burroughs’ wild boys … in a way. I’m deeply influenced by Burroughs. I always tell everybody that there’s a very strong influence there. I didn’t think I’d be able to put that over on the American science fiction people because they either don’t know who Burroughs is or they’re immediately hostile … he found 50′ s science fiction and used it like a rusty can opener on society’s jugular. They never understood. But I was like 15 when I read The Naked Lunch and it sorta splattered my head all over the walls. And I have my megalomaniac fantasy of some little kid in Indiana picking up Neuromancer and POW!

TL: Well, that happens, baby. Don’t worry. There’s 500,000 copies already.

WG: I had to teach myself not to write too much like Burroughs. He was that kind of influence. I had to weed some of that Burroughsian stuff out of it. In an interview in London, in one of my rare lucid moments, I told this guy that the difference between what Burroughs did and what I did is that Burroughs would just glue the stuff down on the page but I airbrushed it all.

TL: Burroughs and I are real close friends. We’ve been through a lot together. I went to Tangiers in 1961. I was there and Burroughs walks in with these two beautiful English boys. I started telling him about these new Drugs and, of course, he knew many times more about drugs than anyone in the world! I was just this childish Harvard Professor doing my big research project on drugs. And Burroughs is saying “Oh shit. Here they come. Boy Scouts. And they’re gonna save the world with drugs. Yeah, sure.” We brought him back to Harvard. He came to the prison project and all. I got to know him very well. He couldn’t stand us. We were much too goody-goody. We had hired this black psychologist, as our front, who was also gay. He thought we were ridiculous squares too. So he and Burroughs used to get together at the house, and Burroughs would drink a few gin-and-tonics and the two of them would start teasing us just to see how far we would go. Burroughs would say things like (assuming the dry Burroughsian rasp) “Anyone that says they wouldn’t fuck a 12-year-old Arab boy is either crazy or a liar.” (laughter)

It’s implied that the crowd that Case hung out with is a drug crowd.

WG: Yeah. This seems to be a world where everybody is pretty much stoned most of the time.

TL: That first chapter . . . whew!

WG: I had to go over and over that. I must have rewritten it 150 times.

TL: I’ll bet. It’s like a symphony or a fugue. This is the fifth line in the book; “It’s like my body developed this massive drug deficiency. It was a Sprawl voice and a Sprawl joke.” (Laughs) Of course, his life was jacking in.

WG: Oh yeah. He just lives for . . .

TL: Cyberspace.

WG: Yeah. For cyberspace.

TL: Would you describe cyberspace as the matrix of all the hallucinations?

WG: Yeah, it’s a consensual hallucination that these people have created. It’s like, with this equipment, you can agree to share the same hallucinations. In effect, they’re creating a world. It’s not really a place; it’s not really space. It’s notional space.

TL: See, we live in that space. We that are hooked up to Neuromancer are living in that consensual hallucination.

WG: Yeah. In a sense.


WG: I didn’t think women would go for the Molly character very much. I’ve really been surprised at the number of women who have come up to me and said, “Molly’s great. I really got off on her.” I think America is ready for a female lead who beats the shit out of everybody.

TL: Molly says “You like to jack in. I’ve gotta tussle.” That’s a beautiful two-liner.

WG: I was originally gonna call this book “Jacked In.” The people at Ace said it sounded too much like “Jacked Off,” but that was my first thought for a title.

Molly’s tougher than Case because Case is the viewpoint character, and I wanted an enigmatic character. So, she’s more shut off from me. It’s the symbolism of the sunglasses. He never even finds out what color her eyes are.

TL: And making love, she says . . .

WG: “No fingerprints.” (General all-around laughter) Yeah, she’s a tough one for me to do because that’s some kind of image from my . . . She’s a Bushido figure. When she says she’s street Samurai, she means it quite literally. She has this code. And it may grow out of a sort of pathological personality, but it still is her “code.

TL: What was that segment where she was like in hypnosis so she didn’t know what was going on?

WG: Oh, they use a sort of sensory cutout, so that she isn’t conscious when this stuff is happening, but her motor system was being run by a program. So, in effect, she became kind of a living sex shop doll. Programmed. The people who write the program are in Berlin. She says, “They have some nasty shit there.”

Actually, this starts in Burning Chrome. That’s where it comes from. One of the key things in that story is when this guy realizes that his girlfriend is working in one of these places in order to buy herself an improved pair of artificial eyes. I described it a little more clearly in that story. The prostitutes aren’t conscious. They don’t remember. In Burning Chrome, the guy says the orgasms are like little silver flares right out at the edge of space, and that’s the…

TL: That’s the guy’s orgasm, not hers. She’s not even feeling it.

WG: Well, she can feel a little bit, maybe . . .


TL: What would you say about Riviera?

WG: Riviera is like some kind of terminal bag-person.

He grows up in a radioactive pit with cannibalism pretty much the only way to get along. It’s like Suddenly Last Summer. Ever see that? Where the guy’s ripped apart by the little Mexican children? Well, Riviera is like that, a feral child. He’s smart, incredibly perverse. But all the stuff that he does ‘ the little projected hallucinations and things — are relatively low tech. He’s just projecting holograms.

There’s this amazing German surrealist sculptor named Hans Bellmer who made a piece called “The Doll.” He made a doll that was more his fetish object than a work of art. This totally idealized girl-child that could be taken apart and rearranged in an infinite number of ways. So I have Riviera call his piece “The Doll.” Bellmer’s doll. Riviera also represents the fragmentation of the body. People see things like that, sometimes, out of the corners of their eyes.

TL: What about Armitage?

WG: He’s a synthetic personality, a character utterly lacking character. As Molly says, “This guy doesn’t do anything when he’s alone.” It’s some kind of post-Vietnam state. •

TL: I can see certain Gordon Liddy qualities in Armitage.

WG: Yeah, I saw a video of his Miami Vice performance without realizing it was Liddy. When I saw that I thought of Armitage. This book’s fraught with psychotics.

TL: (Laughing) You see, there are a few of us who think it’s a very positive book in spite of that.

WG: Yeah? Really? Well, I just try to reflect the world around me.

TL: I know. You’re a mirror. Yes. How about Lucas Yonderboy?

WG: Lucas Yonderboy was my reaction to the spookier and more interesting side of punk. Kind of young and enigmatic. Cool to the point of inexplicability. And he’s a member of the Panther Moderns. They’re sorta like Marshall McLuhan’s Revenge. Media monsters. It’s as though the worst street gang you ever ran into were, at the same time, intense conceptual artists. You never know what they’re going to do.


WG: Bruce Sterling is my favorite science fiction writer. Schismatrix is the most visionary science fiction novel of the last twenty years or so. Humanity evolves, mutates through different forms very quickly, using genetic engineering and biochemistry. It’s a real mindfucker. When he first got it out and was getting the reviews back, he told me “There are so many moving parts, people are scared to stick their heads in it.” People will be mining that, ripping off ideas for the next thirty years.

TL: Like Gravity’s Rainbow.

WG: Yeah. That’s one of my personal favorites. Have you ever met Pynchon?

TL: Ohhhh … I had him tracked down and I could’ve. It was a deal where there was a People magazine reporter with an expense-paid thing. We were going to rent a car and pick up Ken Kesey. Pynchon was living up near Redding, Pennsylvania. We had him tracked there. And I decided I didn’t want to do it. I’ve said this to many people, so I should say it to you. Your book had the same effect on me as Gravity’s Rainbow.

The way I read Gravity’s Rainbow is pretty interesting. At one point, the American government was trying to get me to talk. They were putting incredible pressure on me. This FBI guy said if I didn’t talk . . . “we’ll put your name out at the federal prison with the jacket of a snitch.” So I ended up in a prison called Sandstone. As soon as I got in there, there was a change of clothes and they said, “The warden wants to see you.” So the warden said, “To protect you, we’re going to put you here under a false name.” And I said, “Are you crazy? Are you gonna put me on the main line?” And he said “Yeah.” I said, “What name are you going to give me?” He said, “Thrush.” And you know what a thrush is? A songbird. So I said, “Uh-uh. In a prison filled with dopers, everybody’s going to know that my name isn’t Thrush. I refuse to do it.” He says, “OK. We’ll have to put you in the hole.” And I said “Do what you gotta do — but I want to be out there in my own name. I can handle any situation. I can deal with it. I’ve been in the worst fucking prisons and handled it so far. So I can handle it and you know it. So fucking put me out there!” And he said, “Sorry.” He was very embarrassed because he knew. He was a prison warden. His job wasn’t to get people to talk or anything like that. He knew it was a federal government thing. The reason they were trying to get me to talk was to protect the top FBI guys that had committed black bag burglaries against the Weather Underground. So they wanted me to testify in their defense. They actually went to trial, if you remember, and got convicted. And were pardoned by Carter.

Well, they put me in the worst lock-up that I’ve ever been in, and I’d been in solitary confinement for over a year and a half. This was just a clean box with nothing but a mattress. The only contact I had with human beings was, five times a day, I could hear somebody coming down the hall to open the “swine trough” and pass me my food. And I’d say, “Hey, can I have something to read?” And they’d say, “No.” One of them was this black guy and, this one night, he came back. I could hear him walking — jingle, jingle, jingle — walking down the metal hall. He opens up the trough and says, “Here man,” and throws in a book. A new pocketbook. And it’s dark, so I waited ’til dawn and picked it up. And it was Gravity’s Rainbow.

WG: Perfect! Of all the books you could get, that’ll last you a while.

TL: You should only read that book under those circumstances. It is not a book you could . .

WG: It stopped my life cold for three months. My university career went to pot. I just sort of laid around and read this thing.

TL: What I did — first of all, I just read it. I read it all day until dark when they turned the lights out. I woke up the next morning and read it. For three days, I did nothing but read that book. Then I went back and I started annotating it. I did the same thing to yours.

Yours is the only book I’ve done that with since. The film industry’s never been able to do anything with Gravity’s Rainbow.

WG: It’s got 8 billion times more stuff in it than Neuromancer does. It’s an encyclopedic novel.

TL: But there’s a tremendous relationship, as you well know, between Neuromancer and Pynchon. Because Pynchon is into psychology. The shit he knows about! It’s all about psychology. But you’ve taken the next step because you’ve done that whole thing to computers.

WG: Do you think he’ll ever write another book? I know people who claim to have seen clearly, in Gravity’s Rainbow, that the guy would never write another book, that somehow it’s innate to the structure. Of course, one is extremely curious . . .

TL: There was an article in Esquire . . .

WG: You know, this guy makes Salinger look like Boy George. The levels of secrecy that surround this man. I know a man in Vancouver who claims to have washed a sinkfull of dishes at a Christmas party with Pynchon. Not the kind of guy who would make up a story. I think he may be the only person I’ve ever run into who’s actually spoken with . . .

TL: I’ve met several who knew him earlier. And do you know what all the stories are? He wrote Gravity’s Rainbow down at Huntington Beach. And he would wake up — he was taking a lot of LSD — and he’d wake up the next morning and reread what he’d written and he didn’t even remember what he’d been writing about.

WG: Well, a lot of it reads like that.

TL: By the way, I have some marijuana brownies if you wanna . . .

WG: Oh God no. I suffer from Cannabis dysphoria.

TL: (laughs) That’s a Sprawl joke. So Pynchon disappeared. There’s only one picture of him, and that’s in the Cornell yearbook. He’s totally disregarded author tours, and coming on the Donahue Show — all the hype and awards.

WG: He even set up some kind of legal thing to block his high school from revealing any of his records. All of his Naval records were destroyed in a “draft” bombing . . .

TL: The hero of the book is Slothrop. And you’re reading and reading and reading the book and suddenly, towards the end, you realize that the hero had disappeared and you haven’t seen him in about a hundred pages.

WG: That is the weirdest thing in the world!

TL: And you have to trace back. I traced back to the last time. Do you know what the last thing is that happens?

WG: It just trails off.

TL: The last time you see the character, he’s up on a mountain in Germany, and there’s a little stream. And he’s kind of — his memory is dissolving. And there’s a harmonica in the stream that was the one that Malcolm X dropped in the toilet at the beginning of the book. And that’s the end. But it just keeps going and Slothrop never reappears and you don’t notice he’s gone. Is that a way to end a book or to end your life?

WG: Yeah!


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