Book review: Distrust That Particular Flavor

"The future is already here. It's just not very evenly distributed," the science fiction writer William Gibson has said.

"The future is already here. It's just not very evenly distributed," the science fiction writer William Gibson has said. That uneven distribution is reflected in the essays, book introductions and talks in Distrust That Particular Flavour. This compilation includes articles written over nearly 20 years for publications ranging from the easily available Wired and Time to small press magazines — some now defunct — and for organisations from the Directors' Guild to Book Expo.

The pieces are not in chronological order, so one moment you're reading about Gibson having finally — finally in 1996 — and unwillingly acquired an email address (it came with his cable modem) and the next you're in Tokyo watching schoolgirls text madly on their mobiles. Readers apparently often ask Gibson why so much of his work set in Japan. "Because Japan is the global imagination's default setting for the future," he says.

In the commentaries Gibson has written for each piece and his introduction, he talks about the process by which he learned to write fiction. This involved, early on, rejecting two approaches: writing for free, and writing non-fiction. And yet these pieces happened because they provided the opportunity to go new places, meet new people and ask them questions. Who could resist that? Not Gibson, although one of the pleasures of the commentaries is his self-criticism.

"I feel I owe Wired an article about Japan," he writes after "My Own Private Tokyo" (2001). The magazine paid for his travel (ah, the old days, when journalists had expense accounts!), but the best stuff he collected got siphoned off into Pattern Recognition, the novel he was writing at the time. "I had very little idea of what I was talking about, when I wrote this," he says of another Wired piece, "My Obsession", about searching for the perfect watch on eBay.

Of course, Gibson fans need no prompting to want this collection, particularly for the first-appearance pieces. For those (apparently few) of us who, like me, grew up with space travel, rocket ships and distant planets, and struggle to get through even the greatest cyberpunk classics, Gibson's non-fiction is a revelation. I wish now that I'd known to seek it out in the early 1990s when digital hyperbole had the internet as the most important thing since the discovery of fire. Gibson has something that so many lack: the context of history, which, he writes in "Time Machine Cuba" (Infinite Matrix, 2006), he discovered simultaneously with science fiction as a child. Stories about the future, he writes in "The Road to Oceania" (New York Times, 2003), are really about the present in which they're written.

"Writing non-fiction, I feel like I'm applying latex paint to the living room walls with a toothbrush," writes Gibson in the introduction. He goes on to say that "the following pieces are performed on an African thumb piano", but composed "on one that has no name, and which I am yet to see." I've actually played an African thumb piano. It didn't sound anything like this book.

Distrust That Particular Flavor: Encounters with a Future That's Already Here
By William Gibson
Viking Penguin
ISBN: 978-0-670-92154-6

Wendy M Grossman