William Gibson versus Agrarianism: Who’s Doing Science Fiction?

I was grading papers in a chain bookstore’s coffee shop yesterday (too many of my stories start like this), and I saw that William Gibson has published a new novel, Spook Country. Right now I’m reading for comprehensive exams, or I likely would have purchased a copy then and there and set to reading it. As it stands, Ben Jonson just won’t turn loose.

In recent years Gibson has abandoned the possibility of science fiction, saying in interviews that real sci fi requires a stable present against which to set a vision of the future. In a world where concrete consumer innovation will inevitably outrun most of the speculations of novelists, Gibson has opted in his last two novels to write about the very recent past.

I often think of Gibson when I read about various agrarian fantasies, the sorts that Wendell Berry and the Internet’s Crunchy Cons write about. Their vision is an exit from consumerism, a “return to the land” that never seems to get around to the fact that somebody already owns that land and that Moses has been dead for a few millennia. Against them but never acknowledging them (I’m sure Gibson is aware of them), Gibson’s Bridge Trilogy of the nineties, Gibson’s last self-acknowledged science fiction novels, imagines a community not generated by an exodus from burnt-out San Francisco but among its ruins. Specifically the earthquake-shattered ruins of the Golden Gate Bridge serve as the place where the homeless, Taoist assassins, graduate students, anarchists, illicit merchants, and a host of other characters shape a life together, not by appealing to an idealized past but by beginning with the reality that confronts them.

I honestly don’t remember much about the plots of these novels, and I can only recall some of my favorite moments with its main characters. But I do remember experiencing something like solidarity when, in the third novel, disaster strikes the bridge people. (I’ll leave the nature of the disaster to those who go out and read these books.) They do not gather together as our mythological forebears would for a barn-raising, and they do not demonstrate anything like Protestant virtue. But they do remember one another, and there are moments when these outcasts of consumerism rise above their despair and give real help one to the other.

Whether or not one could build a coherent theory of life-together from the details of these novels I doubt. But they do face the reality that the cities of Planet Earth are filled with people who will never own land, and they do offer the seeds at least of some kind of peace (even if not the image of divine peace) coming from and working towards the benefit of the least of these.

Perhaps the agrarians and the crunchy cons can offer stability, but in the end I’ll take Gibson’s people over Berry’s poetry.

8/11 Salon.com interview with Gibson

11/7 Rolling Stone interview with Gibson

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4 Comments

Filed under Books, pop culture

4 responses to “William Gibson versus Agrarianism: Who’s Doing Science Fiction?

  1. robert

    I think we’ve had this conversation before… šŸ™‚

    Why is our reading of Berry so different?

  2. I’m not sure, other than perhaps we read it when we were reacting to different things. I know that I encountered Berry when I was doing ministry with the urban poor, and his agrarian bent infuriated me when I thought about the folks I was working with. Moreover, because I was working with so many single mothers, his anti-feminist, stand-by-your-man rhetoric struck me as oblivious to the world in which I lived. Incidentally, those were also the years during which Gibson was finishing out his Bridge Trilogy.

    I remember your telling me that you encountered him while surrounded by a very libertarian/neo-liberal intellectual milieu. I can imagine I would have taken him differently had I been surrounded by folks who opt for the suburbs rather than surrounded by folks who never could own land.

  3. robert

    That’s plausible. Your experience with the New Pantagruel folks may be a factor, too. I recall encountering them about the same time as Berry and recognizing them as of similar mind. But after a couple of days on their board I made a quick exit. Remind me of the Pyros.

    Not that you need more reading, but if you’re interested in a second look at Berry I’d recommend Jayber Crow.

  4. Come to think of it, you’re probably right on that NP angle. I’m not familiar directly with the Pyros, but whenever I see references to them in our online circles, the tone is hardly ever good.

    If I make it through comps with my brain intact, I might try Jayber Crow some time.

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