William Gibson

At lunch on Thursday, Seth casually mentioned that William Gibson was going to be in Durham on Friday night.


I was getting ready to graduate from high school when Gibson’s Neuromancer was published. It was amazing. Instead of focusing on space ships and aliens or knights and wizards, here was speculative fiction that was truly speculative. Set on Earth in a future probably fifty to sixty years away, he introduced the term “cyberspace” and described an interconnected world that we are well on our way toward creating. While his characters “logged on” via biometric interfaces, which isn’t quite a reality, a lot of the topics he explored are relevant in today’s world.

Neuromancer was the first in a group of three related books, and this was followed by Virtual Light. This was set maybe ten years from now and about thirty years from when it was published, and again, introduced things we take for granted, such as augmented reality. It too, was the first in a series of three connected books. His most recent fiction work started with Pattern Recognition which was pretty much set in modern times, and yes, the world he created spanned three books.

Gibson was in town to promote his latest novel, The Peripheral. Sponsored by the area’s largest independent bookstore, The Regulator, the cost to attend the event was $30 but included a copy of the book, so it was basically free. I bought a ticket as soon as we got back from lunch and eagerly awaited the talk.

It was held at the Motorco Theatre in Durham, which is in a newly gentrified area of town and across the street from the Fullsteam Brewery. I like the area because a number of really good food trucks tend to congregate there, but this time we decided to eat at the Motorco, which has a “Parts&Labor” bar area that serves some pretty nice small plates (we had veggie samosas and artichoke beignets). I was eager to get a seat so I wolfed mine down and then found a place in the front row. While I didn’t think there would be a lot of people from the number of chairs they had put out, the place was standing room only by the time he went on.

The first thing that struck me about the man is that, while he looked like I expected, he is now 66 years old. While he looks young for his age you have to remember that I started reading his work 30 years ago and I still think of myself pretty much as I did then. Too bad everyone else is getting older.

He is soft spoken and to my ear his voice still has a twinge of southern drawl (he was born in South Carolina) although he has moved around a lot and now lives in Canada. The evening started out with him reading from The Peripheral, and at first his voice sounded weak, but that was fixed when they swapped out his microphone. After that his voice, although still soft, was clear and full of emotion as he read the dialog he had written.

If you have ever read Gibson you know that he kind of throws the reader into the deep in the pool and it is up to you to swim. It takes me about 75 to 100 pages to start to understand the world he is creating, so there really aren’t that many spoilers to be had from hearing an early chapter or two.

The Peripheral is a time travel book, apparently, crossing between a time possibly not too far in our future to a time 70 to 80 years beyond that. He read from a long-ish chapter from the earlier time period, and as usual his dialog was well written and at times funny. Then he read from a short chapter set in the future time frame. You didn’t get much out of the content but it was cool to hear the man himself read his work, and as I have already started the book I’ll review it soon.

That took about 30 minutes, and then he opened the floor for questions. Being the shy and withdrawn person that I am, I got to ask the first one, which was “You seem to like trilogies, is this new book Book One?”.

This earned me an eye-roll as he explained that he doesn’t write sequels, he write a “loosely connected series of books” that just tend to number three. When he was starting out, his social group of fiction writers had a disdain for sequels since they viewed it as one book that was made into three in order to sell more of them. The term “novel” means “new” and each book is supposed to be different. It is the greatest “genre-cheese” to spread a story out over multiple books, and he tries to avoid it.

He then acknowledged, almost with a wink, that he had kids to feed and so sometimes setting a “totally and completely different” story in the same world can make producing another book easier, and that there is a strong temptation to write sequels. He added the last line in Neuromancer (“And he never saw Molly again”) in pen on the final galleys to make sure he wasn’t tempted. When he writes, he told us, his job is to “keep the cheese out.”

He took questions for another 30 minutes or so. One was a slightly different take on “where do you get your ideas?” but along the lines of does he start with the characters or the world. He said he actually starts with a particular object, in the case of The Peripheral it was a 1977 Airstream trailer covered in spray-on insulation foam, and the characters and world build out from there.

Gibson was also one of the first speculative fiction authors to write about Japan, so one person asked where he would recommend going on their first trip to Tokyo. He admitted that he hadn’t been to Japan in a long time, since before the tsunami, so a lot may have changed but he would recommend the Golden Gai. This is a series of very narrow alleys that feature lots of tiny bars. It provides a look into Tokyo’s past, and while it looks run down it is not a cheap place to drink. The real estate is very valuable and so it may not be around in a few years. While I was in Shinjiku, I did not see this on my trip to Japan.

He ended the session with a comment that he was losing his voice on this book tour, and if he was to have anything left it was probably best if he started signing books. There was a bit of a mob so I decided not to get my book signed, but I did end up finding Seth in line (he showed up late). As I was waiting for my ride I decided to grab a beer and people watch, and when it was time to leave about 30 minutes later Seth hadn’t moved much. He was in the middle of a line that reached back to the door. I’ll ask him how it went on Monday.

It was a fun evening and while I’m only one chapter into the book, I like it. Thanks to the Regulator for organizing it and Seth for letting me know.

Review: The Slow Regard of Silent Things by Patrick Rothfuss

I have yet to decide whether or not Patrick Rothfuss is an asshole.

I know that sounds like a mean thing to say, but I have my reasons which I’ll get to soon.

I was introduced to Rothfuss through his first novel, The Name of the Wind. Since that can get tedious to type, allow me to abbreviate it TNotW.

TNotW is the first book in a trilogy. It concerns a near mythical figure named Kvothe, and it is one of the best novels ever written in the fantasy genre, or any genre for that matter.

In TNotW Rothfuss introduces his magic system. In the best fantasy there are rules that both empower and limit the characters, and I really like his. Called “sympathy”, magic in his world requires three things: a link, a source of energy and strength of will.

For example, suppose you wanted to move an iron skillet off of a fire through magic. First you would need some way to link what you wanted to move with something you could easily manipulate. In this case the best thing would be a small piece of the skillet itself. That would form a very strong link. Barring that, you could use any piece of iron, but that link would be weaker. Weaker still would be a non-ferrous metal, etc.

So let’s assume you have a small chip of the skillet in your hand. You would then need a source of energy. The bigger the magic, the more energy you need (i.e. rules). In this case you could probably use the heat from the fire itself.

Finally, you would need strength of will to connect your piece of the skillet to the whole thing. This is the hard part, as you basically have to imagine, with the full weight of reality, that the small part of the skillet you hold is the skillet itself, so when you move your piece, the skillet will move.

I’m oversimplifying but you get the gist. In TNotW Kovthe starts to learn about sympathy and is admitted to The University, a place where its principals are studied and taught. Out of them comes a form of engineering, a form of medicine, a form of chemistry, etc.

However, in addition to this sympathetic magic, there is a more primal, raw form of magic based on names. It is a common theme in fantasy that by knowing a thing’s “true name” one can control it. Names are powerful, which is why I obsess over them more than most people. In the world that Rothfuss creates, the pursuit of “Naming” is magic in its truest sense, but it is also the most dangerous. One of my favorite characters in his stories is Master Elodin, the Master Namer, who is quite bent.

In any case, Rothfuss is the rare author who inspires a certain type of rabid fandom. Anything he posts on his blog is almost always met by a chorus of fawning comments. It’s not that he isn’t talented, quite the contrary, but this type of fandom ends up rubber stamping everything he does as “great”.

For example, the second book in the series, The Wise Man’s Fear, did not resonate with me like the first. I came close to actually disliking it upon a first reading.

Now, granted, once I set it on the shelf for awhile and then took it down and re-read it, I liked it more, but still, it didn’t affect me like the first book. I look on it like Tolkien’s The Two Towers where “things happen that must happen” but it acts like a bridge between the first and last books of a trilogy. I eagerly await the third book, tentatively titled Doors of Stone to see if he can pull off the magic of TNotW.

And this is where the asshole part comes in. I have some friends who have met Rothfuss and spent some time with him and some of their comments tip the meter toward “asshole”. Some of the stuff that he writes on his blog rub me the wrong way, thus re-enforcing the thought. But I guess I am mainly upset because I just want him to work on that third book instead of all the other stuff he does. This is very selfish of me, because some of the stuff he does is very worthwhile and makes the world a better place, but at this point I am emotionally invested in the story of Kvothe and I want to know how it ends.

Which brings me to a sobering point: I know almost nothing about Patrick Rothfuss. One of the fallacies of the Internet is this illusion of intimacy. The thought that I can read a blog or a twitter feed or an interview and think that really gives me insight into who the person is is ludicrous. To paraphrase Silent Bob, what I don’t know about Patrick Rothfuss could just about squeeze into the Grand Canyon.

But I do know one thing without a doubt: he loves words.

I like words. I like my ten cent words and my five dollar words. But to me they are a means to an end. I like how a certain word can convey just the right feeling or evoke a particular response. But I don’t love words.

Rothfuss loves words almost as much as his family (which, if you read his blog, he loves a lot). He dotes on them. He caresses them. And I’m almost certain that he stays up nights obsessing over finding the right word.

Which brings me to his latest book, The Slow Regard of Silent Things.

This is a tiny book, around 150 pages. It’s even shorter than Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane. He warns on both his blog and in the forward that many people won’t like this book. Heck, it only has one character in it, Auri, the mysterious girl befriended by Kvothe in TNotW.

I loved it.

This is a love song to words. He uses them to paint pictures and to compose symphonies. It is a three ringed circus of adjectives and adverbs, nouns and verbs all coalescing to create an experience if not exactly a narrative.

Auri is a woman of unknown age. She is very small, about the size of a child. She lives in a complex of tunnels and forgotten rooms called “The Underthing” that exists beneath the grounds of The University. While Rothfuss has never told us straight up her history, I’ve always imagined that she was a great student at The University who studied Naming and went crazy. She decided to “make herself small” and hid herself away. It is one of the characteristics of Kvothe that he was able to befriend her. He even gave her the name “Auri” which inspired Master Elodin to instruct Kvothe in Naming. But don’t expect to see those characters in The Slow Regard of Silent Things. It is all about Auri and can stand alone from the rest of the series.

If you haven’t read any of his books, then you won’t know what I’m talking about. Heck, I’m not even sure I know what I’m talking about. All I know is that I feel like a better person from having read it.

It covers several days in the life of Auri. And that’s about it. Pretty easy not to spoil. She has good days and bad days but to her they are just “days”. The narrative focuses a lot on her drive to put things in their proper places and in some cases, give them names.

One of the world philosophies that I strongly identify with is Taoism. Now I’m certain that a true scholar of the Tao will be horrified, if that is possible, over how I’m about to describe it, so my apologies in advance.

The Tao is all things and how they are connected. There is no “good” or “evil”, there is just the natural cycle of things. When one lives in tune with the Tao, this we call happiness. When one struggles against the Tao, sadness ensues. It stresses a very low impact existence and an acceptance of the way things are, but still manages to get a lot of stuff done, which sounds a little like an oxymoron.

One of the best books on the subject is The Tao of Pooh by Benjamin Hoff. In it he demonstrates the principals of Taoism through the stories about Winnie the Pooh. It works, and it is one of my favorite books. It sits next to me at my desk in case I’m having a rough day and I need a reminder.

As I was reading The Slow Regard of Silent Things I couldn’t help but think that Auri was a Taoist master. Here is a quote from toward the end of the book:

That meant you could move smoothly through the world without upsetting every applecart you came across. And if you were careful, if you were the proper part of things, then you could help. You mended what was cracked. You tended to the things you found askew. And you trusted that the world in turn would brush you up against the chance to eat. It was the only graceful way to move. All else was vanity and pride.

Seems very Taoist to me.

I once saw Kurt Vonnegut give a lecture. He was talking about “the shape of stories” and the normal Western narrative and how it has these huge swings in mood. The example he used was Cinderella. It starts off pretty bad. Her parents have died and she’s living with her evil stepmother. Then it gets really good. She gets to go to the ball and she meets the Prince. Then the clock hits midnight and things are bad again. Then the Prince finds her and all is well. He drew this on a white board in the form of a big sine wave that swung from bad to good.

He compared that to Native American stories. Usually the mood is very flat. We walked in the woods. We saw a deer. We caught some fish. We ate. We went to sleep. That sort of thing. There really isn’t this whole process that we expect from our stories. On his white board he drew a straight line, pretty much neutral between good and bad.

Then he examined Hamlet. Hamlet is not a happy story. Things start of bad and remain that way. As Vonnegut talked through the plot he drew another straight line. Granted, this was firmly on the “bad” side of the chart but it had a lot more in common with a Native American narrative than a traditional one, and Hamlet is one of the greatest stories ever told.

Heh – I just decided to take a stab at the premise that “everything is on the Internet” and I found a page talking about this very thing.

I don’t think that The Slow Regard of Silent Things is one of the greatest stories ever told, but it is a very good one. It, too, has a flat narrative arc. I will reread it a number of times. While I think a lot of his fans will be put off by it, and he knows this, but the fact that he created it and felt strong enough to see it through to publication moves the needle, at least for me, back firmly into the “not asshole” side of the meter.