William Gibson in the Paris Review.
It’s harder to imagine the past that went away than it is to imagine the future. What we were prior to our latest batch of technology is, in a way, unknowable. It would be harder to accurately imagine what New York City was like the day before the advent of broadcast television than to imagine what it will be like after life-size broadcast holography comes online. But actually the New York without the television is more mysterious, because we’ve already been there and nobody paid any attention. That world is gone.
My great-grandfather was born into a world where there was no recorded music. It’s very, very difficult to conceive of a world in which there is no possibility of audio recording at all. Some people were extremely upset by the first Edison recordings. It nauseated them, terrified them. It sounded like the devil, they said, this evil unnatural technology that offered the potential of hearing the dead speak. We don’t think about that when we’re driving somewhere and turn on the radio. We take it for granted.
In my lifetime I’ve been able to watch completely different narratives of history emerge. The history now of what World War II was about and how it actually took place is radically different from the history I was taught in elementary school. If you read the Victorians writing about themselves, they’re describing something that never existed. The Victorians didn’t think of themselves as sexually repressed, and they didn’t think of themselves as racist. They didn’t think of themselves as colonialists. They thought of themselves as the crown of creation.
Of course, we might be Victorians, too.
The Victorians invented science fiction.
I think the popular perception that we’re a lot like the Victorians is in large part correct. One way is that we’re all constantly in a state of ongoing technoshock, without really being aware of it—it’s just become where we live. The Victorians were the first people to experience that, and I think it made them crazy in new ways. We’re still riding that wave of craziness. We’ve gotten so used to emergent technologies that we get anxious if we haven’t had one in a while.
But if you read the accounts of people who rode steam trains for the first time, for instance, they went a little crazy. They’d traveled fifteen miles an hour, and when they were writing the accounts afterward they struggled to describe that unthinkable speed and what this linear velocity does to a perspective as you’re looking forward. There was even a Victorian medical complaint called “railway spine.”
Emergent technologies were irreversibly altering their landscape. Bleak House is a quintessential Victorian text, but it is also probably the best steampunk landscape that will ever be. Dickens really nailed it, especially in those proto-Ballardian passages in which everything in nature has been damaged by heavy industry. But there were relatively few voices like Dickens then. Most people thought the progress of industry was all very exciting. Only a few were saying, Hang on, we think the birds are dying.