Distrust That Particular Flavor (Putnam)
by Phil Freeman
I first found William Gibson‘s writing when I was in high school, and my small New Jersey town had two bookstores, one of which seemed determined to be the hip alternative to the other. They stocked George Carlin, and William Burroughs, and John Waters‘ Shock Value, and Gibson. I bought the Ace mass market paperback edition of Neuromancer, the one with the white cover, in about 1987. I tore through it like I was being timed, and as soon as I had more money went back to the same bookstore and picked up the other book available at that time, the slim short story collection Burning Chrome, which I devoured with equal avidity. Since then I have read every one of Gibson’s books, except for The Difference Engine, which was a) co-written by Bruce Sterling, a writer who leaves me cold, and b) set in Victorian times, so no thanks.
“Here is the William Gibson Plot, as iterated in every book from Neuromancer through Pattern Recognition: Young-ish but jaded person with some preternatural but utterly mediaverse-related skill/talent/ability is roped into a quest for some mysterious objay dart or cyborg critter that’s loping about the net causing disruption. Dark forces chase said young skilled/talented person, and ethically gray-area forces assist. By the end, multiple plotlines converge as young skilled/talented person comes face to face with the creator(s) of the objay dart, and everything winds down kinda ambiguously, but happily.”
I put that in quotes because I wrote it in 2007, somewhere else. But it’s still true, and its parameters can be expanded to include the two novels that have followed Pattern Recognition: 2007′s Spook Country, and 2011′s Zero History, which together finish out Gibson’s latest trilogy. There are three trilogies: the first one, Neuromancer/Count Zero/Mona Lisa Overdrive, was published in the ’80s; the second, Virtual Light/Idoru/All Tomorrow’s Parties, in the ’90s; and the most recent one in the 2000s.
In each case, the first book in the series is thrilling and pathbreaking, finding Gibson in new territory. Neuromancer, obviously, was a breakthrough for science fiction; Virtual Light is his funniest book; and Pattern Recognition is his most emotionally affecting, suffused with a genuine melancholy. The second book expands on the methods of the first, frequently with unwieldy results: Count Zero was Neuromancer lite, with one plotline too many; Idoru was a little too baroque for its own good; and Spook Country was a spy thriller with rock ‘n’ roll and art-scene skin-grafts. The third book of each trilogy is anticlimactic and undercooked: Mona Lisa Overdrive was so stripped-down it felt like a screenplay; All Tomorrow’s Parties was maybe Gibson’s only truly forgettable novel; and Zero History is literally about pants.
Distrust That Particular Flavor is a collection of Gibson’s nonfiction writing, most of which has appeared in glossy magazines, commissioned as it was after he’d already made a name for himself as a novelist. The pieces are frequently very short, and don’t say much. Reading them, I’m reminded of two characters in Richard Brautigan‘s novel Willard and His Bowling Trophies, who read to each other from an anthology of ancient Greek poetry. The poems are not always preserved in their entirety; some are just a few lines, and all that remains of one is the word “cucumbers.”
Some of the pieces chosen seem like particularly egregious attempts at padding: why is this piece (“Since 1948“) present, when it’s been the bio page on his website for years? Even the packaging reveals the slightness of the project; the hardcover is an inch or so shorter than the last three novels, and each piece is bracketed by colored pages, to grant heft to what would otherwise be an extremely slim volume indeed.
I continue reading Gibson because his characters and plots (even if they are variations of the same plot) are consistently interesting, and because his prose has the quality of sharpened crystals strung on fine wire—his sentences are beautiful. But this is easily the least essential book he’s ever published. If it was a CD, it would be subtitled “B-Sides and Rarities,” the better to ward off all but the most committed fans. Which I guess I am, since I went to the bookstore specifically seeking out an autographed copy (he’d been through two weeks earlier on tour), and got one.