Network Realism: William Gibson and new forms of Fiction

October 25, 2010

I recently spoke at Web Directions South in Sydney, which was a lot of fun. I was invited to talk about the future of the book, and I did… sort of. In this post, I want to expand on some of the thoughts in that talk, which tied together a common thread from several previous discussions, and see if I can do some old-fashioned lit crit too. It’s going to be a bit hand-wavey, but I wanted to put something out there. Here goes. Link to original talk at the end.

Network Realism

I recently read William Gibson’s new novel Zero History. I read it with Kindle on the iPad, so I took a lot of notes, which I’d love to show you, but I can’t—yet—so I’ll have to actually review it. It was interesting.

The first thing that really hits you about Zero History, once you get past some truly terrible editing and dialogue and if, like me, you live in London and hang out with a lot of web-type people, is how close Gibson seems to be—geographically, and temporally.

First: the geography. Despite describing one character as being “in a post-geographical” position, most of the locations are very real: identifiable London parks and side-streets.

If you’d told my 13-year-old Neuromancer-reading self that one day Gibson would forsake Chiba and the Sprawl for Caffè Nero and the Hanger Lane Gyratory System, I think I would have cried.

The real kicker, however, is time.

Ever since Neuromancer, the work feels like its been getting closer. Gibson’s last novel, 2007’s Spook Country, which I found strangely frustrating, if fascinating, felt like it was set about six months in the future. Locative art, all that GPS stuff: it happened as Gibson predicted, pretty quickly. Just-in-time futurism.

Zero History is happening right now. It’s as if all of his writing has been concertinaed down into today. Liveblogging the present.

Given publishing’s long lead times, this is quite an achievement. But writing anything that feels so explicitly now, almost to the day, is an achievement in itself. I’d go as far as to say that you have to have been writing future Science Fiction for 25 years in order to write so convincingly about the present.

Gibson isn’t interested in a real plot: evidenced by the gaping holes in his; the loose ends; and his utter candidness, in interviews and in the acknowledgements, about macguffins and the sources of his ideas. He’s interested in form.

(And, as Matt says, detail: “Gibson’s novels [are] predominantly about the noticing of details”. iPhones are mentioned not only as signifiers of a particular type of technophile, but as timestamps. International Klein Blue is a way of talking about branding and fashion and art in a single reference. Jalopnik has a nice piece on the cars of Zero History. I’m not going to comment further on the shark-jumping Ekranoplan, except to say that, of the many available candidates, my Bigend is most like Hagbard Celine.)

Strange things happen when you read the book: present and near-future combine. Gibson has spoken before about the networked, Google-age way in which he writes: You’re annotated out there.

Gibson: Yeah it’s sort of like there’s this nebulous extended text. […] Everything is hyperlinked now. Some of it you actually have to type it in to get it, but it’s all hyperlinked. It really changes things. I’m sure a lot of writers haven’t yet realized how it changes things, but I find myself googling everything that goes into the text, and sometimes being led off in a completely different direction. So are you able to google during your writing day, or do you have to block that off and say, all right–

Gibson: No, I’ve got Word open on top of Firefox. [Source]

The readers thing is obvious. As soon as a character in Zero History asserts that it’s possible to erase a rival’s corporate network by firing a Taser into a LAN socket, you’re straight on Google and reading Information Warfare – Part 1—almost certainly the same document that Gibson read.

Quite soon, you realise that this is true for pretty much everything in the book. When I first read about the flying Penguin-shaped AR drones on which a couple of plot points turn, their strangeness seemed something truly of the future, authentically Gibsonian—but only a couple of days later someone twittered a link to the manufacturer’s videos:

Likewise, the world becomes increasingly Gibsonian—Bigendian—when you’re reading the books. After my talk I went to Galeries Victoria in Sydney’s Central Business District, a shopping centre that’s like a slice of Tokyo; one city collapsing into another. In the basement, Chinese staff serve Turkish pides to Japanese locals. Upstairs, Gabriel Hounds is on display, if not actually in stock.

So, if Gibson was originally writing “on top of Firefox”, he’s now writing on top of Twitter.

The stream contains references, mixed up, to Prada shoes and Idoru dancers. All links. All references, premade scenes waiting to be pulled into the flow of fiction. When the Festo drones appear in the text, they appear in the same location, same architecture as in those product videos. The network’s readymades.

Gibson on Twitter

Gibson’s been talking a lot lately about atemporality, this idea that we live in a sort of endless digital now. In “Zero History” we have an echo of “No Future”: everything compressed into the present. This idea is what Zero History is really about. (This is the Order Flow: the future is defined by the present; who pinpoints the present controls the future.)

While not one to contradict Gibson himself, I’m not sure I buy this exactly: indeed, the wikihistoriography project was, in part, a refutation of this view. But it’s undeniable that something is happening, a network effect produced by the sudden visibility of just how unevenly distributed those futures are.

I want to give it a name, and at this point I’m calling it Network Realism.

Network Realism is writing that is of and about the network. It’s realism because it’s so close to our present reality. A realism that posits an increasingly 1:1 relationship between Fiction and the World. A realtime link. And it’s networked because it lives in a place that’s that’s enabled by, and only recently made possible by, our technological connectedness.

Zero History is Network Realism because of the way that it talks about the world, and the way its knowledge of the world is gathered and disseminated. Gibson seems to be navigating the spider graph of current reality as wikiracing does human knowledge.

What many people—including me—have been bothered about with Zero History is it’s lack of futureness. Matt took Gibson’s comment that “We have too many cards in play to casually erect believable futures” to mean that “Science Fiction is losing the timeline”. Russell is depressed by the lack of future in SciFi and much else. And I wrote, reading the book, “The problem is not that we don’t have jetpacks, but that no one is writing about jetpacks.”

I think these are misreadings of Network Realism. This writing exists on a timeline, but it’s not a simple line back-to-the-past and forward-to-the-future. It’s a gathering-together of many currently possible worldlines, seen from the near-omniscient superposition of the network. The Order Flow of the Universe. Speculative Realism, Networked Fiction: Network Realism.


If I’m writing the first outline of Network Realism—a manifesto can’t be far behind—then we need some other examples. There are a couple of things that I think are shades of Network Realism—maybe, maybe not. Anyway:

Xan Brooks’ coverage of John Isner and Nicolas Mahut’s epic Wimbledon match—a sports liveblog that veered off into fiction, became a zombie story—inhabits the same territory, even if it came to it by another path. Fiction constructed in real time, by and in the network.

And the works collected in Robin Sloan’s Ash Cloud Tales—in fact, pretty much all the Volcano Fictions—belong to this too: literature of and enabled by the network. Perhaps not individually, but collectively. A literature of the digital diaspora, not epistolic but electronic. Here and Not Here, but Together.

Network Realism lives in the near-future practicality of Cory Doctorow’s Makers—the first third, at least. It’s realism because it’s happening right now; it couldn’t exist without the network.

Future scholars of Network Realism will have to decide if information visualisation and in particular projects like We Feel Fine fit into this definition. I suspect not, because I want to keep this to literature, and capital-A Authors, but I suspect there’s a connection. Perhaps in data griotism or whatever we end up calling that.

A New Form For A New Era

Most writers haven’t noticed yet, says Gibson. We live in strange, new times. New eras require new forms, as Sydney Harbour Bridge reminds us—in fact, they produce them, out of themselves, out of their conditions. Network Realism feels, to me, like something genuinely new in literature, and we’re only just seeing the edges of it.


The slides and an audio recording of the original talk are available on the Web Directions website.

1 Comment

  1. Thoughts on James Bridle’s post about Network Realism….

    Trackback by Phil Gyford's Writing — October 26, 2010 @ 2:33 pm

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