William Gibson on the cyberpunk obsession with brands

Paul Raven @ 08-04-2010

Having recently completed his forthcoming novel Zero History, William Gibson is kicking back at his blog and fielding questions from the intertubes; if you want an insight into the man’s attitudes and philosophies (toward his work, and the world in general), you’d be well advised to tune in.

This one particularly caught my eye, because it calls out a foible I’ve always noticed in Gibson’s writing (and Chairman Bruce’s, too, though to a different degree) – his fetish for explicitly dropping in brand names and obsessional detail about clothing, hardware and vehicles. Gibson’s justification is charming, not least because I’ve always had a similar sort of obsession*:

Q Why do you seem obsessed with brand name apparel et al in Pattern Recognition and Spook Country?

A You ain’t seen nothing, yet! Actually the new one may explain that, a bit. Or just further convince some people that I’m obsessed. It’s one of the ways in which I feel I understand how the world works, and there aren’t really that many of those. It’s not about clothes, though, or branding; it’s about code, subtext. I was really delighted, for instance, to learn who made George Bush’s raincoats. A company in Little Rock (now extinct, alas) but they were made of Ventile, a British cotton so tightly woven that you can make fire hoses (and RAF ocean survival suits) out of it. Which exists because Churchill demanded it, because the Germans had all the flax production sewn up. No flax, no fire hoses for the Blitz. The cultural complexities that put that particular material on Bush’s back delight me deeply; it’s a kind of secret history (and not least because most people would find it fantastically boring, I imagine).

Brands are stories, in and of themselves. I wonder if the cultural histories of consumer goods are one of the few types of narrative that can survive postmodern erosion?

[ * There's a part of me that always hates noting similarities like this, because it feels like my brain trying to tell me "oh yeah, you're just like him, bravo you!" Anyone else get that kind of feeling when they read author interviews or blogs? ]

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One Response to “William Gibson on the cyberpunk obsession with brands”

  1. Sarah Ennals says:

    I would also suggest that if your setting is a post-industrial world, then brand names (real or made-up) are one of the details that make it convincing – I recall, as a kid, being actually disturbed by the sets of the movie Dick Tracy, because the production designer’s efforts to make them resemble an old comic book included very generic signage on everything, and a certain lack of texture – it felt like a world that, for better or worse, could never become familiar, no matter how long you lived there.

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