William Gibson: “Bleak House Is the Best Steampunk Landscape That Will Ever Be”

From The Paris Review interviewWilliam Gibson on on Charles Dickens’s Bleak House

INTERVIEWER

The Victorians invented science fiction.

GIBSON

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.

 

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