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Gene Wolfe once said that being an only child whose parents are dead
is like being the sole survivor of drowned Atlantis. There was a whole
civilization there, an entire continent, but it's gone. And you alone
That's my story too, my father having died when I was six, my mother
when I was eighteen. Brian Aldiss believes that if you look at the
life of any novelist, you'll find an early traumatic break, and mine
seems no exception.
I was born on the coast of South Carolina, where my parents liked
to vacation when there was almost nothing there at all. My father
was in some sort of middle management position in a large and growing
construction company. They'd built some of the Oak Ridge atomic facilities,
and paranoiac legends of "security" at Oak Ridge were part of our
family culture. There was a cigar-box full of strange-looking ID badges
he'd worn there. But he'd done well at Oak Ridge, evidently, and so
had the company he worked for, and in the postwar South they were
busy building entire red brick Levittown-style suburbs. We moved a
lot, following these projects, and he was frequently away, scouting
for new ones.
It was a world of early television, a new Oldsmobile with crazy rocket-ship
styling, toys with science fiction themes. Then my father went off
on one more business trip. He never came back. He choked on something
in a restaurant, the Heimlich maneuver hadn't been discovered yet,
and everything changed.
My mother took me back to the small town in southwestern Virginia
where both she and my father were from, a place where modernity had
arrived to some extent but was deeply distrusted. The trauma of my
father's death aside, I'm convinced that it was this experience of
feeling abruptly exiled, to what seemed like the past, that began
my relationship with science fiction.
I eventually became exactly the sort of introverted, hyper-bookish
boy you'll find in the biographies of most American science fiction
writers, obsessively filling shelves with paperbacks and digest-sized
magazines, dreaming of one day becoming a writer myself.
At age fifteen, my chronically anxious and depressive mother having
demonstrated an uncharacteristic burst of common sense in what today
we call parenting, I was shipped off to a private boys' school in
Arizona. There, extracted grub-like and blinking from my bedroom and
those bulging plywood shelves, I began the forced invention of a less
Lovecraftian persona - based in large part on a chance literary discovery
a year or so before.
I had stumbled, in my ceaseless quest for more and/or better science
fiction, on a writer name Burroughs -- not Edgar Rice but William
S., and with him had come his colleagues Kerouac and Ginsberg. I had
read this stuff, or tried to, with no idea at all of what it might
mean, and felt compelled - compelled to what, I didn't know. The effect,
over the next few years, was to make me, at least in terms of my Virginia
home, Patient Zero of what would later be called the counterculture.
At the time, I had no way of knowing that millions of other Boomer
babes, changelings all, were undergoing the same metamorphosis.
In Arizona, science fiction was put aside with other childish things,
as I set about negotiating puberty and trying on alternate personae
with all the urgency and clumsiness that come with that, and was actually
getting somewhere, I think, when my mother died with stunning suddenness.
Dropped literally dead: the descent of an Other Shoe I'd been anticipating
since age six.
Thereafter, probably needless to say, things didn't seem to go very
well for quite a while. I left my school without graduating, joined
up with rest of the Children's Crusade of the day, and shortly found
my self in Canada, a country I knew almost nothing about. I concentrated
on evading the draft and staying alive, while trying to make sure
I looked like I was at least enjoying the Summer of Love. I did literally
evade the draft, as they never bothered drafting me, and have lived
here in Canada, more or less, ever since.
Having ridden out the crest of the Sixties in Toronto, aside from
a brief, riot-torn spell in the District of Columbia, I met a girl
from Vancouver, went off to Europe with her (concentrating on countries
with fascist regimes and highly favorable rates of exchange) got married,
and moved to British Columbia, where I watched the hot fat of the
Sixties congeal as I earned a desultory bachelor's degree in English
In 1977, facing first-time parenthood and an absolute lack of enthusiasm
for anything like "career," I found myself dusting off my twelve-year-old's
interest in science fiction. Simultaneously, weird noises were being
heard from New York and London. I took Punk to be the detonation of
some slow-fused projectile buried deep in society's flank a decade
earlier, and I took it to be, somehow, a sign. And I began, then,
And have been, ever since.
Google me and you can learn that I do it all on a manual typewriter,
something that hasn't been true since 1985, but which makes such an
easy hook for a lazy journalist that I expect to be reading it for
the rest of my life. I only used a typewriter because that was what
everyone used in 1977, and it was manual because that was what I happened
to have been able to get, for free. I did avoid the Internet, but
only until the advent of the Web turned it into such a magnificent
opportunity to waste time that I could no longer resist. Today I probably
spend as much time there as I do anywhere, although the really peculiar
thing about me, demographically, is that I probably watch less than
twelve hours of television in a given year, and have watched that
little since age fifteen. (An individual who watches no television
is still a scarcer beast than one who doesn't have an email address.)
I have no idea how that happened. It wasn't a decision.
I do have an email address, yes, but, no, I won't give it to you.
I am one and you are many, and even if you are, say, twenty-seven
in grand global total, that's still too many. Because I need to have
a life and waste time and write.
I suspect I have spent just about exactly as much time actually writing
as the average person my age has spent watching television, and that,
as much as anything, may be the real secret here.
6 Nov 2002
Introduction to AGRIPPA: A BOOK OF THE DEAD
By William Gibson
"AGRIPPA, A Book of the Dead" is a longish poem written in 1992 for
a multi-unit artwork to be designed by artist Dennis Ashbaugh and
"published" by art-guy Kevin Begos. Ashbaugh's design eventually included
a supposedly self-devouring floppy-disk intended to display the text
only once, then eat itself. Today, there seems to be some doubt as
to whether any of these curious objects were ever actually constructed.
I certainly don't have one myself. Meanwhile, though, the text escaped
to cyberspace and a life of its own, which I found a pleasant enough
outcome. But the free-range cyberspace versions are subject to bit-rot,
it seems, so we've decided to offer it here with the correct line-breaks,
"Agrippa" is the name of the particular model of Eastman Kodak photograph
album my father kept his snapshots in.
Click here for full text of Agrippa