There is a lesser-known HG Wells novel, 1907's The War in the Air, that describes an allied power engaged in airborne conflict with Germany. Seven years before the Great War, and 33 before the Battle of Britain, in some ways this is chillingly prescient. In others it is comical – the flying machines in question flap their wings like birds.
Present-day science-fiction author William Gibson recounts this story with glee. He says Wells so desperately wanted to be right, he crowed about his successful predictions in the forewords of later editions of the book. Gibson, despite a modicum of false modesty on his part, is a man credited as Wells' equal as a prophet.
Gibson is often referred to as the man who coined the term "cyberspace", in 1982, nine years before Tim Berners-Lee created the internet programming language HTML. Gibson's 2003 novel Pattern Recognition describes a minority population obsessed by online video clips, two years before YouTube started casting visual titillation across the world's computer screens.
Speaking shortly after the UK publication of his latest work, Spook Country, Gibson claims the present provides him with as much fascination as the future. He emphasises that what interests him, like Wells, is the way people use technology, and seek to pervert it. When pressed to predict, he will describe a plastic-free tomorrow; a world in which the computerised and physical worlds become less clear-cut; a place where people's social standing is defined by their "connectivity", or access to communications technology. "It won't be a lack of money that defines you," he continues, describing how in his Canadian home, being "plugged in" is chillingly ubiquitous. And he doesn't just mean that the rich have the gadgets. "In Vancouver sometimes I see homeless people with mobiles. You can go into 7-11 and buy these disposable phones. I always assume they are calling other homeless guys, or their mothers."
Gibson is slight; almost anoraky. He barely fills his denim shirt, Dockers pants and chunky trainers. He seems out of place in his swanky hotel drawing room, which he precisely describes as "a Ralph Lauren virtual reality with British/Scots overtones". His face – aided, not least, by his round specs – is a cross between Bill Gates techno-geek and a more socially acceptable version of Robert Crumb. His awkwardness is heightened by his speech; he leaves words hanging in the air for millennia, pondering his next sentence like a chess master.
Gibson believes that since he coined the term "cyberspace" – which has since made it into the Oxford English Dictionary – what the public thinks of as the internet has changed dramatically. When he first discussed this virtual world in his 1982 novel Burning Chrome, it was clear what the distinction between the "virtual" and the "physical" worlds was. One was defined by technology; the other features in our day-to-day lives. "The computer was where the bank kept o ur money and where the stock market was being conducted," he says. Since then, the boundary between these two spheres has blurred. Technology and computers pervade the world to such as degree that the exception in the future will be places or people who have no "connectivity".
"Now I think cyberspace is 'here' and the opposite of cyberspace, whatever that might be, is 'there'," he adds. "'There' is non-connectivity. 'There' is where we are when we've got no mobile, no Wi-Fi, no television, and it is this space that's becoming the exeption. In a decade or so, that gap will have widened. And it will have widened not through any astonishingly groovy new technology piggy-backing on all this stuff, but simply through the increasing ubiquity of the digital in our lives."
He cites flash-mobbing as an example of how these worlds have fused – a physical activity mediated by digital technology. The protagonists coordinate their efforts using mobiles. Beyond this, the colonisation will continue apace. "We are headed for a world where refrigerators and fountain pens have more RAM than a Mac."
And this futuristic place, he says, will be one in which global warming places constraints on the use of plastic. He points to the huge number of mobiles being thrown away in the US every day. A convenient solution, he says, would be some kind of "smart case" into which the latest digital innards could be placed, creating the latest gadget. This is far from the world he created in his early novels, such as 1984's Neuromancer, which featured everything from plastic jackets, cages and ashtrays."Every six months I could toss out the electronics. Now 'green think' is going to be the driver. Whether that will make the imaginary future of Neuromancer fabulously quaint, I don't know. But oil is not going to last for ever."
Gibson's early writing subverted the classical vision of a pristine future; it was full of junk, plastic detritus, wall-to-wall neon brands. His latest work certainly has the brands, a by-product of Gibson's writing process, which involves sitting at his desk and poring through product catalogues. But, like Pattern Recognition, Spook Country is set in the present day, not the future. It is a world divided on the basis of a paranoiac's nightmare: a GPS-defined grid. It is a place for locative art, a new virtual reality-style media that for those wearing a special helmet, transposes computer-generated images on to physical landmarks.
But while the book has a plot featuring war in Iraq, politics are background white noise. "I've really never wanted to be a didactic novelist. To be a novelist who works out an express political philosophy and then constructs little narratives supposedly to prove his point," he says. "I'm a firm believer in EM Forster's dictum that a novelist who is in control of his or her characters isn't doing his or her job at all. My characters would be looking at the invasion of Iraq and thinking, 'That's some fucked-up shit'. But they would only care to the extent that it affects them, or might recognise it as being part of the mythology from which their world comes."
Gibson's world revolves around novelty, he claims. Once upon a time he would spend hundreds of dollars a month on magazines, or "aggregators of novelty" as he terms them, for ideas. But now he has turned elsewhere. He is very particular about where he goes for inspiration. While he says most modern television is "content-less" he is an evangelist for YouTube, somewhere he can constantly feed his lust for learning. Here, he can indulge his appetite for the profound and the whimsical.
While he rants about the hitherto undiscovered beauty of a 1967 François Hardy, and a 1937 jazzy version of The Mikado at New York's World Fair, he also talks about more jarring images. The first is a wartime dispatch from the front line in Iraq. A soldier is filming from under a bed, and screaming – from either pain or terror – can be heard nearby. "As a piece of cinema it is incomprehensible. But imagining the conditions under which it was filmed rattled me," he says. "It's not any kind of formal horrors-of-war footage, just these little bird's -eye views." The other piece of footage is an "illegal" shot of Ground Zero filmed shortly after 9/11, that was taken down from the web almost as quickly as it was put up.
But while Gibson enjoys the content on YouTube, he is reasonably scathing about the innovative qualities of many other internet sites; many of which he claims are doing nothing new. "Facebook makes me a bit nervous," he says. "It's a place where age may get in the way. But it's a prosthesis for doing something we've always done."
So what's next: hasn't "ecologically aware" science fiction already been done? "I've been asking myself that lately," he continues. "I don't really have any answers yet. [JG] Ballard is prescient in very scary ways. But I'm not as interested in how technology works as I am with what people are doing with it. I might find my way into how people decided that the climate is not going to get better. Or some kind of horribly long, slow apocalypse. Although it doesn't sound much fun."
Like Wells' flying machines, Gibson believes the prescience of his work will melt away over time. And, again with typical modesty, he recounts this with detached amusement. "We have always wanted to appear far-sighted but it's not what it's about. There's too much of a medicine show in science fiction. That's always bullshit. There's nothing quainter than an obsolete future."