pyrotechnics & the readerly crisis

lance olsen
© 1992


"This process of cultural mongrelization seems to be what postmodernism is all about," Gibson affirms. "The result is a generation of people (some of whom are artists) whose tastes are wildly eclectic — the kind of people who are hip to punk music and Mozart, who seem to rent these terrible horror and SF movies from the 7-Eleven most nights but who will occasionally call you up to go see mud wrestling or a poetry reading."(69) Ideas of compartmentalization and hierarchism crumble in the postmodern imagination. The effect for many readers is liberating. For others, whose imaginations are shaped by a modernist education based on laws of canonization that presuppose a distinction between "high" and "low" culture, between "good" and "bad" art, the effect is threatening. It problematizes the very foundations of conventional aesthetic judgment. Postmodern writing, for better or worse, becomes Einsteinian network rather than Newtonian monolith. It becomes, as Roland Barthes suggests, "a tissue of quotations drawn from the innumerable centres of culture."(70)

It is not difficult to see this in Gibson's project on a generic level. Most often considered a science fiction writer, Gibson employs various extrapolations of technology or pseudo-technology. But he also appropriates stylized cowboys, scouts, and bad guys, the adventurous frontier mentality, and motifs of the shoot-out and barroom brawl from the western. From the spy thriller, which portrays a Pynchonesque vision of contemporary reality, he borrows convoluted plot, ideas of international conspiracy, and vast bewildering political or corporate powers, secret agents, and evil henchmen. He lifts lowlife sleuths and criminals, archetypal tough guys, mysteries solved through the collection and interpretation of clues, seedy underworld settings, clipped prose, and sparse dialogue from the hard-boiled detective genre. He adopts a sense of pervasive magic, and horror, ghosts, long underground passageways, and dark staircases from the gothic novel, and formal distortions, bizarre characters, decadent settings, absurd incongruity, and a fascination with the irrational and abnormal from the southern grotesque tradition. From the tradition of the Erziehungsroman, he takes the plot of education that traces the psychological journey of a youth from innocence to experience, like Bobby in Count Zero and Kumiko in Mona Lisa Overdrive.

Writing-as-network also evinces itself in individual passages. The following, which occurs at the outset of Neuromancer, is indicative of Gibson's fiction, and may serve as an introduction to how to read Gibson closely. Here, Case returns to his sleeping compartment from a hard day only to meet Molly for the first time:

Fluorescents came on as he crawled in.

"Close the hatch real slow, friend. You still got that Saturday night special you rented from the waiter?"

She sat with her back to the wall, at the far end of the coffin. She had her knees up, resting her wrists on them; the pepperbox muzzle of a flechette pistol emerged from her hands. . . . She wore mirrored glasses. Her clothes were black, the heels of black boots deep in the temperfoam. . . . She shook her head. He realized the glasses were surgically inset, sealing her sockets. The silver lenses seemed to grow from smooth pale skin above her cheekbones, framed by dark hair cut in a rough shag. The fingers curled around the fletcher were slender, white, tipped with polished burgundy. The nails looked artificial. . . .

"So what do you want, lady?" He sagged back against the hatch.

"You. One live body, brains still somewhat intact. Molly, Case. My name's Molly. I'm collecting you for the man I work for. Just wants to talk, is all. Nobody wants to hurt you."

"That's good."

"'Cept I do hurt people sometimes, Case. I guess it's just the way I'm wired." She wore tight black gloveleather jeans and a bulky black jacket cut from some matte fabric that seemed to absorb light . . . . The fletcher vanished into the black jacket . . . . "You try to fuck around with me, you'll be taking one of the stupidest chances of your whole life."

She held out her hands, palms up, the white fingers slightly spread, and with a barely audible click, ten double-edged, four-centimeter scalpel blades slid from their housings beneath the burgundy nails.

She smiled. The blades slowly withdrew. (N chap. 1)

As Paul Alkon astutely comments, emphasis falls not on scientific detail but on the marvelous. Unlike much science fiction that depends on gadgetry for its effects, Gibson's work usually focuses on the magic inherent in a situation. Here the scene partakes of motifs associated to a large extent with "pulp fiction transformed to a futuristic setting with some appropriate changes of costume, decor and vocabulary" — until, that is, Molly reveals the scalpel blades inset in her fingertips.(71) Suddenly, the world tilts. Molly becomes, not a tough-gal from a hard-boiled detective novel, but a sorceress. The universe of technology slips since "it is very hard to understand how a four-centimeter (1.6 inch) retractable blade along with even a highly miniaturized motor-mechanism could be implanted without impeding ability to bend the fingers at their first joints, although some ingenious explanation could doubtless be offered."(72) By refusing to explain the technology behind this scene, Gibson as usual underscores the scene's astonishing aspects, thereby taking it out of the realm of science fiction and places it firmly in the realm of the marvelous. Much the same happens to the cyberspace matrix when Gibson introduces voodoo gods into it. Like Tzvetan Todorov's fantastic, Gibson's work tends to keep two possibilities open at once: with this scene, technology/magic; with the cyberspace matrix, technology/religion. Perhaps employing such a strategy helps account for Brin's assertion that Gibson, along with other cyberpunks, "prefer[s] to craft 'scientist' characters who behave exactly like the magicians and wizards of fantasy."(73)

This strategy is also another case of writing-as-network. In a single passage, Gibson not only brings together the universes of fantasy and science fiction, but also those of the detective novel (the dingy setting, clipped prose, and tough-guy dialogue), the western (Molly's boots, gun, and black clothes suggest the archetypal evil cowboy), the spy thriller (Molly, part secret agent and part lowlife henchman, introduces the conspiracy plot here), and the realist novel (the description of the sleeping compartment is an accurate one of Japan's current low-cost business hotel rooms). Little wonder, therefore, that a sense of the artificial pervades this scene from the fluorescent lights to the fact that Molly is literally "wired" differently from most humans. Like Molly, who is an amalgamation of technology and humanity, the text itself is an amalgamation of various narrative modes. By mongrelizing discursive worlds, Gibson mongrelizes the beliefs about existence those discursive worlds suggest. Compartmentalization and hierarchism gone, each discursive world becomes simply one of many, relatively as good or bad as any other. Thus devalued, each discursive world becomes one more instance of gomi, refusing humanist ideas of totality, absolute significance, and closure.

Rirdan faults Gibson's prose style on a number of grounds, including the fact that it both is "ambiguous" and embraces "mystification for the sake of mystification."(74) But, given the preceding, it is clear that ambiguity and mystification are exactly what Gibson is after. In a characteristic move, Gibson "mystifies" the above scene from the start by giving the reader dialogue without accompanying tags: Molly speaks without the reader knowing it is she who is speaking; then she is described; but through a narrative slight-of-hand she isn't named until nearly two-thirds of the way through the passage. In addition, again characteristically, futurist concepts and devices like the "coffin" and "flechette pistol" are cited long before they have been explained, so that the reader has the impression he or she has missed the explanation. Frequently one must glean meaning from context (as with the word "coffin" here), and sometimes one must wait pages for illumination (as with the word "ghost" in the first sentence of Mona Lisa Overdrive). The effect is close to that of the cinematic jump cut found in MTV videos that produces discontinuity in filmic time while drawing attention to the medium itself. It is as though, as Donald Barthelme has claimed in another context, that, just as modern painters had to reinvent painting because of the discovery of photography, so contemporary writers have had to reinvent writing because of the discovery of film.(75)

The reader is further disoriented by the Pynchonesque premium Gibson's style places on poetic information density. Gibson is infatuated with detail and inventory, from the pepperbox muzzle of the flechette pistol to Molly's heels sinking into the temperfoam, from Molly's hairstyle to the color of her fingernails. This infatuation is foreign to most science fiction, and much conventional fiction as well. Gibson regularly loads his sentences with a blend of high-tech jargon, brand names, street slang, and acronyms that lends an overall sense of urgency, intensity and at times congestion to his style. He commonly uses prose as others might use poetry. Words like "cyberspace" and "black matte" are repeated with the incantational power of figurative language. A title like "Burning Chrome" functions initially at a purely metaphorical and oxymoronic level with its connotations of heat, rage, desire, animation, and life on the one hand, and of coolness, sleekness, dispassion, inanimation, and technology on the other; only well into the story by that name does the reader discover that "burning" means "sabotaging a computer system" and that "Chrome" is a woman's name.

Gibson utilizes colors with a similar poetic intensity. In the above passage, as in much of Gibson's fiction, black and white dominate and tend to occur in succession. Molly's jacket, jeans, boots, and presumably hair are black and seem "to absorb light," just as Molly is in the process of "absorbing" Case into a deadly conspiracy. Her cheekbones and fingers are white; rather than traditional associations of innocence and purity, though, this color in Gibson's work carries associations with the pale skin worn by the living dead like the Draculas in Mona Lisa Overdrive who possess "bone-thin, bone-white faces" (chap. 32). Gray, the color that appears with the next greatest frequency in Gibson's fiction, and that is negatively associated with such things as Mona's "suits" (or johns), the dead earth, and the aleph, is absent in this passage, but its metallic double, silver, appears in Molly's mirrorshades and, apparently, her scalpel blades. Silver is ordinarily associated with the technological in Gibson, as is its near cousin, chrome. Black, white and silver coalesce here in a visual pun that transforms Molly into a femme fatale, a "catty" woman who is half-animal, half-machine.

Three significant metaphors inform the passage: 1) the lenses of Molly's mirrorshades seem to "grow" from the skin above her cheekbones; 2) Molly acts violently because she is "wired" that way; 3) her clothes seem to "absorb light." This again is indicative of Gibson's poetic prose. While a number of rather conventional metaphors occur in Gibson's fiction, simply linking attributes of two objects from some generally similar category, the most interesting ones often link something natural with something artificial. Mirrorshades "grow" like plants out of Molly's skin. Molly's behavior is "wired" like a machine. Her clothes "absorb light" like a black hole. Or, elsewhere in Neuromancer, the sky is "the color of television, turned to a dead channel" (chap. 1), a silk scarf is patterned like microcircuits (chap. 1), and young men and woman hang-gliding are "machines built for racing" (chap 10). If the romantic metaphor makes nature familiar and technology unfamiliar, these postmodern metaphors make nature unfamiliar and technology familiar. As Richard Kearney asserts concerning the postmodern imagination in general: "The contemporary eye is no longer innocent. What we see is almost invariably informed by prefabricated images. There is, of course, a fundamental difference between the image of today and of former times: now the image precedes the reality it is supposed to represent."(76)

Such metaphors partake in the aesthetics of the unpleasant, which has its roots in the poetry of Eliot in the twentieth century, Baudelaire in the nineteenth. For Gibson, a road is "dead straight, like a neat incision, laying the city open" (N chap 7). Turner's hands are "distant creatures, pale undersea things that lived a life of their own far down at the bottom of some unthinkable Pacific trench" (CZ chap. 14). The plot of a soap opera is "a multiheaded narrative tapeworm that coiled back in to devour itself every few months, then sprouted new heads hungry for tension and thrust" (CZ chap. 9). Given such astonishing use of language, it may easily be argued that Gibson's focus is not on conventional plot at all, but on accumulation of detail and turns of phrase. Gibson's fiction is less about what happens, or to whom, or where, than it is about style. Like Molly herself in the above passage, Gibson's is a fiction of artifice. In this way, Gibson (as he says) is "definitely of the termite school" in that he tends to zero in on "the little corners of things more than the way the whole thing looks."(77)

Gibson adopts the idea of the "termite school" from a 1962 essay by the iconoclastic film critic Manny Farber. Farber distinguishes between two kinds of art. The first, for which he holds nothing but contempt, is White Elephant Art. This is the art that embraces the idea of "well-regulated area, both logical and magical," embodied by the films of François Truffaut. Proponents of this neoclassical "school" produce tedious pieces that are "ungiving and puzzling," "clogging weight-density-structure-polish amalgam[s] associated with self-aggrandizing masterwork[s]," reminiscent of Rube Goldberg's perpetual-motion machines. The second kind of art, which Farber advocates, is Termite Art. This is the art that stands opposed to "gilt culture," embracing freedom and multiplicity, embodied by the films of Laurel and Hardy. Proponents of this neoromantic "school" produce pieces that go "always forward eating [their] own boundaries, and, likely as not, leave nothing in [their] path other than the signs of eager, industrious, unkempt activity." A kind of postmodernism, Termite Art has no goal except to devour its own boundaries, fuse genres, and create a space "where the spotlight of culture is nowhere in evidence, so that the craftsman can be ornery, wasteful, stubbornly self-involved, doing go-for-broke art and not caring what comes of it."(78)

Often Gibson's emphasis on writing-as-network, ambiguity, mystification for mystification's sake, information density, obsession with detail, highly metaphoric prose, and the aesthetics of the unpleasant adds up to a sense of confusion and uneasiness on the reader's part. Dropped without much exposition into an alien and sometimes obscure futureworld, the reader is put in the uncomfortable position of having to make decisions about meaning and moral value based on very little textual evidence. If trained as a modernist, ready to search for patterns of intelligibility, the reader experiences an analogue of what John Brunner calls "overload" and Ted Mooney "information sickness," a radical disorientation before a plethora of facts that might or might not connect. All fiction is at least in part a kind of game, essentially gratuitous, an end in itself. Play is a voluntary activity that creates order and hence "meaning" in a limited environment, and usually in play there are three kinds of players: those who play by the rules, those who cheat, and those who refuse to play. But postmodern fiction differs from other kinds of fiction both by acknowledging its existence as game in an extremely self-conscious way, and by adding a fourth kind of player to the game. This fourth player, an emblem of the reader, is one who very much wants to play but does not know the rules, and hence cannot win. For a modernist reader, this is a particularly unpleasant role in which to find oneself. For a postmodern reader, this is simply one more example of the need to be a flexible shockwave rider.

Gibson reminds us about this numerous times in the course of his fiction. At the end of Count Zero, Turner gives Angie a biosoft dossier and says: "It doesn't tell the whole story. Remember that. Nothing ever does" (chap. 34). The dossier, like the novel itself, supposedly holds a narrative that should make sense of things. But at the same time Gibson offers the possibility of significance and closure with one hand, he subjects the possibility to contradiction or cancellation with the other. Just as the dossier (to which neither Angie nor the reader gains access in Count Zero) "doesn't tell the whole story," so too the novel itself promises meaning only to defer meaning to its sequel, Mona Lisa Overdrive, which itself concludes, not with illumination, but with a promise that truth is just around the corner, and that we'll arrive there "in a New York minute" (chap. 45) — though, ironically, Mona Lisa Overdrive is the last book in the trilogy, and the only "meaning" the reader can obtain in a New York minute is to return to the beginning of the trilogy and start reading again in an endless cycle. The story almost makes sense, but not quite. The almost-making-sense seems to indicate meaning has only been deferred temporarily. But that is not the case. Meaning, it slowly dawns on the reader, is contained in the failure to achieve meaning.

Perhaps the best advice to the modernist reader, fraught with frustration, disorientation, and the perpetually nagging feeling he or she has just missed something in Gibson's fiction, comes from Slick Henry in Mona Lisa Overdrive. At one point Gentry, the mainframe mystic obsessed with the metaphysics of cyberspace, launches into a complex "explanation" of the aleph into which Bobby is plugged. "As always," the narrator says, speaking from Slick's point of view, "once Gentry got going, he used words and constructions that Slick had trouble understanding, but Slick knew from experience that it was easier not to interrupt him; the trick was in pulling some kind of meaning out of the overall flow, skipping over the parts you didn't understand" (chap. 21). It is a mistake to read Gibson with a Pynchonesque paranoid abandon, trying to connect everything with everything; the result will be a modernist's anger and anxiety. Often things will not connect, and ultimately Gibson intends to leave a number of large and small questions unanswered. It is impossible, for example, to know whether the United States still exists as a political entity in the matrix trilogy, even though much of the action apparently takes place in them, and it is impossible to locate Dog Solitude in the trilogy's geography. It is as fruitless to ask whether Gibson embraces or eschews technology as it is to ask how those four-centimeter retractable blades could fit in Molly's fingers, or what precisely those voodoo gods are that seem to inhabit the matrix. Rather than worrying about words and constructions one has trouble understanding, the reader is best off keeping in mind that Gibson is deliberately giving him or her trouble in order to raise fundamental questions about the nature of meaning, humanity's need to make cosmos out of chaos, and humanity's increasing inability to do so as it moves into a new millennium. The "trick" to reading Gibson is to pull some kind of meaning out of the overall flow, skip over the parts one doesn't understand, and delight in Gibson's dazzlingly imaginative pyrotechnics at the level of scene and sentence. And, most of all, enjoy the shockwave.


69 McCaffery, "Interview," 220.

70 Roland Barthes, "The Death of the Author," in Image Music Text, tr. Stephen Heath (New York: Hill and Wang, 1977), 146.

71 Paul Alkon, "Deus Ex Machina in William Gibson's Cyberpunk Trilogy," paper delivered at the Fiction 2000 conference at the University of Leeds, June 28-July 1, 1989, 6-7.

72 Alkon, 8.

73 Brin, 25.

74 Rirdan, 44.

75 Donald Barthelme, "Symposium on Fiction," in Shenandoah 27.2 (1976), 3-31.

76 Richard Kearny, The Wake of the Imagination (Minneapolis: U Minnesota P, 1988), 2.

77 Takayuki Tatsumi, "An Interview with William Gibson," in Science Fiction Eye 1.1 (Winter 1987), 7.

78 Manny Farber, "White Elephant Art vs. Termite Art," in Negative Space (New York: Praeger Publishers, Inc., 1971), 134-144. Gibson read this while attending UBC, and says it is one of the few essays that directly influenced his aesthetics.