twenty minutes into the future

lance olsen
© 1992


Much conventional science fiction, such as Isaac Asimov's Foundation trilogy (1951-1953), is typically set in the distant future, peopled with aliens, and enacted on a galactic and heroic scale. Gibson's science fiction, on the other hand, extrapolates an all-too-real near-future world that is set as little as twenty or thirty years from now, peopled with those at the margins of society, and enacted on a global and antiheroic scale. Uncomfortable with the safety that traditional science fiction's distance in time, strange creatures, and cosmic scope creates, Gibson limns the decadent and dystopic universe of late capitalism filled with powerful amoral multinational corporations, pollution, urban sprawl and designer drugs. He sees no reason to predict the unknowable far future which, as in a film such as Star Wars (1977), often comes to resemble the chivalric past of romance where goodness, stability, and order prevail in a better-than-life universe dominated by ideals of courage and honor. Gibson bases his world on contemporary reality that for him is "more accurate in an iconic sense than as a map of where we're going."(55)

Like Faulkner and his Yoknapatawpha County, Gibson creates a single fictional universe for many works. Its geography and time frame are often deliberately vague. The reader often has the impression that civilization has already peaked, that there's nowhere to go but down. World War III has occurred, apparently lasting only three weeks and centered in Bonn and Beograd. Because of a pandemic, horses are extinct. Printed books have become fashionably archaic, and the most popular entertainment now takes the form of simstims or Simulated Stimuli, where by jacking into a machine one can experience the sensations and perceptions of another person. Paper money, now quasi-illegal, has been replaced for the most part by credit chips. Children, suggestive of innocence, are virtually absent, while claustrophobia, produced by rampant overpopulation, abounds; Kumiko in Mona Lisa Overdrive moves through "crowd-river[s]" (chap 11) and is startled when, almost thirteen years old, she sees her first empty street.

Having entered Bobby's cyberspace unit in Mona Lisa Overdrive, Slick Henry and Thomas Trail Gentry discover themselves walking through Straylight with a floor, reminiscent of one of Julian Schnabel's neoexpressionist works, or Antoni Gaudí's neo-Gothic Guell Park, fashioned from shattered china and epoxy. "Thousands of different patterns and colors in broken bits," Slick thinks, "but no overall design in how it had been put down, just random" (chap. 31). This serves as well as a description of Gibson's universe: fractured, confused, contingent, constructed of gomi (Japanese for garbage). A larger version of this is found in The Sprawl, the conurbation officially known as BAMA, the Boston-Atlanta Metropolitan Axis. In this "vast generic tumble that was [the twenty-first] century's paradigm of urban reality," trash overflows in the sidewalks, ruined buildings line the streets, and damaged geodesic domes inadvertently producing microclimates of drizzle and lightning look like Giovanni Piranesi's prison sketches (MLO chap. 22).

Pollution pervades the scene. The Sprawl has a "signature smell, a rich amalgam of stale subway exhalations, ancient soot, and the carcinogenic tang of fresh plastics, all of it shot through with the carbon edge of illicit fossil fuels" (CZ chap. 16). As early as Gibson's first story, "Fragments of a Hologram Rose," acid rain — "sour," "the color of piss" — forces the protagonist to don respirator and goggles to go outside. A poison administered to roaches to exterminate them has instead transformed them into mutants. Dead fish wash up on filthy Floridian shores. Dog Solitude stands as an emblem of it all: once a toxic landfill operation, it is now a vast rusty red wasteland where nothing grows, the water packed with PCBs is undrinkable, and no animals can live except birds who must go elsewhere to feed.

Japan, which Gibson initially visited only when delivering the manuscript of Mona Lisa Overdrive to his publishers there in 1988, dominates this fictional universe. Initially appearing in "Fragments of a Hologram Rose," where the protagonist, Parker, is indentured to the American subsidiary of a Japanese plastics combine when fifteen years old, Japan appears at every level from major settings to various seemingly insignificant background noise: stim-star magazines in Baltimore are written in Japanese, spacesuits and bathtub filtration devices are made by Japanese companies, and space shuttles play Japanese music. The prevalence of such Orientalia is partially the result of Gibson playing on a deep-seated American fear — that future global power probably won't be centered in America. But it also marks the gradual realization on the part of Americans that, as Grania Davis has pointed out in her foreword to a collection of Japanese science fiction stories, "the Japanese are already living in a version of the future — with its overcrowding, microelectronic gadgets, polluted environment, and efficient group-minds. The problems — and solutions — of the future are happening in Japan right now."(56) For Gibson, Japan is tomorrow happening today.

If Gibson imagines a frightening external universe in the Sprawl, Dog Solitude, and Japan, he imagines a mesmerizing internal one in the cyberspace matrix. Essentially "an abstract representation of the relationships between data systems," as the narrator of "Burning Chrome" explains, the cyberspace matrix surrounds the jacked-in computer programmer with "bright geometries representing . . . corporate data . . . . [The cyberspace matrix is] the electronic consensus-hallucination that facilitates the handling and exchange of massive quantities of data." Although Porush and others maintain Gibson's matrix is an extrapolation of spatial data management systems now being studied at MIT, NASA, and elsewhere, Gibson says the idea actually came to him while walking down Granville Street in Vancouver. He saw kids playing in video arcades and noticed "in the physical intensity of their postures how rapt these kids were . . . . And these kids clearly believed in the space these games projected."(57)

Originally no more than an abstract representation of data in his early stories and first novel, cyberspace metamorphoses over the course of Gibson's matrix trilogy. At the moment the two artificial intelligences, Neuromancer and Wintermute, merge at the end of Gibson's first novel, becoming a godlike unity of opposites, the newly generated entity fragments because it is lonely and wants to have some fun with itself. The result is the birth of a host of smaller gods or subprograms in the matrix that take on the names of voodoo deities. The idea for these came from an article on Haitian voodoo Gibson read in National Geographic. "It seemed to me that the underlying beliefs [of voodoo] were very appropriate to a computer society," he says. "With voodoo, the big God is very far away and totally unconcerned with mere human beings. Between you and the big God is a pantheon of greedy, lustful, sharp-operator gods, who are all part of a big, incestuous family."(58)

Gibson thus blends notions of religion and technology in cyberspace. But, just like the video arcades which initially spawned the matrix, both religion and technology are shown to be no more than games, abstract organizations of data that at best bear a distant relationship with reality. Perhaps the gods in the matrix are real. Perhaps they are no more than virus programs that have gotten loose in the matrix and replicated. Either they exist, or they don't. Or, from a different perspective, perhaps they both exist and do not exist simultaneously. That is to say, as Lucas observes in Count Zero, perhaps they have taken on the function of metaphor. "When Beauvoir or I talk to you about the loa and their horses . . . you should pretend that we are talking two languages at once," Lucas tells Bobby. "One of them, you already understand. That's the language of street tech . . . . But at the same time, with the same words, we are talking about other things, and that you don't understand" (chap. 16). Some need to organize their world using the language of religion, others the language of technology. Technology becomes a religion, religion a technology.

Although the existence of the alternate universe of cyberspace raises questions about the relationship between religion and technology, Gibson had other intentions in mind when creating it. For him, cyberspace is a metaphor for memory. Computer memory suggests both individual and cultural memory — and the fragility of both. At the same time, the matrix functions as a metaphor for the enormously complex linkages of the global information system, and for the mass media itself that acts as a drug on our culture's consciousness. According to Gibson, all one needs to do to arrive at such a reading is "think about someone completely immersed in television, watching a giant high-resolution screen, wearing Walkman earphones with the sound cranked up really loud, sitting close enough to the TV to have a total experience . . . On one level, cyberspace is a metaphor for the media world that forms a dangerously large part of some people's reality."(59)

The gothic quality of the cyberspace matrix, haunted by voodoo gods and spirits of the dead, implies as well the surreal landscape of the irrational psyche, which itself implies a metaphor for mind/body dualism. Characters who enter cyberspace leave their bodies behind, lose themselves in the mental landscape of the matrix. Case, for instance, lives for the "bodiless exultation of cyberspace" while exhibiting "a certain relaxed contempt for the flesh." For him "the body was meat." When he steals from his employers, they retaliate by damaging his nervous system with mycotoxin which dulls his edge at the computer console. Case perceives this as a "Fall" from grace that forces him to remain locked in "the prison of his own flesh" (N chap. 1).

Discussing the makeup of Gibson's external and internal universes soon evolves into a consideration of his central themes. If cyberspace is a metaphor for individual and cultural memory, then clearly Gibson intimates that we continually reprogram or rewrite our memories. In the world according to Gibson, history becomes fiction. Many of his characters, such as Kumiko and Molly, exhibit a certain nostalgia for a past they have rewritten almost beyond recognition. In "Red Star, Winter Orbit," Colonel Korolev, the first man on Mars, can't recall what actually happened during his historic voyage; all he can recollect are the videotapes of the experience. Sandii in "New Rose Hotel" tells her past differently to the narrator each time it comes up.

Memory, no matter how faulty, is information. Information is power. The person who controls the data flow controls the game. Consequently, Swain in Mona Lisa Overdrive redistributes intelligence he acquires from 3Jane, thus converting it into control, and Johnny Mnemonic in Gibson's early story knows that "we're an information economy. They teach you that in school. What they don't tell you is that it's impossible to move, to live, to operate at any level without leaving traces, bits, seemingly meaningless fragments of personal information. Fragments that can be retrieved." To let others know about you is to let others control you. Information wields power greater than monetary or military force.

Multinational corporations control most information, and hence dominate the landscape of Gibson's fiction. The production of original information is no longer the province of one mind, as it was in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (Frankenstein, Bell, Einstein). Now it is the province of a collective. Reminiscent of megacompanies like IG Farben and Yoyodyne that make up Them in Pynchon's universe, entities like Mass-Neotek, Hosaka, and Ono-Sendai, as well as quasi-aristocratic highorbit clans like Tessier-Ashpool, become amorphous and megalithic protagonists who divide, multiply, and operate across national boundaries, "entirely independent of the human beings who composed the body corporate" (MLO chap. 19). Megacompanies are more powerful than the people who compose them, more powerful than mere governments or armies. "The zaibatsus, the multinationals that shaped the course of human history, had transcended old barriers," the narrator of Neuromancer explains. "Viewed as organisms, they had attained a kind of immortality. You couldn't kill a zaibatsu by assassinating a dozen key executives." Suggestive of the wasp nest that Case tries to destroy, the multinationals are "hives with cybernetic memories, vast single organisms, their DNA coded in silicon" (chap. 17). Since no one person is in control of a multinational, anxiety surfaces; without knowing where authority is, an individual can't attack it effectively, and thus he or she feels defenseless.

Domination by multinationals is a manifestation of Gibson's sense that conventional reality is extremely unstable. The Other is always waiting at the periphery of one's vision, ready to invade the Self. In "The Gernsback Continuum," the narrator suffers from what his friend calls "a semiotic ghost": the American future predicted in the 1930s, complete with Art Deco gas stations and pencil sharpeners looking "as though they'd been put together wind tunnels," suddenly begins appearing in the 1980s. Our culture's imagination of a future that never happened infiltrates our contemporary world. Gibson thereby raises a series of ontological and epistemological questions designed to dislocate and destabilize everyday perceptions of being and knowing.

More frequent than the invasion of one world by another is the invasion of one body or mind by another. This underscores the fact that not only one's external, but even one's internal environment is unstable. An alien fuses with Coretti at the end of "The Belonging Kind." Armitage bonds fifteen toxin sacs containing mycotoxin to the lining of Case's main arteries in Neuromancer. Case accesses Molly's perceptions and enters her mind by means of the machine Finn sets up. Nance's parents in "Dogfight" have placed a chastity brainlock on her so she can't stand being touched by others, while Johnny Mnemonic's clients have inserted hundreds of megabytes of information he can't access into his head.

Gibson thereby interrogates the notion of selfhood, asking what exactly constitutes an individual and what it means to be human. He also interrogates the notion of the real. In a postmodern culture of simulacra, of the artificial (false eyes, limbs, and identities pervade Gibson's fiction), is there such a thing as authenticity, or is the only "reality" that which can be bought? Marly realizes that the "real becomes merely another concept" (CZ chap. 31), and Lucas that "things are seldom what they seem" (CZ chap. 19). Mona appears to be Angie, Armitage is really Corto, Virek has a number of different manifestations but in fact is no more than a chaos of cells kept alive in a support vat in Stockholm.

Animate and inanimate weld in Gibson's fiction. From a humanist's point of view (e.g., Kurt Vonnegut), the human becomes less than human. From a posthumanist's point of view (e.g., Bruce Sterling), the human becomes more than human. Humanity and machine coalesce in an act of immachination that carries many echoes, from Pynchon's SHOCK and SHROUD in V. (1963), to the fusion of man and rocket in Gravity's Rainbow (1973). Technology moves from the external to the internal, literally becoming part of us. The Yakuza assassin in "Johnny Mnemonic" possesses a jacked-up nervous system and a false thumb into which a weapon has been inserted. Lise in "The Winter Market" lives inside an artificial exoskeleton. Jack in "Burning Chrome" and Ratz in Neuromancer wear prosthetic arms. But if the human has become part machine, it has also become part animal. Dog, a gang member of the Lo Teks in "Johnny Mnemonic," has had a toothbud transplant from a Doberman, while the cab driver in "Fragments of a Hologram Rose" looks like an ant, and Molly in Neuromancer regards Case with an "insect calm" (chap. 2). This recalls a prevalent theme in nineteenth-century science fiction: "the brilliance of the scientific mind is set beside a seemingly correspondent degradation of the body."(60) The ugliness of "the meat, the flesh cowboys mocked" (N chap. 20), contrasts violently with the essential purity of cyberspace.

If, on the one hand, the human continually merges with machine and animal, then, on the other, the human continually loses aspects of itself. Characters in Gibson's fiction lose limbs, emotions, and recollections, and replace them with a quiet yearning for what they have lost. Emblematic is Slick in Mona Lisa Overdrive, who spent time in a chemopenal unit and now when placed under stress can muster consecutive memory for only five minutes at a stretch. His life becomes a series of strobed moments that lead nowhere. His personality, like so many others in Gibson's fiction, is defined by what it lacks.

Yet, perhaps contrary to some readers' expectations, many of the characters who frequent this postmodern pluriverse evince a powerful urge for survival. They refuse to capitulate in the face of a terrifying contemporary reality where change of place, personality, or physical attributes is as easy as entering a fast machine, taking a drug, or visiting a cosmetic surgeon. They become Brunneresque shockwave riders, able to undergo gratuitous and severe environmental, psychological, and physiological transformations without burning out. Like Pynchon's Tyrone Slothrop, Gibson's characters are highly suspicious of closed systems, stasis and certainty. They are wary of conventional modes and mores. For them, normality equals danger. The "perfect couple" in "The Belonging Kind," for instance, turns out to be part of a pack of reptilian creatures, while the "perfect couple" in "The Gernsback Continuum" turn out to be Nazis.


55 Hamburg, 84.

56 Grania Davis, "Foreword," in The Best Japanese Science Fiction Stories, ed. John L. Apostolou and Martin H. Greenberg (New York: Dembner Books, 1989), 12.

57 McCaffery, "Interview," 226.

58 Hamburg, 86.

59 ibid., 86.

60 C. N. Manlove, Science Fiction: Ten Explorations (Ohio: Kent State UP, 1986), 5.