who was that man?

lance olsen
© 1992

 

This ain't rock'n'roll. This is genocide!
—David Bowie, "Diamond Dogs"

 

When Neuromancer appeared in July of the appropriately Orwellian year, 1984, William Gibson in many ways ceased being William Gibson. He became instead a shorthand for way of thinking, feeling, and speaking. Academics viewed him, much to his chagrin, as the godfather of cyberpunk, an intriguing revolution in the arts directed against the lifeless neorealism and predictable science fiction of the late 1970s and early 1980s. They immediately set about creating a critical industry around him. Computer kids viewed him as a visionary and adopted his language, talked about his work, posted Gibsonesque messages on their computer bulletin boards, generated a real underground information network that Thomas Pynchon could only have dreamed about. A rock group, the Sonic Youth, dubbed themselves cyberpunks and featured a song called "The Sprawl" on their album, Daydream Nation (1988), while Kathy Acker, the postpunk godmother of the London fiction scene, wrote that parts of her novel, Empire of the Senseless (1988), are directly "ripped off" from Neuromancer.(1)

Not surprisingly, Rolling Stone and The Village Voice covered the phenomenon. But so did The Wall Street Journal, People Weekly and the Times Literary Supplement. In 1985, Neuromancerm became the first novel to win science fiction's triple crown: the Hugo, Nebula, and Philip K. Dick awards. It also claimed the Ditmar, the top SF award given in Australia. Since then it has been translated into a plethora of languages, including Catalan, Serbo-Croatian, and Japanese. Movie rights sold for $100,000, an impressive amount for a first novel. Epic Comics released volume one of Neuromancer: The Graphic Novel in 1989, with artwork by Bruce Jensen, script by Tom de Haven, and introduction by Gibson himself. By the end of the decade Thomas Disch, writing in the New York Times Book Review, could take it for granted that Gibson is the "undisputed champion of cyberpunk."(2) Istvan Csicsery-Ronay, writing in the American Book Review, could take it for granted that Gibson is "the most highly regarded young writer of U.S. SF."(3) During the summer of 1989, about thirty scholars gathered for a conference at the University of Leeds; ostensibly they were to discuss trends in speculative fiction approaching the year 2000, but in fact their attention soon fixed on cyberpunk in general and William Gibson in particular.

One obviously can't help remembering Gibson's own observation tucked away like a prophecy near the opening of Neuromancer: "Fads swept the youth of the Sprawl at the speed of light; entire subcultures could rise overnight, thrive for a dozen weeks, and then vanish utterly" (chap. 4). Surely Gibson's work has produced its share of imitations at something approaching the speed of light, although this is greater testimony to his work's power and originality than to its trendiness. After all, in the last hundred years the same has been true of writers such as Hemingway, Joyce, Kafka, Barthelme, and Pynchon. Clearly, too, cyberpunk has turned out to be a vaguely defined and short-lived "movement" with few important figures in it, most of whom deny they are in fact cyberpunks. But, again, the same is true of such significant and influential twentieth-century "movements" as Imagism, Italian Futurism, and Minimalism.

Gibson has transcended easy academic and generic boundaries. In a deeply felt way, he has reached many not usually interested in scholarly debates about the destiny of our culture or definitions of science fiction. Should he in fifty or a hundred years turn out to have fallen victim to his own prophecy, to have become no more than mere fad, it is scant comfort to contemporary readers poised uncertainly between two centuries. Currently there is no doubt that Gibson speaks powerfully to a large part of our culture's desires, fears, and obsessions about such things as multinationals, global politics, computerized data, genetic engineering, cybernetics, techno-angst, and, ultimately, what it means to be human in an age that is infinitely complex, unnerving, and possibly posthuman.

Ironically, while profoundly interested in contemporary culture, the guru of cyberpunk is surprisingly uninformed and innocent about the nitty-gritty workings of our culture's technology. Famous for creating the cyberspace matrix in Neuromancer (1984), Count Zero (1986), and Mona Lisa Overdrive (1988), Gibson is the first to acknowledge "I have no grasp of how computers really work." He wrote his first novel on a manual typewriter with a broken key, and tells the charming story of his first run-in with a computer. While writing Count Zero, he finally capitulated to contemporary culture, bought an Apple II, brought it home, and set it up. When he flipped it on, he thought it was malfunctioning because the external disk drive "started making this horrible sound like a farting toaster." He phoned the store, ready to complain, and was flabbergasted to learn that computers naturally made such noises. "Here I'd been expecting some exotic crystalline thing, a cyberspace deck or something," he says, and what I'd gotten was something with this tiny piece of a Victorian engine in it . . . . That noise took away some of the mystique for me, made it less sexy for me. My ignorance had allowed me to romanticize it."

Nor are computers the only technological devices Gibson finds a mystery. "Most of the time I don't know what I'm talking about when it comes to scientific or logical rationales that supposedly underpin my books," he confesses,(4) and Danny Rirdan has pointed out a number of Gibson's factual errors. In Count Zero, the walls of a space station are described as being stapled "with bulging loops of cable and fiber optic" (chap. 8), but fiber optic is the diameter of a strand of hair and a house would never be "bulging" with it.(5) Elsewhere, a company de-engineers computer chips to copy them, but the technology of engineering a chip is on a different scale from that of copying one; a company needn't do the former before doing the latter. Octagonal tabs appear often in Gibson's works, but an octagonal tab, given its shape, would be particularly difficult to swallow, and hence a strange design.(6)

Such possible gaffes in no way devalue Gibson's work. Technological accuracy is not a litmus test for quality in imaginative writing. Simply because one cannot start a fire by channeling the sun's rays through eyeglasses prescribed for nearsighted people — a fact one of the characters in Lord of the Flies apparently forgets — in no way detracts from the emotional and philosophical power of Golding's immensely successful and important novel. Gibson's books are not about how microchips function (if they were, we might as well read a technical manual instead). They are about the implications of a data-obsessed high-tech culture. As Gibson himself understands: "Part of my skill apparently lies in my ability to convince people I do know what I'm talking about. What I'm doing is just convincing lies — but lies that somehow manage to convey my own impressions of things, distorted for certain effects."(7) Gibson's art, as Picasso once said of his own, is a lie which tells the truth.

Gibson would prefer that readers concentrate on the art rather than the artist. He is reluctant to speak about his past, wary of discussing his own work, and would just as soon remain invisible as a person. This has partially been a consequence of the maddeningly high media profile he attained shortly after the publication of Neuromancer, partially consequence of his naturally reticent personality. The result is that little biographical data about him is available. His friends don't like to talk about him. His interviews come to sound redundant, even slightly disingenuous. As Lewis Shiner notes: "He's made a lot of public statements in which he's simply said what he thought people wanted to hear . . . . So you want to take some of those interviews with lots of salt."(8)

Nonetheless, a number of facts are on the record about the writer his friends find genuinely thoughtful, sensitive, caring, and loyal. He was born in on March 17, 1948, and spent most of his childhood in the small town (so small, in fact, that it lacked a library) of Wytheville in southwestern Virginia. His family traveled frequently because his father, a contractor in the 1940s, moved from one construction job to another. According to Gibson, he found himself born into a science-fictional universe. His father's firm installed toilets for the Oak Ridge Project where the first atomic bombs were constructed. "Our family mythology was filled with wonderfully paranoid stories about how tight the security had been," he recalls. "I remember being told that each man on the project was required to observe and report on the actions of three other workers, and, of course, you knew that someone was watching you. That story was part of my world by the time I was, oh, five." Gibson also remembers the flood of media-SF during the early 1950s: cars trimmed like rockets, Captain Video on the television, "all kinds of wonderful toys I still recall with fondness — like Robby the Robot, who had a very small phonograph record in his chest and talked when you turned a crank. I remember that when Sputnik came along, it seemed to me to be somewhat after the fact."(9)

His father died when he was eight, his mother when he was a teenager at a boarding school in Tucson, Arizona. He returned to Virginia to discover his relatives didn't take kindly to his new, bohemian way of living. In 1968, using income from his parents' estate, he began traveling in Europe and Canada with Deborah, the woman who would become his wife, and who used to English as a second language in Vancouver, where they settled in 1972. Gibson enrolled at the University of British Columbia as an English major after Deborah started working on her MA in linguistics. He became especially interested in studying critical methodologies. In 1977 he received his BA.

Although he initially met science fiction when he was thirteen, reading such traditional SF writers as Robert Heinlein, Ray Bradbury and Theodore Sturgeon, it wasn't until his later teens that Gibson first encountered experimental SF in the form of William Burroughs, Thomas Pynchon, and J. G. Ballard. He took his first course on SF when he enrolled at UBC; he did so to pad his credits. The professor was Susan Wood, who had published essays on fantasy, SF, and Canadian literature, edited Ursula Le Guin'sThe Language of Night (1979), and put together the fantasy and SF issue of Room of One's Own, a feminist magazine published in Vancouver. She died in 1980. When Gibson informed her that he didn't have time to compose a term paper, she told him to write a short story instead. At first he thought he had discovered an easy out, but he worked on that piece of fiction for nearly three grueling months. In the end, he had thirteen pages to show: "Fragments of a Hologram Rose." He sent it to Unearth, a short-lived SF magazine that was first to publish Rudy Rucker and other cyberpunks, which accepted it. Upon the prompting of John Shirley, whom he had met at a science fiction convention and with whom he had become friends, Gibson wrote his second story and sent it to Omni, which accepted it. Although for him writing is a "crazy, sloppy process with thousands of false starts and painful backtrackings," he claims he hasn't received a rejection slip since.(10)

Over the years, Gibson worked at various odd jobs. These include being a dishwasher at a French restaurant, a laborer at a fiberglass boat factory, and, significantly, a teaching assistant for a film history course at UBC for three years. When Deborah and he had Graham and Claire, Gibson stayed at home to care for them. "I started writing while I was doing that," he says, "because it's one of the things you can do when you're home and the kids are asleep, and it doesn't cost anything."(11) But it was with reluctance that, now in his thirties, he returned to science fiction. He felt, he explains, he "was doing something regressive and pointless. I didn't expect to receive any recognition as an artist."(12) By his calculations, he had two counts against him: he was working in what many considered a insignificant genre, and, worse, he was trying to sabotage that genre by writing about the near future in a fairly experimental mode. So those outside the genre were sure to think him a hack, those inside a traitor. He was, of course, wrong. Recognition did come, and with a vengeance — not only in the form of the awards and film sale for Neuromancer, but also in the form of offers to do scripts for two of his early stories, "New Rose Hotel" and "Burning Chrome," as well as for Alien III. Gibson was baffled. "I thought I'd be addressing a very small audience," he says. "Writing science fiction seemed self-destructive, a willfully obscure thing to take up."(13)

More interesting than the biographical facts that accumulate around the writer, though, is the geography of his imagination. Partly because of his decision to become an expatriate by settling in Canada, Gibson's creative mind has become global rather than national. His fiction adopts an epic perspective. In the opening two pages of Count Zero, for instance, Turner visits no fewer than five countries. While Gibson's work regularly takes place in the Sprawl, Dog Solitude, Japan, or England, it also touches Greece, Turkey, India, Mexico, Singapore, Belgium, Spain, France, Canada, California, Arizona, Florida, and Virginia, not to mention high orbit. It conceives of the world, in other words, in postmodern terms. According to Gibson's geography, cultural identities have become neutralized. The international and intercultural have become the norm. He suggests it is thus grossly naive to think of oneself as an intellectual within any national restriction. This rhymes with Alvin Toffler's assertions in his futurist sociological study, The Third Wave (1980), which cyberpunk spokesperson Bruce Sterling calls "a bible to many cyberpunks."(14) Toffler argues that, as we approach a new millennium, globalism has become an "evolutionary necessity" for our planet, and that it will be suicidal for us to pretend otherwise.(15)

If Gibson's imagination is deeply international, it is also deeply intertextual. Unlike many writers, he takes delight in naming works that echo in his own. He speaks with admiration of Ted Mooney's proto-cyberpunk novel, Easy Travel to Other Planets (1981), because it cites "all the sources [it has] plagiarized. He didn't say, copyright this, he said I stole this line."(16) For a writer like Gibson, the world is obviously less one of plagiarism than what Raymond Federman refers to as pla(y)giarism, a freeplay of suspension and acceptance, an acknowledgment that the universe is one of intertextuality where no one text has any more or less authority than any other. Writing becomes retro-writing. Language and ideas, like glass bottles and aluminum cans, become recyclable.

Literary intertextuality pervades his fiction. In interviews, he most often makes mention of Thomas Pynchon, whom he considers his "mythic hero." He sees Pynchon as "the start of a certain mutant breed of SF . . . that mixes surrealism and pop-cultural imagery with esoteric historical and scientific information . . . . If you talked with a lot of recent SF writers you'd find they've all read Gravity's Rainbow [1973] several times and have been very much influenced by it."(17) Next comes William Burroughs' Naked Lunch (1959), whose radical linguistic and formal experimentation Gibson embraces, though doesn't attempt to copy. Burroughs is liberating for Gibson for at least two reasons. First, he demonstrates that science fiction needn't be traditional in any sense of the word. Second, he shows that science fiction can explore the fringes of our culture, the criminal underground. From Alfred Bester — particularly The Demolished Man (1951) — Gibson inherits a tough energetic style, a techno-sleaze sensibility, and, in the figure of Gully Foyle, a decadent outlaw as protagonist. The hard-edged world of Samuel Delany (e.g., Nova [1968]), and the psychological explorations of J.G. Ballard (e.g., The Atrocity Exhibition [1969]) also surface in Gibson's fiction, and Carol McGuirk has convincingly shown that, in a more general way, Gibson borrows hard SF's interest in technology and soft SF's interest in selfhood.(18)

Gibson mentions two extra-SF literary influences as well: Dashiell Hammett (e.g., The Thin Man [1934]) and Robert Stone (e.g., Dog Soldiers [1973]). From both, he derives a hard prose and characters who maneuver at the edges of their cultures. From Hammett, he also borrows the detective figure whose primary form of power is information; this becomes Gibson's computer hacker. From Stone, he adopts the vision of a morally bankrupt society filled with violence, drug addicts, and conspiracies.

Literary intertextuality is only part of the story. Equally important, if not more so, are influences from film, rock'n'roll, and other pop cultural centers. Steven Lisberger's Tron (1982), for example, prefigures the notion of cyberspace and is the first film to explore the computer hacker as techno-rebel, though the film clearly lacks the dirty feel of Gibson's worlds.(19) Many cyberpunks consider Ridley Scott's Bladerunner (1982) the cyberpunk film, filled as it is with hellish near-future landscapes and characters, but Gibson claims he went to see it about a third of the way through the first draft of Neuromancer and fled after thirty minutes because "it looked so much like the inside of my head."()20 He claims he never saw the rest of it. Both John Carpenter's Escape from New York (1981), set in 1997 when New York City has been converted into a maximum-security prison populated by the marginal, and David Cronenberg's Videodrome (1983), which explores the hallucinatory energy of mass media and corporate power, also clearly and directly feed Gibson's vision.

He considers the mood of his best fiction "the literary equivalent of the blues," but also acknowledges the strong presence of rock'n'roll's glitzy highspeed decadence in a story such as "The Winter Market."(21) He regularly mentions three sources in this context: Lou Reed (Gibson thought about using a line from the Velvet Underground's song, "Sunday Morning," as an epigraph for Neuromancer; Linda Lee is from the Velvet Underground's "Cool It Down"; a spaceship in Count Zero is named Sweet Jane); Steely Dan (Rikki Wildside in "Burning Chrome" was created with "Rikki Don't Lose that Number" in mind, as well as Reed's "Walk on the Wildside"; the bar is called the Gentleman Loser); and Bruce Springsteen (Gibson claims to have wanted to develop the same language of desire for computers that Springsteen has done for cars).

Gibson, then, is part of a generation raised on sensory overload. His imagination has been flooded by contemporary culture — the Sex Pistols, terrorists, designer drugs, VCRs, CDs, MTV, AIDS, nuclear waste, oil spills — and has been intrigued by every moment of it. He is as comfortable with Mozart as with The Pretenders, Nabokov as film noir, Faulkner as fashion magazines, rock newspapers, the New York Times, The Face, I-D, clippings from The New Scientist that Bruce Sterling used to send him almost weekly, and comic books with their plot-led accent on a dark underworld peopled with easily identifiable types. Moreover, he has a strongly fashion-conscious eye. Shiner recounts how Gibson and he read Thrasher, a skateboard magazine, differently: "We talked on the phone about it, and I was raving about the attitude in the letter columns, and the way the cultural confrontation was set up between the skaters (running, essentially, on renewable energy sources) versus the rest of western civilization (i.e., cars), and how they were in competition for the one thing they both needed, which was concrete. Bill said, 'Yeah, but did you see those cool shoes on page 83?'"(22)

Most of his science fiction comes from simply paying attention to the world around him. As his friend and fellow SF writer Tom Maddox explains: "Gibson claims not to invent anything." This might at first seem a strange statement coming from one of our culture's leading SF writers. But upon reflection it becomes less so. Gibson doesn't invent. He extrapolates. In our fin-de-siècle "reality" where Sperry Flight Systems in Arizona has already created a hypertrophic flight simulation system into which a pilot actually jacks, Nicholas Negroponte and Richard Bolt at MIT have generated a spatial data management system in which subjects maneuver among models of data, and Germany's Chaos Club has infiltrated NASA's mainframe while the Internet Worm has produced a virus in 6,000 computers from Berkeley to Massachusetts, Gibson needn't go far for his ideas. Maddox explains that "the concentrated tunnel vision of the videogames player mutates into cyberspace, the audiovisual intensity of color television and Walkman earphones into simstim, the password and data encryption programs of telecommunications into ICE, the Atlantic corridor into the Sprawl."(23)

Through this optic, Gibson is simply a realist in a culture where our preconceptions of what constitutes the impossible are assaulted every day. He is a postmodern writer who faces the problem of responding to a situation that is, literally, science fictional. Perhaps his use of the SF genre becomes clearer. "Science fiction can occasionally be looked at as a way of breaking through to history in a new way," Fredric Jameson has said. Science fiction achieves "a distinctive historical consciousness by way of the future rather than the past" and thus becomes "conscious of our present as the past of some unexpected future, rather than as the future of a heroic national past."(24) Science fiction teaches us to think about our present situation by reframing it as the history of a future that hasn't yet occurred. Perhaps we may think of all science fiction (and certainly we may think of Gibson's) as a gloss upon the present, a mode of fiction that as a subset of the fantastic is designed to surprise, to question, and to put into doubt. "People have to live with things far grimmer and stranger than what's found in most science fiction. This," Gibson says, "is the future."(25)


Endnotes

1 "I just loved Neuromancer and couldn't resist," Acker wrote me in a letter dated June, 1989. "I wrote Bill Gibson his first fan letter ever and told him I was plagiarizing his work. He wrote back, I can't quote exactly, — we don't call it 'plagiarism,' dear, but 'appropriation.'"

2 Thomas M. Disch, "Mona Lisa Overdrive," New York Times Book Review (December 11 1988), 23.

3 Istvan Csicsery-Ronay, "Cyberspace," American Book Review 10.6 (January-February 1989), 7.

4 Larry McCaffery, "An Interview with William Gibson," Mississippi Review 16.2 & 3 (1988), 223, 224, 233.

5 See Danny Rirdan, "The Works of William Gibson," Foundation 43 (Summer 1988), 36-46. Gibson disagrees with Rirdan, arguing that this simply implies massive data-flow, and is consistent with extrapolation.

6 Gibson again takes exception, pointing out that such pills actually exist.

7 McCaffery, 233.

8 From a letter to me dated July, 1989.

9 Joseph Nicholas and Judith Hanna, "William Gibson," Interzone 1.13 (1985), 18.

10 Marian MacNair, "Mainframe Voodoo," Montreal Mirror (April-7-20, 1989), 23.

11 Leanne C. Harper, "The Culture of Cyberspace," The Bloomsbury Review 8.5 (September/October 1988), 16.

12 Victoria Hamburg, "The King of Cyberspace," Interview (January 1989), 86.

13 Candas Jane Dorsey, "Beyond Cyberspace," Books in Canada (June-July 1988), 12.

14 Bruce Sterling, "Preface," Mirrorshades: The Cyberpunk Anthology, (New York: Arbor House, 1986), xii.

15 Alvin Toffler, The Third Wave (New York: William Morrow, 1980), 325.

16 Kevin Kelly, "Cyberpunk Era," Whole Earth Review (Summer: 1989), 80.

17 McCaffery, 226. But now Gibson feels this is an overstatement that needs to be toned down.

18 Carol McGuirk, "The 'New' Romancers: Science Fiction Innovators from Gernsback to Gibson," paper delivered at the Fiction 2000 conference at the University of Leeds, June 28-July 1, 1989.

19 Gibson told me he has not seen Tron yet.

20 Nicholas and Hanna, 18.

21 Hamburg, 86.

22 From a letter to me dated July, 1989.

23 Tom Maddox, "Cobra, She Said: An Interim Report on the Fiction of William Gibson," Fantasy Review 9.4 (April 1986), 46.

24 Fredric Jameson [with Anders Stephanson], "Regarding Postmodernism — A Conversation with Fredric Jameson," in Universal Abandon? The Politics of Postmodernism (Minneapolis: U Minnesota P, 1988), 18.

25 Hamburg, 86.