Author Tags: Essentials 2010, Fiction
"Future shock is already here." -- William Gibson
"You must learn to overcome your very natural and appropriate revulsion for your own work." -- William Gibson
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With the publication of his first novel Neuromancer (1984), William Gibson achieved unprecedented success by winning the Hugo and Nebula Awards for best science fiction and fantasy novel, plus the Philip K. Dick Award for best original science fiction paperback. Two years after the movie Blade Runner (1982), the emergence of Gibson’s realm of “cyberspace” coincided with the cultural deluge of the internet. Computer geeks and hackers could be heroes, or at least dramatic characters. Gibson became the newly crowned godfather of cyberpunk, a movement that has given rise to a spate of futuristic films, some cheesy, some brilliant. Gibson’s world-ranging fiction is an interplay between dread and ecstasy, with riffs about technology as if it is a new drug.
William Ford Gibson, the “King of Dystopia,” was born in Conway, South Carolina, in 1948. His father, who worked on the Manhattan Project in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, where the first atomic bombs were made, died accidentally on a business trip. After that, he grew up in the small mountain town of Wytheville in southwest Virginia, which he disliked, until he was 15. When the family TV set finally was able to receive programs, he became greatly enamoured of a show called Tom Corbett, Space Cadet, and sent away to receive a ray gun and space helmet. At age 13, he decided he should become a science fiction writer. He attended boarding school in Arizona and developed an interest in the science fiction of Ray Bradbury. Gibson’s other early literary influences included Bruce Springsteen, William Burroughs and Thomas Pynchon. He once told Rolling Stone magazine, “I want to eroticize computers the way Bruce Springsteen eroticized cars.”
At age 18, in response to what he calls the “Kafka-esque” possibility of being drafted, he came to live in Toronto’s Yorkville district where he met Deborah Thompson. They travelled in Europe, married, and came to Vancouver in 1972 to be near her parents. Gibson’s first published story, “Fragments of a Hologram Rose,” appeared in Boston’s UnEarth magazine in 1977. It was written as a course assignment at UBC, and he earned $23 for it. He graduated from UBC and began writing science fiction in 1980. In 1981, Omni magazine bought the first story he sent them, “Johnny Mnemonic,” for $2,000, and asked for another, whereupon Gibson was encouraged to complete a novel. In 1986, Gibson sold the screen rights for Neuromancer and published his second novel in his Sprawl trilogy, Count Zero (1986), containing some of Neuromancer’s characters. Mona Lisa Overdrive (1988) completed the trilogy. Gibson has been hired to write screenplays, including a draft for Aliens 3. One of his short stories became the basis for the 1995 movie Johnny Mnemonic starring Keanu Reeves; another was the basis for the 1999 movie New Rose Hotel starring Christopher Walken, Willem Dafoe and Asia Argento. The stork-like, bespectacled Gibson made a cameo appearance in the mini-series Wild Palms and was interviewed by Playboy. His writing reportedly inspired U2’s song “Zooropa,” and the rock band’s Zoo TV tour.
At the turn of the Millennium, the two most famous living authors of British Columbia were undoubtedly Douglas Coupland and William Gibson.
With the publication of his first novel Neuromancer (1984), William Gibson achieved unprecedented success by winning the Hugo and Nebula Awards for best SF novel of the year, plus the Philip K. Dick Memorial Award for best original SF paperback.
As noted by the Moria site for fantasy and horror reviews, "Gibson’s vision of a densely detailed future, vying between corporate echelons and a teeming streetlife packed with hi-tech hackers and rogue genetic engineers, and a background filled with affectedly casual information-dense in-references to brand name technological and pop culture innovations heralded a stylistic revolution, the likes of which science-fiction hadn’t quite seen before." Except, of course, if one discounts the movie Bladerunner (1982).
Gibson's literary realm of 'cyberspace' coincided with the new cultural deluge of the internet. Computer geeks and hackers could be heroes, or at least dramatic characters. Gibson was the newly crowned godfather of cyberpunk, a movement that has given rise to a spate of futuristic films, some cheesy, some brilliant. Gibson's world-ranging fiction is an interplay between dread and ecstasy, with riffs about technology as if it's a new drug. As the flavour of the decade, Gibson has had numerous projects under consideration by Hollywood heavies such as James Cameron, Russell Mulcahy, Kathryn Bigelow and Peter Weir. He has contributed scripts to The X Files and is the subject of a documentary called No Maps for These Territories (2000). In 2008, William Gibson received an honorary doctorate from Simon Fraser University for helping to "introduce the concept of cyberspace to the world."
William Ford Gibson, the 'King of Dystopia', was born in Conway, South Carolina (“a place like a gas station”) on March 17, 1948. His father worked on the Manhattan Project in Oak Ridge, Tennessee where the first bombs were made. His father died accidentally on a business trip when Gibson was old enough to start school. After that, he grew up in the small mountain town of Wytheville in southwest Virginia, which he disliked, until he was 15. When the family TV set finally was able to receive programs, he became greatly enamoured of a show called Tom Corbett, Space Cadet, and sent away to receive a ray gun and space helmet. At age 13, he decided he should become a science fiction writer. He attended boarding school in Arizona and developed an interest in the science fiction of Ray Bradbury. Gibson's other early literary influences included Bruce Springsteen, William Burroughs and Thomas Pynchon. He once told Rolling Stone magazine, "I want to eroticize computers the way Bruce Springstreen eroticized cars."
At age 18, in response to what he calls the “Kafka-esque” possibility of being drafted, he came to live in Toronto’s Yorkville district where he met Deborah Thompson. They traveled in Europe, married in the early '70s and came to Vancouver in 1972 to be near to her parents. Gibson's first published story, Fragments Of A Hologram Rose, appeared in Boston's UnEarth magazine in 1977. It was written as a course assignment at UBC and he earned $23 for it. He graduated from the University of British Columbia and began writing SF in 1980. In 1981, Omni magazine bought the first story he sent them, Johnny Mnemonic, for $2,000, and asked for another, whereupon Gibson was encouraged to complete a novel. Influenced by William Burroughs and Robert Stone, as well as musicians Lou Reed and Steely Dan, Gibson wrote what one reviewer described as “a sizzling, computer-age novel, filled with street-Beat poetry and grotty characters from a future underworld where body parts are grown for sale and computer programmers work in ‘cyberspace,’ an abstract dimension in which software takes on visible shape like neon sculptures.”
Since that first novel, Neuromancer, Gibson has cited himself a collage artist who collects computer buzz-words and jargon to mask only a slight knowledge of high-tech machinery. Near the outset of his career he worked on a 1927 Hermes typewriter, referring to writing as “a painful, slow process, like pulling a big chain out of your ear.” He didn't buy his first Apple computer until a Boxing Day sale in 1985. That same year he appeared at Toronto Harbourfront’s International Festival of Authors in October and explained to one interviewer that science fiction is not essentially about the future. “Science fiction writers who think they are futuristic are naïve,” he maintains. “Good SF tends to be about aspects of where we are now that we don’t like to think about.”
In 1986 Gibson sold the screen rights for Neuromancer to Hollywood for $100,000 and published his second novel, Count Zero (1986), containing some of Neuromancer’s characters almost a decade later in fictional time. Having collaborated with Bruce Sterling on a short story called Red Star, Winter Orbit for an anthology, Gibson later collaborated with the Texas-based author Sterling for The Difference Engine (1991), an historical work about Charles Babbage, the reputed inventor of the modern computer. As his work became world famous and the term cyber-punk became trendy, Gibson was accorded guru status by sci-fi conventions and hired to write high-priced screenplays, including a draft for Aliens 3. One of his short stories became the basis for the 1995 movie Johnny Mnemonic starring Keanu Reeves; another was used as the springboard for the 1999 movie New Rose Hotel starring Christopher Walken, Willem Dafoe, and Asia Argento. Gibson and his friend Maddox wrote two X-Files episodes, "Kill Switch" and "First Person Shooter". The stork-like, bespectacled Gibson made a cameo appearance in the latter, as well as in the mini-series Wild Palms. He has been been interviewed by Playboy, his writing has reportedly inspired an album by U2 and his 'Sprawl' trilogy of Neuromancer, Count Zero and Mona Lisa Overdrive has led to thousands of websites related to his writing and ideas.
Although he continues to incorporate technological changes, imaginary and otherwise, Gibson's fiction has gradually evolved from dystopic SF visions towards contemporary realism. Gibson's novel Virtual Light (1993) is set in the near future of 2005 and concerns a group of hackers called the Republic of Desire. The protagonists such as ex-cop Berry Rydell are struggling with McJobs in a world increasingly split between the rich and the homeless, and California has been split into Northern and Southern California, areas known as NoCal and SoCal. In Tokyo a new city is emerging from a superquake known as Godzilla. Virtual Light won Canada's Aurora Award for best SF novel, as did Mona Lisa Overdrive (1988). In Idoru (1996), Chia McKenzie is a teenager sent to Tokyo to investigate the impending marriage of her favourite singer to an idoru, a virtual Japanese pop star. Pattern Recognition is a contemporary novel about a New York-based 'cool hunter' named Cayce Pollard who works as a marketing detective for corporate clients. She eschews commercialization herself, but gets detoured into a search for the 'Maker' of obscure bits of footage that are released on the internet.
Gibson lives in Vancouver with his wife Deborah. They have two children, Graeme and Claire. He says he was too shy to ever become a journalist, hence his preference for writing fiction. “The States has become as foreign to me as England," he said in the 1980s. "I’ve very uncomfortable with national identities anyway. The planet is getting smaller all the time, smaller and faster.”
For many years Gibson had published only one story directly related to his hometown of Vancouver, “Winter Market” (Vancouver Magazine, November, 1985), set around the False Creek area of “Couverville” sometime in the future. The story is narrated by the editor of a newly released album by “Lise,” whose creative dreams are marketed like pop songs to achieve instant triple-platinum success. Lise is a doomed “high-tech St. Joan burning for union with that hard-wired Godhead in Hollywood.” Gibson describes a desolate future. “Trashfires gutter in steel canisters around the Market. The snow still falls and kids huddle over the flames like arthritic crows, hopping from foot to foot, wind whipping their dark coats. Up in Fairview’s arty slum-tumble, someone’s laundry has frozen solid on the line, pink squares of bedsheet standing out against the background dinge and the confusion of satellite dishes and solar panels.” The 2007 novel Spook Country also culminates with scenes in Vancouver.
The Peripheral (2014) has been heralded as a popular return to 'near-future'sci-fi set in two futures, in smalltown USA and desolate Londono further away from the present. These two fictional worlds are connected by a black-market technology called “continua enthusiasts” that allows some people to go backwards in time. The novel is rife with Gibson's invention of new words and terms, not all of which are always explained.
Count Zero (1986)
Burning Chrome -- short stories (1986)
Mona Lisa Overdrive (1988)
The Difference Engine co-authored with Bruce Sterling (1991)
Virtual Light (1993)
Johnny Mnemonic: The Screenplay and the Story (1995)
All Tomorrow's Parties (1999)
Pattern Recognition (2002)
Spook Country (Penguin, 2007) $32.50
Zero History (Penguin, 2010) $31.00
The Peripheral (Penguin, 2014)
[BCBW 2014] "Movie"
Pattern Recognition (Putnam $39)
This time, in Pattern Recognition (Putnam $39), near-futurist guru William Gibson uses the present as his playing field.
Cayce Pollard, a jaded American design consultant, is in London to redesign a famous corporate logo. She’s offered a very different assignment: find the creator of haunting video clips being uploaded to the Internet.
Marketing, globalisation and terror converge when his heroine’s London apartment is burgled, her email is hacked and the records of her Manhattan therapist are stolen.
As ever, Gibson’s prose is distinctively his own. Pollard is someone who removes trademarks from her clothes. She even has the buttons of her jeans ground flat by an understandably puzzled Korean locksmith.
“She checks her watch,” writes Gibson, “its plastic case sanded free of logos with a scrap of Japanese micro-abrasive.
“She is, literally, allergic to fashion. She can only tolerate things that could have been worn, to a general lack of comment, during any year between 1945 and 2000.”
[SUMMER 2003 BCBW]
Spook Country (Penguin $32.50)
William Gibson’s follow-up to his last novel Pattern Recognition (2003) is Spook Country, which takes place in the present day and primarily involves a journalist, a junkie and a troubleshooter for manufacturers of military navigation equipment. 9780399154300
Zero History (G.P. Putnam’s Sons $31)
from John Moore
A few years ago there was a spate of films about people who could see just a few minutes into the future. That’s a sensation familiar to readers of William Gibson’s novels, especially his latest, Zero History (G.P. Putnam’s Sons $31), third in a sequence of novels that began with Pattern Recognition (2003), followed by Spook Country (2007).
In Zero History, a marketing whiz named Hubertus Bigend has corralled an eccentric, anti-social, mathematical genius, Bobby Chombo, to serve as an ‘aggregator.’ His synthetic analysis of economic and social factors has the potential to provide Hubertus with the ultimate competitive edge, literally of all time.
In a world where global markets are electronically integrated in real time, a head start of a few minutes, even a few seconds, would be the ultimate in insider-trading. Chombo’s calculations can afford Hubertus with a lead-time on the present of seventeen minutes. As Bigend says, when asked if that’s enough, “Seven would have been entirely adequate. Seven seconds, in most cases.”
The Holy Grail of brokers, wheeler-dealers and marketing magnates like Hubertus Bigend is that brief myopic moment of clairvoyance, just a glimpse into what Gibson calls “the order flow,” or “the aggregate of all the orders in the market. Everything anyone is about to buy or sell, all of it.”
The aggregate includes even the shadowy grey and black markets in drugs, rare commodities and forbidden technologies that thrive in the dark back alleys of capitalism, a subject that has been a signature theme in Gibson’s writing.
In Zero History, Chombo’s aggregate of the order flow is what director Alfred Hitchcock used to call the McGuffin—the secret information or object whose possession drives the plot without actually being part of the action.
Chombo is a relatively minor character. Gibson is much more interested in the characters developed in Pattern Recognition and Spook Country. These include Hollis Henry, ex-rock star who retired to write a book on ‘locative art’ and whose modest fortune has since been erased by the ubiquitous ‘market forces’ currently destroying our mutual funds and RRSPs; Hubertus Bigend cruises the world’s oceans in his surplus Soviet ekranoplan, a ground-effect vehicle with an interior renovated by Hermes; and Milgrim, a young man whose addiction to anxiety-suppressing drugs has left him with such sketchy sense of self. He has become a man with “zero history.”
A blind person’s other senses are said to become sharper in compensation for the loss of sight. With Milgrim, Gibson offers the provocative suggestion that a loss of personal history—a sense of one’s self as the aggregate of personal memory—might be replaced by a heightened affinity for “pattern recognition,” a talent that could be more useful in a semi-cyberworld that is already part digital.
Bigend has paid to have Milgrim detoxified, weaned off his anti-anxiety drugs, in order to exploit his gift for pattern recognition in industrial/commercial espionage. Milgrim’s assignment is to track down and recognize a distinctive and highly desirable blend of denim clothing produced as a “secret brand” only obtainable by those in the know from containers that appear briefly and mysteriously at outdoor flea markets and other ad hoc souks of the post-modern world.
Bigend wants to penetrate the anti-corporate culture of the secret brand and gain control of the coveted cloth in order to secure contracts for supplying military clothing that will inevitably spin off into civilian fashions. Inevitably, assorted thugs and goons from the underworld of global capitalism have designs on both the denim and on the predictive services of Chombo.
Have you got all that?
As in his earlier novels, Neuromancer, Burning Chrome, Mona Lisa Overdrive, Virtual Light etc., Gibson excels at evoking baroquely detailed visions of a not-too-distant-future, a world enriched by co-existence with its own avatar, Cyber-world. (Apparently he’s even appeared as himself as an avatar in the cyber-world game, Second Life, to publicize his books, which makes him the Hubertus Bigend of authors.)
Though Gibson has been described as a writer of science fiction, his novels are actually less fantastic than most of Kurt Vonnegut’s and mercifully not marred by the smug self-congratulatory and patronizing humour that gets tedious in Vonnegut’s work. The Dadaist collage that is Hollis Henry’s hotel room in an exclusive London club, for instance, isn’t one iota weirder than a designer’s apartment I saw on one of those real estate shows on the Home & Garden TV channel the other night.
Back in 1978, in an essay about Walter Benjamin entitled “Under the Sign of Saturn,” Susan Sontag observed, “The genius of surrealism was to generalize with ebullient candour the baroque cult of ruins; to perceive that the nihilistic energies of the modern era make everything a ruin or fragment—and therefore collectible. A world whose past has become (by definition) obsolete, and whose present churns out instant antiques, invites custodians, decoders and collectors.” The juxtaposition of culturally coded ‘collectibles’ from the recent past with technologies only imagined on Star Trek forty years ago isn’t a vision of the future; it’s your living room right now.
(I took a break from writing this article to watch an IBM computer named ‘Watson’ compete on Jeopardy against the TV game-show’s two all-time champs. Watson beat them like a pair of borrowed mules and I went back to using a 500-year-old technology, the mechanically-printed book. It didn’t seem like a terribly radical juxtaposition until I thought about it.)
Some critics have taken shots at Gibson’s novels for being too strong on technology at the expense of character. Admittedly, his fondness for caricature and whimsical names is somewhat Dickensian, but so is the scope of his work. He’s been quoted as saying he believes we’re entering a new Victorian Age of polarization between the Haves and Have-Nots in the Global Village. So it is a not-so-brave (and not always so new) world he describes.
Despite the mock-thriller plot, Zero History is very much a character-driven novel whose real story is the gradual re-emergence of Milgrim’s personality. From a detoxed vacant near-cipher, a man whose past has become obsolete, he grows through his attachment to Fiona, a rebel-girl motorcycle courier, and begins to make ethical decisions that are no longer subject to the agendas of Hubertus Bigend and favour the shadowy subversive culture of “secret brands” and alternative capitalism.
Maybe it’s just us, with our personal and professional websites, blogs, Facebook pages, Second Life avatars, talking and texting constantly on Blackberries and iPhones, who have become too strong on technology at the expense of what used to be called character. And William Gibson is just the guy holding the mirror.
-- review by John Moore