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How Futurist William Gibson is Still a Man of His Time

By Wesley Fenlon

Gibson's books provide some of contemporary science fiction's best commentary on modern society, from corporatization to AIDS to viral marketing.

The world entered 1984 burdened by the fictional legacy of George Orwell's classic dystopia and the very real Cold War tension between the United States and the Soviet Union. That year, as arms control negotiations evaporated and the US established the Strategic Defense Initiative Organization to oversee Reagan's "Star Wars" missile defense system, the Doomsday Clock ticked over to three minutes to midnight. Only in 1953, when the United States tested the first hydrogen bomb, had the world been closer to atomic destruction. It was into that climate that William Gibson published his first novel.

Neuromancer appeared in print in the summer of 1984. You could say it was successful--Gibson's first novel was also the first work of science fiction to make a clean sweep of the Hugo, Nebula, and Philip K. Dick awards. William Gibson solidified the nascent cyberpunk genre into a gritty, visionary mode of science fiction.

Gibson was writing about the cybernetic implants and cyberspace of the 2030s, but he was also writing about the 1980s, acutely conscious of booming technology, giant corporations, nuclear tensions and the oppressive shadow of 1984. He believes that all science fiction reflects the time in which it is written--any projected future is the unique product of that period and that culture. From that perspective, Gibson's books provide some of contemporary science fiction's best commentary on modern society, from corporatization to AIDS to viral marketing.

The framework for that commentary has changed dramatically across the arc of Gibson's career. As Gibson wrote more novels, his ability to foreshadow the path of social development never wavered, but he began to focus on the now more directly, which he explained after writing two present-day books, Pattern Recognition and Spook Country:

"The Future, capital-F, be it crystalline city on the hill or radioactive post-nuclear wasteland, is gone. ... Upon arriving in the capital-F Future, we discover it, invariably, to be the lower-case now. ... I followed Neuromancer with two more novels set in that particular future, but by then I was growing frustrated with the capital-F Future. I knew that those books were actually about the 1980s, when they were written, but almost nobody else seemed to see that. ... I began to tell interviewers, somewhat testily, that I believed I could write a novel set in the present, our present, then, which would have exactly the affect of my supposed imaginary futures. So I did."

Gibson's three trilogies or "cycles" of loosely related novels slot neatly into three very different science fiction styles. In the 80s cyberpunk is at its strongest. In the 90s modern culture becomes more visible. By the 2000s, he's thrown off any pretenses of writing about the far-flung "Future," but the cyberpunk world isn't completely gone. It's just less blatant, because we're living in it.

The Sprawl Trilogy: Cyberpunk, Corporate Greed, and the Tech Revolution of the 1980s

Neuromancer bleeds cool. The protagonist is a hacker--no, even better, he's a cyber jockey, a cowboy, because the digital frontier is the new Wild West. And his name is Case. Short, punchy, cool. The book opens in Japan's Chiba City, an exotic futuristic underground that's all neon and black markets. And before that, it opens with this: "The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel."

With those 14 words, William Gibson defined cyberpunk.

Cool is the essence of cyberpunk. It blends dingy, lived-in worlds with flying cars and cyberspace. Futuristic technology has come, but at the price of mass urbanization. To live in that dangerous future, characters have to be badasses. But strip away the futuristic trappings, and the dirty urban sprawls of cyberpunk looks a whole lot like today's cities--or the cities of the 1980s, the decade in which cyberpunk was born.

As a novel, Neuromancer works the same way. On the surface lie Gibson's vivid descriptions of his dystopian future, femme fatale Molly Millions, and tantalizing references to history and technologies that build out the richness of the world; beneath lie the social issues of the 1980s. Gibson's vivid descriptions of cyberspace fuel the book's more overt theme: the relationship between humanity and technology.

Technology boomed in the 1980s, with personal computers and fax machines revolutionizing business and communication. Neuromancer predicts that the human body will eventually play second fiddle to technology; cybernetic implants are commonplace and cyberspace jockeys find the matrix more real than the world of flesh. Gibson had a hunch that the Internet--which barely existed in 1984--would change our world in a fundamental way. Pretty good guess.

Neuromancer handled cyberspace like a digital Manifest Destiny. The body was old news, the virtual frontier everything.

A strong and appropriately 80s counterculture streak runs through Neuromancer--Case and Molly kill, hack and thieve without hesitation--and Gibson's corporate-controlled future depicts an exaggerated (but not that exaggerated) extrapolation of private business growth and consumerism in the 1980s. Wall Street's slogan "Greed is good" and the satirical "I'd buy that for a dollar!" quip from RoboCop tackled the same subject. Gibson links Case's strong anti-corporate feelings to his disdain for the flesh with Neuromancer's most powerful and important symbol: a wasp nest, pulsing with unborn larvae, that he sees in his dreams:

"He saw the thing the shell of gray paper had concealed. Horror. The spiral birth factory, stepped terraces of the hatching cells, blind jaws of the unborn moving ceaselessly, the staged progress from egg to larva, near-wasp, wasp. In his mind’s eye, a kind of time-lapse photography took place, revealing the thing as the biological equivalent of a machine gun, hideous in its perfection.In the dream, just before he’d drenched the nest with fuel, he’d seen the T-A logo of Tessier-Ashpool neatly embossed into its side, as though the wasps themselves had worked it there."

Gibson's second and third books in the Sprawl trilogy continued to build on those same two themes. Count Zero revolves around biosoft, biological software that allows human beings to tap into cyberspace without the assistance of a computer deck; Gibson's vision of the information age and always-on connectivity was glamorous compared to the reality that would develop 10-20 years later, but he was one of the few to project how accessible cyberspace would be.

Neuromancer touches on Japan's explosive economic growth in the 1980s by setting it up as one of the future's most important powers. Gibson has a self-professed fascination with Tokyo and was one the first to capture its technological boom in a sci-fi context. The last of the Sprawl trilogy, Mona Lisa Overdrive, establishes Japan's Yakuza as the most powerful organizations in the world next to mega corporations like Tessier-Ashpool. The Yakuza also uphold cyberpunk's tenet of cool; Gibson was using them as far back as 1981 in his short story "Johnny Mnemonic."

The Bridge Trilogy: 90s Culture Writ Large

Virtual Light, the first of the Bridge Trilogy, brought Gibson's cyberpunk style into the 90s. Instead of setting the novels in a vague 21st century decade like the Sprawl trilogy, Gibson set a date for 1993's Virtual Light: 2006, some years after earthquakes have devastated California and Tokyo. Damage from the quake rendered the San Francisco - Oakland Bridge unusable, and the poorer residents of the Bay Area have turned it into an isolated off-the-grid community outside the reach of mega corporations and the ultrarich class. The fictional settlement owes its existence to Hong Kong's fascinating Kowloon Walled City, which was being evacuated and demolished in the early 90s.

Virtual Light draws inspiration from 90s issues big and small. The 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, which caused real-world damage to the Bay Bridge, was still fresh in California's mind. In 2002, construction would begin on a new eastern span for the bridge to prevent catastrophic damage in the event of another major quake.

In the novel, the lower-class society that forms on the Bridge is an isolated offshoot of the only class that exists below the rich. As in Neuromancer, there really is no middle class, just the lawless poor and the billionaires. Virtual Light pays more attention to this class warfare and was published shortly after the recession of the early 90s but before the economic boom that would reshape the rest of the decade.

"There's only but two kinds of people. People can afford hotels like that, they're one kind. We're the other. Used to be, like, a middle class, people in between. But not anymore."

While class warfare is central to Virtual Light's plot, it's a backdrop of 90s-inspired culture that creates the richest world of Gibson's three cycles. Reality TV and televangelism are both satirized through protagonist Berry Rydell, who appears on a show called Cops in Trouble (until a "balls-out telegenic" replacement comes along) and has a partner who more or less worships television as God's word.

And then there's J.D. Shapely, a character who exists in the corona surrounding Virtual Light's plot. He is not a protagonist or an antagonist but merely a memory that has shaped the world of 2006--something unique in his biology offered a cure to AIDS. Virtual Light was published a mere three months before the film Philadelphia; as usual, Gibson was ahead of the curve tapping into one of the most powerful cultural issues in American history.

"You still don't remember what it felt like, watching them pile up like that. Not here so much, bad as it was, but Thailand, Africa, Brazil. Jesus, Scooter. That thing was just romping on us. But slow, slow, slowmotion thing. Those retroviruses are. One man told me once, and he had the old kind, and died of it, how we'd lived in this funny little pocket of time when a lot of people got to feel like a piece of ass wasn't going to kill anybody ...

So here this thing comes along, changes it back. And we're sliding up on 2000, shit's changing all over, got civil wars in Europe already and this AIDS thing just kicking along. You know they tried to say it was the gays, said it was the CIA, said it was the U.S. Army in some fort in Maryland. Said it was people cornholing green monkeys. I swear to God. You know what it was? People. Just too goddamn many of 'em, Scooter. Flying all the fuck over everywhere and walking around back in there. Bet your ass somebody's gonna pick up a bug or two. Every place on the damn planet just a couple of hours from any other place."

But Gibson's treatment of the AIDS epidemic in Virtual Light offers something rare for a dystopia: the hopeful promise of a cure.

Kutnik would uncover clinical data suggesting that unprotected sex with Shapely had apparently reversed the symptoms of several of her patients. There would be Kutnik's impassioned resignation, the flight to Brazil with the baffled Shapely, lavish funding against a backdrop of impending civil war, and what could only be described as an extremely pragmatic climate for research.

Idoru and All Tomorrow's Parties delve further into social issues through a cyberpunk lens, returning to the question of identity--can an artificial intelligence be considered alive? Will humanity and virtual intelligence merge? Gibson also writes more about nanotechnology, a scientific buzzword that still excites our future-tech receptors over a decade later. As the 21st century approached, Gibson's focus on the issues of the present became more clear than ever:

"All Tomorrow's Parties is the scintillating culmination, after Virtual Light and Idoru, of his second trilogy, and it completes his development from science-fiction hotshot to wry sociologist of the near future. Today's politicians blandly delight in a friendly, homogeneous wave of technological change; Gibson does the important job of imagining what such change might mean to people on the ground. Who will be empowered, who dispossessed?"

The Bigend Trilogy: The End of the Capital-F Future

Gibson's post-9/11 novels take place in the present day, and their most fanciful elements pull from reality rather than cool future-tech. As he did in the Bridge trilogy, Gibson focuses more on the effects of technology by putting them in a social context. Forms of communication some Internet-goers consider second nature, like message boards and viral advertising, are tied to a profoundly new form of art in Pattern Recognition. The idea sounds weird, but our forums and chatrooms really did revolutionize an era of communication.

Because social issues like the September 11th attacks on the World Trade Center and the US war in Iraq are front-and-center in the Bigend books, it's more fun to scour them for Gibson's ahead-of-its-time technology. The elements that don't exist are harder to spot than cyberspace and self-aware AIs.

In Spook Country, Gibson dances around a description of what is obviously augmented reality. In the novel, the technology is advanced enough to allow tourists to relive programmed versions of past events, like the death of actor River Phoenix, with an augmented reality visor:

"Alloween night, 1993," said Odile.

Hollis approached the body. That wasn't there. But was. Alberto was following her with the laptop, careful of the cable ...

The boy seemed birdlike, in death, the arch of his cheekbone, as she bent forward, casting its own small shadow. His hair was very dark. He wore dark, pin-striped trousers and a dark shirt. "Who?" she asked, finding her breath.

"River Phoenix," said Alberto, quietly.

Gibson ties augmented reality into GPS service and location tagging and shows how the technology can be used for art--recreating events or creating 3D art in specific locations--or for location tracking. Spook Country was published in February 2006, a year before the release of the iPhone and widespread availability of free GPS access.

Ironically, as Gibson's modern novels more directly tackle present day social issues and how we interact with technology, they feel dated much more quickly. References to Macintoch PowerBooks seem downright archaic while the fanciful hacking decks of Neuromancer still sound cool and high tech. But that's the advantage of imaginary technology: it doesn't age, when described with just the right amount of ambiguity.

The arc of William Gibson's career has steadily carried him closer to postmodern socioeconomic criticism, and by the end of the Bigend cycle he's left the trappings of science fiction behind:

"It felt to me that the yardstick of cognitive dissonance I was using was very 1980s and wasn’t sufficient to measure the wonders of the new. When you’re trying to freak the reader out, you need to exceed the weirdness of the everyday. My old cognitive dissonance was no longer that extreme. So I set out to measure the weirdness of the new. And then a few weeks later it was 9/11."

Gibson may never go back on the hunt for the capital-F Future--he seems to find the now plenty interesting--but you never know when he'll catcha glimpse of the Next Big Thing we've all missed.

Photos courtesy Flickr user GonzoBonzo, via Creative Commons. Johnny Mnemonic image via Sony Pictures.