William Gibson

18 August 2007

Spook Country, by William Gibson (Viking)

A woman moves through a forest of symbols, peopled by liminal obsessives, gathering clues to a conspiratorial mystery. So might you describe Thomas Pynchon’s diabolically lean and funny The Crying of Lot 49, perhaps the most perfect American novel of its age. Fitting the same description is the new novel by William Gibson, whose own literary trajectory has seen him develop from noir prophet of cyberspace (the word he coined in Neuromancer, 1984) to a kind of wifi’d Pynchon for the ubiquitously sign-drenched present.

The heroine, Hollis, is a former singer for a cult early-1990s indie band, now a journalist. She accepts a commission from an obscure British magazine to interview some LA practitioners of “locative art”: installations in public places that are invisible unless you have a VR headset, in which case the virtual performance is overlaid on physical reality. But the tech genius behind the locative installations is also involved in something weirder: arcane data, encoded into the music on iPods, is being smuggled to Costa Rica and back through an old man who speaks Russian; and much ingenuity is being spent on trying to track a shipping container, flitting from boat to boat at sea for years, whose contents are are unknown. Continued →

3 May 2003

Interviewing William Gibson

For a long time William Gibson has threatened to become respectable; now he might have done it. His new novel, Pattern Recognition, hit number four on the New York Times bestseller list shortly after its US publication in January. The Washington Post called it “assuredly one of the first authentic and vital novels of the 21st century”; the Chicago Tribune acclaimed “a masterful performance from a major novelist who seems to be hitting his peak”.

Yet fans of the early Gibson may be mystified to discover that it features no imaginary futuristic technologies or hallucinogenic descriptive passages about cyberspace — a word he invented in 1982. Gibson was the progenitor of what became known as “cyberpunk” — a mode of dystopian and technologically visionary science fiction whose brightest flowering was his own first novel, Neuromancer. What seemed mere pulp SF to some critics at the time quickly attained a sophisticated glamour to which even the academy was not immune. Literary theorists such as Frederic Jameson compared his work to that of Thomas Pynchon (whom Gibson has named his “mythic hero”), as constituting the authentic literature of the postmodern condition. Continued →

18 October 1999

All Tomorrow’s Parties, by William Gibson (Viking)

In terms of concrete influence, William Gibson is probably the most important novelist of the last two decades. His 1984 debut, Neuromancer, invented the concept of “cyberspace”, and the literary genre of cyberpunk: a sharp fusion of noirish thriller and searingly imagistic futurism. Together with its sequels, Count Zero and Mona Lisa Overdrive, it laid the conceptual foundations for the explosive real-world growth of virtual environments in videogames and the Web. The world would be different without him.

But what does a seer do next? You wouldn’t expect Gibson to be able to repeat the trick, and he hasn’t tried to. 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? Continued →

3 October 1996

Idoru, by William Gibson (Viking)

William Gibson is a control freak. The word “cybernetics”, from the Greek kubernetes (“steersman”), appeared in 1948. It meant the study of control systems in machines or biological organisms. But the current vogue for attaching the prefix cyber- to anything at all (cyberculture, cybercafe, cyberknitting) can be blamed on Gibson, who coined the word cyberspace in 1984 in his first novel, Neuromancer. He describes the buzzword’s genesis archly in a 1991 short story: “Assembled word cyberspace from small and readily available components of language. Neologic spasm: the primal act of pop poetics. Preceded any concept whatever. Slick and hollow – awaiting received meaning.”

Since inventing this gleaming vessel of futurity, Gibson has been uncovering in his fiction the lurking architectures of control in all its guises. Cyberspace is the displaced, non-physical realm of communication via computers, and it originally appeared in Neuromancer as an updated literary version of the 1982 sci-fi film Tron, all high-velocity Cartesian neons: a 3-D graphic representation of the data from every computer in the human system, a “consensual hallucination”. Cyberspace is, if you like, the postmodern version of the medieval imagination’s Heavenly City. Continued →