3 October 1996

Cartesian neon

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.

But in Gibson’s dystopian near-futures, cyberspace is also a zone of endless war: between the zaibatsus, huge multinational corporations which have usurped governments, and Gibson’s protagonists. These heroes smoke, drink coffee, jack into computer consoles, hustle and kill. They are Burroughsian bohemians, inhabiting “the interzone where art wasn’t quite crime, crime not quite art”. As he showed in a horrified 1994 report from Singapore (“Disneyland with the death penalty”) for the Observer, Gibson despises the seamless, strictured planes of corporate big business. He hunts out the gaps in the control structure; he is the champion of the interstitial.

Gibson was 36 when Neuromancer was published, hardly a techno whiz-kid, but it rocketed him to instant stardom. And as is so rare in science fiction, his language was a match for his world. Written in an ecstatically stripped syntax, miming its own holomovie jump-cuts, hyperindividuating its own narrative temporality by eschewing the simple present for a breathless string of participles. Pulp fiction in excelsis.

The hero, Case, is a burnt-out console jockey, brain-maimed by his previous employers for stealing. But his new boss arranges a nerve-splicing finesse that will fix his impotence. Observe the marriage of Eros and Prometheus in Case’s first re-entry into cyberspace:

And flowed, flowered for him, fluid neon origami trick, the unfolding of his distanceless home, his country…. And somewhere he was laughing, in a white-painted loft, distant fingers caressing the deck, tears of release streaking his face.

A wiser return to the womb: the sexual infantilism of the human-computer interface is also enfranchising.

Neuromancer and the two novels which followed, Count Zero (1986) and the gorgeously titled Mona Lisa Overdrive (1988), made up a fertile holy trinity, a sort of Chrome Koran (the name of one of Gibson’s future rock bands) of ideas inviting endless reworkings. “Jacking-in” to cyberspace (a concept Gibson invented because he was frustrated with trying to write physical transitions); biochips, where “immortal hybrid cancers spewed out tailored molecules that became units of circuitry”; love among the noodles and futons in a post-Bladerunner Japan, now the economic centre of the world.

Gibson’s world inspired the scientists at work on virtual reality (or “simstim”, a concept distinct from that of cyberspace in Gibson’s novels, traceable to Aldous Huxley’s “feelies”), and countless Hollywood hacker movies (Gibson’s own clever screenplay for last year’s Johnny Mnemonic was obscured for most critics by the cretinous casting of Keanu Reeves). But his ideas also influenced thinkers outside the cyberpunk loop, such as the economist Jeremy Rifkin. His book, The End of Work, offers a vision of state-run charitable work as a bulwark against some quasi-Gibsonian nightmare, where the middle class has vanished and the tiny techno-elite is supported by a groaning, obsolete underclass.

Gibson offers countless incidental pleasures, jokes and semiotic ghosts from our own history. Sentient computers (AIs) are kept from getting too smart by the Turing Police (named after the British mathematician Alan Turing, inventor of the Turing Test for machine consciousness). One character in Count Zero, in a witty nod to the old philosophical thought-experiment, actually is a brain in a vat. The Difference Engine (1990), written with Bruce Sterling, is a steampunk reimagining of Victoriana, positing Babbage’s success in producing a working computer; Virtual Light (1993), a fast-forwarded Elmore Leonard caper novel, introduces nanotechnological architecture, Colombian data havens for contraband information, and a virtual porn star named McDonna.

Not everyone finds all this funny. Gibson is often accused by liberal critics of fetishizing weaponry. An odd charge to level at a man who was so appalled by guns that he was rejected by the Vietnam draft board, and went to live permanently in Canada. In fact, Gibson fetishizes everything, so that fetish itself dissolves into a holistically rapturous way of seeing. To omit to lavish attention on one class of things – fractal-bladed knives, flechette pistols, rifles and bombs of all descriptions – would be a failure of imaginative duty. Consider the opening of Virtual Light:

The courier presses his forehead against layers of glass, argon, high-impact plastic. He watches a gunship traverse the city’s middle distance like a hunting wasp, death slung beneath its thorax in a smooth black pod.

That is not pornography but metaphoric techno-naturalism – technology at one, not at war, with nature – and it is character-specific. Wealthy or stably employed characters, throughout the Gibson corpus, share it; the rest cannot afford to.

This disjunction is given its fullest voice in Gibson’s breezily intelligent new novel, Idoru. The idoru is an entirely virtual media star, a female Japanese personality construct, built from “aggregates of subjective desire”. The global celebrity channel, Slitscan, is thrown into disarray by the news that top rock star, Rez, plans to marry her. But the idoru’s company representative explains that in his language, the word for “nature” is of relatively recent coinage. “We have never developed a sinister view of technology.” On the other hand, Zona Rosa, a disabled Mexican woman who appears in cyberspace as a blue Aztec death’s-head, finds the marriage prospect philosophically obscene. One of Gibson’s most appealing characters, Zona follows an Oedipal injunction by apologising: “An idiom. Idioma. Very rich and complicated. It has nothing to do with your mother.”

Idoru’s console jockey is a man called Laney, blessed with an attention defecit syndrome which allows him to divine patterns in vast soups of data. He is hired by Rez’s corporation to discover the singer’s motives. Meanwhile, Chia, a 14-year-old American Rez fan, journeys to Japan and unwittingly acts as a mule for a smuggled nanotech assembler. Nanotech architecture: machines that are too small to see, creating giant structures that look like they are building themselves. Gibson has elsewhere said that the prospect of nanotechnology “gives me the creeps”, and in this novel it is purposefully ambivalent, providing nightmare visions of “something towering, mismatched windows and a twisting, moire sky”, but also with the potential to reconstruct something anarchic, human, non-corporate.

That something is the Walled City of Kowloon, or Hak Nam, on Hong Kong island, which in Gibson’s future has been razed by the Chinese and now exists only as a countercultural haven in cyberspace. It is Gibson’s corrective symbol of the animal spirit, against the sterile machinery of rebuilt, post-quake Tokyo: “a thing of random human accretion, monstrous and superb”. Gibson’s latest future no longer has the shocking power of a decade ago, but it is more cleverly politicized, and as fast, witty and lovingly painted as ever. Television networks have invented “counter-investigative journalism”; Iraq does a storming black-market trade in foetal tissue; a cyberspace junk-mailing from the Ku Klux Klan is eaten by a virtual spider, described as “a sub-program that offered criticism”.

Gibson is always in control, flattering the reader with snippets of 20th-century pop culture that his protagonists don’t recognize, or choosing just the right sensory buttons to push, as in this example of laconic olfactory precision: “Arleigh’s van smelled of long-chain monomers and warm electronics.” For all his futuristic wizardry, William Gibson’s most prized tool is still the obsolescence-proof technology of words.