Feb/Mar 2012

Cyberpunk'd

As an essayist, William Gibson is a great sci-fi novelist

Michael Dirda


Back in 1980, I persuaded the Washington Post Book World, where I was then working as an assistant editor, to launch a monthly column devoted to science fiction and fantasy. For once my timing was just right. During the 1980s, Gene Wolfe produced the four original novels of The Book of the New Sun. John Crowley brought out Little, Big and the first volume of the Ægypt series. Writers with roots in science fiction—J. G. Ballard, Angela Carter, Ursula K. Le Guin—broke into mainstream consciousness, while mainstream literary figures such as Margaret Atwood and Russell Hoban produced dystopian visions of the future.

Smack in the middle of that golden decade, the distinguished SF editor Terry Carr published the first half-dozen titles of the new Ace Science Fiction Specials. All paperbacks, these included the debut novels of Kim Stanley Robinson (The Wild Shore), Lucius Shepard (Green Eyes), Howard Waldrop (Them Bones), Michael Swanwick (In the Drift)—and, by no means least, William Gibson, a thirty-six-year-old American then, as now, living in Vancouver.

Neuromancer carried a cover blurb by Robert Silverberg announcing the novel as “an event I have been eagerly awaiting.” Yet even Silverberg, not to mention Gibson himself, must have been surprised by what followed. Neuromancer won the three major American awards for science fiction—the Hugo, the Nebula, and the Philip K. Dick (for original paperback)—and rapidly took its place as the founding text of cyberpunk fiction and the bible of hackerdom. It was arguably the most influential SF novel since Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land or even Alfred Bester’s The Stars My Destination.

Neuromancer immediately grabbed hold with its now-famous opening sentence—“The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel”—and introduced the reader to a truly burnt-out Case, a suicidal computer cowboy unable to jack into the heady freedom of cyberspace. Gibson coined that word, “cyberspace,” and also imagined a vast megalopolis called the Sprawl extending from Boston to Atlanta, then made his heroine a “street samurai” named Molly, who has had her body reengineered for hand-to-hand combat. As the backdrop to all this, he brought to life a layered techno-society of gigantic computers and decadent elites, of cryonically preserved bodies and machine-preserved minds. The captious might see various borrowings—a plot similar to Heinlein’s Gulf, the tough-guy style of the Black Mask writers Hammett and Chandler, the overcrowded junkyard future of Philip K. Dick. But only Gibson was able to fuse them all together, set readers’ pulses racing, and make the world take notice: Here was a writer for the emerging computer age.

Gibson soon followed Neuromancer with the equally compelling Count Zero, again set in the future of the Sprawl. It contains my favorite Gibson opening:

They set a Slamhound on Turner’s trail in New Delhi, slotted it to his pheromones and the color of his hair. It caught up with him on a street called Chandni Chauk and came scrambling for his rented BMW through a forest of bare brown legs and pedicab tires. Its core was a kilogram of recrystallized hexogene and flaked TNT.

He didn’t see it coming. The last he saw of India was the pink stucco façade of a place called the Khush-Oil Hotel.

Because he had a good agent, he had a good contract. Because he had a good contract, he was in Singapore an hour after the explosion. Most of him, anyway. The Dutch surgeon liked to joke about that, how an unspecified percentage of Turner hadn’t made it out of Palam International on that first flight and had to spend the night there in a shed, in a support vat.

It took the Dutchman and his team three months to put Turner together again. They cloned a square meter of skin for him, grew it on slabs of collagen and shark-cartilage polysaccharides. They bought eyes and genitals on the open market. The eyes were green.

There, one can see the signature style of the early Gibson: the in medias res plunge into action, the Asian setting, the techno-jargon and precise place names, the deadpan tone of the brisk, punchy sentences, the shadowy figures (what exactly is a Slamhound? what kind of agent?), the little bursts of narrative surprise (“most of him, anyway”), the allusions to a world where one can buy intimate body parts on the open market, and, not least, the affectless cool: “The eyes were green.” It was a potent mixture, and Gibson was soon well and truly launched as a seer and pundit, the go-to guy for insight into new technology and its impact on civic life and social consciousness.

That was, of course, a quarter of a century ago, give or take, and much has changed since those heady days of the 1980s. Gibson went on to write more novels—most recently a trilogy set in an alternate, slightly science-fictional present: Pattern Recognition, Spook Country, and Zero History. His books and stories have been turned into movies and theatrical events, served as the inspiration for rock bands and artists, led to innovative websites. To this day, William Gibson remains deeply admired by his peers in SF and nearly as revered by today’s fans as, say, Neil Gaiman or Neal Stephenson. And justly so.

Which is why Distrust That Particular Flavor simply doesn’t make sense. Grandly called a collection of essays, the book actually gathers Gibson’s occasional journalism, much from the late twentieth century, almost none of it worth rereading today. If the articles—several from Wired—were older, they might have the charm of period pieces. As it is, they simply seem really, really dated. Valiantly, Gibson does offer postscripts to each of them, frankly admitting how jejune they often are and even pointing out their overall lameness as journalism. Of one portrait of Tokyo he confesses that it sounds as if it was “phoned in.”

In these pages from yesteryear, we are set down in an era when AltaVista was the search engine of choice, when eBay looked to be the Next Big Thing, when teenage Japanese girls had just begun to use their “mobile phones” to constantly “text” messages to one another. Many of Gibson’s reflections are certainly prescient, but what he speculates about is now old news. “It may well be that the digital will eventually negate the underlying business model of popular musical stardom entirely.” Duh. “The spreading, melting, flowing together of what once were distinct and separate media, that’s where I imagine we’re headed.” Double duh. How should the contemporary reader, or even the Gibson admirer, react to such clichés and truisms? Are we meant to say, “Wow, that’s just like so amazing, how Gibson could predict the future!” The truth is Distrust That Particular Flavor calls for that authentically vintage, retro phrase: scraping the bottom of the barrel.

For many readers, I suspect the essays with the greatest appeal will be the most autobiographical, those in which we glimpse the young Gibson reading paperback science fiction in a small Virginia town or the older Gibson buying vintage watches on eBay. “I find clutter, in my personal environment, oppressive,” he tells us. “But crazed environments of dead tech and poignant rubbish turn up in my fiction on a regular basis, where they are usually presented as being at once comforting, evocative, and somehow magical. The future as flea market. I really do tend to see the future that way, though not exclusively.” Good to know, I guess, but fans eager for glimpses into the author’s life would do even better to look for last summer’s Paris Review Art of Fiction interview.

As a futurologist, Gibson does proffer a number of slightly pat and rather McLuhanesque observations: “All cultural change is essentially technologically driven.” “The end-point of human culture may well be a single moment of effectively endless duration, an infinite digital Now.” “Emergent technology is, by its very nature, out of control, and leads to unpredictable outcomes.” Other remarks, however insightful they might once have seemed, now come across as embarrassingly trite: “The logical outcome of genuinely ubiquitous computing: the wired world. The wired world will consist, in effect, of a single unbroken interface.” My heavens, imagine that!

Several essays here do offer stabs at literary criticism, such as a piece originally intended as an introduction to an edition of H. G. Wells’s The Time Machine, or an enthusiastic review of the archaeological richness of Peter Ackroyd’s immense study of London, or an appreciation of Borges. But, like all of Gibson’s nonfiction, these are loose and rambling, slightly unfocused, lacking the assured mastery of his fiction. They do, in fact, often sound more like blogging than writing.

When all else fails, writers typically point to their style as the justification for collecting ephemera. Certainly Gibson’s voice is engaging, conversational, winning. Still, one may tire of his overreliance on sentence fragments, or the occasional faux-naïf tone, or the strange insubstantiality of much of what he says. How, for instance, did viewing his first Disney movie teach him to “watch film”? He doesn’t tell us. Twice he uses the phrase “there’s often something in a good translation that can’t quite be captured in the original.” Once he passes it off as his own coinage; on another page it is attributed to a friend. (In fact, the Borgesian bon mot appears to belong to Gibson’s buddy Bruce Sterling, his coauthor for the steampunk classic The Difference Engine.) Then there’s the recourse to vogue words like “nodal,” “media platform,” “cognitive dissonance,” and even the World Wide Web. Time isn’t always kind to distinctive, period-rich styles. All too easily, the cool becomes kitsch.

Sigh. Let me stress again that I really do admire William Gibson as a writer. But Distrust That Particular Flavor needs less journalism, better writing, and more thinking. Take Gibson’s shrewd understanding of our human propensity for conspiracy theories of history:

The description of an underlying, literally occulted order is invariably less complex than the surface reality it supposedly informs. Conspiracy theories and the occult comfort us because they present models of the world that more easily make sense than the world itself, and, regardless of how dark or threatening, are inherently less frightening.

That’s a bit fustian in style, but the insight seems exactly right. Alas, there aren’t enough paragraphs like it in Distrust That Particular Flavor. I wish that Gibson, his agent, and his publisher had remembered what he once wrote about computer gadgetry: “My first impulse, when presented with any spanking-new piece of computer hardware, is to imagine how it will look in ten years’ time, gathering dust under a card table in a thrift shop.”

What goes for technology also goes for most of the pieces in Distrust That Particular Flavor: Nothing, after all, grows dull so quickly as the cutting edge.

Michael Dirda is a Pulitzer Prize–winning literary journalist and the author, most recently, of On Conan Doyle (Princeton University Press, 2011).

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