Cy­ber­punk pi­o­neer Au­thor Wil­liam Gib­son

Pasatiempo - - CONTENT - Casey Sanchez

IT'S been more than 30 years since Wil­liam Gib­son pub­lished Neu­ro­mancer, a vi­sion­ary novel that changed the course of science fic­tion. Rather than the genre’s usual fo­cus on a far­away fan­tasy of col­o­niz­ing dis­tant plan­ets, Gib­son in­stead in­tro­duced a near-fu­ture where net­worked tech­nol­ogy would col­o­nize both our minds and our bod­ies. A dystopian vi­sion set in ur­ban Ja­pan, the 1984 novel coined the word cy­berspace, and fol­lowed a cast of an­ti­heroes, street gang mem­bers, drug ad­dicts, and thieves as they hacked net­work com­put­ers and de­ployed holo­grams and ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence to out­ma­neu­ver ri­vals and cor­rupt big busi­ness. The new genre Gib­son dreamed up came to be known as cy­ber­punk, which swapped out sci-fi’s in­ter­ga­lac­tic ide­al­ism for a gritty, street-level look at an earth­bound fu­ture.

Gib­son ex­erts a vast in­flu­ence on writ­ers and film­mak­ers con­tend­ing with our cur­rent age of tech­no­log­i­cal dis­trac­tion and cor­po­rate malfea­sance. The Ma­trix film copped heav­ily from the para­noid vis­ual tex­ture of his early nov­els (and also bor­rowed his us­age of the phrase “The Ma­trix”). Many crit­ics picked up on the un­canny re­sem­blance of Lisbeth Sa­lan­der, from Stieg Lars­son’s The Girl With the Dragon Tat­too ,to Molly Mil­lions, an as­sas­sin and cyn­i­cal cy­borg femme who ap­pears in sev­eral Gib­son nov­els.

By par­lay­ing pulp, fan­tasy, and sci-fi plots into high art, the au­thor helped pave the way for sci-fi as a genre to be taken se­ri­ously by literary writ­ers. In real life, the dis­si­dent acts of high-level data leaks en­abled and car­ried out by Ju­lian As­sange and Ed­ward Snow­den sound like plots first chore­ographed in a Gib­son nar­ra­tive. As Bri­tish au­thor Ned Beau­man put it, “Like many great writ­ers, he has a spe­cific imag­i­na­tive ter­ri­tory that he keeps go­ing back to, but that ter­ri­tory hap­pens to be where a lot of us now find our­selves liv­ing.”

Gib­son will ap­pear at the Jean Cocteau Cin­ema on Tues­day, Oct. 6, when he will read from his most re­cent novel, The Pe­riph­eral, and sign books.

One of the sur­pris­ing open se­crets about the au­thor, which he re­in­forced in a re­cent in­ter­view, is how lit­tle he keeps up with science and tech­nol­ogy. Neu­ro­mancer was writ­ten on a type­writer. The man who brought us cy­ber­punk never touched a com­puter un­til the late 1980s, and only first logged on to the in­ter­net as late as 1997. “Be­cause I didn’t have any per­sonal ex­pe­ri­ence of com­put­ers, my sense of what a com­puter could be wasn’t lim­ited by my ex­pe­ri­ence,” Gib­son said. “Even­tu­ally, I bought an Ap­ple IIc at a depart­ment store when they were al­ready clear­ing shelves to make way for the Mac­in­tosh. I got it home and plugged it in. It was crush­ing to me that they made these me­chan­i­cal noises. I had thought they were these silent, crys­talline ma­chines made of sil­i­cone.”

Gib­son cred­its his tal­ent as a sci-fi nov­el­ist to ig­nor­ing tech­no­log­i­cal de­vel­op­ments, in­stead train­ing his fo­cus on the con­ver­sa­tions, the lan­guage, and above all, the hu­man energy that drives pro­gram­mers, hack­ers, game de­vel­op­ers, and other cy­ber­cul­ture cre­atives. “I didn’t par­tic­i­pate in the cul­ture of dig­i­tal emer­gence. But I hung in the fringes and lis­tened to what peo­ple were talk­ing about. I lis­tened to the po­etry of their con­ver­sa­tion. They had to in­vent a new lan­guage to de­scribe what it is they were do­ing.”

The pro­lific au­thor has since gone on to write 10 more nov­els, in­clud­ing last year’s well-re­ceived The Pe­riph­eral (Put­nam/Pen­guin). On the sur­face level, the novel looks at gam­ing and time travel in the near fu­ture, but like many of his plots, it’s ac­tu­ally a close ex­am­i­na­tion of how tech­nol­ogy is de­ployed by elites to ex­ploit the la­bor and the lives of the poor and work­ing-class. The first half of the book is set in Ap­palachia, 20 years into the fu­ture. We are in­tro­duced to Flynne Fisher, a young woman who lives in a world where wearable tech­nol­ogy has gone cor­po­real — most res­i­dents have cell­phone tech­nol­ogy im­planted in their bod­ies. But these ad­vance­ments have done noth­ing to help their users es­cape from crush­ing poverty. Her brother, like most young men she knows, is a young vet­eran re­cov­er­ing

from wounds in­flicted in global wars and deal­ing with psy­chic in­juries sus­tained from neu­ral im­plants in­stalled by the mil­i­tary.

Flynne makes a liv­ing, sort of, mak­ing cronuts and other fad foods at a 3D printer fran­chise (most oth­ers in town use these print­ers for fab­ri­cat­ing street drugs). She moon­lights as a video-game mer­ce­nary, and she is lit­er­ally used as a pawn by wealthy play­ers, who or­ches­trate vast, mul­ti­player games with a global reach. Her life is changed, prob­a­bly for the worse, when through the course of her gam­ing em­ploy­ment she comes across Wilf Nether­ton, a ne’er-do-well who lives in Lon­don at the dawn of the 22nd cen­tury. Their en­counter is made pos­si­ble through a sort of dig­i­tal worm­hole ma­nip­u­lated by a small cadre of wealthy men who have learned how to stream data to move through time — the re­sult is some­thing like Steam (a pop­u­lar so­cial net­work for dis­tribut­ing mul­ti­player games) meets Skype, with some se­ri­ously non­lin­ear time set­tings. To these well-heeled gamers from the fu­ture, the lives of Flynne and her friends mean next to noth­ing. Af­ter all, from the van­tage point of the 22nd cen­tury, these men and women are be­yond ex­pend­able; they have, in fact, al­ready died.

Gib­son said he’s not much of a video-game player. “The last and only video game I ever mas­tered was Pong. Most of what I know is from watch­ing my chil­dren play as the genre evolved.” But what he gleaned from eavesdropping into the world of video gam­ing was an in­sight into how gam­ing both sharp­ens and dulls so­cial con­nec­tions. At its elite mar­gins, video gam­ing seems ca­pa­ble of re­pro­duc­ing class di­vides and la­bor ex­ploita­tion (al­ready in our own world, well-heeled play­ers pay for oth­ers to play the more ba­nal first rounds of video games). In other words, it’s ripe ter­ri­tory for Gib­son to pur­sue his per­sis­tent ques­tion: What does the fu­ture feel like to or­di­nary peo­ple?

“If I could time travel and have re­ally have a quick look at the fu­ture, the first thing I would ask would be, ‘What are your games?’ ” said Gib­son. As a re­sult, The Pe­riph­eral is less spec­u­la­tive about the fu­ture than it is filled with anx­i­ety about our mo­ment, where tech­nol­ogy of­fers glim­mers of re­bel­lion while largely en­forc­ing the cur­rent or­der. “One thing I learned about writ­ing science fic­tion — it can’t re­ally be about the fu­ture. It can’t re­ally be about the past. It’s about the present mo­ment.”

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