Cyberpunk pioneer Author William Gibson
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.”