32 comments on “Changing science fiction, changing the world: Scholars & Rogues honors William Gibson

  1. “You get plenty of blighted post-apocalyptic future speculation, but it’s all owing to Gibson’s innovations on cultural instead of technical plausibility.”

    There was quite a bit of speculative fiction before Gibson and post-apocalyptic too. Ever read We by Yegevny Zamyatin? Or how about the Iron Heel by Jack London? Quite a bit of dystopian fiction out there, way before Gibson. And they didn’t need the technical trappings to shine it up.

    • As I was writing this, the author I mostly felt like I was slighting is another hero of mine (and Gibson’s), PK Dick. You’re absolutely right – there were others tweaking on some of this stuff before WG. I guess maybe the best way for me to articulate it would be to say that he was the tipping point, the place where a variety of threads were pulled together into a tapestry that changed the fabric of the genre, if I might torture a metaphor to death.

      I haven’t read Zamyatin – on the list it goes – and while I’ve read some London, I haven’t read that one yet. Thanks for the recommends, and thanks for stopping by and commenting.

        • Maybe I overstated the PKD thing. What I ought to have said is that his work is greatly influenced by Dick, and that’s certainly true. Of course, influence can be a funny thing – we can be influenced by things we don’t necessarily care for and indirectly even by things we’re unaware of.

          I really appreciate the comment about his influence on your work. That sentence – “I hope my own work has a fraction of his ideas and style with prose” – reminds me of how I think about my own literary heroes.

    • Gibson has said he wrote Neuromancer specifically not to be post-apocalyptic or dystopian. The nuke war in Neuromancer was very small and shut down by the corporations. He’s not writing post-apocalyptic fiction as near as I can tell.

    • 1984, Brave New World, The Time Machine – all examples of dystopian sci-fi that predate Gibson…not that I don’t like William Gibson, or this article, just pointing out some great writers.

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  3. He’s my most important author. As a writer I feel I’ve had two courses of study, a masters program in writing and the work of William Gibson. I hope my own work has a fraction of his ideas and style with prose.

  4. He’d contend that Borges, Alfred Bester and Fritz Leiber were the more direct influences. I agree he’s got Phil Dickian stuff, but some of that might have come by way of Pynchon. My guess is he mostly objects to Phil’s prose. He’s never said it, but a man that can write like Gibson probably has trouble with PKD at times.

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  6. J G Ballard had the same feelings and observations about ‘hard Sci-fi’ and took the genre on a new path in what some call the British New Wave … starting in the late 50s. His work is obviously different to Gibson’s … both exciting and equally valid. But Gibson was relatively late to the game of abandoning older genre limitations. Love Gibson though and thanks for the article.

  7. I agree with your take on Gibson’s effect on SF, but you massively overstate his effect on the real world. The Internet had been ticking along quite happily for 15 years before Neuromancer was published, and the World-Wide Web (which far too many people conflate with the ‘net) was more inspired by Ted Nelson than by Gibson.

    Gibson’s vision of cyberspace may have inspired a generation of Virtual Reality pioneers, but ::looks around:: I don’t see an Ono-Sendai deck in my living room. Keyboard, screen, windows, pointers, network…we’re still computing with essentially 1960s technology. “In the beginning was the command line…”

    • Rick and Andy – It’s pretty much a minefield trying to write a post like this one, but I certainly succeeded in my goal of attracting intelligent comment. Thanks for stopping by.

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  9. A quibble — I would have thought that Vinge’s True Names would have a better claim to introducing cyberspace than Neuromancer does.

    And I’d have made Rick’s point if he hadn’t beaten me to it — Gibson gives us some vivid images of his cyberspace but they don’t really seem to be reflected into much of today’s mainstream Internet. I’m now curious about whether today’s programmers are particularly familiar with his work.

    Thank you for writing the article — must put Burning Chrome onto my reading list once I’m done with the new Culture book. It certainly had a lot of impact when I encountered it in Omni lo these many years ago!

    • Two-thirds of the programmers I know love Gibson. Granted, I’ma writer and don’t know a megaton of programmers. But I still like my unscientific polling.

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  13. Hi Samuel, this is a very well-thought out and provocative essay, and I think you made your point strongly. William Gibson is one of my favorite writers, and I’m just wondering what you thought of his more recent trilogy, the novels Pattern Recognition, Spook Country, and Zero History? You mentioned this trilogy briefly from its marketing angle, but I wonder how you believe this trilogy compares with his first cyberpunk trilogy?

    • I know you didn’t ask me, but I will respond anyway because I’m here. The Bigend trilogy, for me, isn’t fundamentally different than the other two. The plots are the same, the observations consistent with his other work. He just dialed in his tightly focused observation on the very recent past. What Gibson himself calls “speculative novels of last Tuesday.” If you look at Pattern Recognition as in the same template as Count Zero, it fits into a micro-genre of teleological paranoia novels. Foucault’s Pendulum and The Crying of Lot 49 round out the list. I don’t know if you’ve read The Crying of Lot 49, but the plot and some of the themes are similar to Pattern Recognition. Also to Marly’s thread in Count Zero.

      • I think I come at the question from a different direction than Chris does, but I pretty much like his conclusions. Heck, as I was reading ZH there were several moments where it felt like Gibson was intentionally echoing the Cyberspace trilogy. I think the core of Gibson’s relevance – then and now – stems from his almost rabid insistence on that thing I mentioned in my post (and in my dissertation, which is where I talked about it initially): cultural plausibility. Gibson once observed that sf is never about the future, it’s always about the present. So the kinds of social and political economic dynamics that are so essential to his first trilogy haven’t gone anywhere. He is, in a very real sense, writing about the same world in all three cycles.

        • I agree. Gibson is correct, sci-fi is about now. All fiction can only aspire to be about another time and place. It is a reflection of the time in which it is written. A big problem I find in much sci-fi is the authors’ belief that they are in fact writing about tomorrow. Most sci-fi writers don’t seem to be conscious of the influence the present has. Or, if they are conscious, they dismiss it. This often leads to what I find to be boring literature. Gadgets and space quests and so forth. But it can go the other way too. There are authors out there writing with the understanding that they write about the day after tomorrow. Many of their works feel rather like a pastiche of modernity to me. I often find these authors are the ones with the scientific and technical knowledge to inform the work to a degree that makes it more like tech-porn than fiction. That’s why I think Gibson does better. He isn’t interested in the tech as such, but the effect on culture. Of course he’s also considerably more talented than many of these other authors.

        • Those writers you’re talking about, that’s what Gibson was after in “The Gernsback Continuum,” and you’re exactly right. If you’re still trying to write that old-style, technotopian/Golden Age stuff these days you’re really beating your head against the wall. The one fresh avenue, as I indicated in the article, is quantum mechanics, but holy hell, that’s so damned complicated it’s about impossible to do anything with.

          Gibson was to that high-science sf what Nirvana was to hair metal, pretty much. You can still find it if you don’t mind the county fair circuit… :)

  14. They are similar to the sort of writers I’m speaking about. I’m thinking more modern and not utopian motivated. There’s a fair collection of contemporary sci-fi authors who are rather wonkish in their knowledge and pedestrian in their imagined futures. They are also quite popular, though not as popular as Gibson. I just find there’s a hard SF screed running through a certain fan base and there are writers who speak to that fan base. I was at Worldcon this year and there were a fair amount of panels on things more technical than narratively useful. A lot of the people writing in that vein really seem to believe they’re writing about the future. Much the same was, as you point out, that Golden Age SF was about the Americanization of tomorrow. That came true to a certain extent, but the things we exported were pop cultural detritus rather than shiny new rocketships and Googie promises of what Gibson called “Ray Gun Gothic.”

  15. Thank goodness for Gibson, for inspiring other authors to go on and write some really great stuff- my latest favorite author Edgar Swamp, author of “The Gyre Mission: Journey to the *sshole of the World.” I would die without my Science Fiction!

    http://www.edgarswamp.com/

  16. So it’s 1981 and I’m teaching in Pt Augusta at the top of Spencer Gulf in South Australia. Please look it up. The worst of the three towns in what is known as “the Iron Triangle”. The others – Whyalla. Iron smelting and shipyards. Stained brick red by the iron oxide dust – even the sheep. Port Pirie – a giant lead smelter. They’re still fighting for compensation for the birth defects.
    Any way, there I am and the only thing between me aand topping myself is Omni magazine. I have read Speculative Fiction since the age of 8 ish, beginning with the Hobbit. Swiftly careering into Clarke, Heinlein, Asimov, Philp K – everyone, EVERYONE! inhaling the new as it came along. But from the mid seventies it felt like nothing really NEW new had been written for years. Same old same old.
    Then – May 1981, there it was

    “Johnny Mnemonic”

    And everything changed, forever.

    There’s been a lot of new since, superb new, but always in response to that paradigm shift.

  17. This take on Gibson’s importance within the genre basically requires a lot of selective ignorance about the genre.

    I say this as someone who thinks that Gibson’s work is very good and very important, but he’s doing very little in Neuromancer that hadn’t been done before, sometimes all in the same work. Look to Samuel Delany, Thomas Disch, John Brunner, ‘James Tiptree’, and Alfred Bester, just for a start.

    What Gibson did was put it all into a package that captured popular imagination. What Gibson did was invent the genre-fictional equivalent of crack cocaine. He’s important not because of new ideas (they weren’t) or new treatments (they weren’t) or new ideas (they weren’t), but because he combines all those things into a really, really good book.

    So in that regard, his significance is very different, and very much more problematic: His significance is really mostly that he’s a fantastic storyteller.

    • I think he’s famous for new ideas. Most people associate him as the originator of the above ideas. He’ll tell you he’s not every chance he gets, but the media has labelled him the zeitgeist prophet. Along with the author’s you mention, what distinguishes Gibson is bring high level literary technique to science fiction. The man is a master of prose. While I love his ideas and characters, it’s the prose that brings me back again and again.

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