Changing science fiction, changing the world: Scholars & Rogues honors William Gibson

I have been known to say that William Gibson is arguably the most important author of the past 30 years. That’s a mouthful of an assertion, especially since we’re talking about a genre writer, I know. But even if I’m wrong, I’m not off by much. The man who more or less invented Cyberpunk, then abandoned it as quickly as he defined it, did more than simply alter the direction of science fiction, he literally helped shape the computing and Internet landscape as we know it today. That’s pretty big doings for a guy who had never so much as played with a computer before he wrote his first novel.

This story we’ve heard before, but here’s the Reader’s Digest version for those late to the party. Gibson’s Neuromancer (the first novel to ever win the SF triple crown – the Hugo, the Nebula, and the Philip K. Dick awards) introduced us to cyberspace, a “consensual hallucination” in which humans used computers to navigate around the global online network. He imagined it as an immense, three-dimensional virtual space, and as his “Cyberspace Trilogy” (Neuromancer, Count Zero, Mona Lisa Overdrive) unfolded, we also encountered killer viruses, psychic online projections of humans whose flesh was being kept technically alive in protein baths out in meatspace, and even artificial life forms that had evolved from advanced artificial intelligences created by powerful corporate interests.

He used the money he made from that novel to purchase a computer, his first. He has talked about how disappointed he was in it. That’s it? That’s all it does?

There’s a profound lesson in Gibson’s experience. We live in a culture where, sadly, we too often assume that you have to have significant experience to innovate a given field. Where creativity and insight are presumed to be a function of familiarity. Well, this can be the case, certainly, but it’s also true that knowledge of a subject can be a limiter. The more we know about what can and can’t be done, the more likely we are to restrict our thinking to what is feasible, to what is “possible.”

It’s sometimes worth remembering that those who architected the earliest of Europe’s great cathedrals had never been in anything quite so grand as what they dreamed of. DaVinci designed all kinds of machinery for which the world in which he lived offered no precedent whatsoever. And while MTV has evolved into something of a disappointment, in its early days it was relentlessly innovative. How did they do it? Well, the story goes that they went out of their way to hire people with no experience because they didn’t want the channel to be defined by people who knew “how it was done.” Innovation, in their view, was boosted when people didn’t realize what wasn’t possible.

We now know that a generation of computer engineers and designers, the people who literally built the Internet, envisioned the Web, dreamed the future of personal computing and gaming, many of these people had read Gibson and his imagination, unencumbered by the text-based limitations of the Commodore 64, served as an important resource as they set about crafting the electronic world in which we now live.

Gibson also deserves credit for another huge achievement: he saw, early on, that science fiction was a dead genre. (Calm down, let me explain what I mean by that.)

One of his early, landmark short stories was entitled “The Gernsback Continuum.” Hugo Gernsback, publisher of Amazing Stories, is sometimes called the “father of science fiction” because of his importance in helping the genre develop in the early and mid part of the 20th century. (It is for him that the prestigious Hugo Award is named.) What Gibson is poking at, in the story, are the precepts of the golden age of SF, the era of the god-scientist, of utopian futurism where the technologist holds the key to solving society’s ills. Flying cars, food pills, interstellar travel, and alien worlds that conformed to the demands of rational thought instead of the messiness of, well, actual humans. It was nerd lit of the highest order, and it was attended by both a pronounced design ethic (think about The Jetsons here) and a slavish concern with technical plausibility. A writer could make things up, of course – there wasn’t exactly a lot of tested hard science surrounding time travel in 1950 – but he (it was nearly always a he) was obliged to hew as close to what was actually known as possible. Speculation was great, but it must proceed from actual science.

The Gernsback Continuum, then, was Gibson’s way of characterizing the age of Hard SF. And he perceived, acutely enough, that Hard SF was in trouble. In 1950, the state of science was such that it was relatively simple to distinguish between what was possible and what was impossible – that is, between the present and the future. But Gibson understood that the future was gaining, as it were. As the curve describing technological advance grew more and more vertical, the lag time between today and tomorrow was shrinking.

Gibson addressed this dynamic in a couple of ways. First off, he abandoned technical plausibility. You can read the Cyberspace Trilogy backward and forward as many times as you like and you’ll not find any of the standard trappings of Hard SF. This was most decidedly not your father’s Asimov. He described how cyberspace looked and his writing certainly put you in the cockpit as Case approached that mountain of black ice, but he didn’t much care if you understood the nuts and bolts of how it all worked. It was Internet sci-fi without any coding whatsoever.

Instead, Gibson devoted his attentions to cultural plausibility. You might not know how a cyberdeck worked, but you had a pretty clear sense of how the politics and the economy were set up. Black and gray markets and DIY economies emerging from the poverty of the streets? Check. Rampant urban sprawl? Check. Uber-powerful corporations that answered to no government? Check. Ultra-rich who weren’t quite human anymore? Check. Gibson made no secret about how he constructed his all-too-likely future world: he took what he saw around him and exaggerated a bit in the direction things seemed to be moving. In doing so, he blazed a path that every decent SF/SpecFic author today is following.

The second step: he abandoned science fiction. Sure, his second trilogy still dealt with some technology that wasn’t yet reality, but you were no longer reading about an indeterminate moment off in the future. You were reading about the day after tomorrow in ways that were grounded enough in current reality to be more familiar than you might like. Then, that series put to bed, he dove headlong into the world of … contemporary marketing. And made it fascinating, again by riffing on cultural plausibility.

Gibson seems to have been the first to understand something important about SF: it’s hard to write about the future when, no matter how hard you try, your wild-ass technological fantasies are actually on the damned shelves by the time you can get the book to market.

If you follow science fiction today, you probably realize that very little of it behaves in a way that Hugo Gernsback would recognize as SF. You get plenty of blighted post-apocalyptic future speculation, but it’s all owing to Gibson’s innovations on cultural instead of technical plausibility. It’s speculative fiction, not science fiction, for the most part. About the only exception is found with authors who are cerebral (and brave) enough to tackle quantum mechanics (people like Dan Simmons, for instance, and even Neal Stephenson dips his toes into that river in Anathem). There is certainly a new frontier there, but its inherent complexity is going to make it harder to appeal to a broad audience, I’d imagine.

So, when I say that Gibson is the most important author of the last 30 years, this is why. It’s not easy exerting such a massive influence on an established genre. It’s next to impossible for a genre novel to literally transform the course of real-world technological development. Doing both? I don’t know – has anyone besides Gibson ever come close?

Image Credit: Wikipedia

32 replies »

  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.

      • Philip K Dick is great, but Gibson only likes The Man in the High Castle. Overall he’s not a fan of Dick’s.

        • 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

    • Well, Gibson’s thoughts on prose always baffled me, anyway. He does love incomprehensible types – Pynchon is one touchpoint, and sweet hell, Burroughs is the mother of all unreadable writers. 🙂

      • His thoughts on? I haven’t heard him speak much to technique. Do you know where you read it?

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. 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.

  7. 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… 🙂

  8. 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.”

  9. 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!

  10. 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.

  11. 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.