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Gibson, William

Entry updated 8 April 2024. Tagged: Author.

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(1948-    ) US-born author, in Canada since 1968, when he moved north after being rejected by his draft-board. After some time in Toronto – where a significant proportion of his fellow expatriates had come in protest against the Vietnam War – he moved in 1972 to Vancouver, British Columbia, a Pacific Rim city where attention has for decades been uneasily focused upon increasingly dominant Japan (latterly China) across the waters. (It could be argued that the Vancouver attitude toward imperial Japan, and to the Hong-Kong-driven impact of China, provides a model for the numb, colonized acquiescence to a new world order so characteristic of occidentals in the Neuromancer trilogy which made Gibson famous.) Gibson began publishing sf with "Fragments of a Hologram Rose" for Unearth in Summer 1977, and by 1983 had produced most of the fiction later assembled in Burning Chrome (coll 1986); some of these tales, such as "Johnny Mnemonic" (May 1981 Omni) and "Burning Chrome" (July 1982 Omni), were set in the Neuromancer universe, and were, therefore, early examples of what would soon become known as Cyberpunk (which see for detailed examination of the movement).

Gibson did not invent cyberpunk, nor did he ever claim to have done so. Bruce Bethke's "Cyberpunk" (November 1983 Amazing) supplied the name, and Gardner Dozois, in a 1983 article, defined the movement by applying the term to works set in Computer-driven, high-tech Near-Future venues inhabited by a slum-bound streetwise citizenry for whom the new world is an environment, not a project. In terms of traditional US sf, this was heresy, and Gibson's enormous success as an sf writer must have seemed an ominous harbinger of the death of traditional sf, whose agenda (crudely) was to treat the future as fixable by competent men. Gibson's novels, contrariwise, treat traditional sf instruments and themes as unforegrounded interjections into the complex mosaic of urban life; he shifts the grounds of sf displacement inwards from cyber (as it were) to punk; the world his novels describe is old (whereas in agenda or First SF, the future is new) and whether or not the world can be understood, which in Gibson's work is not the case, its inhabitants are consumers, not makers. The essential displacement from which they suffer – like so many protagonists of Postmodernist literature – is the loss of an integrated self, the disintegration of any story of civilization they can descry truly and so defend. For the inhabitants of Gibson's world, selfhood has emptied itself into the instruments of the world, and in book after book – like cases of flesh – his characters are found hacking the wilderness for Cargo.

Canadian sf – from A E van Vogt down through Gordon R Dickson and Robert Charles Wilson (see Canada) – has always tended to lock its protagonists into grey wilderness environments impenetrable to Conceptual Breakthrough, where they survive as displaced souls, longing for Transcendence. As a Canadian writer, therefore – through his own displacing act of emigration – Gibson was well placed to write the definitive cyberpunk book. All he needed to add to the Media Landscape he had envisioned and in a cautionary sense embraced was – in his remarkably fluent and attentive prose – gear, brand-names, Japanese corporations, a telling cynicism about all organs of government, and mean streets. But in the end the void of the wilderness interpenetrates the things of the world, and generates a sense that they are ultimately vain. The Neuromancer trilogy – Neuromancer (1984), Count Zero (1986) and Mona Lisa Overdrive (1988) – is all about escaping the flesh.

The protagonist of Neuromancer – which won the Hugo, Nebula, and Philip K Dick Awards – is a matrix cowboy or outlaw named Case who has been hired to link a digital version of his mind into Cyberspace itself – cyberspace being a worldwide computer matrix of Internet information experienced by any plugged-in sentience as an infinitely complex and chambered Virtual-Reality Labyrinth or Zone crowded with software Avatars, the term "matrix" being used by Gibson in a way directly predictive of the film The Matrix (1999) – and, once "inside", to steal or manipulate data. The "outside" world of the book is a near-future America (never named as such) dominated by Japanese corporations, one of which may be Case's employer. The plot itself harks back, as does much of the imagery, to the classic mean-streets California thrillers of Raymond Chandler (1888-1959) and Ross Macdonald (pseudonym of Kenneth Millar [1915-1983]); and, true to those models – and to what might be called Gibson's characteristically Canadian dubiousness about changing the world – none of the characters of Neuromancer have anything but an eavesdropping relationship to the true roots of power. The story eventually moves from Earth into near space, where complex orbiting arcologies house the AIs which, perhaps, secretly run the world; but the protagonist does not covertly long to run the world in their stead. His longing is for Transcendence of the flesh which pulls him back from the bliss of cyberspace. The second and third volumes of the sequence, though more sophisticated as novels, inevitably fail to advance much further – in traditional sf terms – towards any working out of the implications of the Neuromancer world, which remains a wilderness. The AIs of the first volume have suffered a traumatized, cataclysmic coming to self-awareness, and now haunt cyberspace in the guise of voodoo godlings. A wide range of characters appears throughout Count Zero and Mona Lisa Overdrive, but they share an underlying paralysis; and, as a novelist burdened with the task of creating new tales, Gibson inevitably pays a price for his refusal to countenance any normal sf fixatives. Hints given at the end of the last volume of a sudden interstellar growth of perspective singularly fail to convince, while signalling his main weakness as a novelist: a habit of diminishing the impact of his harsh visions of the world through speciously neat plot resolutions.

Adaptations of Gibson's cyberpunk and other works include the films Tomorrow Calling (1993) directed by Tim Leandro, a short (11 minutes) UK Channel 4 television movie based on "The Gernsback Continuum" (in Universe 11, anth 1981, ed Terry Carr); Johnny Mnemonic (1995), from the short story of that title; and New Rose Hotel (1998), directed by Abel Ferrara and based on "New Rose Hotel" (July 1984 Omni). The Manga "Kirokuya Johnny" (July 1988 SF Magazine), drawn by Mafuyu Hiroki, is also based on "Johnny Mnemonic". Gibson himself drafted a script for Alien³ (1992) that was not used by the filmmakers but was eventually novelized by Pat Cadigan as Alien³ (2021).

Cyberpunk in Gibson's hands, then, was an assault on future History, and a manual for surviving it in style. That Gibson is uncannily sensitive to manners and idioms may have, for many of his readers, obscured the underlying bleakness of his vision. After spending some time writing filmscripts in Hollywood, however, he allowed that bleakness to come unmistakably to the fore in The Difference Engine (1990) with Bruce Sterling. The book is a sustained work of Recursive SF – Benjamin Disraeli and characters from his work appear throughout – a Steampunk evocation of an Alternate History nineteenth-century UK whose Jonbar Point is the supposition that in about 1820 Charles Babbage succeeded in his attempt to construct the title's Computer. The world that explodes into reality as a consequence of Babbage's (and ultimately Ada Lovelace's) triumph is, in The Difference Engine, a cruel and polluted Dystopia, a land dominated by calculation, measurement and severely "practical" reason. Vast arterial roads ransack a choking London; huge masonical edifices house the new totalitarian bureaucracy which operates the Engines; and a conscious AI is a-borning. Though the book is at points unduly narrow in conception, and congested as a tale, its ultimate effect is very considerable.

The loosely linked Virtual Light sequence begins with Virtual Light (1993) which, though entirely competent, is a markedly less ambitious portrait of Near Future California, viewed through the lens of a thriller plot complete with McGuffin; the vision of the Oakland Bay Bridge transformed into a niche colony for social rejects and rebels is, however, enthralling. There are two loose sequels. Idoru (1996) focuses on the Pacific Rim and Tokyo, and upon the world-encompassing but simultaneously claustrophilic family-romance affair and marriage of a famous rock-singer and the eponymous eidolon, a Virtual Reality figure so densely nodal with information (indeed "she" is nothing but information) that she is almost worshippable. In All Tomorrow's Parties (1999), the alchemical marriage between information hotpoints and meat-puppet humans intensifies; a cusp – a black hole containing something like an eternal data-drenched now – seems imminent.

Gibson's most recent novels – also loosely linked – eschew the apocalyptic flourishes of the Virtual Light sequence, but Pattern Recognition (2003), which begins the Blue Ant Trilogy, is perhaps more transformative in its movement toward the indecipherability of the real world, despite the maps and tools and powers with which Gibson gifts his protagonists to give them a chance to orientate themselves. So Cayce's attempts in this novel – her name is no mistake – to as it were case the world are ultimately as doomed as the similar attempts of Gibson's first protagonist to control his life in Cyberspace. But Pattern Recognition, set more or less in the here and now, is a far more disturbing book than Neuromancer: because the world whose "case" is indecipherable is our world. Near the beginning of the volume Gibson speaks, more or less directly in his own voice, to this issue: "we have no future. Not in the sense that our grandparents had a future, or thought they did. Fully imagined cultural futures were the luxury of another day, one in which 'now' was of some greater duration. For us, ... futures like our grandparents' have insufficient 'now' to stand on. We have no future because our present is too volatile." This iteration expresses in dramatic terms a growing conviction among sf critics that twenty-first-century sf may increasingly need to focus its engines of vision on precisely this evanescent Now, which is so saturated with information that virtual and real become aspects of one another. Spook Country (2007), though told lightly, continues to explore the seismic chymical marriages of virtual and real into one braid whose strands can no longer be picked apart. Zero History (2010) despairingly conveys the present tense of history – it seems to be set mere moments into the future – in terms of an almost entirely paratactic bricolage, with the Secret Masters typical of his earlier fiction themselves reduced to something like garbage collectors. Archangel (graph, 2017) with Michael St John Smith, a Graphic Novel, moves from devastated Alternate World 2016 by Time Travel to a period just after World War Two, where a future like ours may be created: the last page of the tale signals the election of President Trump.

But Archangel seems almost benign compared to the series for which it seems to serve as a kind of intermission between the main acts. The Peripheral sequence, beginning with The Peripheral (2014), is partly set in a moderately Near Future characterized by a certain technological exuberance not entirely removed from Steampunk, with Airships much in evidence, and other example of the visible Machine necessary to that form, as well as the Nanotechnologies so conspicuously inimical to it; and partly set several decades further on. Connecting and dividing these two versions of the fate of America and the world is a linked domino pattern of planetary Disasters known as the "Jackpot" with global warming (see Climate Change) initiating a concatenation of drastic events. The female protagonist Flynne, in the belief that she is beta-testing a Drug that immerses her in a Virtual Reality world, is actually experiencing post-Jackpot London, whose tiny population (dominated by the "the klept", which is to say the cohort of the obscenely rich, who have proved good at surviving) typically manifest as costumed pantomime "peripherals" (see Avatars), and who are using her – via something like Time Travel – as a tool in their campaign to change history. Within the two worlds, whose complexities unfold relentlessly, a tightly-woven noir thriller plot shapes the book. Throughout, Communications and surveillance are seen as synonyms: as Dave Eggers put it in The Circle (2013), "Privacy is theft", certainly for "polts" (Poltergeist-like time-shifted figures) like Lynne in London. The second volume of the sequence, Agency (2020), features a darkly sleight-of-hand intensification of a sense – anticipated in The Peripheral (2020) – that the manipulation of Alternate Histories is central to the whole; a world in which Hillary Clinton won the 2016 presidential election in America is rendered with poignant, Pocket-Universe Uncanny-Valley intensity, and is manipulated by those who know "better". In a bad future, seen here as representing default reality, the klept continue to rule an increasingly desolate London inhabited by precariats and those who exploit them; meanwhile the planet shows all the signs of Jackpot Earth as an arena of opportunity for the entrepreneurial elite. More intensely than almost anyone else of his generation, Gibson continues to address the world we now occupy as though recognition and Terror were synonyms.

William Gibson was inducted into the Science Fiction Hall of Fame in 2008 and received the SFWA Grand Master Award in 2019. [JC]

see also: Ace Books; Alternate Reality Game; Children in SF; Clichés; Computer Role Playing Game; Ditmar Award; Fantasy; Games and Sports; Gods and Demons; Gothic SF; History of SF; Jobs in SF; Locus Award; Omni; Optimism and Pessimism; Paranoia; SF Music; Seiun Award; Space Habitats; Stardate; Technology; Villains.

William Ford Gibson

born Conway, South Carolina: 17 March 1948




  • Neuromancer (New York: Ace Books, 1984) [Cyberspace: in the publisher's third Science Fiction Special series: pb/James Warhola]
  • Count Zero (London: Victor Gollancz, 1986) [Cyberspace: hb/uncredited]
  • Mona Lisa Overdrive (London: Victor Gollancz, 1988) [Cyberspace: hb/]

Virtual Light

  • Virtual Light (New York: Bantam Spectra, 1993) [Virtual Light: hb/Don Brautigam]
  • Idoru (New York: G P Putnam's Sons, 1996) [Virtual Light: hb/Honi Werner]
  • All Tomorrow's Parties (New York: G P Putnam's Sons, 1999) [Virtual Light: hb/Honi Werner]

Blue Ant Trilogy

  • Pattern Recognition (New York: G P Putnam's Sons, 2003) [Blue Ant Trilogy: hb/Benita Raphan]
  • Spook Country (New York: G P Putnam's Sons, 2007) [Blue Ant Trilogy: hb/Nicole LaRoche]
  • Zero History (New York: G P Putnam's Sons, 2010) [Blue Ant Trilogy: hb/Nicole LaRoche]


  • The Peripheral (New York: G P Putnam's Sons, 2014) [Peripheral: hb/Richard Hasselberger]
  • Agency (New York: Bantam Books, 2020) [Peripheral: hb/]

individual titles

collections and stories

  • Burning Chrome (New York: Arbor House, 1986) [coll: hb/Rich O'Donnell]
  • Johnny Mnemonic: The Screenplay and the Story (New York: Ace Books, 1995) [story: plus script for the film: hb/uncredited]
  • Archangel (San Diego, California: IDW, 2017) with Michael St John Smith [graph: first appeared issues 1-5 2017 Archangel: illus/hb/Alejandro Barrionuevo, Butch Guice, Wagner Reis]


about the author


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