I’ve been weathering the wilds of William Gibson quite a bit lately. I’ve been reading several books by and about him and his work for months now. Having just finished the Bigend trilogy — Pattern Recognition (2003), Spook Country (2007), and Zero History (2010) — and finally chewing through Distrust That Particular Flavor (2012), I am engrossed in the greys of the Gibsonian. But, even if you’re not obsessed with his work, you’re immersed in his world. As novelist Luke Monroe put it to Gibson on Twitter recently, “of all the speculative fiction authors, why did you have to get it right? I love your work, but now we are living it.”
His pre-cog abilities, the ones he used to predict and project the personal computer’s connectivity and utter ubiquity, make the writing in his most recent, present-tense trilogy so completely dead-on. Why does the world now look more like a William Gibson novel than one by Arthur C. Clarke? Gibson’s friend and cyberpunk peer Bruce Sterling explains:
Because he was looking at things that Clarke wasn’t looking at. Clarke was spending all his time with Wernher von Braun, and Gibson was spending all his time listening to Velvet Underground albums and haunting junk stores in Vancouver. And, you know, it’s just a question of you are what you eat. And the guy had a different diet than science fiction writers that preceded him (quoted in Miller, 2007, p. 344).
Even as some wish he would return to the future and others marvel at his prescience in the present, Gibson’s journey to this particular now hasn’t been a direct path. Fred Turner’s From Counterculture to Cyberculture (University of Chicago Press, 2006) helps map the minutia.
Turner’s book traces the path of Stewart Brand, Kevin Kelly, Howard Rheingold, and the rest of the Whole Earth Network from the actual commune to the virtual community, showing how their offbeat past informed our online present. Turner writes that they “imagined themselves as part of a massive, geographically distributed, generational experiment. The world was their laboratory; in it they could play both scientist and subject, exploring their minds and their bodies, their relationships to one another, and the nature of politics, commerce, community, and the state. Small-scale technologies would serve them in this work. Stereo gear, slide projectors, strobe lights, and, of course, LSD all had the power to transform the mind-set of an individual and to link him or her through invisible ‘vibes’ to others” (p. 240). Gibson dropped out and tuned in as well, but once he and the other cyberpunks moved on to trying to envision the 21st century, many of their like-minded, counterculture contemporaries were trying to build it. As Gibson told Wired in 1995, “I think bohemians are the subconscious of industrial society. Bohemians are like industrial society, dreaming.”
Punk was the last viable bohemia that we’ve seen, perhaps the last bohemian movement of all time. I’m afraid that bohemians will eventually come to be seen as a byproduct of the industrial civilization; and if we’re in fact at the end of industrial civilization, there may be no more bohemians. That’s scary. It’s possible that commercialization has become so sophisticated that it’s no longer possible to do that bohemian thing.
I put this question to Malcolm Gladwell years ago, the question of youth culture’s commodification, and he responded, “Teens are so naturally and beautifully social and so curious and inventive and independent that I don’t think even the most pervasive marketing culture on earth could ever co-opt them.” Gibson is not so optimistic, or he wasn’t in 1995. Here he talks about the grunge thing, which by that time had had a very public and much-debated commercial co-opting:
Look what they did to those poor kids in Seattle! It took our culture literally three weeks to go from a bunch of kids playing in a basement club to the thing that’s on the Paris runways. At least, with punk, it took a year and a half. And I’m sad to see the phenomenon disappear.
Perhaps this says more about where Gibson’s head was at the time than it does about the creativity of the youth. After all, we’ve seen plenty of cool things happen in the last seventeen years, and Gibson was writing Idoru (1996), one of his darker visions of modern culture, saturated with multi-channel, tabloid television. His later work is beset by a blunter approach.
When she wrote about things, her sense of them changed, and with it, her sense of herself. — William Gibson, Spook Country.
Even at his darkest, Gibson is still cool. I have to say that Spook Country is my favorite of his novels. Where others are more action-packed or visionary, Spook Country is all subtlety and surface. He told Kodwo Eshun in 1996, “There’s a very peculiar world of literature that doesn’t exist which you can infer from criticism. Sometimes when I’ve read twenty reviews of a book I’ve written, there’ll be this kind of ghost book suggested… And I wonder about that book, what is that book they would have wanted and it’s a book with no surfaces. It’s all essence.” Spook Country may be the closest anyone gets to writing that ghost book, and it’s just so… cool.
‘Twas not always the case. Gibson explains:
When I started to write science fiction, I knew I was working in a genre that was traditionally deeply deprived of hipness. I went looking for ways to import as much rock-and-roll aesthetic into science fiction as was possible. Going back and listening to Steely Dan’s lyrics, for instance, suggested a number of ways to do that. It seemed that there was a very hip, almost subversive science fiction aesthetic in Donald Fagen’s lyrics which not many people have picked up on. But there’s other stuff — David Bowie’s Diamond Dogs album, which has this totally balls-out science fiction aesthetic going. The Velvet Underground, early Lou Reed — that was important. I thought, OK, that’s the hip science fiction of our age, and so I’m going to try to write up to that standard, rather than trying to write up to Asimov.
Keep that in mind: Every step is a step on a path. And every step is informed by the one before it. You are what you eat, so eat well, my friends.
Eshun, Kodwo. (1996, November). William Gibson in Dialogue with Kodwo Eshun: The Co-evolution of Humans and Machines. Unpublished outtake from Paul D. Miller (ed.), Sound Unbound: Sampling Digital Arts and Culture. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.
Gibson, William. (2007). Spook Country: A Novel. New York: Putnam,p. 171.
Miller, P. D. (2007). Bruce Sterling: Future Tense. In R. Christopher (ed.), Follow for Now: Interviews with Friends and Heroes. Seattle, WA: Well-Red Bear, pp. 329-346.
Turner, Fred. (2006). From Counterculture to Cyberculture: Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Network, and the Rise of Digital Utopianism. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.
van Bakel, Rogier. (1995, June). Remembering Johnny: William Gibson on the making of Johnny Mneumonic. Wired, 3.06.