Heroes of Cyberspace: William Gibson

by Charles A. Gimon


(InfoNation Logo)

Published March 1997

William Gibson is cyberpunk. He may not have invented the genre or the word, he might not be technologically adept personally, he himself has called the notion a "marketing strategy"--but whatever it is, Gibson is the most prominent person associated with it. In the 1980s, the cutting edge of digital culture, the people who were in cyberspace before anyone else, centered their dreams around Gibson's transformed future.

William Gibson's worlds and the devices in them have been cloned time and time again. Some of his imitators are thoughtful, clueful people; others have had no idea what "cyberpunk" might be besides a throwaway media fad. The look and feel of cyberpunk or the gee-whiz electronics are easy to copy: "Max Headroom", William Shatner's "Tekwar", Oliver Stone's "Wild Palms", and a boatload of mostly bad movies that came out of Hollywood in the mid-1990s all owe something to Gibson. Most of them don't capture the real inner dimension of Gibson's imagination, the depth of his settings, the deep questions he ponders--and as the original cyber-purists are quick to tell you, compared to Gibson, they just don't measure up.

Everyone's agreed that William Gibson is important. What is it about his works that makes them stand out among so many imitators? How does he fit into the cultural stewpot of turn-of-the-millenium America, into the big picture?

William Gibson was born in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina on March 17, 1948, and grew up in Wytheville, Virginia, on the Blue Ridge. The southernness of his early life comes through in his 1992 project "Agrippa". He moved to Canada in 1968, first to Toronto, finally ending up in Vancouver. The motive wasn't so much to escape being drafted and sent to Vietnam as it was a general search for countercultural adventure; ever since, Gibson has lived life to a great extent as a Canadian.

Gibson's first published story, "Fragments of a Hologram Rose", came out in 1977. Already writing about virtual reality, he was influenced by the punk sensibilities of the day, by John Shirley, punk rocker and fellow writer, and by earlier writers from Thomas Pynchon to Dashiell Hammett. His wife's scholarly career and his experiences at the University of British Columbia may have kept his style polished, even as Shirley and street culture kept him sharp. Gibson got several stories published in the late 70s and early 80s, which are now collected under the title "Burning Chrome". The story "Johnny Mnemonic" as well as the story "Burning Chrome" in that collection introduced characters and settings for the works by which Gibson is best known, the "Sprawl" trilogy --"Neuromancer", "Count Zero", and "Mona Lisa Overdrive".

"Neuromancer" exploded onto the world in 1984, defining cyberpunk for a whole generation. Hackers compete with artificial intelligences that are straining to be born into consciousness, while being chased by the "Turing police" who regulate the behavior of AIs. Much action takes place in a future Tokyo, or in the "Sprawl": a metroplex stretching from Boston to Atlanta, part arcologies and corporate compounds, part decaying high-rises, part toxic dump. Governments are strong, but corporations are much stronger. The advance of technology has given fulfillment to some, harmed others, and allowed still others to make things real that used to lurk in the corners of their imaginations. Biotechnology is literally changing the face of society. Businesses and even individuals have found their way into Earth orbit. Paris and London still have their ancient charm, but much of Germany is still a radioactive ruin after a third world war.

There is the Matrix, too: Cyberspace. Gibson lets a future-media documentary describe it in "Neuromancer":

"...'The matrix has its roots in primitive arcade games,' said the voice-over, 'in early graphics programs and military experimentation with cranial jacks.' On the Sony, a two-dimensional space war faded behind a forest of mathematically generated ferns, demonstrating the spacial possibilities of logarithmic spirals; cold blue military footage burned through, lab animals wired into test systems, helmets feeding into fire control circuits of tanks and war planes. 'Cyberspace. A consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators, in every nation, by children being taught mathematical concepts...A graphic representation of data abstracted from the banks of every computer in the human system. Unthinkable complexity. Lines of light ranged in the nonspace of the mind, clusters and constellations of data. Like city lights, receding...'

'What's that?' Molly asked, as he flipped through the channel selector. 'Kid's show.' A discontinuous flood of images as the collector cycled..."

This is "cyberspace" entering the American consciousness: from here on, virtual worlds are no longer an odd idea for wizards at MIT to play with, they're a part of the standard science-fiction canon, and an artifact of our culture. The "hacker" is now a stock character and symbol, just as much as a "cowboy" or a "spaceman" is. Even more remarkably, Gibson's Matrix in "Neuromancer" doesn't involve the sort of invented mirror-world that later writers such as Neal Stephenson have had so much success with (and Gibson himself uses in "Idoru"). The Matrix in Neuromancer is filled with forms that represent real, but abstract, data. Corporate databases are huge, glowing pyramids, an artificial intelligence looks like several huge copies of the "old RCA building", and a person's point-of-reference glides through the shapes like a fighter pilot. Gibson didn't take the easy way out. His cyberspace isn't a comfortable copy of "meatspace"; it's a completely new, challenging setting, one that is still fresh and surprising today.

Gibson had to abandon the external setting of the "Sprawl" novels soon after "Mona Lisa Overdrive", mostly because the Soviet Union which he had described for the mid-21st Century no longer existed. Gibson himself has said several times that science-fiction writers are actually lousy forecasters; that they have more to say about the present day than about the future. Set in their times, the Sprawl novels make decent sense--the punk nihilism, the video arcades, the first mass-market computers and mobile phones, the cold war with Moscow and the economic war with Tokyo, military adventurism and scandal by the U.S. government, all are reflected in them.

The technological world's advances have caused Gibson problems, too. Today's readers are startled to hear that Case in "Neuromancer" is looking for a buyer for "three megabytes of hot RAM"--wouldn't it be easier just to buy memory at Montgomery Ward? Gibson, as he freely admits, is not a digital person at home. "Neuromancer", it is said, was written on a manual typewriter; Gibson today still claims not to have an e-mail address.

Building a new world, even a virtual one, is no small task. As Gibson told interviewer Larry MacCaffery: "When you're not forced to invent a new world from scratch each time, you find yourself getting lazy." In spite of the inconsistencies between the Sprawl's alternate universe and our own, Gibson's worlds are internally consistent as well as fantastic. In spite of his distance from modern electronics, he has won the loyalty of the most hardened chip-heads.

In the very best science-fiction, predictions do come true, not because the author has some kind of magical foresight, but because their visions are so compelling that real-world scientists and engineers start working to make them come true. Man landed on the moon a century after Jules Verne's suggestion; by 2084, we might well have the virtual worlds and neural interfaces of Gibson's works. Some of his other devices, such as digital cash, might come sooner. Others, such as taped memories ("the discrete encoding and subsequent reconstruction fo the full range of sensory perception" as he described it in "Fragments of a Hologram Rose") might be farther off, but have become common on cyberpunk wish-lists.

The Gibson style is inherited from a different genre than science-fiction: the detective story and the film noir. Gibson does not read like classic sci-fi: his stories are hard-boiled, two-fisted tales of data acquisition. Mean streets, dangerous dames, moral ambiguity, and a new breed of hacker-protagonist. John Blaser, in his web essays on film noir, talks about the anti-hero of 1940s noir: "The makers of this new type of detective film seemed to recognize that if they were going to create a new cinematic view of the world, they also would have to create a completely new hero to exist in that world." Just as creative Hollywood directors of the 40s rebelled against the squeaky-clean movie heroes of the day, so Gibson offered a new alternative to the shiny, spacesuited sci-fi heroes that had preceded him.

Here is Gibson's description of Turner, one of the protagonists of "Count Zero". Imagine this narrated by Humphrey Bogart or Robert Mitchum, circa 1948, in a trench coat and fedora:

"Turner himself was incapable of meshing with the intensely tribal world of the zaibatsumen, the lifers. He was a perpetual outsider, a rogue factor adrift on the secret seas of intercorporate politics. No company man would have been capable of taking the initiatives Turner was required to take in the course of an extraction. No company man was capable of Turner's professionally casual ability to realign his loyalties to fit a change in employers. Or, perhaps, of his unyielding commitment once a contract had been agreed upon. He had drifted into security work in his late teens, when the grim doldrums of the postwar economy were giving way to the impetus of new technologies. He had done well in security, considering his general lack of ambition. He had a ropy, muscular poise that impressed his employer's clients, and he was bright, very bright. He wore clothes well. He had a way with technology."

Gibson's tough, gritty style knocked science fiction on its rear. Computers didn't mean pocket protectors and thick glasses any more; the new breed of hacker would have mirrored sunglasses, studded leather jackets, and maybe even Japanese throwing stars.

Gibson has mentioned both Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler as precursors. Like Chandler, Gibson has received recognition beyond the die-hard fans in his genre; like Chandler, who aggravated his fellow detective-story writers, Gibson is an iconoclast; and like Chandler, Gibson recognizes that genre can be a trap. Few writers escape from science fiction to be recognized as the great writers that they are. But while Chandler had to compete with the likes of Hemingway, Faulkner and such for literary recognition, the end-of-the-century literary scene is scattered with weak voices--in the long run, Gibson might get the sort of recognition that other genre writers have deserved, but not gotten.

Some commentators have described Gibson's characters as being powerless serfs in a world run by corporations and computers that the reader, at least, is never meant to understand. In fact, Gibson's characters have access to immense power, even if they have to get it by "hacking". This is another advance that Gibson made for science fiction: Gibson's techno toys are things that readers could imagine themselves owning someday. Few people expect to own their own private spaceship anytime soon, but an Ono-Sendai cyberspace deck seems like a natural evolution from today's notebook computer. This is the "punk" in "cyberpunk", the same do-it-yourself ethos that pushed the Sex Pistols and the Clash to prominence while Gibson started writing, or as anti-hero Johnny Rotten said: "Anyone can pick up a guitar and be just like us".

But the central question of Gibson's works, particularly the "Sprawl" trilogy, is: What does it mean to be human? Where does the mind end, and the body begin? Just how do we experience reality?

The digital experiences in Gibson's works concentrate on the man-machine interface. Some of his characters enter cyberspace by taping electrodes to their head; others have plugs implanted right in their skull. Gibson says in an interview with Larry MacCaffery: "I'm interested in the hows and whys of memory, the ways it defines who and what we are, in how easily memory is subject to revision."

Biotech is just as prominent in the Sprawl trilogy as cybertech--maybe more so. Molly's implanted mirrorshades and switchblade fingertips, Yonderboy's body modifications and implanted neural jacks, the yakuza killers cloned from the vat up, the anti-aging regimens of the wealthy and eccentric, the rebuilding of Turner's body piece by piece after an explosion, all blur the line between man and machine, between real and artificial. Several characters manage to take part without any body at all: Case in "Neuromancer" is guided by the Flatline, a "personality construct" on chips of a now-dead hacking genius. The artificial intelligences Wintermute and Neuromancer have never had bodies; neither has the "Idoru" in Gibson's most recent book. Do we need a body to be human?

Gibson doesn't automatically embrace the possibility of living-as-a-chip: the Flatline in "Neuromancer" asks to be erased more than once. In "Count Zero", Gibson as narrator says: "The sinister thing about a simstim construct, really, was that it carried the suggestion that any environment might be unreal, that the windows of the shopfronts she passed now with Andrea might be figments. Mirrors, someone had once said, were in some way essentially unwholesome..." Yet the question of where our existence begins and ends, of what is real, is one that in the end, Gibson doesn't answer. His works pose the question for us, put it in high relief, but silently acknowledge that the answers are beyond our ability to understand.

Those three elements in combination: the noir atmosphere, the disembodied sensation of travelling through a data matrix, and body modifications through biotech, sum up Gibson's oeuvre. In a nutshell, this is cyberpunk. The darker aspects of cyberpunk make the human moments shine more brightly, and it is those brief moments, the recognition of the bigger questions, that make Gibson stand out from his imitators. Gibson's worlds, so hard-bitten on the outside, carry a responsibility for the characters who struggle in them. As Gibson said to Dan Josefsson of Swedish television: "Technologies are morally neutral until we apply them." Perhaps humanity is the touchstone of reality, after all.

Gibson has put out several item since he left the Sprawl. In 1991 he collaborated with Bruce Sterling on "The Difference Engine", a what-if novel that describes a London in 1855 where Charles Babbage is actually listened to, his mechanical computers are built, and the world enters the information age a century too soon. In 1992 he produced "Agrippa", an experimental project that was designed to self-destruct: etchings that would fade in a short time, and a floppy disk with a poem that erased itself as each line was read. (In spite of this, the text of "Agrippa" is easily available on the web.) In 1993, Gibson returned to cyberpunk with "Virtual Light", a somewhat lighter story set in a San Francisco somewhat nearer to the present day than the world of the Sprawl trilogy. His most recent book, "Idoru", is set later in the same world as "Virtual Light". ("Idoru" was previously reviewed in InfoNation, November 1996.)

Gibson's adventures in Hollywood have not gone well. At one time, "Fragments of a Hologram Rose" was being worked on as a film project; it fell through. Gibson was tapped to work on the script for "Aliens 3"--by the time the studios had finished butchering his work, the only idea of Gibson's that remained in the finished movie was to have tattooed bar-codes on the characters' necks. In 1995, "Johnny Mnemonic" was released on film, starring Keanu Reeves, with some cooperation from Gibson. The movie version bore little resemblance to the original story; hardcore fans were disgusted. In spite of these many false starts, the word on Usenet is that work is now underway on a "Neuromancer" movie, for better or for worse.

Gibson's missteps in movieland have not lessened his importance in the printed world. He has helped to push science fiction out of its "space opera" stereotype, and into the realm of serious literature. He helped imagine the digital culture that has stormed the mainstream media during the 1990s. And like all great writers of the past and future, he forced us to confront the basic questions of our existence.

The web is awash in sites about William Gibson. After the release of "Johnny Mnemonic" to theaters and "Idoru" in hardback, fluffy promotional tour interviews abound. There are some substantial sites where Gibson lets his intellect show through, however. Three of the best Gibson interviews on the net are:

by Dan Josefsson (for the Swedish TV News program "Rapport"):

by Giuseppe Salza:

by Larry MacCaffery:

The less-clueful web press gushes over Gibson at many more sites, including:


Perhaps the best all-around William Gibson site is maintained by Sami Nieminen (aka "The Finn") at:

The "officially sanctioned" site, William Gibson's Yardshow, is now at:

The official "Johnny Mnemonic" web page at Sony Pictures is:

and they still have a "Johnny Mnemonic Cybergame" at:

Arthur and Marilouise Kroker slice the "Johnny Mnemonic" movie to ribbons at:

William Gibson's "Agrippa" survives on the web at many sites, including:

John Blaser's excellent essays on film noir can be found at:


Charles A. Gimon teaches an Introduction to the PC class at the English Learning Center in south Minneapolis. He can be reached at gimonca@skypoint.com.


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