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William (Ford) Gibson Biography

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Nationality: American. Born: Conway, South Carolina, 1948. Education: University of British Columbia, B.A. 1977. Awards: Hugo award, Philadelphia Science Fiction Society Philip K. Dick memorial award, Nebula award, Porgie award, all 1985, and Australian Science Fiction Convention Ditmar award, all for Neuromancer. Agent: Martha Millard Literary Agency, 293 Greenwood Avenue, Florham Park, New Jersey 07932-2335, U.S.A.

PUBLICATIONS

Novels

Neuromancer. New York, Ace, 1984, London, HarperCollins, 1994.

Count Zero. New York, Arbor House, 1986.

Mona Lisa Overdrive. New York, Bantam, 1988.

The Difference Engine, with Bruce Sterling. London, Gollancz, 1990;New York, Bantam, 1991.

Virtual Light. New York, Bantam, and London, Viking, 1993.

Johnny Mnemonic. New York, Ace Books, 1995.

Idoru. New York, Putnam, 1996.

All Tomorrow's Parties. New York, Putnam, 1999.

Play

Dream Jumbo (text to accompany performance art; produced, LosAngeles, 1989).

*

Film Adaptation:

Johnny Mnemonic, 1995.

Critical Studies:

William Gibson by Lance Olsen, San Bernardino, California, Borgo Press, 1992 (includes bibliography); Cyberpunk and Cyberculture: Science Fiction and the Work of William Gibson by Dani Cavallaro, New Brunswick, New Jersey, Athlone Press, 2000.

* * *

In 1922, T.S. Eliot published a review of Joyce's Ulysses, coining the now famous phrase "mythical method" to describe how Joyce created an effect of order in the chaos of modern fragmentation by invoking old stories and myths as compositional forms. William Gibson has demonstrated the continuing vitality of this "method" and come up with some new developments of his own in his "cyberpunk" trilogy that dominated science fiction of the 1980s, (Neuromancer, Count Zero, and Mona Lisa Overdrive), as well as in a second trilogy in the 1990s (Virtual Light, Idoru, and All Tomorrow's Parties).

There are strong plots in Gibson's novels, but they have little to do with the characters who inhabit them, who for the most part don't know much at all about the plot they are acting in. In Neuromancer, the "cowboy" computer-jockey Case—like the reader—only discovers at the end that he has been acting out a scheme composed by a seemingly omniscient and nearly omnipotent embodiment of artificial intelligence (AI) that merged with another AI to become the "matrix." In the later two novels the AI/matrix chooses to manifest itself in the form of Voodoo beings called Loa. As the initiated Beauvoir explains to the novice Bobby, in Count Zero, we don't have to worry about "whether it's a religion or not. It's just a structure. Lets you an' me discuss some things that are happening. … What it's about is getting things done." Gibson reports in an interview that all he knows about Voodoo he found by accident in an issue of National Geographic just when he needed to find a way to "get things done" in his second novel: "That probably has a lot to do with the way I write—stitching together all the junk that's floating around in my head." This self-reflexivity in the writing, together with self-effacing creative modesty and tactics of conspicuously parodic pastiche, place Gibson's work within the discourse of postmodernism. Recycled cliches are the staple of his work, shared with the knowing reader who is hip to the ironic game being played with cultural artifacts.

Gibson's publishing career began the same year MTV hit the video market (1981), and his style reflects some of the same tactics and pace, where mundane music is transformed into a montagecollage of rapid-fire imagery in a placeless and timeless stream-of-consciousness continuum. Like the typical MTV presentation, his work seems designed to force a sensory overload onto a reader who can't keep up with the frantic pace. Oft-quoted lines from Neuromancer describe the effect nicely: "Night City was like a deranged experiment in social Darwinism, designed by a bored researcher who kept one thumb permanently on the fast-forward button." The sensory overload is reflected in a stylistic saturation that has been aptly characterized as a "neon epic style," a breathless linguistic texture that sweeps lyrically through mental states of stressed-out tension and drug highs, with an exhilaratingly desperate hallucinatory intensity, in a futuristic reenactment of the film noir cityscape of movies like Blade Runner (1982) or The Terminator (1984).

Things slow down a bit in the second and third novels of the trilogy, to allow for more complex character development and for a shift from major male characters to female ones. Things slow still more in Virtual Light, where we find a female main character who is a bicycle courier in San Francisco, physically transporting bits of information like a rider for the Pony Express. Both Idoru and All Tomorrow's Parties feature brisk capers as part of their plots: the former tells of the efforts of an adult data analyst and a teenage music fan to discover why a pop music performer has declared his intention to marry a virtual pop star, while the latter merges several plotlines at the point of discovery of a coming radical, worldwide change. However, they share with Virtual Light not only recurrent characters and settings, but also a more studied approach to their subject matter.

Gibson's work has an uneasy relationship to the genre of science fiction, comparable to what's called a "crossover" performance in the music world. In the early period of SF, the conventional goal was to expand human consciousness into outer space, under the secure control of scientist adventurers who combined the classical liberal virtues of morality with the forces of technological production. Gibson represents a strong turn away from this outward-bound surge, toward a more problematic contemporary frontier of science that is focused inwards, on an infinity of microcosms rather than the old-fashioned infinity of open space. Gibson's fiction follows the investments of current scientific research in the practical/theoretical fields of communication, data storage, miniaturization, artificial intelligence, bionic prosthetics, neurochemistry, genetics, and surgical interventions while continuing the exploration of paranoid subject positions inaugurated by the "serious" writers who inspired and influence him, like William S. Burroughs, J.G. Ballard, and Thomas Pynchon.

Paradoxically, the fact that Gibson himself knows no science ("I have no grasp of how computers really work," he admits in an interview), enables him to be all the more convincing to the millions of his readers who also know nothing about science. Like Edgar Rice Burroughs, who knew nothing of Africa, Gibson creates characters who glide mentally through cyberspace as effortlessly as Tarzan glided through the jungles of the Dark Continent. "My ignorance had allowed me to romanticize them [computers]," he admits, and our ignorance allows us to accept the romanticized exaggerations. Gibson's famous invention, "cyberspace," is technically sheer nonsense, but since it exists as a form of belief, it also has a certain kind of reality, as "a consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators, in every nation."

The cyberpunk movement leapt to prominence in the early 1980s, with Gibson at its helm, as an apparent manifestation of countercultural art. Ten years later, his fourth novel was on the New York Times bestseller list, raising an important question: can there be an authentic countercultural literature that achieves popularity and also resists becoming an imitation of itself suitable for mass consumption? Gibson himself has referred to the cyberpunk movement as "mainly a marketing strategy—and one that I've come to feel trivializes what I do." His most recent work makes clear that he is no longer concerned by this "marketing strategy," but instead is quite comfortable writing novels that show an increasingly mature concern for character, a confidently leisure approach to delineating those characters, and a calm acceptance of the fact that the startling innovations of Neuromancer are now simply part of the world—the characters', and the readers'.

—Thomas A. Vogler

, updated by F. Brett Cox

[back] Graeme Gibson Biography

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