(Second viewing, On Cable TV, November 2017) I first saw Johnny Mnemonic in theatres, on opening week, fully aware of what it meant for the cyberpunk subgenre to have none other than William Gibson scripting a big Hollywood movie. The mid-nineties were a heck of a time for a nerd like me diving deep in the Science Fiction pool, studying computer science and finally meeting like-minded persons. Johnny Mnemonic was a bit silly back then, but it felt like the future. Twenty-two years later … it has aged considerably, to the point that its silliness has been transformed in a patina of endearing retro-futurism. The unquestioned assumptions of cyberpunk are now vastly more entertaining as a fever dream of a future that will never be, than the harbinger of something to come. The movie’s special effects are exceptionally dated, the sets look cheap, the all-dark cinematography is annoying, the story is dull but the pile-up of clichés is now more spectacular than annoying. Then there’s Keanu Reeves, far too wooden to be effective—while I still like his “I want room service!” speech that more reluctant heroes should have, there’s something cruelly accurate in the 1996 jape that the film was unbelievable because it asked viewers to think that Reeves’s brain could hold too much information. Still, despite its faults, the film has now become almost an artistic statement in itself. Mid-nineties hair-down Dina Meyer is terrific (despite playing a watered-down version of Molly Millions), Toronto’s Union Station lobby and Montreal’s Jacques Cartier bridge both show up as settings, and there are short roles for no less than luminaries Henry Rollins and Ice-T. I’d be curious to know what Gibson thinks of it as a retro-futurist piece, especially given that one of his first stories (“The Gernsback Continuum”) tackled that very topic at a different time. But then again, there’s my personal connection to the film and how it touched upon what I was thinking about in the nineties, how I was anticipating the future and who I hung with (down to one of the minor characters looking a lot like a friend of mine.) No matter why, I enjoyed watching Johnny Mnemonic again … even though I still wouldn’t call it a good film.
Putnam, 2010, 404 pages, C$31.00 hc, ISBN 978-0-399-15682-3
I can just imagine a conversation between myself and a time-traveling SF fan from the late eighties.
Fan: Is William Gibson still writing?
Me: He sure is. In fact, he’s famous; people pay to go see interviews with him, and his latest novel Zero History just came out.
Fan: Oh wow! That sounds interesting!
Me: Actually, it’s a novel set two years ago in which a recovering addict and an ex-rock star go investigate the makers of a mysterious brand of jeans.
Fan: You’ve got to be kidding me.
Me: No, that’s actually the truth.
Fan: Your future sucks; I’m off to play D&D with my buddies.
Me: Aw, and I didn’t even have time to tell him about the iPad.
The point being that Gibson, perhaps more clearly than any of his Hugo-winning mid-eighties contemporaries, isn’t writing the same kind of fiction than he did. Why should he? People grow old, change, become interested in different things and that’s perfectly fine.
The problem may come when we insist on reading Gibson in the same way we did at first. It’s not exactly a revelation to say that Gibson is still writing about the same things he did in Neuromancer, except that they are now all around us rather than in some unspecified future. In many ways, his writing style hasn’t changed: It’s still heavy in visual descriptions, brand names, fashions and attitude. Behold this sentence:
After Clammy had decided to go back to the studio, her white plastic bottle of Cold-FX wedged precariously into a back pocket of his Hounds, departing the Golden Square Starbucks during an unexpected burst of weak but thoroughly welcome sunlight, Hollis had gone out to stand for a few moments amid the puddles in Golden Square, before walking (aimlessly, she’d pretended to herself) back up Upper James to Beak Street. [P.47, with reluctant thanks to the Russian hackers who put the entire text of Zero History on-line where it was indexed by Google, so that I could copy-and-paste the passage rather than re-type it in.]
I went to a live Gibson interview at an Ottawa writer’s festival shortly after reading Zero History, and it’s clear that he hasn’t been interested in being perceived as a Science Fiction writer for a while. Maybe it’s time to do both the author and the genre a favour and start distancing Gibson from SF: If he still sees the world through a prism shaped by SF, that makes him a genre-friendly mainstream author… but a mainstream author nonetheless. Gibson would rather write the kind of fiction that Gibson finds interesting than being stuck in genre conventions. If you squint, you can almost see Zero History as a thriller, but an unusually limp one: Like Pattern Recognition and Spook Country, this novel isn’t really interested in trifles such as narrative tension, plotting, suspense or action sequences. It may have a laboriously set-up climax in which a hacked Festo floating penguin zaps a villain through a Taser activated by iPhone, but that duct-tape cyberpunk is all of the techno-excitement that Zero History has to offer.
In fact, the “Bigend trilogy” he’s been working on since Pattern Recognition shows to what extent he is now recasting in fictional form what catches his attention as he surfs the web. His novels have become inseparable from the Internet in that we’re practically asked to Google his references in describing the world of his novels. That’s a particular form of reading pleasure, I suppose, but one that’s quite distinct from his eighties fiction. Let’s appreciate it for what it is.
Putnam, 2007, 371 pages, C$32.50 hc, ISBN 978-0-399-15430-0
By now, saying that William Gibson is writing ever-closer to the present isn’t much of a revelation. Each of his three-book cycles so far have moved closer to the present, and after the roughly-contemporary Pattern Recognition, Spook Country is now gently historical fiction, back in the woolly old days of early 2006. It is also part of the same universe than Pattern Recognition; a third volume is not impossible at this point.
It’s perhaps more useful to say that Gibson has always wanted to write about a certain type of universe, and that the universe has caught up to him. The “real year” of Gibson may end up being 2002 forever. He is now more comfortable writing about the weirdness of the present, what with its post-911 homeland insecurity, emergent cyberspace and terminally hip designer labels.
And so from a deck jockey named Case, we end up with a rock star turned journalist, a junkie with Russian/English translation skills and an ex-Cuban freelance intelligence agent. The common thread between all three is a mysterious shipping container making its way around the world’s oceans, with vague rumours concerning its content. iPods containing information are exchanged, non-existent magazines may end up being a front for a private intelligence-gathering operation and “the world’s smallest organized crime family” is up for hire by the highest bidder. Welcome to the winter of 2006. Whatever little science-fictional content left here is something about the virtual space invading the physical world.
But if Gibson has deserted science-fiction, it’s not true that he’s moved on to thrillers. Much like Pattern Recognition was a thrill-free thriller, Spook Country is a spy story with a shaggy dog ending where the stakes are actually much lower than what they may initially appear. Gibson, we sense, is not interested in thrills, maybe not even interested in plot (if he ever was). Gibson is about feel and texture, atmosphere and the feeling of being bewildered by what surrounds us. It makes him less of a genre writer (though his sensibilities are pretty much those of a genre fan), and more of a hip writer-of-the-now.
The problem with defining such a niche is that the resulting books leave the vapid impression of a dream: the prose is exceptional, but not a lot happens to those characters. As even one character complains…
“I though it was going to be terrorism, or crime in some more traditional sense, but it wasn’t. I think that it was actually… A prank. A prank you’d have to be crazy to be able to afford.” [P.351]
The upside of being a hip writer without much regard to plot is that the books become spoiler-proof: The Gibson audience is winnowing itself to a bunch of readers who want to experience his prose, not be shocked or surprised by a bold new take on the future, or even the present. Spook Country, despite the ominous title, is a descriptive novel of the present by someone who has given up on making sense of it. It’s a profoundly passive book, as all characters are manipulated and re-manipulated by people who may not even be doing anything important.
There’s a message there about the seductive superficiality of the world and how it can lead one to refuse to engage with any deeper meaning. But in his own review of Spook Country , John Clute has called the book a comedy, and he may be on to something. Not only are the stakes revealed to be ridiculously low, with little if any practical consequences for the characters, you can almost feel Gibson dangle an Important Plot in front of his readers before yanking it away with a “just kidding” smile. Another writer, faced with the same elements, would have been able to plot a thrill-packed action thriller with his eyes closed. But Gibson refuses to go there, refuses to play with the money, enjoy the power of his characters, refuses to delve into the minds of the bored powerful men that lurk off-screen in Spook Country. You would think that anyone couldn’t resist the allure of private intelligence operatives as it takes place in the real world, but that’s exactly what Gibson does with a smirk and a “Please don’t bother me” doorknob sign.
It’s been a long way since Neuromancer, and there’s no going back for Gibson or his readers. He’s become a Writer of Our Times, and as such has escaped the easy protocols of genre. Reading him today appeals to completely different skills. A few more novels, and he’ll be writing historical novels about the eighties that are going to be indistinguishable from Douglas Copeland’s work.
Putnam, 2003, 356 pages, C$39.00 hc, ISBN 0-399-14986-4
First, let’s get the obvious out of the way: This is not a Science Fiction novel. It’s a novel formed and informed by the tools, methods and outlook of SF, but it takes place in 2002 and contains nothing that wasn’t possible then. Yes, it’s another “rewind” for Gibson, who’s been writing closer and closer to the present since 1984’s seminal Neuromancer.
It may be that the present interests Gibson a lot more than some imagined future. Pattern Recognition, if thrown in a time machine and sent back to 1984, would certainly read like a science-fiction novel, packed with matter-of-fact acceptance of a global communication network, virtual relationships, catastrophic imagery from an event called “9/11” and post-cold-war geopolitics. Gibson studies the world and presents it with the same amount of clinical detail than he’d use to describe a far-off alien society. It makes for a nice little bit of estrangement, and it’s not entirely inappropriate to the subject matter.
It also fits Gibson’s protagonist who -like most Gibson protagonists- is a loner, an outsider and a misfit. Heck, she can’t even see some trademarks without experiencing a violent allergic reaction. Everything she uses is carefully de-branded. Ironic, because Cayce’s speciality is hunting cool, identifying “the next big thing” and making others profit from it. As Pattern Recognition begins, she’s in London, jet-lagged, and about to see a banal logo-proofing assignment turn into something very strange. You see, compelling bits of anonymous Internet footage have fascinated her for a while, and now her employer wants her to get to the bottom of the mystery. Who makes they footage? Where are its creators? Why do they do it? And, perhaps most importantly in this twenty-first century, how have they managed to create a cult of thousands, all fascinated by this brand new meme? Could there be… commercial applications?
And so the hunt begins. To everyone’s sighs of relief, Pattern Recognition doesn’t abandon Gibson’s root in action/adventure fiction. While the action may be slight and the adventure is definitely Earth-bound (well, aside from the many plane trips), this is a thriller built around a few mysteries and the shadowy influence of powerful people. Thanks to this strong narrative drive and some of Gibson’s most elegant prose so far, Pattern Recognition races forward, demanding to be read until all is revealed and played out.
To this narrative energy, one has to add the careful thematic content skillfully integrated through the entire novel. Gibson writes as if he was delighted at the weirdness of the twenty-first century (so far) and he wanted us to see it as he does. In doing so, he makes the most out of today’s environment and power dynamics. Out of the gate in 2003, Pattern Recognition also tackles post-9/11 issues with something approaching maturity. Grad students and lit-crits will have a blast dissecting this book. (I myself would probably mumble something about this being a novel of cities: London, Tokyo, Moscow and New York in flashbacks, all standing for something different, all on a continuum of progress taken or left untapped.)
But I’m happier to report that this is a good read and a satisfying work even as it strays (but not too much) from the SF genre in which Gibson has made his mark. While my rabid admiration of Gibson is strictly limited to Neuromancer and Burning Chrome, this is a step up from most of his non-Sprawl output, regardless of genre. It portends well for the rest of Gibson’s career, even if he consciously stays away from Science Fiction: I don’t know what he’s going to write next, even less where and when it will take place, but if it’s anything like Pattern Recognition, I’ll read it with pleasure.
Ace, 1984, 271 pages, C$5.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-441-56959-5
Twenty years after its publication, it’s hard to feel the impact that Neuromancer had on the SF field for one truly good reason: More than any other SF novel of 1984 (itself somewhat of a banner year, wouldn’t you say?), William Gibson’s first novel discarded the old clichés of Science Fiction, took a look at the future and forged its own way. In doing so, it predicted the future so well that it fit right into it. Yes, looking at Neuromancer in 2004 is a whole new experience. In a world saturated with wi-fi, linked by the Internet, gripped with Terrorism Madness, Neuromancer almost feels like home.
No, I can’t look at Neuromancer today the way they did when it was published in 1984. But I can compare it with my first read, eleven years ago. Back then, I was in High School, reading the book on the patio in my parents’ backyard, mesmerized (and occasionally confused) by this novel so often recommended on those newfangled BBS I was exploring. Fast-forwards to 2004, and I’m a seasoned SF reviewer, reading Neuromancer in my own backyard and posting my review on my own web site. I have changed, but what about the book?
The good news is that even in 2004, it’s easy to see why Neuromancer swept the SF field off its jaded tripods: The novel still has something special; a mixture of high-tech knowledge and streetwise sense, firmly embedded in a global context where branding is more important than nationality. Gibson’s single biggest flash of genius may have been to realize, years before anyone else, that the future was going to be complicated. No easy answers. No global government. No unified set of laws followed by everyone. The real future is all about personal information management; as it gets more complicated, everyone becomes an information analyst… if only to survive.
It helps, naturally, that the book moves at the speed of a broadband connection. Carefully written yet propelled by a natural rhythm, Neuromancer milks the structure of a thriller as the gateway to a different future. This pacing isn’t constant, mind you: I believe that when people talk about Neuromancer in such glowing terms, they usually refer to the initial Earth-bound portion of the book. At the plot acquires orbital velocity, it diverges and meanders, losing itself slightly in its own drug-fuelled excesses and gratuitous psycho-sexual dynamics. There is a point, three-quarter through, where protagonist Case is stuck in VR: that doesn’t seem so fresh after twenty years of cyberpunk both written and screened. (Not that this is Gibson’s fault, of course; no visionary is so cursed as he is endlessly ripped-off.)
But the rest holds up more than enough. As you may guess, it’s Gibson’s gift for language that carries the novel through the end even as it starts revolving around itself and the plot is revealed to be simpler than anyone thought. It reads like noir without the laconic simplicity of it; you want to slow down and capture every image before going on to the next part. Characters are iconic but hollow; Case is a curiously absent protagonist as Gibson’s fetishism of cool makes his protagonist so unemotional as to be unable to react to anything except major annoyances.
But no matter. No matter, because even twenty years later, Neuromancer still triumphs over SF both current and contemporary. It won the Hugo and the Nebula, but more importantly, it got the future. No matter if there are no cell phones in the novel (wouldn’t that pay-phone sequence be so much cooler in a chirping crowd of ringtones?); it still has the right stuff. The attitude. The slick writing. The cool images. The basic understanding of how the real world works.
Reading Neuromancer today is like seeing a trailer for a classic movie. Sure, it’s a bit bombastic and a bit misleading and only hints at the characters and the real story…. but we know how it turns out.
Putnam, 1999, 277 pages, C$34.99 hc, ISBN 0-399-14579-6
Few first novels have been as successful as William Gibson’s Neuromancer, which hit the science-fiction scene twenty years ago already. It wasn’t just a dynamite book; it coalesced the then-nascent cyberpunk movement and was later co-opted by the mainstream (from Billy Idol to the Wachowski Brothers) as the new face of futurism. Gibson’s subsequent career couldn’t be anything but a let-down. While avoiding spectacular failure, his latter works have been steadily less ambitious from a strictly-extrapolative standpoint. Subsequent novels, while exceedingly well-written, elicited as many shrugs than bravos.
With All Tomorrow’s Parties, Gibson concludes the “Bridge” trilogy launched by Virtual Light in 1994 and loosely continued in 1996’s Idoru. Characters from both books are back, and so is their universe, with a special place for a Golden Gate Bridge converted in a bohemian paradise. Fans of Gibson’s elliptic storytelling know better than to expect a tidy conclusion. But for all of its flaws, All Tomorrow’s Parties does contain a plot of sorts, and Gibson’s strongest narrative thread since Mona Lisa Overdrive, the resolution of his first trilogy.
(There are in fact many similitudes between both All Tomorrow’s Parties and my memories of Mona Lisa Overdrive, from the Really Important Object carried by the protagonists, to similar “siege” situations to Gibson’s usual shtick of describing important scenes from a drug-afflicted viewpoint. Remember kids: it ain’t plagiarism if you’re stealing from yourself!)
It’s not a particularly strong plot, but at least it gives the impression of forward movement. All is set in motion when Idoru‘s data wizard Laney contacts Virtual Light‘s Ryder to be his hands on the ground at what he thinks will be ground zero for a new revolution in human affairs: San Francisco. Before long, old characters meet again, killers are on the loose, human destiny is subtly altered and the street once again demonstrates new uses for high technology.
It’s all handled competently. I’m not sure if it’s me mellowing since I read Idoru back in 1997, but All Tomorrow’s Parties seemed more accessible, more interesting and more enjoyable than its prequel. Here, we’re back at the guns-and-perils roots of cyberpunk: if all else fails, constant danger to the protagonists can at least sustain basic readability.
But plotting and intrigue are the wrong reasons to read a William Gibson novel. As usual, his writing is a cut above the rest of what’s to be found elsewhere in the genre: He has an uncanny knack at finding the first description, at seamlessly integrating future artifacts in normal situation and in depicting the banal ways new technologies can be used and abused.
Sadly, elements of his usual vision are starting to be tiresome. The whole cyber-grunge aesthetic movement has played itself out since Neuromancer and there’s scarcely anything interesting any more in following the homeless set as they set out to confront the next step in human history. Gibson’s novel have seldom featured normal character with whom to sympathize, and All Tomorrow’s Parties is no exception. It often hovers around deja-vu, or even quasi-parody. If it had featured another author’s name on the cover, I’m not sure I’d be so kind.
Still, it’s a step up from Idoru and a better science-fiction novel than most of what was published in 1999. As millennial SF, it may even be emblematic. But now that we’re in the century described by Gibson, maybe it’s time to start thinking about something else. Gibson may be able to coast forever on Neuromancer‘s reputation… but that’s no reason for him to do so.
Putnam, 1996, 292 pages, C$33.95 hc, ISBN 0-399-14130-8
TONIGHT, on “Litterarly Incompetent!”:
Is William Gibson still living off Neuromancer‘s Reputation?
Ever since the release of his latest novel Idoru, fans are asking the same question: Is this good stuff for you, or good stove fuel? Is Gibson back, or still living in Wired magazine? Is there life after Neuromancer?
Tonight, we will attempt to answer these questions. And the answers may not please you. Please welcome the Literary Incompetent himself, Christian S.!
Fancy introduction, but does the job.
For various reasons, I’ve been less than enthusiastic about William Gibson in recent times. Neuromancer was a classic, but far less can be said about Gibson’s later works. I’ve been variously bored and confused by everything else. Cyberpunk’s nice, but it’s also mostly irrelevant: Low-life people living in dirty cities doing insignificant things. Is this what I want in my SF?
And I’d rather not talk about The Difference Engine.
In Idoru, we meet two very different persons: A man named Laney, whose particular talent is an uncanny ability to spot relevant information in a sea of virtual data. Then, a fourteen-year-old girl named Chia, member of Seattle’s Lo/Rez Fan Club. Both are going to Japan, to search for the same thing.
You see, Rez (one “half” of the band Lo/Rez) has declared that he will soon marry. Except that his bride-to-be is an Idoru, a virtual person with a programmed personality and no corporeal existence. Both Laney and Chia, from their own perspectives, are investigating why Rez would do such an idiotic thing.
Idoru is in many ways a step up from Gibson’s previous work. It seemed shorter, read faster and felt better than Virtual Light, (less filling, too) although Virtual Light wasn’t such a bad novel.
But Idoru is far from being a great work. It’s a good story, well-written, with sometimes confusing action. As a first novel, it would be fine, even promising. But as a sixth novel by a “master of the genre”…
Fortunately, it’s written with the same hip style than the previous novels: Not always clear, but usually with a certain potency. Gibson has an eye for details and unusual gadgets are strewn around the story.
The problem with Idoru is that I’m running out of things to say. Much like the novel itself, I’m trying to cover that up by fancy style and rhetoric. And failing miserably.
So yeah, basically, it’s decent and well-written, but that’s about it. There are no sparks, no flashes, no fireworks from this. It’s the kind of novel that gets two stars out of four: Not really bad, but nothing exceptional either.
Definitely wait for the paperback, borrow it from the library but don’t use the waiting list, etc…