William Gibson Short Story Criticism - Essay


(Short Story Criticism)

William Gibson 1948–-

(Full name William Ford Gibson) American-born Canadian novelist, short story writer, and scriptwriter.

Gibson is a leading practitioner of cyberpunk, a futuristic subgenre of science fiction that combines the tough atmosphere and scatological language of hardboiled crime fiction, imagery from the punk counterculture movement, and technical developments of the 1980s. Like the new wave science fiction writers of the 1960s, who introduced such topics as sex and drugs to a traditionally conservative genre, Gibson updates conventional science fiction concerns to reflect contemporary trends. His short fiction has been published in several periodicals and collected in Burning Chrome (1986).

Biographical Information

Gibson was born on March 17, 1948, in Conway, South Carolina. He grew up in a small town in Virginia and developed a strong interest in science fiction from an early age. Gibson was heavily influenced by the noirish, subversive work of such authors as William Burroughs, Philip K. Dick, Thomas Pynchon, and J. G. Ballard. He dropped out of high school and moved to Toronto, Canada, in 1967. A few years later he moved to Vancouver and enrolled in the University of British Columbia. After receiving his B.A. in 1977, he began to write science fiction stories and had some of his early work published in Omni magazine. In 1984 he published his first novel, Neuromancer, which attracted much critical attention. In fact, the book was the first novel to win all three major science fiction awards: the Hugo, Nebula, and Philip K. Dick awards. Since that initial success, Gibson has issued numerous novels, a short fiction collection, and has written several scripts for film and television.

Major Works of Short Fiction

Gibson's reputation as a short fiction writer rests on his 1986 collection, Burning Chrome, a volume of his early short stories that also include pieces written in collaboration with fellow cyberpunks Bruce Sterling, John Shirley, and Michael Swanwick. Several of these stories have been widely anthologized in science fiction magazines. Stylistically, Gibson's work is characterized by frenetic pacing; Gibson also utilizes features such as flashbacks, vivid imagery, juxtapositions, and metaphors. Central to Gibson's stories are his grim vision of the future, misfit characters, the role of memory as well as the artist in society, and a reliance on dense layers of technological information and slang. For instance, in the story “Johnny Mnemonic” (1981), the title character hides a stolen microchip in his brain. He is pursued by a Japanese crime syndicate, intent on killing him and recovering the chip, and later saved by Molly Millions, a bionic hit woman with razor blades under her fingernails. The story was made into a movie in 1995. “The Winter Market” focuses on the relationship between Casey, an engineer, and Lise. Dying, Lise has her personality encoded as a computer program and stored on a computer. After her death, the computer calls Casey every morning. He now must address his grief while reconciling the reality of Lise's physical death and her continued existence in the memory of the computer.

Critical Reception

The stories comprising Burning Chrome are generally praised for their craftsmanship and subtle portrayals of characters caught up in fantastic events. Reviewers have commended Gibson's bleak envisage of the future and of the disturbing role of technology in society and on human interaction. Gibson's portrayal of multinational corporations and their growing role in the world is considered by some commentators as insightful, disconcerting social commentary. Yet some critics regard Gibson's work as superficial, immature, sometimes impenetrable, and only geared toward young, technologically savvy males. Despite these charges, Burning Chrome is a well-regarded collection and Gibson's short fiction is perceived as an integral aspect of his oeuvre. Moreover, Gibson is viewed as a vital voice in the science fiction field.

Principal Works

(Short Story Criticism)

Burning Chrome [with Bruce Sterling, John Shirley, and Michael Swanwick] 1986

Neuromancer (novel) 1984

Count Zero (novel) 1986

Mona Lisa Overdrive (novel) 1988

The Difference Engine [with Bruce Sterling] (novel) 1991

Virtual Light (novel) 1993

*Johnny Mnemonic (screenplay) 1995

Idoru (novel) 1996

All Tomorrow's Parties (novel) 1999

*Based on Gibson's short story of the same title

Miriyam Glazer (essay date 1989)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Glazer, Miriyam. “‘What is Within Now Seen Without’: Romanticism, Neuromanticism, and the Death of the Imagination in William Gibson's Fictive World.” Journal of Popular Culture 23, no. 3 (winter 1989): 155–64.

[In the following essay, Glazer traces recent developments in science fiction and places Gibson within the context of the science fiction genre.]

If the chaos of the nineties reflects a radical shift in paradigms of visual literacy, the final shift away from the Lascaux/Gutenberg tradition of a pre-holographic society, what should we expect from this newer technology, with [its] promise of discrete encoding and subsequent...

(The entire section is 4147 words.)

Darko Suvin (essay date 1991)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Suvin, Darko. “On Gibson and Cyberpunk SF.” Foundation, no. 46 (autumn 1989): 40–51.

[In the following essay, Suvin discusses the category of cyberpunk, considering Gibson's short fiction as representative of the subgenre. This is a revamped version by Suvin in 1991 of the above cited essay.]

To the memory of Raymond Williams


More so than for other literary genres, a commentator of current SF has to cope with its very spotty accessibility. It is well known that new books in what the market very loosely calls SF come and go quickly, and are apt to be taken off the bookstore shelves in weeks...

(The entire section is 6769 words.)

Jeffrey Yule (essay date 1993)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Yule, Jeffrey. “The Marginalised Short Stories of William Gibson: ‘Hinterlands’ and ‘The Winter Market.’” Foundation, no. 58 (summer 1993): 76–84.

[In the following essay, Yule addresses the critical reaction to Gibson's short fiction and emphasizes the maturity and originality of Gibson's stories, focusing on two representative tales, “Hinterlands” and “The Winter Market.”]

Critics discussing William Gibson's fiction generally focus on his novels—Neuromancer (1984), Count Zero (1986), and Mona Lisa Overdrive (1987)—and devote only brief mentions or book reviews to the material in his 1986 collection Burning...

(The entire section is 4121 words.)

M. Keith Booker (essay date 1994)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Booker, M. Keith. “Technology, History, and the Postmodern Imagination: The Cyberpunk Fiction of William Gibson.” Arizona Quarterly 50, no. 4 (winter 1994): 63–87.

[In the following essay, Booker outlines the defining characteristics of Gibson's fiction, emphasizing his attitude toward and treatment of technology.]

The disneyland theme park, as Jean Baudrillard has noted, is in many ways the ultimate postmodern phenomenon, the ultimate example of the kind of simulated environment with which we deal in less obvious ways every day. Its younger but bigger brother, Disneyworld, is even more perfectly postmodern, especially with addition of the technological...

(The entire section is 9414 words.)

Anthony P. Montesano (essay date 1995)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Montesano, Anthony P. “Johnny Mnemonic: Keanu Reeves Goes Cyberpunk in William Gibson's Bleak Future.” Cinefantastique 26, no. 2 (February 1995): 14–15.

[In the following essay, Montesano traces the cinematic adaptation of Gibson's short story “Johnny Mnemonic.”]

In the future world of writer William Gibson, nuclear annihilation, alien invasion, and sword-and-sorcery space operas are not preoccupying factors.

Information and its dissemination are. Information is power and those who control it, he argues in his cyberpunk stories, control the world. Governments are rendered obsolete as multinational corporations, who trade on...

(The entire section is 1243 words.)

Thomas A. Bredehoft (essay date 1995)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Bredehoft, Thomas A. “The Gibson Continuum: Cyberspace and Gibson's Mervyn Kihn Stories.” Science-Fiction Studies 22, no. 2 (July 1995): 252–63.

[In the following essay, Bredehoft explores Gibson's vision of cyberspace in the stories “The Gernsback Continuum” and “Hippie Hat Brain Parasite.”]

I was going to use a quote from an old Velvet Underground song—“Watch out for worlds behind you” (from “Sunday Morning”)—as an epigraph for Neuromancer.

(William Gibson, quoted in McCaffery 265)

In a 1986 interview with Larry McCaffery, William Gibson recalled the...

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Heather J. Hicks (essay date 1996)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Hicks, Heather J. “‘Whatever It Is That She's Since Become’: Writing Bodies of Text and Bodies of Women in James Tiptree, Jr.'s ‘The Girl Who Was Plugged In’ and William Gibson's ‘The Winter Market.’” Contemporary Literature 37, no. 1 (spring 1996): 62–93.

[In the following essay, Hicks analyzes the role of women's bodies and disembodiment in Gibson's “The Winter Market” and James Tiptree, Jr.'s “The Girl Who Was Plugged In.”]

Over the summer of my third year of graduate school, I entered that vast and growing inland sea of the American economy known as “the temp pool.” Abruptly dislodged from the hazy sphere of literature which I...

(The entire section is 12359 words.)

Kathryne V. Lindberg (essay date 1996)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Lindberg, Kathryne V. “Prosthetic Mnemonics and Prophylactic Politics: William Gibson Among the Subjectivity Mechanisms.” Boundary 2 23, no. 2 (summer 1996): 47–83.

[In the following essay, Lindberg discusses Gibson as a postmodern author and examines the roles of authority, time, and memory in his writing.]

According to Andrew Ross,

Cyberpunk's idea of a counterpolitics—youthful male heroes with working-class chips on their shoulders and postmodern biochips in their brains—seems to have little to do with the burgeoning power of the great social movements of our day: feminism, ecology, peace, sexual liberation, and...

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Further Reading

(Short Story Criticism)


Maddox, Tom. “Cobra, She Said: An Interim Report on the Fiction of William Gibson.” Fantasy Review 9, no. 4 (April 1986): 46–48.

Surveys defining characteristics of Gibson's fiction.

Rirdan, Danny. “The Works of William Gibson.” Foundation, no. 43 (summer 1988): 36–46.

Offers perspective on Gibson's work, asserting “Gibson's world is a visualization of what is already here.”

Stockton, Sharon. “‘The Self Regained’: Cyberpunk's Retreat to the Imperium.” Contemporary Literature 36, no. 4 (winter 1995): 588–612.

Discusses notions of...

(The entire section is 160 words.)