William Gibson 1948-
(Full name William Ford Gibson) American-born Canadian novelist, short story writer, poet, and screenwriter.
The following entry presents an overview of Gibson's career through 2003. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volumes 39, 63, and 186.
Gibson is regarded as one of the most influential science fiction writers of the twentieth century. His early novels are considered canonical works of the newly emergent sub-genre of popular culture known as cyberpunk—an amalgam of postmodernism, the aesthetics of punk rock music, and the jargon of computer information technology. Gibson's cyberspace trilogy, comprised of the novels Neuromancer (1984), Count Zero (1986), and Mona Lisa Overdrive (1988), are recognized as the defining works of cyberpunk fiction. With the publication of Neuromancer in 1984, Gibson became the first author to claim all three of the major science-fiction writing awards—the Hugo, the Nebula, and the Philip K. Dick Award—for a single work. Critics have praised Gibson's unique narrative style, characterized by a gritty authorial voice infused with irony and disillusionment, which draws from the hard-boiled detective stories of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett. Gibson's fiction has been lauded for its imaginative urban landscapes and grim depictions of futuristic societies marred by corruption and unrestrained capitalist greed. His novels have also attracted critical notice for their eerily accurate predictions of such technological advances as the Internet and virtual reality. In fact, it was Gibson who first coined the phrase “cyberspace” in his 1982 short story “Burning Chrome.”
Gibson was born on March 17, 1948, in Conway, South Carolina. When Gibson was eight years old, his father died, and he subsequently moved with his mother to a small town in Virginia located on the edge of the Appalachian Mountains. During his youth, Gibson became interested in reading science fiction and, by his teens, had developed an interest in such unconventional authors as J. G. Ballard, Philip K. Dick, William S. Burroughs, and Thomas Pynchon. As a teenager, Gibson was sent to a boarding school in Tucson, Arizona, but was later expelled for smoking marijuana. At nineteen, Gibson moved to Toronto, Ontario, where he was exposed to the youth counterculture movement of the 1960s. Wishing to avoid being drafted into the Vietnam War, Gibson remained in Canada, becoming a Canadian citizen and eventually settling in Vancouver. After marrying Deborah Thompson, a graduate student, Gibson decided to enroll in college, earning a B.A. in English from the University of British Columbia at the age of twenty-nine. During his studies in a science fiction course he chose the option of writing a short story in lieu of a term paper. This effort resulted in what became his first published short story, “Fragments of a Hologram Rose.” Gibson continued writing short stories, finding regular publication in such magazines as Omni, and later published a collection of his short works titled Burning Chrome (1986). Encouraged by an editor to expand one of his stories into a novel, Gibson further developed the futuristic setting of his story “Burning Chrome” and composed his first novel Neuromancer. Cyberpunk fans and critics alike find it significant to note that Gibson wrote Neuromancer—in which the author envisions a high-tech, mega-computerized near-future—on a manual typewriter. In addition to his novels and short stories, Gibson wrote the screenplay for the 1995 film Johnny Mnemonic, based on his short story of the same title, and two episodes of the popular television series The X-Files.
Gibson's first three novels, Neuromancer, Count Zero, and Mona Lisa Overdrive, comprise a series referred to variously as the Cyberpunk, Cyberspace, Matrix, or Sprawl Trilogy. Neuromancer is set in a near-future in which much of the United States has become a huge urban megalopolis known as “the Sprawl.” Governments have been superseded by corrupt and ruthless multinational corporations that control almost all aspects of society. These corporations hire “mercs” (mercenaries) for industry-motivated kidnappings and for stealing information from other companies. The equally corrupt and ruthless underworld economy of the Sprawl routinely hires computer hackers called “cowboys” to perform similar services. Case, the protagonist of Neuromancer, is a cowboy who, with the help of a cybernetically-enhanced bodyguard named Molly Millions, attempts break into a global information network controlled by the reclusive Tessier-Ashpool family. Case and Molly have been hired by Wintermute, an artificial intelligence program created by the Tessier-Ashpools that remains trapped from evolving further in the family's computer mainframes. In the novel's conclusion, Case helps free Wintermute from the Tessier-Ashpools, and Wintermute escapes into cyberspace, an electronic network of global information that resembles the Internet. Count Zero is set seven years after the events in Neuromancer. The novel is structured along three separate plotlines that gradually converge toward the story's climax—Gibson would later employ this narrative technique in several of his subsequent works. The novel's central plotline concerns Bobby Newmark, a novice cowboy with the codename Count Zero, and Turner, a security expert who helps the daughter of a renowned biochip developer escape from a corporate compound. Turner discovers that the developer's daughter, Angie Mitchell, has been subjected to genetic engineering, giving her the unheard of ability to project her consciousness into cyberspace. After accidentally encountering Angie in the matrix, Bobby is held captive by a revolutionary group who worship voodoo gods existing in the realm of cyberspace. It is later learned that these “god” constructs are new aspects of Wintermute, who has begun to take over the totality of the matrix since its escape in Neuromancer. Set seven years after Count Zero, Mona Lisa Overdrive continues the stories of Bobby Newmark and Angie Mitchell. Bobby, now a successful cowboy, intentionally places his body into a coma to allow his mind to explore an “aleph,” a powerful model of cyberspace that was stolen from the Tessier-Ashpool clan. Meanwhile, Angie has become an internationally famous star of “simstim”—a popular form of virtual reality entertainment. Angie encounters a drug-addicted teenaged girl named Mona Lisa, who has been surgically altered to resemble Angie to assist in a kidnapping plot. As the Japanese mafia, the kidnappers, and the Tessier-Ashpools pursue Bobby, Angie, and the aleph, Angie dies of a brain hemorrhage and projects her consciousness into cyberspace. Bobby eventually leaves the aleph and does the same, allowing their minds to live together in the matrix forever. After Bobby and Angie's bodies die, Mona Lisa takes up Angie's role as the world's most famous “simstim” star.
In 1993 Gibson began a second series of novels that became known as the Bridge Trilogy, comprised of Virtual Light (1993), Idoru (1996), and All Tomorrow's Parties (1999). Virtual Light is set in San Francisco, California, during the year 2005. A major earthquake ravaged the area years earlier and the state is now divided into two separate entities—Lo-Cal and So-Cal. The major setting in Virtual Light is San Francisco's Bay Bridge, which was been transformed after the earthquake into a shanty town housing thousands of marginalized citizens. Chevette Washington, a bicycle messenger who lives on the bridge, steals a pair of sunglasses that contains a high-tech optic nerve stimulant known as “Virtual Light.” The virtual reality glasses also contain top secret information for the post-quake reconstruction of San Francisco, and Chevette must flee for her life. Berry Rydell, a security guard who was fired from the police force, teams up with Chevette to help her escape her pursuers. Virtual Light differs from the novels of the Sprawl Trilogy in that it describes a society not too far removed from the high-tech, media-saturated world of the 1990s. Idoru, the second novel in the Bridge series, continues to develop Gibson's interest in commenting on the pervasiveness of mass media in all aspects of society. The novel's protagonist, Colin Laney, is an expert in identifying “nodal points” of information in cyberspace. This ability to recognize patterns and trends in the chaotic global information network gives Laney the ability to predict coming events. Laney is hired by the management of Rez, a popular Japanese rock star. Rez's managers are concerned after Rez announces to the world that he intends to marry Rei Toei, a fictional holographic singer known as the “idoru” who was created by a corporation. Laney and Chia, a young fan of Rez's, are caught in a web of intrigue as they try to discover the true nature of Rei Toei's existence and the activities of the Russian mafia operating in Japan. All Tomorrow's Parties draws together the fates of Colin Laney, the idoru, Berry Rydell, Chevette Washington, and the Bay Bridge community. Laney has become obsessed with a certain nodal point that convinces him that the world is moving toward a monumental change that somehow involves Rei Toei and Cody Harwood, a billionaire public-relations genius who wishes to obtain the idoru. Laney mails a holoprojector containing Rei Toei's computer program to Rydell in San Francisco. As Rydell protects the idoru, he and Chevette must uncover the secret behind Harwood's plan to introduce nanotechnology to the world.
Though Gibson is best known for his two trilogies of novels, he has also produced several additional literary works. Burning Chrome collects the bulk of Gibson's short fiction, including “Johnny Mnemonic” which first establishes the Sprawl setting he employed in Neuromancer. In “The Gernsback Continuum,” a photographer reflects on the optimistically fascist portrayal of utopian futuristic societies during the 1950s and finds himself transported into these unsettlingly “perfect” worlds. The Difference Engine (1991), co-written with Bruce Sterling, is set in an alternate nineteenth century, where steam-driven mechanical computers have changed the path of human destiny. In his sole poetic work, Agrippa: A Book of the Dead (1992), Gibson expounds on his relationship with his father, titling the work after the name of a photo album that once belonged to his father. The poem was released on a limited edition computer diskette, accompanied by a series of photographs. The diskette was designed to erase itself after each page was read. Pattern Recognition (2003), Gibson's only novel set in modern times, is set one year after the terrorist attacks on the United States on September 11, 2001. Cayce Pollard is a highly successful “coolhunter,” a freelance marketing consultant with a knack for spotting incipient trends and fads. Cayce is also a “footagehead,” a person obsessed with a mysterious series of video clips broadcast over the Internet. A marketing firm hires Cayce to seek out the creator of the footage, which sends her across the globe. Meanwhile, Cayce continues to investigate the disappearance of her father, a former CIA operative who has not been seen since the day of the terrorist attacks.
Academic critics have seized upon Gibson's Sprawl Trilogy as a set of texts that effectively raise issues relevant to postmodernism and late twentieth-century capitalism. Many scholars have discussed Gibson's novels in terms of postmodernism, examining the elements of a postmodern aesthetic in his writing and debating its implications as a commentary on the condition of postmodernity in the late twentieth century. Reviewers have consistently lauded Gibson's prescient and insightful representation of cyberspace and the impact of cutting edge information technologies on human psychology and society. As Edward Bryant has observed, Neuromancer “was the first truly popular novel of our wired future, paying no attention to precisely extrapolated technical details, but plenty of heed to what seemed a highly intuitive grasp of how human beings will interact with computer technology.” Gibson's novels have also been examined in terms of their representation of global corporate capitalism and its impact on both the individual and society as a whole. Cultural critics have been particularly interested in the questions of subjectivity and identity raised by Gibson's blurring of the boundaries between man and machine, actual and virtual, and life and death. However, though Gibson has been acclaimed as a visionary author, some have argued that his characters are underdeveloped and his prose relies too heavily on technical jargon and pop culture slang. For example, All Tomorrow's Parties has been faulted by some reviewers for its convoluted plotting and one-dimensional characters. Despite such criticism, Gibson has continued to be recognized as one of the most prophetic and insightful science fiction authors in contemporary literature.