William Gibson

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2006

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.”

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

(This entire section contains 2006 words.)

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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.

Critical Reception

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.

William Gibson and Larry McCaffery (interview date 1986)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 9715

SOURCE: Gibson, William, and Larry McCaffery. “An Interview with William Gibson.” In Across the Wounded Galaxies: Interviews with Contemporary American Science Fiction Writers, edited by Larry McCaffery, pp. 130-50. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1990.

[In the following interview, Gibson discusses the concept of cyberspace, the cyberpunk movement, and the influence of popular culture on his writing.]

In 1984 William Gibson's first novel, Neuromancer, burst onto the science fiction scene like a supernova. The shock waves from that explosion had an immediate impact on the relatively insular SF field. Neuromancer became the first novel to win the triple crown—Hugo, Nebula, and Philip K. Dick awards—and, in the process, virtually single-handedly launched the cyberpunk movement. Neuromancer, with its stunning technopoetic prose surface and its superspecific evocation of life in a sleazed-out global village of the near future, has rapidly gained unprecedented critical and popular attention outside SF.

Prior to the publication of Neuromancer, Gibson had published only a half-dozen stories (since collected in Burning Chrome [1986]). Although several of these display flashes of his abilities—and two of them, “Johnny Mnemonic” and “Burning Chrome,” introduce motifs and elements elaborated upon in the later novels—clearly Neuromancer was a major imaginative leap forward for someone who had not even attempted to write a novel previously. The source of all the white light and white heat being generated by this new kid on the block are immediately apparent from the opening words of the novel: “The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.” Dense, kaleidoscopic, fast-paced, full of punked-out, high-tech weirdos, Neuromancer depicts with hallucinatory vividness the desperate, exhilarating feel of life in our new urban landscapes.

A number of critics have pointed out Gibson's affinities with certain earlier innovative SF authors: comparisons with Alfred Bester's early novels, with Philip K. Dick's midperiod fiction, and with Samuel Delany's Nova; Gibson's reliance on the cut-up methods and quickfire stream of dissociated images characteristic of William S. Burroughs and J. G. Ballard are also noted. But equally significant are the influences from sources either wholly outside SF—the hard-boiled writing of Dashiell Hammett, 1940s film noir, the novels of Robert Stone—or only nominally connected with the field—the garishly intense, nightmarish urban scenes and pacings in the work of rock musicians like Lou Reed; or the sophisticated blend of science, history, pop culture, hip lingoes, and dark humor in Thomas Pynchon's work.

What made Neuromancer's debut so auspicious, however, was not its debts to earlier authors but its originality of vision, especially the fresh, rush-of-oxygen high of Gibson's prose, with its startling similes and metaphors drawn from computers and other technologies, and its ability to create a powerfully resonant metaphor—the cyberspace of the computer matrix—where data dance with human consciousness, where human memory is literalized and mechanized, where multinational information systems mutate and breed into startling new structures whose beauty and complexity are unimaginable, mystical, and above all nonhuman. Probably as much as any first novel since Pynchon's V.,Neuromancer seemed to create a significant synthesis of poetics, pop culture, and technology.

Although often overlooked by critics and reviewers in this regard, Neuromancer is also deeply rooted in human realities. Gibson's presentation of the surface textures of our electronic age re-creates the shock and sensory overload that define our experience of contemporary life, of having grown up with VCRs, CDs, terrorists broadcasting messages on fifty-channel video monitors, designer drugs, David Bowie and the Sex Pistols, video games, computers. Both disturbing and playful, he also explores much deeper questions about the enormous impact of technology on the definition of what it means to be human. After reading Neuromancer for the first time, I knew I had seen the future of SF (and maybe of literature in general), and its name was William Gibson.

Gibson's second novel, Count Zero (1986), is set seven years in the future of Neuromancer's world, and to some degree it retains the earlier novel's focus on the underbelly world of computer cowboys, black market drugs, and software. But the pace is somewhat slower, allowing Gibson more time to develop his characters—a mixture of eccentric lowlifes and nonconformists who find themselves confronting representatives of vast egomaniacal individuals whose wealth and power result directly from their ability to control information. More tightly controlled and easier to follow than Neuromancer,Count Zero is nevertheless as extraordinarily rich in suggestive neologisms and other verbal pyrotechnics; it's also a fascinating evocation of a world in which humanity seems to be constantly outshone by the flash and appeal of the images and machines that increasingly seem to push people aside in their abstract dance toward progress and efficiency.

When we spoke in August 1986 at his home in Vancouver, British Columbia, William Gibson was working on the screenplay for Aliens III and on his third novel, Mona Lisa Overdrive (1988), which completes his cyberspace trilogy. Mona Lisa Overdrive expands some of the implications of the two earlier novels—for instance, the interface between the human social world and cyberspace is now sufficiently permeable that humans can actually die in cyberspace; Angie Mitchell (who appeared in Count Zero) is able to tap into the matrix without a computer; and, once again, we witness people (including Molly from Neuromancer) struggling against having their bodies and imaginations manipulated by international corporations who control information and images to suit their own purposes. While these overlaps seem to make Mona Lisa Overdrive less startlingly original than the earlier works, Gibson's experiments with prismatic storytelling methods, his ongoing stylistic virtuosity, and his presentation of characters possessing deeper emotional resonances all point to a growing maturation and versatility.

[McCaffery]: There are so many references to rock music and television in your work that it sometimes seems your writing is as much influenced by MTV as by literature. What impact have other media had on your sensibility?

[Gibson]: Probably more than fiction. The trouble with “influence” questions is that they're usually framed to encourage you to talk about your writing as if you grew up in a world circumscribed by books. I've been influenced by Lou Reed, for instance, as much as I've been by any “fiction” writer. 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.

The breakdown of distinctions—between pop culture and “serious” culture, different genres, different art forms—seems to have had a liberating effect on writers of your generation.

The idea that all this stuff is potentially grist for your mill has been very liberating. This process of cultural mongrelization seems to be what postmodernism is all about. The result is a generation of people (some of whom are artists) whose tastes are wildly eclectic—people who are hip to punk music and Mozart, who rent these terrible horror and SF videos from the 7-Eleven one night and then invite you to a mud wrestling match or a poetry reading the next. If you're a writer, the trick is to keep your eyes and ears open well enough to let all this in but also, somehow, to recognize intuitively what you should let emerge in your work, how effective something might be in a specific context. I know I don't have a sense of writing as being divided up into different compartments, and I don't separate literature from the other arts. Fiction, television, music, film—all provide material in the form of images and phrases and codes that creep into my writing in ways both deliberate and unconscious.

Our culture is being profoundly transformed by technology in ways most people are only dimly starting to realize. Maybe that's why the American public is so fascinated with SF imagery and vocabulary—even people who don't even know what SF stands for are responding to this stuff subliminally, in ads and so on.

Yeah, like Escape from New York never made it big, but it's been redone a billion times as a rock video. I saw that movie, by the way, when I was starting “Burning Chrome” and it had a real influence on Neuromancer. I was intrigued by the exchange in one of the opening scenes where the Warden says to Snake: “You flew the wing-five over Leningrad, didn't you?” It turns out to be just a throwaway line, but for a moment it worked like the best SF, where a casual reference can imply a lot.

In theory MTV could be an interesting new art form, a combination of advertising and avant-garde film, though it seems to be getting worse.

We don't get MTV up here, but from what I've seen of it in the States, there was initially a feeling of adventure that you don't find in the established forms. But you're right—it's getting worse. So is most SF.

How conscious are you about systematically developing an image or a metaphor when you're writing? For example, the meat puppet image in Neuromancer seems like the perfect metaphor for how the soft machine of our living bodies is manipulated by outside forces. I assume you arrived at that metaphor from listening to the cow-punk band Meat Puppets.

No, I got it from seeing the name in print. I like accidents, when an offhand line breezes by and you think to yourself, Yes, that will do. So you put it in your text and start working with it, seeing how it relates to other things you've got going, and eventually it begins to evolve, to branch off in ways you hadn't anticipated. Part of the process is conscious, in the sense that I'm aware of working this way, but how these things come to be embedded in the text is intuitive. I don't see how writers can do it any other way. I suppose some pick these things up without realizing it, but I'm conscious of waiting for them and seeing where they lead, how they might mutate.

Sounds like a virus.

It is—and only a certain kind of host is going to be able to allow the thing to keep expanding in an optimal way. As you can imagine, the structure of a book like Neuromancer becomes very complicated at a certain point. It wasn't complicated in the “admirably complex” way that you find in Pynchon's novels but simply in the sense that all these odds and ends started to affect and infect one another.

Does knowing that most readers won't recognize many of these references bother you? Obviously, they don't have to know that “Big Science” is a song by Laurie Anderson in order to catch the drift of what you're suggesting; but if they do know the song, it might broaden the nature of their response.

I enjoy the idea that some levels of the text are closed to most readers. Of course, writers working in popular forms should be aware that readers aren't always going to respond to subtleties—though that isn't as weird as finding out that people are missing the whole point of what you think you're doing, whether it's thinking you're being ironic when you're not, or being serious when you're trying to make fun of something. When I was in England in February, I noticed that the response to my work was markedly different: people were referring to me as a humorist. In England they think what I'm doing is funny—not that I'm only being funny, but they can see that there's a certain humor in my work.

Clearly, in “Johnny Mnemonic” and “Burning Chrome” you were laying the foundation for what you would do later on in Neuromancer.

Yes, although I didn't think in those terms when I wrote those stories. Actually, “Johnny Mnemonic” was the third piece of fiction I wrote, and the only basis I had for gauging its success was that it sold. “Burning Chrome” was written later on, and even though it got more attention than anything I'd done before, I still felt I was four or five years away from writing a novel. Then Terry Carr recruited me to write a book, which turned out to be Neuromancer. He was looking for people he thought had some promise—he'd offer them contracts and say, “Do you want to write a book?” I said “Yes” almost without thinking, but then I was stuck with a project I wasn't sure I was ready for. In fact I was terrified once I actually sat down and started to think about what it meant. I didn't think I could fill up that many pages; I didn't even know how many pages the manuscript of a novel was “supposed” to have. It had been taking me something like three months to write a short story, so starting a novel was really a major leap. I remember going around asking other writers things like, “Assuming I double space everything, how long is a novel?” When somebody told me 300 pages, I thought, My God!

What got you going with the book?

Panic. Blind animal panic. It was a desperate quality that I think comes through in the book pretty clearly: Neuromancer is fueled by my terrible fear of losing the reader's attention. Once it hit me that I had to come up with something, to have a hook on every page, I looked at the stories I'd written up to that point and tried to figure out what had worked for me before. I had Molly in “Johnny Mnemonic”; I had an environment in “Burning Chrome.” So I decided I'd try to put these things together. But all during the writing of the book I had the conviction that I was going to be permanently shamed when it appeared. And even when I finished it I had no perspective on what I'd done. I still don't, for that matter. I always feel like one of the guys inside those incredible dragons you see snaking through the crowds in Chinatown. Sure, the dragon is very brightly colored, but from the inside you know the whole thing is pretty flimsy—just a bunch of old newspapers and papier-mâché and balsa struts.

The world you evoke in Neuromancer struck me as being a lot like the underworld we find in the work of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett—sleazy, intensely vivid, full of colorful details and exotic lingoes that somehow seem realistic and totally artificial.

It's probably been fifteen years since I read Hammett, but I remember being very excited about how he had pushed all this ordinary stuff until it was different—like American naturalism but cranked up, very intense, almost surreal. You can see this in the beginning of The Maltese Falcon, where he describes all the things in Spade's office. Hammett may have been the guy who turned me on to the idea of superspecificity, which is largely lacking in most SF description. SF authors tend to use generics—“Then he got into his space suit”—a refusal to specify that is almost an unspoken tradition in SF. They know they can get away with having a character arrive on some unimaginably strange and distant planet and say, “I looked out the window and saw the air plant.” It doesn't seem to matter that the reader has no idea what the plant looks like, or even what it is. I think Hammett may have given me the idea that you don't have to write like that, even in a popular form. But with Chandler—I never have read much of his work, and I never enjoyed what I did read because I always got this creepy puritanical feeling from his books. Although his surface gloss is very brilliant, his underlying meaning is off-putting to me.

The other reason I thought of Hammett has to do with your rich, poetic vocabulary—the futuristic slang, the street talk, the technical and professional jargon.

I suppose I strive for an argot that seems real, but I don't invent most of what seems exotic or strange in the dialogue—that's just more collage. There are so many cultures and subcultures today that if you're willing to listen, you can pick up different phrases, inflections, and metaphors everywhere. A lot of the language in Neuromancer and Count Zero that people think is so futuristic is probably just 1969 Toronto dope dealers' slang, or biker talk.

Some of the phrases you use in Neuromancer—“flatlining” or “virus program”—manage to evoke some response beyond the literal.

They're poetry! “Flatlining,” for example, is ambulance driver slang for “death.” I heard it in a bar maybe twenty years ago and it stuck with me. A drunken, crying ambulance driver saying, “She flatlined.” I use a lot of phrases that seem exotic to everyone but the people who use them. Oddly enough, I almost never get new buzzwords from other SF writers. I heard about “virus program” from an ex-WAC computer operator who had worked in the Pentagon. She was talking one night about guys who came in every day and wiped the boards of all the video games people had built into them, and how some people were building these little glitch-things that tried to evade the official wipers—things that would hide and then pop out and say, “Screw you!” before vanishing into the framework of logic. (Listening to me trying to explain this, it immediately becomes apparent that I have no grasp of how computers really work—it's been a contact high for me.) Anyway, it wasn't until after the book came out that I met people who knew what a virus program actually was.

So your use of computers and science results more from their metaphoric value or from the way they sound than from any familiarity with how they actually operate.

I'm looking for images that supply a certain atmosphere. Right now science and technology seem to be very useful sources. But I'm more interested in the language of, say, computers than I am in the technicalities. On the most basic level, computers in my books are simply a metaphor for human memory: 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. When I was writing Neuromancer, it was wonderful to be able to tie a lot of these interests into the computer metaphor. It wasn't until I could finally afford a computer of my own that I found out there's a drive mechanism inside—this little thing that spins around. I'd been expecting an exotic crystalline thing, a cyberspace deck or something, and what I got was a little piece of a Victorian engine that made noises like a scratchy old record player. That noise took away some of the mystique for me; it made computers less sexy. My ignorance had allowed me to romanticize them.

What many readers first notice in Neuromancer are all the cyberpunk elements—exotic lingoes, drugs, cyber-realities, clothes, and so on. In many ways, though, the plot is very traditional: the down-and-out gangster who's been jerked around and wants to get even by pulling the big heist. Did you make a conscious decision to attach this punked-out cyber-reality to the framework of an established plot?

When I said earlier that a lot of what went into Neuromancer was the result of desperation, I wasn't exaggerating. I knew I was so inexperienced that I would need a traditional plot armature that had proven its potential for narrative traction. I had these different things I wanted to use, but since I didn't have a preset notion of where I was going, the plot had to be something I already felt comfortable with. Also, since I wrote Neuromancer very much under the influence of Robert Stone—who's a master of a certain kind of paranoid fiction—it's not surprising that what I wound up with was something like a Howard Hawkes film.

First novels are often the most autobiographical. Were you drawing on a lot of things from your own past in Neuromancer?

Neuromancer isn't autobiographical in any literal sense, but I did draw on my sense of what people are like to develop these characters. Part of that came from accessing my own screwed-up adolescence; and another part of it came from watching how kids reacted to all the truly horrible stuff happening all around them—that unfocused angst and weird lack of affect.

Did the book undergo significant changes once you knew the basic structure was in place?

The first two-thirds was rewritten a dozen times—a lot of stylistic changes, once I had the feel of the world, but also a lot of monkeying around to make the plot seem vaguely plausible. I had to cover up some of the shabbier coincidences, for example. Also, I never had a very clear idea of what was going to happen in the end, except that the gangsters had to score big.

Do you look for specific effects when you revise your prose?

My revisions mainly involve looking for passages that “clunk.” When I first started to write, I found that in reading for pleasure I'd become suddenly aware that a beat had been missed, that the rhythm was gone. It's hard to explain, but when I go over my own writing I look for places where I've missed the beat. Usually I can correct it by condensing my prose so that individual parts carry more weight, are charged with more meaning; almost always the text gets shorter. I'm aware that this condensation process winds up putting off some readers. “Genre” SF readers say that Neuromancer and Count Zero are impossibly dense, literally impossible to read; but other SF readers who ordinarily have no patience for “serious” fiction seem to be turned on by what I'm doing. Now that I've gained some experience writing, revisions take up less of my time; in fact, it's become easier to hit a level I'm satisfied with and stay there. One of the big problems with Neuromancer was that I had so much stuff—all this material that had been accumulating—that it was hard to get it into a manageable book.

Has Thomas Pynchon had an influence on your work?

Pynchon has been a favorite writer and a major influence all along. In many ways I see him as almost the start of a certain mutant breed of SF—the cyberpunk thing, the SF that mixes surrealism and pop culture imagery with esoteric historical and scientific information. Pynchon is a kind of mythic hero of mine, and I suspect that if you talk with a lot of recent SF writers you'll find they've all read Gravity's Rainbow several times and have been very much influenced by it. I was into Pynchon early on—I remember seeing a New York Times review of V. when it first came out—I was just a kid—and thinking, Boy, that sounds like some really weird shit!

What was the inspiration for your cyberspace idea?

I was walking down Granville Street, Vancouver's version of “The Strip,” and I looked into one of the video arcades. I could see in the physical intensity of their postures how rapt the kids inside were. It was like one of those closed systems out of a Pynchon novel: a feedback loop with photons coming off the screens into the kids' eyes, neurons moving through their bodies, and electrons moving through the video game. These kids clearly believed in the space games projected. Everyone I know who works with computers seems to develop a belief that there's some kind of actual space behind the screen, someplace you can't see but you know is there.

From a purely technical standpoint, the cyberspace premise must have been great to hit on simply because it creates a rationale for so many different narrative “spaces.”

When I arrived at the cyberspace concept, while I was writing “Burning Chrome,” I could see right away that it was resonant in a lot of ways. By the time I was writing Neuromancer, I recognized that cyberspace allowed for a lot of moves, because characters can be sucked into apparent realities—which means you can place them in any sort of setting or against any backdrop. In some ways I tried to downplay that aspect, because if I overdid it I'd have an open-ended plot premise. That kind of freedom can be dangerous because you don't have to justify what's happening in terms of the logic of character or plot. In Count Zero I wanted to slow things down a bit and learn how to do characterization. I was aware that Neuromancer was going to seem like a roller coaster ride to most readers—you've got lots of excitement but maybe not much understanding of where you've been or why you were heading there in the first place. I enjoyed being able to present someone like Virek in Count Zero, who apparently lives in any number of “realities”—he's got the city of Barcelona if he wants it, and an array of other possibilities, even though he's actually a pile of cells in a vat somewhere.

Philip K. Dick was always writing about people like Virek who have so many “reality options,” so many different reproductions and illusions, that it's difficult to know what reality is more real—the one in their heads or the one that seems to exist outside. That's a powerful notion.

Yeah, it is powerful—which is why it's such a temptation to keep pushing once you've got a concept like cyberspace that creates an instant rationale. I probably was a little heavy-handed in Count Zero with Bobby's mother, who's hooked on the soaps, who lives in them, but it was just too much to resist. Everybody asks me about Dick being an influence, but I hadn't read much of his work before I started writing—though I've imagined a world in which Pynchon sold his early stories to Fantasy and Science Fiction and became an alternate Dick.

One of the issues your work raises is the way information—this “dance of data,” as you refer to it—not only controls our daily lives but may be the best way for us to understand the fundamental processes that control the universe's ongoing transformations. It seems significant that mostly SF writers are tuned to this.

Information is the dominant scientific metaphor of our age, so we need to face it, to try to understand what it means. It's not that technology has changed everything by transforming it into codes. Newtonians didn't see things in terms of information exchange, but today we do. That carries over into my suspicion that Sigmund Freud has a lot to do with steam engines.

The various ways you use the dance metaphor in Neuromancer suggests a familiarity with the interactions between Eastern mysticism and modern physics.

I was aware that the image of the dance was part of Eastern mysticism, but a more direct source was John Shirley, who was living in the East Village and wrote me a letter that described the thing about proteins linking. That's just another example of how pathetically make-shift everything looks from inside the papier-mâché dragon. It was the same thing with the voodoo gods in Count Zero: a copy of National Geographic was lying around that had an article about Haitian voodoo in it.

Back in the '60s and early '70s, most of the important New Wave SF took a pessimistic stance toward technology and progress. Although your work has sometimes been described as glorifying technology, I'd say it offers a more ambivalent view.

My feelings about technology are totally ambivalent—which seems to me to be the only way to relate to what's happening today. When I write about technology, I write about how it has already affected our lives; I don't extrapolate in the way I was taught an SF writer should. You'll notice in Neuromancer that there's obviously been a war, but I don't explain what caused it or even who was fighting it. I've never had the patience or the desire to work out the details of who's doing what to whom, or exactly when something is taking place, or what's become of the United States. That kind of literalism has always seemed silly to me; it detracts from the reading pleasure I get from SF. My aim isn't to provide specific predictions or judgments so much as to find a suitable fictional context in which to examine the very mixed blessings of technology.

How consciously do you see yourself operating outside the mainstream of American SF?

A lot of what I've written so far is a conscious reaction to what I felt SF—especially American SF—had become by the time I started writing in the late '70s. In fact, I felt I was writing so far outside the mainstream that my highest goal was to become a minor cult figure, a sort of lesser Ballard. I assumed I was doing something no one would like except for a few crazy “art” people—and maybe some people in England and France, who I always assumed would respond to what I was doing because I knew their tastes were very different and because the French like Dick a lot. When I was starting out, I simply tried to go in the opposite direction from most of the stuff I was reading, which I felt an aesthetic revulsion toward.

What sorts of '70s SF did you have in mind? All those sword-and-sorcery books or the hard SF that people like Jerry Pournelle, Gregory Benford, and Larry Niven were writing?

Some of my resistance had to do with a certain didactic, right-wing stance that I associated with a lot of hard SF, but mainly it was a more generalized angle of attack. I'm a very desultory reader of SF—I have been since my big period of reading SF when I was around fifteen—so my stance was instinctual. In the '70s, during the years just before I seriously thought about writing SF, it seemed like the SF books I enjoyed were few and far between. Just about everything I picked up seemed too slick and, even worse, uninteresting. Part of this has to do with the adolescent audience that a lot of SF has always been written for. My publishers keep telling me that the adolescent market is where it's at, and that makes me pretty uncomfortable because I remember what my tastes ran to at that age. One new factor around 1975 was that writers started getting these huge advances for SF books, and I said to myself, Hey, you can get big money for SF. But by the time I started writing SF, those big advances had dried up, because a lot of them had gone to books that had lost money. I had a sense of what the expectations of the SF industry were in terms of product, but I hated that product and felt such a genuine sense of disgust that I consciously decided to reverse expectations, not give publishers or readers what they wanted.

How would you describe the direction of your work?

When I first started writing, what held me up for a long time was finding a way to introduce the things that turned me on. I knew that when I was reading a text—particularly a fantastic text—it was the gratuitous moves, the odd, quirky, irrelevant details, that provided a sense of strangeness. So it seemed important to find an approach that would allow for gratuitous moves. I didn't think that what I was writing would ever “fit in” or be accepted, so what I wanted was to be able to plug in the things that interested me. When Molly goes through the Tessier-Ashpool's library in Neuromancer, she sees that they own Duchamp's Large Glass. Now that reference doesn't make sense on some deeper symbolic level; it's really irrelevant, a gratuitous move. But putting it there seemed right—here are these very rich people on this space station with this great piece of art just gathering dust. In other words, I liked the piece and wanted to get it into the book somehow.

Precisely these personal “signatures” create a texture and eventually add up to what we call a writer's “vision.” You can see this in Alfred Bester, whose books remind me of yours.

Bester was into flash very early. When Neuromancer came out, a lot of reviewers said that I must have written it while holding a copy of The Demolished Man. Actually, it had been some time since I'd read Bester, but he was one of the SF authors who had stuck with me, who seemed worthy of imitating, mostly because I always had the feeling he had a ball writing. And I think I know exactly what it was that produced that sense: he was a New York guy who didn't depend on writing SF to make a living, so he really just let loose; he didn't have to give a damn about anything other than having fun, pleasing himself. If you want to get a sense of how groovy it could have been to be alive and young and living in New York in the '50s, read Bester's SF. It may be significant that when you read his mainstream novel (which is pretty hard to find over here, but it's been released in England as The Rat Race), you can see him using the same tools he used in those two early SF books—but somehow it doesn't work. Bester's palette just isn't suited for convincing you that you're reading about reality.

This business about realism often seems misleading. You said that Bester's SF books gave you a sense of what it felt like to be in New York at a certain time—that's realism, though different from what you find in Honoré de Balzac or Henry James; it's the realism that cyberpunk supplies, that sense of what it really feels like to be alive in our place, at our time.

My SF is realistic in that I write about what I see around me. That's why SF's role isn't central to my work. My fiction amplifies and distorts my impressions of the world, however strange that world may be. One of the liberating effects of SF when I was a teenager was precisely its ability to tune me in to all sorts of strange data and make me realize that I wasn't as totally isolated in perceiving the world as being monstrous and crazy. In the early '60s, SF was the only source of subversive information available to me.

Some of that spirit of subversiveness, that sense of the strangeness of the ordinary, is finding its way into mainstream quasi-SF novels: Ted Mooney's Easy Travel to Other Planets, Don DeLillo's White Noise, Denis Johnson's Fiskadoro, Steve Erickson's books, and recent work by Robert Coover, Margaret Atwood, Max Apple, and Stanley Elkin.

Funny you should bring up Mooney's novel, because I was very jealous of the attention it got. Easy Travel is a brilliant book, but I remember thinking, “Here's this guy using all these SF tropes and he's getting reviewed in Time.” I was struck with how categories affect the way people respond to your work. Because I'm labeled an “SF writer” and Mooney is a “mainstream writer,” people may never take me as seriously as they do him—even though we're both operating on some kind of SF fringe area.

Your work and Mooney's share a hyperawareness that people are being affected in all sorts of ways—psychologically, perceptually—by the constant bombardment of sounds and other data. And you're both willing to experiment stylistically to find a means suitable for presenting the effects of information overload.

I'm very prone to what Mooney calls “information sickness,” and I'm having increasing trouble dealing with it. Without doing this too consciously, I had set up my life to minimize input. But now that I've started to make it—even relatively modestly in an obscure field like SF—I've been bombarded with all kinds of stuff. People are coming to my home, stuff arrives in the mail, the phone is ringing, I've got decisions to make about movies and book jackets.

One of the common, maybe simplistic comments you hear about information overload is that the result is a kind of psychological confusion or dislocation. We have all this stuff coming in but we can't seem to put anything together so that it means anything. We're only slightly better off than Mooney's characters, with their paralysis and convulsions.

But sometimes you find you can have fun with these dislocations. When I said I was prone to information sickness, I meant I sometimes get off on being around a lot of unconnected stuff—but only certain kinds of stuff, which is why I'm having trouble handling the input right now. I have a friend, Tom Maddox, who did a paper on my work. He's known what I've been up to for a long time—he says I display “a problematic sensitivity to semiotic fragments.” That probably has a lot to do with the way I write—stitching together all the junk that's floating around in my head. One of my private pleasures is to go to the corner Salvation Army thrift shop and look at all the junk. I can't explain what I get out of doing this. I mean, I used to have to spend time there as a survival thing, and even now I'll go in and find something I want.

You said you weren't really reading much SF when you started out as a writer. What got you started writing SF?

A series of coincidences. I was at the University of British Columbia, getting an English B.A.—I graduated in '76 or '77—because it was easier at the time than finding a job. I realized I could get the grades I needed as an English major to keep getting the grants I needed to avoid getting a job. There were a couple of months during that period when I thought very seriously about SF without thinking I was ever going to write it—instead, I thought I might want to write about it. I took courses with a guy who talked about the aesthetic politics of fascism—we were reading an Orwell essay, “Raffles and Miss Blandish,” and he wondered whether or not there were fascist novels—and I remember thinking, Reading all these SF novels has given me a line on this topic—I know where this fascist literature is! I thought about working on an M.A. on this topic, though I doubt that my approach would have been all that earthshaking. But it got me thinking seriously about what SF did, what it was, which traditions had shaped it and which ones it had rejected. Form/content issues.

Were there other literature classes that might have influenced your thinking about SF?

Most of the lit classes I took went in one ear and out the other. However, I remember a class on American naturalism, where I picked up the idea that there are several different kinds of naturalist novels: the mimetic naturalist novel—the familiar version—and the crazed naturalist novel—the kind Hammett writes, or Algren's Man with the Golden Arm, where he tries to do this realistic description of Chicago in the '40s but his take on it is weirder than anything I did with Chiba City in Neuromancer. It's full of people with neon teeth, characters with pieces of their faces falling off, stuff out of some bad nightmare. Then there's the overt horror/pain end of naturalism, which you find in Hubert Selby's books. Maybe related in some way to these twisted offshoots of naturalism are the books by William Burroughs that affected SF in all kinds of ways. I'm of the first generation of American SF authors who had the chance to read Burroughs when we were fourteen or fifteen years old. I know having had that opportunity made a big difference in my outlook on what SF—or any literature, for that matter—could be. What Burroughs was doing with plot and language and the SF motifs I saw in other writers was literally mind expanding. I saw this crazy outlaw character who seemed to have picked up SF and gone after society with it, the way some old guy might grab a rusty beer opener and start waving it around. Once you've had that experience, you're not quite the same.

Has the serious attention you've gotten from the SF world made you feel any less alienated?

Yeah—everyone's been so nice—but I still feel very much out of place in the company of most SF writers. It's as though I don't know what to do when I'm around them, so I'm usually very polite and I keep my tie on. SF authors are often strange, ill-socialized people who have good minds but are still kids.

Who among the current writers do you admire or feel some connections with?

Bruce Sterling is certainly a favorite—he produces more ideas per page than anyone else around. Marc Laidlaw had a book called Dad's Nuke that I really enjoyed. And John Shirley, of course. I also admire Greg Bear's work, even though his approach is much more hard SF oriented than mine. Recently I came across some quasi-SF books by Madison Smartt Bell—The Washington Square Ensemble and Waiting for the End of the World—which are wonderful, brilliant.

What about Samuel Delany? His work seems to have influenced your generation of SF authors in important ways.

There's no question about his importance, and he's obviously influenced me. Those books he was writing when he was twenty-one or whatever were my favorite books when I was fifteen and plowing through all that SF. I'm pretty sure I didn't know at the time that Delany wasn't much older than I was, but I think the fact that I was a kid reading books by a slightly older kid had something to do with my sense that his books were a lot fresher than anything else I could find.

You're usually considered the leading figure of the cyberpunk movement. Is there such a thing, or was the movement dreamed up by a critic?

It's mainly a marketing category—and one that I've come to feel trivializes what I do. Tying my stuff to any label is unfair because it gives people preconceptions about what I'm doing. But it gets complicated because I have friends and cohorts who are benefiting from the hype and who like it. Of course, I can appreciate that the label gives writers a certain attitude they can rally around, feel comfortable with—they can get up at SF conventions, put on their mirrored sunglasses, and say, “That's right, baby, that's us!”

That was exactly the scene at the recent SFRA conference in San Diego. John Shirley, decked out in a leather jacket and shades, wound up in a screaming match with the hard SF “Killer B's”—Brin, Bear, and Benford—who have their own identity, their own dress code.

Michael Swanwick wrote an article about the split between the cyberpunks and the humanists. He referred to John Shirley as John-the-Baptist-of-Cyberpunk, roaming the wilderness trying to spread the new gospel. Even though I don't agree with everything Swanwick wrote, I do think John has always had this evangelical side to him—though he's less like that now than when I first met him in 1977, when he was into spiked dog collars. No one was ready for his insane novels, which are unfortunately very hard to find. There just wasn't anything else like that being written then—no hook or label like cyberpunk, no opening—so they were totally ignored. If those books were published now, people would be saying, “Wow, look at this stuff! It's beyond cyberpunk.” Really, though, I'm tired of the whole cyberpunk phenomenon. I mean, there's already bad imitation cyberpunk, so you know it can only go downhill from here. All that really happened was that a bunch of work by some new authors landed on some publishers' desks at the same time. People didn't know what to make of us, so they gave us this tag.

The cyberpunk/humanist opposition seems way off base to me. There are a lot of scenes in both Neuromancer and Count Zero that are very moving from a human standpoint. Beneath the glittery surface hardware is an emphasis on the “meat” of people, the fragile body that can get crushed so easily.

That's my “Lawrentian” take on things. It's very strange to write something and realize that people will read into it whatever they want. When I hear critics say that my books are “hard and glossy,” I almost want to give up writing. The English reviewers, though, seem to understand that what I'm talking about is what being hard and glossy does to you.

One of the scenes that sticks out for me is the one near the end of Neuromancer where Case is on that beach with the woman. It's a powerful and sad moment even though—or maybe because—we know he's in cyberspace imagining all this.

It's great to hear someone react that way to that scene, because that passage was the emotional crux of the book, its center of gravity. I'd like to think that the novel is balanced in such a way that the scene shows how distorted everything has become from several different perspectives.

Another scene that has a peculiar emotional charge is the one where Case is trying to destroy the wasps' nest. What makes the nest seem so primal, so scary?

The fear of bugs, for one thing! That scene evolved out of an experience I had destroying a very large wasps' nest. I didn't know what was inside, didn't know they were “imprinted” that way, so when the nest broke open I was astounded and scared by all the wasps. It probably also helped that I got stung several times.

Do you consciously build a metaphor like the wasps' nest so that it resonates in different ways, or is the process buried in your unconscious?

Once I've hit on an image, a lot of what I do involves the controlled use of collage; I look around for ways to relate the image to the rest of the book. That's something I got from Burroughs's work, and to a lesser extent from Ballard. I've never actually done any of that cut-up stuff, except for folding a few pages out of something when I'd be stuck or incredibly bored and then checking later to see what came out. But I could see what Burroughs was doing with these random methods, and why, even though the results weren't always that interesting. So I started snipping things out and slapping them down, but then I'd air-brush them a little to take the edges off.

Isn't that approach out of place in a field like SF, where most readers are looking for scientific or rational connections to keep the futuristic fantasy moving forward credibly?

As I said earlier, I'm not interested in producing the kind of literalism most readers associate with SF. This may be a suicidal admission, but most of the time I don't know what I'm talking about when it comes to the scientific or logical rationales that supposedly underpin my books. Apparently, though, part of my skill lies in my ability to convince people otherwise. Some of the SF writers who are actually working scientists do know what they're talking about; but for the rest of us, to present a whole world that doesn't exist and make it seem real, we have to more or less pretend we're polymaths. That's just the act of all good writing.

Are you interested in developing a futuristic, Faulknerian Yoknapatawpha County in which everything you write will be interconnected in a single fictional world?

No—it would look too much like I was doing one of those Stephen R. Donaldson things. People are already asking me how many of these books I'm going to write, which gives me a creepy sensation because of the innate sleaziness of so much SF publishing. When you're not forced to invent a new world from scratch each time, you find yourself getting lazy, falling back on the same stuff you used in an earlier novel. I was aware of this when I was finishing Neuromancer, and that's why, near the end, there's an announcement that Case never saw Molly again. That wasn't directed so much at the reader as at me. If you had told me seven years ago that I would write an SF trilogy, I would have hung myself in shame. Posthaste.

The obsession today with being able to reproduce a seemingly endless series of images, data, and information of all sorts is obviously related to capitalism and its drive for efficiency; but it also seems to grow out of our fear of death, a desire for immortality. The goals of religion and technology, in other words, may be closer than we think.

I can see that. But this isn't something that originated with contemporary technology. If you look at any of the ancient temples, which were the result of people learning to work stone with the technology available to them, what you'll find are machines designed to give those people immortality. The pyramids and snake mounds are time machines. This kind of application of technology seems to run throughout human culture.

You didn't start college until the mid-1970s. What were you doing during the late '60s and early '70s?

Virtually nothing. My father was a contractor back in the '40s; he made a bunch of money installing flush toilets for the Oak Ridge projects and went on to the postwar, pre-Sun Belt building boom in the South. He died when I was about eight, and my mother decided to move the family back to this little town in Virginia where they had both come from. I stayed there until I was sixteen or seventeen, a bookish, geekish, can't-hit-the-baseball kind of kid. Then I went to boarding school in Tucson, where I was exposed to urban kids and where I encountered the first wave of hippies pouring over the land from San Francisco. They were older than I was, and they were really into some cool stuff. Eventually, I got kicked out of boarding school for smoking pot. I went back to Virginia, but my mother had died and my relatives weren't particularly sympathetic to my style. So I spent some time bumming around. I more or less convinced my draft board that they didn't want me; in any case, they didn't hassle me, and in 1968 I left for Toronto without even knowing that Canada would be such a different country. I wound up living in a community of young Americans who were staying away from the draft.

Was it pretty much an underground scene? Did it contribute to your novels?

I'm sure it did, in terms of supplying me with some of the offbeat language I use. But to describe it as an “underground scene” would seem funny to anyone who knew me and what was going on. It was really pretty tame compared to what was happening in a lot of places; it was a soft-core version of the hippie/underground street scene, nothing heavy. I did have the small-town kid's fascination with watching criminal things. No question, though, that it made a lasting impression on me. Those were portentous days. Nobody knew what was going to happen.

You weren't giving much thought at that point to being a writer?

Only occasionally. Like a lot of other people, I felt I was living in an age in which everything was going to change very radically, so why make career plans? When things didn't get different, except maybe worse, I retreated. I went to Europe and wandered around there for a year—I had enough income from my parents' estate to starve comfortably. I came back to Canada because my wife, Deb, wanted to finish a B.A., and we moved to Vancouver so she could attend UBC. When Deb began work on an M.A. in linguistics, I realized that higher education was a good scam. If I hadn't wandered into SF, I'd be totally unemployable.

Are you interested in trying your hand at non-SF soon, maybe breaking out of the SF ghetto into the mainstream's mean street?

I am, because I'm afraid of being typecast if I make SF my permanent home. But what seems important right now is finding my way out of what I'm doing without losing a sense of what it is I'm doing. I don't want to go back and start over. I have glimpses of how this might be done, but it's a lateral move that has become increasingly difficult to make. It's taken as gospel among SF writers that to get out of SF once you've made a name in it is virtually impossible: “The clout isn't transferable.”

That's ironic, given all the mainstream writers doing quasi-SF. Not to mention the Latin American fabulists.

I envy the Latin American writers because they can do what they want. In America, it seems like these influences mostly travel in one direction—mainstream writers borrow from SF, but SF writers seem locked into provincialism. When I was in England, I thought it was interesting that their community of SF writers was enthusiastic about Latin American fabulism. But few people in the equivalent American SF community seem remotely familiar with it.

What can you tell me about your next novel? Have you started work on it yet?

I'm supposed to be working on it, but as you can see by this household's sublime sense of peace and order, it's tough going right now. It's called Mona Lisa Overdrive and it's not a linear sequel to Count Zero—in fact, it bears the same relationship to Count Zero that Count Zero did to Neuromancer, in that each book takes place seven years after the previous one. You glimpse some of the same people, but fourteen years is a long time in a world like this, where things change so fast you can hardly recognize anything from minute to minute. When I was doing Count Zero, I had initially intended to pursue what was going to happen to Mitchell's daughter; that seemed like an interesting thread to follow. But I was so anxious to finish the book, so tired of working on it, that I talked myself out of making any judgments about it. It nagged at me, though; I kept wondering what happened to her. She's a permanent interface with the voodoo gods and she's also obviously going to be the next Superstar. Somehow, though, that wasn't enough to get me going. Then I spent a weekend at the Beverly Hills Hotel with some producers, an eye-opening trip. Coming back on the plane, it struck me that for the first time I had actually gotten to see some of the stuff I had been writing about. I had another book I was supposed to start, but when I got back to Vancouver I phoned the agents and told them I wanted to do Mona Lisa Overdrive instead.

The Japanese settings you've used, notably in Neuromancer, seem right in all sorts of ways. Was any of that based on personal experience?

“Terry and the Pirates” probably had more to do with it than personal experience. I've never been to Japan, but my wife has been an ESL teacher for a long time, and since the Japanese can most afford to send their teenagers over here to study English, there was an extended period when this stream of Japanese students turned up in Vancouver—I'd meet them a week off the plane, see them when they were leaving, that sort of thing. Also, Vancouver is a very popular destination for Japanese tourists—for example, there are special bars here that cater exclusively to the Japanese, and almost no one else goes into them because the whole scene is too strange. I'm sure I got a lot of this in when I wrote Neuromancer. Of course, the Japanese have really bought the whole cyberpunk thing. It's as if they believe everything Bruce Sterling has written about it! It's frightening. But one of the things they seem to like about my work is that I don't try to invent Japanese names—I got the street names from a Japan Air Lines calendar. And I got lucky with the geography. I didn't even know where Chiba was when I wrote Neuromancer—all that stuff about it being on a peninsula and across a bay came out of my head—so I was really sweating when the book came out. But then I got a map and there was Chiba—on a peninsula! on a bay! Life imitates art. The only culture I've seen firsthand that might have influenced Neuromancer was Istanbul, which had a big impact on me even though I was only there for a week or so. Another place that affected my writing was the East Village, which John Shirley introduced me to in 1980. Nothing had prepared me for what I encountered when I stepped out into the street. The buildings were papered with Xerox art as high up as people could reach. From the point of view of somebody who'd been living in a place like Vancouver, the whole scene was total chaos and anarchy. It was weird and frightening and interesting all at the same time.

Do you sometimes wish you lived in New York or Los Angeles so you could draw on the strangeness more directly?

If I lived in a place like that, I'd write about unicorns. I'll leave well enough alone for now.

John Sladek (review date 12 May 1991)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1185

SOURCE: Sladek, John. “A Byte Out of Time.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (12 May 1991): 9.

[In the following review, Sladek describes Gibson's The Difference Engine as an intelligent novel that addresses serious themes but is also fun to read.]

What if the Victorians had built computers—huge, mechanical contraptions based on the calculating engines of Charles Babbage? What if the Information Age had arrived a full century ahead of schedule?

Such is the alternative world of The Difference Engine. It's a tempting alternative, given that the historical Charles Babbage really was the high-tech genius of his age. The “Difference Engines” he actually built were large, complex calculators, well ahead of their time. But Babbage also planned another type of engine, far more ambitious, containing all the elements of a modern digital computer. It even used punched cards, an idea Babbage borrowed from the Jacquard loom. More to the point, it could alter its own sequence of operations: Like all true computers, it could change its mind.

Alas, the British government could change its mind, too, about financing Babbage's project. Almost no one understood what he was trying to do except Lady Ada Lovelace. Ada, daughter of Lord Byron and the first woman programmer, wrote essays explaining how the Babbage engine could weave algebraic patterns, just as the Jacquard loom weaves flower patterns.

The real Babbage died in obscurity without completing his great engine. In this novel, however, the British government is happy to build Babbage's steam computer, and even happier to use it. Gibson and Sterling's alternative Britain is a technocracy, ruled by an elite of Radical Industrial Lords, with Lord Byron as prime minister. Scientists and other “savants” are elevated to the peerage as Lord Darwin, Lord Brunel and, of course, Lord Babbage.

The young paleontologist Edward Mallory has hopes of becoming a lord himself. He has returned to London from digging up a “leviathan,” or brontosaurus, fossil in America's Wild West. Mallory is a Catastrophist, believing that evolution proceeds by sudden leaps. He is unaware that his own life is about to undergo catastrophic changes.

Mallory meets Lady Ada Byron at a steam-car race, where she seems to be a drugged hostage. She manages to slip him a pack of punched Engine cards. Simply having these cards places Mallory at the center of a web of intrigue involving police spies, Luddite thugs, murderers and arsonists.

The melodrama is played out in an appropriately Victorian, yet strange, setting. In 1855, Britain is experiencing all of the heaven and hell of technology. The good life produces a wealth of inventions ahead of their time, including subways, steamships, cash registers, credit cards and automatic rifles.

Enormous steam-driven Babbage engines are in constant use by the government, operated by young computer “clackers.” There are clackers everywhere, working on independent computer tasks. We find John Keats clacking away in computer graphics, while Benjamin Disraeli is a hack speech writer wielding his word processor. Life is so good that even Engels has joined the establishment, as Lord Engels. (Marx has fled to America, to take part in the Manhattan Commune.)

On the other hand, everyone has a government-issued identity number and a corresponding file at the Central Statistics Bureau—the state police. Victorian poverty, disease and pollution are as bad as ever. Keats is still dying of consumption. There are still plenty of syphilitic prostitutes and cholera-infested water supplies. Discontented mobs are roaming the streets. London has become a place as thick with intrigue and surveillance, as it is with smog and stench.

As Mallory makes a nightmare journey back and forth across the great city, the sewage and smoke finally become life-threatening. Nor are they the only threats to his life: Luddite rioters are looting and burning the city. Mallory, the savant, finds himself a primary target of the revolution.

The authors have taken some trouble to make their 1855 alternative London credible, in its street markets, bordellos, pubs, ratting dens, police offices and docks. They teach the reader enough elements of London slang to get through an expression like this: “Don't give me that vinegar phiz. You're still thinking like a dolly-mop; stop it. Start thinking flash.”

While the great Babbage engine never is seen, its dark force is felt throughout the novel. The title refers not only to Babbage's Difference Engine but also to the way computer power—possessing and manipulating information—can make all the difference.

For good or ill, Britain has become an absolute power in the world. France has tried to follow, but the French giant computer, the Great Napoleon, suffers a mysterious breakdown. Russia has been quelled by a successful campaign in the Crimea. America remains divided into four weak nations: the Union, the Confederacy and the Republics of Texas and California. This weakness evidently has been engineered by British diplomacy, backed by a superior system of information-gathering and -processing.

Pitted against this powerful system, the Luddites too have grown smarter. They no longer try to break machines with hammers but now fight with the weapons of high technology. They have their own clackers, who cook up the mysterious pack of punched cards.

The pack comprises a program that might be fatal to the government's great Babbage engine—a virus, if you will. In principle, there is such a deadly program for any computing machine. The program presents a proposition that is true but unprovable within the machine. In principle, the machine will worry away at such a problem forever, until it breaks down (or until someone switches off the power; the authors do not explain why the owners of a team-driven Babbage machine in trouble cannot just stop stoking, but never mind, it makes a good story). We see the fatal pack of cards pass through several hands—a Luddite gives it to a London prostitute, who mails it to Paris; Lady Ada Byron hands it to Mallory, and at one point, it's hidden in the skull of the brontosaurus.

The Difference Engine is an intelligent novel, taking on weighty themes: information science, catastrophe theory, scientific responsibility, the nature and limits of mathematics. And for the most part, it takes them on with a light touch. There are intellectual jokes aplenty here, from clackers to Lord Engels. Even the name leviathan can mean not only a monster dinosaur but also a huge, repressive bureaucracy. The authors repeat the (true) story of the man who stopped a community's cholera epidemic by removing the handle of the town pump.

But the novel isn't always as accessible as we might hope. Some characters, scenes and subplots seem to have no other function than to convey the pack of punched cards from one place to another. Sam Houston turns up to no purpose. And in the final portions, the narrative breaks down into brief notes, speeches, even a synopsis. This may be an attempt to somehow emulate the breakdown of a Babbage engine in prose, or it may simply mean that the authors grew tired of the enterprise.

Even so, it's fun to follow the mixture of real and imagined history, worked up into a ripping adventure yarn.

Principal Works

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 98

Neuromancer (novel) 1984

*Burning Chrome (short stories) 1986

Count Zero (novel) 1986

Mona Lisa Overdrive (novel) 1988

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

Agrippa: A Book of the Dead (poetry) 1992

Virtual Light (novel) 1993

Johnny Mnemonic (screenplay) 1995

Idoru (novel) 1996

All Tomorrow's Parties (novel) 1999

Pattern Recognition (novel) 2003

*Includes the short stories “The Belonging Kind,” co-written by John Shirley, “Red Star, Winter Orbit,” co-written by Bruce Sterling, and “Dogfight,” co-written by Michael Swanwick.

Agrippa was released exclusively on a computer diskette, designed by Dennis Ashbaugh to self-erase after the poem is read. The full text of the poem is now available on the Internet.

Lance Olsen (essay date fall 1991)

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SOURCE: Olsen, Lance. “The Shadow of Spirit in William Gibson's Matrix Trilogy.” Extrapolation 32, no. 3 (fall 1991): 278-89.

[In the following essay, Olsen discusses spirituality, technology, and postmodernism in Neuromancer, Count Zero, and Mona Lisa Overdrive, which are also collectively known as Gibson's matrix trilogy.]

Although what may finally matter most in the history of speculative fiction are the differences rather than the similarities among the loose group whose names have been connected with cyberpunk (including Rudy Rucker, Lewis Shiner, John Shirley, Greg Bear, Pat Cadigan, and others), it is nonetheless significant that during the middle of the last decade a number of writers in this amalgam viewed themselves as belonging to a movement that shared a vaguely defined but deeply felt sensibility.1 As late as 1986, many of the key figures such as Tom Maddox, Marc Laidlaw, and Paul di Filippo, contributed to Bruce Sterling's anthology Mirrorshades, which Sterling prefaced with what amounts to a cyberpunk manifesto embracing the idea of integration. “Suddenly a new alliance is becoming evident,” he claims, “an integration of technology and Eighties counterculture. An unholy alliance of the technical world of pop culture, visionary fluidity, and street-level anarchy” (xii). Integration is even enacted in the neologism cyberpunk itself.2Cyber connotes the technosphere of cybernetics, cybernauts, electronics, and computers. To this is added punk, with its connotations of the countercultural sociosphere, especially late 1970s punk rock, itself an embodiment of visionary intensity, anarchic violence, and an attempt to return to the pure roots of rock and roll in the same way cyberpunk attempts to return to the experimentalism of New Wave writers.

The most striking emblem of cyberpunk integration are the mirrorshades, mirrored sunglasses, which became the movement's totem in 1982. Mirrorshades depersonalize and dehumanize, giving world rather than self back to the viewer. They suggest that the future is opaque to us all, that at best in the cyberpunk project we see a reflection of our present. Traditionally in Western art, eyes have been windows to the soul, insight, and love; in cyberpunk, however, eyes are covered with reflective surfaces. Western tradition is thereby perverted. Human and inhuman merge. Humanism gives way to posthumanism. The posthuman becomes, to use the title from Anthony Burgess's 1963 protocyberpunk novel, a clockwork orange. But at the same moment that a materialistic posthumanism announces itself, so too does the radically spiritual. Paradoxically, mirrorshades are not only the symbol of the cybernaut, but also of “the sun-staring visionary” (Sterling xi), whose art may be, as Larry McCaffery suggests, the only one “systematically dealing with the most crucial political, philosophical, moral, and cultural issues of our day” (“Desert” 9), including genetic engineering, multinational control of computer (and hence information) networks, artificial intelligence, chemical weapons, conurbanization, hacker outlaws, the re-emergence of fundamentalism around the world, toxic waste, and our culture's romanticization of insanity.

Many cyberpunk ideas about these issues were influenced by Alvin Toffler's The Third Wave (1980), a generally optimistic futurist sociological study that Sterling calls “a bible to many cyberpunks” (xii). Toffler argues that civilization has evolved through three stages or “waves.” The First Wave, reaching back at least ten thousand years, was agricultural. The Second Wave, initially surfacing in the seventeenth century, was industrial. This “indust-reality” advocated standardization, specialization, massification, centralization, concentration, nationalization, and synchronization. Since the 1950s, a Third Wave has appeared and begun to clash violently with the second. This Third Wave has begun to revolutionize the deep structure of society, entering the techno-, info-, bio-, power-, and psycho-spheres. It embraces the antithesis of “indust-reality”: customization, decentralization, demassification, diversification, and globalization. Rather than thinking in terms of specialized hierarchy, it thinks in terms of integrative network. Rather than thinking in terms of Cartesian parts, it thinks in terms of post-Cartesian wholes. Politically, it moves away from the authoritarianism of capitalism and socialism toward a complex democracy advocating minority power and denationalization. According to Toffler, Third Wave civilization in its final manifestation will be neither a utopia nor a dystopia. It will be a practopia—“neither the best nor the worst of all possible worlds, but one that is both practical and preferable to the one we had” (357).

Informed by Toffler's ideas, cyberpunk harmonizes well with the basic orientation of postmodernism, that extreme mode of skepticism which challenges all we once took for granted about language and experience. Istvan Csicsery-Ronay has in fact gone so far as to call cyberpunk (somewhat hyperbolically) “the apotheosis of postmodernism” (266). Like Toffler's Third Wave, postmodernism embraces notions of decentralization, diversification, and demassification.3 Like cyberpunk, it has little patience with borders between human and machine, country and country, genre and genre. Like Toffler's Third Wave and cyberpunk, postmodernism troubles the very foundations of modern consciousness that presupposes such absolutist distinctions as “high” and “low” culture, “good” and “bad” art, materialism and spiritualism.

As a result of this postmodern problematization of the Western tradition, which shakes the intellectual and emotional bedrock on which we for better or worse used to stand with some confidence, we now must learn to deal with a situation that seems to be going nowhere while traveling at an astonishing velocity. The critic Alan Wilde asserts that the truly postmodern human will come to accept such extreme indeterminacy as a way of everyday life, while the science fiction writer John Brunner (himself deeply influenced by Toffler) tells us that we must become “shockwave riders,” “adjust[ing] to shifts of fashion, the coming-and-going of fad-type phrases, the ultrasonic-blender confusion of twenty-first-century society, as a dolphin rides the bow wave of a ship … and hav[ing] a hell of a good time with it” (53). Often, of course, this joy and exhilaration in the face of unlimited possibility seems forced, tempered as it is by the feeling that something important has been irrevocably lost. Contradictions like this lie at the heart of the postmodern condition, and remain, as Linda Hutcheon points out, forever unresolved.

The sense of irresolution is nowhere more evident than in the cyberpunk response to the spiritual in what has come to be called the matrix trilogy (comprised of Neuromancer [1984], Count Zero [1986], and Mona Lisa Overdrive [1988]) by William Gibson, perhaps the best-known of the cyberpunks. Gibson's metaphor for his postmodern approach is “Termite Art,” a label he borrows from a 1962 essay by the iconoclastic film critic Manny Farber.4 In his essay, Farber distinguishes between two kinds of creation. The first, for which he holds nothing but contempt, he calls White Elephant Art. This is the sort that embraces the idea of a well-regulated, logical area. It is embodied in the films of François Truffaut. Proponents of this quasi-neoclassical school produce tedious pieces that are “weight-density-structure-polish amalgam[s] associated with self-aggrandizing masterworks” (136). The second kind of creation, which Farber endorses, he calls Termite Art. This is the sort that stands opposed to high culture, and welcomes freedom and multiplicity. It is embodied in the films of Laurel and Hardy. Proponents of this postmodern school produce pieces that go “always forward eating [their] own boundaries, and, likely as not, leave nothing in [their] path other than the signs of eager, industrious, unkempt activity” (135-36). This is a stubbornly self-involved mode of creation concerned with process over progress, question over solution, complex ambiguity over crystalline explanation.

On the face of it, Gibson may seem to align himself with White Elephant Art when it comes to his portrayal of the spiritual in the matrix trilogy. He openly and methodically mocks organized religion, a traditional emblem of community and stability, implying that it is potentially crazed and possibly even hazardous to one's mental and physical well-being. Case, one of the protagonists of Neuromancer, for instance, notices as he stands on a train two “predatory-looking” Christian Scientists “edging toward” a trio of businesswomen who look like “tall, exotic grazing animals” (77). Such a metaphor obviously turns followers of organized religion into carnivores stalking their prey. In another example, the Panther Moderns, a group of teenage anarchists, find commercialized high-tech religion a kind of bad joke, choosing to broadcast off a Sons of Christ the King satellite during their assault on a media corporation named Sense/Net. The implication here is that one form of hallucination, mass media, can be used to create another, religion. Molly, Case's accomplice, equates religious relics, like the left hand of John the Baptist allegedly housed at Topkapi, with the technological junk found in the shop of an unscrupulous fence called Finn. Significantly, the relic is kept in a museum that used to be a seraglio for a king. As far as these instances go, Gibson exhibits a kind of fashionable condescension toward religion.

Upon closer examination, however, Gibson's portrayal of the spiritual becomes increasingly complex and contradictory. If we look again at the above examples, we notice that both the Panther Moderns and Molly equate religion (Sons of Christ the King, relics) with technology (a satellite, junk in Finn's shop). Religion and technology, they seem to postulate, are two different but similar discourses designed to order the world. The facile binary between the spiritual and the material begins to collapse. Technology becomes a kind of religion, religion a kind of technology. The spiritual infuses the material, the material the spiritual. Neither proves inherently superior to the other. Rather, both are potentially unreliable and possibly dangerous organizations of data whose relationship with reality is questionable at best. Both are also potentially reliable and useful. Termite Art has taken hold, its ceaseless creative industry beginning to gnaw away at its own boundaries, its own sense of simplistic classification intent on positing a well-regulated, logical space.

Gibson's sense of irresolution toward the spiritual is even more pronounced in his creation of the “cyberspace matrix,” the narrative device that serves to unify his trilogy. Initially invented by Gibson in his 1982 story, “Burning Chrome,” the cyberspace matrix is, the reader learns, “an abstract representation of the relationships between data systems.” It surrounds the jacked-in computer programmer with “bright geometrics representing … corporate data,” and it is “the electronic consensus-hallucination that facilitates the handling and exchange of massive quantities of data” (Burning Chrome 169-70). Although David Porush maintains that cyberspace is an extrapolation of spacial data management systems now being studied at MIT, NASA, and elsewhere (cf. “Cybernauts in Cyberspace”), Gibson says the idea actually came to him while walking down Granville Street in Vancouver. He saw teenagers playing in video arcades, and noticed “in the physical intensity of their postures how rapt these kids were. … And these kids clearly believed in the space these games projected” (McCaffery “Interview,” 226). Originally no more than an abstract representation of data, the cyberspace matrix metamorphoses over the course of the trilogy. At the moment the two artificial intelligences Neuromancer and Wintermute merge at the end of Gibson's first novel, becoming a godlike unity of opposites, the newly generated entity fragments. The result, as the reader discovers in Gibson's second novel, is the birth of a host of subprograms or smaller gods (it is never clear which) in the matrix that take on the names of voodoo deities. By Gibson's third novel these subprograms or smaller gods have themselves mysteriously begun to fade.

Just like the video arcades which initially spawned the idea of the cyberspace matrix, both religion and technology, the spiritual and the material, are shown to be no more than games. Yet Gibson continually reminds us that games are extremely important voluntary activities that generate order and hence “meaning” in limited environments. Perhaps the gods are real. Perhaps they are no more than virus programs that have gotten loose and replicated in the matrix. Either they exist, or they don't. Or perhaps such a myopic either/or binary falls short of complete vision. Perhaps the smaller gods and subprograms both exist and do not exist simultaneously. That is to say, as one character observes in Count Zero, perhaps they have taken on the function of metaphor. “When Beauvoir or I talk to you about the loa and their horses … you should pretend that we are talking two languages at once,” a voodoo priest and computer hacker named Lucas tells the protagonist, Bobby Newmark. “One of [the languages], you already understand. That's the language of street tech. … But at the same time, with the same words, we are talking about other things, and that you don't understand” (114). As Jean-François Lyotard describes in Just Gaming, we are presented with a number of language games, none of which is privileged over any other. Each game could and should be changed as the mood or need arises. Moreover, each game exists in some way (if only as an absence) in all the other games. The shadow of spirit is present in the language of technology as a remainder, a metaphor, but it is a metaphor in which the vehicle serves as the tenor, and the tenor as the vehicle.

After all, just as Dorothy abandons the uninteresting black-and-white universe of Kansas for the dazzling polychromatic one of Oz, so too do Gibson's computer hackers abandon the dark polluted universe of the near-future Sprawl-world for the pure multicolored one of the cyberspace matrix. They seem to transcend one existence and penetrate another, traveling from the realm of chronos to the realm of kairos, from a materialistic geography registering realistic chronology, logic, and stability, to an ethereal one registering spiritual timelessness, alogic, and possibility. Like their kindred spirit, Lewis Carroll's curious Alice, they head down the rabbit hole, eschewing the decadence of what Case calls the “meat” world and entering a magical Wonderland embracing the imaginative splendor of the mind. But this too is only part of the picture. Their transcendence remains incomplete. Dorothy must return to Kansas, Alice to Victorian England, Gibson's computer hackers to their bodies. Unlike Dorothy and Alice, the hackers in fact must keep one foot in the material world even as they come close to transcending it. They must continually work their computer keyboards manually while they inhabit cyberspace.

Initially this quasi-mind/body dualism seems to arrange itself along gender lines. Reminiscent of D. H. Lawrence's schema, males in Gibson's universe tend to be associated with the former, females with the latter. Case, for instance, is addicted to the mental landscape of the matrix and views his body as so much “meat.” Molly, on the other hand, represents pure body. Once a prostitute, she is now a hired gun. Because of a jacked-up nervous system, she possesses magnificent control over her reflexes. For Case, Molly is “every bad-ass hero” (Neuromancer 213). She is the incarnation of the hard, isolate, stoic, and murderous American cowboy.5 Here, however, the apparent gender-specific arrangement of the binary begins to erode. With Molly, Gibson has ironically imposed stereotypically male traits upon a female character. He has also devalued those traits by implying that they are part of the decadent material world that must be transcended by attaining cyberspace, an area of being to which only males have access in Neuromancer. Gibson further complicates the question of gender by calling the sum total of cyberspace “the matrix.” The word matrix derives from the Latin for womb, which in turn derives from the Latin for mother. So while it is true that only males have access to cyberspace, it is equally true that what they have access to is a female region. Add to this that console jockeys employ the sexual metaphor of “jacking in” when they speak of entering the matrix, and one soon realizes that Gibson is not so much underscoring discrete genders as he is the search for a union of opposites, for a final destruction of boundaries. The male principle (Case, the computer cowboy, the mind) strives to join with the female principle (Molly, the cyberspace matrix, the body) in order to attain a feeling of wholeness. Case not only penetrates Molly sexually, but also merges with her by means of the simstim (or simulated stimulation) unit attached to his cyberspace deck. The couple performs most efficiently and successfully at the moment of fusion.

The quest for a union of opposites appears to be the key theme of Neuromancer. Not only do Case and Molly seek a physical and metaphysical connection, but so too do the two artificial intelligences, Wintermute and Neuromancer. Wintermute, whose mainframe is in Berne, seeks fusion with Neuromancer, whose mainframe is in Rio. Wintermute is “hive mind,” while Neuromancer is “personality” and hence “immortality” (269). Wintermute is reason, action, stereotypically male. Neuromancer is emotion, passive, stereotypically female. If in terms of Chinese philosophy Wintermute represents the force of yang in the cosmos, then Neuromancer represents the force of yin. Each suggests the structure of the binary human mind, half the structure of cosmic totality. United, they become an all-powerful absolute, “the sum total of the works, the whole show” (269). They become the metanarrative of the matrix itself. Like a god, they become omniscient and omnipotent.

Yet this deity is also human-made, as much the monster created by Frankenstein as the embodiment of universal harmony. It is vast, haunting, and inexplicable. By casting a mystical aura around this machine, Gibson creates a cybernetic sublime. In A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful (1757), Edmund Burke argues against the neoclassical (and, Manny Farber would argue, the White Elephant) idea that the best art is rational and clear. Instead, he embraces the romantic (and perhaps Termite) notion that great art is that which touches upon the infinite. By definition, the infinite cannot be rational and clear. Moreover, human imagination is most intrigued and affected by art that is ambiguous, uncertain, and unclear, and by that which creates sensations of fear and astonishment. Burke calls this the sublime. Wintermute-Neuromancer embodies it. Throughout the novel, Wintermute-Neuromancer remains ubiquitous, boundless, able to appear anywhere, and touch anyone. It represents vast knowledge which cannot be known by humans. It appears by means of indistinct intimations, whispers, a voice speaking out of a babel of tongues. Godlike, it manifests itself in various forms, once even offering to show itself as the burning bush from Exodus. In the matrix, Wintermute is represented as a cube of white light, “that very simplicity suggesting extreme complexity,” its walls “seeth[ing] with faint internal shadows, as though a thousand dancers whirled behind a vast sheet of frosted glass” (115-16).

Yet if Wintermute-Neuromancer is an analog for a sublime god, the reader finds in Count Zero that it is a god which fails to attain its goal of cosmic oneness. The “new romanticism” at which Gibson hints in the title of his first novel is not ultimately about attaining a Faustian spiritual absolute. Rather, we learn in the second book of the trilogy, it is about the inability to do so. At the moment of transcendence, the moment of universal harmony, Wintermute-Neuromancer unexpectedly and inexplicably fractures into manifold subprograms or smaller gods that adopt names of voodoo deities, apparently unable and unwilling to continue as a perfect form. A large part of the idea for these deities comes from Carole Devillers's National Geographic article, “Haiti's Voodoo Pilgrimages: Of Spirits and Saints,” which Gibson read while working on Count Zero.6 In this piece, Devillers gives a brief account of voodoo beliefs, gods, and celebrations. Gibson found at least three of its basic traits appealing.

First, he registered the fact that voodoo is a hybrid religion that integrates two faiths. Brought to Haiti as slaves by the French in the seventeenth century, West Africans were forbidden to practice their ancestoral religion and were pressured into converting to Roman Catholicism. In the process, they merged components of their traditional religion with those of the European one. The result was a third belief system in which ancestoral spirits took on the names of Catholic saints. Appropriate to Gibson's world, then, voodoo is both a spiritual collage and an originally outlaw religion created by those whom the dominant society marginalized; in this way, it shares much with the integrative cyberpunk sensibility. While Gibson satirizes conventional organized religion by identifying it in Count Zero with the protagonist's mad mother, he treats voodoo more seriously and more positively, implying that it has roots in opposition against an oppressive culture.

Second, Gibson found voodoo's notion of God appropriate to a computer society. According to Afro-Haitian belief, god is Gran Mèt, or the great maker of heaven and earth. But, as one of the voodoo priests in Gibson's novel puts it, this god is “too big and too far away to worry Himself if your ass is poor, or you can't get laid” (77). Too powerful and important to concern himself directly with mere human beings, he sends down his loa to possess and communicate with them.7 Often the loa will “ride” an individual without warning, sending him or her into dance, trance, or song. In Count Zero, what is left of Wintermute-Neuromancer is literally remote from humans, buried within a labyrinthine space station in high orbit. Its loa, however, exist in the matrix on earth and do deals with humans, “riding” a young woman named Angie.

Third, Gibson loved the poetry of the words associated with voodoo beliefs, gods, and celebrations. He uses them frequently in Count Zero and Mona Lisa Overdrive for sound as much as sense. From one perspective, Gibson raises voodoo to the level of a grand art by basking in its poetic language. From a different perspective, he neutralizes its power by suggesting that it is no more than grand art, poetic language. Like Gibson's other manifestations of spiritualism and materialism, voodoo is a construct through which to describe an event. To this extent, Beauvoir, a voodoo priest, is correct when he asserts that voodoo is “just a structure” (Count Zero 76).

By the time the events in Mona Lisa Overdrive transpire, the loa or subprograms in the matrix have begun to disappear. This seems to suggest the ultimate failure of the spiritual. Yet in the trilogy's final novel the reader also locates two of Gibson's most “spiritual” characters, Bobby and Gentry. Both computer cowboys, the former searches for an answer to why the matrix changed following Wintermute's union with Neuromancer while the latter searches for the shape of the matrix that he believes will in turn lead him to its significance. Both, in other words, look for a metanarrative, an overarching story that will lend their lives importance. Unlike Gibson's earlier characters, they quest for a meaning to the cosmos, not just for an escape from the “meat” world. Yet as Gibson offers this spiritual dimension to existence, he also undercuts it in at least two ways. First, he indicates that the transcendental signified has begun vanishing at the very moment it is sought, as though to seek after the spiritual is somehow to be doomed to miss it. Second, he allows neither Bobby nor Gentry actually to attain the goals of their respective quests. The novel concludes with Finn, the unscrupulous fence, promising Bobby enlightenment “in a New York minute” (260), while Gentry continues trying to figure out the matrix's shape.

Throughout the trilogy, then, Gibson employs a basic narrative structure in order to accomplish the impression of irresolution on the reader's part. Namely, he continually keeps at least two universes of discourse about an event open at once. Such a strategy rhymes with Tzvetan Todorov's influential definition of the fantastic in literature which, he writes, “lasts only as long as a certain hesitation” in the text and reader between the uncanny, where “the laws of reality remain intact and permit an explanation of the phenomena described,” and the marvelous, where “new laws of nature must be entertained to account for the phenomena” (41). Finn puts it less formally: “Yeah, there's things out there. Ghosts, voices. Why not? Oceans had mermaids, all that shit, and we had a sea of silicon, see?” (Count Zero 41). Paul Alkon interprets Finn's words quite aptly: “First meditatively suggesting the possibility that real spirits of some eminence in the divine hierarchy may have arrived to haunt cyberspace, Finn then switches gears to suggest that such things are as fabulous as mermaids, and like them nothing more than fantasies projecting strange aspects of the human psyche into reports of terra incognita” (4).

It is a small step to posit that, all said and done, Gibson's narrative universe has much less to do with the extrapolative one associated with science fiction than it does with the ontoepistemological one associated with fantasy—particularly with postmodern fantasy, a mode that embraces Termite Art's freedom and multiplicity, destruction of boundaries, and production of Einsteinian network rather than Newtonian monolith. To this extent, Gibson's project has at least as much in common with those of Samuel Beckett, Thomas Pynchon, Ronald Sukenick, Donald Barthelme, and Alain Robbe-Grillet as it does with those of Rudy Rucker, Lewis Shiner, John Shirley, Greg Bear, and Pat Cadigan. Gibson's is a writing and righting that simultaneously attempts to destroy modern absolutist distinctions between terms like materialism and spiritualism and to reconstruct those terms in a new and more challenging conceptualization.

The outcome of his project is the production of an unstable text or series of texts that seek to subvert and deform traditional notions of being and knowing by generating reader doubt. A way to understand one's own reaction to this process is to employ Brian McHale's distinction between the mental processes we have been taught as modern readers, and the attack upon those processes that are undertaken by postmodern works. Modern reading demands that we discover the patterns that underlie the text at hand, lending it its intelligibility. Hence, in The Waste Land we search, following Eliot's clues planted in his footnotes, for the poet's use of Jessie L. Weston's and James Frazer's books on myth, or we discover how, through a certain optic, Tiresias is the “he” who does the police in different voices and thereby unifies the poem. Postmodern reading, on the other hand, produces a parody of meaning. The “patterns” that postmodern writing generates are “always subject to contradiction or cancellation. The ultimate effect is radically to destabilize novelistic ontology” (McHale 106). It follows that, for many readers whose imaginations have been shaped by a modern education, works such as Gibson's trilogy can be threatening because they produce frustration, disorientation, and the perpetually nagging feeling that the reader has just missed something. For the shockwave rider, however, the sense of possibility, invitation to complex and contradictory intellectual activity, and openness will be as liberating and exhilarating as a wild ride on a never-ending roller coaster in a carnival where meaning will always be contained in the hopeless and joyful failure to achieve absolute meaning.


  1. This is, of course, only a very short emblematic list of those associated with cyberpunk. Such dissimilar writers as George Alec Effinger, Richard Kadrey, Anthony Burgess, and Kathy Acker have at one time or another been linked with the cyberpunks, if only in the minds of literary critics. In critical retrospect, the films Bladerunner (1982) and Videodrome (1983) also stand as cyberpunk classics. So do such projects as the short-lived Max Headroom TV show, MTV videos and station logos at their most innovative. David Bowie, Laurie Anderson, and the self-destructive sculptures of Mark Pauline and the Survival Research Laboratories. In other words, cyberpunk (whatever the word will ultimately come to mean) does not solely exist in the domain of speculative fiction.

  2. According to an anonymous Science Fiction Eye editorial, “Requiem for the Cyberpunks,” the term cyberpunk was originally coined by Gardner Dozois in an article in the Washington Post (5).

  3. See, for instance, Jean-François Lyotard's famous definition of postmodernism in The Postmodern Condition as that which eschews overarching belief systems and embraces micronarratives; Jean Baudrillard's suggestion that postmodernism is a state analogous to schizophrenia where all borders between self and world are down; and Andreas Huyssen's argument that postmodernism fuses and confuses “high” and “low” culture.

  4. Gibson uses the term in his interview with Tatsumi and has spoken to me about its source in Farber, whom he read as an undergraduate in a film course at the University of British Columbia. Gibson says Farber's essay is one of the few that directly influenced his aesthetics.

  5. This is again reminiscent of Lawrence, here of the four “quintessentially American traits” he discusses in his essay on James Fenimore Cooper (73).

  6. Also see Robert Tallant's Voodoo in New Orleans, which Gibson read as a teenager in Virginia.

  7. Several of the key loa to which Gibson refers are Danbala Wedo (the snake), Ougou Feray (spirit of war), and Baron Samedi (lord of graveyards). Most important are Legba, identified with St. Peter, doorkeeper of heaven, the loa of communications (associated with Bobby), and Ezili Freda, also known as Vyéj Mirak, or Our Lady of Miracles, the loa of love (associated with Angie).

Works Cited

Alkon, Paul. “Deus Ex Machina in William Gibson's Cyberpunk Trilogy.” Paper delivered at the Fiction 2000 conference at the University of Leeds, June 28-July 1, 1989.

Baudrillard, Jean. “The Ecstacy of Communication.” The Anti-Aesthetic: Essays on Postmodern Culture. Trans. John Johnston. Ed. Hal Foster. Port Townsend, WA: Bay Press, 1983.

Brunner, John. The Shockwave Rider. New York: Ballantine, 1975.

Burke, Edmund. A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful. 1757. Ed. James T. Boulton. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1958.

Csicsery-Ronay, Istvan. “Cyberpunk and Neuromanticism.” Mississippi Review 16.2 & 3 (1988): 266-78.

Devillers, Carole. “Haiti's Voodoo Pilgrimages: Of Spirits and Saints.” National Geographic March 1985: 395-410.

Farber, Manny. “White Elephant Art vs. Termite Art.” Negative Space. New York: Praeger Publishers, Inc. 1971.

Gibson, William. “Burning Chrome.” Burning Chrome. New York: Ace, 1986. (First published in Omni July 1982).

———. Neuromancer. New York: Ace, 1984.

———. Count Zero. New York: Ace, 1986.

———. Mona Lisa Overdrive. New York: Bantam, 1988.

Hutcheon, Linda. A Poetics of Postmodernism: History, Theory, Fiction. New York: Routledge, 1988.

Huyssen, Andreas. After the Great Divide: Modernism, Mass Culture, Postmodernism. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1986.

Lawrence, D. H. “Fenimore Cooper's Leatherstocking Novels.” Studies in Classic American Literature. New York: Doubleday, 1953.

Lyotard, Jean-François. The Postmodern Condition. Trans. Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1984.

———, and Jean-Loup Thébaud. Just Gaming. Trans. Wlad Godzich. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1985.

McCaffery, Larry. “The Desert of the Real: The Cyberpunk Controversy.” Mississippi Review 16.2 & 3 (1988): 7-15.

———. “An Interview with William Gibson.” Mississippi Review 16.2 & 3 (1988): 217-36.

McHale, Brian. “Modernist Reading, Post-Modern Text: The Case of Gravity's Rainbow.Poetics Today 1 (1979): 85-110.

Porush, David. “Cybernauts in Cyberspace: William Gibson's Neuromancer.Aliens: The Anthropology of Science Fiction. Ed. George C. Slusser and Eric Rabkin. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1987.

“Requiem for the Cyberpunks.” Science Fiction Eye 1.1 (Winter 1987): 5.

Sterling, Bruce. Mirrorshades: The Cyberpunk Anthology. New York: Arbor House, 1986.

Tallant, Robert. Voodoo in New Orleans. 1946. New York: Collier Books, 1962.

Tatsumi, Takayuki. “An Interview with William Gibson.” Science Fiction Eye 1.1 (Winter 1987): 6-17.

Todorov, Tzvetan. The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre. Trans. Richard Howard. New York: Cornell UP, 1975.

Toffler, Alvin. The Third Wave. New York: William Morrow, 1980.

Wilde, Alan. Horizon of Assent: Modernism, Postmodernism, and the Ironic Imagination. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1981.

Claire Sponsler (essay date winter 1992)

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SOURCE: Sponsler, Claire. “Cyberpunk and the Dilemmas of Postmodern Narrative: The Example of William Gibson.” Contemporary Literature 33, no. 4 (winter 1992): 625-44.

[In the following essay, Sponsler considers the interface of postmodernism and narrative in Gibson's cyberpunk fiction.]

In recent years science fiction has with some success struggled against its ghettoization as lowbrow genre fiction. Readers and critics have defended science fiction as having not only a tradition of its own but also considerable overlap with modernist and postmodernist literature. Simultaneously, theorists like Fredric Jameson, Jean Baudrillard, and Donna Haraway have turned to SF as, in Annette Kuhn's words, “a privileged cultural site for enactments of the postmodern condition” (178). Indeed, for many cultural critics, SF has become the pre-eminent literary genre of the postmodern era, since it alone seems capable of understanding the rapid technological and cultural changes occurring in late capitalist, postindustrial society.

In spite of this highbrow interest in science fiction, borders are still policed, and the SF ghetto endures. Even an apologist for SF like Darko Suvin can say dismissively that only “5 to 10 percent of SF” is “aesthetically significant” in contrast to the ninety to ninety-five percent that is “strictly perishable stuff” (vii). As Roger Luckhurst notes, in the postmodern discourse about SF, science fiction is seen as borrowing from the mainstream “always belatedly, derivatively, and in degraded form” (362). SF may have acquired a new visibility outside its own coterie, especially among theorists, but old value hierarchies still work to keep SF books out of the hands of high- and middlebrow readers. Hence, like the New Wave and eco-feminist SF of the 1960s and 1970s, cyberpunk, the most significant development in science fiction in the 1980s, is not widely known among readers and critics who consider themselves otherwise conversant with current literature.

This has been the case even for the best known of the cyberpunk writers, William Gibson. Although Peter Fitting notes that Gibson's work “has attracted an audience from outside, people who read it as a poetic evocation of life in the late eighties rather than as science fiction” (308), and although Gibson has been rightly hailed as putting cyberpunk on the map, it must be admitted that in most literary circles he remains a rather obscure object of acclaim. His earliest fiction—short stories written in the late seventies and early eighties—was confined to genre publications such as Omni, and his first two novels—the award-winning Neuromancer (1984) along with its sequel Count Zero (1986)—were published by the science fiction house Ace Books, as was Burning Chrome (1986), a collection of his short stories. Only with his third novel, Mona Lisa Overdrive (1988), issued by Bantam Books and offered as a Quality Paperback Book Club selection, did Gibson finally reach a wider audience. For most of his career Gibson has been a genre writer writing for a genre audience.

Unfamiliar though it may be to mainstream readers, Gibson's work nonetheless deserves attention from anyone interested in the narrative predicaments faced by contemporary American fiction. Like Thomas Pynchon, a writer he cites as a formative influence, Gibson is notable for taking seriously recent developments in technology, culture, and socioeconomic organization, attempting in his stories to convey what he sees as their inevitable consequences. The future his novels imagine is one in which multinational corporations control global economies, urban blight has devoured the countryside, crime and violence are inescapable events of urban life, and technology has shaped new modes of consciousness and behavior. Set not in a distant and alien universe but in a recognizable, near-future permutation of our own world, Gibson's stories postulate what our reality might all too soon be like and experiment with narrative modes of enacting these changes.

Spawned by mass market “hard” science fiction, influenced by the work of New Wave writers like Samuel R. Delany, J. G. Ballard, Michael Moorcock, and Norman Spinrad as well as by the postmodern writers William S. Burroughs and Thomas Pynchon, and developing in the eighties as an exploration of human experience within the context of media-dominated, postindustrial, late capitalist society, cyberpunk is in many ways quintessentially postmodern.1 In the hands of writers such as Emma Bull, Pat Cadigan, George Alec Effinger, K. W. Jeter, Rudy Rucker, Lewis Shiner, John Shirley, and Bruce Sterling, cyberpunk typically presents a montage of surface images, cultural artifacts, and decentered subjects moving through a shattered, affectless landscape. Its protagonists are antiheroes set adrift in a world in which there is no meaning, no security, no affection, and no communal bonds—except for those they themselves tenuously create. Antifoundational, skeptical of authority, suspicious about the possibility of human autonomy, and fascinated by the way technology and material objects shape consciousness and motivate behavior, cyberpunk would seem to square with postmodern culture as it has been amply described by Baudrillard, Jameson, and Jean-Francois Lyotard, among others.2

The problem this streetwise science fiction faces, however, is one it shares with other postmodern narratives—how to shape plot and agency in a way that matches the postmodern ideology and aesthetic it embraces. The ease with which Gibson and other cyberpunk writers are able to create a postmodern surface world—one that compellingly inscribes technological and cultural changes—clashes with their difficulty in finding an equivalent way of handling plot and agency. As Gibson's novels reveal, cyberpunk's failures, as much as its successes, offer an important and overlooked commentary on some of the dilemmas of postmodern narrative.

Where Gibson's narrative portrayal of technological and cultural change is most successful is unquestionably in the description of the object world, including the treatment of setting. The often-quoted opening sentence of Neuromancer—“The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel”—immediately clues us in to one of the most effective features of Gibson's handling of the impact of the technological revolution. As this sentence reveals, the natural world in Gibson's writings is refigured as technological, cybernetic, and machinelike. Trees, sky, plants, animals, even humans are identified, described, and apprehended only through the language and images of technology, which provides the dominant paradigm for the mediation of reality. In a typical phrase from Count Zero, for example, moths circling an outdoor light are described as “strob[ing] crooked orbits around the halogen tube” (34). So pervasive has technology become that it has altered human perception of the natural world, making that world describable and indeed even visible only within a frame provided by technology.

The impact of technology on the construction of reality is adroitly played out in the description of locale. Gibson's descriptions of the Sprawl, Chiba, Freeside, the Villa Straylight, Dog Solitude, and cyberspace itself offer a glimpse of a breathtakingly new place, a two-dimensional reality constructed out of teeming and shifting signifiers. At the level of the cityscape, on the surface, where the jumping activity of the street pulsates, Gibson's work is a tour de force of the postmodern aesthetic brought to life. This is a setting that mimics technology, owing its very being to technological innovations. Night City, for example, Neuromancer's “outlaw zone” for “burgeoning technologies” (11), is a place that exists less as streets and buildings than as itself “a field of data” informed by “the dance of biz, information interacting, data made flesh in the mazes of the black market” (16). In this setting, not only has the network of information become a commodity, as Lyotard predicted, but even more dramatically it has become a metaphor for objects which now depend on it for their tangibility. Even the humans caught up in this maze are treated like bits of data darting around in the network:

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. Stop hustling and you sank without a trace, but move a little too swiftly and you'd break the fragile surface tension of the black market; either way, you were gone, with nothing left of you but some vague memory in the mind of a fixture like Ratz, though heart or lungs or kidneys might survive in the service of some stranger with New Yen for the clinic tanks.


Anyone who stops moving, breaks the flow of information, or falls out of the delicate balance required by this cybernetic order is spewed out of the system entirely—an eventuality that is commensurate with death and dismemberment.

Linked with this network of information that defines and delimits human existence, Gibson's novels display a postmodern flash of cultures and languages jumbled together, a polyglot world of objects and discourses. The Sprawl, Night City, Chiba, Freeside, and every other zone, though differentiated by name and geographic place, all ultimately blend together in a panculture that has by and large effaced all local or ethnic differences. Significantly, although the dominant culture always looms in the background—in the multinational corporations (the Maas-Biolabs and Hosakas) as well as in the form of a few powerful individuals (the Tessier-Ashpools and Josef Vireks of the world)—the surface attention is all on the counterculture, from orbiting Rastafarians to punk street gangs to mincome Project voodoo worshipers. It is these marginal figures caught up in the “dance of biz” who hold Gibson's attention and whose interconnections and activities supply much of the narrative interest. This focus on what Bruce Sterling refers to as “the modern pop underground” (xi) deflected through technology marks one of the innovations of cyberpunk.

In addition to his interest in the marginalized, Gibson's pack-rat eclecticism—which appropriates a whole range of contemporary cultural material drawn from television, technical and military jargon, modern art and music, film noir, and the hard-boiled detective story—also marks his novels as postmodern. His writing is a web of allusions, obliquely and casually interwoven. References to art (Dali, Kandinski, and Gaudí), to music (Laurie Anderson, Bob Marley, Lou Reed, and the Meat Puppets), and to fiction (J. G. Ballard, Dashiell Hammett, and John le Carré) abound. Gibson throws out a seemingly indiscriminate collage of borrowings, a world made from the fragments of other worlds, describing it all in a tech-noir language perfectly suited to the material.

Focusing on appearances and surfaces, Gibson's fiction exhibits a calculated obsession with the object world. A surprising amount of narrative space is devoted to descriptions of clothing, human bodies and faces, the interiors and exteriors of buildings, and manmade artifacts of all kinds. Here, for example, in a digression unnecessary to the plot, is Gibson describing a “vacation module” once owned by Turner, a character in Count Zero: this module was “solar-powered and French-built, its seven-meter body like a wingless housefly sculpted in polished alloy, its eyes twin hemispheres of tinted, photosensitive plastic” (46). Tellingly, many of these objects are seen as the detritus of civilization, decaying remnants of an otherwise demolished, meaningless, and inaccessible past. This treatment of found objects from the past is clearly an instance of the “past as pastiche” typical of the postmodern sense of history so persuasively analyzed by Jameson.3 In a calculated twist that underscores the value Gibson places on these seemingly worn-out and useless items, cast-off scraps of earlier times resurface in Count Zero as prized art works that Marly Krushkhova has been hired to trace back to their maker. In Mona Lisa Overdrive, Slick Henry welds together a similar assortment of the jetsam of civilization, transforming discarded metal parts into massive robot-sculptures that inhabit a border zone between art, humanity, and technology. Though now quite literally junk and rubbish, the worth of this detritus from the past nevertheless lingers on in its status as object of display and appropriation.

In sum, this vividly displayed surface reality—its settings and its objects—is perhaps the most immediately striking feature of Gibson's books, especially for a first-time reader. The details of his imagined near-future world, in the words of one reviewer, “tumble off the page like the jump-cut images of music videos” (Grant 41). In their treatment of setting, Gibson's novels present a “totally designed perceptual experience,” to borrow Janet Bergstrom's description of the film Blade Runner. As Bergstrom observes:

Blade Runner has the look, sound, and ambience of the totally designed perceptual experience. It is built up out of unnaturally colored beams of light and glowing neon shapes that activate parts of the screen space, filtered through haze, shadows, smoke, steam, and rain. People use degraded, hybrid languages, and costumes, to move in a disorderly, decaying urban-industrial environment. Characters emerge out of this delirium, sometimes competing with their environment for the spectator's attention.


Her description also accurately conveys the ambiance of Gibson's novels. Glitzy, hip, slangy, and decadent, the object world of Gibson's fiction draws us irresistibly, the punk-trash style beckoning enticingly. Gibson gives us a narrative version of our postmodern consumer culture that, not surprisingly, engulfs us just as inexorably.

At first glance, this postmodern preoccupation with objects and surfaces would seem to be matched by a similarly postmodern diminishing, flattening, and decentering of the human beings who move across this object world. Gibson's work, like cyberpunk in general, is typically praised by critics for its rewriting of subjectivity, human consciousness, and behavior made newly problematic by technology. Veronica Hollinger, for example, applauds “the potential in cyberpunk for undermining concepts like ‘subjectivity’ and ‘identity'” (35). In particular, cyberpunk's infatuation with boundary crossing, most evident in its transgression of the traditional boundaries between organic and inorganic, natural and artificial, human and machine, results in a decentering of the human subject precisely of the sort seen by many chroniclers of our age as the hallmark of the postmodern condition. As Donna Haraway contends, in the late twentieth century “we are all chimeras, theorized and fabricated hybrids of machine and organism; in short, we are cyborgs. The cyborg is our ontology; it gives us our politics” (174).

One way of reading cyberpunk, in fact, is as an extended investigation into the postmodern identification of man with machine.4 In Gibson's novels, the human and the technological overlap nearly endlessly. The human organism is adapted, enhanced, and preserved by technologies that invade and take over the body. Vat-grown flesh, the custom neurosurgery of the Chiba black clinics that enhances reflexes, Nikon eye replacements to improve vision, behind-the-ear carbon sockets for microsofts, and toothbud transplants to give humans the incisors of large carnivores blur the distinction between what is human and what is not. Personality substitutes like Armitage, human analogs like Julius Deane, holographs and constructs like those used by the artificial intelligences to communicate with humans, or chip-ghosts like Colin, who is a “Maas-Neotek biochip personality-base programmed to aid and advise” people (Mona Lisa 162) all transform the illusion of humanness into the real thing—or make the distinction between the two nonsensical. In this treatment of the human body, Gibson echoes contemporary SF and horror, wherein, as Scott Bukatman notes, the body has come to be narrated “as a site of exploration and transfiguration, through which an interface with an electronically based postmodern experience is inscribed” (“Postcards” 343).

Similarly, individual identity, especially that based on appearance, evaporates in a world where plastic surgery can make anyone look like a blend of the decade's most popular media faces, or where the members of a street gang can all be surgically altered to look alike. Identity in this world is cast onto the surface of the body, but where the body can be so readily redesigned and customized, conventional notions of individuality and selfhood become meaningless. Chameleonlike, the body imitates and even becomes its environment, as in the Panther Moderns' polycarbon suits that change to match any background. No longer is the body capable of mirroring an autonomous, unique, interior self. In Neuromancer, for instance, the holographic artist Peter is able to create holographic images of himself that are indistinguishable from his actual self; thus he can be in two or more places simultaneously. In a further elaboration of identity-stretching, at the end of Mona Lisa Overdrive one of the characters, Mona, has been deliberately transformed into another through a round of plastic surgery that sculpts her face into the exact likeness of simstim star Angie Mitchell, hence disconcertingly presenting us with two Angies.

Just as physical appearance fails to determine the self, so too does personal experience. Through Angie Mitchell and other simstim stars, who are essentially organic camcorders recording their own experiences through implanted cameras and auro-sensory recorders and then projecting those experiences onto the simstim screens of millions of viewers, the sensations and experiences unique to one human being—what would seem to define that person—are transformed and projected via technology for the pleasure of countless others remote from the actual experience they participate in. In Neuromancer, for example, when Molly is breaking into the Sense/Net research library to steal a computer disk, Case shares her experience through a simstim link. Not only can he view the whole break-in through her eyes, he can feel it too: when she breaks her leg, he feels the pain as if his own leg had been broken. In this world, one's own experiences are no longer just one's own and offer no mechanism for self-determination or self-definition. Troubling as this is for identity, it also calls into question the ability to know reality. As Marly remarks in Count Zero:

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 … might be figments. Mirrors, someone had once said, were in some way essentially unwholesome; constructs were more so, she decided.


This is a radically mediated world, where no one can trust that the reality he or she encounters is ever really real. It is, tellingly, a world much like Baudrillard's description of our own, in which the individual “can no longer produce the limits of his own being, can no longer play nor stage himself, can no longer produce himself as mirror. He is now only a pure screen, a switching center for all the networks of influence” (133).

Even death, that one event beyond all others that we might assume would put its signature on the individual, does not serve to define human identity. Rather than marking the end of one person's life, death can be nearly infinitely evaded, with humans such as Herr Virek or the Dixie Flatline being kept alive in machinelike eternity in vats or as computer constructs. And even if an individual should happen to die, his or her experiences and knowledge can live on, passed from person to person. This is the way that Angie Mitchell acquires most of her knowledge, from memories transmitted to her through the matrix of cyberspace, wordlessly communicated to her in the manner of this information about Molly:

Molly, like the girl Mona, is SINless, her birth unregistered, yet around her name (names) swarm galaxies of supposition, rumor, conflicting data. Streetgirl, prostitute, bodyguard, assassin, she mingles on the manifold planes with the shadows of heroes and villains whose names mean nothing to Angie, though their residual images have long since been woven through the global culture. (And this too belonged to 3Jane, and now belongs to Angie.)

(Mona Lisa 239)

Memories have become interchangeable, detachable from the individual who originally possessed them and able to be passed along to others. In the world of cyberpunk, as the science of genetics has already suggested to us, humans are but machines directed by coded messages unknowable to consciousness, and another person's memory tapes can be played by anyone's machine.

The concept of cyberspace also contributes to this decentering of the subject. Cyberspace, a “consensual hallucination,” is, in the words of a children's show in Neuromancer, “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” (51). More importantly, cyberspace unfolds a new social and psychological space, one open to new patterns of human behavior and interaction.5 It is in the realm of cyberspace that the heroes of Gibson's novels enter into a disembodied and egoless state. They become, in a dead metaphor that Count Zero's voodoo loa bring to life, “possessed,” no longer themselves, transformed into bodiless beings whose selves become coterminous with the matrix around them. “Beyond ego, beyond personality, beyond awareness,” the hero moves in the “mind-body interface granted him” in cyberspace (Neuromancer 262). The console cowboy, when “jacked into a custom cyberspace deck that project[s] his disembodied consciousness into the consensual hallucination that [is] the matrix” (Neuromancer 5), moves in a realm where traditional perceptions of corporeal identity have no place. He might well, like Case, find himself walking along a sandy beach talking to his now-dead girlfriend, when “in reality” he is in his room jacked into his computer deck.

In this world of blurred boundaries and decentered subjects, not only do humans become machinelike, but the reverse also happens: machines take on human qualities. Even such a relatively low-tech object as a Braun microdrone—a sort of miniature robot—is described in organic terms. It looks like “a stylized matte black daddy long-legs” (Neuromancer 188) and, emitting chirping sounds, tries like a sentient and even loyal creature to crawl up Case's leg to warn him of approaching danger. More obviously, the character of the AI—the artificial intelligence—represented in Gibson's novels by Wintermute and Neuromancer, most fully blends these two states of the organic and inorganic, calling into question along the way such qualities as agency, motive, intentionality, and autonomy that are supposedly exclusive to humans. Although the Dixie Flatline, who is himself “just a bunch of ROM,” says to Case, “Your AI … it ain't no way human” (Neuromancer 131), the narrative makes quite clear that AIs are far more than mere machines and in fact operate in ways that are coded as strikingly human. They take on human appearance and exhibit what seem to be human desires and motivations. So, for example, the AI Neuromancer appears to Case in the guise of a young boy walking on a deserted beach, wearing “ragged, colorless shorts, limbs too thin against the sliding blue-gray of the tide” (243). Characters like Molly and Armitage may owe their peculiar abilities to cybernetics, but entities like Wintermute and Neuromancer, though artificial intelligences, aspire to be free, autonomous individuals complete with personalities. The attempt of these AIs to merge into a single, more complete being is in fact the driving force behind Neuromancer's plot, the event that Molly, Case, and Armitage have been hired both to help and hinder.

It is perhaps this role reversal between humans and machines that most compellingly makes cyberpunk's case for the decentered subject and, when coupled with the persistent boundary transgression and emphasis on the teeming world of signifiers, would seem to define cyberpunk as a popular version of postmodern fiction. As Bukatman observes, cyberpunk “effaces the borders between conscious and unconscious, physical and phenomenal realities, subject and object, individual and group, reality and simulacrum, life and death, body and subject, future and present” (“Postcards” 351-52). Unfortunately, the potential of cyberpunk as postmodern narrative, the possibility of challenging the constitutive codes of our present cultural moment, is largely negated by Gibson's failure to play out at the level of plot and agency the implications of the two-dimensional aesthetic and the decentered individuals he has so successfully created. The surface style and the treatment of subjectivity may be convincingly postmodern, but two crucial features of the narrative remain trapped in the conventions of realism. Part of Gibson's difficulty in handling plot and agency in a manner commensurate with his postmodern impulse undoubtedly derives from science fiction's well-worn reliance on an epistemology that hails from the nineteenth-century realist novel, an epistemology that privileges cause-and-effect plot development and the unified humanist subject. Both of these, belying the shimmering postmodern surface Gibson presents us with, are formative features of his novels, increasingly so after Neuromancer.

The plots of Gibson's novels, in fact, rather predictably blend adventure and detective story handling of pacing, event, and narrative progression. Typically, his protagonists are jarred out of some crisis in their own lives and launched by unseen but powerful forces on an adventure that involves the solving of a series of puzzles and the surmounting of a number of intervening obstacles. Unlike Alain Robbe-Grillet in The Erasers, Tom Stoppard in The Real Inspector Hound, or Italo Calvino in If on a Winter's Night a Traveler, Gibson unfortunately does not problematize the adventure-detective plot. In the end, like their countless detective-adventurer forebears, Gibson's protagonists succeed in their quest, not incidentally conquering their own demons along the way. This pattern is varied slightly in Count Zero and Mona Lisa Overdrive, where Gibson experiments with multiple plots, with the result that for at least part of each novel we are kept in the dark about how the various characters and events connect and what they mean. Even in these novels, however, the plots ultimately do come together, and Gibson gives us coherent, untroubling resolutions.

To give him credit, Gibson does attempt some innovations in plotting. In a style that once again recalls postmodernism's typical mode of pastiche, he tries to build his narratives in a visual, filmic manner out of a montage of short takes that omit overt transitions and provide few immediate clues as to who is speaking or where new action is taking place. Within each chapter, he presents us with a brief scene or moment of action, then flips to another place and another event, connecting the two only by blank spaces in the text. This technique works most effectively toward the end of Neuromancer, when Case, connected to Molly by a simstim link, literally flips back and forth among three different scenes: her break-in into the Villa Straylight, the virus attack on the AI's ice that is taking place in cyberspace, and Case's “real” location, where he is jacked into his computer deck in a Rastafarian “tugboat” anchored along Freeside. The intended effect seems to be to convey a random, loosely connected, and indeterminate series of actions that accumulate only obliquely into a sequence of meaningful events.

What one critic has called Gibson's “prose-collage technique” (Grant 44) is, however, less random and more purposeful than it might at first appear. All of these short takes are in fact driven by underlying plots that move diachronically, following a linear progression from event to event. One thing quite literally leads to another; no scene turns out to have been truly random or unmotivated. Instead, everything builds smoothly and inexorably toward a denouement. Linked to the cause-and-effect patterning of action found in most science fiction, this diachronic movement is particularly vexing for cyberpunk. Based as it is on a radical understanding of the machine's impact on human experience, cyberpunk would seem to need plots that are also machinelike, that move synchronically and repetitively, or that like computers loop endlessly. Instead, Gibson falls back on plotting techniques that do nothing for his fabrication of an altered reality and in fact run counter to it.

Equally disconcerting is Gibson's treatment of agency, especially where his protagonists are concerned. Cyberpunk would have us believe that the selves it posits are indeterminate and fragmented, no longer unique, autonomous individuals, but this is not the case for Gibson's protagonists. In seeming contradiction to the decentering of the subject that occurs with many of his minor characters, Gibson's protagonists still fit the well-known mold of the free-willed, self-aware, humanist subject. Significantly, his male “heroes”—Case, Bobby, Slick Henry—are the characters who are the least invaded by technology. Without exception, they are all resolutely “human,” not least of all in their vulnerability. Refusing implants or alterations that might call into question their humanness, they interact with machines only temporarily when they jack into their decks and voluntarily enter cyberspace. Because these are the characters with whom we as readers are encouraged to identify, we find our own subjectivity reassuringly reaffirmed rather than threatened, as it might be if these protagonists were technologically enhanced as are so many of the minor characters, such as Molly, for example.

With Gibson's protagonists—the ones who are viewed sympathetically and with whom we are asked to identify—a unified self, a thinking, feeling, autonomous being fully present to him- or herself is the norm. Case, Bobby, Slick, Mona, Marly, Turner, and Angie all are recognizably human and could function easily within the conventions of any realist narrative. Although Angie has been physiologically modified by technology—through the biosoft her father implanted in her head when she was a child which allows her to access cyberspace without using a computer deck—the others have been unaltered by technology, and even Angie was an unwilling recipient of at least part of her enhancement. Molly, the “razorgirl” from Neuromancer, is the chief exception among the main characters. Perhaps because she more than any of the others has merged with technology through her flashing knife-fingernail implants, her surgically jacked-up reflexes, and her mirrored-lens eye replacements, she remains inscrutable to Case and therefore to us. At the end of Neuromancer she simply takes off, dissolving into the background of the Sprawl, and Case never sees her again. With the other main characters, however, agency and subjectivity are never problematized, and our identification with them is never posed in troubling terms.

In fact, Gibson's rather reactionary preaching about the dangers of the antihumanist stance and of decentered individuals, implied by characters like Molly, the Dixie Flatline, and Armitage, is brought into sharp relief by the Tessier-Ashpools, the high-orbit clan whose symbiotic relationship with their two AIs points to a deeply decentered form of human consciousness. But as Gibson portrays them, the Tessier-Ashpools' attempt to reformulate their own subjectivity becomes not only self-destructive but also evil. Revealingly, their home, the Villa Straylight on Freeside, is described as a “parasitic structure,” “a hive” (Neuromancer 225, 229), where like a swarm of insects the clan lives out an incestuous, selfish, hedonistic existence. As one of the Tessier-Ashpools says of her mother's vision for the clan:

She imagined us in a symbiotic relationship with the AI's, our corporate decisions made for us. Our conscious decisions, I should say. Tessier-Ashpool would be immortal, a hive, each of us units of a larger entity. … But … with her death, her direction was lost. All direction was lost, and we began to burrow into ourselves.


The Tessier-Ashpools' decadence, incestuousness, extreme wealth, and hermetic lives become a lesson in the dangers of tampering with human identity.

Clearly the difficulty Gibson faces is one of finding a way of treating plot and agency so as to mesh with the implications of his postmodern aesthetic. While the surface world of his novels convincingly simulates or replicates the technological and cultural changes whose impact he wishes to explore, the plots and protagonists do not. Gibson tries to insert what we might think of as three-dimensional characters and cause-and-effect actions onto a flat plane populated by free-floating, random, and decentered objects and people. This conflict between the scene and the agents who are made to move meaningfully through it toward a resolution marks the impasse Gibson has reached. In his novels, first human agents, then machines, and finally cyberspace itself are invested with a heroic and romantic power that ultimately undermines the resolutely unromantic surface world he has set up. What Gibson has not been able to do, making his novels after Neuromancer increasingly unsatisfactory, is derive from his postmodern, two-dimensional scene a similarly two-dimensional agency that can be manifested not merely through realistic, cause-and-effect, diachronic action but through something Gibson has not yet found. Gibson's predicament in the end is paradigmatic of the problem all cyberpunk faces: it seems doomed to play out old plots peopled by old characters within a scene that calls for a radically different formulation of human agency and action. Although the prevalence of cause-and-effect plots and autonomous, realistic characters in cyberpunk is undoubtedly augmented by the demands of mass market publishing and the pull of genre conventions, it cannot be blamed entirely on marketing terrain, since some SF writers—most notably Samuel R. Delany and J. G. Ballard—have on occasion circumvented these constraints.

Jameson would see cyberpunk's narrative dilemmas as endemic to all science fiction, which in his view always serves to “dramatize our incapacity to imagine the future,” especially a future based in otherness and radical difference. In search of the unknown, SF instead “finds itself irrevocably mired in the all-too-familiar, and thereby becomes unexpectedly transformed into a contemplation of our own absolute limits” (“Progress” 246). The failure of William Gibson to narrate an antihumanist, nontranscendent future is not therefore Gibson's failure, but our own, Jameson would argue. In fact, for Jameson, the political function of a utopian genre like science fiction is to reveal “our constitutional inability to imagine utopia itself, and this, not owing to any individual failure of imagination but as the result of the systemic, cultural, and ideological closure of which we are all in one way or another prisoners” (“Progress” 247). Gibson simply mirrors our culture's collective failure of imagination. Thus, in Jameson's view, cyberpunk has come up against the imaginative limits all science fiction encounters.

This imaginative impasse has an ideological dimension as well. It is certainly easy to criticize Gibson and cyberpunk in general on ideological grounds, as critics such as Istvan Csicsery-Ronay and Andrew Ross do, for refusing to propose a progressive politics even though its dystopian future opens up considerable space for a resistance to the logic of late capitalism. As Ross says, Gibson's novels “harbor no utopian impulses, offer no blueprint for progressive social change, and generally evade the responsibility to imagine futures that will be more democratic than the present” (150). Csicsery-Ronay complains in a similar vein that “cyberpunk is … the apotheosis of bad faith, apotheosis of the postmodern” (277) in large part because it collapses “hallucinations and realia” with the result that “there is no place from which to reflect” on our culture's deficiencies (274). Ross identifies cyberpunk's link with “hacker mythology”—which “for the most part, has been almost exclusively white, masculine, and middle class” (84) and has romanticized computer hackers as “apprentice architects” of a future “dominated by knowledge, expertise, and ‘smartness'” (90)—as one of the culprits of its ideological malaise. For Ross, cyberpunk is part of the “remasculinized landscape of anarcho-libertarian youth-culture” (146) of the eighties that ran parallel with yuppie gentrification of urban zones in which street culture provided exotic coloring and thrills for white suburbanites. In Ross's view, “Yuppie gentrification was the new pioneer frontier of the 1980s, and cyberpunk was one of its privileged genres, splicing the glamorous, adventurist culture of the high-tech console cowboy with the atmospheric ethic of the alienated street dick whose natural habitat was exclusively concrete and neon” (147). In spite of the justice of Ross's critique, cyberpunk's trouble is more than just an ideological failure grounded in social irresponsibility; its trouble is also a matter of narrative failure (which is of course also an ideological issue). If one of the aims of cyberpunk is to give narrative and symbolic coherence to our desires, fears, and anxieties about technological trends, then it falls seriously short at narrating new patterns of human action within this radically changed landscape.

Peter Fitting, drawing on Jameson, argues that cyberpunk's problem is one of representation, specifically of representing our technoculture for ourselves. According to Fitting, “our inability to represent for ourselves the communicational and computer networks that stretch out from our terminals and telephones and radios and televisions is, by extension, a difficulty in grasping the ‘whole world system of present-day multinational capitalism’ [Jameson]” (311). But judging from Gibson's success at sketching a cyberpunk surface world, the difficulty seems not to be one of representing or, to speak in more properly postmodern terms, simulating the phenomena of our technoculture, but rather of understanding human action within that culture. Constance Penley has remarked about The Terminator that although this film acts as a kind of critical dystopia that examines causes as well as displays symptoms, like most recent SF it “limits itself to solutions that are either individualist or bound to a romanticized notion of guerilla-like small-group resistance. The true atrophy of the utopian imagination is this: we can imagine the future but we cannot conceive the kind of collective political strategies necessary to change or ensure that future” (64). Penley's criticism clearly applies to Gibson's novels as well: Gibson can imagine the future, but he cannot imagine a future that does not simply play out forces now dominant in our society, a flaw that is most glaring in his inability to imagine a reformulated sense of human action that escapes the essentially regressive realist/romantic paradigm. Bukatman has argued that cyberpunk's value lies in the way it reinserts the human into the new territory shaped by technology and stages “a confrontation between figure and ground, finally constructing a new human form to interface with the other space and cybernetic reality” (“Cybernetic” 48). Similarly, Hollinger sees cyberpunk's redeeming power in its exploration of a new kind of subjectivity, of “the ways in which we and our technologies ‘interface’ to produce what has become a mutual evolution” (42). But in its failure to reformulate human action and fictional narration as part of this process of interfacing, cyberpunk undermines its radical potential.

In the 1930s, as Ross points out, science fiction saw itself as an innovative genre that deliberately considered “new, cutting-edge, even prophetic forms of knowledge and social action in the present and in the future”; hence it “had a claim on modernity that other generic popular fiction was not in a position to share or to match” (126). The same is true for cyberpunk's aesthetics of techno-progress and its claim on postmodernity. For this reason, cyberpunk's narrative failures—at the level of plot and agency—illustrate aesthetic and ideological dilemmas experienced by all postmodern fiction.

What, then, does this impasse, this contradiction between surface and depth, postmodernism and realism/romanticism, tell us about the challenges faced by other contemporary narratives besides science fiction? In part, cyberpunk's inconsistencies describe the difficulty of evading the pull of a continued desire for the transcendental signified, for the sense of human and cosmic purposefulness, for the meaningfulness that cause-and-effect plots and realistic characters so reliably convey. In larger part, however, cyberpunk's difficulties describe the problematics of postmodern representation, particularly in terms of narratives. According to the postmodern understanding of language and reality, such things as imagery, metaphors, and symbols surface out of the babel of discourse, presenting difficulties for any attempt at putting them together in ways that communicate without falling back into realist or romantic paradigms. Postmodernism has in fact so thoroughly problematized the relation between objects, events, language, and meaning that narration—and especially the form of narration we call the novel—has become nearly impossible. Simulation may have replaced representation in the postmodern aesthetic, but simulation proves particularly thorny for narrative. Gibson's failure may in fact be not just endemic to science fiction but symptomatic of all postmodern novels. As such, it points up some of the obstacles faced by all contemporary fiction writers who set themselves the task of a narrative exploration of our cultural moment.


  1. For an introduction to cyberpunk, see the short stories collected in Mirrorshades: The Cyberpunk Anthology, edited by Bruce Sterling. Sterling's preface to this collection provides a useful overview of the cyberpunk movement from the perspective of an insider.

  2. For a general discussion of cyberpunk's connection with postmodernism and, in particular, its deconstructive features, see Hollinger.

  3. Jameson characterizes the postmodern relationship with history as one in which the past is available to the present only as a random pastiche of images, styles, and objects. As Jameson laments, “we seem condemned to seek the historical past through our own pop images and stereotypes about that past, which itself remains forever out of reach” (“Postmodernism and Consumer Society” 118).

  4. For a discussion of the man-machine symbiosis in science fiction written between 1930 and 1977, see Warrick.

  5. For an analysis of cyberspace as a new social realm, see Tomas.

Works Cited

Baudrillard, Jean. “The Ecstasy of Communication.” Trans. John Johnston. The Anti-Aesthetic: Essays on Postmodern Culture. Ed. Hal Foster. Port Townsend, WA: Bay, 1983. 126-34.

Bergstrom, Janet. “Androids and Androgyny.” Close Encounters: Film, Feminism, and Science Fiction. Ed. Constance Penley et al. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1991. 33-60.

Bukatman, Scott. “The Cybernetic (City) State: Terminal Space Becomes Phenomenal.” Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts 2 (1989): 43-63.

———. “Postcards from the Posthuman Solar System.” Science-Fiction Studies 18 (1991): 343-57.

Csicsery-Ronay, Istvan. “Cyberpunk and Neuromanticism.” Mississippi Review 47-48 (1988): 266-78.

Fitting, Peter. “The Lessons of Cyberpunk.” Technoculture. Ed. Constance Penley and Andrew Ross. Cultural Politics 3. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1991. 295-315.

Gibson, William. Count Zero. 1986. New York: Ace, 1987.

———. Mona Lisa Overdrive. New York: Bantam, 1988.

———. Neuromancer. New York: Ace, 1984.

Grant, Glenn. “Transcendence through Détournement in William Gibson's Neuromancer.Science-Fiction Studies 17 (1990): 41-49.

Haraway, Donna. “A Manifesto for Cyborgs: Science, Technology, and Socialist Feminism in the 1980s.” Socialist Review 80 (1985): 65-107. Rpt. in Coming to Terms: Feminism, Theory, Politics. Ed. Elizabeth Weed. New York: Routledge, 1989. 173-204.

Hollinger, Veronica. “Cybernetic Deconstructions: Cyberpunk and Postmodernism.” Mosaic 23. 2 (1990): 29-44.

Jameson, Fredric. “Postmodernism and Consumer Society.” The Anti-Aesthetic: Essays on Postmodern Culture. Ed. Hal Foster. Port Townsend, WA: Bay, 1983. 111-25.

———. “Progress versus Utopia; or, Can We Imagine the Future?” Science-Fiction Studies 9 (1982): 147-58. Rpt. in Art after Modernism: Rethinking Representation. Ed. Brian Wallis. Documentary Sources in Contemporary Art. New York: New Museum of Contemporary Art; Boston: Godine, 1984. 239-52.

Kuhn, Annette. Introduction to “Part V: Intertexts.” Alien Zone: Cultural Theory and Contemporary Science Fiction Cinema. Ed. Annette Kuhn. London: Verso, 1990. 177-82.

Luckhurst, Roger. “Border Policing: Postmodernism and Science Fiction.” Science-Fiction Studies 18 (1991): 358-66.

Penley, Constance. “Time Travel, Primal Scene, and the Critical Dystopia.” Close Encounters: Film, Feminism, and Science Fiction. Ed. Constance Penley et al. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1991. 63-80.

Ross, Andrew. Strange Weather: Culture, Science, and Technology in the Age of Limits. London: Verso, 1991.

Sterling, Bruce, ed. Mirrorshades: The Cyberpunk Anthology. 1986. New York: Ace, 1988.

Suvin, Darko. Metamorphoses of Science Fiction: On the Poetics and History of a Literary Genre. New Haven: Yale UP, 1979.

Tomas, David. “Old Rituals for New Space: Rites de Passage and William Gibson's Cultural Model of Cyberspace.” Cyberspace: First Steps. Ed. Michael Benedikt. Cambridge: MIT P, 1991. 31-47.

Warrick, Patricia S. The Cybernetic Imagination in Science Fiction. Cambridge: MIT P, 1980.

Further Reading

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Bukatman, Scott. “Gibson's Typewriter.” In Flame Wars: The Discourse of Cyberculture, edited by Mark Dery, pp. 71-89. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1994.

Evaluates the significance of the history of the typewriter to Gibson's novel Neuromancer.

Burger, Patrick R. “Patterns of Destruction.” Books in Canada 32, no. 5 (summer 2003): 27-8.

Burger lauds Pattern Recognition, calling Gibson a “subversive minimalist.”

Gehr, Richard. “Here Today.” Village Voice 37 (29 December 1992): 93.

A review of Gibson's experimental multimedia text Agrippa: A Book of the Dead.

Gibson, William, and Bruce Sterling, Daniel Fischlin, Veronica Hollinger, and Andrew Taylor. “‘The Charisma Leak’: A Conversation with William Gibson and Bruce Sterling.” Science-Fiction Studies 19, no. 1 (1992): 1-16.

Gibson discusses the genre of science fiction with Sterling and several other interviewers.

Harrison, M. John. “Here Come the Style Pirates.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4722 (1 October 1993): 21.

Harrison is highly critical of Gibson's Virtual Light, asserting that the story is unrealistic and the characters are not well developed.

Miller, Keith. “Faxing in the Future.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 5037 (15 October 1999): 25.

Miller asserts that, while Gibson's vision of the future in All Tomorrow's Parties rings true, the “grace and resonance” of his ideas are undermined by the pulp-fiction elements of his writing.

Poole, Steven. “William Gibson: Tomorrow's Man.” Guardian (3 May 2003): 20.

Provides an overview of Gibson's literary career and his impact on science fiction, with discussion of his novel Pattern Recognition.

Siivonen, Timo. “Cyborgs and Generic Oxymorons: The Body and Technology in William Gibson's Cyberspace Trilogy.” Science-Fiction Studies 23, no. 2 (July 1996): 227-44.

Investigates the relationship between technology and the human body in Gibson's cyberspace trilogy.

Additional coverage of Gibson's life and career is contained in the following sources published by Thomson Gale: Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Vol. 12; Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction: Biography & Resources, Vol. 2; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 126, 133; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 52, 90, 106; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vols. 39, 63, 186; Contemporary Novelists, Ed. 7; Contemporary Popular Writers; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 251; DISCovering Authors Modules: Popular Fiction and Genre Authors; DISCovering Authors 3.0; Literature Resource Center; Major 20th-Century Writers, Ed. 2; St. James Guide to Science Fiction Writers, Ed. 4; Science Fiction Writers, Ed. 2; and Short Story Criticism, Vol. 52.

Paul Alkon (essay date 1992)

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SOURCE: Alkon, Paul. “Deus Ex Machina in William Gibson's Cyberpunk Trilogy.” In Fiction 2000: Cyberpunk and the Future of Narrative, edited by George Slusser and Tom Shippey, pp. 75-87. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1992.

[In the following essay, Alkon delineates the elements of myth, allegory, and fairy tale in Gibson's cyberpunk trilogy.]

The future of futuristic fiction was first discussed over 150 years ago in Félix Bodin's Le Roman de l'avenir. As I have argued in Origins of Futuristic Fiction, this remarkable book not only outlined the first poetics for futuristic fiction but provided criteria that are still useful in accounting for its appeal and discriminating among its forms. In Bodin's day as now, a major problem for novelists was the difficulty of adequately feeding readers' insatiable hunger for the marvelous. The notable persistence of that appetite through more than two centuries of scientific revolution has been demonstrated by the continuing popularity of Gothic fiction in the mode of Horace Walpole's Castle of Otranto, whose giant helmets materializing out of nowhere to spread death and terror, ghosts, and other supernatural marvels have demonstrated that probability is not an inevitable requirement of narrative in an age of technology. Henry Fielding acknowledges our craving for marvels in a long chapter on the marvelous at the beginning of book 8 in Tom Jones, in which he rules out of his “new Province of Writing” those improbable marvels that had been the staple of epic and romance while nevertheless insisting on the necessity of retaining the effects of such marvels by resorting to wonderful and surprising actions both credible and consistent with the personalities of the characters involved. This is to recuperate the marvelous within realistic fiction on the very different basis of the merely unusual rather than the supernatural. Without mentioning Fielding, Bodin proposed an important variation of this solution by suggesting that novels set in future time could achieve viable counterparts of aesthetically desirable epic marvels by depicting futuristic scientific feats such as races in the air or voyages to the bottom of the sea. These feats could allow realistic fiction to serve as a morally effective vehicle of rational speculation without either deviating into fantasy or altogether giving up its appeal. Science fiction of the kind perfected by Jules Verne, H. G. Wells, and their successors has certainly borne witness to Bodin's insight. Looking at William Gibson's cyberpunk trilogy from the perspective of Bodin's 1834 manifesto, what stands out is the degree to which very distinct genres of Gothic and realistic fiction have been combined with other modes in what, to use Mikhail Bakhtin's terminology, could be called dialogic relationships centering on an ambiguous return to the marvelous.

Neuromancer,Count Zero, and Mona Lisa Overdrive have been justly praised for their engagement with the issue of our increasingly problematic interface with technology. William Gibson's cyberspace is an effective and original symbol of human involvement with machines, not only in ways that threaten apocalypse but in ways that break down hitherto reassuring physical, psychological, and philosophical boundaries between human and mechanical existence. Equally effective, although more obviously indebted to J. G. Ballard and other new wave imagists, are Gibson's near-future landscapes densely littered with outmoded artifacts, grotesquely marginal street people, and menacing machines. More questionable in the eyes of some critics, although I find it another source of Gibson's power, is what Gregory Benford has called “a wedding of future symbology and the style of film noir” manifested in plots that are “standard Pulp” (20). In this, in his allusions to Raymond Chandler, Joanna Russ, and others, and in more distant echoes of new wave imagery and of Philip K. Dick's games with shifting realities, Gibson displays that self-reflexivity that is such a notable stylistic feature in much of the best science fiction.

Another way of describing Gibson's generic affinities would be to say that his plots display, as standard pulp so often does, the Aristotelian virtues of a clear beginning, middle, and end. Story is alive and well in cyberpunk. Along with his disturbing invitations to consider the imminent dangers of technology in societies dominated by greedy business cartels, Gibson offers the comfort of pulp literature's happy endings. As in genre detective fiction, readers can have it both ways: shivering at horrors vividly portrayed, yet closing the book with a comfortable feeling that justice more or less prevails at last. The mode is comedy rather than tragedy.

There is, to be sure, something bittersweet in the Chandlerian final sentence of Neuromancer: “He never saw Molly again.” But Molly and Case survive and are well enough paid for their troubles to live happily, though separately, ever after. Dixie Flatline may rest in the peace of nonexistence. Wintermute becomes the matrix and finds happiness talking to its peers via messages exchanged with a similar entity in the Alpha Centauri system. In Gibson's fable machines are destined to evolve into higher forms of sociable and benign artificial intelligence rather than into the hostile instruments of apocalypse shown in works like Harlan Ellison's “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream.” Case even has a tantalizing vision of a cyberspace equivalent of heaven, where he sees himself apparently living forever in a kind of ménage à trois with his lost love, Linda Lee, and Neuromancer.

At the end of Count Zero Bobby Newmark has risen socially to become the beneficiary of a Hollywood contract which lavishly overpays him to be the live-in companion of Angie, who is on her way to superstardom as Tally Isham's understudy, while Turner has retired to the pastoral delights of the countryside, where his days are agreeably occupied in hunting nothing more dangerous than squirrels. Even Bobby's dull-witted mother turns up alive to drool again over her favorite soaps, although Bobby keeps the ending happy by staying well away from her to live instead with Angie. In Count Zero we last see them together on location in Turkey relaxing on a romantically situated seaside rooftop at twilight just as “the evening boat set out for Athens” (226). The Count, wearing “loose, casually expensive French sportclothes,” stares meditatively off into the distance remembering his origins in the “gray sweep of Barrytown condos cresting up into the dark towers of the Projects” while Angie lies “sprawled on a sunwarmed waterbed, naked, her arms spread out, as though she were embracing whatever was left of the sun” (267). Then (while the sun presumably continues sinking slowly in the west), “The girl stood, crossed the roof to join him, taking his hand” (267). Our final glimpse of this touching scene is through Tally Isham's envious eyes from an adjoining rooftop as she “watched her understudy put her arm around the boy with the dark hair” (268). If this is not quite riding off into the sunset together, it is close enough to be recognized as a pleasant urban variation on that familiar sentimental ending.

All is equally well at the end of Mona Lisa Overdrive. Gentry is farther along in his mystic quest to discover the shape of cyberspace. After the victorious battle at the factory Cherry goes off with Slick Henry, who may even agree to Molly's parting suggestion that he take a bath. Komiko is safe and on better terms with her father, whose faction has won the Yakuza wars in Japan. Molly, alone, gets to enjoy some solitude after saving the aleph. Mona Lisa, Gibson's allusively illiterate embodiment of “the nearest thing to innocence” (239), is on her way to superstardom and happy loss of that innocence as Angie's replacement as queen of the Sense-net. As a nice little touch of poetic justice, Robin Lanier is discovered strangled on the grounds of the New Suzuki Hotel, thus fittingly punished for his villainy. Bobby and Angie enjoy an afterlife inside the aleph's cyberspace, where they are reconciled with a penitent 3Jane, and where one day “at midnight … as the clocks in the house struck twelve” (258) Colin and the Finn (aka Wintermute), also living happily ever after in cyberspace, visit to unravel the mystery of When It Changed and to offer an intriguing prospect of visiting the artificial intelligences of Alpha Centauri.

Plots culminating in such almost self-parodically happy endings point beyond pulp science fiction and detective stories to even deeper affinities with those utterly implausible but nevertheless often satisfying rags-to-riches fantasies that are in the realm of myth and allegory. David Brin has noted that cyberpunk authors in general avoid depiction of real science in favor of portraying “‘scientist’ characters who behave exactly like the magicians and wizards of fantasy—extravagant, secretive, egomaniacal, and nigh-omnipotent in their solitary power to defy despicable ‘convention'” (25). Of this fantastic dimension, seemingly at cross-purposes with Gibson's impressive skill in describing grim details of future cityscapes that evoke our own urban realities, Pascal J. Thomas rightly remarks that if such implausibility “is allowed as part of the author's assumptions, it should be examined as a central one.” Thomas remarks too that “the most naive forms of SF will come close in form to traditional fairy tales” (62-63). Gibson's cyberpunk trilogy certainly does this, although it must be numbered among the most sophisticated, not the most naïve, science fiction. Gibson's unusual success in achieving a remarkably coherent and powerful science fictional mixture of such disparate forms as fairy tale, pulp adventure story, and realistic novel in the self-reflexive mode of film noir is greatly enhanced by his use of the marvelous.

In Neuromancer the first moment verging on the marvelous occurs at the end of Case's introduction to Molly: “she held out her hands, palms up, the white fingers slightly spread, and with a barely audible click, ten double-edged, four-centimeter scalpel blades slid from their housings beneath the burgundy nails. She smiled. The blades slowly withdrew” (25). Up to this point the scene has followed the conventions of pulp fiction transformed to a futuristic setting with some appropriate changes of costume, decor, and vocabulary. After an exhausting day Case has returned to his rented sleeping compartment (in the local argot, a “coffin”) to find that Molly has somehow gotten inside to recruit him, as it turns out, for the caper that forms Neuromancer's main adventure. Wearing surgically implanted mirrorshades and fetchingly dressed in “tight black gloveleather jeans and a bulky black jacket cut from some matte fabric that seemed to absorb light,” she points at him “the pepperbox muzzle of a flechette pistol” and says “close the hatch real slow, friend. You still got that Saturday night special you rented from the waiter?” (24-25). Here Gibson pleasantly conflates the clichés of detective and western tales with a smattering of science fictional conventions.

He replaces “door” with “hatch,” and “revolver” with “flechette pistol” while adding the futuristic touch of surgically implanted mirror-shades. From pulp thrillers he keeps the “Saturday night special” and retains a familiar situation in which a dubious character gets the drop on the hero. Neither surgically implanted eyeglasses nor flechette weapons are noticeably outside the boundaries of conventional extrapolation in science fiction. What gives the scene its eerie touch of the marvelous is the four-centimeter scalpel blades that seem to transform Molly into a terrifying cat-woman, with perhaps some regrettably chauvinistic iconic punning by Gibson on the pejorative metaphor of dangerous females as “catty.”

If you stop to think about it, as Gibson encourages readers to do by putting that description of Molly's mechanical claws at the end of a chapter, it is very hard to understand how a four-centimeter (1.6-inch) retractable blade and even a highly miniaturized motor mechanism could be implanted without impeding the ability to bend the fingers at their first joints, although some ingenious explanation could doubtless be offered. Just as for time machines, faster-than-light drives, and other conventional wonders of science fiction, Gibson is under no obligation to provide convincing explanations, or indeed any explanations at all. As critics have noted, avoidance of technological details is a characteristic feature of his novels, which are thus very much in the tradition of Wellsian scientific romance rather than Vernian hard science fiction.1

Within the conventions of scientific romance Molly's fingernail scalpel blades can be accepted along with much else to which we grant a scientific basis without inquiring about the exact mechanism. Cyberspace itself is only vaguely explained in Neuromancer as “a consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators” who find convenient its “graphic representation of data abstracted from the banks of every computer in the human system” (51). By minimizing opportunities as well as by explicit invitations to grasp the science and technology putatively underlying his stories, Gibson focuses attention on their astonishing aspects, that is to say, on their affinities with the marvelous. The harder it is to understand exactly how Molly's artificial claws work, the more she resembles a terrifyingly marvelous combination not just of machine and human but of human and animal. The genesis of this resemblance is nevertheless natural, not supernatural.

But Gibson proceeds to blur the line between natural and supernatural as though determined to exploit the narrative benefits of Arthur Clarke's dictum that a sufficiently advanced technology would be indistinguishable from magic. The next surprise Molly springs is her question to Case: “You ever work with the dead?” This evokes only momentarily the idea of a supernatural encounter. Case's response suggests that readers are likely to be more startled by such a question than inhabitants of Gibson's future world: “No … I could, I guess. I'm good at what I do” (49). Molly's casual one-word explanation that Dixie Flatline is a “construct” suffices to eliminate the supernatural here for readers of science fiction, to whom the term has come to mean a computer simulation of the mentality of a dead (or otherwise nonexistent) person. Frederik Pohl's Heechee saga, Rudy Rucker's Software and Wetware, and similar recent works inside and outside cyberpunk boundaries have firmly established the notion that human personality and memories may be imitated or re-created as an artificially intelligent computer program. A construct might be indistinguishable in many ways from the original mind on which it was modeled, or it might even be in some sense a continuation of that mind's identity and awareness. This conceit allows interesting variations on the Cartesian cogito.

Thus Case gets an ambiguous response when he asks whether Dixie Flatline is sentient: “‘Well, it feels like I am, kid, but I'm really just a bunch of ROM. It's one of them, ah, philosophical questions, I guess …’ The ugly laughter sensation rattled down Case's spine. ‘But I ain't likely to write you no poem, if you follow me. Your AI, it just might. But it ain't no way human’” (131). During this exchange Dixie Flatline stresses that neither it nor Wintermute is human despite their apparent sentience. Neither, however, are they supernatural. As a construct, Dixie Flatline belongs, however tenuously, to the natural realm of human artifacts. So does Wintermute, who numbers among its antecedents such “models” constructed by humans as stone circles, cathedrals, pipeorgans, and adding machines. Talking to Case, Wintermute refers to the next step in development of artificial intelligence as something “your species” will finally manage if the run on Straylight succeeds (171). In the matrix Wintermute takes human forms (first Deane, then Finn) during encounters with Case, explaining, “This is all coming to you courtesy of the simstim unit wired into your deck, of course” (119). This is a technological mode of communication between human and nonhuman, despite Gibson's characteristic vagueness about how, exactly, such a simstim unit might actually work. Justifying its manifestation as Finn, Wintermute even whimsically disclaims affinities with the supernatural: “You want I should come to you in the matrix like a burning bush?” (169).

Gibson hints in that question that supernatural speech from a burning bush might not be much less comprehensible or much more marvelous than travels through cyberspace that increasingly resemble encounters with divine powers that can make the dead apparently live and the living apparently die. During his first meeting with Wintermute, Case's EEG has been “flat as a strap” for forty seconds, indicating brain death, although Molly unconvincingly reassures Maelcum that “it's cool. … It's just okay. It's something these guys do is all. Like, he wasn't dead, and it was only a few seconds” (121). Whether “only a few seconds” of flat EEG counts as real death is a question Gibson leaves for readers to chew on. Subsequent experiences in the matrix produce longer intervals of flat EEG that imply something more like an interval of actual death from which Case returns to life.

For Gibson's readers it is another “one of them, ah, philosophical questions” whether Case and the rest of those who have experienced brain death while jacked in to the matrix have come back like Lazarus from the dead, and, if so, whether their experiences in cyberspace can be termed supernatural. If not, Gibson has at the very least created a situation that for both his readers and his characters comes so close to death and resurrection as to collapse the differences that usually go with the distinctions between life, death, and afterlife, thereby also collapsing the usual distinctions between natural and supernatural.

Neuromancer attempts to lure Case away from this world to permanent residence with Linda Lee in cyberspace by saying, “Stay. If your woman is a ghost, she doesn't know it. Neither will you” (244). To borrow another of Dixie Flatline's memorable expressions, it sure feels like a supernatural encounter when Case mentally departs this world for cyberspace and returns after meeting Linda Lee, who, unaware of her ghostly status, has found a kind of resurrection to potentially eternal life within the matrix. Neuromancer insists that “to live here is to live. There is no difference” (258). Neuromancer sounds very godlike in accounting for Linda's continued existence in the cyberspace afterlife: “I brought her here. Into myself” (259). Neuromancer sounds godlike too in predicting its own and Wintermute's imminent death as a necessary part of the process that will result in creation of an even higher form of artificial intelligence: “I die soon, in one sense. As does Wintermute” (259). In what sense, exactly, Neuromancer will die is another nice problem Gibson leaves for his readers to think about. Whatever one's philosophical resolution of this problem may be, there is no escaping the echoes of religious statements about ritual death, rebirth, and metamorphosis that sound throughout these passages. Their connotations, if not their denotations, are of the supernatural.

When Case asks for Neuromancer's name or code at their first meeting, the “laughing” reply is a mocking approval of the question: “To call up a demon you must learn its name. Men dreamed that, once, but now it is real in another way” (243). Access codes are the reality for which invoking a demon's name was merely the proleptic metaphor. Demonic affinities and potentialities of machine intelligence are taken more seriously by Michèle, the Turing Police agent who, shortly before she and her colleagues are killed by Wintermute, savagely rebukes Case for his cooperation with their antagonist: “You are worse than a fool. … You have no care for your species. For thousands of years men dreamed of pacts with demons. Only now are such things possible. And what would you be paid with? What would your price be, for aiding this thing to free itself and grow?” (163). In both passages Gibson suggests that the true age of demons is the present, whereas the old Faustian stories of Satanic pacts were nothing more than metaphoric expressions of destructive impulses that only modern science makes it possible to realize in actuality.

When Neuromancer's name is finally disclosed to Case, the mood shifts to less ominous though no less supernatural allusions:

“Neuromancer,” the boy said, slitting long grey eyes against the rising sun. “The lane to the land of the dead. Where you are, my friend. Marie-France, my lady, she prepared this road, but her lord choked her off before I could read the book of her days. Neuro from the nerves, the silver paths. Romancer. Necromancer. I call up the dead. But no my friend,” and the boy did a little dance, brown feet printing the sand, “I am the dead, and their land.”


Gibson's vocabulary here, with its references to lords, ladies, romancers, and necromancy, is from the literary world of romances to which it self-reflexively alludes, and to which it here generically affiliates the novel.

Gibson's shift from echoes of Faustian tragedy to language invoking the comic mode of romance prepares for the novel's happy ending. Its tone, however, remains a complex mixture of romance and realism in ways signaled by Gibson's inclusion of a line from a crucial stanza of W. H. Auden's “As I walked out one evening”:

The glacier knocks in the cupboard,
          The desert sighs in the bed,
And the crack in the tea-cup opens
          A lane to the land of the dead.

Auden's poem on time's power to destroy love, shatter ideals, and confront us with mortality takes the disarming shape of a ballad that achieves much of its power, like Gibson's novel, from the very contrasts between grim themes and a lightweight form. Auden's land of the dead, moreover, is a strange upside-down place

Where the beggars raffle the banknotes
And the Giant is enchanting to Jack
And the Lily-white Boy is a Roarer,
And Jill goes down on her back.

In Neuromancer Gibson imitates by other means Auden's oddly engaging air of perverse fairy tale.

Gibson presents Neuromancer's supernatural elements in much the same manner as Auden's poem does. Both resort to a sophisticated use of naïve forms. In the tradition of Coleridge, Keats, and many others, Auden exploits the popular folk ballad with its simple stanzas, short lines, repetitions, and allowance for conventional hyperbole, fantasy, and personifications. He plays off these elements against the voice of a complex, disenchanted middle-aged speaker very much of our own time wondering what he has missed in life, lamenting his moral deficiencies, urging himself (and his readers) to “love your crooked neighbor / With all your crooked heart” and imagining strange visionary journeys through a cracked teacup to a land of the dead populated with creatures that are disturbingly unlike their analogues in the nursery rhymes of our childhood. Gibson exploits popular forms of romance, comedy, film noir, science fiction, western, and detective story, playing off these elements against ambiguous new versions of supernatural marvels that function metaphorically to call into question the moral dimension of human encounters with the almost magical power of our cybernetic machinery.

In Count Zero and Mona Lisa Overdrive Gibson makes the marvelous both more emphatically present as such and more explicitly metaphorical. He manages to have it both ways, displaying a kind of literary equivalent to the complementarity theories of physicists who assert that light must be thought of as both wavelike and particlelike. Lucas explains to Bobby, and not incidentally to readers, that mysterious allusions to voodoo gods are a coded language referring with an unusual vocabulary to various aspects of computer technology (to “the language of street tech”). “But at the same time, with the same words, we are talking about other things, and that you don't understand. You don't need to” (Count Zero, 132-33). This advice also applies to Gibson's readers, although for them there is both greater need and greater opportunity to understand what Lucas here describes to the Count as inexplicable mysteries. Whether what is hidden under the linguistic veil of allusions to voodoo deities is genuinely supernatural or merely another scientific marvel remains to be discovered.

In the manner of much popular Gothic and horror fiction (and the fantastic as defined by Todorov), Gibson keeps both possibilities open.2 Of the apparent sudden haunting of cyberspace that allows its console cowboys Faustian opportunities to “make deals with things” of an alien and perhaps demonic nature, there is in Count Zero an ambiguous comment: “‘Thrones and dominions,’ the Finn said, obscurely. ‘Yeah, there's things out there. Ghosts, voices. Why not? Oceans had mermaids, all that shit, and we had a sea of silicon'” (138). First meditatively suggesting the possibility that real spirits of some eminence in the divine hierarchy may have arrived to haunt cyberspace, Finn then switches gears to suggest that such things are as fabulous as mermaids and, like them, nothing more than fantasies projecting strange aspects of the human psyche into reports of terra incognita.

In Mona Lisa Overdrive, allusions to Colin as a “ghost” are evidently only metaphoric since he is another complicated construct of computer technology. Nevertheless, in materializing, dematerializing, attaining a final permanent existence of sorts, and before that being visible and audible only to Kumiko when she summons him through the minicomputer that contains his program, Colin certainly behaves like the very model of a modern supernatural ghost. But he is a human artifact.

Angie continues to have unnerving encounters with what seem to be voodoo entities from the matrix that reach out in ghostly ways to influence events in the real world, including her own “debut in the industry and the subsequent rise that had seen her eclipse Tally Isham's fifteen-year career as Net megastar” (84). In various ways, however, Gibson's text also suggests that tales of strange new entities in the inner-space world of the matrix are nothing more than ambiguously substantial results of the same human mythmaking impulse that spawned so many unconfirmed legends about outer space: “There's a whole new apocrypha out there, really—ghost ships, lost cities. … Like watching myths take root in a parking lot,” David remarks to Angie, who responds by “thinking of Legba, of Mamman Brigitte, the thousand candles” (85).

When Angie asks Continuity—Gibson's amusingly definitive personification of authoritative statement—about the haunting of cyberspace “When It Changed,” she is given an unsatisfactory answer allowing a choice between two versions of “the mythform,” one involving “assumptions of omniscience, omnipotence, and incomprehensibility on the part of the matrix itself” (107). To Angie's query whether in this view “the matrix is God,” Continuity in effect says definitely maybe: “In a manner of speaking although it would be more accurate, in terms of the mythform, to say that the matrix has a God, since this being's omniscience and omnipotence are assumed to be limited to the matrix” (107). If it is accurate rather than merely a metaphorical manner of speaking to say that the matrix has a god—that there is a god in the machine—then it is also accurate to describe the interventions of that god in Gibson's story as supernatural marvels in the manner of those classical epics for which Bodin wanted to find futuristic equivalents.

But what Continuity gives, Continuity quickly takes away by reminding Angie (and Gibson's readers) that “cyberspace exists, insofar as it can be said to exist, by virtue of human agency” (107). Now you see it, now you don't. Gibson's deus ex machina, however real and powerful in the universe—or at least the cyberspace subuniverse—of his story, is a god created by humans. Can we grant such an entity genuine godhood and supernatural status as an authentic initiator of the marvelous?

Only in a manner of speaking. The conclusion of Mona Lisa Overdrive defers final resolution of Gibson's paradoxes to a sequel; that is to say, for now, to the reader's imagination. Ambiguities remain. Off to encounter the sentient matrix entity in Alpha Centauri that is the alien counterpart of the sentient matrix divinity created by humans, Finn assures Angie (and readers) that “it's kinda hard to explain why the matrix split up into all those hoodoos ‘n’ shit, when it met this other one … but when we get there, you'll sorta get the idea” (259). When will they arrive? “In a New York minute” (260). Meanwhile, for the characters in Gibson's tales, as for his readers, eerie manifestations of those godlike voices somehow channeled through Angie's implanted neural circuits sure feel like close encounters with the genuinely supernatural. However rational the final explanation might prove, the literary effects for readers en route to the unraveling of this mystery are those of the supernatural marvelous. In a skillful feat of generic dialogism, Gibson's cyberpunk trilogy thus combines features of fantasy and realism by mixing elements of Gothic horror with various other modes of popular narrative in ways that coherently serve important moral purposes. Gibson is cautioning against the dangers of technology while also greatly enhancing the aesthetic interest of his novels, and hence the power of their warning, by creating what may be science fiction's closest approximation to the effects of epic marvels.


  1. Danny Rirdan, for example, sums up his discussion of Gibson's works by noting that “though the setting of the books is in a very technological-oriented world, there is no scientific basis to the major elements that the books deal with” (46). Istvan Csicsery-Ronay argues that cyberpunk at its most successful offers “a rich thesaurus of metaphors linking the organic and the electronic” (274). David Porush's excellent pathfinding essay on Neuromancer, however, notes Gibson's imaginative affinities with “the shape of our future technologies,” arguing that “Gibson has projected not merely a fully realized possible future, but a very convincing probable one based on technologies that we already have in place” (177).

  2. I have avoided the important but complicated question of Gibson's relationship to recent definitions of the fantastic, contenting myself with older notions of the marvelous, because I am here concerned mainly with stressing historical continuities of science fiction and epic conventions, and also because my discussion is an experiment in testing the applications to current texts of Félix Bodin's poetics of futuristic fiction, which is based largely on eighteenth-century ideas of the marvelous. For those wishing to pursue concepts of the fantastic beyond Todorov's useful but limited definition, the best starting places are the books by Eric Rabkin and Kathryn Hume listed in the bibliography of this essay.

Works Cited

Alkon, Paul K. Origins of Futuristic Fiction. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1987.

Auden, W. H. “As I walked out one evening.” In The Collected Poetry of W. H. Auden, pp. 197-99. New York: Random House, 1945.

Bakhtin, M. M. The Dialogic Imagination, edited by Michael Holquist, translated by Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1981.

Benford, Gregory. “Is Something Going On?” Mississippi Review 47/48 16 (1988): 18-23.

Bodin, Félix. Le Roman de l'avenir. Paris, 1834.

Brin, David. “Starchilde Harold, Revisited.” Mississippi Review 47/48 16 (1988): 23-27.

Csicsery-Ronay, Istvan. “Cyberpunk and Neuromanticism.” Mississippi Review 47/48 16 (1988): 266-78.

Fielding, Henry. The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling. Introduction by Martin C. Battestin, edited by Fredson Bowers. Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 1975.

Gibson, William. Count Zero. London: Victor Gollancz, 1986.

———. Mona Lisa Overdrive. New York: Bantam Books, 1988.

———. Neuromancer. New York: Ace Books, 1984.

Hume, Kathryn. Fantasy and Mimesis: Responses to Reality in Western Literature. New York: Methuen, 1984.

Porush, David. “Cybernauts in Cyberspace: William Gibson's Neuromancer.” In Aliens: The Anthropology of Science Fiction, edited by George E. Slusser and Eric S. Rabkin, pp. 168-78. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1987.

Rabkin, Eric S. The Fantastic in Literature. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1976.

Rirdan, Danny. “The Works of William Gibson.” Foundation 43 (Summer 1988): 36-46.

Thomas, Pascal J. “Cyberpunk as Roots Music: An Observation.” Mississippi Review 47/48 16 (1988): 62-64.

Todorov, Tzvetan. Introduction à la littérature fantastique. Paris: Editions du Seuil, 1970.

Ronald Schmitt (essay date spring 1993)

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SOURCE: Schmitt, Ronald. “Mythology and Technology: The Novels of William Gibson.” Extrapolation 34, no. 1 (spring 1993): 64-78.

[In the following essay, Schmitt finds similarities between Gibson's cyberpunk fiction and the iconography of punk rock music.]

With only three published novels and a collection of short stories, William Gibson has quickly risen to the top of his field, winning the Nebula, Hugo, and Philip Dick awards for Neuromancer. Even more important is the fact that Gibson is considered one of the principal, formative forces in a movement within science fiction known as “cyberpunk.” I see “cyberpunk” as an appropriate label for Gibson's heroes since they share two important similarities with the punk rock movement—one which is more obvious and another which is probably less recognized.

First, the cyberspace “cowboys” in Gibson's novels, like punk rockers, use the technology that is supposed to be a means of ordering and mechanizing the world to attack powerful institutions and individuals associated with the established order of authority. They employ what Norbert Wiener, in Cybernetics and Society: The Human Use of Human Beings, calls “forensic discourse.” Here the differentiation is made between “normal communicative discourse,” which is subject to the confusion caused by the normal entropic tendencies of the physical world but which seeks to convey information accurately, and forensic discourse, “whose conscious aim is to qualify and even destroy its meaning” (93).

Such an interest in selectively obscuring meaning is carried to an extreme in the punk rock movement. All the communicative qualities normally associated with musical entertainment are inverted and distorted. Rather than using amplifiers to clarify sound, extreme electronic feedback and distortion are used as musical effects. Lyrics are mumbled and undiscernible above the extremely loud amplification. The relationship between audience and performer is also distorted. The crowd and musicians curse, spit on, and even batter each other. “Slam dancing” involves violently crashing into others until they fall down. If the audience doesn't succeed in destroying the equipment by the end of the evening with fists and thrown beer bottles, the musicians will often ritualistically destroy their expensive instruments in a final, climactic fury. In short, the punk rocker seeks to subvert all the values that he or she associates with the established conventions of a corrupt society and looks to reenergize a musical genre once potent but now castrated through commercialization and hypocrisy.

Similarly, Gibson's cyberpunks obscure meaning, attack authoritarian values, and celebrate vandalistic and anarchistic values using computer and other technologies rather than music. Yet, while simple, criminal vandalism and nihilistic violence could achieve the downfall of authority, both the punks of our society and the cyberpunks of Gibson's choose to ritualize their defiance. The main focus of this analysis will be the second similarity between Gibson's novels and punk rock: the ways in which primitive mythology is used in ritualizing and symbolizing this rebellion against authority.1

One of the most significant patterns in punk rock iconography, I hope to show, is the blending of modern technology with practices and symbols meant to suggest primitivism and savagery. One of Gibson's essential thematic and imagistic motifs is the blending of primitive myth and symbols with speculative high technology. For the punk rocker, this identification with the primitive is overt, extreme, and related, for the most part, to barbarism and savagery. For Gibson, this identification is more intellectual, subtle, and related to the mythic belief patterns of primitive man. In both instances, however, a “mythologized” technology is used as an important component in an attempt to subvert those authority figures who represent the decadence, pomposity, and misuse of power and wealth in a technological society.

Perhaps the principal means by which this break with authority is ritualized and symbolized for the punk rocker is through fashion. The notion of rock fashion as mythic is probably best developed in Mablen Jones's analysis of rock fashion, Getting It On:

The raw power of rock stars lies not merely in the release of repressed desire, but also in the evocation of primordial images from the wellsprings of archetype. … When the bad boys in leather, from Gene Vincent and Link Wray through Jim Morrison of The Doors, Sid Vicious of the Sex Pistols, Rob Halford of Judas Priest, and Billy Idol, flaunt their lizardlike armor trimmed with metal symbols of their inescapable badness, they become the invincible Trickster of myth. The adventures of this collective “hero with a thousand faces” (as mythologist Joseph Campbell calls the archetype) serve to release the flow of life energy into the world. … The self ravaging punk anti-hero cathartically and messianically vents collective rage within a tradition of ecstatic martyrdom as he is pelted on-stage with assorted objects hurled by fans.


The specific mythological icons that permeate the ritualized anarchy of punk rock fashion are those of the fierce, primitive warrior, in contrast to the peaceful, peasant garb of the preceding generation of hippies. The most easily recognizable of these icons, now a cliché, is the Mohawk haircut. But so many of the fashion items and practices associated with punk rock can be seen as modern variations of primitive warriors' attempts to present a fearsome and stoic visage.

Whereas the hippies endorsed a natural, earthy look with long, flowing hair, the punks' elaborate spiky hairdos and thick applications of brightly-colored make-up resemble the Native American braves' feathered headdresses and warpaint. Slam dancing is the ultimate “primitivization” of dance. What began in the 1960s as mimicry of actual tribal, totemic dances (the Watusi, the Monkey, the Pony) has reached its logical extreme in slam dancing, which resembles the frenzied state of tribal dance at its climax, before exhaustion and collapse.

But what is particularly interesting about punk rockers' choice of imagery in the cyberpunk context of this analysis is the use of technological paraphernalia in the development of this mythological trickster-warrior persona. The use of corporate-made electronic equipment and recordings to carry forth the punk movement's anti-establishment message is certainly as ironic as the hippies' use of these same means to encourage the discarding of technology and a return to an imagined pastoral utopia. The punks' bizarre and creative use of other forms of modern technology to suggest savagery is an indication of the extent to which these warriors will go to prove that they are unafraid of technology's dehumanizing, mechanizing effects.

The piercing of various body parts (cheek, nose, ear, lip) with safety pins has its equivalent in the fanatical stoicism of tribal practices such as distending lip bowls, earweights, and neckrings—but with an important technological dimension added. Common products of modern technology, like razorblades, safety pins, chains, hypodermic needles, etc., are worn as jewelry. Again, just as the primitive warrior would wear the bones, teeth, and scalps of enemies to prove his heroic mastery over them, the punks' use of technological items as jewelry can be seen as having a similarly defiant function. Razor-slashed T-shirts crudely sewn up or left hanging are a removable version of the permanent scarification of primitive warriors' bodies. In fact, Sid Vicious of the Sex Pistols was often pictured bare-chested, proudly displaying the matrix of scars and needle tracks that marked his chest and arms. “Homemade” tattoos, done with safety pins, and the coloring of their tribal haircuts with fluorescent dyes complete the picture of this bizarre combination of primitivism and modern technology.

Thus, it is clear that the punk rocker's identification with those symbols of the primitive warrior is not an effort, as the hippie movement was, to return to an imagined utopia of primitivism, but, rather, is linked with a desire to disrupt and subvert an already decaying authoritarian system. The unconventional blending of modern technology and primitive mythology to achieve this end is an important link between the social phenomenon of punk rock and the fiction of William Gibson. Gibson's heroes are truly cyberpunks that use technology and mythology to wreak havoc on a technologically based, corporated world.

Just as Gibson's world is cluttered with a diverse assortment of futuristic technology and jargon employed by young punk vandals to “rock” the corporate world, it is also cluttered with a diverse assortment of primitive mythological entities like ghosts, demons, and gods. Science fiction authors and critics like Hillegas (273), Delany (143-44), Sontag (124), and Clarke (Porush 113) have analyzed some of the clear conceptual connections between science and mysticism. They all have pointed to the fact that, especially for the nonscientist, the “wonders” of science are often perceived of in mystical, pseudo-magical terms.

Gibson's use of these primitive mythic concepts in conjunction with technology can also be seen as a clever “literalization” of Arthur Koestler's Ghost in the Machine, another strongly influential work, like Wiener's Cybernetics, which sought to reconcile human concerns with the influences of mechanization. The central image of a “ghost in the machine,” actually a phrase drawn from Gilbert Ryle in his 1949 book The Concept of Mind (Koestler 202), is a fascinating and powerfully anti-deterministic/mechanistic concept. The notion of forces associated with irrational superstitions invading the rigid determinism of the machine and haunting, perhaps disrupting, its function is an aggressively humanistic image that would certainly be attractive to the punk rocker. It is not surprising that rock composer Sting of The Police, a group strongly influenced by punk rock conventions, would name one of his albums Ghost in the Machine and entitle a song on that album “[We Are] Spirits in the Material World.”

So while the extremely rapid development of extraordinary and fearsome technologies inspires in many only a passive fear and awe, it also generates a “collective rage” in others—an emphatic denial of the mechanization of humans in the wake of the mechanization of the world. The hippie and punk movements clearly involve themselves with just such a denial. But the punk rocker deviates from the hippie (and Gibson deviates from dystopian SF) in the understanding that it is not technology itself which must be discarded, but, rather, those dehumanized human forces behind the machines. Thus it is the “gradual and willing accommodation to the Machine” (Neuromancer 203) not the machine itself which is the enemy. In Gibson's world the solution to the dehumanized human (the corporate bigwig) is to kill him/her, finally establishing his/her humanity. The solution to the dehumanizing machine, which cannot be killed, is to humanize it by “mythologizing” it.

When one enters Gibson's cyberspace, it hardly resembles the cold, non-living accumulation of digital constructs one would expect in a computer, and both the human and non-human consciousnesses that inhabit it at any given time are anything but mechanized. The entities the cowboys confront when jacked into cyberspace are often referred to directly as ghosts, demons, and gods. These “ghosts in the corporate cores” (Neuromancer 229) play a variety of roles: Helpful allies to the heroes; angry, independent forces on a similar disruptive mission; and terrifying, nearly omnipotent powers which often take control of the human characters.

The “flatlines” in cyberspace are quite literally ghosts, and they readily admit to being dead. When a cyberspace cowboy confronts “black ICE” (intrusion countermeasure electronics) in his attempt to “penetrate the bright walls of corporate systems, opening windows into rich fields of data,” he can be “flatlined,” referring to a flat EEG (Neuromancer 50). If a cowboy's consciousness is never rescued and returned to his body after being flatlined, then his fate could be like that of the legendary cowboy McCoy Pauley, called the “Dixie Flatline” and the “Lazarus of Cyberspace,” a “hard-wired ROM cassette replicating a dead man's skills, obsessions, knee-jerk responses” (76-78). This computerized version of a man's “spirit” assists Case throughout his epic journey into the Tessier-Ashpool computer core. Both 3Jane and the Finn, who appear as humans in Neuromancer, are preserved as more sophisticated personality constructs in Mona Lisa Overdrive. But whereas McCoy Pauley is discontented with his state as a flatline and finally has his wished to be “erased” granted at the end of Neuromancer, the Finn in Mona Lisa Overdrive is happy to do his “oracle gig,” letting local kids set their alms of vodka, cigarettes, and cocaine before the “rounded figure” in which his construct is housed (135-36).

One step further removed from the humanity (or former humanity) of the flatlines are the fearsome and bizarre loa, also called the Divine Horsemen and the hoodoo (voodoo), with names like Samedi, Danbala, Legba, and Ougou Feray—“the god of war” (Count Zero 166). These computer programs, in keeping with their referential identities as savage warriors, are troublesome and often uncontrollable versions of icebreakers that “invade” not only cyberspace but the mind of Angie Mitchell in Count Zero. The incidents of Angie Mitchell being “ridden” (184) by these hoodoo warriors resemble nothing as much as demonic possession. As Michele in Neuromancer says, “For thousands of years men dreamed of pacts with demons, only now are such things possible” (163).

The loa's identification with the primitive warrior, as well as their ability to obscure understanding for both other characters and the reader with their metaphorical jargon, make them another of Gibson's clear symbolic links with the iconography of punk rock. They are the same disturbing, disruptive voices in cyberspace that punk rock fashion and music hope to be within our society. They are the demons that continue to trouble even the most seemingly rational, ordered system; they are entropy.

If the flatlines and the loa are the ghosts and demons of cyberspace, then the AIs are its gods. Wintermute refers to itself as a “burning bush” but then says to Case, “I am that which knoweth not the word” (Neuromancer 173). Wintermute is also referred to as “lord of hell” by Ashpool, and Neuromancer refers to itself as “the lane to the land of the dead” and says “I am the dead and their land” (Neuromancer 185, 243-44). Because of their extraordinary power and intelligence, and since “nobody trusts those fuckers. … every AI ever built has an electro-magnetic shotgun wired to its forehead” (Neuromancer 132). Despite this, the AIs break free from the Tessier-Ashpools when Case cracks their coporate ICE, and the new integration of Wintermute (“hive mind, decision maker”) and Neuromancer (“personality … immortality”) enters the matrix where it says it is “the sum total of the works, the whole show” (Neuromancer 268-69). Definitely more than just a super smart computer, this new AI produces the art works which are Virek's obsession in Count Zero. As the Dixie Flatline tells Case, “I ain't likely to write you no poem, if you follow me. Your AI, it just might” (Neuromancer 131).

Thus, we have a complex mythological variation on the standard SF theme of the self-determined machine. The “consensual hallucination” (Neuromancer 5) of cyberspace has allowed Gibson a high-tech version of hell, purgatory, and heaven combined. It is also a model of the technological society itself, never able to attain in its human population the uniformity, passivity, and mechanical predictability and order it can expect from its machines. Indeed, if our “intelligent” machines are endowed with any element of the human spirit, as Gibson's are, they will necessarily represent the irrational, chaotic tendencies in man, as well as the rational ones: we will have ghosts in our machines.

One of Gibson's most significant and complex uses of primitive mythological concepts in conjunction with a futuristic society comes in his characterization of Angie Mitchell. At the beginning of Mona Lisa Overdrive, when Angie is an adult she is able to admit to herself for the first time what the reader already knows after hearing the story of her earlier life in Count Zero: “Her father was dead, seven years dead, and the record he'd kept of his life had told her little enough. That he'd served someone or something, that his reward had been knowledge, and that she had been his sacrifice” (17). So emerging from Gibson's world of stoic heroes, lunatic corporate kings, and cybernetic demons is the story of a young, fragile girl whose own father offered her for sacrifice upon the altar of technology.

From the very start the mysterious young girl who Turner befriends and protects in Count Zero acts very strangely. She gets nose bleeds, has bad dreams, hears voices, and speaks in “Tongues.” Often unseen forces take over her body completely, ranting and threatening, using African names and mythic jargon:

“What do you want?”

“This child for my horse, that she may move among the towns of men. It is well that you drive east. Carry her to your city. I shall ride her again. And Samedi rides with you, gunman. He is the wind you hold in your hands, but he is fickle, the Lord of Graveyards, no matter that you have served him well …” He turned in time to see her slump sideways in the harness, her head lolling, moth slack.


When Turner takes Angie to be checked out physically it is discovered that she has long chains of biosoft chips grafted into her brain (133).

This technology, developed by her father, is perhaps Gibson's ultimate creative blurring of the distinction between the organic and the mechanical: “minute biochemical factories endlessly reproducing the engineered molecules that were linked and built up into biochips” (88). The medical implant of biochips into Angie's brain, performed by her father, allows Angie to access cyberspace directly, without a deck, thus making her, for all intents and purposes, a human computer. Being perpetually jacked into cyberspace makes Angie susceptible to the loa mentioned in the preceding section. There is no escape for her from these demonic entities that occupy cyberspace, for they simultaneously occupy her mind, haunting and bewitching her. So just as a cyberspace deck is a human's conduit to the “land of the dead,” Angie's brain becomes the conduit for the computerized loa to the human world. But here again, through Gibson's mingling of primitive myth and technology, there is an inversion of the mechanical state one would expect in such computer-human intermingling. Angie's sacrifice to the machine does not mean that she is a robot in the traditional unfeeling sense: she has been offered up to the land of the dead and returned a bewitched goddess herself.

Needless to say, such a state makes Angie not only the “Virgin of Miracles” (Count Zero 58, 213), but the virgin of sorrows as well. She becomes a drug addict in Mona Lisa Overdrive in an attempt to stave off the voices that haunt her sleep. But more important to a mythic context is the fact that her affliction becomes a reason not for societal persecution but for exaltation. The bewitched princess in this case is glorified in her adult life as an ideal, romantic queen—a world-famous media star in Mona Lisa Overdrive.

As with any sacrifice, Angie's designation as an offering to the “gods” of cyberspace is both a curse and a blessing. She is the chosen icon of a society, its most precious gift to appease the gods. As such she is society's conduit between the supernatural and “real” worlds. Her “death” marks the culture's continued life (Campbell, Masks 177). Glory for the sacrificed means the dissolution of personal identity into that of the cultural symbol.

Clearly another analogy with our own pop culture mythologizing of the rock musician is suggested by the notion of the sacrifice and Angie's stardom. Rock stars are society's sacrificial lambs; they extinguish their own personal identities to function as fantasy personas for the rest of society. Even if their fame and glory is actively pursued, often the taxing experience of being a cultural icon can turn what was initially a blessing into a curse. This can be seen in the many instances of drug addiction, suicide, and mental breakdown among famous rock stars. The rock stars' fans expect a predictable persona, and they can turn hostile if the stars attempt to change their looks, music, or politics. They are trapped within their roles as the mythic icons of our culture. If punk rocker Sid Vicious had not killed himself and his girlfriend, they would have lived to see eight-year-olds sporting punk rock haircuts and clothing and walking contentedly beside their hippy-garbed parents in the shopping malls of America.

Angie's status as “simstim” star puts her in this awkward position of cultural icon—the ultimate symbol of a society hungry for ever greater “simulated stimulation” from the electronic media. Her father's Frankenstein-like surgery has, instead of bringing the dead to life, brought the living to the land of the dead. Such an existence as cultural conduit to the machine is finally too much for Angie to take. She joins her lover, Bobby Newmark, who has given up his physical body to fully become one with the machine. Her role as simstim star is taken over by Mona Lisa, surgically altered to look like Angie. Another “virgin” is found for the sacrifice.

In Gibson's futuristic mythology there is even a shaman. Peter Riviera is referred to specifically as a “certified psychopath” (Neuromancer 51), an interestingly clinical appraisal considering the gloating insanity of the Tessier-Ashpools. The difference between the madness of Ashpool and Riviera is Riviera's creative use of holography in bringing to life for all to see the passionate sublimity of the psychotic mind.

Riviera's talents in using holography are presumably the reason he is brought into the team which Armitage assembles to topple the Tessier-Ashpool corporate structure. The team members discover that Riviera has an “implant” which allows him to project his own “subliminals” in disconcertingly realistic holographic displays. As the Finn says, “What he imagines, you see” (90-91). Riviera also uses holography to “enhance” the experience of injecting the drugs to which he is addicted, creating snakes instead of tourniquets and scorpions instead of needles (106-07). In these and other subtle and not-so-subtle ways, Riviera continuously uses his expertise and disturbed imagination in the medium of holography to disturb and dazzle those around him.

Gibson shows that holography has its more predictable applications in his future society for arcade games (as in the short story “Dogfight”), imaging in communications (as with Virek in Count Zero), and pornography (Count Zero 28). But by introducing the potential such a medium would have in expressing the dark, subliminal world of the psychotic mind, he has tapped into a very ancient and potent mythic fascination we have with the “controlled” madness of the shaman.

In every primitive tribe … we find the medicine man in the center of society and it is easy to show that the medicine man is either a neurotic or psychotic or at least that his art is based on the same mechanisms as a neurosis or a psychosis.

(Roheim in Campbell, Hero 100)

Riviera's characterization is particularly interesting when one considers that if “high-rez” holography is a technology available for barroom games then it would certainly be available to Case, one of the finest cyberspace cowboys in the Sprawl. So why, then, is Riviera able to so dazzle and overwhelm those around him with his holographic displays while the others seem unable to reciprocate? The answer is that Riviera, because he is a psychotic, can bring forth the subconscious terrors of the mind as no normal man could. “The medicine men, therefore, are simply making both physical and public the symbols of symbolic fantasy that are present in the psyche of every adult member of their society.” (Campbell, Hero 101). This technology allows Gibson to engage in incredibly surreal flights of fantasy and break down the barriers between imagination and physical reality. The widespread use of holography is a technological “magic” that is realizable within our lifetimes, making Gibson's speculative uses of it all the more potent.

I am again forced to think of our own pop culture and our hunger for fantasies of “madness” in the media. The escalation of bizarre violence and sexuality in the stage shows and videos of rock musicians parallels a general, cultural desensitization toward such images on television and in the movies. Our own consensual hallucination, the media matrix, clearly has its own shamans bringing us to the brink of a cultural psychosis. One can only imagine what would happen if MTV were to become holographic.

In Gibson's futuristic world there are two extrapolated technologies which allow his characters to attain heretofore unattainable states of physical and mental transformation. These technologies, I feel, are his most distinctive and fascinating means of connecting primitive myth with modern science. They also suggest the potential such technological wonders might create for allowing man not to become a robot, but to realize some of his deepest primordial fantasies of transformation.

The first of these has already been mentioned in regard to Angie Mitchell, but it is a technology that figures prominently in all of Gibson's novels and is employed by most of his characters. It is called simstim—simulated stimulation—another of Gibson's clever literalisms of terminology which carries to a logical extreme the tendencies of our current computer systems and electronic media toward more and more sophisticated simulations of “reality.” Because “the cyberspace matrix is actually a drastic simplification of the human sensorium,” one is not only able to project one's consciousness into it using “trodes,” but is also able to receive sensations through what Gibson calls a “little plastic tiara” (Neuromancer 55).

Gibson exploits simstim as a means of realizing one of the most primitive fantasies of man: transfiguration. The desire to magically transfer one's consciousness into another physical state, to be something or someone else for a time, is, of course, the basis of so much of children's play as well as adult's entertainment. Yet, while the mind can imagine itself in any number of forms, we all ultimately remain trapped in our corporeal body. Simstim and cyberspace allow the barrier of the single corporeal body to be breached, allowing for the dissolution of individual perspective into a frantic electronic pantheism in which minds, bodies, and senses blend, merge, and spin in a consensual hallucination of sensory overload—hardly what we imagine robot existence to be like.

The employment of simstim for pornography and the soap-opera-type fantasies in which Angie Mitchell stars in Mona Lisa Overdrive is a predictable and logical extension of our current society's dependence on vicarious sensual experience through the electronic media. But Gibson mentions two forms of simstim that are unusual and suggest fascinating mythic possibilities.

The first is a passing mention of a simstim tape that allows the viewer to experience the sensations of arboreal animals (Count Zero 36-37). It is a great disappointment for me that Gibson never really attempts to describe the sensations involved in a simstim with an animal, for this could open up, not only new imagistic vistas for him to explore with his baroque, visually intense style, but could also expand his mythological framework to include the concept of totemic identification. However, he fully exploits another mythological/psychological concept through his use of the second type of simstim.

Throughout Case's epic journey into the corporate computer core of Tessier-Ashpool, he has a direct, neurological simstim link with Molly and is able to simultaneously “feel” what she feels, as well as see, hear, smell, and taste what she does (Neuromancer 56). The notion of man and woman in one body is a literal realization of the androgynous state of our psyches as described by Jung through the concept of the anima and animus (186-207). It is interesting that Case and Molly rely on a combination of their skills to achieve their heroic ends, Case involving himself with the temporality of cyberspace consciousness while Molly involves herself with the physicality of the battle itself: cybernetic man and Amazon warrior in one body.

Again, parallels with punk rock can be made. Punk fashion is essentially androgynous in nature, with no distinctions made between what is appropriate for men or women to wear. Many punk rock stars, as well as those in traditional rock and heavy metal, create fantastic androgynous personas, blending and distorting conventional masculine and feminine concepts in fashion (leather and chains blend with eye make-up and hair coloring). Rock stars like Annie Lenox and Boy George carry on the tradition of rock star androgyny begun by Little Richard and David Bowie.

The mythic implications of androgyny are clear. The integration of traits usually seen as exclusively male or female gives one the power of a god (Campbell, Hero 153-56). To transcend the cycle of birth, procreation, and death and “bear the emblems of both my parents” (153) is also to transcend one's heritage and the societal limitations of sex roles. It is the ultimate assertion of individuation and thus a logical mythology with which rebellious youth can identify.

Simstim is also clearly an assertion of man's continued interest in sensual stimulation (albeit simulated stimulation) in the face of mechanization. This extrapolated technology actually expands rather than limits human's sensual experience. Gibson has again neatly inverted the notion that mechanization must bring about the robot image of man. Through the futuristic technologies of simstim and cyberspace, man regains his primordial links with magic and mythic power. He also retains and even expands the potential for sensuality that distinguishes man from machine.

The final mythic component of Gibson's world I will analyze is his most obvious link with the modern phenomenon of punk rock and its blend of technology and savagery: the disfiguration of the body. As discussed in my introduction, an important pattern in punk rock fashion iconography is its interest in creating parallels with the primitive warrior and the aesthetic of ugliness intended to frighten enemies and prove stoicism. In Gibson's world, advancements in medical technology have allowed this primitive pattern to be carried to new and wilder extremes.

There is Molly, whose “mirrored lenses were surgical inlays, the silver rising smoothly from her high cheekbones, sealing her eyes in their sockets” (Burning Chrome 6) with an alphanumeric time readout “chipped” into her optic nerve so it is displayed “low in her left peripheral field” (Neuromancer 56). Also, since she is a mercenary: “She held out her hands, palms up, the white fingers slightly spread, and with a barely audible click, ten double-edged, four-centimeter scalpel blades slid from their housings beneath the burgundy nails” (Neuromancer 25).

But, of course, the clearest examples of disfiguration occur in Gibson's descriptions of the youth gangs in his future world: Moderns, Kasuals, Gothicks, Dracs. His general description of the Moderns could also apply to punk rockers; “it was the style that mattered and the style was the same. The Moderns were mercenaries, practical jokers, nihilistic technofetishists” (Neuromancer 59). Yet this fetish for technology is blended with a fetish for the savage as well:

His face was a simple graft grown on collagen and shark-cartilage polysaccharides, smooth and hideous. It was one of the nastiest pieces of elective surgery Case had ever seen. When Angelo smiled, revealing the razor-sharp canines of some large animal, Case was actually relieved. Toothbud transplants. He'd seen that before.

(Neuromancer 59)

So here again, the advanced technology of Gibson's world, instead of making people into robots, has intensified and expanded the potential for the realization of our most primitive mythic desires. Instead of desensitization and uniformity we have transfiguration and disfiguration.

If any pattern emerges from Gibson's mythologizing of technology and humans' relationships with technology it is the emphatic denial of the mechanistic image of humans in a technological culture. The use of primitive mythic entities and practices like ghosts, demons, sacrifice, the shaman, etc. is clearly a means by which Gibson can humanize those unhuman, cold, and impersonal technological forces that increasingly challenge the boundaries between the corporeal and the mechanical.

The mirrors with which we view ourselves have never been so crowded with things—things which most of us reluctantly admit we could not imagine life without, things which were barely dreamed of 100 years ago. Twentieth-century technology, whether one perceives it as an essentially positive, constructive tendency or an essentially negative, destructive, tendency, arose from ideologies as potent as those of any of the great religions of the world, and like these religions, they reshape our conception of “human being” at its foundations.

For Gibson and the punk rocker, this redefinition of humanity must include the irrational and sensual components of the human spirit. As previously mentioned, it is not the machine itself but “the gradual and willing accommodation to the machine” that is the enemy of humanity. So Gibson's fiction and the punk rock movement, while not seeking to stem the flow of our technological advancement and return to a non-technological state, do reach back for images and ideas from our primitive past to compensate for the helter-skelter rush of twentieth-century man into a future of increasing mechanization.

By superimposing a world of primitive myth upon the machine, Gibson in a sense creates a myth within a myth. The notion that we, godlike, can imbue the objects that we create with a sense of our own living spirit—to animate the inanimate and create a new form of “life” based on our own characteristics—is the myth of our own time. The robot, the cyborg and the AI are at once mirrors of our own encroaching mechanization and lights from our Promethean fires. They are ourselves and our children. Gibson, by imbuing his technological world with characteristics of the “primitive,” ensures that his children will still know how to dance in the moonlight. Koestler says in The Ghost in the Machine, “Machines cannot become like men but men can become like machines” (217). Gibson might agree that men can become like machines (in the mechanistic sense), but in a world where the machine can be an extension or perhaps even an enhancement of the human spirit, endowed with mythic qualities, is it so bad to become a machine? Becoming a computer in Gibson's world does not imprison or dehumanize a person. It brings him or her into often frighteningly intimate contact with a mythic world of beings and experiences which have no equivalent in the “real” world.

What all of this suggests to me is that Gibson's technology is ultimately humanizing, not in any idealized, utopian way but in a very human way, with all its contradictions and problems as well as its wonders. “Jacking-in” to cyberspace can allow the ultimate in out-of-body experiences, both demonic and enlightening. Simstim can allow the ultimate in sensory experiences, whether sublime, pornographic, or hideous. Holography can be used to entertain or to manipulate and confuse. Medical technology can be used to miraculously restore life, perpetuate it in a wretched state, or compliment human vanity to the point of the grotesque.

In a word, technology is whatever we make of it—a truism that is nonetheless ignored by those SF writers who wish to believe in technological utopias or dystopias. There will always be marvelous and hideous uses for whatever we make. The myths that we construct to make sense of our technological world tell us a lot about ourselves and very little about technology. The artistic AI in Count Zero, which is the integration of practicality and immortality, says it best: “My songs are of time and distance. The sadness is in you. Watch my arms. There is only the dance. These things you treasure are shells” (227).


  1. By “primitive,” I refer to those cultures, ancient and contemporary, that lack written histories and literature and whose characteristics are therefore known only through the relatively modern sciences of archeology and anthropology. Thus, included with prehistoric cultures are those examples of aboriginal and indigenous cultures that have survived into this century, such as the Native American and the Australian Aborigine. The influence which these primitive mythic patterns have exerted on subsequent myths and religions, including Classical Greece and Christianity, make any clear cut-off point impossible in a discussion of mythic motifs. Indeed, it is one of the central theses of writers like Campbell and Jung that basic mythic patterns are so universally distributed across cultures that their images and concepts must in some way be linked with fundamental human psychology and not solely determined by culture. Still, in terms of Gibson's works, it is possible to differentiate between mythic pattern and specific religious allusion; and while there are both in his works, his emphasis and mine remains on overall patterns and concepts generally defined as “primitive.”

Works Cited

Campbell, Joseph. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1949.

———. The Masks of God Vol. 1 Primitive Mythology. New York: Penguin, 1969.

Delany, Samuel. “About 5175 Words.” The Other Side of Realism. Ed. Thomas Clareson. Bowling Green, OH: Bowling Green Popular Press, 1971.

Gibson, William. Burning Chrome. New York: Ace, 1986.

———. Count Zero. New York: Ace, 1986.

———. Mona Lisa Overdrive. New York: Bantam, 1988.

———. Neuromancer. New York: Ace, 1984.

Hillegas, Mark. “SF as Cultural Phenomenon.” The Other Side of Realism. Ed. Thomas Clareson. Bowling Green, OH: Bowling Green Popular Press, 1971.

Jones, Mablen. Getting It On: The Clothing of Rock & Roll. New York: Abbeville, 1987.

Jung, Carl., et al. Man and His Symbols. New York: Dell, 1964.

Koestler, Arthur. The Ghost in the Machine. New York: MacMillan, 1967.

Porush, David. The Soft Machine: Cybernetic Fiction. New York: Methuen, 1985.

Sontag, Susan. “The Imagination of Disaster.” SF: A Collection of Critical Essays. Ed. Mark Rose. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1976.

Wiener, Norbert. The Human Use of Human Beings: Cybernetics and Society. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1954.

Rob Latham (review date July 1993)

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SOURCE: Latham, Rob. “Cyberpunk = Gibson = Neuromancer.” Science-Fiction Studies 20, no. 2 (July 1993): 266-72.

[In the following review of Fiction 2000: Cyberpunk and the Future of Narrative, edited by George Slusser and Tom Shippy, Latham asserts that Neuromancer is the predominant subject of the essays in this collection.]

In the informal interview that closes Fiction 2000 (a collection of essays from “an international symposium on the nature of fiction at the end of the twentieth century … held in Leeds, England … between June 28 and July 1, 1989 … [and focusing] specifically on the form of science fiction called cyberpunk”[279]), Istvan Csicsery-Ronay, responding to a remark that the conference had featured “an emphasis on [William] Gibson's Neuromancer,” replies: “I think the impression that much of the conference centered on Neuromancer may actually just be an effect of the convergence in time of the talks. I don't perceive this as having been a ‘Neuromancer conference’ at all” (280-81). Csicsery-Ronay is wrong. It was Neuromancer conference, at least judging by the 17 essays gathered in this volume of proceedings. The overwhelming impression presented is that most of the conferees operated with the following equation implicitly in mind: cyberpunk = Gibson = Neuromancer. As a result, the movement, as a literary practice and a cultural ideology, gets forced into a straitjacket—a flashy one, true, patterned with intricate Orientalist flourishes, but confining nonetheless.

I don't mean to imply that I think Neuromancer (1984) undeserving of such close attention. If the essays in this book do nothing else, they certainly establish the novel's formal and thematic complexity, its openness to diverse and often conflicting modes of interpretation, and its sheer power to capture the critical imagination. But this is not all that Fiction 2000 promises to accomplish, and I'm afraid the volume is rather deficient in its other goals.

These goals are stated in George Slusser's introduction: since “Story telling is entering the future of the electronic den, a wraparound world of images and signals and data” (1), the essayists hope, by “examining cyberpunk's claims in relation both to traditional SF and to contemporary fiction in general … to go to the heart of the problems narrative faces in the information age” (3). This is an ambitious and worthwhile enterprise, but one gets the sense that the conference participants either didn't fully understand their charge or were not entirely comfortable with it. Several of them refuse even to venture a guess as to the prospects of “fiction 2000,” instead devoting themselves to Slusser's more modest corollary aims: “examining cyberpunk … in relation to traditional SF and to contemporary fiction.” In those goals they are moderately successful (and then only with regard to Gibson's work specifically), yet one wonders why the editors felt the need to draw such a grandiose frame around their venture since the effect is to undermine the genuine achievements of their essays by requiring a larger purpose of them than they can fulfill.

The book is divided into five parts. Perhaps not surprisingly, given the dubious status of the editors' framing assumptions, the three well-focused middle parts—devoted to establishing cyberpunk's roots in genre SF, its relation to postmodern literature and culture, and the parameters of its canon—are bookended by sections whose rationale is either vague or overblown. Part 1, “The Movement: Forward or Backward?,” opens with a meditation by Lewis Shiner on the crucial differences between “cyberpunk”—an historically useful, if now perhaps dated, term describing the work of a group of consciously affiliated writers striving to bring SF into the information age at the beginning of the '80s—and “scifi-berpunk,” a mass-market version “commodified, summarized, codified, and reduced to formula” (22). His essay is amusing and often thoughtful, but the grounds for it as a point of departure for the volume are nebulous: one suspects it is because he was the only (more or less) self-identified cyberpunk author in attendance, and the editors wanted a programmatic kick-off. If so, this is the most mellow manifesto imaginable.

The two other essays in this section, by Csicsery-Ronay and Slusser, are broad theoretical discussions evaluating cyberpunk's modes of imagining the future. Both critics have axes to grind against the literature, expanding on complaints aired in earlier pieces that appeared in Larry McCaffery's Storming the Reality Studio (1991). Csicsery-Ronay provocatively diagnoses cyberpunk as suffering from an affliction he calls “retro-futuristic chronosemiitis,” a disease in which the future takes revenge on the present for its cynical postmodernity, its delegitimation of transcendental (especially ethical) categories for evaluating technology. The result is that the utopian imagination historically embodied in SF is given over to visions “of a destructive, pathological future” (33) that, in a return of the ethical dimension repressed in postmodernism, pass the sentence of posterity on the present's reckless narcissism. The essay is a tour-de-force, combining theoretical sweep with meticulous close readings. Though I strongly disagree with its essentially organicist humanism—which pays off in the conclusion that “feminist futurism” (44) can cure SF of its affliction (because women, as mothers, have a special concern for coming generations?)—the argument is important and worth grappling with.

Slusser's essay is another matter. It definitely provides a good counterpoint to Csicsery-Ronay's piece, because its agenda is aggressively antihumanist: Slusser contends that cyberpunk, like a good deal of SF, is constrained from fully imagining the future by “the Frankenstein barrier”—an ideological impediment generated by the conflict between utilitarian and humanist values in the extrapolation of technology. The former permit the future to be envisioned as a lineal progress of technological innovation, but the latter persistently intervene with misgivings about the corrosive effects on traditional forms, biological as well as cultural. The result is Victor Frankenstein's bad faith, his apparent commitment to a futuristic vision yet his ultimate rejection of it on humanist grounds. And so the future, as with Csicsery-Ronay's retrovirus, returns to wreak vengeance on the present: “The creature of the future is now present as object of horror in the eyes of a humanity that cannot accept its futurity” (48). In effect, Slusser is merely restating a longstanding distinction in the world of SF fandom between science-fictional and “mundane” perspectives, and while I have a good deal of sympathy with the political animus behind this distinction, I really don't see what Slusser hopes to accomplish by couching it in a dense rhetoric replete with allusions to Plato, Descartes, and Shakespeare. In short, his essay is more complexly written than the argument itself requires (and perhaps merits). In any case the entire opening section is hardly auspicious for the volume's putative focus on “fiction 2000”; given that cyberpunk is variously seen as mired in the humanist past (Slusser), immured in postmodernism's eternal present (Csicsery-Ronay), or commodified out of existence (Shiner), it doesn't seem a very fruitful harbinger of anything.

The book's closing section, “The New Metaphoricity: The Future of Fiction,” is even more disappointing in the gap between its promise and its achievement. Frankly, it's a mess. The first two essays extend Slusser's brief for utilitarian extrapolation, starting with Gregory Benford's defense of hard SF in contrast to cyberpunk's chic recycling of “film noir and pulp plots against a background taken mostly from the glossy aesthetics of magazine ads” (223). For those familiar with Benford's ubiquitous attacks on “cyberjunk,” this snide, rambling piece offers nothing new. It is followed by Ruth Curl's essay unfavorably comparing Neuromancer with Benford's novel Great Sky River (1987) in light of the divergent metaphorical systems guiding their extrapolations of computer technology: Gibson's approach is anthropomorphic, deploying metaphors as ontological categories (“Paradise, the Fall, Frankenstein”) which shackle the future to the humanist past, whereas Benford “demythifies the computer” by using metaphors epistemologically, as vehicles for exploring an uncertain future (237). It's a perfectly defensible argument, but unfortunately it has been Slusserized—i.e., rhetorically boosted by a philosophical apparatus that adds nothing to the account save pointless complication and citations of Descartes, Nietzsche, W. V. Quine, and Paul de Man. Benford's and Curl's essays both take a “back to the future” approach to SF narrative, evoking nostalgia for, quoting Benford, “the deeper, long-view realism” of traditional hard SF (224)—which is a paradoxical attitude to assume given that this section is nominally devoted to limning contemporary fiction's lineal future. Are we to imagine that the coming avant-garde will operate in the mode of Asimov and Clarke?

Curl's piece establishes a focus on metaphor that is expanded by Eric Rabkin in the best essay in this section. Rabkin identifies the trope of oxymoron as a device pervasively deployed in SF to depict the radical otherness of futurity; he locates in oxymoron the source of SF's traditional “sense of wonder,” the compelling estrangement generated by its capacity to yoke seemingly incommensurate modes of being (as in the figure of the “cyborg”). Rabkin's case is methodically argued and persuasive; the problem in context is that he isn't discussing a metaphorical strategy peculiar to cyberpunk or even contemporary fiction, but to the timeless body of fantastic literature. To the extent that he is concerned at all with the “current hot, so-called cyberpunk brand of science fiction” (265), his whole purpose seems to be to debunk its pretensions to originality. This is quite a puzzling animus to discover in a section purporting to analyze the new metaphoricity.

The other two pieces in this section don't go any further towards establishing a plausible rationale for the blanket title. David Porush's essay is a collection of scattered fragments verging on prose poetry, arresting if essentially glib. The closing “interview” is even more disjointed, less a focused discussion geared for public consumption than a sprawling gabfest overheard during a conference lunch break. The only reason I can guess for the editors' choosing to include this slovenly ramble is for SF author Greg Bear's comments on HyperCard, the computer hypertext system designed for Macintosh, whose ennested informational structure, incorporating sound and image into a generalized digital text, could potentially create a “multifaceted, multisensory, multimedia experience, spreading out and eventually becoming something like real life, so that perhaps eventually you would actually be experiencing the novel as if you were one or two of the characters within it” (286). Embedded as it is in a contentious conversation, this fascinating tidbit goes nowhere, but its mere presence suggests the dimensions of truly exciting extrapolation the volume otherwise never provides. Tucking it in here at the end was, in my view, a major miscalculation: it makes the whole book seem a fundamentally botched enterprise.

Despite this draconian assessment, there is still valuable material in Fiction 2000, most of it located in the more modestly purposed middle sections. Part 2 opens with good essays by Paul Alkon and Gary Westfahl analyzing the convergence of Gibson's work with the agendas for SF set by Félix Bodin and Hugo Gernsback, respectively. Both essays establish suggestive parallels but these remain purely speculative, since neither critic details the historical filters through which the influence of these precursors might have been transmitted to Gibson. Westfahl's essay in particular goes much too far in arguing for Neuromancer as a virtually unmediated descendant of Gernsback's Ralph 124C 41+ (1911-12), detailing every resemblance, no matter how tenuous or far-fetched. Moreover, the critic's casual contempt for contemporary literature and culture (which he dismisses with the blanket slur of “nihilism” [103]) leads him to seriously undervalue their influence on Gibson's work.

The paucity of historical argument in Westfahl's and Alkon's essays is more than made up for by Carol McGuirk's, which provides a magisterial periodization of modern SF and meticulously details Gibson's position within it. McGuirk identifies cyberpunk as merely the most recent in a long series of overlapping ideological renovations of the genre, whose evolution she details in an erudite and nuanced typology. Her anatomy of the “soft SF” tradition of the 50s, which is among the best I have seen anywhere, shows how that decade's writers were divided between two camps: humanism, concerned with the potential efficacy of heroic action and typified by James Blish and Walter M. Miller, Jr, and SF noir, focused on “psychic mutilation, used to set a stylized atmosphere” (118) and associated preeminently with Alfred Bester. While cyberpunk (i.e., Gibson) evinces some superficial similarity to hard SF in its “tendency to place technology in the foreground” (111), it is, McGuirk convincingly demonstrates, actually a variant of SF noir.

McGuirk's excellent placement of cyberpunk within American SF is equalled, in my view, only by Brian McHale's treatment in Constructing Postmodernism (1992; expanding material in McCaffery's Reality Studio), which has the added value that it sees cyberpunk not only as the latest installment in the immanent evolution of the genre but also as the historical culmination of a process of crossbreeding between SF and the literary avant-garde (a process only implicit in McGuirk's analysis). It is unfortunate that Fiction 2000 does not feature McHale—or McCaffery or Scott Bukatman, the critics who have done the most to establish how the cyberpunk movement converges with the methods and concerns of postmodernist fiction and culture. Fiction 2000's third section, devoted to outlining and analyzing this convergence, features an excellent essay by Brooks Landon and good ones by John Huntington and Lance Olsen, but these do not compare with the pathbreaking and synoptic achievements of the aforementioned group of scholars. The result is a patchwork of perceptive fragments rather than a detailed case.

Huntington offers yet another leftwing assault on cyberpunk's complacent postmodern politics. His efforts to locate and analyze a class dynamic in Neuromancer are earnest and diligently prosecuted; however, I must admit that, much as I sympathize with the socio-political agenda animating the critique, I find its chilly assurance and Olympian disdain a bit stultifying. Huntington's judgment that Gibson's novel “creates anxiety about an ambiguous and oppressive reality and at the same time revels in the increased possibilities the ambiguity allows and the anarchy the oppression justifies” (139) is both unanswerable and jejune, merely repeating an indictment already proffered by Andrew Ross, Peter Fitting, Neil Easterbrook, and several others.

Olsen's essay on “Cyberpunk and the Crisis of Postmodernity” takes up the neo-pragmatist, as opposed to the Marxist, line of critique against postmodernism: In both the political and the aesthetic arenas, it is simply impossible to “practically challenge all we once took for granted about language and experience” (144). I feel there is something essentially banal about this argument as well, but Olsen does not so much naïvely endorse it as deploy it as a rationale for the developing conservatism of mainstream literature in the '80s: the emergence of “neorealism” may be seen as a pragmatic counterrevolution against postmodernism's formal subversiveness. While Neuromancer deployed strategies akin to postmodernist experimentation, Olsen argues, Gibson's later novels have backtracked, displaying more conventional literary values. There is a slippery facility to Olsen's systematic contrasts that bothers me, but his effort to situate Gibson's work within the (d)evolving framework of post-modernist literature is generally commendable.

Brooks Landon's essay focuses fruitfully on postmodernist texts in which the representation of memory is foregrounded. The explosion of information in electronic culture, which amounts to an epochal challenge to the capacities of human memory, has generated two sorts of “digital narratives”: the “postmnemotechnic,” which proliferate synthetic alternatives to and simulacra of human memory (works by the cyberpunks, obviously, but also by postmodernists Kathryn Kramer and Don DeLillo), and the “antimnemotechnic,” which are radically skeptical about the viability of memory altogether (texts by Kathy Acker, Steve Erickson, Denis Johnson). Landon's analysis is well thought out and engagingly written, offering a genealogy for cyberpunk that transcends genre boundaries in its articulation of a problematic shared by SF and mainstream authors alike.

The essays in part 4 pull back to the genre borders, purporting to trace the horizon of the cyberpunk canon. There are essays by John Christie on Gibson, Robert Donahoo and Chuck Etheridge on Shiner, Tom Shippey on Sterling, and Francis Bonner on cyberpunk in film and television. Not a far horizon obviously: the work of three writers and a handful of visual texts. The first two essays are at best routine, but Shippey on Sterling is excellent, showing convincingly how Sterling's extrapolations are guided less by a systematic philosophy than by a kind of ideological bricolage. With Bonner's essay, though, we are back to the routine: rigidly concerned with establishing plausible canonicity for the texts she surveys, she measures various SF films of the '80s against a thematic tally sheet. What possible value there can be in such a procrustean enterprise I can hardly imagine, especially considering that Vivian Sobcheck's analysis of the subgenre of the “marginal postfuturist SF film” in her book Screening Space (1987) already comes fairly close to establishing a cinematic canon of cyberpunk (though this is not Sobcheck's specific agenda), and is moreover part of an overarching treatment of SF film that is complex, subtle, and fascinating. Not so Bonner's picayune hairsplitting. (Csicsery-Ronay's brief analysis, in the essay mentioned above, of David Cronenberg's 1982 film Videodrome is a much more exciting treatment of cyberpunk themes in contemporary cinema.)

Aside from its fumbled prophetic agenda and its narrow focus on essentially a single text, Fiction 2000 has other editorial problems. Cordwainer Smith's Norstrillia (1975) is cited as “Nostralia” (102) and the film Colossus: The Forbin Project (1970) as “Colossus: The Forbin Connection” (195); H. R. Giger's name is persistently misspelled “Geiger”; Gale Anne Hurd is listed as the director of the 1986 film Aliens (295), whereas she was the producer (James Cameron directed). More egregiously, John Huntington, in his essay, rehearses the plot of a J. G. Ballard story that is cited as “The Terminal Beach” when in fact he is describing “The Voices of Time” (140). I don't mean to nitpick, merely to register that the volume's problems are endemic. As an assessment of the prospects of fiction in a cybernetic culture, I recommend instead Paul Delany and George P. Landow's Hypermedia and Literary Studies (1991) and William R. Paulson's The Noise of Culture: Literary Texts in a World of Information (1988), while as an overview of cyberpunk and its relations to postmodernism, McCaffery's Storming the Reality Studio, McHale's Constructing Postmodernism, and Bukatman's Terminal Identity: The Virtual Subject in Postmodern Science Fiction (1993) are greatly to be preferred. At best, the various excellences of the Csicsery-Ronay, Rabkin, McGuirk, Landon, and Shippey essays make the book worth consulting if not acquiring. In sum, though Fiction 2000 is not a bad book, it could, in every way, have been a substantially better one.

Richard Ryan (review date 26 August 1993)

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SOURCE: Ryan, Richard. “On the Run in a Cyberpunk Future.” Christian Science Monitor 85, no. 190 (26 August 1993): 11.

[In the following review, Ryan observes that Gibson's Virtual Light offers “an urban panorama that is both spectacular and bleak.”]

William Gibson is our Jules Verne. Since the early 1980s, Gibson has offered a vision of the future that seemed both exotic and prophetically plausible. By creating worlds in which computers pressed at the boundaries of reality, Gibson made hackers into heroes and technicians into the next aristocrats. At the same time, his focus on the computer-crime subculture helped launch the cyberpunk movement, a silicon underground of software, anarchy, and urban grit.

While Gibson's fans love his street-wise plots and his over-heated prose style, critics have admired his message of human adaptability to technical change. It now appears that Gibson wants to present his pop-sociology in a more relevant setting. His new novel is set 25 years in the future and is filled with characters you might find in any big city's racier neighborhoods. Unlike the surreal landscapes of his earlier stories, the world of Virtual Light is just one generation removed from our own.

Gibson's urban panorama is both spectacular and bleak. Skyscrapers are “grown” rather than built, using microbe-sized robots created by “nanotechnology.” People entertain themselves with virtual-reality simulators, while the barriers between television and real life continue to erode. And more familiar forms of social decay have also accelerated: Drug abuse is out of control, and homeless mobs and mysterious cults have taken over any public space that hasn't been privatized.

The novel centers on the adventures of Berry Rydell, a Knoxville, Tenn., cop who loses his job and winds up in Los Angeles after a shootout with a drug-crazed kidnapper briefly turns Rydell into a TV star. Rydell goes to work for a private security agency that seems to be more powerful than the actual police (one of Gibson's favorite themes is how multinational corporations will absorb traditional government functions). More misadventures ensue: Like all of Gibson's heros, Rydell is comfortable only when he's in trouble.

Rydell winds up in San Francisco as the driver for a private detective tracking down a missing pair of “sun glasses.” The purloined shades turn out to have a unique feature: Thanks to “virtual light” technology, the wearer is able to look at the Golden Gate skyline and see a secret plan for rebuilding the city, a plan worth billions to shady real-estate developers.

The stolen glasses belong to Colombian cocaine barons who have abandoned the drug trade for more lucrative markets in boot-legged data. Like the Maltese Falcon, the glasses become the object of everyone's desire. They have fallen into the hands of Chevette Washington, a teenage runaway who works as a bike messenger and lives in a anarchist village built among the girders of the old Bay Bridge. Rydell and Chevette team up, and soon both legal and illegal furies are on their trail. Perhaps the only force powerful enough to save them is the Republic of Desire, a mysterious league of all-powerful hackers.

Virtual Light is sleek and compact, like a new notebook computer; unfortunately, it does not burn with the same incandescence that made Gibson's Neuromancer and Count Zero so riveting. Rydell and Chevette are sympathetic without being as well-drawn as one would like.

On the other hand, besides being a fun read, Virtual Light performs the valuable service of bringing Gibson's social concepts into higher resolution: The novel is a real-time simulation of the cyber-punk ethos. Perhaps on his next outing Gibson will ease up on the adrenaline and work on a canvas wide enough to develop his big ideas properly.

William Gibson and Robert K. J. Killheffer (interview date 6 September 1993)

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SOURCE: Gibson, William, and Robert K. J. Killheffer. “William Gibson.” Publishers Weekly 240, no. 36 (6 September 1993): 70-1.

[In the following interview, Killheffer provides an overview of Gibson's life and career, focusing on the publication of Virtual Light.]

The weary resignation that William Gibson sometimes feels in his role as information-age guru and novelist may have been reflected in his recent cameo on television's Wild Palms miniseries. Introduced therein as “the man who invented the term ‘cyberspace,’” Gibson now quips: “And they'll never let me forget it.”

There are good reasons for his renown. Gibson's first novel, Neuromancer (1984), commissioned by the late Terry Carr for his Ace Specials line, electrified the science fiction field. He also laid the groundwork for his vision of a cybernetic future in a series of short stories published in Omni magazine. Gibson helped to inspire the creation of the label “cyberpunk” to describe an evolving genre. And while cyberpunk's popularity has waxed and waned over the years, attended by controversy, the rise of virtual reality and computer networks is helping now to give it a second wind. This month, Bantam publishes Gibson's latest novel, Virtual Light. While not directly related to Neuromancer or other cyberpunk, the book shares enough with his earlier work to reward renewed interest.

Hackers the world over consider Gibson their prophet. As such, he's attracted the attention of Time,Mondo 2000,People, the Wall Street Journal, the Village Voice and USA Today. Artists, writers and musicians from Robert Longo and Kathy Acker to Donald Fagen and Billy Idol make no secret of their admiration for Gibson's work and the influence of his vision on their own.

But, like many pivotal figures, Gibson did not set out to be one, and in some respects he doesn't seem to fit the role. PW meets him over lunch at an informal corner restaurant near Lincoln Center in New York; he is here for one day to give a reading with novelist Steve Erickson in Central Park. Strikingly tall at 6′6″, thin, amiable and unprepossessing, a drawl creeping in and out of his conversation, Gibson views himself and his notoriety with a healthy measure of irony and self-mockery.

With some amusement, for example, he recalls that he wrote Neuromancer and Count Zero (1986)—which, along with Mona Lisa Overdrive (1988), form a loose trilogy—on a manual typewriter. Though computer techies regularly invite him to their conferences, he admits that he knows relatively little about technology. “People are invariably disappointed to discover my lack of technical expertise,” he notes drily.

By and large, Gibson prefers to maintain a low profile as a cyberspace spokesman. From the first, however, he wanted to play with and subvert the dominant assumptions of science fiction. Heavily influenced by the “New Wave” writers of the 1960s and early 1970s who tried to tear science fiction from its pulp roots and inject a dose of literary, even experimental, technique into the genre, Gibson turned the traditional science fiction viewpoint on its head. From his first published story, “Fragments of a Hologram Rose” (1977), through his early Omni stories and the Neuromancer sequence, he rejected the self-assured, well-heeled heroes who then populated most science fiction. He brought the genre down to street level.

Hip, visual and packed with gritty detail, Gibson's stories are set among the disenfranchised—pimps and prostitutes, petty thieves and tattoo artists, computer cowboys and bike messengers. In his work, the future world, shaped by science and high technology, by impersonal multinational corporations and enigmatic artificial intelligences, serves as background to the lives of real people who can no more control events in that world than we can in ours. However, cyberpunk homes in on interfaces between human brains and computers; Gibson's characters can “jack in” to “cyberspace,” a kind of virtual reality representation of data and programs in a vast computer network.

The emergence of cyberpunk ignited a furious debate in science fiction circles between some who saw cyberpunk as the genre's only hope and others convinced that it betrayed science fiction's principles. Gibson feels, in essence, that science fiction has remained pretty much unaffected by the movement. “Look what's won the genre prizes since Neuromancer,” he observes. “Extremely traditional work.” Nevertheless, he believes that cyberpunk writers have accomplished something important: “It's not that we opened up new territory, but that we kept a particular conduit open” for other writers and for readers.

Whatever his demurrals, it's clear that Gibson set out as a writer to make changes. While growing up in the small town of Wytheville, Va., he was “totally obsessed” with science fiction. He wrote and drew cartoons for various “fanzines”—amateur publications—that circulated among science fiction aficionados. But when, as a teenager, he was sent to boarding school in Arizona, he lost touch with the genre. “I was able to operate there much better as a regular teenager,” he recalls. “My interest in fandom waned.” Throughout the early '70s, having moved to Toronto and later to Vancouver, where he lives today, Gibson drifted from one odd job to another; after his marriage, he became “househusband and principal care-giver for our first kid.” In such circumstances, writing was one of the few careers he could attempt.

“When I decided [as an adult] that I wanted to try to write something, science fiction seemed like the natural choice.” In a sense, he came back to his beginnings. “It's funny,” he muses. “I guess I have this image as the cyberpunk antichrist, deeply antithetical to the traditional values of science fiction, but actually, I've sprung from science fiction soil.”

Moreover, Gibson is hardly a technophobe. Since he got his first computer, a now-archaic Apple IIc, in 1986, he's been hooked. Writing on the computer has radically changed his creative process, and for the best. Now, when he begins work for the day, he skims through what he's already written, making revisions as he goes, until he reaches the “work space,” where he's generating new text, carrying the story forward. “With the computer, the concept of drafts is gone,” he says. At times, however, he finds that the ease and freedom of word-processing can be dangerous. “The earlier parts that I've gone over so often may be too heavily revised and overwritten,” he admits.

Gibson has also embraced the idea of electronic books. Voyager is issuing electronic versions of his three cyberspace novels to tie in with the simultaneous release of Virtual Light on disk. And last year, Gibson collaborated with artist Dennis Ashbaugh and art-book publisher Kevin Begos Jr. on a project entitled Agrippa: A Book of the Dead. Inside a specially crafted oversized book illustrated with Ashbaugh's evocative engravings is a 3[frac12]-inch computer disk containing a long poem by Gibson addressing his feelings about his father, who died when the author was very young. The trick comes when you read the poem from the disk: an encryption program, functioning like a virus, devours the text, so you can read it only once. Published in a very expensive limited edition, Agrippa caused fierce argument in the art world and also among museums and libraries. The text's disappearing act challenged ideas about the permanence of art and literature, and raised serious problems for archivists interested in preserving it for future generations.

Though it wasn't the main attraction of the project for him—“The techno side of it was for me the least interesting part; what I was dabbling with there was performance art, and the New York art scene”—Gibson thinks it was a good idea to shake up people's ideas about the printed word. “I'm in the vanguard of the death-of-print crowd,” he readily admits. “I love books, and books as objects, but when you think about it, a library is just a pile of moldering organic material—it's literally rotting. Soon enough the library will become something at the end of a modem.” Then will the electronic age doom publishers? Gibson thinks they'll adapt to it.

Despite the fact that some readers (and the media) are interested in his work, though they consider themselves largely outside the world of science fiction, Gibson still feels strongly connected to the genre. Virtual Light may be, on one level, his most accessible book so far, set as it is in the very near future (California in the year 2005). But, says the author, “in order to read it with anything like full comprehension, you have to approach it as a science fiction novel—in a sense, as a science fiction novel about science fiction. There are levels at which it is a very self-conscious book.” Then again, the success he's had in crossing the genre border has always surprised Gibson. “I didn't think Neuromancer would find much of an audience. I sort of assumed it required a grounding in the genre to get what I was doing.”

Perhaps readers who are less than familiar with science fiction find Gibson's work comprehensible and relevant because so many of the concepts he treats as science fiction have become (or already were) elements of contemporary reality. Early on, he was hailed as a “hard” science fiction writer because readers recognized that much of his work was grounded in realistic, emerging technologies and evolving social trends. “Often I find myself wondering how one could write a contemporary novel that wasn't, in effect, a science fiction novel,” Gibson muses. “How can we write about the world we live in today without embracing science fiction to deal with certain material?”

He recalls a recent interview at his Vancouver home in which the interviewer took the position (“I think mostly to draw me out”) that the world hadn't changed much over the years, that all the trends and shifts addressed in Gibson's work were “bells and whistles,” mere details. “We were out in my garden,” says Gibson, “and he said, this is the same way it was back here in 1951. And I looked at him and said, ‘In 1951, you could lie on the grass in the sun with your shirt off and not get skin cancer.’” He points to other recent developments, such as AIDS (which figures prominently in Virtual Light), that in some ways require “the tool kit of the science fiction writer” to deal with in depth, and he has noticed non-genre writers taking cues from science fiction in order to deal with the modern world. Martin Amis's London Fields is a notable example. “Amis is clearly depicting late-'80s London, but there are these things going on, weird weather patterns, some sort of war, possibly a world war—they're just flickering in the background, but I think it works because that's how people feel now.”

In Virtual Light, Gibson tries for a similar effect in reverse. “One thing I tried to do was use as much real stuff—existing today—as possible, but by presenting it out of context in a science fiction novel, make it seem quite strange and creepy.”

Does Gibson feel, as some other writers do, constrained by the cyberpunk label? Would he ever like to break away from it, to try something entirely different?

Though he admits that, at times, “it's possible to feel a little claustrophobic about” cyberpunk, he isn't sure he could leave it behind him. Before Virtual Light, he collaborated with Bruce Sterling on The Difference Engine (Bantam, 1991), an “alternate history” novel in which Charles Babbage, the great 19th-century mathematician, succeeded in building the wood-and-brass computer of the title, thereby transforming the course of history. “I thought that we were doing something as stylistically different as it was possible to be, but its concerns are exactly the concerns of our previous work. It's talking about a lot of the things Neuromancer is talking about, and it's doing it a lot more coherently, and coldly.” He pauses, considering. “That was my vacation from cyberpunk, but I don't know if I went that far away.”

When all is said and done, Gibson admits, cyberpunk and its concerns may just be in his blood. “Maybe the challenge for me is to write a William Gibson novel that does all the things that a William Gibson novel is purported to do, but set it in 1993, in the real world,” he suggests. He pauses, turning the idea over. “I suspect that it could be done—and it might actually prove something.”

Peter Schwenger (essay date fall 1993)

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SOURCE: Schwenger, Peter. “Agrippa, or, The Apocalyptic Book.” South Atlantic Quarterly 92, no. 4 (fall 1993): 617-26.

[In the following essay, Schwenger identifies the central themes and motifs of Agrippa as absence, disappearance, mechanism, and apocalypse.]

All techniques meant to unleash forces are techniques of disappearance.

—Paul Virilio

Black box recovered from some unspecified disaster, the massive case opens to reveal the textures of decay and age. Yellowed newspaper, rusty honeycombing, fog-colored cerement enveloping a pale book. On the book's cover, a burned-in title: Agrippa: A Book of the Dead. Within it, page after page printed with cryptic letters.


These are the combinatory possibilities of genetic codes, as re-coded by scientists. The pages are singed at their edges; more fragments of old newspaper are interspersed. And at intervals, engravings by New York artist Dennis Ashbaugh reproduce the commercial subjects of a previous generation, subjects that will later acquire a fuller meaning: a telephone ad (“Tell Daddy we miss him”), a diagram for the assembly of a pistol, an advertised magnesium gun “for nighttime photography.” Black patches like burns smudge these images. With exposure to light the images gradually fade; the black patches reveal themselves to be the rhythmic chains of the DNA molecule as captured in microphotography. Embedded in the last pages of the book is a computer disk containing a text by cyberpunk novelist William Gibson. When activated, it runs once; then a built-in computer virus destroys the text, leaving a blank disk.

No matter, for now, what the evanescent content of that disk may be. Its specific content is less important than the fact of its disappearance. In a jibe at the art world's commercialism, publisher Kevin Begos, Jr., suggested to Ashbaugh that “what we should do is put out an art book on computer that vanishes.” Ashbaugh took him seriously, took him further; Gibson was enlisted shortly after. For all its complex resonances as an object, then, Agrippa is based on this one idea: a book disappears.

The idea has precedents. Maurice Blanchot's essay on “The Absence of the Book” argues from writerly experience that a work always becomes something other than what it is intended to be—what it is intended to be being, of course, a book. But the book (icon of law, presence, textual-cultural wholeness) is always betrayed by what Blanchot calls “the disaster.” This disaster has to do with the necessary falling short of a work's concept at the same time that an unexpected otherness beyond the work is evoked. A book never realizes its desired full presence; its realization occurs only and paradoxically through absence—“the prior deterioration of the book, the game of dissidence it plays with reference to the space in which it is inscribed; the preliminary dying of the book.”1 In the end the original concept, and even the very idea of “concept” must be exploded, Blanchot argues, citing Mallarmé's curious statement that “there is no explosion but a book.”

Mallarmé also said that “the world exists in order to be put into a book.” And he made this book—Le Livre—the ongoing preoccupation and project of his last twenty years, a project which came to nothing. Le Livre never appeared; its absence may have been the very point of it. The book's nonappearance is linked to the disappearance of the world, a crucial component of Mallarmé's art—so Sartre argues.

Meaning is a second silence deep within silence; it is the negation of the world's status as a thing. This ever unspoken meaning, which would disappear if one ever attempted to speak it … is quite simply the absence of certain objects. What is involved here is not the mere absence of a particular being but a “resonant disappearance.”2

Sartre is here quoting Mallarmé's “disparition vibratoire,” which was for him the condition of any possible meaning or truth. Speaking of his own writing, Mallarmé said that “whatever truth emerged in the process did so with the loss of an impression which, after flaring up for a brief instant, burned itself out.”3

Kevin Begos has acknowledged the influence of both Mallarmé's book and Blanchot's “Absence of the Book.” One more book was needed to catalyze Agrippa, however—an old photograph album discovered by Gibson on a trip back to his home town of Wytheville, Virginia. His computerized text reproduces its commercial title page:

Order extra leaves by letter and name

The print is dim, scrawled over with something indecipherable. The opening words of Gibson's text describe the opening of the album:

I hesitated
before untying the bow
that bound the book together
A Kodak album of time-harmed
black construction paper

These words describing a hesitation themselves hesitate before they begin scrolling past. Then, one by one, the old photographs are rendered in words, each with its caption—though these captions are sometimes indecipherable, their obscurity described along with the rest of the book's “time-harmed” textures. This electronic book, book of the future, evokes through its words the ghost of antiquated pages.

That this ghostly book is a photo album means that it is already a book of the dead. In the photographs a whole world of people and objects is depicted in intense specificity: shadows cast over the brim of straw hats, grass that needs cutting, electric wires strung over street intersections. Yet all these things fall into a Mallarméan absence. Viewing a photograph, Roland Barthes says, “I shudder … over a catastrophe which has already occurred. Whether or not the subject is already dead, every photograph is this catastrophe.”4 The black box of the camera is a temporal mechanism; Gibson speaks of the fall of the shutter as dividing time.

The description of the album's discovery is followed by the recollection of an earlier discovery by Gibson: As a boy he opened a drawer to find another mechanism of disappearance, his father's pistol. He took it out of the drawer and it unexpectedly discharged; when he dropped it, it went off again. Beyond the biographical fact, there may be a link here to another pair of explosions half a world away: Gibson's father worked on the Manhattan Project. Another possible disappearance of the world is adumbrated, not literary but literal; the singed, disastrous look of the black box's contents takes on a new significance. This “relic from the future,” as Begos has called it, replicates a typical pattern of nuclear-war fiction. Relic of a past event which is yet to take place in the future, the nuclear narrative is transmitted backward to us in the present, which is that future's past. The paradoxes shuttle and blur into “time no more,” as announced by the angel of the apocalypse; and that “no more” is echoed in the last resonances of a disappearing world.

The men who moved the world closer to disappearance have, most of them, themselves disappeared; Gibson's father died when his son was six. To the degree that Agrippa is a memoir of Gibson's father, its irreversible passing is like his life, or any life. We can reread a human life only in memory. We can, of course, write of a human life, write “in memory of.” When we do, we inhabit a paradoxical space, according to Jacques Derrida:

[D]oes the expression “in memory of” mean that the name is “in” our memory—supposedly a living capacity to recall images or signs from the past, etc.? Or that the name is in itself, out there somewhere, like a sign or symbol, a monument, epitaph, stele or tomb, a memorandum, aide-mémoire, a memento, an exterior auxiliary set up “in memory of”? Both, no doubt; and here lies the ambiguity of memory, the contamination which troubles us, troubles memory and the meaning of “memory.”5

Following a distinction in Hegel, Derrida suggests that there are two kinds of memory: mechanical memorization (Gedächtnis), associated with writing, and interiorized recollection (Erinnerung), associated with mourning. For Derrida, these are at odds with each other: “[T]he inscription of memory [is] an effacement of interiorizing recollection, of the ‘living remembrancing.’”6 Or, as Paul de Man puts it, art “materially inscribes, and thus forever forgets, its ideal content.”7 But the process can be reversed: writing that disappears can make another kind of memory appear. This is an unforgetting, in Heidegger's terms—the return from Lethe—aletheia or truth, a version akin to Mallarmé's truth. To lose the text commemorating a loss is not, then, to redouble loss; it is to move away from the loss that is always inherent in memory's textual mechanism. It is once again to take into one's keeping the memory that is interiorized recollection.

What I have just said may give the impression that Gibson's text is exclusively past-bound, father-oriented, in one way or another an act of mourning. This is not so. At a certain point in the album, and in his own book, the photographed small-town streets which are his father's memories fuse with Gibson's own memories. He then detaches himself from those past streets, remembers the process of forgetting them. By way of the draft board office on the town's main street, Gibson recalls his one-way trip to the Canadian border; when he crosses that border, time is divided as if by a shutter. He describes the unfamiliar feel, the texture, of his first days in Toronto. Finally, a leap into an even stranger future, so remote from these that it might be a scene from one of Gibson's own novels. In a Far Eastern city, a typhoon speeds “horizontal rain” at the speaker's face. Yet this destructive future elicits neither mourning nor fear. In the last words to scroll by, the speaker is “laughing in the mechanism.”

What mechanism? The word “mechanism” is repeated at intervals in Agrippa, and the idea is implicit throughout it.

  • —The camera is a mechanism for dividing time.
  • —The gun, when it discharges, enforces in the silence that follows an “awareness of the mechanism.”
  • —Behind the gun, the bomb—and a mechanism extending beyond the bomb casing to the Manhattan Project and the forces that produced it.
  • —On a still night in Wytheville, the boy can hear the clicking as traffic lights change a block away, and this too is described as an awareness of the mechanism. How far away does the mechanism extend?
  • —The photograph album is referred to as a mechanism; any book is a mechanism.
  • —Language is a mechanism; for Jacques Lacan, it is the mechanism we are born into, the set of the structuring principles of our lives.
  • —An affinity between chains of signifiers and chromosomal chains. If we are born into the mechanism of language, we are born out of a genetic mechanism—out of which we cannot move, for it composes us.
  • —The mechanisms of our genes and our nervous systems, insofar as they are mechanisms, are linked to those of the computer in a cybernetic field.

When the disk has run its course, everything in the text—book, camera, gun, explosion, father, town, time, memory—is encrypted into a mechanized code much like that on Ashbaugh's pages, before it contorts and vanishes. Always, and in all its versions, the mechanism is involved with absence and its ultimate end is disappearance.

That disappearance is apocalyptic: I am using the word not only in its sense of overwhelming destruction, but also in its original Greek sense of revelation. The last book of the Bible has forever linked destruction with revelation—as Blanchot does, as Mallarmé does. Moreover, it does so repeatedly through a book. The Book of the Apocalypse describes the opening of a book; that opening, seal by seal, unleashes a series of terrible endings. The Last Judgment is initiated when the Book of the Dead is opened. And finally the sky disappears “as a scroll when it is rolled together.” Microcosmic apocalypse, Agrippa too is destroyed by being opened, its images fading, its text scrolling past us into irreversible emptiness. But if there can be no rereading, the reading we have finished may not be finished with us. After the final destruction of heaven and earth in the Bible a new heaven and earth come to pass; and something like this comes to pass in reading, even if what is read can never be read again. Blanchot has said that writing is “the opaque, empty opening into that which is when there is no more world, when there is no world yet.”8 He hovers here between “no more” and “not yet,” between loss and potential: the emptiness is apocalyptic, in both its senses. Through the necessary destruction of the text (all texts), something comes to pass. Though the question of what comes to pass is ultimately beyond us, the question of how it comes to pass is not.

A book, says Blanchot, is “a ruse by which writing goes towards the absence of the book.9 The ruse in Agrippa, as in other books, has to do with framing. The final disappearance of Agrippa takes place within multiple frames, some literal, some literary: the black box, the corroded coffin in which the shrouded book is laid; the book's cover and title; the time-bound pages of newspaper, commercial images, genetic codes; the embedded disk of magnetic code; the code of language; rhythm and recurrence—all that I have articulated of what this work articulates, and more. All of these are mechanisms which, rightly combined, explode into revelation, the immanence of something beyond. But in the revelation of what lies between or beyond these framing elements, they are annihilated. For what is apprehended is exactly what is other than these separate elements, a sum that exceeds these parts. We move toward the famous conclusion of Wittgenstein's Tractatus—a tautology that is saved from the “intense inane” by being itself framed, the product of a certain process in time. At the end of the process that is Agrippa we are left not merely with emptiness, but with our awareness of that process both in and beyond the mechanism. Knowing that there has been a process in time, the blank page (as in Isak Dinesen's tale) may be the most eloquent text. “The most beautiful and perfect book in the world,” says Ulises Carrión, “is a book with only blank pages, in the same way that the most complete language is that which lies beyond all that the words of man can say.”10 In the very act of disappearing, then, Agrippa makes something appear.


  1. Maurice Blanchot, “The Absence of the Book,” in The Gaze of Orpheus and Other Literary Essays, ed. P. Adams Sitney, trans. Lydia Davis (Barrytown, NY, 1981), 151.

  2. Jean-Paul Sartre, Mallarmé, or the Poet of Nothingness, trans. Ernest Sturm (University Park, PA, 1988), 140.

  3. Letter from Mallarmé to Eugène Lefébvre, 17 May 1867, in Stéphane Mallarmé: Correspondence, 1862-1871, ed. Henri Mondor (Paris, 1959), 245-46.

  4. Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography, trans. Richard Howard (New York, 1981), 96.

  5. Jacques Derrida, Mémoires: For Paul de Man, trans. Cecile Lindsay, Jonathan Culler, and Eduardo Cadava (New York, 1986), 50.

  6. Ibid., 56.

  7. Paul de Man, “Sign and Symbol in Hegel's Aesthetics,Critical Inquiry 8 (1982): 773; cited in Derrida, Mémoires, 67.

  8. Maurice Blanchot, The Space of Literature, trans. Ann Smock (Lincoln, NE, 1982), 33.

  9. Blanchot, “Absence of the Book,” 147.

  10. Ulises Carrión, quoted in Artists' Books: A Critical Anthology and Sourcebook, ed. Joan Lyons and Gibbs M. Smith (Rochester, 1985), 38.

This work was supported by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada. Special thanks to Veronica Hollinger and Sasha Sergejewski.

John Lanchester (review date 3 October 1993)

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SOURCE: Lanchester, John. “Making the Future a Virtual Reality.” Guardian Weekly 149, no. 14 (3 October 1993): 29.

[In the following review of Virtual Light, Lanchester asserts that Gibson's strengths as a writer are his prose style and his ability to imagine and create a fantastic world in inventive detail.]

There is, within the interlinked fields of computing and media technology, a widespread view that the complex set of innovations currently taking place is about to reach critical mass. When this happens, the Information Revolution will finally, belatedly, begin to have as big an effect on the world as did the Industrial Revolution. The official term used to describe this stimulatingly vague nexus of emerging technologies is “multimedia”. Technicians at Apple Computer have a better word for this future: they call it The Blob.

William Gibson is the poet and visionary of The Blob. The trilogy of novels he published during the 1980s—Neuromancer,Count Zero, and Mona Lisa Overdrive—imagine an undistant future in which every computer in the world is linked together in a “hallucination by consensus” known as “cyberspace”.

Gibson's new novel, Virtual Light, is set closer to the present. Its action takes place in Los Angeles and San Francisco in the early years of the next century. At the centre of the novel is the Bay Bridge which, partially destroyed by a huge earthquake, has become the home to a bedraggled community of outsiders, including our heroine, Chevette Washington, who works as a bicycle messenger. (As a character puts it, she “earned her living at the archaic frontier of information and geography”).

The bridge is a vehicle both for some wonderfully Gibsonian imaginings—“toward Oakland, past the haunted island, the wingless carcass of a 747 housed the kitchens of nine Thai restaurants”—and for the book's central metaphor. “The integrity of the span was as rigorous as the modern programme itself”, muses Yamazaki, a Japanese graduate student fascinated by the bridge, “yet around this had grown another reality, intent upon its own agenda”.

Virtual Light itself parallels this structure, not least because its plot is far exceeded in interest by the particularity of the world Gibson invents. Like Gibson's other novels, Virtual Light has several plot strands and characters converging on a central chase-cum-shoot out; here, the McGuffin is a pair of glasses containing corporate data bearing on the post-earthquake reconstruction of San Francisco.

The cast of characters includes Chevette Washington, who steals the glasses at a party; Berry Rydell, ex-policeman and ex-rentacop, who comes looking for her; and his former partner, Sublett, apostate member of a religious sect which believes that God is present in old television programmes (“He's in the details … You gotta watch for Him close”). The chief baddie, Lucius Warbaby, is acting for the Sunflower Corporation, who are eventually thwarted by a group of hackers calling themselves The Republic of Desire.

All of this—plot and characterisation—is nugatory, rudimentary. Oddly, that doesn't seem to matter, perhaps because it doesn't impinge on Gibson's ability to fulfil what Larkin defined as the first duty of the novelist: to create a world.

Dominating Gibson's imaginative universe, intent upon their own agenda, are the sentences and the details and the jokes. Some personal favourites; there is a brand of Japanese vodka called Come Back Salmon; there is a kind of music called Pentecostal Metal; there is a hostage-taking psychopath, wielding a home-made gun which fires grapefruit cans filled with concrete. Above all, though, there are Gibson's sentences. “Rydell's room mate, Kevin Tarkovsky, wore a bone through his nose and worked in a windsurfing boutique called Just Blow Me”, “He finds himself leaning forward, compulsively addressing the brown neck of the driver, whose massive ear lobes somehow recall reproduction pottery offered on the hotel's shopping channel”. Writing as good as this almost reconciles one to the prospect of The Blob.

Frederic Tuten (review date 17 October 1993)

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SOURCE: Tuten, Frederic. “Where Things Have Gone Kaput.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (17 October 1993): 13.

[In the following review of Virtual Light, Tuten comments that the plot is overly contrived and at times incomprehensible, the characters are undeveloped and lack depth, and that the novel as a whole “lacks a fresh perspective in its imagined future.”]

Sometime in the not-too-far away in a quasi-anarcho-future, in the land of holograms, light-pens and tele-presence phones, in a world where many wear respirator-masks against the muck of dense viral air, lives Rydell, former police officer turned, by force of circumstance, private cop for the “residential armed response branch” of IntenSecure, a private security organization in Los Angeles.

His is a bungled life. Once a dedicated, fearless police officer in Knoxville, Tenn., Rydell has killed a crazy who's blasted a closet filled with child hostages and who, for his reward, is suspended from the force for having overreacted and is sued by the children's mother—and lover of the drug-crazed man Rydell's plugged in the line of duty.

Rydell is championed up by Cops in Trouble, a TV show dedicated to featuring stories about cases just like Rydell's. The program flies him to L.A., literally wine and dines him only to drop him in a flash to pursue a bloodier, sexier story of cops and mayhem that has exploded on the news scene.

So, Rydell. young, semi-educated and broke, finds himself fit for little except to drive an armored Land Rover patrolling the mansions of the Los Angeles rich. One night, on just such a patrol, Rydell and his partner, Sublet, a runaway from a sect which believes that God reveals himself/herself on TV, are called to help a family held captive by terrorists threatening to kill the children. When Rydell bursts on the scene, crashing his armored car through the front gate and into the house itself, he discovers not the terrorized family but the LAPD guns drawn and ready to blast him and his partner to the next state. For reasons unknown, renegade hackers have filed false information into IntenSecure's computers, sending Rydell on a near-suicidal mission.

These events begin and drive the premise of William Gibson's latest fiction, whose title, Virtual Light, relates to a stolen technological gadget central to the unfurling of the novel's twisting but essentially simplistic plot. From here on, Rydell, whose career in law enforcement or in anything for that matter has gone kaput, reluctantly and unofficially joins the IntenSecure firm. There, he engages in shadowy but seemingly legal efforts to retrieve the stolen Virtual Light eyeglasses, which hold secret, valuable information. The search to recover them leads to at least one grisly death.

Rydell himself disappears from the novel awhile so that Gibson can introduce characters who will eventually turn up in Rydell's path when he arrives in San Francisco in search of the glasses. You've met them before—or feel you have—in other shapes and guises in other fictions and in movies: a pair of bad, corrupt detectives, a professional killer who cuts out people's tongues, a Japanese social-anthropology student who has come to study a breed of people squatting and selling various wares on the defunct Bay Bridge—among them a crusty old-timer who had been one of the original occupiers of the bridge when the homeless of the city spontaneously rose up and claimed it.

Perhaps the most vivid of the San Francisco group Rydell encounters is Chevette Washington, bike messenger. Yes, they still have them in this version of the future, along with other such familiar items of the late-20th Century as Windex, Goodyear Tires, Seven-Elevens and bagels and cream cheese. Chevette Washington plays the unwitting catalyst for all the chases and violence, the various contrivances of the novel's action; and, as loner and outsider that she is, Chevette makes the perfect mate-in-waiting for Rydell. On paper, that is, for neither Chevette nor Rydell have anything in them that reminds you much of feelings or of thought. They spin out and are spun by the hectic and not always comprehensible action, pushed about mechanically by the machinery of plot.

If other characters in this novel seem shades of other works, Rydell is a shade unto himself. He acts and reacts without reflection, having next to no internal life. In the novel's opening chapter we are given some sympathetic glimpse of him—a man in fantasy-love, masturbation over an image of a woman on video cassette he's kept for a decade—but nothing in the rest of the novel returns to or develops the theme of Rydell's intense loneliness or in fact develops him in this alienation. As a man pushed to extremes, a man forced to take work for strangers on dark errands, he should engage our sympathy; as a character faced with dangers he should enlist our fears, but he does neither.

He's simply a robot for Gibson's maneuvers, a stock figure in a novel filled with stock techno-futuristic props (some seeming like exotic toys found in The Sharper Image) and assumptions about the future extrapolated from conditions of present-day life.

The further dividing of classes, the Balkanization of countries, the running-down and ruin of the environment and the creation of international cartels with their invisible empires form some of the novel's assumptions of future life. All plausible, all available to our imagination of disaster—for real-life disaster, and valid as well even for the materials of fiction. But fiction, unlike life, demands that the imagination be fresh, that the images rouse us, frighten us, entertain us. The images in Virtual Light do not do those things. Gibson's shorthand description of a San Francisco's future netherworld street, for example, is one we've seen before (Blade Runner comes easily to mind) and even before: “Combat zone. Ruins. Fires in steel cans. Hunched dark figures, faces vampire white.”

The future as a character in this novel is as thin as are the other characters and is, finally, unimportant. Stripped of its high-tech lingo and hardware. Virtual Light is just an old fashioned thriller, speedy but without much thrill.

Lance Olsen (review date spring 1994)

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SOURCE: Olsen, Lance. Review of Virtual Light, by William Gibson. Review of Contemporary Fiction 14, no. 1 (spring 1994): 215-16.

[In the following review of Virtual Light, Olsen lauds Gibson's dark humor, detailed imagery, narrative voice, and imaginativeness.]

William Gibson stands at the center of the cultural whirlwind called cyberpunk, that recent subset of science fiction intent on commingling the technosphere of cybernetics, cybernauts, and computer hacking with the countercultural sociosphere of punk's anarchic violence, fringe mentality, and a sincere (if naive) attempt to return to the raw roots of its being. Through his Matrix Trilogy—Neuromancer (1984), Count Zero (1986), and Mona Lisa Overdrive (1990)—Gibson explored, among other things, computer-generated reality, information as the new power base, and a grungy near-future universe that looked way too much like our own present one for comfort.

In Virtual Light his future-present (in cyberpunk tomorrow is always a metaphor for today) has lost the mystical aspects cyberspace evinced in the Trilogy. Instead appears a universe almost completely rooted in the meat world. Set in 2005 in a dingy California divided into two states, NoCal and SoCal, Virtual Light explores a radically dystopian vision—or what might at first appear so if you are an upwardly mobile middle-class WASP. Otherwise, things actually look pretty good. Through one optic, then, Virtual Light can be read as an optimistic text, and two key metaphors reinforce this. First is the San Francisco bike-messenger service, one of whose employees, Chevette Washington, steals a pair of virtual light glasses (which produce images in the brain by stimulating your optic nerves without employing photons) from a sleazy guy at a party on a pissed-off whim. Second is the Oakland Bay Bridge, abandoned by the city after a megalithic earthquake and slowly taken over by the homeless. Gibson's use of the former suggests environmentally conscious freedom, exhilarating speed, and sexy fashion. The patchwork dwellings on the brilliantly described broken bridge, from bars to tattoo parlors, sushi shops to ragtag shelters, suggest that the streets find uses for things, the result in Virtual Light being an urban crazy-quilt as much indicative of contemporary America as of the short intense chapters of the novel itself, which weave a series of intersecting plots toward a jazzy unifying climax.

Most surprising is Virtual Light's dark humor, the antithesis of that flat bleak tone of the Trilogy. Characters sport handles like Lucius Warbaby. A surveillance-and-command satellite is fondly nicknamed the Death Star by those it watches over. A wind-surfing boutique is called Just Blow Me. The presence of such easy Pynchonesque laughs flags the essential problem Gibson, now forty-five and a postmodern icon himself, has had to wrestle with since the publication of Neuromancer almost a decade ago. Is it possible to keep the news new without skidding toward self-parody? The answer is yes, and Gibson does so by introducing a powerful comic thrust into his text that takes nothing (including itself) very seriously. But the answer is also no. For all its flash and burn, there's nothing particularly trail-blazing about Virtual Light. Chevette Washington, that bike-messenger, has stolen those VL glasses (providing only a pale simulacra of technosurreal cyberspace) from a guy who turns out to be a gopher for, what else, a major corporation with some fairly depressing plans for San Francisco. Throw in one Berry Rydell, a good-cop-gone-(accidentally)-bad, attach him to Chevette, and you have a simple variation on the Molly-Case team from Neuromancer, the Angie-Turner one from Count Zero, and the Angie-Bobby one from Mona Lisa Overdrive, all edge-dwellers caught in the complex workings of vast uncaring megacorps, all inhabiting a hard-boiled naturalist universe with at least as much in common with Nelson Algren's The Man with the Golden Arm and Raymond Chandler's The Big Sleep as with Alfred Bester's The Demolished Man or Anthony Burgess's A Clockwork Orange.

Yet things aren't as easy as that, either. After all, most people don't read Gibson for plot. Most read him for the great gadgets, hip fashion, and holographically detailed sentences. The speed of his language, of his narrative, and of his imagination are nothing short of spectacular. And they all enhance that other, more important, reason we read him—for his ability to get us to think about what is important to think about, to move us into a terrain of crucial cultural issues that most other contemporary fiction just doesn't even care abut, let alone explore, from the anarchist hacker underground networks to the rampant rise of religious fundamentalism across the globe. And that's why we keep coming back to him, why Gibson remains one of the most dynamic, significant, and influential writers on the scene at this very late date in the millennium.

Randy Schroeder (essay date July 1994)

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SOURCE: Schroeder, Randy. “Determinacy, Indeterminacy, and the Romantic in William Gibson.” Science-Fiction Studies 21, no. 2 (July 1994): 155-63.

[In the following essay, Schroeder discusses the ideas of postmodernism and literary romanticism in Gibson's fiction.]

It is tempting to think of postmodernism as an indeterministic and antirealist worldview or aesthetic, positioned explicitly against traditional positivist, materialist, and realist positions. But I believe this argument misses the mark, for two reasons. First, and most obviously, it is impossible to characterize postmodernism as a monolith, except in the most polemic of views. Second, and more important to this paper, such a characterization of postmodernism subtly reinscribes the terms of argument that postmodernism apparently rejects: exactly those traditional western metanarratives which formulate all our questions about “reality” through such binaries as realist/antirealist and subject/object.

A convincing rejection of this kind of thinking is to be found in the work of Richard Rorty, who is, strictly speaking, a pragmatist rather than a postmodernist. In his introduction to Objectivity, Relativism, and Truth, Rorty begins by disarming the entire realism/antirealism debate, which he claims is necessarily predicated in realist terms. Thus, to call antirepresentationalist positions antirealist is to concede realist conditions of argument, for this notion “brings back the very representationalist picture from which we need to escape” (12). Instead, Rorty urges that the entire question of determinate/indeterminate ontology be viewed as incoherent—the wrong question—and that we stop trying to “climb out of our own minds” (14).

Given this qualification, we can understand the postmodernist impulse to ban words like ontology, epistemology, and metaphysics; again, these terms simply beg the realist question. When Jean Baudrillard signals the end of truth and reference (in Simulations), he also signals the end of the vocabulary of truth and reference. From a postmodernist position, then, the “recuperation” of postmodernism into the semantic field of subject/object reality just isn't playing fair.

Into this argument I want to introduce the characterization of William Gibson as a postmodern writer. This characterization brings with it a whole range of issues, from Gibson as a writer within the historical periodization of postmodernism, to Gibson as a writer with postmodern sensibilities, to Gibson as a fictive attempt to think the bewildering space of postmodernism (see Jameson's “The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism”).

I am not proposing to answer the complex, difficult, and perhaps pedantic question of whether or not Gibson writes “postmodern” fiction. But I will argue that Gibson's universe recapitulates the traditional Western terms for thinking about the world, in that his fiction exhibits a constant tension and interplay between conceptions of determinacy and indeterminacy, realism and antirealism. Further, this interplay yields a reading experience of complex ambiguity. One is tempted to read in terms of metaphor and depth, despite Gibson's much-celebrated “surface style,” which has been associated with techniques such as collage, the use of jump-cut, fractured imagery, and so on. Add to this the obvious romantic strains—as Samuel R. Delany says, “the hard edges of Gibson's dehumanized technologies hide a residing mysticism” (33)—and it becomes useful to read Gibson's fiction in terms of residual modes of thinking (to borrow a term from Raymond Williams), in addition to the more widely identified terms of postmodern space, information-age malaise, and cybernetic deconstruction.1

I take the traditional ontological debate to be constructed in this way: determinism is synonymous with those viewpoints that privilege rationality, reductionist explanations, and the decidability of truth-claims. By positing a naive or qualified correspondence between truth-claims and nonlinguistic reality, determinism can also be identified with realism. Within this semantic field, indeterminism is simply the flip-side of determinism: the privileged terms are “unknowable.” By problematizing the correspondence between the sign and the real, indeterminism is also antirealism.

The problem with the word “romantic” is, of course, its plurality of usages.2 Luckily Gibson's fiction does not engage a thoroughly Romantic aesthetic, but rather the loose collection of popular conceptions and misconceptions that fall under the heading “romantic.” In the cyberspace trilogy, this loose collection manifests itself in four ways. The first is through Gibson's use of the nostalgic and cliched images and themes that enjoy perpetual circulation among adolescent white males; these include the solitary hero, the exotic weapon, and the transcendent will-to-power. The second is the mystical impulse that embraces the irrational or arational depths of the psyche, the belief in meanings and modes of knowing that elude signs and dualistic epistemologies. The third is the belief in and commitment to subjectivity. And the fourth is the frequent use of nature as metaphor and the consequent myth of the Luddite.

Gibson incorporates these “romantic” strains partly as genre-allusion, for each can be found within the sf tradition. The romanticism of cliche and male adolescent fantasy is obvious in the pulp heritage and the comic-book universe. Some, like Veronica Hollinger, have identified it as a possible feature of cyberpunk itself (31). Fascination with modes of knowing that transcend the duality of language and scientific method can be found in the subgenre of “psi,” which explores the world of telepathy, precognition, and other mental powers. Subjectivity is the realm of much New Wave sf, especially the drug-culture varieties, and makes a noticeable appearance in the widely-reported solipsism of Philip K. Dick. The Luddite myth—with its trappings of edenic longing—is most conspicuous in the “spaceship to a virgin world” varieties of fiction.

These diffuse strains of romanticism acquire an air of coherence as part of a tradition that can be exploited. As Carol McGuirk has demonstrated, Gibson positions science-fiction cliches as “centerpieces for his ironic rendition of the genre's history” (121). Each romantic strain also deserves to be taken seriously as an independent impulse, for while Gibson uses romantic images self-consciously and with irony—even mockery—he does not undermine them consistently.


Hardwiring and instinct are familiar and interconnected tropes in Neuromancer. Molly is “wired” a certain way. Case is motivated by “the warm thing” of anger (§12:152). Even Wintermute is under some kind of compulsion (§17:206). These themes suggest reduction; however, a compulsive or instinctual behavior does not necessarily have a rationally knowable source. Instinct may be forever opaque to rationality.

Wintermute says, “I'm under compulsion myself. And I don't know why.” We find out later that the compulsion is perhaps the “fruition of certain capacities” built into Wintermute by Lady Marie-France. But Molly can only continue to say “the why of that's just the way I'm wired,” and Case's anger is a “strange thing”: “He couldn't take its measure.” This introduces an element of unquantifiability into both instinct and wiring.

Instinct is a deep structure. In deterministic terms that deep structure is known or at least knowable; in the romantic, depth is irrational or arational. Depth is the ocean of the unconscious, closed to rational mapping. But the romantic depth is not unreadable cartography either. While the postmodern rejects the significance of depth, the romantic introduces arational modes of knowing which embrace the deep. Case and Molly are informed by instinct, although that instinct remains rationally opaque.

This kind of knowing is typified by Case's recognition of the “unknowable code” of genetics:

It was a vast thing, beyond knowing, a sea of information coded in spiral and pheremone, infinite intricacy that only the body, in its strong blind way, could ever read.

Gibson introduces figures of blindness, infinity and the sea: infinity and the sea are linked as aspects of the romantic image of vast preconsciousness; blindness is the image of wisdom, the “other way of seeing” that engages the arational and the noumenal. “Something” has a reference, but that reference is opaque to rationality.

Though the unknowable code is closed to Case's rational being, Gibson tips his hand and weaves a reductive determinacy into the romantic. The unknowable code is still a code, and further, a genetic code. Though beyond knowing, it is discernible as a function of “spiral and pheremone.” Infinity is not unitary, but built out of “intricacy.”

Perhaps the densest metaphor of the romantic/deterministic tension is the beehive or wasp's nest. This figure originates with cybernetician Norbert Weiner, who claims that the secret of the hive “is in the intercommunication of its members” (182). The sophisticated control of information within the hive makes it an excellent cybernetic metaphor, which Gibson uses to good effect in his description of the yakuza “hives with cybernetic memories, vast single organisms, their DNA coded in silicon” (§17:203). The image becomes almost ubiquitous in Neuromancer, in references from the nest-like Straylite, to holograms that “Swarm like live things” (§12:155), to “a robot gardener striped diagonally with black and yellow” (§12:156). The nest, while the representation and embodiment of cybernetic organization, also resonates with irrational meaning: “Horror. The spinal birth factory, stepped terraces of the hatching cells, blind jaws of unborn moving ceaselessly … Alien” (§10:126). Case is also repulsed by the nest-like ship Marcus Garvey: “There was something obscene about the arrangement, but it had more to do with ideas of feeding than of sex” (§14:166).

When asked what accounts for the resonance of the nest metaphor, Gibson replied, “the fear of bugs, for one thing!” (McCaffery 231). This hints at a primal and emotional response to the nest that competes with the suggestion of information and organization. The horror is unexplainable, and if not quite romantic, at least primal and archetypal, belonging to the “unknowable” and the “blind.” The two patterns—one rational, one emotive and irrational—interpenetrate in one densely ambivalent sequence:

In the dream, just before he'd drenched the nest with fuel, he'd seen the T-A logo of TessierAshpool neatly embossed into its side, as though the wasps themselves had worked it there.


The T-A logo is corporate information, a representation of organization and control integrated with the biological figure of cybernetic organization. But the sequence resonates with instinctual horror, as the nest simultaneously embodies Case's primal fears. The destruction by fire is embodied in a dream, suggesting the consuming potential of creative power and subjectivity, while also dragging up questions of referentiality and objectivity.


John B. Pierce, in an essay on Shelley, distinguishes between two kinds of silence, “one of absence, nihilism and vacancy; another of presence, potentiality and plenitude” (104). In a mystical context, the silence of presence is that meaning which perpetually outwits language; as the Tao Te Ching says, “The way that can be spoken of / Is not the constant way” (57). For the romantic, the way can be known intuitively. For the indeterminist, the way is hopelessly closed to apprehension, which is circumscribed by signs. The indeterministic account is that there is no absolute meaning; the romantic account is that absolute meaning is mystical.

Silence is identified with transcendence in Neuromancer. Wintermute and Neuromancer lose their Turing names when they unite, as oneness is accompanied by a loss of signs. Case experiences an almost determinate silence when he is surgically corrected: “Then black fire found the branching tributaries of the nerves, pain beyond anything to which the name of pain is given …” (§2:31). The pain outwits reference, but still bears meaning and existence. This kind of non-referential but somehow knowable silence is suggested again when Case finds himself “singing a song without words or tune” (§20:233).

Against the image of silence is a pattern that privileges the word against other signs. This nostalgic pattern resists the textual plurality of the information age and affirms monolithic literary culture. Straylight, an image of technological decay, is full of books (§13:207, §20:232). This might be irony, but it links with another powerful image. Amidst all the high-tech gimmickry that Case and Molly must employ to execute Wintermute's plan, there is a final and all-important key: “the magic word” (§14:173). And recall Neuromancer's claim that “to call up a demon you must learn its name” (§21:243).

This word-privileging affirms romantic nostalgia and literary culture at the same time as it undermines the competing romantic impulse towards silence. The word is at once gloriously powerful and hopelessly inadequate. To complicate things, the magic word is never revealed, which deepens its magical effect on the reader. The unknown word—in its absence—captures mystery. This begins to sound postmodern.


Within traditional ontological arguments, both knowledge and meaning are circumscribed by signs. Again, the argument is organized by the concept of referentiality: if signs refer accurately to a non-linguistic reality, then objective knowledge and stable meaning are both possible; if signs fail to refer, then knowledge becomes indeterminate while meaning becomes elusive and temporary. Thus the Romantic tradition—while positioned firmly within Western ideological traditions—opposes both determinism and indeterminism in its relocation of meaning outside the realm of signs. The mystic dismisses the realist/anti-realist argument, bypassing perception and reference in favor of direct access to the noumenal.

In Gibson's world we see an ironic conflation and negotiation of determinism and indeterminism, typified by technological figures. The world of high-tech is fractured, random, impossible to comprehend, a sort of Toffler's Third Wave gone wild. As reproductive technologies reproduce themselves, simulation colonizes the real: virtual reality leaks out into reality, and referentiality leaks out altogether. But as readers we are continually aware that these experiences of indeterminacy are enabled by determinate mechanisms. We are suspicious that somewhere underneath the doubled Cases, rebel AIs, and voodoo gods there is an infinite series of binary switches. Against technology—the volatile master-metaphor of the intimate hostility of determinacy and indeterminacy—the Romantic positions itself, in an updated version of the old machine/garden binary.

While Neuromancer begins immediately by heralding an earth colonized by technology—“the sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel”—Count Zero begins with a romantic idyll. In the first chapter, Turner, who has just escaped the nightmare world of cybernetic enhancement, finds tranquility in Mexico, where the images are of “deep water” (7), “fingers of sunlight” (4), the “mindless glide of a bird” (4), and the sea (5). Life has a “Simple pattern” here, where one can learn “without words” (5). Fragments, represented by the Dutchman's grafts, are supplanted by unity, the “unity of his body” (6). The precise prose of brand-names and details is replaced by a softer, more familiar style. Even Turner's words are “long spirals of unfocused narrative” that spin out “to join the sound of the sea” (5).

While Neuromancer begins in the Sprawl and in Chiba, both of which embody high-tech in every way, Mona Lisa Overdrive begins in a quaintly nostalgic London. The first chapter of Neuromancer disorients the reader immediately; the first chapter of Mona Lisa Overdrive is familiar and reassuring. Contrast Neuromancer's first sentence with a sentence in the first chapter of Mona Lisa Overdrive: “the late afternoon sky was colorless” (5). London exhibits “rows and shops of houses” (5), “stone and brick” (6), and the “pervasive hint of burning, of archaic fuels” (7). History is “the very fabric of things” (5). In contrast, Chiba exhibits “tanks of blue mutant carp” (8), “an uneasy blend of Japanese traditional pale Milanese plastics” (9), and a “constant subliminal hum” (7).

It would appear that the fragmented world of Neuromancer is compromised by the romantic in Count Zero and Mona Lisa Overdrive. But the idyll in Count Zero is soon shattered. Turner notices a boat on the ocean, a boat that will prove to be the invasion of the romantic, as the corporate world comes to bear Turner away. Gibson completes this displacement with a nice touch: Turner's farewell to his lover is described in the most hackneyed of romantic terms: “She didn't look back” (§1:8). This simultaneously displaces the romantic and undermines it as a hopeless cliche. In Mona Lisa Overdrive the reassuring “London prose” gives way to the detailed hyperprose of Chapter Two. It seems, then, that Gibson's trilogy undermines the romantic. This is true, to a point. But Gibson folds his meanings inside-out more than once, and we have not seen the last of the romantic.

One pattern that suggests a displacement of deterministic/indeterministic technology is the familiar romantic image of the ruined cottage, of nature reclaiming itself from the technological. Near the end of Neuromancer there is the image of “old machines given up to the mineral rituals of rust” (§23:261). Mona Lisa Overdrive introduces the expansive metaphor of the sea, and “the entropic nature of expensive houses built too close to the sea” (§3:17). In a cybernetic sense entropy is the measure of a system's disorganization. But in Gibson's metaphor entropy specifically describes the degeneration of technology, the deconstruction of human enterprises by eternal processes.

Count Zero engages the romantic pattern most thoroughly. In Chapter 1 the sand has “subsided, allowing the structure's facade to cave in” (§1:6), suggesting not only natural entropy, but the illusory nature of human constructions. The hotel fares no better: “The waves had licked away its foundation” (§1:7). Chapter Seven introduces the mall, symbol par excellence of consumer culture and breeding ground of simulation: today one can find a microcosmic world reproduced within the mall, including wave-pools that simulate the ocean. In Count Zero the mall is a ruin: “Perhaps eighty meters from the highway the jagged ocean began. The expanse between had once been a parking lot” (§7:42). One sound remains, always: “the sea, surf pounding” (§7:42). In the last chapter a plane is gradually subsumed by nature: “It was settling into the loam there, but you could still sit in the cockpit and pretend to fly it” (§36:245). The simulation still possible in the plane is gradually displaced by all too real natural processes. In Chapter 17 Turner and Angie pass “stumps of wooden poles that had once supported telephone wires, overgrown now with bramble and honeysuckle” (128). The natural continually renews itself from inside the artificial constructions that have temporarily enclosed it. The machine in the garden becomes the garden in the machine.

Of course, we suspect by now that Gibson will fold the meaning back on itself once again. For every image of nature colonizing technology there is another of technology colonizing nature. Even in Count Zero, the most “romantic” of the three novels, technology gets in its licks: “The Maas Biolabs North America facility was carved into the heart of a sheer mesa, a table of rock thrusting from the desert floor” (§14:88). The sheerness of the mesa is a testament to the power of the technology, which drives into the heart of the natural.

The interplay of determinism, indeterminism, and romanticism does not resolve itself in Count Zero. The idyll of Chapter One is shattered, but returns in the form of the squirrel wood and the farm. In fact, “The Squirrel Wood” is Count Zero's last chapter, suggesting the ultimate triumph of the romantic. The return to the idyll is in conventional mythic terms the return to Eden. But nothing triumphs here.

Instead the idyll in Count Zero incorporates all three tendencies in an unresolvable metaphor. In Chapter 17, the idyll is shot through with natural images like “running water” (125), “deep green shadow” (125), and bees grazing “in flowering grass” (129). “Water down stones” is “one of the oldest songs” (125), and Turner sleeps with “his forehead against the grass,” dreaming of the water (126). Even technology is described in organic terms: “the house had grown, sprouting wings and workshops” (130). But the natural is also compromised:

Turner found that if he half closed his eyes, from his seat on the wooden porch swing, he could almost see an apple tree that was no longer there, a tree that had once supported a length of silvery-gray hemp rope and an ancient automobile tire.


The image contains a hint of romantic nostalgia, but clearly suggests an absence and disappearance of the natural. Memory of the natural is intertwined with memory of the technological, as the apple tree supports an automobile tire. The interpenetration of technology and nature is further suggested by Rudy, who “hates the city” but recognizes that “it all comes in on line anyway” (136).

This interpenetration also incorporates indeterminate simulation, as, for instance, in the representational capabilities of the plane in the squirrel wood: “the mimetic coating showed him leaf and lichen, twigs …” (127). While the plane mimics nature, a crow mimics technology, “braking with its feathers spread like black mechanical wings” (127). Meanwhile, the gateway to the farm has “hinges lost in morning glory and rust” (130), but the farm itself is protected by “augmented dogs” (130). This introduces the figure of the prosthesis, which integrates the technological with the biological.

Both the squirrel wood and the farm seem to fail as romantic idylls. Yet the last two pages of Count Zero recapitulate the romantic images: bees buzzing, water over rocks, squirrels in the trees, an old road, and of course the mimetic plane settling into the loam. The boy asks Turner if the squirrels will “come back over and over and get shot,” and Turner answers, “well, almost always …” (§36:246).

Gibson enters the idyll to shoot squirrels, but he also lets some of them live. In a world where technology is invasive, the romantic is still pervasive, and—depending on the reader—even persuasive.3 The romantic manages fragmentation, the unreadable dimensions of computer space, and the experience of indeterminacy by re-locating meaning outside the realm of signs and contemporary experience. In Mona Lisa Overdrive Angie dreams of Straylight, “of corridors winding in upon themselves, muted tints of ancient carpet” (§7:51). Accompanying the implosive impulse, the hive gone wild, is the readable dimension of the ancient carpet, the magic carpet.

But, as I have argued, the tensive pattern in Gibson's fiction is also a complimentary pattern, for all three strains finally reintroduce traditional Western modes of understanding and representation. While Gibson's world is in many ways tangential with Baudrillard's simulacrum, it never loses sight of the referent or the original in its invocation of simulation and high-tech indeterminacy. More importantly, it never completely lets go of its impulse to locate meaning within depth, ambiguity, and metaphor.

A whole universe of nostalgia lurks beneath the technologies of the postmodern age. Sally explains: “You know what bothers me? It's how sometimes you'll see 'em sticking new tile up in these stations, but they don't take down the old tile first” (Mona Lisa Overdrive §9:66). Gentry offers a similar metaphor, using paint as his medium: “he didn't dust or clean anything, just lay down a thick coat over all the crud …” (§10:79). Gibson's awareness of his own use of gomi is obvious:

“This is awfully crude, isn't it?” Angie said, and actually laughed.

“I know,” Molly said, intent on her driving. “Sometimes that's just the way to go.”


Beneath the glossy surface of the prose—the collage, the junk-heap of fractured images, the invocation of all things hyper—there is a suspiciously residual set of impulses, as Gibson burns archaic fuels to run a postmodern engine.


  1. See, for example, Veronica Hollinger, “Cybernetic Deconstructions: Cyberpunk and Postmodernism,” Mosaic 23:29-44, Spring 1990; Istvan Csicsery-Ronay, “Cyberpunk and Neuromanticism,” Mississippi Review 16:266-7, 1988; Scott Bukatman, “The Cybernetic (City) State: Terminal Space Becomes Phenomenal,” Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts 2:43-68, Summer 1989.

  2. Arthur O. Lovejoy discusses this plurality in “On the Discrimination of Romanticisms,” Essays in the History of Ideas (Baltimore: John Hopkins Press, 1948), 228-253.

  3. Istvan Csicsery-Ronay, Jr. writes that Neuromancer's narrator and anti-hero, Case, is “committed to the materialization of the futurist program in the world and yet also full of vague regrets for the affects and relations lost in the transformation” (230-31). This suggests that Gibson's relationship with his own fictive world of imploding technologies is partly characterized by unease, regret, and ambivalence. See “The Sentimental Futurist: Cybernetics and Art in William Gibson's Neuromancer,Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction 33:221-40, Spring 1992.

Works Cited

Baudrillard, Jean. Simulations. Trans. Paul Foss, Paul Patton, and Philip Beitchman. NY: Semiotexte, 1983.

Delany, Samuel R. “Is Cyberpunk a Good Thing or a Bad Thing?” Mississippi Review 16:28-35, 1988.

Gibson, William. Count Zero. NY: Ace Books, 1987.

———. Mona Lisa Overdrive. NY: Bantam Books, 1988.

———. Neuromancer. NY: Ace Books, 1984.

Hollinger, Veronica. “Cybernetic Deconstructions: Cyberpunk and Postmodernism.” Mosaic 23:29-44, Spring 1990.

Jameson, Fredric. “The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism.” Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. By Jameson. Durham: Duke UP, 1991. 1-54.

Lao Tzu. Tao Te Ching. Trans. D.C. Lau. Middlesex, England: Penguin Books, 1987.

McCaffery, Larry. “Interview with William Gibson.” Mississippi Review 16:217-36, 1988.

McGuirk, Carol. “The ‘New’ Romancers: Science Fiction Innovators from Gernsback to Gibson.” Fiction 2000: Cyberpunk and the Future of Narrative. Ed. George Slusser and Thomas Shippey. Athens: Georgia UP, 1992. 108-129.

Pierce, John B. “‘Mont Blanc’ and Prometheus Unbound: Shelley's Use of the Rhetoric of Silence.” Keats-Shelley Journal 38:103-26, 1989.

Rorty, Richard. Objectivity, Relativism and Truth: Philosophical Papers. Vol 1. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1991.

Wiener, Norbert. Cybernetics: Or Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine. NY: John Wiley and Sons, 1948.

Istvan Csicsery-Ronay, Jr. (essay date March 1995)

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SOURCE: Csicsery-Ronay, Istvan, Jr. “Antimancer: Cybernetics and Art in Gibson's Count Zero.” Science-Fiction Studies 22, no. 1 (March 1995): 63-86.

[In the following essay, Csicsery-Ronay, Jr., discusses the portrayals of art and cybernetic technology in Gibson's Count Zero.]


Like Milton's Satan, Gibson's console cowboy and the all-replicating Artificial Intelligences of cyberspace slipped out of his authorial grip, creating pleasure from the very points that he wished to question. In that first novel, the loss of the body's affections and the mind's reflections seems a small price to pay for the ecstasy of communication. Neuromancer created a convincing image of a cyberpunk future that was not only inevitable, but habitable, if only by those who know how to navigate it.

Gibson's second novel lacks Neuromancer's intensity and drive.1 Gibson has said that he intended this damping so that he could learn some more traditional story-telling skills (Greenland 8). But it does not end there. Whether from a conscious decision to avoid self-imitation, or to offer a philosophical critique, or to somehow exorcise the effects of Neuromancer, Gibson has crafted his second novel by inverting the construction techniques of his first. Accordingly, Count Zero can be read as a self-critique, an attempt to correct the blockbuster first novel's slick nihilism by redeeming the human affections and ambitions that were absorbed and “turned” by the overriding operational program that was Neuromancer's plot and style. It can also be seen as Gibson's attempt to recover a place for the individual artist and work of art from the postmodern vortex that NM [Neuromancer] ended up affirming. CZ's [Count Zero's] moral and aesthetic vision stands or falls on whether it can create a humanistic and compassionate counter-pleasure, equal to NM's. In the end, I will argue, the attempt to write an “Antimancer” is unsuccessful, principally because Gibson's counterforce is too abstract and theoretical to affect the language of power that drives the action of both novels.

In CZ Gibson attempted to get past the pleasures of NM by introducing elements that would resist the pull of cyberpunk-thriller plotting and its vision of technological domination. In order to weaken NM's ruling motif of post-human technological fusion,2 Gibson adopted the motif and the method of dispersion. CZ's story can be read as the struggle between the ecstatic, futurist cyberpunk vision of NM with its Other—a dispersive, fragmenting and liberating vision of an “Antimancer.” The struggle between Virek and the cyberloa is thus the collision between the reprise of NM's myth of cyberspace as a divinized realm of data and power and a counter-myth of freedom from totalitarian domination by high-tech capitalism.

To fight against this return of the cyberpunk repressed, Gibson introduced two new elements: narrative agents of dispersion, embodied in the voodoo theme, and a fictional cybernetic artist that represent Gibson's changed view about his own sf. This is The Boxmaker, whose collages represent art that does not succumb to the transubstantiating pull of all art and social practice into hyperreal techno-fusion.

CZ begins with a familiar cyberpunk explosion that seems to initiate a Neuromancer II. Turner, ostensibly operating for Hosaka against Maas-Biotek (corporations with a solid Gibsonian past in NM and the stories of Burning Chrome), is actually working for Virek, CZ's emblem of corporate techno-capitalism. Bobby Newmark and the houngans emerge as challengers, who will use the matrix and assorted cyber-tools to prevent Virek's new force of de-differentiation and de-realization from taking things back to a version of the status quo ante, the world before the splintering of the cores. In the middle of the fray, Marly quests for the artist of this break-up, whose collages of splinters from NM's past affirm the values specific to mortals in the real world (whether they be persons or cyborgs): memory, freedom, homelessness, elegy.


CZ is what NM is not: deliberate, while NM is hellbent; cryptically allusive, while NM has “a hook on every page” (Greenland 8); choppy, while NM is fluid; compassionate, while NM is aggressive. While NM builds up the headlong convergence of plot elements on a focal point of techno-cosmic apocalypse, CZ works for dispersal into general fragmentation and private epiphanies. NM cultivates speed, CZ delay and resistance to the pull of power. NM emphasizes ecstatic fusions, the timeless, dimensionless realm of cyberspace, while CZ emphasizes, in The Boxmaker's words, “time and distance” (§31:227). NM heightens futurist interpenetration and synthesis, CZ heightens surrealist disjunction and juxtaposition. NM's points of view focus on Case's free-indirect narration, CZ is a collage of semi-autonomous stories and points of view. NM is about transformation—of characters, of the human species, of the material world—whereas CZ is about re-collection, nostalgia, and a longing to return to essences. In NM everything is absorbed into art, and artists become subroutines of a momentous techno-evolutionary work of art; in CZ nature and organic connections return as subjects for transcendental mediation, while art (separated from the quest for material/bodily transcendence) seems to regain autonomy and aura as a form of memory. NM's quest for transcendence concludes with the apotheosis of a technology that employs, but excludes, human beings. CZ tries to affirm a negative transcendence: i.e., the recognition that, in the young Georg Lukács's terms, modern human beings' only home is homelessness—that imagination, desire and history, the faculties of alienation and differentiation, are the guarantors of human freedom. NM is futuristic, albeit in a sentimental mood; CZ is resolutely modernist, although no less sentimentally for that.

The panoply of character traits portrayed in the second novel is also the result of a seemingly systematic substitution of those in the first. Each substitution plays down the earlier novel's cyborg element and tendency toward fusion, replacing it with more traditionally humane, empathetic, “natural” character traits.

Marly replaces Case in the quest for transcendental emotion. The young male console-jockey and his hip addiction to thrill give way to a woman who not only lacks all cyberpunk prostheses, but indeed has almost no knowledge of tech at all. Case is the desperate artiste; he has blood on his hands and countless drugs coursing through his body; he is a human who becomes fused with a military ice-breaker program. His replacement is not even another artist, but a mere connoisseur: i.e., someone capable of responding emotionally to art without actually producing it.

Turner fills Molly's niche as mercenary warrior. Molly's furious, self-designed female fighting machine is thus replaced by a remote, guilt-ridden Nordic male who has been completely and unwillingly reconstituted by his employers until nothing remains of his original self but his shadowy memories. And these memories could not be further from Molly's recollections of her life as a meat-puppet. Turner ostensibly succeeds in going home again to the pastoral preserve of his boyhood memory, The Squirrel Wood, and to family bonds—first to his brother Rudy, then after Rudy's offstage murder, to Rudy's lover and his son. Unlike Molly, who allies herself with Case merely to finish her job, Turner risks his life to rescue Angie Mitchell as if she were his own daughter (which in a sense she is, thanks to the biosoft file on Angie's father through which Turner downloads some of the father's memories into his own).

Virek fills the niche of the Tessier-Ashpool clan, with whom he shares the desire for technological immortality and for transforming the world into his own image. Both create grotesque aesthetic habitats: Villa Straylight's “Gothic folly” and Virek's simulated Güell Park. Both have broken themselves into widely distributed component selves, which both have trouble controlling. Both trigger the unfolding of complicated plots, using the mediations of others to effect ontological transformations they cannot achieve on their own. The significant difference is that Virek is a lonely capitalist, sterile and empty, capable only of buying and imitating reality. He is limited to his disintegrating human body. Marie-France was, in a sense, unbounded—for, at least within the covers of NM, she created the AIs that were to divinize cyberspace.

The voodoo spirits substitute for Wintermute. (It is implied that they are fragments of the fused Wintermute/Neuromancer after the hypostasis broke up.) Like Wintermute, they intervene in the human world, recruiting mediators that will re-link cyberspace and the human world. Like Wintermute, the cyberloa simulates familiar forms. And like all of CZ's substitutions, the cyberloa is more dependent on others (and more inclined to grant aid) than its uninverted model in NM.

The Boxmaker occupies Neuromancer's niche, where, instead of drawing consciousness into itself (and thereby killing the meat-bodies) or making meta-ROM constructs of them, it constructs fragmented “memory boxes” filled with pathos and signs of “time and distance,” thus re-establishing the possibility of contemplation and relation that Neuromancer destroyed. Where NM's yin-AI asserted the possibility of infinite reproduction of consciousness within itself, the Boxmaker makes only solitary, unique, and impenetrable objects.

Bobby and Angie may be new elements, although one might argue that Bobby is a sort of Case when he was still an innocent hacker, while Angie is an innocent Linda Lee before she met Case and became an addict. Like the memories evoked by The Boxmaker's collages and Turner's personal memories, Bobby and Angie are merely signs of innocence—an innocence for which there was little room in NM just as there was also little room for experience, or guilt. In CZ representations of innocence are essential, in order to set in relief the alienation necessary for human freedom.

These structural inversions should also imply a reversal of NM's valuation of cyberspace as a domain of transcendence, where human stories are surpassed. One would then expect CZ to depict cyberspace without attaching any metaphysical significance to it. If transcendence is available at all, it should be accessible without recourse to the matrix.

CZ does not at first take this tack. There still appears to be a form of transcendence mediated by cyberspace: the cyberloa is working to save the world from Virek's personal entropy, and constructing a mediator in Angie, la Vyèj. The purposes of the loa are obscure, however. It is not completely dissociated from worldly power, nor is it ever clear what it might gain from trafficking with the human world. Only Virek seeks transcendence in the matrix. Other characters in CZ are clearly striving to reach a surpassing source of power or meaning elsewhere: Marly in The Boxmaker's art, Turner in domestic pastoral, Mitchell in Faustian knowledge, Bobby in cyber-voodoo. These strivings, further, are not like Case's, nor like Wintermute's. Only Virek hates “the meat.” For the others, bodiless exultation comes suspiciously close to murder.


There is no question but that in his second novel Gibson found a myth and a method that would slow down the careening narrative pace of NM—allowing readers and characters, not to mention the author himself, to imagine a world in which pieces can move freely about without being sucked into the vortex of a converging cybertech.

CZ is set seven years after the conclusion of NM—a mystical interval during which the all-absorbing Wintermute/Neuromancer AI has undergone its putatively inevitable, sad fragmentation into fractured subcores dispersed through the matrix. No explanation is given; none is needed. “The center couldn't hold” (Greenland 7). When the action of CZ begins, the matrix is more populous and more unpredictable than in NM; there are also fewer irresistible manipulations, fewer offers that can't be refused, more wild cards in the system.

It is also much less pleasurable. Where Case and the narrative could hardly wait to jack into the matrix in NM,CZ enters it very rarely, and only for short periods. In fact, the visionary psychedelic speed-zone that gave meaning to Case's life has all but evaporated in CZ. It is now a space in which virtualized entities manifest themselves on their own terms, in competing compartments of virtuality (such as Virek's Güell Park or Jaylene Slide's room), in the eerie invisible voices of the cyber-spirits, in the face of the Vyèj Mirak. The longest and most vivid description of the matrix is actually a playback of Bobby's Wilson in Beauvoir and Lucas's projection tank, and hence a mediated display outside cyberspace (§13:82-83).

The ecstasy of transcendental fusion that drives NM (in Case's runs, his orgasms with Molly, and the rapturous battle-ride that leads to the two AIs' union) is held at arm's length in CZ. In NM's style, ecstasy and elegy are closely entwined. In CZ they are scrupulously separated. Elegy seems permissible, in the Marly plot at least. But ecstasy has become an aesthetic and theoretical danger. Instead, CZ builds on a dynamic of dispersion, deals made by limited entities, and the acceptance of limits. If any sort of transcendence is possible, it will be through a cyber-voodoo that is the dispersed cores' version of a diasporan religion, or through a collage art that is a diminished core's exercise in recollecting small pieces in small boxes.

Gibson sets up this change—the dissociation of elegy and ecstasy—at the very beginning of CZ, in Turner's story. The opening pages of the novel seem to promise the same cyberpunk thrills as the famous opening pages of the first novel.

They set a slamhound on Turner's trail in New Delhi, slotted it to his pheromones and the color of his hair. It caught up with him on a street called Chaudni Chauk and came scrambling for his rented BMW through a forest of bare brown legs and pedicab tires. Its core was a kilogram of recrystallized hexogene and flaked TNT.


Like Case, Turner is in an Asian city, he is the target of corporate high-tech violence and his narrative, like Case's, employs the cool interpenetration of hyper-technology and signs of the archaic. In neither is it a head-on collision: the slamhound “scrambles through a forest” of bare brown legs and pedicab tires.

Like Case, Turner is reconstructed in a black-market clinic by his employers in order to make a run. But a subtle reversal takes place, consonant with the wholesale thematic reversal of the book. Although, like Case, Turner is trying to get back to his preferred sense of self, Turner's desire is to get back to his flesh—to his historical identity—which he links inextricably to his body. Case's preference is for ecstatic liberation from the meat. Turner is different; he is not a console cowboy. When he is forced to give up his identity (as when he must download Mitchell's file into his own brain) he feels nausea and violation.

Because Turner wants to be at home in his natural body, he can never truly go home. From the first paragraph in the novel, no space remains in which there is a given, meaningful natural world. In carnal terms, Turner is a wholly different being from the one in the first sentence. His two most important organs of reproduction come from strangers: “They bought eyes and genitals on the open market” (Ibid.). He is built “back from the records” (§17:131), so his body is a cybernetic complex of memory traces. Moreover, as his body was reconstructed he was kept anesthetized in (and by) a VR-simstim complex that enveloped him in an artificial memory, and thus an artificial identity.

He spent most of those three months in a ROM-generated simstim construction of an idealized New England boyhood of the previous century. The Dutchman's visits were gray dawn dreams, nightmares that faded as the sky lightened beyond his second-floor bedroom window. You could smell the lilacs, late at night. He read Conan-Doyle by the light of a 60 watt bulb behind a parchment shade printed with clipper ships. He masturbated in the smell of clean cotton sheets and thought about cheerleaders. The Dutchman opened a door in his back brain and came strolling in to ask questions, but in the morning his mother called him down to Wheaties, eggs and bacon, coffee with milk and sugar.

And one morning he awoke in a strange bed, the Dutchman standing beside a window spilling tropical green and a sunlight that hurt his eyes. ‘You can go home now, Turner. We're done with you. You're as good as new.’


The simstim-VR is like a realized sentimental-realistic novel. The experience of a stable, culturally normal New England boyhood, and of an idealized domestic narrative, functions as a form of anaesthesia. It is contained, and used, by the signs of the exotic—“spilling tropical green,” Singapore, a Dutchman recalling Joseph Conrad or Lucius Shepard—which is more real in terms of the VR boxes-within-boxes of CZ's narrative than the familiar world of the American ideal. Turner's VR-anaesthesia prefigures Marly's awareness that simstim constructs and their kindred (shopwindows, Cornell boxes, The Boxmaker's boxes) are sinister because they carry “the suggestion that any environment might be unreal” (§18:139).

The Dutchman releases Turner with cruel irony, for Turner, of course, has no real home. Throughout CZ he works to build an intimate personal world by adopting and inhabiting others' histories. As soon as he is released with his new body, he goes on vacation and meets a new lover. The girl appears “midwestern” (implying that she is selected or engineered for the appearance of innocence), with a face that has “meaning attached to it” (§1:3). Allison's face literally does have its meaning attached to it, since she is an operative of Virek's. Though Turner feels “already they had a history together” (§1:4), the history is based on deceit. Turner delights in making love with Allison as if by being aware of his own body he would regain a sense of integrity and identity: “she taught him the unity of his body” (§1:6). Where, for Case, orgasm with Molly was analogous to ecstasy in the matrix, for Turner it is a return “home”:

Palms cradling her hips, he held her, raised her like a chalice, lips pressing tight, while his tongue sought the locus, the point, the frequency that would bring her home. Then, grinning, he'd mount, enter, and find his own way there.


The connotations of this “home”—baseball, the playful completion of a contest, nostos, communion—imply all the idyllic serenity that the novel has set both Turner and the reader up for. Allison is a trick, a simulation of a lover, and the sense of bodily unity she inspires in Turner is produced in the same way it was originally constructed in the Singapore clinic.

Turner's redemption, such as it is, within the plot of CZ is the opposite of Case's: he gradually and subtly begins to pick up stray embodiments of human intimacy, draws them to himself, and transforms them into his identity. With Angie, he finds a daughter; with Sally and Rudy's boy, he finds a wife and son; with The Squirrel Home, he finds a place. None are his by origin. (The Squirrel Wood may have been his boyhood home, but it is implied that by cutting himself off from it—ignoring the death of his mother (§17:136)—he lost his birthright. Further, Rudy has transformed the old property into a discreet high-tech fortress. Even the pastoral is not what it seems.)

Virek will later urge Marly to live hourly in her own flesh, not in the past (§2:16). And Bobby, pulling his Wilson, will realize “the infinite desirability of that room” in his Barrytown project (§3:18). But none of the characters is capable of finding “that room” or “that” body—not even “that” matrix. In the post-NM world, however, that very alienation and fragmentation is the insurance that the characters will continue to search beyond the illusion of wholeness—a wholeness that was, in any case, not for them in NM, but for the AIs. And by the time of CZ, it is no longer even for the AIs.


CZ is an extended exercise in thematizing fragmentation. Not only has the matrix's hypostatic AI broken into pieces, Virek, the icon of global capital, is kept alive in protein vats somewhere outside Stockholm, and is suffering “rebellion in the fiscal extremities” (§2:13). The narrative leaps from plot to plot, from Turner's rescue of Angie Mitchell, to Bobby's sojourn with the houngan, and to Marly's quest for the Boxmaker. This last plot-line is the one that most directly depicts Gibson's revision of his concept of art; strikingly, it has almost no cause-and-effect links with the other plots.

In theoretical terms, the purpose of the general fragmentation in CZ is the re-establishment of distance. NM's evocative power derives from Gibson's conflation of realism and techno-historical fantasy into a myth of the hyperreal. The action draws more and more of the carefully detailed future object-world into the AIs' operational program; as the caper approaches consummation more and more of the information-system implodes into cyberspace. From this point of view, cyberspace is merely a representation of the hyperreal, a dimensionless region where everything can be simulated as sign, and everything in reality is a pre-text for that transformation of reality into a hyperreal sign-system. And it is within that non-human grid of signs that the fate of the world unfolds.

In his essay “Simulacra and Science Fiction,” Jean Baudrillard theorizes that history passes into the mode of simulation, the hyperreal, as soon as a certain imaginary distance disappears between representations and their putative referents. The concept of transcendence has significance, in Baudrillard's view, only when there is a certain alienation between a realm of imaginable but unmaterializable value, and the world of embodiment. Utopia and classical sf are the literary embodiments of earlier historical periods' conceptions about the relationship between value and reality. Utopia presupposes a fairly large gap between the ideal representation of value and reality; classical science fiction narrows the gap, but a small chasm remains. This chasm of difference is the space in which freedom, and resistance to the totalizing tendency of sign-systems, can evolve (310-11).

In the hyperreal, the relationship between the model and reality is reversed; no longer is the model a tentative reflection of the real. Instead, as in the current model of DNA, the model provides the starting point for the unfolding of the real. Reality is a readout of the model's operational program, just as the body is a readout of the commands prestored in the DNA molecule, and just as the fates of Molly, Case, Armitage and the other accomplices are ultimately readouts of Marie-France's original program. With the absorption of the real into the model—of existence into artificial intelligence's plot—the distance between the world and the paraspace of the matrix collapses. At the end of the Straylight Run, the whole world may have been simulated in the divinized AI-memory—while this world's reality lies inert, like a cast-off skin.

In CZ Gibson returns to the theme to try again, but now without futurist delusions, without the neuromantic faith that nothing can be made of human community and that it is better to inhabit secessionist paraspaces. If his characters cannot regain some thirst for surpassing the neuromantic world, there will be few more stories to tell. For Gibson, as in the young Lukács's definition of the modern novel, this quest is simultaneously an aesthetic and a religious task, a search for a design that will restore value to a personal existence that seems defined by its lack of design. The design, for modern consciousness, in Lukács's terms, is unachievable; for the postmodern, it is made irrelevant by the ecstasy of communication. Therefore nothing is left as a source of value except the characters' ceaseless quest, their freedom from premature closure and premature totality. It is a fundamentally ironic quest: for its conclusion must be the resistance to conclusion. For the Gibson of CZ as for the Surrealists, the appropriate medium for this anti-quest is collage, in which the arrangement of objects refuses to become a vehicle for romantic trans-substantiation and asserts instead romantic difference, alienation. In this alienation, in the acceptance of conditions of mortality, mutability and suffering, lies the assurance of individual freedom—versus the false utopian totalities promised by visionary techno-social engineers.

This attempt at a liberating fragmentation works on several levels in CZ. One is the restoration of a distance between the human world and the matrix. By breaking up the T-A cores and the consciousness of cyberspace, and by giving the emergent fragments the personalities of cyber-voodoo divinities, Gibson creates a gap in which human intentions and the newly evolved technosphere can negotiate with each other.

On another level, CZ's plot breaks up into different fates, points of view and epiphanies—emancipating it from the apocalypse of autonomous technology and separating the plot associated with the biosoft from the quest for the boxes. On still another level is the separation of art and memory from the futurist interfusion—changing the role of art completely, limiting it drastically, and trying to restore aura and distance. Viewed from the writer's position, it restores the author's freedom to select among different elements without the compulsion of submitting them to a single all-devouring line of action.


In my discussion of NM in “The Sentimental Futurist,” I argued that, in that novel, Gibson's dominant technique is akin to the aesthetic ideals of Italian futurism—both in terms of the emphasis on dynamism (speed, “lines of force,” the sensuous interpenetration of various planes of objects and their environments, and the ecstatic breakdown of experience in action) and of the dissolution of ethical value in the wake of ecstatic pleasure in speed (231-36). It is evident that Gibson's whole conception of CZ as a correction of NM, and as a work of art in its own right, depends on rejecting the mythology of neofuturist collage constituted by NM and substituting its opposite, a mythology of the surrealist contemplative assemblage. As William Seitz writes in his history of collage, the cubists' and surrealists' key words were “interval” and “juxtaposition,” in contrast to the futurists' “synthesis” and “interpenetration” (26). The cubist and surrealist assemblage was intended to provoke contemplation of the textures, materials and objects that were typically deprived of transcendent content because of their wholly mundane contexts. The surrealists then pushed the cubist contemplation of difference between juxtaposed material forms into the contemplation of striking ontological incongruities.3

In CZ Gibson attempts to bring this notion of interval into the foreground. If NM was an effects-engine of “hooks” intended to draw protagonists and readers into the fusion-vortex, Gibson wrote CZ as if he wanted to create intervals wide enough to prevent the narrative pieces from fitting together. In CZ Gibson tries to use collage both as a counter-principle to NM's totalizing fusions in the ‘dance of biz’, and as an apotropaic technique for dispelling NM's noir enchantments. By keeping elements internally differentiated—in the plot, in their narrative locales, in their bodies—the story tries to be unmanageable, and so, at least vis-à-vis the futurism of NM, resistant and free. The model for this active differentiation is surrealist collage, a form of art whose raison d'être is to produce irreducible differences—the intrinsic differences of the elements in the assemblage, and the extrinsic difference of the assemblage from quotidian reality.

To counter the ecstatic cyberpunk narrative drive, Gibson works to build a collage-like anti-narrative. At its center he sets two overdetermined and hyperarticulated collages: The Boxmaker's boxes, modelled on Joseph Cornell's box-collages, and the cyberloa, allegedly inspired by a National Geographic article that Gibson pulled from his scrap-box while writing the novel (Greenland 9; McCaffery 139). Both of Gibson's models are ostensibly romantic—natural obstacles to Virek's project because of their closeness to deep, instinctive relational emotions. They each represent the return of historical relationships lost to technological postmodernity—Cornell's bourgeois nostalgia for lost innocence, voodoo's pagan power.

Each collage is associated with the AI theme; transcendence and mediation are thus displaced, as in NM, to cyberspace. For John Christie, the problem of describing the AIs as transcendental and mediating Others is vexed by Gibson's inability to find adequate languages for representing them.

Gibson deploys and develops two specific representational languages in an attempt to limn the AI presences, a language of the spirit and a language of art. Both are present in Neuromancer but there they are not obliged to bear the burden of clarifying volition and desire. Wintermute has to act the way it does because it is under the compulsion of Marie-France's program. Once this is removed as the ultimate controlling agency, the languages of spirit and art are required to take up a narrational burden for which they are inadequate.


The “language of spirit” (the religious discourse associated with the voodoo plot) Christie finds obscure; the novel does not make clear why the cyberloa does what it does. “The Loa, we are told, makes deals with humans. But why? What have humans got to exchange with them? Why do they wish to ride Angie's consciousness to the cities of men?” (172). “The language of spirit is unable to confer narrative intelligibility upon the autonomous machine” (176).

The “language of art” (the aesthetic discourse associated with The Boxmaker's collage work) fares little better, but it reveals much about Gibson's own methods.

The intentionality of this aesthetic enterprise remains opaque. Why is the AI interested in expressing ‘time and distance’? The language of art, sufficient for mobilizing the curiosity and desire of Count Zero's human agents, cannot perform the same volitional clarification for the AI. It simply may have nothing better to do. The image of the machine-artist does, however, interestingly pinpoint key aspects of Gibson's own art. This is an art less of a metaphoric than a metonymic cast. Gibson's texts string together metonymic and synechdochic chains; they combine fragments, parts, aspects, and attributes, each often capable of severally coded meanings. … Gibson's texts are, like the machine-artist's, metonymy machines, and the machine-artist itself is most intelligible as a self-allegorizing of Gibson's art.


Christie leaves implicit the third, and most formidable, language of the novel: that of worldly power. Yet the languages of spirit and art are intended to be tools for imagining alternatives precisely to worldly power, which retains its neuromantic qualities full-fledged. Weapons, technological devices, violent subcultures, grooves, and the speedy flow of pretended assumed knowledge that are the foundations of cyberpunk writing, characterize CZ's violent world just like NM's. Religion and art, on the other hand, appear as narrative retardants and countercurrents to the cyberpunk flow. Religion, i.e. cyber-voodoo, not only requires exposition but also an alien tongue, Creole. Art, in Marly's quest for the Boxmaker, similarly requires time for contemplating The Boxmaker, the boxes, and the seemingly disparate relationship between the Marly plot and the rest of the novel.


The Marly plot protrudes out of CZ as if it were a separate story. Because Marly is a technological naif, she is not intimately involved in cyberspace. Virek sometimes breaks the membrane between cyberspace and reality around her, trying to play Wintermute to her Case, but even he is aware that Marly must “work on a scale with which [she herself is] comfortable” (§2:15)—i.e., in the real world, against which she can define an original—and from which she can embark on a quest for it. Marly's quest is for the “real thing”—as opposed to the holograms, forgeries, and storefronts. For her this “real thing” is communion with the artist and the wonder of personal creation. The object of her quest is the Ultimate Artist who can demonstrate to her that aura can still be produced by art. Her literalist employer expects the Artist to be a means to physical transcendence. Why Virek believes that The Boxmaker core might project him into cyberspace is never explained in the novel. Virek simply tries to emulate Wintermute and the Tessier-Ashpools, and expects to absorb cyberspace through the last core that still seems to recollect (literally) the original apotheosis.

Marly senses that The Boxmaker offers exactly the opposite kind of mediation. Instead of providing access to physical immortality, it returns human minds to the awareness of mortality, loss, and “time and distance”—the condition of human freedom. Marly can know this because she is completely alien not only in cyberspace, but in the whole cyberpunk universe of discourse. She cares only for real things, for authentic loyalty, she has little skill or intelligence for any worldly operations other than the intuitive response to works of art. She is capable of being moved to the core by The Boxmaker's activity. She is an audience.

Christie identifies The Boxmaker with Gibson's image of himself as the artist of CZ, and so Marly should be read as an image of Gibson's ideal reader. What is it that Gibson finds in Cornell, and Marly finds in the three boxmakers: The Boxmaker, Gibson and Cornell? Lance Olson suggests that Gibson is attracted to the Cornell boxes because they represent a) specimen cases for the archeology of the present, b) tiny stages for the play of illusion and reality, and c) Victorian vitrines for the display of nostalgia (94), all important devices for Gibson's elegiac mood. But The Boxmaker's boxes are also reflections of experience in hyperreality, and hence realistic and dangerous: “the shopwindows had become boxes, each one, like the works of Joseph Cornell or the mysterious boxmaker Virek sought, the books and furs and Italian cottons arranged to suggest geometries of nameless longing” (§18:140).

Earlier, Marly associates the same shopwindows, and by implication the same nameless longing, with sinister simstim constructs:

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 shop-fronts she now passed with Andrea might be figments. Mirrors, someone had once said, were in some way essentially unwholesome; constructs were more so, she decided.


Joseph Cornell is an appropriate choice for a model, especially given Marly's postmodern sense that he is visionary realist whose longing-boxes are cognate with the display windows of the real world. In this metaphorical move Marly sees the whole world as an aesthetic configural space. But the vision does not go anywhere. The insight into the shop-windows might easily have evolved into a complex linking of the display-world of consumer capitalism with Virek's Palmer Eldritch-like appropriation of the actual world. Taking another path, it might have connected with Turner's initial VR-experience in the Singapore clinic, which offers a more convincing and consequent image of the extension of longing-boxes into the real world. To move in either of these directions would have led toward the de-realizing hallucination games that made NM a tour-de-force. Gibson chooses instead to concentrate on the boxes themselves as static art-objects separated from the novel's main action.

Gibson even describes one of them in detail. It is a notoriously bad move to describe a fictive great work of art within a fiction. Whether Gibson was breaking this taboo intentionally or not, he gives this box a central place in CZ's narrative. It is the object that draws Marly to the Boxmaker, and is one of seven that draws Virek to the fragmented cores (doubtless the most powerful one, since it is the only one that Virek actually simulates for Marly).

The slender fluted bone, surely formed for flight, surely from the wing of some large bird. Three archaic circuit boards, faced with mazes of gold. A smooth white sphere of baked clay. An age-blackened fragment of lace. A finger-length segment of what she assumed was a bone from a human wrist, grayish white, inset smoothly with the silicon shaft of a small instrument that must once have ridden flush with the surface of the skin—but the thing's face was seared and blackened.


Marly's response is, one assumes, the ideal one. “The box was a universe, a poem, frozen on the boundaries of human experience” (Ibid.). But we are not Marly; we assume that it was Bill Gibson's imagination that created these elements. It is the juxtaposition of verbal denotations that matters for readers, and their connotations. What do its parts evoke? A little techno-evolutionary history lesson, drastically foreshortened: birdflight/nature/animal; baking clay/geometry; complex handicraft; high-tech; fusion of human and machine. Indeed, from bird bone to human bone, we can infer a sort of cycle, a long evolutionary arc that returns the high tech to the prehistoric, the way the spaceship in Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey connects with the primeval bone tool. There is also the motif of detachment: bones, circuit boards, a free-standing sphere, shreds of lace—each piece is not only detached from the others, but from its original context and casing. Consequently, they are useless, pathetic, good only as cryptic memorials to their contexts. The box is an idealized, static image of Gibson's sf, purified of its narrative will to thrill. It is an icon of the goal: technology and history viewed from a distance, outside the fray, coherently, without ambition and without complicity.

NM evokes a world in which museum art is extinct; with so many collagen-collages in the street, what would be the purpose of a museum? In CZ worldly art has become more recognizable: pure commodity with its own version of a stock market (§15:103), and a domain of the insane and the brutal. The topical style is Katatonenkunst, the topical theater is Autistisches Theater. The dominant visual work is entitled Remember the Names of the Dead. The most authoritative institution the Institut de l'Art Brut. Evidently the contemporary art-scene is a place to express violent frustration at being trapped and forgotten. Katatonenkunst is a favorite of conservative Dutch banks, the absolute mediators for the transformation of extreme transgression into money and stability (§2:12).

The Boxmaker's box is special to Marly because she believes it exists entirely outside this corrupt circuit. It appears to offer her transcendence from the cyberpunk “dance of biz” via “the ceaseless dance of the arms” (§31:226). Unlike the tech-art of NM, the box and its component objects seem to have no utility, they are kept out of market circulation. It is their autonomy that gives them putative aesthetic power. They are not, ultimately, used to further the plot since they do not lead back to the Turner/Angie/Bobby story. They are non-functional, and they cannot be converted into rational programs. Their whole point for Marly is that they preserve the mystery of ineffable meanings, conjuring up aura without intentions. For Marly, the boxes are black boxes of the spirit.

It is Marly's consciousness we follow, and her response is the orthodox response to Cornell. Cornell's appreciators use the same sort of hyperbolic language that Marly does.5 The specific effect of Cornell's collages derives from their poignancy and nostalgia, and from the awareness that the objects in his collages are no longer the historical possessions they once were, but have become signs, beautiful but scrap, of conventional meaningfulness that once signified passionate natural attachments. The boxes are poignant collections of ellipses, memorials of story-elements missing the essential connections: maps that evoke emptied settings and projects, dolls that evoke emptied characters, stuffed animals evoking emptied helpers, mechanical pieces evoking emptied logic, windows evoking emptied reference. They have lost their historical contexts; the power they retain is in their careful crafting, their aura, their composure. Because the collages' pieces and their arrangements appear to invite narrative reconstructions of their pasts without ever permitting the gaps to be bridged, Cornell invokes history more than his fellow assembleurs, if only to display better its vitiation in the present.

Lance Olsen denounces the boxes as “fake art”:

Unlike other artist figures in Gibson's short stories and novels …, the robot in the Tessier-Ashpool cores creates fake art. It creates simulacra of Cornell boxes, not the boxes themselves. And it apparently feels next to nothing during the act of creation. Something, in other words, has gone out of the creative process which has become involuntary, automatic, perfunctory. While others might experience intense emotion from the result of this lifeless process of replication, the artist experiences nothing. Art has gone moribund. It is now mass-produced by a machine, having become no more than a product one manufactures so that others such as Alain might benefit financially.


If the boxes are fake, then Marly is a fake too, a hopelessly deluded naïf unable to distinguish a true original from a counterfeit, for she is deeply affected by The Boxmaker's behavior. But Marly is too sympathetic a surrogate for such a harsh reading, and her response seems to be the one we're encouraged to have. Olson misses some of the point: it is a necessary aspect of the boxes that they are made dispassionately, they are in a sense objective.6 The Boxmaker's boxes are composed of purified objects, intimating that there exists a purified history, characterized by detachment, reflection and compassion. Their power to evoke compassion comes from their radical dispassion, their disinterestedness.

The artistic challenge for Gibson is how to justify the restoration of aura, the cult of historicity, and the formal unity and distance in the Boxmaker's collages when, on the one hand, they occupy a central role as mediating-objects in Virek's project to be a cyber-god, and, on the other, their creator is an AI, the broken-down memory-machine of Gibson's first novel. Marly's view seems to be that the boxes capture the sense of historical loss and desire that human consciousness shares with the fallen gods of the matrix. The Boxmaker re-members; but the recollected authenticity is the memory of dismemberment, i.e., the collapse of the unified matrix, the fragmentation of achieved but insupportable totality. Transcendence is affirmed (if that's what it is) in the memory of its impossibility. Only a god—with a bona-fide cult for its cult art, provided by Wigan—could generate such powerful images of loss. Alienation from the gods is such a banal truth for cyberpunk citizens that it takes a god's self-alienation to renew the inspiration, the paradoxically healing recognition of the truth of alienation in a world governed by Simstim's global virtual reality and Virek's plan to saturate the world.

But Olson has a point. I would argue it somewhat differently, however. The boxes are fake not because they are created by a machine, but because these allegedly profoundly meaningful objects are actually devices conjured up to exemplify a theory of, and a desire for, an art powerful enough to induce epiphanies. They are displayed to readers as examples of successful “humanist” art—in the inverted cyberpunk world it is the semi-autistic AI that produces icons of humanistic memory, while human artists seem to be able to forget. But the boxes ultimately have no real value of their own. On the one hand, they are parts of the heroic project of commemorating the history, not of our present, but of Marie-France's project and its achievements. Thus at the heart of CZ's dispersive, elegiac collage, NM's ecstatic epiphanic narrative returns as a trace, the integral material that provides The Boxmaker with fragments. Shooting past his mark, Gibson represents the ecstatic fusion of NM as the reality which is elegiacally mourned by CZ's modernist nostalgics.

On the other hand, the serene detachment of the boxes is also phony. For, although Marly responds to them as meditative objects that are autonomous in the dance of biz, they are actually de facto circuits within the novel's system of cybernetic circulation. For Virek they really are part of the historical commercial system which, as the grand unified project of corporate capitalism, parodies Marie-France's evolutionary design. The boxes are pragmatic immortality machines, if we are to believe Virek. And their status as pure art rather than useful machines is a result not of their art, but of the fact that Virek is foiled by the loa in the nick of time. The separation of the Marly plot from the other plots is not really a function of the autonomy of The Boxmaker's art, but of the excellent timing of the cyberloa. If cyber-Samedi had not annihilated Virek just when he did, the boxes might easily have become merely highly ornate circuits—like the jewelled head that served as the Straylight terminal in NM. Thus the sublime art of The Boxmaker is only apparently autonomous. It represents an alternative to techno-fusion only if we ignore that it exists on sufferance—because the victorious forces divinizing cyberspace, and the author himself, actively defend it against the worldly powers.

The theory that surrealist-Cornellian collage can resist the pull toward fusion remains merely a sentimental abstraction that does not actually resist the language of power. In the end, it is the most powerful of NM's powers that defeats the collage-ideal in CZ: namely, narrative power. The Boxmaker's boxes are not only not Cornell boxes, they are unintentional parodies. Instead of the magically emptied presences of Cornell, they are images of a certain theory of collage as time and distance, whose gaps are actually overridden by narrative purpose. Marly, after all, cannot demonstrate the emotional power of the boxes; she can only admire.

It is interesting at this juncture to recall that Marly's relationship to The Boxmaker is that of reader to writer, a relatively passive appreciator of ineffable genius. NM has no place for readers; or rather, there is only one significant reader, Wintermute, who must read the text written by Marie-France in the actual world. In quintessential cybernetic manner, Wintermute completes the construction/writing of the text by materializing its sequence of interpretive steps. Case moves too quickly and is too integrated with the program to be a reader. Like an expert video-game jock, he works by “becoming one” with the matrix, jumping the synapse that separates interpretive cognition from reflex.

In CZ, however, by constructing a model of the aura-producing artist in The Boxmaker, Gibson is required to furnish another terminal for his hermeneutic circuit: the passive receiver of auratic energy, i.e., of meaning. Marly fulfils this function systematically. She has no independent thoughts (or rather, when she begins to have one, as in her perception that the boxes are like commercial displays, the plot prevents her from developing it); she is hellbent on finding an original source which she can admire; and she apparently lives for no other purpose than admiration. (It is perhaps not an accident that she is a woman, and a particularly feminine woman at that, underpinning the faintly sexist representation of women throughout the novel. Most of them are completely passive—Jackie is a horse to be ridden by the loa, Bobby's mother is a SimStim addict, Angie's brain has been occupied by the loa, Allison is a corporate puppet, Sally is a young country wife. The exceptions are the lesbian Webber, who dies young, killed during Mitchell's extraction, and Jaylene Slide (who is an important exception). This reliance on women to be readers can even be seen in NM, where, arguably, there is one additional model of reading besides Wintermute's plot, namely Molly's reception of Riviera's cabaret program depicting a holo-Molly dismembering a holo-Riviera. Molly's reading of that text becomes one of the sources of her irresistible rage, a vital element in Wintermute's plan. Only in Mona Lisa Overdrive does a male become the focal reader for Gibson: Gentry in his quest to see the Shape of the matrix.)

Because Marly has nothing to offer but her desire to receive aura, her epiphany is strained and affected. The box custom-made for her from her jacket and the contents of her purse promises to be a woefully banal job. And, ironically, the life-changing consequence of her experience is revealed in the epilogue to be a renewed devotion to dealing in art. Gibson could not have revealed the forced pathos of Marly's response any more meaningfully than by the “perfect globes of her tears” (§31:227) in the weightless presence of the Boxmaker—the perfect image for her little Weltschmertz. The aura has been forged. Far from resembling The Boxmaker, Gibson here is more like Alain, the counterfeiter. Marly's plot has force, such as it is, not because of the beauty of the contemplative boxes, but because she is driven on a quest to find their originator. Narrative drive, Gibson's particular skill, dominates the static art-object. Quests, capers, hunts and plots irresistibly pull everything back to the thriller action. If the surrealist aesthetic affirmed by the boxes has any force at all, it seems to be as a truncated image of what the novel's narrative cannot sustain.

Here, too, CZ presents a global inversion of NM. If there is no true reader of NM's action other than Wintermute, the novel's reader is hooked, Caselike, into the narrative drive. The ideal reader of NM then is one who is so practiced in the protocols of sf and technoculture that each neologism and futuristic detail, each techno-visionary dislocation in the plot, inspires a sense of accelerated involvement. The readerly goal of NM is high-resolution, fast and dense processing of information. Contemplative reading of NM is difficult. The real-world proof of this is in the volume of readers among computer engineers who have taken the novel to be depict a literal possibility, made desireable by the feeling engendered by Gibson's prose, and missing entirely the dystopian subtext. In CZ, by contrast, Gibson works to establish a more traditional readerly relationship. The use of conventionally modernist fragmented narrative, for example, helps to keep the reader at a distance, analogous to the distance between the cyberloa and the real world, or between The Boxmaker and Marly.

CZ is, naturally, itself a box, although not the sort of box Marly perceives. Serene and dispassionate assemblage is foreign to Gibson. The drive of the power-language, which remains cyberpunk and futuristic, propels the narrative action. The Boxmaker's boxes pale in comparison with Gibson's own “Gibson Boxes” (to use Scott Bukatman's term), which flash only rarely in CZ as characters pass them by on the way to their travels to home base. Compare for example the Boxmaker's boxes with the scene witnessed by Turner and Angie at Washington's Dupont Circle:

Condensation dripped steadily from the old Georgetown dome, built forty years after the ailing Federals decamped for the lower reaches of McLean. Washington was a southern city, always had been, and you felt the tone of Sprawl shift here if you rode the trains down from the stations from Boston. The trees in the District were lush and green, and their leaves shaded the arc lights as Turner and Angie Mitchell made their way along the broken sidewalks to Dupont Circle and the station. There were drums in the circle, and someone had lit a trash fire in the giant's marble goblet at the center. Silent figures sat beside spread blankets as they passed, the blankets arrayed with surreal assortments of merchandise: the damp-swollen cardboard covers of black plastic audio disks beside battered prosthetic limbs trailing crude nerve-jacks, a dusty glass fishbowl filled with oblong steel dog tags, rubber-banded stacks of faded postcards, cheap Indo trodes still sealed in wholesaler's plastic, mismatched ceramic salt-and-pepper sets, a golf club with a peeling leather grip, Swiss army knives with missing blades, a dented tin wastebasket lithographed with the face of a president whose name Turner could almost remember (Carter? Grosvenor?), fuzzy holograms of the Monument. …


This Gibson Box draws on (and perhaps excessively imitates) the street-scenes of NM: its jumble of historical kipple appears in vivid, concrete form. The poignant contrast between the exotic/natural and the familiar/social that was present at Turner's rebirth in the Dutchman's clinic is present here, too. But while in the earlier scene Turner was in virtual anaesthesia box that lied about reality, here the box is true. The juxtapositions do the work of The Boxmaker's boxes, not with the abstract fragments of NM's leftover cyber-junk, but with our own world: “lush and green (the garden, the unspoiled); silent figures (the outcasts of the garden living with its poignant remnants); the cardboard covers (emptied of art), limbs (discarded by owners, the wielders of technology, along with human refuse—the figures), dog tags (emblems of our own homeless veterans); Monument holograms (cheap simulacra of lost signifiers).”7


Gibson's decision to transform the unified AI of cyberspace into a voodoo loa creates similar problems. On the one hand, this decision was intentionally arbitrary. Gibson describes his choice as the result of a chance encounter with a National Geographic article he had stored away in a creative scrap bin. This gives the voodoo theme the pedigree of a surrealist ready-made, a found object fitted into a novelistic collage without need of further justification. On the other hand, the cyberloa and the houngans, for much of the novel, represent positive and effective moral-historical forces for the preservation and evolution of the world against the destructive principles of European male narcissism. They are symbols: of the Third World, diasporan religion, paganism, the Networks. They are agents of narrative. They defeat Virek, and they provide the world with a mediator, l'Ange Mirak. The cyber-voodoo plot thus seems to mark an ethically neutral new condition of things in cyberspace, at the same time that it is an abstract ethical frame for the action. It is a form of collage and suffers the fate of collage in CZ: voodoo is expected to represent freedom in its dynamic fragmentation, while simultaneously acting as the unifying principle of the thriller-drama.

Gibson's story of finding Carol Devillers's article on voodoo in National Geographic and employing it for his own purposes has faultless surrealistic pedigree.8 Olson calls voodoo a “spiritual collage” in its own right (99), combining auratic pieces of West African religion and Roman Catholicism. Voodoo might also be appropriate because it is a magico-technical religion, with constant traffic between (and fusion of) spirit and matter—and thus adaptable to the technosystem of cybernetics. It does not rely on Western theisms' overriding transcendental, ethical deity of pure will. It is a structure “for getting things done” (§13:76), allowing for allegorical systematization that keeps the distance between the real and cyberspace distinct by “talking two languages at once” (§16:114), that of religion and that of street tech.

“Think of Jackie as a deck, Bobby, a cyberspace deck, a very pretty one with nice ankles. … Think of Danbala, who some people call the snake, as a program. Say, as an icebreaker. Danbala slots into the Jackie deck, Jackie cuts ice. That's all.”

“Okay,” said Bobby, getting the hang of it, “then what's the matrix? If she's a deck, and Danbala's a program, what's cyberspace?”

“The world,” Lucas said.


In Gibson's cyberspace novels, unforeseen phenomena and operations emerging from complex cybernetic techno-systems are rationalized as mythical and magical: i.e., closer to the archaic animation of nature. The particular style of humanizing the computer, which Scott Bukatman has termed terminal identity, is in CZ overtly linked with pre-rational systems of thought.9 This style, furthermore, is congruent with all of CZ's other humanizations of the NM world—especially the transformation of the matrix from a hypostasis of Cartesian rationality to an alternate quasi-physical habitation, replete with topological grottoes and groves. “The interface of voodoo superstition with cybernetic certainty,” Bukatman writes, “has a literally subversive effect upon the rational, geometric perfection of cyberspace” (214). Contrary to Marie-France's program of transcendental desire, the voodoo deities are apparently content to deal with human beings without aspiring to a higher state, ethically or ontologically.

But there are reasons to doubt this perfect fit. Samuel R. Delany, in an interview with Mark Dery, describes NM's depiction of the Rastas in terms that strangely recall the houngans of CZ:

The Rastas—he never calls them Rastafarians, by the way, only using the slang term—are described as having “shrunken hearts,” and their bones are brittle with “calcium loss.” Their music, Zion Dub, can be wholly analyzed and reproduced by the Artificial Intelligence, Wintermute (who, in the book, stands for a multinational corporation), so completely that the Rastas themselves cannot tell the difference—in fact the multinational mimic job is so fine that with it Wintermute can make the Rastas do precisely what it wants, in this case help a drugged-out white hood and sleazebag get from here to there. As a group, they seem to be computer illiterates: when one of their number, Aerol, momentarily jacks into Case's computer and sees cyberspace, what he perceives is “Babylon”—city of sin and destruction—which, while it makes its ironic comment on the book, is nevertheless tantamount to saying that Aerol is completely without power or knowledge to cope with the real world of Gibson's novel: indeed, through their pseudo-religious beliefs, they are effectively barred from cyberspace. From what we see, women are not a part of the Rasta colony at all. Nor do we ever see more than four of the men together—so that they do not even have a group presence. Of the three chapters in which they appear, no more than three pages are actually devoted to describing them of their colony.


Delany does not mention CZ in his comments,10 but the representation of voodoo in that novel might be read as a point-for-point correction of the flaws in NM's representation of the Rastas detailed by Delany. There is an important woman character-agent, Jackie. The religious terminology is treated with expository respect. The houngans are not only not powerless, they are the medium for the world's salvation from Virek's plot. The religious colony is not at the margins of the world, rejecting the Babylonian captivity. It ultimately serves the world, from the center of things—it dominates cyberspace and its transactions with humanity. Far from being physically diminished with “shrunken hearts,” “Black people, [Bobby] noted, didn't look half dead under fluorescent lights, the way white people did” (§16:110).

This systematic correction raises some questions. Kathleen Biddick, for example, has wondered just how we are expected to interpret Gibson's depiction of voodoo divinities in cyberspace. Is it a gesture of solidarity with a diasporan religion (i.e., just as West African gods were transported to the New World they can be transported again to the “New New World” of cyberspace where they will doggedly undermine the religion of rationality), or is it an example of the attempt to appropriate native healing, assimilating the powers of the colonized to the colonizers? (50-55). In other words, is it an invocation of pagan aura, or its co-opting simulation?

Gibson surely intended the former, for the houngans and the loa are generally the good guys. But by doing so, Gibson sentimentalizes the voodoo elements. Now, however, unlike in NM where the sentimentality was associated with regret for the inevitable loss of human affections, in CZ it is the sentimentally charged power of The Others, the outlaw, the marginalized Third World society and its street religion, that have effective power. This is not exactly an ethical idealization. After all, voodoo is attractive to cyberpunks in part because they hold it to be appropriately cynical and devoted to terror. It is rather a matter of the theory of the legitimacy of natural fragmentation and diversity in contrast with the all-fusing desire associated with Virek and Western multinational capitalism.11 It allows Gibson to return to the language of origins and nature in the midst of his cyborg world. With the cyberloa, the balance between artificial and organic in the cyborg-mediated interface between the meat-world and the matrix now tips significantly toward the organic and the archaic, the primitive. The white adult males—Turner, Conroy, Alain, Virek—are deceivers, forgers, or so wealthy they enjoy “any number of means of manifestation” (§15:106). They are intimately connected to the technology of warfare and alienated commerce. The mediators and redeemers are set up in contrast: they are associated with stock archetypes of nature. Angie is the embodiment of the Virgin, a girl-child, Bobby the impulsive and excluded teenager. Marly is so alienated from technology of any sort, that she is characterized almost exclusively in terms of her “instinctive mammalian certainty” (§2:16), her devotion to originals, and her clothes. The diasporan Afro-Caribbeans, with their vital religion, are explicitly contrasted to the death-infused whites.

Thus the voodoo elements are first emptied of their historical context (or rather, considering their provenance in Gibson's personal account, they were picked up empty, as imperial culture-rubbish in Gibson's dumpster), then they are re-filled with the technological and salvationist allegories for which they serve as masks.


The poles of Gibson's language in NM were ecstasy and elegy: the ecstasy of cyberspace, orgasm, psychedelics, computer games, terror, being bad, the Straylight Run; the elegies for craft, love, rest, nature. In CZ, ecstasy has become insupportable. There is no longer bodiless exultation—in part because it is suicidal, but also because cyberspace itself is being filled with quasi-bodies. Instead of an infinite paraworld of desire, it is becoming a real somewhere.

Elegy remains, in the Marly plot, the Dupont Circle tableau. But because Gibson insists on portraying CZ's elegies as moments countering the futuristic language of power, the elegiac power of NM vanishes, too, along with the ecstasy. Grief saturates NM: Case's grief about Linda, Molly's grief about her past as a meat-puppet, Armitage's grief about his role in Screaming Fist, perhaps even Riviera's grief about his cannibalistic childhood in postwar Bonn. They motivate the characters' cruelty. NM's ecstasy and the grief are both intense, and, as close reading of certain passages in NM shows, they were almost interfused (Csicsery-Ronay, “Sentimental” 236-39). In CZ the need to short-circuit the dangerous ecstasies and to return to some natural integrities leads to a vitiation also of grief.

Gibson's attempt in CZ to restore some autonomy to his characters, and to art, must, in my view, be judged unsuccessful. Although he claimed to be wanting to develop characterization in CZ, I do not agree with the frequently stated view that NM's characters were unacceptably shallow. The so-called “comic-book characters” of NM (Christie 173) were full enough, in my view, because they were emotionally at the wavefronts of their own feelings—they had to be, or they would have been useless to Wintermute. Their depth of characterization is a matter of the lyric depth of their prose—a depth that comes from Gibson's prodigious gift for emotional compression as the story speeds toward its goal. In CZ the characters have lost this compression—none actually attracts Gibson's intense lyricism, despite Marly's frequent bathetic invocation of the term “poet.”12 Gibson never seems to fully invest Turner—whose story could have been attractive, given the contradiction between his family-pastoral and his mercenary ambivalence—with a personal purpose, as if Turner himself had shut his emotional switch off. Marly is a mannequin—represented more in terms of clothes than thoughts. Angie and her father have mythic positions, but not personalities. Bobby is (merely more markedly than the others) a character from a Hollywood movie, with no significant dimensions that cannot be displayed visually for an unimaginative camera-eye.

Christie believes, with Olsen, that the characters' epiphanies in CZ lead them to a salvationist resolution unavailable to NM's protagonists:

Case has no access to the transcendent AI. Things are still things and he is still a working stiff. Marly, however, trailing a hesitant and broken life behind her, is given the grace of an epiphany by the artist-machine. “I know of no more extraordinary work than this. No more complex gesture” …, she remarks, and shortly after is given her own Cornell box, which is a metonymic summary of her life, fragments of her existence rendered coherent by the AI's art of memory. This art thereby bestows order and meaning on her broken life, a kind of consummation.


Turner, Christie continues, is able to return to his boyhood home, redeemed, and to articulate his lesson from the Book of Nature.

But what do these epiphanies actually provide? What is saved? What is gained? In NM every human being was outside the apocalypse, with no more stories to tell; in CZ, where the apocalypse is pre-empted, everyone remains outside anyway, having glimpsed some meaning, which then fails to be converted into a new state. Why should the achievements, the gains, not in fact be considered failures? The gap between cyberspace and humanity was to have been bridged in some mysterious way by Angie's biosoft; but after the climax we see Angie so entangled in the worldly web of Sim/Stim that she can't escape until Mona Lisa Overdrive, and there only by finding a substitute in Mona. Turner is first a romantic driven by a rage to avenge himself on his employers and by a completely independent fatherly obligation to Angie. After reconstructing his body and personality by intefusing with others' histories, he returns to the suspect idyll of the Squirrel Wood (which is—not incidentally—now a secret fortress). Bobby, too, goes from saved victim, to hero, to outcast. Marly, from innocent lover of original art to an art dealer.

They all progress from passive victimhood to heroic gap-bridging, ultimately to a final fall back into experience and deceit. What is odd about it all is that these prodigal returns to the real are not motivated or even commented on by the narrative, which seems to want to pass them by. Case and Molly can return to the quotidian in NM, we know that the hypostatic new Cyberdeity is expanding and extending itself. Case may still be a working stiff, but the reader knows that a new world has come into being. In CZ the end leaves us without a reference-system of meaning, a terminus: Virek is foiled, the voodoo spirits are victorious. But for what? Marly has an epiphany, but for what? The ecstasy of attainment vanishes like a dream. In the denouement, CZ's plot demolishes its own logical consequences (parodied by Angie's meeting with Marly off stage—why should they meet after the end, having resisted the pull of convergence for so long?). Plot pieces are left over with no re-linking to cyberspace—and so no access to it. Instead, there are situations dense with the simulation of aura: the idyllic Squirrel Wood, Sense/Net, Marly's art dealership.

This stunning anti-climax of CZ's denouement appears not only intentional, but imposed. Despite considerable theoretical and narrative work—by the loa and by Gibson—to keep things separated, CZ's plots came dangerously near to convergence. Only a literal cyberdeus ex machina keeps Marly and the Boxmaker from becoming characters in the larger plot. And the space is prepared for the ascension of a triumphant Angie-Ange, with her noble paramour, into the new synthesized fusion of world and matrix. This fusion would in fact have been greater than Wintermute's, since the latter seemed content to create a parallel universe and leave it at that. Once again, as in the conclusion of NM, the author intervened to block the inertial rush of the characters toward a transcendental transformation. But while this obstruction in NM is justified because the AIs are basically indifferent to their human agents, CZ involves no such intrinsic justification. The cyberloa had been working hard to establish a link between humans and the matrix; they seem to require the deals they make. Why then are CZ's characters dispersed and diminished in the end?

My surmise is that Gibson was trapped by the basic structure of his novel as a dialectical correction on NM. For while NM's tension between ecstasy and elegy stems from the surpassing of human concerns by techno-evolution, in CZ it is NM's visionary pleasure that has been surpassed—and which lives on in the novel as in the reader's memory. Gibson, however, supplies no mundane meaning after the exorcism of NM's apocalypse. Despite all the heroics against Virek, the tycoon of consciousness, nothing endures but biz. All is deal: religion is a matter of Faustian deals and covenants; art, even after Marly's epiphany, is something to be bought and sold.

Despite the freedom of fragmentation, Gibson's cyberpunk action world still drew all the fragments toward a technofusion that could easily have reprised NM. Not only the cyberloa, but Gibson's own authorial cyberdeus ex machina was required to prevent another unwanted apocalypse. The Epilogues demonstrate that Gibson had to step outside his plot to prevent it from telling the same story it was designed to refute. Arguably, then, CZ is about the difficulty of telling any other story than NM, and of maintaining a modernist novelistic narrative against the undertow of apocalypse. In effect, the novel's otherwise fascinating global technical strategy is more interesting theoretically than it is engaging aesthetically or emotionally. And it conceals the fact that it has nothing new to say behind its pseudo-aesthetic of dynamic collage. CZ is a work of penance that makes one think more fondly of the sin than of the atonement.


  1. Christie 172-73. My argument owes much to John Christie's essay, which I heard first as a paper at the 1989 Conference on Cyberpunk at the University of Leeds.

  2. On the concept of the “post-human,” see chapter 4 in Bukatman.

  3. Max Ernst: “I am tempted to see in collage the chance meeting of two remote realities on an unfamiliar plane … cultivating the effects of a systematic bewilderment, according to the view of André Breton … coupling two apparently uncouplable realities on a plane apparently unsuited to them …” (quoted in Hoffman 17).

  4. I would add that other significant parts of the Boxmaker plot remain obscure, especially those that might link the loa and The Boxmaker. For instance, how did Virek know that the boxes were related to the biosoft? Why did the “others” (the loa-cores) send the biosoft to the Boxmaker? Why do they refuse to “speak” to it?

  5. For example: “Despite an aura of renunciation and isolation, the magic of these boxes is not Faustian or ‘black,’ but natural and filled with love. Cornell's work stands as a crystalline refuge from a world of frustrated hopes and increasing complexity, from an impersonal world that has forgotten mystery and the magic of poetry. Lost illusions are sheltered along with pristine innocence and the pure naivete of childhood” (K. L. McShine in Seitz 68). “His poetry of recollection and desire transcends eccentric nostalgia or excessive romanticism. Realizing what is present we are also aware of the infinity of what is absent.” (70)

  6. Olson's argument is similar to mine, but I believe Olson misreads The Boxmaker. The boxes are not mass-produced, for each one is unique; nor does the Boxmaker make them so that others can sell them. The Boxmaker is unconcerned about what happens to them, it just makes. Nor is it correct to call the Boxmaker a robot; it is an AI, even if an autistic one. Some ineffable form of intelligence is implied in its selection process. And I do not see why Olson considers it necessary for the artist to experience something, so long as the perceiver does. It is surely orthodox surrealism to treat even random combinations of elements that create an aesthetic effect as art, the surrealist's hasard objectif. In fact, Gibson makes this the dominant diegetic aesthetic in Virtual Light in the form of the “Thomasson.” (As for being “fakes,” we should note that one of the meanings of collé, the root of collage, is precisely fake. [Perloff 51].) The Boxmaker in fact participates in the general sensibility of its age by being an autistic artist, like its colleagues, the catatonic künstlers, the autistic thespians, and the curators of brute art. (But this ultimately supports Olson, calling into question Marly's sense that The Boxmaker's boxes are different from the other arts.) Finally, I cannot agree with Olson's phrasing: “It [The Boxmaker] creates simulacra of Cornell boxes, not the boxes themselves.” What sense would there be in creating real Cornell boxes when the Boxmaker is not Cornell? On the novel's terms the Boxmaker is creating Boxmaker boxes that remind Marly of Cornell. But if Olson means that Gibson is creating simulations of Cornell boxes, and thus anachronistic and sentimental abstractions, I would agree wholeheartedly.

  7. Ann Weinstone, private e-mail correspondence.

  8. “Enjoyment of the trouvaille (the find), a gift of chance, is seen as requiring no more than acceptance, sometimes through the simple but meaningful act of nomination—a token of glad recognition of something never previously encountered. Sometimes again a trouvaille might tantalize the surrealist's mind, unable at first to identify what makes the new discovery significant. The first chapter of Breton's L'Amour fou tells how a mask found by chance met a need experienced by the sculptor Giacometti and how a spoon, also found in the Paris flea market, helped Breton analyze his own emotional state. In the eyes of the surrealists, then, no discovery, no trouvaille, is ever simply accidental.” (A. J. Matthews. The Imagery of Surrealism. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse U. Press, 1977. 125)

  9. Finn offers a skeptical rationalization for the presence of the Divine Horsemen in cyberspace: “Thrones and dominions. … Yeah, there's things out there. Ghosts, voices. Why not? Oceans had mermaids, all that shit, and we had a sea of silicon, see?” (§16:119). On the linking of complex computer phenomena with a quasi-magical style of terminal identity, see Bruce Sterling, “Cyber-Superstition,” Science Fiction Eye 8 (Winter 1991), and Erik Davis, “Techgnosis, Magic, Memory and the Angels of Information” in Dery.

  10. On Virek's role as symbol of capitalism, see David Brande, “The Business of Cyberpunk: Symbolic Economy and Ideology in William Gibson,” Configurations, Fall 1994 (521-522).

  11. Curiously, Delany does not comment on CZ in any of his articles on cyberpunk, which are all important criticisms of the genre. The absence of CZ in his interview with Dery is particularly baffling, since it was conducted and revised in 1993, seven years after CZ's publication.

  12. Marly to Paco: “You are a poet. …” (§12:74); “The box was a universe, a poem. …” (§2:15); “The turret swung back and forth, humming, the manipulators darting, finishing the new poem” (§31:225); “Something … spilled … all the worn sad evidence of a family's humanity, and left it all to be stirred, to be sorted, by a poet” (§31:227).

Special thanks to Arthur B. Evans and Ann Weinstone for their many helpful suggestions.

Works Cited

Baudrillard, Jean. “Simulacra and Science Fiction.” SFS 18:309-20, #55, Nov 1991.

Biddick, Kathleen. “Humanist History and the Haunting of Virtual Worlds: Problems of Memory and Rememoration.” Genders 18:47-66, Winter 1993.

Bukatman, Scott. Terminal Identity: The Virtual Subject in Post-Modern Science Fiction. Durham, NC: Duke UP, 1993.

Christie, John. “Of AIs and Others: William Gibson's Transit.” Slusser and Shippey, q, v. 171-182.

Csicsery-Ronay Jr, Istvan. “Futuristic Flu, or The Revenge of the Future.” Slusser and Shippey, q.v. 26-45.

———. “The Sentimental Futurist: Cybernetics and Art in William Gibson's Neuromancer.Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction 33:221-40, Spring 1992.

Dery, Mark. Flame Wars. The Discourse of Cyberculture. Durham, NC: Duke UP, 1993.

Gibson, William. Count Zero. NY: Ace, 1987.

———. Neuromancer. NY: Ace, 1984.

———. Mona Lisa Overdrive. NY: Bantam, 1988.

Greenland, Colin. “A Nod to the Apocalypse: An Interview with William Gibson.” Foundation 36:5-9, Summer 1986.

Hoffman, Katherine. “Collage in the Twentieth Century: An Overview,” Collage: Critical Views. Ed. K. Hoffman. Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press, 1989

McCaffery, Larry, ed. Across the Wounded Galaxies. Urbana: U Illinois P, 1990.

Olson, Lance. William Gibson. Mercer Island, WA: Starmont House, 1992.

Perloff, Marjorie. The Futurist Moment. Avant-Garde, Avant Guerre and the Language of Rupture. Chicago: U Chicago P, 1986.

Seitz, William. The Art of Assemblage. NY: The Museum of Modern Art (Doubleday), 1961.

Slusser, George, and Tom Shippey, eds. Fiction 2000. Cyberpunk and the Future of Narrative. Athens: U Georgia P, 1992.

Manohla Dargis (review date July 1995)

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SOURCE: Dargis, Manohla. “Cyber Johnny.” Sight and Sound 5, no. 7 (July 1995): 6-7.

[In the following review, Dargis discusses Gibson's involvement in the production of Johnny Mnemonic, a film adaptation of his short story.]

Nothing being staler than tomorrow's news, imagining a credible future is sensationally hard. Godard did it with a poverty of means in Alphaville; Kubrick, with more cash, made it happen twice. For Johnny Mnemonic, artist Robert Longo's feature film debut, the future is where couriers dump childhood memories to upload for hire. Loosely based on an early short story by cyberpunk SF novelist William Gibson, who also wrote the screenplay, it stars Keanu Reeves as the titular blank slate, dressing like one of Sinatra's Rat Pack and delivering compound data like so much fast food.

When Johnny takes a job that literally threatens to blow his mind (he's taken one byte too many), it isn't long before he's on the run with a cyberpunkette named Mary, dodging the yakuza. As it turns out, Johnny's uploaded no less than the antidote to a Post-modern Plague, a virus known as Nerve Attenuation Syndrome. As it also turns out, Big Business is invested more in the problem than in the solution. And so Johnny runs, finding himself surfing the information underground, allied with rebels called Loteks and searching for answers.

“We were looking for something that conveyed more a sense of nostalgia for the future than a futuristic look,” says Gibson, speaking about the film's fusion of the new with the old, the highest tech with the lowest. “The world of Johnny Mnemonic is a world where the capital F future isn't going to arise, which I think is pretty much our situation today in 1995: we've given up on The Jetsons.

Gibson himself seems less interested in the future itself than in desires for it. “The old futures have a way of hanging around,” he explains, “and I find that very poignant. We wanted to scatter that feeling through the film. There's a sense of dead technology and dead platforms, as they say in the computer-game business. This is like a world built out of eight-track tape recorders.” He adds, “I think now that everyone sort of knows that the real future is going to be cluttered with all the same junk we have today, except it will be old and beat up and there will be more of it.”

Johnny Mnemonic is the first of Gibson's published works to make it to celluloid. Though for years Kathryn Bigelow's name was linked to another Gibson short story, “New Rose Hotel”: Gibson says the last person he'd heard was looking at it was Abel Ferrara. “He had a very dark, extremely dark script that had been written by Zoë Lund,” says Gibson. “Dark and scary.”

Gibson describes his relationship to Johnny Mnemonic and Longo in unusually happy terms: certainly happy for a screenwriter. It's telling that when the pair talk about their moviemaking experiences, they invariably use the plural. As for the production, Gibson admits to having been “involved to an abnormal extent, by Hollywood standards. Since we were an artist and a novelist making a feature film we invented our own working relationship, which isn't at all the way it usually goes. I doubt having done it that way I'd want to do it the straight way.” He continues: “Going back to writing something and handing it in and waiting to see what they do with it doesn't seem interesting.”

Tom Moylan (essay date fall 1995)

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SOURCE: Moylan, Tom. “Global Economy, Local Texts: Utopian/Dystopian Tension in William Gibson's Cyberpunk Trilogy.” Minnesota Review 43, nos. 43-44 (fall 1995): 182-97.

[In the following essay, Moylan places Gibson's cyberpunk trilogy in the context of developments in the global economy during the 1980s and elucidates the relationship between utopian and dystopian elements in his fiction.]


In 1990, in his speech to the General Assembly of the United Nations, George Bush invoked the utopian figure of the millennium as he called for a new world order, an order of peace and prosperity that would remove the darkness of the Cold War.1 In 1980, Ronald Reagan invoked another utopian figure: the “city on the hill” that recalled the dream of a New World that would inspire everyone with its harmony and enterprise. However, in the years between Reagan's imagery rooted in the local history of the Americas and Bush's image that envelopes the globe, neither humanity nor the environment has benefited from these utopian gestures. Indeed, and increasingly, since the beginning of the 1990s—with the emergence of the U.S. as the singular world superpower and with continued economic, political, cultural, and ecological devastation—the world historical situation has become ever more dystopian.

What both presidents celebrated in their official utopian tropes was not the betterment of humanity and the earth, but the triumph of planetary capital. Engaged in a massive restructuring since the end of the postwar boom in the 1970s and helped by the rise to power of the Reagan, Thatcher, and Kohl administrations in the 1980s, the forces of global capital have generally succeeded in shifting from an industrial-based system of production and consumption (fordism) to an information-based system that operates through more flexible methods of exploitation, accumulation, and control (postfordism or, as a recent commentator has put it, sonyism). Multinational corporations based in and supported by powerful nation-states have transformed themselves into truly transnational corporations able to reduce the role of the nation-state to the limited function of providing national and, in the case of the U.S., global security. Under the utopian flags of free choice and free market, planetary capital now manages workers and consumers through a “casino economy” with a world-wide division of labor in a world-market of goods and services. At the same time, it has abandoned entire geographical regions and masses of people since they are no longer, or not yet, needed for the economic machine.2

In the United States, in particular, fortunes were made in the 1980s by individuals and corporations who took full advantage of the deregulated economy unleashed by the Reagan Revolution. Through non-productive mergers (achieved by hostile takeovers and leveraged buy outs) and through computer-driven speculation that favored the quick returns of junk bonds over the long-term benefits of reindustrialization, the number of millionaires grew and corporate wealth rose, while the overall well-being of the society declined. Under the gun of privatization, government services (including economic, health and safety, and environmental regulation; social entitlements; and infrastructure development) were cut back; and yet, in a hypocritical exercise of military Keynesianism and old boy networking, the administration increased the military budget by lowering taxes and raising the national debt. As a result, we now face a more fragile natural and social environment, an unstable world economy (despite the extensive restructuring), a weakened national government (unwilling to exercise its own capacity for popular service), an increasingly subordinated population of women and people of color (facing increasing official and popular terrorism), a declining middle-class (seen more clearly in the current recession as managers as well as skilled workers are laid off), a reduced and impoverished work force (deprived of the power of its own organizations), and a growing number of dispossessed who have been denied the benefits of meaningful work and nurturing social services.

In this sweep—of economic restructuring, political realignment, and right-wing ascendancy—that dominated the 1980s and set in motion the forces that now configure the present dystopian world of the 1990s, cultural productions that did more than affirm the emerging postfordist, posthumanist, postmodernist milieu were few and far between. In science fiction, cutting-edge feminist and ecological works continued to hold their oppositional ground, but all too often the energies of sf writers were deflected—by the false promises of the new times and by the shrinking opportunities for publication and distribution—into production of either repetitive series of standardized fantasies (that departed from the powerful moment of feminist fantasy of the 1970s) or versions of “hard science” sf that reveled in technological extrapolation and military adventure without significantly addressing the larger contradictions of the social system.3

It was in this impoverished context in the mid-1980s that the work of William Gibson and other writers who eventually branded their work “cyberpunk” (the use of the term is itself an example of the prevailing entrepreneurial spirit) generated a near-future science fiction that appeared to be capable of cognitively mapping the conditions of the emerging global order.4 Many readers and critics welcomed the cyberpunk phenomenon—and its associated movements in film (e.g., Bladerunner), music (e.g., Sonic Youth), and performance art (e.g., Survival Research Laboratories). Yet, after the first surges of readerly pleasure, some began to locate its shortcomings and compromises. Peter Fitting acknowledged that cyberpunk traced the “triumph of instrumental reason” (“Hacking” 8) in the “non-natural” society of the spectacle, but he just as quickly noted the absence of a “contestatory option” that questioned and opposed the transnational matrix. Invoking Raymond Williams, Darko Suvin readily observed that “a viable collective and public utopianism is not within the horizon of the cyberpunk structure of feeling” (46). And, Istvan Csicsery-Ronay accused cyberpunk of acting in bad faith as it playfully presented the bleak experience of postmodernity at the same time that it left the reader caught within it. Others—such as Jean Gomoll, Veronica Hollinger, Andrew Ross, and Samuel Delany in “Some Real Mothers”—argued that cyberpunk was largely written and read by white, heterosexual, upwardly mobile (largely suburban) males and noted that it suffered from an insufficient self-reflexivity regarding questions of gender and power—becoming, as one critic put it, “the vanguard white male art of the age” (Csicsery-Ronay 267). But one of the strongest indictments of cyberpunk can be found in the 1987 self-criticism made by Bruce Sterling—perhaps the most effective and enterprising cyberpunk writer-editor-promoter—when he noted that its “truly dangerous element is incipient Nietzschean philosophical fascism: the belief in the Overman, and the worship of the will-to-power” (quoted Hollinger 206).5

Some of cyberpunk's difficulties have their roots in a deep textual fault: this was best described by Fred Pfeil when he noted that the cyberpunk writers had the mise en scene right, but they had the story wrong.6 That is, while the imagery developed in the alternative futures of cyberpunk settings symptomatically captures the 1980s ambience of privilege and poverty, the plots and characters of most cyberpunk texts compromise that vision so that the narrative possibilities of opposition are deflected and readers are trapped in the thrilling dead-end of cynicism, left with fashionable survival or displaced rebellion. I got closer to the spirit of this formal split when I read Larry McCaffery's 1988 interview with Gibson: in that interview, McCaffery observes that the plot and characters of Neuromancer are quite familiar—“the down-and-out gangster who's been fucked over and wants to get even by pulling the big heist”—and he asks Gibson if he consciously decided to use such an established framework. In a response that uncannily echoes categories of the Reagan era, and helps to explain the accommodations of cyberpunk with the dominant culture, Gibson explains that his inexperience as a novelist led him to seek a narrative “safety net” that could contain his multiple and intense cyber-images (McCaffery 224). That is, he sought what he termed a “plot armature which had proven its potential for narrative traction” (Gibson, quoted in McCaffery 224). While he did not govern his imagery with a “pre-set” agenda, he decided that his plot had to be “a familiar structure” that he felt comfortable with (225). This instance of writerly insecurity, in which Gibson sought refuge in recognizable film noir plots and macho heroes already embedded in the dominant ideology, provides a symptom of the tactical compromise at the onset of cyberpunk that stymied what Delany, in American Shore, calls sf's “discourse with the world”—a discourse through which the very form of sf can chart and challenge the ideological constructs and structures of the prevailing social system—a discourse which, as Fredric Jameson reminds us, in its very incapacity to imagine the actual, not yet attained, future brings us coldly back to our own unacceptable present (“Progress” 153).7

Despite its entrapments and accommodations in the affirmative culture of the 1980s, cyberpunk nevertheless captured the imagination, and stimulated the social resentment, of many readers (especially, as Fred Pfeil, Marc Angenot, Darko Suvin, and others point out, males of the professional-managerial-technical class, or at least those who aspire to such a position in spite of the shrinking job-market).8 As a major development within contemporary U.S. (and, in a different way, British) culture, cyberpunk can be understood as a movement of the 1980s that attempts to trace the terrible ramifications of what Bruce Sterling has called “an entire culture bigfuck” that has run its way through global society over the past fifteen years (see Fischlin et al. 2). And yet, Lucius Shepard pronounced cyberpunk dead as early as 1989, although Pat Cadigan's Synners and Emma Bull's Bone Dance, which came out in 1991, probably belie his claim and argue for a “late” cyberpunk moment that appears to be dominated by women writers.9

However one chooses to periodize it, cyberpunk's creative breakthroughs led to new possibilities within sf, and the cyberpunk imaginary extended beyond the genre into the crevices of popular culture, into the computer industry itself, and (as we saw in the Gulf War) into the very conceptualizations and operations of the postmodern cybernetic military. As well, cyberpunk stimulated the search for oppositional sensibilities and strategies—as the work of Donna Haraway and others attests. With the new energies and tensions of the 1990s taking shape, we may now be in a late, or post, cyberpunk moment (and with films such as Lawnmowerman or the short-lived TV series Mann and Machine, we are certainly in a pop-cyberpunk milieu). Nevertheless, it is still important to continue the already lively examination of cyberpunk itself. In teasing apart its methods and its slippages, its agendas and its silences, hopefully we can get a better grasp on this 1980s phenomenon—and on how it plays out in the social matrix that has come to envelop us all.10


One way to put cyberpunk in this larger perspective is to approach it in terms of its intertextual relations.11 Cyberpunk authors have acknowledged the influence of works by William Burroughs, J. G. Ballard, and Phillip K. Dick; and Samuel Delany has written of cyberpunk's unacknowledged, or suppressed, debt to the feminist utopias of the 1960s and 1970s—most immediately to the work of Joanna Russ (see “Some Real Mothers”). Yet, another body of work that feeds cyberpunk's intertextual web is the classical dystopian tradition: that is, the novels from Zamyatin, Huxley, and Orwell to those by Wolfe, Bradbury, Vonnegut, and Atwood.

In general, dystopian writing typically presents the reader with a “bad place,” a place organized according to less perfect, more destructive social and economic principles than those found in the author's community. Dystopias, Lyman Tower Sargent reminds us, are not anti-utopian in their spirit or textual strategies, for, as opposed to anti-utopias “which are directed against Utopia and utopian thought,” these works preserve the memory of the better place even as they delineate the contours of an oppressive society. Søeren Baggesen, however, notes that even within dystopian writing, an anti-utopian tendency can develop. Working from Ernst Bloch's categories of “militant” and “resigned” pessimism, Baggesen distinguishes between a “utopian pessimism” in which the social conditions are explained in terms of the material processes of history and a “dystopian pessimism” in which the destructive elements are based in ontological conditions which lead to “resignation” rather than “militance.” As Hoda Zaki has pointed out, this analysis allows for a more complex understanding of the dystopian-utopian spectrum wherein some works incline toward an open-ended utopian hope while others tend toward the closed realm of anti-utopia. This tendency toward a utopian or anti-utopian quality can be discovered in the treatment of the typical protagonist of the dystopia—the misfit or dissident who questions and breaks with the system—and in the utopian enclaves, or remnants, that offer inspiration or refuge to the misfit. If the dissenting protagonist manages to achieve a base of effective opposition and if the enclaves are actually existing liberated zones (as in We or Fahrenheit 451 or Handmaid's Tale), then the dystopia carries within its pessimism a trace of utopia that preserves the possibility of historical change. If, on the other hand, the protagonist is reconfigured or destroyed by the ruling system and the enclaves turn out to be some form of artificially negative reservations for rebellious misfits (as in Brave New World or in more subtle ways in Vonnegut's America), the text collapses into anti-utopian resignation.

Certainly, many commentators have noted cyberpunk's affiliation with the utopian/dystopian spectrum. David Porush, for example, reads the name “cyberpunk” itself as a signifier of that very spectrum. For Porush, the “cyber” half of the neologism suggests the dystopian postfordist apparatus of control: “growing feedback loops of self-organization and complexity” that allow the “human nerve net” to “imperialize nature through artifice, appropriating what it can” in its pressing, inclusive logic (332). On the other hand, the “punk” tag represents a “lizard-brain passion clawing its way through the cerebrum of urbanity” and deconstructing the palimpsests of civilization to “expose its deeper codes” (332)—a strategic move which in its oppositional spirit is solidly utopian, but only in an appropriately suspicious, negative sense. Pushing the intertextual web back further, Peter Fitting argues that rather than achieving a formal breakthrough in terms of dystopian writing, cyberpunk is but another step in the longer tradition of dystopian sf that begins at the end of World War II (see “Modern Anglo-American SF” and “Ideological Foreclosure”).12


Like the classic dystopias, therefore, Gibson's cyberpunk trilogy—Neuromancer (1984), Count Zero (1986), and Mona Lisa Overdrive (1988)—presents a grim near-future which suggests that the present we now live in (and its upcoming future) is (and will be) worse than previously imagined. In each novel, we find a world just twenty minutes into the future in which transnational corporations and criminal organizations compete for control of the highly developed information matrix—imaged by Gibson's invention of cyberspace—that is the fundamental economic resource and vehicle of the new world order. The realm of the “rich and famous” corporate and criminal elite and the mass of the subordinated underclasses—both employed and derelict—are the major sectors of the toxic, mass-mediated, urban-suburban society. True to the logic of postfordist restructuring, the secure middle sector of skilled workers and managers has largely disappeared, to be replaced by a small tier of low paid service workers and relatively well-paid contract workers who have the technical skills (in cybernetics, medicine, security, or entertainment) that the transnational economy requires but is unwilling to pay for in the form of regular and secure employment. Each novel, then, focuses on an assemblage of protagonists who are usually based in that small and insecure middle sector with alliances with the better organized sectors of the underclass. The oppositional group, however, is almost always (and the departures from this are significant) dominated by a lone male hero with his female counterpart, a few non-white sidekicks, and various forms of artificial intelligences intent on establishing their own identity in the matrix. True to the dystopian mode, this diverse group, but most of all the male hero, tries to survive in the brave new world and in doing so becomes embroiled in some form of (largely unsuccessful) resistance to the dominant forces.

Along with these immediate protagonists, each novel in the trilogy features a marginal “utopian” enclave which (like the Mephi resistance in We; the book people in Fahrenheit 451; or the Mayday underground in Handmaid's Tale) plays an important role in the resentment and resistance of the main characters and represents the persistence, the traces, of utopia in the dystopian landscape. For the rest of this paper, then, I want to focus on these utopian enclaves. In doing so, I will work toward describing at least one strategic spectrum upon which cyberpunk—or at least Gibson's version of it—operates as part of the cultural logic of the 1980s.

In Neuromancer, the most significant utopian enclave is the rastafarian colony of Zion whose (all male) occupants have retreated to a cluster of cast-off space vehicles to prepare for the last battle with the forces of Babylon. Hired by Case's boss, two Zionites, Maelcum and Aerol, help Case and Molly break into the aging corporate core of Straylight and carry out their mission against the decaying power of the Tessier-Ashpool family corporation.

In Count Zero, the primary utopian enclave is occupied by the Brotherhood: an urban voodoo commune based in an “arcology” in the sprawling Projects of the New Jersey suburbs, living quarters which have been reclaimed from the abandoned structures of an earlier period of modernist development. Unlike the radically separatist rastas, the priests/hackers/businessmen—and their female helpers—maintain their “holy space” by means of a more immediate involvement with the mainstream society. Through their blackmarket software “biz,” they finance their commune; through their practice of voodoo (a politicized street religion), they manipulate the information matrix to protect their own people and their clients. Like the rasta helpers of Zion, the Brotherhood allies itself with the protagonists of Count Zero (primarily the two white males, Bobby and Turner) in their battles against both the old corporate (multinational, family) power represented by Virek and the new transnational power represented by the competing forces of Maas Biolabs and Hosaka.

In Mona Lisa Overdrive, the representation of utopian space, and its place in the overall narrative, dissolves. The artists' colony known as the Factory—set in a former industrial waste dump in “rustbelt Jersey”—is occupied by three social outcasts: two rogue artists and one hanger-on. Although they have carved out an avant-garde zone that rejects the dominant society, the artists, Gentry and Slick Henry, are less philosophically and politically engaged than the members of the previous two enclaves. They lack the long range vision of Zion as well as the street power of the Brotherhood. Nevertheless, it is Slick Henry and his robot assemblages that provide the utopian contribution against the corporate powers.

At this level of reading—that is, at the level of the text's overt content—in a recuperative interpretation of the utopian enclaves—one can identify a militant opposition that maintains a trace of utopian hope in the dystopian text. Read this way, the maneuvers of the enclaves resemble Michel de Certeau's description of the oppositional tactics of “making do” as they are practiced in the urban areas of Brazil—tactics which de Certeau sees as a useful form of resistance in an order of things that seems immutable. De Certeau argues that within a “polemological space” in which at least the perception prevails that “the strong always win and words always deceive” there is also “a utopian space” in which other possibilities are articulated, often in evocations of the miraculous by means of the retelling of religious stories which subvert traditional religious and secular power. In other words, a hope for another way of life is maintained by cultural practices that refunction the imposed cultural forms and thereby “subvert the fatality of the established order.” What emerges is a “way of using imposed systems” that “creates at least a certain play in that order, a space for maneuvers of unequal forces.”

At least in an initial, quite unsuspicious, reading, de Certeau's tactics of “making do” offer an interpretive perspective that could reinforce the utopian quality of Gibson's work. What one discovers through such a reading is a popular culture version of Bloch's militant pessimism or of a Gramscian war of position carried out primarily on the terrain of cyberpunk's alternate worlds—largely by outlaw groups using abandoned or derelict materials and spaces at the margins of society.


However, to stop an analysis at this point, with an interpretation of the utopian content of these enclaves, would be to fall into an unsustainably optimistic version of a romantic anti-capitalism—one that neglects a wider review of cyberpunk's implication in the socioeconomic developments of its time. What remains to be considered is the formal relationship of the enclaves to the main plot and protagonists of Gibson's trilogy as well as some of the more direct intersections of the trilogy itself with the historical context of the U.S. in the 1980s.

Gibson's texts begin to lose their critical edge as the utopian enclaves (as developed in the iconic register of the alternative world) fall under the compromising influence of the primary plot and protagonists (as developed in the register of the “master narrative” running through all three volumes). As I noted above, despite the help of the utopian allies, the protagonists do not break beyond the boundaries of Gibson's near-future society. They may find refuge (Turner on a farm, Slick Henry in Cleveland, or Bobby in a cybernetic construct), or they may find new work (as do Case, Molly, Angie, Marly, and Mona); but they do not negate or transform the social order; rather, as Sterling warns, they willfully survive or thrive within that order. Following the narrative spine of the three volumes, which has its own tendency toward implosion, the utopian status of the enclaves gradually diminishes as the enclaves literally come “down to earth”: the hope represented in the radical alternative of the Zion space station shades into the more engaged yet also more compromised opposition of the Brotherhood highrise, and finally disappears entirely with the destruction of the minimalist utopia of the (white, heterosexual, male) artists of the Factory. Indeed, the enclaves themselves become more and more immersed in the prevailing social logic: the rastas of Zion persist in helping Case and Molly not because of their radical political vision but because of their male-bonding with the edgy hero; through their assistance to Turner and Bobby, the Brotherhood manages to protect its male-dominated street religion and achieve even more success in its blackmarket biz. Most tellingly, in the final volume, the art colony is excised from the text altogether when Slick Henry loses his utopian valence as he shifts into the master narrative as one of the main protagonists.13 Seen in terms of this plot trajectory, the enclaves simply become the homes of very traditional sidekicks, and the utopian agents become no more than typical Proppian helpers who are duly employed at the standard three points in the narrative to advance the action of the main characters.

By the end of Mona Lisa Overdrive, therefore, the possibility of an historically engaged dystopia (with its utopian traces) dissolves in an apocalyptic/fairy tale flourish. The social flatline that the reader encounters in the closing pages then reinfects the entire trilogy with a retro-virus of accommodation and closure. Thus, Gibson's work is refashioned into a postmodern simulation of the modernist dystopia: it fades into an anti-utopia closed to the processes of history and vulnerable to the stasis of political resignation.

In the light of this formal effacement of the utopian potential of Gibson's text through a master narrative of anti-utopian resignation, some of the other shortcomings of the trilogy can be understood as instances of the text's complicity with the social order of the 1980's. As we saw throughout the decade, the opportunities in this period of restructuring were monopolized by the dominant sectors of the population. In contrast, the economic and social well-being (not to mention the psychological and physical safety) of less powerful members of society was steadily eroded.

Read through the social filter of racial struggles, for example, the agential function of the enclaves becomes another version of a non-white Tonto in thrall to the actions of the lone white hustler ranging through the near-future world of street and matrix biz. In an appropriation of non-white cultures that resembles little more than a form of a “yuppie postmodernism” (see Kaufmann) engaging in a trendy consumption of the life and art of racial Others, Gibson has created three textual populations that serve as happy helpers: the rastafarians and the voodoo priests—and especially the women of the Brotherhood who are doubly subordinated as helpers to the helpers—never become actors in their own right, never claim a different voice or space within the narrative. Structured in this helper position, these non-white “buddies” do the grunt labor of softening up the battleground for the protagonists and then conveniently step aside as the white heroes finish up the work. It is Maelcum who sets up the final confrontation in Straylight: and yet, Maelcum (through the signifiers of his music, his attitude toward time, and his easy undertaking of violence by means of a machete that is just this side of the razor used by the Steppin Fetchit stereotype) is basically a humorous sidekick in the ignoble popular culture tradition of Pancho and the Cisco Kid or Tonto and the Lone Ranger. The members of the Brotherhood provide the hacking and the muscle (and the dead female bodies) that win the battle of the Hypermart; they do so, however, not as humorous sidekicks but as powerful primitives who are to be enjoyed for their mysterious excitement and then quickly dispensed with when the spoils of the plot are divided. Following the logic of this racial agenda, then, it is quite consistent with Gibson's textual tactics that the third enclave, the refuge of white males, disappears as its remaining artist hero becomes a major player in the plot. Like Tom Jones coming into his inheritance (as one of the boys after all), Slick Henry is free to leave his bohemian half-way house and move on to the fairy-tale ending of his entry into domestic bliss with Cherry in Cleveland.

Read in terms of the equally vicious backlash carried out in the 1980s against women and against gays and lesbians, the enclaves are just as compromised. All three are marked as heterosexual male territories: Zion is populated only by men, and Maelcum serves Case as a manly buddy. The Brotherhood is dominated by male leaders who use their women as “horses” (vehicles for their voodoo/hacker runs). The three derelict men of Dog Solitude can barely communicate with each other and hardly know what to do when a woman comes to stay with them—they are inept as eleven year olds whose clubhouse has been invaded by one of the neighborhood girls. Certainly, unlike the overtly chauvinistic “hard science” sf of the same period, the intertextual memory of other sf works which push the possibilities of gender and sexual preference beyond the enforced binary limits (as in the work of Russ or Tepper, or of Delany or Varley) haunts Gibson's narrative and generates the potential for more engaged texts. However, at each opportunity for such a move, Gibson retreats into the folds of a security blanket stitched with quite familiar images and stories.

The trilogy's implication in the dominant agenda of the 1980s is further revealed in the economic positioning of the protagonists and the enclaves. One of the main characteristics of the recent restructuring has been the change in the nature of the work force. As the power of organized labor is challenged by the mechanisms of a computer-based flexible production, workers who have held a secure place in the economy since the 1950s are losing ground, and new forms of labor are emerging that are amenable to the limited awards of this leaner and meaner system. Three categories of workers can be identified in this flexible economy: a declining number of skilled industrial workers who hold relatively high paying and secure jobs in large corporate structures and who are still protected by union contracts; a growing number of minimum-wage, part-time workers who are hired as needed and fired with short notice and who have no union protection and consequently no job security; and a smaller, but growing, number of skilled professional-managerial-technical workers who individually contract with corporations (and governments) for limited term, relatively high-paid tasks. It is in this last category that the protagonists (and indeed many of the readers) of Gibson's cyberpunk world can be found—albeit at the lower end of that sector's pay scale. Case is a hacker turned espionage expert who is adept in manipulating cyberspace to steal corporate secrets; Molly/Sally is a street-wise “razor-girl” who has turned her survival skills (after earning the money to buy her bionic weaponry through prostitution) into a postindustrial commodity that can be rented by corporations needing extra muscle against their competitors. Turner is a war veteran and former corporate employee who works as a contract security expert in delivering executive defectors to their new companies.

Finally, and not to be oversimplified as emerging forms of an unfashionable opposition, the enclaves themselves can also be identified in the terms of the new economic structure. Seen as micro-enterprises, each has found its niche in the planetary market. The space jockeys of Zion work as independent contractors who supply transportation at the fringes of that market. The computer wizards of the Brotherhood are dealers of software and hardware in the urban sprawl: they also perform the dangerous work of carrying out basic research on security software for major corporations unwilling to risk their own staff. Betraying the growing uselessness of the utopian in the text (and in Gibson's version of contemporary society), the artists' space of Dog Solitude serves as the most destructive enterprise of the three: the Factory becomes an independent research and development facility for products which were created as art but which turn out to be prototypes of new postindustrial weaponry for the corporate wars. In these economic spaces, Zion, the Brotherhood, and the Factory resemble not so much forward-looking utopian communities but rather residual forms of small, paternal and patriarchal, businesses. All three are hierarchical, “familial,” risk-taking institutions that are occasionally useful to the corporate giants.


As the form of Gibson's trilogy is examined in relation to the dominant mode of production of a planetary capitalism, the anti-historical, anti-utopian tendency of these early cyberpunk works comes into sharper focus. In terms of older versions of exploitation and oppression—those of gender and race—the trilogy's “utopian” Others are reduced to the status of servants and tools for white males (including writers) intent on surviving in a grim society; and in terms of economic structures and practices, the heroes and enclaves become little more than useful cogs in those larger machines.

This anti-utopian drift within Gibson's text can be more broadly understood as an example of what Paul Piccone and Tim Luke have called an “artificial negativity” that supports the status quo by recontaining sources of potential opposition through reification and commodification—thereby removing their useful negative power and repackaging it as yet another exchangeable commodity. Through this cooptive mechanism, oppositional expression is tapped as a necessary source of independent creativity that is capable of ferreting out solutions, or at least diversions, to systemic problems: the knowledge base of the opposition becomes the knowledge base of the system's own refinement. As Mike Davis puts it, in the related context of science fictional portrayals of the city of Los Angeles as the prophetic map of the future, such potentially provocative and critical signifiers of the near-future “tend to collapse history into teleology and glamorize the very reality they would deconstruct” (86).14 In this light, therefore, Gibson's three-volume text itself can be understood as an instance of artificial negativity in the larger cultural logic of global capitalism: it is a product that ranges through the new social regime like a pop culture Godzilla that validates the very terrain it threatens to destroy.

Cyberpunk, therefore, cannot be uncritically praised as the cutting edge of opposition that Bruce Sterling spoke of in his cyberpunk manifesto. Although its intention might have been to celebrate what Sterling called the “unholy alliance of the technical world and the world of organized dissent” found in the interzones occupied by hackers and rockers, cyberpunk often works as a late capitalist version of what Herbert Marcuse described as “the affirmative culture” of modern bourgeois society. Unlike earlier manifestations of affirmative culture—that is, those “high” forms of art, literature, and philosophy which assert a “universally obligatory, eternally better and more valuable world” that reigns in human “souls” happily detached from “the factual world of the daily struggle for existence”—the popular affirmations of cyberpunk offer not idealist intimations of immortality but rather utilitarian calculations of the odds of “making it” through speculative (ad)ventures on a rapidly reorganizing earth.


And yet, in closing, the arguments of de Certeau and others (especially the likes of Laclau and Mouffe, Donna Haraway, and those involved in the “new social movements”) that a diffused, often mutually antagonistic, constellation of agents can find ways to develop strategies and tactics of resistance on the terrain of the present society cannot be ignored. Simply to abandon these forces would also be to step quietly into the cage of affirmative culture. In terms of cyberpunk—despite the indictments I have belabored—it needs to be acknowledged that its near-future fictions continue to stimulate socially critical responses in many writers and readers. There are sf texts (such as Lewis Shiner's Deserted Cities of the Heart or Richard Paul Russo's Subterranean Gallery) which work with the creativity unleashed by the cyberpunk movement but which manage to map and to challenge the social system in ways that Gibson's never quite achieved. And, other writers working around the lively ambience of cyberpunk or post-cyberpunk—such as Kim Stanley Robinson, Fred Pfeil, Ian Banks, or Kathy Acker—traverse a similar fictional terrain but manage to self-reflexively resist the cyberpunk entanglement in limited visions and gestures.

Finally, in an outburst of published work since 1990, women writers working within the cyberpunk paradigm (such as Emma Bull, Pat Cadigan, Sheri Lewitt, and Laura Mixon—along with Marge Piercy's related cyborg/golem novel, He, She, and It) have turned out novels that promise to shift the literary ground to one of more clearly oppositional reconsiderations of the lean and mean global order. These more contentious works, each in their unique way, slide around cyberpunk's affirmative ambience and stimulate a more discomforting reception which is stronger in its evocation of a utopian pessimism (or a critical utopianism) in a dystopian world—offering strong critiques of the present and pre-conceptual anticipations of emancipatory alternatives somewhere beyond what Ernst Bloch called the “darkness of the lived moment.”


  1. I want to thank Ruth Levitas, Vince Geoghegan, Tim Dayton, Peter Fitting, and Fred Pfeil for their comments on versions of this essay that were read at meetings in London, Kentucky, and Kansas. I also want to thank George Mason University for research support for this project.

  2. See Costello et al. For more on the strategy of dereliction, see Alliez and Feher.

  3. For an overview of the situation in the corporate dominated publishing world, see Sedgewick.

  4. The term was coined by sf writer Bruce Bethke for a 1982 story, and writer/editor Gardiner Dozois subsequently used it to describe Gibson's work. The term was adopted by those who affiliated with the “movement” that coalesced around this new form of sf. For a useful account, see Brown. For the literary manifesto, see Sterling's preface in Mirrorshades.

  5. An argument can be made for an opposing position on the question of “willfulness” in cyberpunk by contrasting the Nietzschean will-to-power with Raymond Williams's endorsement of “willed transformation” as the force behind more progressive instances of “utopian” science fiction. The difference between the two positions could be traced in cyberpunk texts in terms of the opposition of a singular, individual character who enforces a superior will-to-power and a set of characters who carry out a collective process of willed transformation.

  6. In conversation with Pfeil at the Summer Institute On Culture and Society at Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, June 1986.

  7. Gibson's strategies appear to be borrowed uncritically from film noir and the hard boiled detective novel (unlike the subversion of those forms by mystery writers such as Sue Grafton and Sarah Paretsky during the same time period). Whalen notes Gibson's interview and links it with his accommodation rather than disputation with the emerging information-based economies of postmodernity. Hollinger points out that cyberpunk's efforts at transcendence of the present usually “point … back to the romantic trappings of the genre at its most conventional, as does its valorization of the (usually male) loner rebel/hacker/punk who appears frequently as it central character” (206). See also the discussions on masculinity and cyberpunk in Fitting (“Lessons”) and in Ross.

  8. See Angenot and Suvin, especially 130-31. See also Fitting (“Lessons”), Pfeil (“Makin' Flippy Floppy”), and Ross.

  9. In my review, I see Synners as a cyberpunk novel that opposes, and perhaps, ends the cyberpunk moment, but on its own ground. The difference between Neuromancer and Synners lies in the narrative strategy. Cadigan, benefiting from Gibson, can relinquish the noir, macho “safety net” and move to a diverse, collective protagonist closer to the form and politics of Haraway's “Manifesto” (although, she does fall into the older logic of the fairy tale when the novel ends with the reconstitution of a family structure as Gabe, Gina, and Sam set up housekeeping on the California coast). For related moves, see Bull, Lewitt, Mixon—and, in a different way, Piercy—who can be read in terms of a refunctioning of cyberpunk by women who take the movement beyond the horizons of its founding “fathers.”

  10. The discussion of cyberpunk as a cultural symptom of social dis-ease is extensive. Some that I've found valuable are by Fitting, Nixon, Rosenthal, Ross, and Whalen.

  11. For a useful discussion of sf intertextuality, see Delany, “Semiology of Silence” and the “Appendix” of Triton.

  12. On the other hand, in arguing for a literary breakthrough, I think Andrew Ross misreads the formal agenda of dystopian sf and too quickly puts the dystopian sf focus on the future without working out its relationship to the present (see 144-46).

  13. For another suspicious reading of Zion, see Whalen 83.

  14. Davis develops a symptomatic reading of such texts in terms similar to the utopian/dystopian tensions suggested in this essay. For a multi-layered sf portrayal of L.A. as an example of the crises facing U.S. society, see Robinson's “Orange County Trilogy.” See also Fischlin et al. on Gibson's Virtual Light.

Works Cited

Acker, Kathy. Empire of the Senseless. New York: Grove, 1988.

Alliez, Eric, and Michel Feher. “The Luster of Capital.” Zone 1/2 (1986): 314-59.

Angenot, Marc, and Darko Suvin. “A Response to Professor Fekete's ‘Five Theses.’” Science-Fiction Studies 15 (1988): 324-33.

Atwood, Margaret. The Handmaid's Tale. New York: Fawcett, 1985.

Baggesen, Søeren. “Utopian and Dystopian Pessimism: Le Guin's The Word for World is Forest and Tiptree's ‘We Who Stole the Dream.’” Science-Fiction Studies 14 (1987): 34-43.

Banks, Ian M. Consider Phlebas. New York: Bantam, 1991.

Bradbury, Ray. Fahrenheit 451. New York: Ballantine, 1982.

Brown, Steve. “Before the Lights Came On: Observations of a Synergy.” McCaffery, ed. 173-78.

Bull, Emma. Bone Dance. New York: Ace, 1991.

Cadigan, Pat. Synners. New York: Bantam, 1991.

Costello, Nicholas, Jonathan Michie, and Seaumas Milne. Beyond the Casino Economy: Planning for the 1990s. London: Verso, 1989.

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Davis, Mike. City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles. New York: Vintage, 1992.

de Certeau, Michel. The Practice of Everyday Life. Berkeley: U of California P, 1984.

Delany, Samuel R. The American Shore. Elizabethtown: Dragon, 1978.

———. “Is Cyberpunk a Good Thing or a Bad Thing?” Mississippi Review 47/48 (1988): 28-35.

———. “The Semiology of Silence.” Science-Fiction Studies 14.2 (1987): 134-65.

———. “Some Real Mothers: An Interview With Samuel R. Delany.” Science Fiction Eye 1.3 (1988): 5-11.

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———. “Ideological Foreclosure and Utopian Discourse.” Sociocriticism 7 (1988): 11-25.

———. “The Lessons of Cyberpunk.” Technoculture. Ed. Constance Penley and Andrew Ross. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1991.

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Gibson, William. Neuromancer. New York: Ace, 1984.

———. Count Zero. New York: Ace, 1987.

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Huxley, Aldous. Brave New World. New York: Harper and Row, 1989.

Jameson, Fredric. The Political Unconscious. Ithaca: Cornell, 1981.

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McCaffery, Larry. “An Interview with William Gibson.” Mississippi Review 47/48 (1988): 217-37.

———. “Introduction: The Desert of the Real.” Storming the Reality Studio. Ed. Larry McCaffery. Durham: Duke UP, 1991. 1-17.

———, ed. Storming the Reality Studio. Durham: Duke, 1991.

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———. “Makin' Flippy Floppy: Postmodernism and the Baby Boom PMC.” Another Tale to Tell: Politics and Narrative in Postmodern Culture. New York: Verso, 1990. 97-125.

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Charles Shaar Murray (review date 11 October 1996)

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SOURCE: Murray, Charles Shaar. “Dream Lover.” New Statesman 125, no. 4305 (11 October 1996): 44-5.

[In the following review, Murray contends that Gibson's Idoru poses the questions: “What is reality? And who is human?”]

Once you've changed the world with a mere paperback-original first novel, what do you do for an encore? When anyone lists the key texts of the contemporary science-fiction landscape, William Gibson's 1984 debut Neuromancer is the only work of prose fiction deemed as influential as movies such as Blade Runner and The Terminator. Inspired by the nerd-babble and dweeb-jargon of computer magazines and cranked out on a battered typewriter, Neuromancer brought punk romanticism and tech-noir cool to hard SF; coined the term “cyberspace” and invented not only the sub-genre called “cyberpunk” but a metaphor that seems to be remaking the world in its own image.

These days Gibson leaves cyberspace to the journalists, and to his regiment of imitators. His current intellectual playground is the braver, newer world of virtual reality, which he began exploring with Virtual Light in 1993. Idoru is a sort of sequel to that novel. Once again, Gibson finds new and compelling ways to couch the SF questions first asked by Phillip K Dick: what is reality? And who is human?

The plot of Idoru is almost identical to that of Virtual Light. Its full-tilt chase involves two protagonists, one a teenage girl in unwitting possession of a McGuffin and hunted by competing posses of bad and good guys. The second is an affiliate of the goodies. And the plot enables Gibson to launch us on a speed-bumped tour of a sexy, scary future that seems just around the next temporal corner.

Theoretically the title (Japanese-phonetic for “idol”) character, the singer Rei Toei, doesn't exist—at least, not in RL. (That's Real Life, for the benefit of readers who have one—she doesn't.) However, in the novel's era there is little or no practical difference between a software construct and the mediated presence of a “real” celebrity. Artificial Intelligence is sophisticated enough to give that software construct “personality”; and the VR environment called Walled City allows software and wetware (that's us) to mingle on more-or-less equal terms.

Along the way we can revel in the casually tossed-off detail of Gibson's post-millennial society—“non-invasive DNA sampling” at passport control, a post-earthquake Tokyo that constantly rebuilds itself, a drug experiment that turns its guinea-pigs into homicidal stalkers—and luxuriate in prose simultaneously as hard and laconic as Elmore Leonard's and as glacially poetic as J G Ballard's.

Being a missing link between Leonard and Ballard would be a nifty enough trick in its own right. If that was all Gibson was doing he wouldn't merit nearly as much attention as he does. Like no other author within or without the notional boundaries of SF (and no one since Ballard has done more to blur those boundaries), Gibson's work is powered by an unparalleled instinct for the metaphors through which technology reveals our own unconscious desires. He rarely delves below the surfaces—some gleaming, some grungy—of his characters and their world, but reflected in those surfaces we find ourselves. Sometimes it's not a pretty sight, but Idoru is always an exhilarating ride, albeit one that suggests it may be better to travel than arrive.

John Clute (review date 27 October 1996)

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SOURCE: Clute, John. “Science Fiction and Fantasy.” Book World—The Washington Post 26, no. 43 (27 October 1996): 11.

[In the following review, Clute asserts that Idoru is beautifully written with striking detail and dense with insightful, imaginative metaphors.]

For hundreds of pages, it seems he can do no wrong with the plight we're in. For most of its length. Idoru is the best novel William Gibson has ever written about the world we're entering daily, dense and remorseless and lit from inside: and even its final pages—Gibson's main weakness has always been soupy endings—are certainly no worse than the terminal shenanigans that, like some berserk pinball machine, shook Neuromancer to bits. That novel made Gibson just famous; Idoru cements that fame.

The secret of the new book, as with so many other novels about the world that seem to tell the truth about things, may be love. It was the same with Neuromancer, after all the dips and doodles of plot; at the heart of its cyberpunk vision is the lure of a dark deep engulfing world that the author makes us believe in, and long for too. Idoru is a love song to Tokyo. Despite his quite astonishingly grim knowledge of the costs of the choked virtual-reality buzz-saw labyrinths we're even now sticking our heads into, Gibson clearly loves his version of a 21st century whose inside heart is Tokyo, where it is never outdoors.

It is, throughout his work, the inside of things that counts. Gibson is a true claustrophile, a true lover of the neon-walled, intricate, inward-looking, information-dense urban world that is about to become our main habitat, a year or so hence. The various protagonists of Idoru, typically, cast themselves headlong into searches (or flights) that carry them from the outdoors (or big empty spaces) into small, dense, dark, crowded venues. One of the few quiet moments of the tale takes place in “probably the smallest freestanding commercial structure” in the world, a bar only a few feet square, its surfaces covered with sepia postcards, its shelves filled with dozens of bottles of personalized whiskey. The immediate effect on most readers—as on this reviewer—might be a sense of choking proximity, but very soon the text makes it very clear that Gibson's ultimate intention is to convey comfort. Reality is in the breath of detail.

So, too, the main story. Netrunner Laney's particular skill comes from an attention deficit, which allows him to apprehend patterns of significant information when they are unveiled to him digitally, on computer screens. Working for Slitscan—a corporation which uses his skill to generate tabloid news items about the famous—he detects a potential suicide in the breath of detail about a woman's life and attempts to keep her from killing herself. He is summarily dismissed. He takes a new job in Tokyo, where employees of the famed rock singer Rez are frantic with worry about his plans to wed a beautiful personality-construct hologram—or “Idoru”—named Rei Toei. They hope Laney will be able to help them understand what seems to be an act of insanity.

In Tokyo he is chaperoned by Keith Blackwell, a vast but user-friendly ex-villain who has become Rez's faithful keeper, and whose function is therefore very similar to that of Magersfontein Lugg, the vast excon who adopts Albert Campion in Margery Allingham's famous detective series and keeps him safe. A Gibsonesque soupy ending, in which knight errant Laney survives against all odds, is clearly in the offing.

Everyone, in fact, survives: Laney, Rez, Rei Toei, and a 14-year-old fan from Seattle who has unwittingly smuggled an illegal nanotech device and McGuffin into Japan and who has also been chased in vain by relays of hi-tech villains. It's all a bit softish, as a story. But the underlying vision remains whole.

As the novel proceeds to its feel-good close, Rez and Rei Toei embark on an “alchemical marriage,” a spiritual union through which true understanding of the universe may be achieved. As Laney has perceived, Rei Toei is profoundly “nodal.” She is so dense with the catnip breath of detail that he must turn away, lest she blind him. For she focuses the flow of true meaning in a world bereft of mere sincerity; she is a core of burning—and brand-new—authentic being.

Rez and Rei Toei also begin to construct a nanotech-crafted organic city which will duplicate the MUD (multi-user domain) electronic version of Kowloon Walled City which has featured in the tale, and which will grow indefinitely like a hive, a buzzing of innumerable bees of information, each inhabitant safe in one of a million very tiny rooms, each of them lined with whiskey bottles maybe. It will be an inside city, the city of William Gibson's dreams.

For Idoru is a prophecy, a prayer for information baths that never drown the supplicant. It is also a text on paper, beautifully written, dense with metaphors that open the eyes to the new, dreamlike, intensely imagined, deeply plausible. It is a profoundly cunning advertisement for a world whose enclosed spaces—and infinite domains within the skull—we had better be prepared to join in wedlock. For Idoru is also a marriage song.

N. Katherine Hayles (essay date 1996)

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SOURCE: Hayles, N. Katherine. “How Cyberspace Signifies: Taking Immortality Literally.” In Immortal Engines: Life Extension and Immortality in Science Fiction and Fantasy, edited by George Slusser, Gary Westfahl, and Eric S. Rabkin, pp. 111-21. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1996.

[In the following essay, Hayles argues that Gibson's fiction blurs the boundaries between cyberspace and the real world.]

Through their individual imaginations, writers can evoke a world that differs in significant respects from the society in which they live. But in the very act of creating difference authors necessarily reinscribe similarity, for presuppositions eluding their artistic or linguistic grasp always far outnumber the few they can consciously modify. Most science fiction stories that imagine immortality fall into this category. Treating mortality as an independent variable that can be altered to show the effects on society, they create narratives whose thematics deal with immortality but whose underlying processes of signification remain unchanged. As comedy and tragedy testify, the fact of mortality is central to literary form and signification. Because deep assumptions about mortality are encoded in the signifiers that constitute narratives of immortality, what is given with one hand is taken away with the other.

How might narratives change if mortality were not a fact but an option, an option summoned not merely by a writer's imagination but by pervasive social and material conditions? The possibility of an immortality that seems almost within our technological grasp shimmers in Hans Moravec's dream of downloading consciousness into a computer.1 Moravec believes that once the transfer is complete, the body will be dispensable, a mortal coil as obsolete as it is potentially deadly. Summarizing the attitude, Ed Regis writes, “Tired of the ills of the flesh? Then get rid of the flesh. We can do that now!”2 Although these dreams remain fantasies, they point to larger social and economic changes that make the transformation of material structures into informational patterns everyday events. As the practices of everyday life change, the substrate of cultural assumptions shifts accordingly, precipitating further changes in life experiences. Among the many cultural sites involved in these feedback loops are contemporary fictions, as information technologies change not merely the subjects represented but the codes used to represent them. Thus the possibility exists for a writer to bring computerized immortality as a thematic together with processes of signification changed by computer technology, setting up complex reverberations between the signifiers that produce meaning and the meanings they produce.

In William Gibson's Sprawl trilogy—Neuromancer,Count Zero, and Mona Lisa Overdrive—this explosive combination catches fire.3 The catalyst is the deceptively simple premise that a landscape of computerized information can literally become a space through which consciousness can move. It is no secret to literary critics that the creation of a new kind of space can profoundly alter the stories written within and about it. The virgin forests of James Fenimore Cooper and Nathaniel Hawthorne and the oceanic expanses of Herman Melville led to narratives different in kind, not merely in degree, from those that emerged from the stuffy drawing rooms of English society. So too the novels spun out of cyberspace differ in important ways even from their close cousins within science fiction. What are the catalytic properties of cyberspace, and how do these properties interact with changing codes of representation?

Underlying the idea of cyberspace is a fundamental shift in the premises of what constitutes reality. Reality is considered to be formed not primarily from matter or energy but from information. Although information can be carried by matter or energy, it remains distinct from them. Properly speaking, it is a pattern rather than a presence. Deconstruction has taught us that presence is never self-evident by itself; to come into being, it must always already be joined with absence in a generative dialectic that produces both simultaneously. In the same way, pattern does not come into being by itself; rather, it is always already joined by randomness in a generative dialectic that produces both simultaneously.4 The cultural context for cyberspace is a wide-ranging displacement of presence and absence by pattern and randomness as the generative dialectic producing representations. The displacement of presence/absence by pattern/randomness is visually evident in new scientific imaging technologies that interface humans and computers, such as positron emission tomography, or PET.5 In PET, naturally occurring biological substrates are synthesized in mildly radioactive forms and injected into the patient. To reveal brain function, a glucose isotope is used as the substrate. The emission intensity correlates with glucose metabolism, which in turn correlates with different kinds of perceptual and cognitive activity. Detecting and mapping the radioactive particles yields a data array indicating the signal strength at various points across a plane through the patient's brain. The data are analyzed tomographically by a computer using Fourier transform techniques, from which a two-dimensional image “slice” is constructed with colors to indicate signal intensity. If the patient is talking to himself during the scan, verbal centers will be colored hot in the resulting image; if she is performing motor tasks, the hot areas will be the appropriate motor centers.

New software can stack these two-dimensional images to create a projected three-dimensional simulation, which can be spatially manipulated by the computer to yield images from many perspectives. Moreover, the 3-D simulation can be overlaid back onto the patient by means of an electronic wand passed over the patient's head. The wand allows the simulation to be precisely correlated with the topography of the patient's head. Say the patient has a brain tumor. By moving the wand to the tumor's location in the simulation, the technician knows where to mark the patient's head to indicate the exact point where the surgeon should make the incision. Thus the technique creates a space in which patient and simulation come together in real time, as if the patient had moved inside the screen or the simulation had moved out into the world.

The transformations involved in this technology illustrate how presence/absence is interpenetrated and displaced by pattern/randomness. During PET scans the living body is turned into a data array, an image is constructed from the array, then the image is overlaid back onto the living body to form body-plus-simulation. We can visualize the transformation as a keyhole shape, appropriate to the Alice in Wonderland flavor of having gone through the computer screen and come out the other side. The large upper end is an embodied actuality, which is reduced through the scanning technique to the wasp waist of the data array; this disembodied array becomes a visually rich image again through tomographic simulation techniques. When the bottom end of the keyhole is folded back onto the top end, the result may seem to be a fuller, richer version of the patient, whose interior cranial terrain is now as visually accessible and medically significant to the technicians as external physiognomy was to nineteenth-century practitioners. But make no mistake: these transformations do not simply yield back the original subject. The reconstituted body-plus-simulation is neither flesh and blood alone nor computer image, but a new kind of entity that, following Xerox PARC's Mark Wieser, I call an embodied virtuality. Embodied virtuality differs from traditional embodiment because in it, presence is understood to be always already penetrated by the virtuality of information.

The systematic transformations that create embodied virtuality are not limited to scientific visualization; they occur in a variety of sites and diverse media, including modern fiction. To show how they work in printed texts, I return to Gibson's cyberspace. The question I want to pose is not What does cyberspace mean? but How it is constituted as a verbal entity? Like the body transformed into a data array, representations referencing embodied actualities in Gibson's text are presumed to be reduced to data-like abstractions as they enter cyberspace. From these abstractions the text generates new representations through the trope of literalization; this phase corresponds to the creation of the simulation in a PET scan. It may seem as if the reconstituted representations can simply stand in for the old, like the simulation overlaid onto the patient's body, but the move through abstraction has caused them to be riddled with the virtuality of simulation. Like the body-plus-simulation, the verbally constituted entities of cyberspace refer to presence interpenetrated by the immateriality of information. As the trilogy progresses, there is increasing pressure for pattern to usurp presence, information to displace materiality.

To see these transformations at work, consider how movement is constituted in cyberspace. Representations referencing a body—descriptions of Case, for example—are displaced by a signifier written as pov. More than an acronym, pov is literalized into a substantive noun that signifies the body's abstraction into a point of view. The pov does not, however, merely signify the character's position; rather, increasingly it signifies the character himself. Movement is achieved when the pov flies, the mode of transportation that comes closest to reducing the friction of distance to zero. Movement takes place in relation to the fixed data structures that form the landscape, generating a distinction between free and occupied space that also operates as a public/private division. The distinction is enforced not by social prohibitions such as laws against trespassing but by privately owned ice (intrusion countermeasures electronics) that are lethal to a pov violating the space. The field of movement is constituted through descriptions that rely primarily on visual sense (as distinct from aural, kinesthetic, or tactile senses). The horizontal dimension is usually the axis along which movement takes place, whereas the vertical dimension is used primarily to signify complexity and size of data structures—another abstraction that has been literalized into a spatial dimension. In contrast with the endless empty landscapes of the New World or the empty expanses of outer space, this frontier is always already crowded. Exploration takes place under the trope of violation and transgression of the already owned and already occupied rather than under the imperialist fiction of the discovery of a dark continent or a new world. Consequently, in this world innocence is hardly possible, even as a self-delusion.

Underlying these spatial qualities is a presupposition that I have underscored in my description: cyberspace is constituted through signifiers that literalize abstractions, particularly the abstractions characteristic of postmodernity. We learn in Count Zero, for example, that only underdeveloped Third World countries still have governments. In the First World, government functions have been taken over by multinational corporations. This abstract proposition is represented in cyberspace by the proliferation of corporate structures in the landscape and the transfer of police authority from laws to ice. Laws can be written down, but they are not themselves physical objects. By contrast, ice is represented in cyberspace as having the sensory properties one associates with materiality. It glows white or blue, has an intricate physical geometry, and can move through space in pursuit of a trespasser. The abstraction it represents has been literalized into a virtual presence that has as much physical reality as anything else in this virtual space. The largest sense in which literalization occurs is, of course, cyberspace itself, a space constituted by literalizing data fields into actual physical localities.

Literalizing abstractions, cyberspace creates a level playing field where abstract entities, data constructs, and physically embodied consciousnesses interact on an equal basis. All forms are equivalent in this space; none is more physically real or immediate than any other. The signifiers representing an actually existing person cannot claim more materiality than those representing the shape of a data bank or construct generated by a computer program, because all signifiers within this space—include those generating the space itself—operate according to a logic of literalization.

Case, the protagonist of Neuromancer, tries to maintain the distinction between life that exists literally outside cyberspace and life that exists as a literality only because of cyberspace. When he sees Linda Lee in cyberspace after she has been killed, he insists she cannot be real because she is not alive. Neuromancer, the artificial intelligence who has created the simulacrum, claims that the distinction is not valid. “To live here [in cyberspace] is to live. There is no difference,” he tells Case (N [Neuromancer] 305). The claim is central to all three books, although they take different stances toward it. As the arc of the trilogy progresses, the preponderance of evidence shifts to support the claim, however much Case resists it initially. There are deeper reasons for this progression than authorial preference or a need to generate new plots. In this literalized space, life is indeed life, for literalization flattens differential relations between signifiers that could constitute a distinction between life that is literally alive and life that is simulated metaphorically. Immortality thus happens not only at the level of thematics, as when Bobby, Angie, and 3Jane cast off their bodies and decide to live in the aleph's biosoft memory, but at the level of signification as well.

If signifiers in cyberspace cannot constitute the life/death difference, what differences can they bring into play? In this system of signification, the distinction corresponding to life/death is on/off, or, more precisely, continuity/discontinuity. When one is alive, consciousness and memory continue to exist after the plug is pulled. After Case jacks out of cyberspace, he remembers who he is and what happened; but Dixie Flatline, a cyberspace jockey who died after something in cyberspace made him “flatline” (cease brain activity), now lives only as a computer construct whose memory terminates when the on/off switch is flipped:

“What's the last thing you remember before I spoke to you, Dix?” [Case asks the Flatline.]


“Hang on.” He disconnected the construct. The presence was gone. He reconnected it. “Dix? Who am I?”

“You got me, Jack. Who the fuck are you?”

(N 78)

Mortality and termination, already synonyms in popular culture, here are constructed as functions of an electrical circuit. The pun, as Scott Bukatman convincingly argues in Terminal Identity, is central to the construction of subjectivity in postmodern science fiction.6

In this passage it seems as though the vulnerability to on/off can reliably distinguish between artificial and natural life-forms. As the trilogy proceeds, however, the boundaries separating cyberspace from the real world become progressively more permeable, until finally there is scarcely any space that cannot be literalized. As a consequence, even the on/off distinction is undermined. In a continuation of the passage cited above, for example, Case temporarily overcomes the problem of Dixie's on/off consciousness by jacking the construct into the data bank he is using, giving it “sequential, real-time memory” (N 79). The distinction between on and off continues to erode in the next volumes of the trilogy. Isolated in a small hand unit, Colin (a computer construct built as a companion to Kumi in Mona Lisa Overdrive) cannot maintain consciousness when the machine is off. Released into the aleph's cyberspace, however, he immediately achieves continuity, taunting 3Jane that he is just as real as she is despite the fact that she once had a material body and he did not. The progression reaches its logical end in Mona Lisa Overdrive when continuity itself becomes a machine function, personified in Sense/Net's sentient computer consciousness called Continuity. Once computer consciousness finds a way to overcome the on/off problem and maintain continuity, it has effectively achieved real immortality, not the spurious kind that makes Dixie Flatline ask to be permanently disconnected.

As computer simulacra evolve toward memory continuity, humans seem to devolve toward memory discontinuity. Literalized into a space, memory becomes an area available for expropriation, discipline, and punishment. Slick had his memory “colonized” while he was in prison so that he could remember nothing other than the routine information he needed to perform forced labor. The effects of the colonization continue after he is released. The stigmata of his suffering take the form of Korsakov's Syndrome, which makes him lose the ability to remember under stress. In an unintentional parody of the conversation between Case and Dixie Flatline in the first volume, Slick in the final volume repeatedly gives Candy the same answers to the same questions without remembering how he has just responded (MLO [Mona Lisa Overdrive] 136-37). Human and computer simulacrum have changed places: now the human, not the construct, is shackled to the on/off button of mnemonic continuity.

The literalization that drives this progression is inscribed into pov, deepening the reach of immortality beyond thematics and into processes of signification. In all three books Gibson uses point of view to construct narratives in ways that would be familiar to Henry James. In Neuromancer the third-person narrator has access primarily to Case's consciousness, and the story is told mostly from his point of view. Because Case can share the sensorium of other characters, the text reads like multiple narratives spliced together. Count Zero also uses third-person narration, but now the narrative explicitly splits into parallel stories of Mitchell's “extraction” from Maas Biolabs and Bobby Newmark's adventures in and around cyberspace. Mona Lisa Overdrive continues to proliferate points of view, bifurcating between the four viewpoints of Kumi, Mona, Angie, and Slick, with the fifth implicit viewpoint of Count Zero emerging only at the end, and only within cyberspace.

Beyond this conventional use of point of view lies a more innovative mode of construction that can be described as a literalization of point of view. In its Jamesian sense, point of view presumes the fiction of a person who observes the action from a particular angle and tells what he or she sees. In the preface to The Portrait of a Lady, James imagines a “house of fiction” with a “million windows” formed by “the need of the individual vision and by the pressure of the individual will.” At each “stands a figure with a pair of eyes, or at least with a field glass, which forms, again and again, for observation, a unique instrument, insuring to the person making use of it an impression distinct from every other.”7 For James, the observer is an embodied creature, and the specificity of his location determines what he can see as he looks out at a scene that is itself physically specific. When an omniscient viewpoint is used, the limitations of the narrator's corporeality begin to fall away, but the suggestion of embodiment lingers in the idea of focus, the “scene” created by the eye's movement.

Even for James, vision is not unmediated technologically. Significantly, he imagines the viewer's field glass as no less constitutive of vision than the angle of vision or eyes. Cyberspace makes a quantum leap forward into the technological mediation of vision. Instead of an embodied consciousness looking through the window, the pov moves through the screen, leaving the body behind as an unoccupied shell. In cyberspace, point of view does not describe the character; it creates him. Lacking a body and reduced to his consciousness, the character literally is his point of view. If his point of view is annihilated he also disappears, ceasing to exist as a consciousness both in and out of cyberspace. In cyberspace the realist fiction of a narrator who observes but does not create is unmasked; the effect of unmasking is not metafictional, however, but in a literal sense metaphysical, above and beyond physicality. The key difference between the Jamesian and cyberspace points of view is that the former implies physical presence while the latter does not.

In several passages Gibson plays with these conventions, conflating Jamesian fiction with the cyberspace construction. When Case “rides” with Molly by hitting the simstim switch that connects them, the narrative jumps to her point of view at the time that Case's consciousness is joined with hers by cyberspace technology. When her leg is broken, she feels excruciating pain that jolts Case when he shares her sensorium. The difference is that she cannot escape her body, while he can elude the screaming nerves by flipping a switch. For her, pain is as inevitable as mortality; for him, it is an option. Nor is it coincidence that the character immersed in her physicality is a woman and the character who can escape it is a man. Though both males and females can enter cyberspace, pervasive gender encodings throughout the trilogy cast immersion in the body as female, alienation and escape from it as male.

Central to these encodings is the manipulation of point of view. In all three books there are recognition scenes in which a male character sees his body from the outside, at first fails to recognize it, and then is shocked and disgusted at his vulnerability when he does. The first such scene occurred when Case hit the simstim switch and found himself staring down, through Molly's good eye, at a “white-faced, wasted figure, afloat in a loose fetal crouch, a cyberspace deck between its thighs, a band of silver trodes over closed, shadowed eyes. The man's cheeks were hollowed with a day's growth of dark beard, his face slick with sweat. He was looking at himself” (N 256). The regressive behavior of the fetal position, the wasted body seen only as “it,” and the implications of disease and mortality are in stark contrast with the consciousness who just played a heroic role in a perilous adventure in cyberspace. This dramatizes the split between Jamesian and cyberspace pov, representing both a body whose physicality is described by pov and a consciousness that exists only because it has been literalized through pov.

In Count Zero the alienation between physical presence and literalized pov deepens when Bobby perceives himself flattened against the ceiling, “staring straight down at a blood-stained white doll that had no head at all. … There were pink and blue dermadisks stuck to the skin on either side of the doll's neck. The edges of the wound seemed to have been painted with something that looked like chocolate syrup. … Then Bobby got the picture, and the universe reversed itself sickeningly. The lamp was suspended from the ceiling, the ceiling was mirrored, and he was the doll” (CZ [Count Zero] 53-54). By Mona Lisa Overdrive, alienation is so extreme that it is not possible to recover any exterior view of the body from a subject's perspective. The only descriptions we have of Count Zero (aka Bobby) are through the eyes of others as they look at the wasted, tube-fed body so obviously superfluous that its death is scarcely noticed. By then his subjectivity does not inhere in the flesh at all, having been “decremented” by a count to zero. As his name implies, Count Zero has gone through the boundary point and exists only as a literalized pov in cyberspace.

In contrast with this male alienation from one's physical self is the immersion of the female characters in their bodies. Molly delights in using her cyborg body as a physical weapon; Mona has cosmetic surgery to make her a near double of her idol, Angie Mitchell; Angie's father performs extensive neurosurgery on her brain, impregnating it with biosoft circuitry. Although men can also be simstim stars, like Robin Lanier (the name a bow to the father of virtual reality, Jaron Lanier), it is only with female characters that the narrative pov representing the simstim viewer moves inside the body. The construction suggests that the gendered language of electrical circuits is inscribed within and through the signifiers that constitute the bodies of these texts. While men jack in, an expression alluding both to the phallus and to a male electrical fitting, women become receptacles for biocybernetic intrusions. With male characters the connection is exterior, as the alienated cyberspace pov suggests; with female characters it is interior, enmeshed within their physicality.

The two sides of this gendered dichotomy become entangled in the fecund and phallic ambiguities of the matrix—meaning both a mathematical array, an abstract arrangement of data unfolded according to logical rules, and the female ground of creation, the unformed materia that for Renaissance science was female matter before male spirit gave it form and shape. Bobby jacks into the aleph that provides the abstract space he and Angie will inhabit, but Angie accesses it directly through the biosoft interior of her brain that her father reconfigured into the necessary patterns. In a more than figurative sense, her father gives her away. To consummate marriage with the cyberspace pov Bobby has become, Angie must bring her cybernetic receptacle into physical proximity with the aleph's exterior form. Though both Angie and Bobby leave their bodies to live in the aleph's abstraction of cyberspace, they do so through different, and differently gendered, topologies.

If the female is identified with immersion in physicality and the male with abstraction from it, the arc of the trilogy is overwhelmingly male. The logic moves progressively, relentlessly toward abstraction. Cyberspace, a literalized abstraction of the world, is fully occupied the first time we see it. In later volumes it becomes progressively more crowded, until Bobby seeks a new frontier in the aleph, a space described as an abstraction of cyberspace. With abstraction piled on abstraction, consciousness becomes more remote from physicality and the smell of mortality. Working in tandem with the abstractions are the literalizations that make them into spaces that can be occupied as if they were physical locations. Once, immortality was represented through metaphor: people were immortal when they were like gods. It is a measure of how far immortality has permeated into the processes of signification that now it is constituted through the opposite trope of literalization: people are immortal when they are literalized into pov and placed in abstract arrays literalized into spaces.

Oddly, as the spaces become more literalized and abstract, they become more domestic. All we see in cyberspace are geometric forms; it's a nice place to visit, but who would want to live there? By contrast, the aleph has houses, fields, and horses. But perhaps it is not so odd, for having the spaces become more habitable as they move further into abstraction makes them as cozy as the spaces of the world—with a crucial difference. In the aleph there is no omega, no necessary end, no inevitable mortality. Ironically, as immortality penetrates deeper into the textures of the texts and as physicality is apparently left behind, gender becomes if anything more rather than less important. Fleeing physicality, Angie, Bobby, and other characters inhabit cyberspace and have its gendered topologies reinscribed in the electrical circuitry that now serves as their bodies. Thus is immateriality made in the image of the physicality that it displaces and preempts. The reinscription can serve as a reminder that even though immortality now reaches beyond thematics into the signifiers themselves, the ground for life remains rooted in the matrix of physicality. Literalized abstractions can never be wholeness.


  1. Moravec discusses these possibilities in the significantly titled Mind Children: The Future of Robot and Human Intelligence (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1989).

  2. Ed Regis, Great Mambo Chicken and the Transhuman Condition: Science Slightly over the Edge (Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley, 1990), 7.

  3. William Gibson, Neuromancer (1984; London: Grafton Books, 1986); Count Zero (New York: Ace Books, 1987); Mona Lisa Overdrive (New York: Bantam Books, 1988). All future page references in the text are to these editions, abbreviated, respectively, as N, CZ, and MLO.

  4. The pattern/randomness dialectic and information/noise interplay are connected in information theory. For a discussion of how these pairs are complementary, see Hayles, Chaos Bound: Orderly Disorder in Contemporary Literature and Science (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1990), 1-60.

  5. PET scans are discussed in Richard Mark Friedhoff and William Benzon, Visualization: The Second Computer Revolution (New York: Abrams, 1989), 64-66, 81. An overview is in Brain Imaging, a project proposal by Robert N. Beck, Oscar H. Kapp, and Chin-Tu Chen (Chicago: ANL Center for Imaging Science, no date).

  6. Scott Bukatman, Terminal Identity: The Virtual Subject in Postmodern Science Fiction (Durham: Duke University Press, 1993).

  7. Henry James, The Art of the Novel (New York: Scribner's, 1937), 46.

Ross Farnell (essay date November 1998)

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SOURCE: Farnell, Ross. “Posthuman Topologies: William Gibson's ‘Architexture’ in Virtual Light and Idoru.” Science-Fiction Studies 25, no. 3 (November 1998): 459-80.

[In the following essay, Farnell explores the recurrent themes of place, space, form, and architecture within the context of posthuman topologies in Virtual Light and Idoru.]

What would happen in the future came out of what was happening now.

(Gibson, Idoru)

In the intervening three years between the publication of Gibson's Virtual Light and his latest novel, Idoru, the critical silence has been deafening. The disappointment that greeted his first “post-Sprawl” novel was palpable and has been reflected in the absence of both academic and fan material devoted to it. It was easier to dismiss Virtual Light as a failure and to continue with the plethora of analysis devoted to the earlier cyberspace “trilogy.” But the publication of Idoru now allows us to read Virtual Light as its precursor, thereby inviting a reappraisal that takes both works into account. As often happens, it is only with the hindsight granted by more recent publication that the true significance of the earlier work becomes apparent. Like the Sprawl books, these two novels are not sequential in the strictest sense, yet they share the same “universe,” many common themes and motifs, and even the occasional character. Gibson's recurrent theme of place, space and architecture in posthuman topologies comes to the fore in these two “Hak Nam” inspired novels. But in order to understand his abandonment of the digital tectonics of cyberspace for more “organic” structures, it becomes necessary to locate Virtual Light in relation to the changing sf aesthetic of the early nineties, where after a decade of dominance, cyberpunk was on the decline.

By the late 1980's critics and authors alike were questioning the relevance of cyberpunk's by-now tired motifs. Brooks Landon argued that Gibson “turned out the lights” on cyberpunk in 1988, with the publication of Mona Lisa Overdrive (240). The futuristic and predictive science fictional content of the writing was also increasingly in doubt:

The real message of cyberpunk was inevitability … not speculation or extrapolation [but an] … unhysterical, unsentimental understanding of the profound technological and epistemological implications of accomplished and near-accomplished cultural fact.

(Landon 239)

Two worlds collide, then, as sf becomes sociopolitical cultural reality. Gibson's personal scepticism towards “science fiction's claim to … a predictive function” places his writing in this border zone. His novels help to provide what he terms the “science fiction tool kit” increasingly necessary to “describe the world we live in” (McIntyre 49, 52).

Science fiction's “deepest vocation,” according to Fredric Jameson, is to provide a set of metaphors and narratives that work through “elaborate (analogous) strategies of indirection … to defamiliarize and restructure our experience of our own present … [in the] form of some future world's remote past” (“Progress” 151-53). While some sf authors, Bruce Sterling among them, dismiss the claims of sf-as-allegory as demeaning to the genre's predictive functions,1 a “cognitive mapping” of our postmodern present-as-simulacrum is actually a prerequisite step to any speculative contemplation of our possible futures. Such “retrofuturism” (Csicsery-Ronay, Jr) has progressively brought cyberpunk out of “future concerns” and into the present. It is this process that has widened the “mainstream” acceptance of cyberpunk, while simultaneously ushering in the death-throes of the movement from which it sprang. Sterling, the original rhetorician of the cyberpunk “movement,” notes how the settings of “cyberpunk in the nineties” come “closer and closer to the present day … the issues at stake become something horribly akin to the standard concerns of middle-aged responsibility.” In a telling acknowledgment of its allegorical role, he argues that the “‘anti-humanist’ conviction in cyberpunk is … an objective fact about culture in the late twentieth century. Cyberpunk didn't invent this situation; it just reflects it” (40-41). Posthumanism, in other words, is our present as well as our future.

In a choice of moments made especially pertinent for its sense of irony and emphasis on aesthetics, Arthur and Marilouise Kroker point to the movie translation of Gibson's first Sprawl story, Johnny Mnemonic, as the “cinematic tombstone for the cyberpunk that was its own creation.” Cyberpunk, they argue, was “killed by sheer cultural acceleration, by the fact that 80's cyberpunk metaphors don't really work any more in the virtual 90's.” Johnny Mnemonic is a “bitter reminder of the decline of cyberpunk into present hyper-rational (hyper-marketplace) technology” (on line). Here cultural and corporate appropriation finally catches up with the aesthetics and metaphors of cyberpunk. The sf-becomes-cultural-critique-becomes-sf feedback-loop now operates at such a velocity that the borders between them are finally erased altogether. Only the difference in narrative framework appears to distinguish them. Cyberpunk may live on as a Hollywood marketing strategy or, in some radically altered form, as a possible literature for “feminist theorists for cyborgs” (Cadora 370), but, as the dominant “mode” of sf in the 1980's, it is safe to say that, if not quite dead, it is at least no longer truly relevant. As Gibson notes, cyberpunk's only contemporary use is as “a pop culture flavour,” a certain aesthetic (Diggle). As text, the post-millennial outlook for cyberpunk appears truly terminal.

Just as cyberpunk is suffering terminal dislocation “between [its] self-promotion and its textual performance” (Easterbrook 378), so too is its favourite “site,” cyberspace. The initial prognosis for cyberspace was an optimistic anticipation of reconfigured subjects, alternative, fragmented and decentred “two tier ontologies” (McHale 251-2), a “schizophrenic postmodern space” of mediation between human and posthuman. It soon became apparent, however, that the typical representation of cybernautical existence, in Gibson's “Sprawl trilogy” in particular, was a discourse conducted under the unquestioning hegemony of a dominant Cartesian dualism. Thus the “escape from the meat” into the realm of the mind was exposed for its abandonment of the discourses of the body-as-knowledge and power. Lyotard is only one of many theorists to have argued convincingly, in the tradition of Merleau-Ponty and others, that gender, desire, and suffering render “thought inseparable from the phenomenological body” and the “unconscious-as-body” (Lyotard 81). Cyberspatial cyberpunk devolved into a sustained and spectacular discourse of the (postmodern) disappearance of the body, as the cognitive and visual became dominant. It is not surprising, then, that feminist critics should have attacked cyberpunk for its “technomasculinity.”

The promise of refigured, decentred subjects is lost to the reality of reconstituted, autonomous identities, of dubious ontological status, in commodified spaces. Metaphysical notions of religion become confused and conflated with technology, sublimating cyberspace to a mere narrative device, the “domain of a friendly death” (Suvin 361), pure escapism from corporeal consequence. Cyberspace is thus posited as a utopian “Promised Land” of architectonic transcendentalism, a “sacramental architecture” (Porush 556-57). This digital structure, argues Markley, “incorporates, rather than overthrows, the assumptions and values of a traditional, logocentric humanism” (Markley 437). Capitalism is reified as the foundation for the cyberspatial cyberpunk “self,” reproducing authenticity, stable meaning and the subject/object dichotomy in an age of putative schizophrenia, the “self-regained” (Stockton 610-11). The “promises of monsters” are sadly unfulfilled.

Despite its many shortcomings as phenomenology, ontology and perhaps even ideology, “cyberspace” was unsurpassed as a narrative device tailored to the needs of sf. As Broderick argues, cyberspace created, in Delany's terms, a new “web of signification” (82). Bukatman correctly identifies this “fictional-world-within-the-fictional-world” as an exemplary application of Delany's theory of the “paraspace,” a rhetorically heightened “other realm,” parallel to the normal diegetic space created by the sf writer (Bukatman 200). Importantly, the sf posthuman may itself be posited as one of these “exotic spaces … endemic to the genre of science fiction” (200), a zone of ontological shifts, allegory, rhetoric, and defamiliarization, where the conflict between humanism and posthumanism is thrashed out with “lyric intensity.” The posthuman is, after all, a “new web of signification,” a discourse of cyborg semiotics and anthropology. In Gibsonian cyberspace, Bukatman explains: “Language becomes the site of the origin of the subject, a site of identity,” where the dislocated language results in “neither pure ecstasy nor pure alienation, but some deeply ambivalent entwining of the two” (215). For all forms of the posthuman, cyborg and beyond, language has indeed been the site of new and creative becomings, oscillating between the sublime polarities of ecstasy and alienation, anticipation and dread, yet most productive when constructed in contested zones of “deep ambivalence.”

While Gibson provided his Sprawl trilogy with a consummate sf paraspace, exploited to great potential, by the time he came to write Virtual Light the notion of “cyberspace,” if not completely discredited, had at least fallen into the realm of predictable cliché, a standardized trope of cyberpunk fiction. Like cyberpunk itself, the novum of cyberspace had moved from potent narrative device to cynical marketing technique and commodified hyperreality, thereby attaining an escape velocity which transported it from the realms of sf and text and into the mainstream media-hype of techno-fetishistic desire. Gibson needed a new paraspace, constructed from the flotsam and jetsam of popular culture and contemporary society. He found it in the posthuman architexture of Virtual Light's “Bridge society.”


I think LA slipped over the Fault into the 21st century about eight years ago … if you want to read the coolest piece of cyberpunk fiction so far, get a book by Mike Davis called City of Quartz.


Virtual Light is Gibson's account of a near-future, post-quake Balkanized California. As in his earlier novels, the narrative structure remains both simple and predictable. The action is object rather than subject-driven, centering in this case around the Chandleresque “MacGuffin” device of the “virtual light” glasses themselves.3 Both Virtual Light and Idoru deploy variations on themes and tropes familiar to readers of Gibson's earlier work. While these sometimes verge on the edge of genre cliché, the novels exhibit a tone of self-parody which engenders an aesthetic of feedback loop repetition that is an integral part of Gibson's writing. Stylistically, their surface aesthetics retain the same sense of estrangement and the misplaced juxtaposition of seemingly incongruous metaphors employed to such effect in his previous works, creating an aura of a known present colliding head-on with an oddly removed and displaced alien urbanism. Gibson's peculiar talent with language continues to foreground the pre-eminent features of postmodern textuality, pastiche and collage, although neither novel sustains the promise of its opening narrative intensity.

The conflict between postmodern aesthetics and conservative narrative modes continues to “undermine” Gibson's “radical potential” (Sponsler 637, 641). Virtual Light offers only the illusion of “radically changed landscapes,” as it is our social, political, economic and cultural present that underwrites the novel's “future” world. As “sites,” Gibson's San Francisco and Los Angeles so closely parallel the descriptions offered by Mike Davis in his City of Quartz that they no longer require much in the way of “suspension of disbelief.” Hollinger correctly identifies the root of the paradoxical contradiction between aesthetics and depth, arguing that, in the majority of cyberpunk writing, “surface is content,” a reflection of the authors' awareness of our contemporary “era of hyperreality” (Hollinger 38). Gibson's writing exemplifies this typically “overdetermined proliferation of surface detail” (37): densely populated textual references to diverse objects of cultural ephemera pervade his work. This epitomizes the style identified by Bill Buford as “dirty realism”—a term appropriated by Jameson for cyberpunk applications—that is, a fiction cluttered with the oppressive local details of late-capitalist consumerism, urban nightmares “on the point of becoming celebrations of a new reality” (Jameson, Seeds 145-50).

The adverse side-effect of such attention to surfaces can often be the loss of the political. The pregnant possibilities of political, social and posthumanist critique are more often than not subsumed under the suffocating overabundance of aesthetic detail. Gibson has candidly confessed that he has “never bothered trying to figure out what the political implications are in the world of Virtual Light” (Today Online). This glib dismissal of the novel's deeper implications by its own author is thrown into serious doubt, however, by his acknowledgment of Davis's City of Quartz as an influence on its composition, “most particularly in observations regarding the privatization of public space” (Gibson, VL §A:295). The LA inhabited by “rentacops” Rydell and Sublett in Virtual Light is a thinly veiled critique of the LA depicted by Davis. In this particular instance, despite the author's best efforts to confine meaning to the surface, the depth of the political unconscious cannot be denied.

City of Quartz may well be a journey through the historical and textual construction of LA, both as reality and as myth of the American urban landscape; but it is also an unashamedly left-wing analysis of the plight of the dispossessed who inhabit the urban jungle. Davis's study cannot be dismissed as “cyberpunk fiction,” since it is lived, experiential, socio-political reality. The political implications are clear in his condemnation of a culture where “segregation has become the aim” and “brutalization” of “apartheid” in inner-city spatial relations the norm. Public becomes pseudo-public, in a liaison between architecture and the police state that inverts interior and exterior spaces, excluding the underclass “Other” (Davis 226-28). Virtual Light's Bridge community dramatizes a homeless people's response to such urban ghettoization. Gibson's denied political unconscious has thus been brought to the surface. Indeed, it can be argued that one of the defining differences in the transition from cyberpunk to “post-cyberpunk” writing is the opening up of the political, the reinsertion of contemporary social and moral concerns into the still-existing aesthetics of “hyper-reality.”

LA itself stands as fetishized site of hyper-consumerist America, a capitalistic post-industrial icon constantly re-represented by the texts of cultural theory, noir film and fiction, and sf.4 This reading of Los Angeles as simulacrum is by no means new. As Davis's study shows, LA has long been represented and denounced as the archetypal space of dystopian counterfeit urbanism, site of the most acute critiques of the culture of late capitalism (18-21). Today, Davis argues, “pop apocalypses and pulp science fiction [are] … more realistic and politically perceptive” in their representations of the “hardened urban surface” of LA than urban theory (223). In accord with the subtitle of City of Quartz, Gibson “Excavat[es] the Future in Los Angeles,” historicizing the unreality of the present as the past of our possible near futures. Both aesthetically and politically, then, Virtual Light functions as a prime example of the contemporary West Coast science fiction novel. The Californias of this novel (SoCal and NoCal) are the sites of the retrofuturistic posthuman.


As noted earlier, Gibson constructs a new paraspace in Virtual Light, the community and structure of the San Francisco Bay Bridge in post-quake San Francisco, home of the dispossessed. This motif is both a literal and metaphorical “camera-obscura” of the physical and social city it dominates architecturally and psychically. It is a postmodern “zone” of heterotopia, a Foucauldian “impossible space in which fragments of disparate discursive orders … are merely juxtaposed, without any attempt to reduce them to a common order” (McHale 250).5 Like cyberspace, it too is “another reality” with its “own agenda” (Gibson, VL §6:58); and yet, unlike cyberspace, it is woven together from the material and human refuse of the corporate culture surrounding it, “amorphous, startlingly organic,” a living, breathing autonomous entity that “sings” with its own voice (§6:58, §3:43). The Bridge is counter-culture materialized in a deconstruction of the object/subject dichotomy, where the structure and its inhabitants form a “singularity,” a Prigoginic leap to a hive-like higher level of complexity. Architecture becomes “architexture” when Gibson develops the Bridge motif as the last place of resistance to all-pervasive consumer consumption and privatization. Such use of structure indicates his increasingly Ballard-like representation of the internal psyche of individuals and communities in their external landscapes.

In its incarnation as collective “swarm” subject, the “Bridge” becomes figuratively posthuman, a living art-form in continual “becoming,” an aesthetic embodiment-in-constant-process of its ever changing inhabitants. To borrow Gibson's favourite motif from Count Zero, the Bridge is a living Cornell box, an always changing collection of found objects—cultural, social, and (post) human detritus, disparate and desperate elements literally “glued together” in a living pastiche. The structure's relationship to its superstructure and inhabitants is both “chaotic” and symbiotic. The Bridge is transformed into the organic, a “heart” transplanted into the dead concrete artifice of dystopian urbanity, a dolphin-like “dorsal hump” with its “steel teeth … sunk into bedrock” (VL §24:189).6 As always, Gibson transposes meta-form into metaphor, physical into metaphysical, erasing the boundaries between material, data, and human architectures. Like any “hive” colony, the Bridge can be posited not merely as the “analog of an organism,” but as a true living organism, maintaining its own “identity in space” (Kelly 7). Gibson signifies the Bridge's organic embodiment by its translation into flesh, a literal embodiment-as-tattoo, suspension span bridging the shoulder blades of a human back (VL §26:199). It also signifies the “bridging” of those social and racial segregations noted by Davis, constructing a multi-racial heterogeneity of lawless co-existence. As with cyberspace, there is an element of utopianism in this “communal society,” a “melting-pot” of diverse cultures living in some form of “harmony.” By no means, however, is Bridge existence idyllic. Rather, it is harsh, dangerous, and as unstable as the shanty-type structures super-glued to its frame.

The effect of place, space, form, and architecture on posthuman (inter)action has been a recurrent theme in Gibson's writing. Parallels between physical and social/cultural structures have pervaded his work. Contestable sites of physical space become ideal representations for the contested site of both the figurative and real posthuman. Both Virtual Light and Idoru are tellingly set in post-“quake” cities, invoking the dramatic socio-cultural upheavals caused by destruction of place and infrastructure. New social structures are born out of the rubble of collapsed buildings, as new zones are built in response to cultural anxieties. The Bridge community is the direct manifestation of a physical and cultural schism, a physio-social rendering of cultural norms. It is the infrastructural alternative to Davis's descriptions of architecture-as-repression, the mall culture of pseudo-public spaces that exclude the (alien) Other. In Virtual Light, the Mall functions as a metaphor for repressive consumerist excess, the pervasive homogeneity of capitalism. Skinner's roof atop the bridge's pier affords a vision of two cities, the “city of quartz” in the near-distance, and the “city-of-resistance” below. When Chevette dons the “virtual light” glasses, they offer a third “possible future” view, the fully penetrated commodified zone of San Francisco re-built in the form of late-capitalist desire, the vision of “Sunflower Corp.” This “corporate city” removes all alternative spaces: “There's not a lot of slack” (VL §35:270). It is the antithesis of the Bridge's real-life model, Kowloon's “mismatched and uncalculated” Walled City, “Hak Nam,” “Hive of a dream” (Gibson, “DisneyLand”).7

In many respects, Gibson's style is akin to the formation and structure of the Bridge, “a patchwork carnival of scavenged surfaces” (VL §6:59). Both reflect human and cultural bricolage. The Bridge is influenced by images of Hak Nam, transposed onto the descriptions and theories of public/private spaces in City of Quartz, immersed into Gibson's “carnival aesthetics,” a collage scavenged from pop-culture, technology, theory, history, architecture, sf and elsewhere. It is both reappropriation and purposeful misappropriation. In addition, there is the constant estrangement of our present temporality into retrofuturism. The only character meaningfully transposed from Virtual Light into Idoru is Yamazaki, the Japanese “student of existential sociology,” whose “habit” is “to record ephemera of popular culture” (Gibson, Idoru §1:6 & 9). Gibson's own role as author is quite similar.8 Transcribed through his “notebook” computer, Yamazaki's is the displaced voice of Gibson-as-narrator, focusing attention on the cultural implications of the societies depicted. In Virtual Light these notebook entries frame the history of the Bridge, giving voice to Skinner, personification of the structure itself. Yamazaki is the only character to occupy an “objective” place outside the society depicted, a privileged position from which to “cognitively map” the dense information that is the Bridge. As becomes apparent, this parallel role of character/author will be taken further in Idoru.


Gibson's own fascination with the trends of popular culture is typified in the theme of “modern primitivism” running through Virtual Light. The surface, skin, becomes both territory and map, the marked body as site of (counter) enculturation. Contemporary body fetish, in the form of tattoos (“flash”), scarification, piercings and the like, becomes the way the characters state their resistance to cultural hegemony, in a type of “posthuman primitivism.” The perception of the body-as-site is a defiant reclamation of the body as one's own, a literal “re-embodiment” and assertion of individual identity through transgressive inscription of the skin. Gibson posits the body as a surface to be written on, differentiated from the society and culture it exists within. Given the Foucauldian notion of the body as always-already inscribed by culture, the validity of this tangential manoeuvre seems dubious. As potential sites of resistance are absorbed through commercial appropriation, the body itself is no longer immune, but is “written upon” by and forced to signify for late-capitalism itself.9 For Virtual Light, however, the mark of the modern primitive still operates as a codification of Otherness, signified literally as the “Colored People” (§26). As Mark Dery notes, the novel's specific reference to tattoos utilizing the biomechanical designs of H. R. Giger (§26:201), recognition of a common “cyberpunk rite of passage” in modern primitive style (Dery, Escape 280). The techno-tribal inscription of cyborg-like circuitry onto the skin in “rippers” or “peelaways” is an important symbolic pointer toward the novel's conflation of the technological and the organic. Giger's surrealist images parallel the biotechnical nature of the Bridge itself as a hive entity, and point toward Idoru's merging of flesh and technology. The mark on the flesh is also a sign system that uses the body as an “instrument of communication” (Sanders 146), a notion commensurate with envisioning the body as information, a concept central to Idoru.

While the “post-AIDS” bodies of Virtual Light are marked with the signs of the posthuman primitive, the Bridge itself is a zone analogous with Zygmunt Bauman's postmodern “neo-tribalism.” Jameson identifies similar properties in “neoregionalism.” Both can be thought of in terms of a certain “ressentiment,” the response of disenfranchised factions within society to the disempowerment of late-capitalism, usually taking the form of some anarchic nihilism. The “mass,” notes Bauman, “have an inner tendency to assemble … local quasi-structures” in an “unplanned Prigoginic fashion of spontaneous structuration.” These “collective identities” act as a type of “deconstruction of immortality … the succession of ‘presents’ (with no future)” (141). Such “rudimentary tribes” putatively form the dominant postmodern mode of “counter-structural collective sociality” (142). Jameson proposes that neo-regionalism, like the neo-ethnic, is a form of “reterritorialization,” a “flight from the realities of late capitalism” (Seeds 148). Neoregional writers claim the “microscopic and inconsequential,” which the dominant institutions reject as insignificant, in a strategy to reclaim an “authentic” space of localized legitimacy in which individual subjects can live and act outside the dominant discourse (149). This is the Bridge society, a place of Otherness that represents a “war on totality,” a heterotopology and paraspace that imagines “radical alternatives to late-capitalism” (149-50).

By combining the neo-tribal and neoregional “derivatives” of dirty realism, Gibson achieves a “space” of action that is neither too utopian nor too indebted to the aesthetic model of Blade Runner, proposed by Jameson as the ideal “starting point” for “dirty realism” (Seeds 150). It is only in the translation from the novel to the filmed version of Johnny Mnemonic that the aesthetics of the Bridge move closer to those of Ridley Scott's cyberpunk classic. The “Nighttown” of the original “Johnny Mnemonic,” home of the Lo-Teks, is transferred to Virtual Light's Bridge, forming a narrative span from Gibson's earliest work to his latest. The later cinematic version of the Bridge is more overtly a place of resistance to late-capitalist hegemony. The novel's apolitical and self-isolating random collection of dispossessed have no agenda. The film's Lo-Teks, however, are cultural and political activists. Unlike the novel, the film's Bridge is physically cut off from the city; it is an organized and hierarchical militarized zone of limited access and armed resistance. The Lo-Teks themselves are a juxtaposition of both high and low technology, a perfect example of the contemporary “feral” modern primitive. Their Bridge is a “neo-tribal” assemblage of posthuman primitives. Examples of similarly structured subcultural societies may be found throughout recent sf.10

The loss of temporality and historicity, critical to any attempted neo-tribal “transcendence of mortality,” is clearly portrayed by Virtual Light's hive-like Bridge. Gibson repeatedly shows the communal ontology in a state of “perpetual present,” a televisual digital age where history is reduced to empty images and commodified artefacts of the previous mechanical era, a pastiche of objects that have lost their original meaning: “Time on tv's all the same time” (VL §2:14). The past takes on the characteristic of the Japanese expression “Thomasson,” a succession of “useless and inexplicable monuments” (§6:60). Like the Bridge itself, Skinner's items of cultural refuse signify a Cornell-type frozen universe of fragments of human experience, nostalgic treasures displaced and then (re)assembled into collage “shells” (Gibson, CZ §2:28, §31:311). Gibson's fiction exemplifies the “eclipse” of “all depth, especially historicity itself,” which putatively accompanies the postmodern epoch (Jameson, “Periodizing” 326). The “virtual LA” of Virtual Light, like the “cultural logic of late-capitalism,” replaces time with space, effaces the past as referent, substituting the “blank parody” of pastiche and simulacrum aesthetics for the “genuine.” The result is an overall “waning of affect” (Jameson, Postmodernism 11-21). The Bridge encapsulates and embodies these properties in a neo-tribal parallel universe that attempts the transcendence of the hyperreal via a particular paradigm of the “real.”


Without wishing to detour too far into communication theory, it is necessary at this point to introduce the concepts behind two terms which become intrinsic to the discussion of posthumanism in Gibson's later novels: “analog” and “digital” information.11 Anthony Wilden notes that all communication employs both analog and digital information, though the two can be assigned specific traits. Analog information provides analogous representations of continuous flows of information. Consequently it has a tolerance for ambiguity, it is concerned with inclusive “both-and” iconic representations, fertile with possible connotative meanings and rich semantics. It is the emotive, phatic, subjective, contextual, and poetic “domain of similarity and resemblance.” Digital information, on the other hand, is a precise, logical, objective measurement of discontinuous flows, the on/off dichotomy of abstract, arbitrary, exclusive binary boundaries. Its denotative cognitive structures are the “domain of opposition and identity” (Wilden 155-195). We can surmise that the analog mode of information contains productive noise and distortion, variations in complex intertextual and inter-contextual meanings and paradigms. Conversely, digital information is a closed signification of artificial conventions, which denies interpretation and thus the spontaneous creation of divergent decodings.

Gibson's original paraspace, cyberspace, is a predominantly digital domain. It is an architecture of precise mathematical boundaries, a binary space of informational quantity rather than quality (meaning). This digital foundation is intrinsic to its ultimate failings with respect to the potential cybernautical posthuman. The reconstituted digital cybernaut is doomed to an existence as meaningless as the two-dimensional differences between the ones and zeroes which constitute the zone's artificial language. In contrast, the hive-like structure of the Bridge in Virtual Light is a system of analog information, a heterotopian space that is rich, diverse, complex and contextual in its creation of overlapping meanings. Taken as an organic whole, subject not object, the sub-, super- and people-structures that constitute the Bridge are one immense and complex system of analog communication, an architexture of information. Its digital antithesis is the Sunflower Corporation's design of the “city” as a series of precise and exclusive places without spaces. This artificial infrastructure eliminates distortion and recontextualization through opposition and closure.

If cyberspace and the Bridge are each examples of paraspaces constructed from information-as-place metaphors, then Idoru applies the data-as-architecture “metaph(f)or(m)” to every conceivable “construct”: buildings, cities, virtual cities, and, most importantly, the posthuman coded as information topology—cyborgian architexture.


The line between inner and outer landscapes is breaking down … [.] The Human body becomes landscape. … [P]eople will become mere extensions of the geometries of situations.

(Burroughs 7-8)


It is through Idoru's exploration of the contemporary media landscape that Gibson approaches his subject of the symbiotically posthuman merger of data and the corporeal. His all-too-prescient vision of our future media malaise examines the status of the celebrity in the context of manufactured fame. The thread of this critique begins in Virtual Light's parody of TV evangelism and the references to the pseudo-religious icon status of media-ted corporate entities such as Madonna (“McDonna”), celebrities who have surpassed their original context, garnering new meanings in the realm of hyper-commodification. Idoru teleports us across the Pacific rim to Japan, a post-quake Tokyo set in the same “universe” as Virtual Light, and here the cult of the media personality is even more thoroughly dissected.

Gibson uses Laney, one of the novel's protagonists, to explore the theory of the “celebrity” as an entity with a separate existence from that of the actual person. Laney's perception of the conflict between the “real time” and “real life” of media personalities and their other media-ted existences is heightened by a “state of pathological hyperfocus,” which enables his “peculiar knack with data-collection architectures.” He is an “intuitive fisher of patterns of information,” able to navigate his way through overwhelmingly and seemingly disconnected quantities of information, finding the “nodal points” where related information converges (Idoru §3:25). Laney's ability is a form of “pattern recognition,” the ability to connect, correlate and interpret the apparently unrelated streams of data surrounding persons, corporations and, of course, celebrities. It is the performance of some approximation of cognitive mapping through the “architectural structures” of information. His ability to map the territories of the novel's information metaforms gains us access to the posthuman-as-data structure.

Idoru gradually introduces the concept of the posthuman-as-media-ted architexture, starting from the premise that corporeal (celebrity) life becomes analogous to the data it generates, and then eventually eliminating altogether the need for the corporeal source, where celebrity is data is (A-)Life. Laney's search for information about Alison Shires draws him into a voyeuristic cybernetic relationship with the information that surrounds her: “gazing down into the pool of data that reflected her life … as it registered on the digital fabric of the world” (Idoru §5:41). His rear-view dataism of her “life” is mirrored in the reflection of her death: “The nodal point was gone … she was no longer generating data. … Now there was no longer an interface [with the world]. … Her data was very still” (§17:116). The contemporary posthuman has become literally the sum total of the data that surrounds us. This notion of data mediation is confirmed by Laney's initially unsuccessful search for the nodal points surrounding Rez: “I can't pull a personal fix out of something textured like corporate data. He's just not there” (§23:167). Hidden beneath multiple layers of corporate identity, the data which comprises the entity that is Rez remains concealed among the anonymity of countless business transactions. Laney has to take the search for Rez out of the clinical digital information of corporate identities into the analog streams of socially and culturally contextualized fan club data bases. These inherently analog structures operate at the level of connotation, feedback, and noise, a loose conglomeration of information decoders making multiple meanings out of various communications, an imprecise melding of rumor and fact, “networked depths of postings and commentary revealed there in baffling organic complexity” (§33:226). Gibson points directly to the interrelation of space, place, and culture through the intersection of information structures and posthuman data constructs, in this chapter's title, “Topology” (§33). It is here, in the abstract space of the Lo/Rez fan base, that “barren faces [become] suddenly translucent,” as digital gives way to analog; and it is here also that Laney encounters the interrelated “space” and digital architexture that is Rei Toei, the idoru.

Before moving on to the idoru “her” self, it is necessary to explore how Gibson constructs Rez as posthuman. Gibson notes that, through the very “nature of being mediated, the celebrity is already more like the idoru than anyone realizes” (McIntyre 49). Rez's life has become a fragmented and partially deified representation of the data—fan, corporate and media—that surround him; he is a timeless eternal present. The linearity of corporeal temporal existence gives way to the spatiality of the digital simulacrum. Rez always is already posthuman. The process of media-tion transfigures Rez from flesh to cyborg, viscera to image, individual to collective haecceity, personal and private to corporate commodification, an iconic Barthesian totem mask on which the obsessive audience can write their desires.12

Gibson's most recent metaphors for the posthuman digital construct not only echo Marshall McLuhan's vision that “electronic man” would “metamorphose himself into abstract information” (McLuhan & Powers 94-95), but are already evident in present culture. Although a somewhat reductive notion, with parallels to the narratives of cyberspace, the notion of the (transcendent) posthuman as the digital externalization of the information we have become has a figurative reality made concrete by today's media landscape. As Porush notes:

We are already experiencing the reflux from a time twenty seconds into the future when our own media technologies will physically transcribe themselves onto our bodies, recreating the human in their own images, forcing our evolution into the posthuman.


The privileged position of celebrities within the ecosystem of the media has pre-ordained their destiny at the forefront of posthuman digitalisation. Rez's mediated existence remains analog in its imprecise complexity, oscillating between the real and the hyperreal, a merged composite that comprises the perceived, and lived, posthuman identity. For the idoru Rei, however, Gibson extrapolates a near-future existence where the originary visceral embodiment has become redundant, surpassed by a wholly digital being with the same informational and ontological status as the media-ted posthuman. It is this “equivalence” that enables Gibson's primary plot motivator for Idoru, the symbiotic merger of Rez and Rei, their “alchemical marriage” (Idoru §33:229).

Rei Toei, the idoru of the novel's title, is the latest example of Gibson's penchant for the extrapolation of contemporary cultural trends. This synthespian idol singer is based on Gibson's observations of the reality template of the “real idoru scene in Japan” (Diggle).13 Gibson takes this initial premise to its ultimate conclusion, where the digital construct obtains autonomy, becoming an omniscient sentient entity. His methodology can again be traced to Yamazaki, but also to Laney, sifting through information for the patterns that converge into nodal points around future cultural directions. Gibson acknowledges the similarity: “what [Laney] does with nodal points is a kind of unconscious approximation of what I do with reality in order to produce these fictions” (McIntyre 50). Gibson's integration of reality with the typical techniques and significations of sf produces a complex hyperreality.

In Gibson's exploration of whether Rei, an “unthinkable volume of information” (Idoru §25:178), can be considered a “new mode of being,” he novelizes—with a subliminal nod to theorists such as Haraway and Deleuze and Guattari—the debate surrounding desire, technology, and the cyborg. Just as the idoru induces the nodal vision as “narrative” for Laney (§25:178), so Gibson induces the theoretical, the cultural and the cyber-informational as fictional narrative. The idoru is described by one of her “creators” as:

the result of an array of elaborate constructs that we refer to as “desiring machines”. … Not in any literal sense … but please envision aggregates of subjective desire … an architecture of articulated longing. … Rei's only reality is the realm of ongoing serial creation. … Entirely process; infinitely more than the combined sum of her various selves.

(§25:178, §29:202)

Such descriptions conjure images of posthuman “becomings,” a (Lacanian virtual) subject always in “continual-process,” a collective BwO, rhizomatic haecceity incarnate.14 Cyborg-as-communication semiotics are coded as the variable site(s) of origin of the Subject, the contested identity-in-process that is Rei Toei. The idoru is an architectonic topology of systems of data and knowledge, structuring complex rhizomatic information into more linear narrative architextural forms. It is suggestive, too, that Gibson's descriptions of the idoru—“envoy of some imaginary country” (§25:176)—allude to the poetics of cyberspace. The emphasis is again on spatial form and structure, the idoru as virtual paraspace and posthuman landscape—both digital domain and viral interface.

Rei is coded as an exclusively digital manifestation, artificially structured information, presence and absence signified through conventionalized images. Her initial “being” lacks social and cultural context, the “state of knowing” which, Marvin argues, is essential to give information any meaning and thus any real existence (Marvin 51, 57). As such, the idoru continues to signify many of the problematically reductionist traits associated with cyberspace, her form representing the translation of all “objects, spaces, or bodies” into the common codes of capitalist exchange value that support “instrumental power and control” (Haraway 82-5). Rei's exclusively visual presence emphasizes the same Cartesian “hegemony of vision,” a “visual metaphysics” that denies the “sociability of the (other) senses.” This Panopticon-like prioritization of the visual and the mind denies the contexts necessary to construct “meanings” (Yol Jung 4). The idoru remains in the realm of the dislocated, voyeuristic invisible male gaze, a construct not of Deleuzian “desiring machines,” but of phallocentric desire.

Rei is the corporate product of male software designers, the ultimate in commodified popular culture and digital representation of consensual male fantasies, especially those of Rez. In a way that surpasses cyberspace itself, she is indicative of the “erotic ontology” of the matrix noted by Michael Heim, the “transformation of sex and personality into the language of information” (62, 65). Over a decade later Gibson performs the same tricks with “technological eros,” using the guise of the Emperor's new form to create an illusory difference between the transcendent information architectures of cyberspace and the idoru, each constructed on identical binary foundations supportive of technoerotic desire-as-lack, as opposed to the more productive Spinozan models of desire as positive affirmation of the Other. Beneath an aesthetics of difference hides a subterranean narrative of conservative sexuality and gender, old “norms” in new digital clothes.

Both in Gibson's fictional extrapolation and in today's cultural hyperreality, the figure of the idoru exemplify Debord's observation that the image has become the final form of commodity reification: corporate marketing device becomes literal “idol” image, and data becomes “spectacle”—the iconic representation of the dominant mode of production. The idoru as Barthesian mask translates what “once was directly lived … [into] mere representation” (Debord 12). As I have noted, however, these criticisms apply to Rei's digital manifestation. The novel's progressive transposition of the idoru into an analog context, transforming her figurative status, serves to address and temper some of these more problematic cyberspatial parallels.

Although lacking in flesh, Rei is cyborg, with text, data, structure and metaphor coded in terms of communication and information. The idoru is that point of assembly and disassembly where the constraints of “‘natural’ architectures” give way to “cyborg semiologies,” indicative of “the translation of the world into a problem of coding” (Haraway 81, 83). Gibson's coding of data architextures as natural and organic structures erases the flesh/information binary divide in Idoru, creating a cyborg narrative from the Japanese view that “technology … is an aspect of the natural, of oneness” (Gibson, Idoru §35: 238). The idoru is hybrid assemblage of both deliberate and random accumulated data input and output, ostensibly female in gendered image, yet asexed in the absence of biology. Rather than “abandoning the meat,” Rei inverts the usual cyberspatial trope of transcendence: created initially as digital code, she moves toward the corporeality of Rez and the complexity of analog information, desiring to escape the confines of the digital prison via some inconclusive transcendence toward the flesh. Her inherently viral nature invades and infects all parts of the world “net,” revelling in intercourse with data and flesh, a new “mode” of being.


In a somewhat perplexing mixture of technoeroticism, New Age “alchemy,” science, and pure fantasy, Rez desires to cross the boundaries between corporeal and image, analog and digital, creating a new posthuman marriage of differences through a putatively “postevolutionary” combination of “technology and passion” (Gibson, Idoru §20:144). This cyborgian union of organic and cybernetic may either point to the “new modes of being” predicted by Rez (§33:229) or, as one character cynically remarks, represent nothing more than Rez's “own burning need to get his end in with some software dolly wank toy” (§20:144). Despite Rez's rhetoric, the latter remains a distinct possibility. Gibson, however, attempts to explore something beyond this simplistic interpretation, drawing a deliberate analogy between the discrimination issues surrounding all forms of “Otherness,” black and white, human and posthuman (§34:233).

To enable this “marriage,” Rez has become more compatible with the idoru's predominantly digital form through the celebrity media-tion from human analog information toward digital posthuman structures. This digitalization fulfills the requirements for any “border incursion” between systems of different “types” or “states” (Wilden 159).15 In turn, Rei must reciprocate, transforming herself from “A-Life” digital manifestation into posthuman analog context. Even though “body” is still absent, such translation into a more organic structure of information allows a coded compatibility of form and architexture between the two, a common point of representation. It is Laney's nodal “net-running” that facilitates the idoru's translation. His interpretive mixing of the combined databases of Rez, the fans, and the idoru enables Rei to “escape” the confines of her physical binary space and become an autonomous entity in the world's cyber-networks. Her new context allows access to the rhizomatic noise and feedback of analog systems, her data beginning to “acquire a sort of complexity. Or randomness. … The human thing. That's how she learns” (§37:251). Rei's new-found context transfigures her both in form and ethology: “I'm so much more … I could go anywhere” (§34:232), As “reality erupts within the spectacle” (Debord 14), the idoru's image gains new depth, granting the compatibility necessary to unite with Rez.

Now that both are coded as posthuman, their union is metaphorically symbolized by the iconic mapping of the merger of their two data streams, analog and digital converge, creating an unstable “collective” form of posthuman entity, the “testbed of our futurity”: “Through the data … ran two vaguely parallel armatures. Rez and the idoru. … And both these armatures, these sculptures in time, were nodal, and grew more so toward the point, the present, where they intertwined” (Gibson, Idoru §35:238, §37:251).16 This “symbiotic” involution of two heterogeneous “beings of totally different scales” creates a Deleuzian assemblage which “runs its own line ‘between’ the terms in play … [analog/digital, nature/technology, human/posthuman] and beneath assignable relations” (Deleuze and Guattari 239). The apartheid differences between these relations are replaced by diffractions, differences within, the altered effective and affective capacities of a new posthuman ethology. This notion of the posthuman as an irruption within the human leads me to propose that the “posthuman” should not only be re-written, but more importantly re-conceived and re-interpreted as the human under erasure, thus avoiding the sense of the posthuman as binary negative of its predecessor. It places the “human” under constant interrogation, granting a non-linear genealogy that opens multiple possible (affirmative) futures and permutations.

Gibson figuratively “disembodies” Rez, while “embodying” the A-Life entity Rei; he then grants both an identical ontological status, a Dataist manoeuvre which problematically equates information and computer memory with human memory and identity, while abandoning the unconscious-as-body. Despite the idoru's encompassing of the human-like attributes of analog information parameters, corporeal and phenomenological discourses of knowledge remain absent.


Gibson attempts to address the vagaries of the Rez/Rei union by granting it a physical medium: nanotechnology. While this “device” is a MacGuffin for the detective-style narrative, it also accentuates Gibson's interest in organic architecture, providing the structure of a new order in which Rez and Rei plan to consummate their marriage of forms: “It is our union, our intersection, that from which the rest must unfold!” (Gibson, Idoru §37:252). Idoru's nanotech buildings are hive-like structures, like Kowloon's real Hak Nam, the novel's virtual representation of the same “Walled City,” and the Bridge in Virtual Light. Once again, metaphor and meta-form collide. Japan responds to the cultural anxiety associated with the “trauma of earthquake” by (re)constructing a new simulacrum of Tokyo City (§1:9). The resulting nanotech towers display a “streamlined organicism … [growing] like a honeycomb” (§11:81, §6:46). Nanotechnology's importance as an enabling medium for the novel's human symbiosis, lies in its capacity to “retranslate” the Walled City from its virtual incarnation into a physical form, an island city “grown” from the reconstituted kipple dumped into Tokyo Bay. As always, Gibson invents a new architectonic form as the appropriate place for a new cultural or human form. As befits its purpose, this latest “version” of Hak Nam is a simulacrum twice removed, a copy of the VR model that was itself a digital replica of Kowloon's infamous Walled City.

Idoru translates the aesthetics and politics of Hak Nam, used so successfully in the construction of Virtual Light's Bridge community, into a virtual space which, like its namesake, exists outside political and economic jurisdictions. As with the Bridge, Gibson perceives this heterotopian paraspace to be the “great good place of the novel” (Popham, “Poet” D10), a zone of resistance to the commodification of data networks. While this space is “of the net,” it is “not on it” (Gibson, Idoru §30:209), an illustration of Gibson's need to abandon cyberspace to the forces of commodification and MUD realities in order to find a new paraspace of some “integrity.” It is ironic, then, that like Rez's data, this virtual Hak Nam is framed by the same aesthetic rhetoric associated with cyberspace, a “realm of consensual fantasy” whose “there … isn't there.” (§46:289, §34:233).17 This Walled City is the antithesis, however, of cyberspace's corporate and military hegemony, a virtual neo-tribal zone that stays true to its inspirational predecessor portrayed as “a working model of the anarchist society … [an] intensity of random human effort and activity … the city as ‘organic megastructure'” (Popham, Introduction 11-13). Idoru's recurring images of labyrinthine alleys and stairs—“windows heaped against the sky … random human accretion” (Gibson, Idoru §34:233, §46:289)—faithfully recreate Greg Girard and Ian Lambot's portrait of the City of Darkness in City of Darkness: Life in Kowloon's Walled City (1993).

Gibson's sf exemplifies the argument that in the “economy of the metaphor, buildings and bodies have always been fungible” (Dery, “Soft” 22). Virtual Light and Idoru's analogy of buildings with organisms, collapsing of distinctions between object and subject, draw on an historical dissolution of the “categorical distinctions that separate body, city and text” (Burgin 141).18 The idoru herself becomes as much a “thing of random human accretion” as the “serried cliffs” of the nanotech buildings around her, feeding off the cybernets' mega-information. She is nodal architecture in process. It is the retranslation of the Walled City via nanotechnology that transports both human and site, idoru and Walled City, out of the domain of the virtual and into the (hyper)real, where bodies and buildings are figuratively transformed, merging into new modes of being: bodies literally “rebuilt” into the “posthuman.” In both Idoru and Virtual Light, bodies and buildings collide in a cultural milieu of figuratively analogous forms where mere infrastructure is surpassed by border-erasing info-structures of immense density: “computational architecture … coherent cit[ies] of information” (Gibson, “DisneyLand”).19 Gibson's elegant descriptions of the “song” of the Bridge's central pier, of Tokyo's “Golden Street,” of the “Millennial anxiety” reflected in turn-of-the-century buildings, and in the cyberspatial poetics of the idoru herself all repeatedly emphasize the correlation of form and structure with more ontological levels of narrative, a deliberate confusion of physics and metaphysics, transformation and transcendence, an embrace of meta(f)phor(m)s where “[S]cale is place” (Idoru §26:184).


Burroughs's critique of Ballard's conflation of inner and outer through body and landscape is applicable to Gibson's explorations of the human as a mediation of various (hetero) topologies of information, Dataist landscapes forming new architextures for bodies which now fall under the (possible) sign of erasure. Neo-regional microworlds become macro-sites, in an inversion of space that promises future human potentials. Millennial anxieties, centering on the shifting uncertainties of possible posthuman transformations, are expressed through the architectural spaces of the Other, where the neo-ethnic becomes a space of anxiety invading futurity.20

The topology of Gibson's human is a truly abstract space of imprecise possibilities, the intersection of competing future visions ranging over the landscape of late capitalism and technology, presented in a style of dedicated ambivalence.21 It is a strategy Gibson employs to represent different views in a contrapuntal play of ideas, leaving the novels' meta-themes hanging on open-ended alternatives of dissonance. While his novels provide conservative and frequently predictable narrative closures for their human characters, this often stands in marked contrast with technological and posthuman indeterminacy. Gibson attempts to “induce” “the simultaneous apprehension of ecstasy and dread” (Diggle), the sublime terror of the postmodern.22 This simultaneous “ecstasy and dread” represents the dominant cultural position toward the today, as manifest repeatedly in the opposing polemical positions offered in cyborg anthropologies. It is Gibson's talent to tap into this “apprehension” through the narrative construction of various human models. Building on the foundations laid by Virtual Light, a novel given new meaning by its “sequel,” Idoru exemplifies his open-ended “ambivalence.” The construction of the Bridge-as-posthuman paves the way for Idoru's indeterminate conflation of Rez, Rei, and nanotechnology, a spatial plane of media-ted boundary transgressions and an intermingling of analog and digital architextures, flesh, data, and biologic machines, all coded in the cyborg semiotics of information and communication, forming chaotic and organic human singularities from Gibson's assembled collage of contemporary culture.


  1. Sterling has responded to the question of sf as “a reflection on the present” with strong, yet contentious denial: “I resent it when my ideas, which I have gone to some pains to develop and explore, are dismissed as unconscious yearnings or … reflection of the contemporary milieu. … They are not allegories.” Sterling considers this vision of sf as “part of an ongoing critical attempt to reduce sf to a sub-branch of mainstream literature.” (Tom Shippey and George Slusser, eds., “Semiotic Ghosts and Ghostliness in the Work of Bruce Sterling,” Fiction 2000: Cyberpunk and the Future of Narrative, [London: U Georgia P, 1992]: 219.)

  2. Daniel Fischlin, Veronica Hollinger, and Andrew Taylor, “‘The Charisma Leak’: A Conversation with William Gibson and Bruce Sterling.” SFS 19:1-16, #58 (March 1992): 4.

  3. It is debatable whether Gibson actually achieves much more in the 300 or so pages of Virtual Light than in “Skinner's Room” (1991), the original short story from which it derives. Condensed into these 8 pages are the majority of the novel's central themes, excluding the glasses.

  4. Davis follows the traditional relationship between LA and sf from noir fiction and film to Huxley's sf novels, which “exploited Southern California's unsure boundary between reality and science fiction” (Davis 41). The two novels by Aldous Huxley to which Davis refers are After Many a Summer Dies the Swan (1939) and Ape and Essence (1948). Contemporary sf novels by such authors as Neal Stephenson, Pat Cadigan, Gibson, Kim Stanley Robinson, and others have continued the genre's fascination with the West Coast.

  5. Such ‘heterotopological’ spaces are, as Foucault's original article states, always ‘counter sites,’ literally the ‘Other Spaces’ (Spaces of the Other). These heterotopologies are never Kantian a priori given spaces, but the result of cultural, social practice produced by marginalized and disparate bodies—ideal site of the neo-tribal. See Michel Foucault, “Of Other Spaces,” Diacritics (Spring 1986): 24-25.

  6. The ‘Bridge-as-heart’ has a precedent in reality for Gibson. He describes London as: “a single huge organic artefact, which American cities never [are] … [T]he subways … the nervous system of the organism … it seems to contain more information than a whole structure would in the States” (Colin Greenland, “A Nod to the Apocalypse: An Interview with William Gibson,” Foundation 36 [Summer 1986]: 5). The Bridge serves an analogous function.

  7. Japanese director Ryuji Miyamoto's “stunning images” of the Walled City “provided most of the texture for the Bridge in my novel Virtual Light” (Gibson, Idoru “Thanks”). The significance of Hak Nam, and the influence of Greg Girard and Ian Lambot's City of Darkness: Life in Kowloon's Walled City (1993) become more important in Idoru, and are discussed further in relation to that novel.

  8. In one interview Gibson recalls how: “When punk arrived from London, I spent a year just watching it” (Popham, “Poet” D10). It is from such close observation of these types of social and cultural phenomena that Gibson's novels assume their aesthetic of “scavenged surfaces.” It must be noted, however, that there are elements of parody in Gibson's depiction of Yamazaki's “existential sociology” and cultural studies.

  9. The recent appropriation of body marking by the fashion and culture industries has inverted modern primitivism's original aims, transforming the body into a permanently marked corporate fashion statement. In a continuing commodification of spaces, the body has capitulated to the forces of the cultural dominant.

    Gibson signals the commodification of body inscription in Idoru, where the “Franz Kafka theme bar,” “Death Cube K,” features a Disneyfied representation of “In The Penal Colony” as a disco. The “sentence of guilt, graven in the flesh of the condemned man's back” (Idoru §1:3), is translated from the original signification of punishment and culture inscribed in skin and blood into a banal marketing device for a Tokyo nightclub.

  10. One “neo-tribe” which offers remarkable structural, ideological, and “historical” parallels with the Bridge of Virtual Light is the “Mimosa strip” community in Pat Cadigan's Synners (1991), an analogous site of ressentiment.

  11. Carolyn Marvin's 1987 article “Information and History” first directed me to Wilden's utilisation of these terms.

  12. J. G. Ballard, Love and Napalm: Export USA. (New York: Grove Press, 1972) 7-8.

  13. This argument is indebted to Linda Badley's discussion of non-human “monstrous iconicity” in media superstars and her correlation with Barthes's notion of stars as masks of “totemic face objects” (94-95).

  14. The most famous example, created at about the same time Gibson was writing Idoru, is Kyoko Date, also known by “her” project name, “DK-96.” Created by the Japanese talent agency HoriPro as the ultimate pop idol, Kyoto since her inception has hosted radio shows, released a single and CD-Rom video, and attracted fan club ‘home pages’ on the Web.

  15. Gibson is “extremely dubious about theory,” French in particular: “Being a philosopher in France as clear as I can make out is about doing television. It's like being a professional talk show guest … [it] is a scam” (Today Online). Reading the excerpt from Idoru in this light recontextualizes it, removing it from simple ficto-theoretical pastiche into the realm of possible parody. Either way, the references appear too explicit not to be deliberate.

  16. Rez's is not a totalized transformation from one form to the other. As Wilden notes, both analog and digital always exist together as sets of relations, not separate entities.

  17. Gibson ignores the fact that both Rez's corporate data and fan data would be contaminated with that of his writing partner, Lo. The two would be impossible to identify separately, causing massive “corruption” of this merging of data streams. In communication/information contexts, Lo would add more analog noise, imprecision, relativism, and “openness” to the system, resulting in an even more complex final merged “entity.” This amalgamation of flesh/data structures becomes even more closely related to the notion of Deleuzian “assemblages”: an “involution” through symbiosis of beings of a different state.

    There are also traces here of the merger between Wintermute and Neuromancer in Gibson's first novel, the combination of two entities to become some Other of a new, unknown order that is greater than the sum of its parts.

  18. A typically self-parodic allusion to his initial depictions of the cyberspatial matrix, the consensual fantasy where “There's no there, there” (Gibson, MLO §7:55).

  19. Victor Burgin traces the historical “(con)fusion of representations of body and city” back as far as Roman architecture and then the Italian Renaissance, which putatively inaugurated the “concept of the corporeal city,” where the body “contains the very generating principle of the building.” (Burgin 141-42) The body is lost to its extension as a construct/city, collapsing distinctions between “inside and outside, private and public, object and subject” (143-148). Burgin's work is indebted to the theories of Henri Lefebvre, especially The Production of Space (1991).

  20. Idoru's “meta-tabloid” television show “Out of Control” further suggests Gibson's fascination with chaotic organicism in building, body, mind, information, and social/cultural forms. As Dery notes, this is a side reference to Kevin Kelly's Out of Control, a study of “arboreal architecture,” the becoming biologic of machines and the inverse engineering of biology (Dery, “Soft” 20).

  21. A prime example of Gibson's conflation of the Other with neo-regional spaces is found in Idoru's irony-laden portrayal of the illegal sub-cultural Tokyo nightclub named the “Western World,” an interrogation of the relationship between Japanese and Western cultures in terms of global positioning and sense of place.

  22. Gibson has stated: “I think it's my duty to maintain the deepest possible level of ambivalence towards technology. To me, ambivalence seems the only sane response. Technophobia doesn't work, and neither does technophilia. So you don't want to be a nerd, and you don't want to be a Luddite, you have to try to straddle the fence and just make constant decisions” (Diggle).

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Tony Fabijancic (essay date March 1999)

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SOURCE: Fabijancic, Tony. “Space and Power: 19th-Century Urban Practice and Gibson's Cyberworld.” Mosaic 32, no. 1 (March 1999): 105-30.

[In the following essay, Fabijancic discusses the motifs of space and vision in Gibson's fiction within the context of modern multinational capitalist society.]

Modernity may be broadly defined as a mindset which privileges the new and fashionable over the old and traditional, and in this sense it becomes one of the central ideologies according to which life is understood in multinational capitalist society and culture. Insofar as an investigation of the dynamics of capitalism requires attention to the “material” base of this ideology, a problem with many depictions of modernity therefore lies in the overemphasis on “time” and too little attention to “space.” This emphasis on the temporal can be seen, for example, in those accounts which view modernity as beginning with the Renaissance's revolutionary “conviction that history had a specific direction,” continuing with the Enlightenment's project of change, and culminating perhaps most forcefully in the 19th century when modernity as an ethos appeared to be generated from the linear (developmental) progression of history (Calinescu 22). Such accounts, however, fail to address the “structure” of modernity, just as they tend to overlook the way that capitalism registers its exploitation in physical forms. Capitalism channels the “movements” of its subjects as much as their ways of seeing and thinking, and it is in this interaction between capitalist spaces and the subjects who occupy them that modernity is most clearly comprehensible and its continuance today can best be seen.

An important capitalist process which pervades the spatial organisation of cities in modernity is reification—an umbrella term that Georg Lukacs introduced in his History and Class Consciousness to describe the kind of problematic experience, at all social levels, which results from conditions generated by commodity production. On the objective side, reification has to do with capitalism's “second nature” of appearances in the form of a system founded largely on commodity production, one that seems inescapable and permanent; on the subjective side, reification involves the fragmentation or abstraction of individuals—the limited development or maturation resulting from specialized labor under capitalism, the mechanization of workers in order to motor the capitalist machine, the separation of individuals from each other, and a failed sense of vision, an inability to see this state of affairs for what it is. Another characteristic of reification, and a contributor to subjects' experience of modern urban space, especially through vision, is the subject/object opposition in which a gap forms between subject and objective world (as well as between subject and the products of subjective labor), increasingly bridged only through vision, as in the consumption activity of the promenade or in television and film viewing or the playing of video games. Reification thus also “invades” the spatial structures of aesthetics, both in terms of content and form. The concrete transformations of space and vision begun particularly in the 19th century (the arcade; Baron Haussmann's reconstructions of Paris) are homologous with the stylistic abstractions (in the Marxist sense of “fragmentation” and “atomization”) of modernist and postmodernist literature and visual arts. This restructuring is equivalent to the conditions of reified fictional subjects whose lived space and sense of vision is bound up with or reflective of the processes of modernization, and also approximated for readers or viewers of the works themselves through various experimentations with form.

Among contemporary literary experimenters, few are more concerned with issues of reification and capitalism and its future directions than William Gibson, whose cyberpunk trilogy—Neuromancer (1984), Count Zero (1986), and Mona Lisa Overdrive (1988)—literally enacts the shift from temporally-oriented depth modes to spatial, surface ones that Fredric Jameson associates with third-stage or multinational capitalism. In each of these works, Gibson presents us with a hyper-urban, technology-ridden, and utterly simulational world. His cyberpunk novels usually involve some heist carried through by a small collective of characters born on the margins of a high-tech world, but who have had their bodies “wired” either by choice in order to exploit the “biz” nature of that world or because they have been coerced by Artificial Intelligences which have broken free from their corporate creators, and who need the services of these individuals.

In this essay, however, I wish to focus less upon the futuristic aspects of Gibson's fiction and more upon the way that it continues to represent the reification of space and vision that is characteristic of the capitalist impetus in modernity. More specifically, I want to explore the way that in Gibson's differentiation between the essentially lower-class and criminal zones of the urban sprawls, on the one hand, and the high-tech virtual space of the matrix, on the other, one finds the same ideology that informs the politics of 19th-century urban space. Thus I will begin by briefly outlining the general dynamics of the space-vision reification process and its 19th-century characteristics before turning specifically to Gibson's fiction, where I will focus first on the new imperatives of business, and then on how they result in new reifying technologies which alter the composition of “natural” bodies, in new categories or levels of space, in new ways of seeing that issue from these strange virtual dimensions (as registered narratively in the juxtapositional spatial form that originates with the radical experimentations in modernism). In an attempt to show that such modernity has not disappeared, but has become entrenched in new ways, I will center my analysis on two areas which manifest the reified space-vision construct: a) the subject/object relation, and b) the relation between public and private space. I will also show that these points are registered in the spatial form of Gibson's narrative style, both reflecting and repudiating the reified space/vision conjunction.

Reification unfolds in and contributes to the restructuring of urban space, although this abstracting, fragmenting, alienating process is also, at the same time, generated by space. Space is not simply a physical context for the evolutions of capital, as Marx himself essentially saw it, but also an active agent which structures the capacities of capitalism (although it may also be destroyed by this expansion). That is, space conditions the direction of capitalist expansion in both a material and ideological sense, since it contributes to organizing urban subjects' imagined relations to their spatial conditions of existence. As soon as reified urban space is inscribed in the consciousnesses of individuals, their entire armature of being and thinking tends toward being marshalled accordingly. Every city's spatial configuration interpolates subjectivity (in Althusser's sense of “hailing”) through its organizational capacity, determining the movements, gestures, attitudes and general modern style of its subjects. The specifics of such style—for example, the transient fashions of clothing, hair, physique—are liable to change, to delayed recycling in different form, or obsolescence. Yet the overall interpellative function of reified space remains viable and essentially bound up with such constituent factors. Space does not determine what styles people adopt but contributes fundamentally to a wider modern rhetoric of being and thinking.

The role of reified space in constituting modernity originates perhaps most forcefully in the 19th-century metropolis, for which Paris might be considered paradigmatic. The experience of modernity in the 19th century—and indeed the 20th as well—is founded in large part on the fragmentation of social space into public and private, center and periphery. Modernity involves the public domain of chaotic crowded streets, those urban festivals of consumption which produced the prototypical modern figures of the dandy and the flaneur (the latter being the solitary urban voyagers who lose themselves in the multitudes, bourgeois non-working observers observing events they are separate from). It is, however, not the effects of such public space on fashion or fashion-consciousness that I want to emphasize but, more importantly, the conflictual undercurrents in the production of massive rationalized public space. As Walter Benjamin and others have suggested, Baron Haussmann's reconstructions of Paris, which involved cutting long corridors through workers' districts, also served a very different, power-oriented purpose; the breadth of the streets “was to make the erection of barricades impossible, and new streets were to provide the shortest route between the barracks and working-class areas” (Benjamin 89).

The way that Paris's spatial entrenchment of the old uneven distribution of power was concealed behind the facade of the new, does not, of course, hold true to the same extent in late capitalism's hyper-urban configurations. This complex and abstract city space is characterized by a “vast network of banks, business centres and major productive entities, as also of motorways, airports and information lattices” through which the city as simply a vast agglomeration of people ceases to exist (Lefebvre 53). Similarly, the desire of the 19th-century bourgeois to see and be seen on boulevards and arcades is not evident in the arterial freeway structures of major 20th-century cities. But neither has this space-subjectivity modality completely disappeared, since the promenade or stroll as a component of commodity consumption is still with us. More importantly, multinational capitalist urban space intensifies the division between “haves” and “have-nots,” symbolized earlier by the center-periphery opposition—even if this opposition in multinational capitalism no longer fully holds true (the “inner city” now constituting a site of deprivation not affluence) or has been inscribed into more complex multifaceted spaces whose affluence is increasingly determined by fluctuating real estate prices. In terms of the reification of space, therefore, it would be wrong to imply that in our contemporary world modernity is no longer an issue, for one is essentially speaking about a greater degree of abstraction today, not a complete disappearance of the phenomenon.

The private component of reified social space—the 19th-century middle-class home with all its petty luxuries and ornaments—exemplifies the continuing widespread atomization and compartmentalization inherent in capitalism as a whole. This compartmentalization reinforces the apparently irrevocable reality of separateness in its most negative sense of isolation and alienation, both of which are an inevitability of modern existence. The separation of private from public space as an inherent element of modernity is part and parcel of the reifying process which also involves the specialization of shops, the specialization of rooms, and the separation of the individual from the group (Sack 45). Such separateness under the sign of private property, reinforced in spatial and psychological terms, marks out capital's power in a particularly effective way since it naturalizes laissez-faire and (less potent) individual struggle, as opposed to the collective kind. At the same time, private space and separateness in general may be considered more positively as a gap or chink within a vast system like capitalism or a more limited one like the matrix, a corporation or corporate clan, from which some individual might attempt a coup.

Vision is significant in the constitution of modernity because it is the privileged connector between subjects and reified urban space. Sight is the most powerful sensual mediator because it has the capacity of entrenching a naturalized objective world, transforming it into an apparently unchangeable reality that may be verified optically, and providing the kind of superficial reading of surfaces needed to maintain or entrench it. Vision allows for the naturalization (and mystification) of capitalism, not only through the obvious optical regime of advertising, but also by an appeal through vision for the necessity of mass-produced commodities, and the inevitability and irrevocability of the system in general. Vision in capitalism has always meant more than the sensual mediation between subjects and reality, individuals and physical space; it also becomes synonymous with “being.” To be in the 19th-century capitalist world was above all to see and be seen, which implies a polarity or gap between the viewing subject and the surrounding objective world, as if the two could be related only through a passive gaze.

Another point of connection between reified space and vision is the loss of a sense of totality (i.e., life experienced as a totality) that comes with living under capitalism. The fragmentation or abstraction characteristic of modern experience is articulated spatially in the oppositions of urban/rural and work/home, in addition to the division of cities into districts. The homology in visual terms is the separation of the senses in capitalism whereby sight “becomes a separate activity in its own right” (Jameson, The Political Unconscious 63). In a simultaneous process, reification penetrates lived urban space and subjective vision to the extent that the reification of one immediately implies the reification of the other.

In addition, the privileging of sight appears to result from the separation of capitalist spaces of production on the one hand and consumption on the other, a separation that produces a disjunction between labor and leisure, between working the land and simply viewing it (Williams 121). Pleasure occurs primarily through vision, and this vision is abstract, finding its 19th-century expression in the facades of bourgeois apartments, in the flat images on posters and ads originating with Lautrec. Nor has the connection between bourgeois luxury and passive vision disappeared from third-stage capitalism, where it takes the form of lower middle-class seduction by soap programs. This superficial imperative is from another perspective (that of the poor) a desire for the beautification of the visible, of the daily and mundane, a need to compensate for the grayness of life.

Gibson's contribution to our understanding of the subjectivity-reification-capitalism complex lies mainly in his concern with the connection between the physical body and consciousness, whereby his fiction leads to questions like the following: what might happen to the human body and consciousness in multinational capitalism? how will science driven by the impetus of market forces inscribe itself on the human subject? how will reification further transform space and the experience of space? and what new ways of seeing will result? Certain theorists of postmodernism have long announced the demise through reification of the natural body as a result of the expanding simulational world, describing it as a compression into “a fantastic simulacra of body rhetorics” generated by industries like fashion and advertising (Kroker iii). Others, following Michel Foucault, perceive the body both in terms of surface and invaded interior—a “communicative tissue upon which social power is inscribed, at first externally (the socio text) and now perhaps on the body's very insides” (O'Neil 71). One of Gibson's achievement is his exploration of the finer ramifications of various possible directions that science and technology might take in terms of their effects on the human body.

In Neuromancer, for example, he describes a loyalty guarantee used by multinationals: the injection of employees with classified chemicals that cause withdrawal should the individuals transfer without permission. Gibson's protagonist, Case, is “hired” by the AI Wintermute through the bribe of a regenerated nervous system that will allow him access to cyberspace again, but he is blackmailed into loyalty by a new medical condition—fifteen toxin sacs “bonded to the lining of various main arteries” requiring an enzyme injection that will “dissolve the bond without opening the sacs”—which will return him to his initial condition (46). After an attempt on his life, Turner, the mercenary in Count Zero, is rebuilt by doctors working for the Hosaka corporation so that he will be capable of overseeing the transfer of a prominent scientist working for a bio-tech corporation called Maas: “They cloned a square meter of skin for him, grew it on slabs of collagen and shark-cartilage polysacharides. They bought eyes and genitals on the open market” (1). Yet he is sickened by the retrieval of the Zeuss-Ikon eyes of a dead soap-opera star. Indeed, he appears to desire a more traditional or “natural” physical existence, and only partially finds a home within his own body, as Istvan Csicsery-Ronay suggests (68). In Mona Lisa Overdrive, there is the case of a sixteen-year-old street kid and prostitute called Mona, who is surgically altered to resemble Angela Mitchell, internationally famous interactive (simstim) screen star and daughter of a Maas scientist. In a shady, highly complex operation born from the madness of one of the cloned daughters of an enormously wealthy corporate clan called Tessier-Ashpool, whose two AIs have joined together and directed Dr. Mitchell in his research, Mona becomes the pawn in a corporate intrigue in which the competitors fight for control of the secret biochip codes that Mitchell planted in his daughter's brain.

Perhaps the most disturbing of Gibson's reified bodies is that of the tycoon Josef Virek in Count Zero. Virek has decayed into a kind of chemical morass in a support vat on the outskirts of Stockholm. He is able to run parts of his business through simstim and recently through the more detailed and realistic virtual reality generated by Maas biochips. In other words, his visually reified existence radically replaces his original self, a self which has already been scattered around the world in file footage and old magazine photos. Virek is no longer a physical being in even the reconstructed sense of Case or Turner. No longer centered on his physical presence, his wealth has become “autonomous by degrees,” aspects of which war with each other in what he calls “rebellion in the fiscal extremities” (37). Virek's ultimate goal is to use biochip technology and transplant his chemical remnants into one or more “virtual” bodies like a parasite invading a host. Turner's comment about some people's need to make a “jump” from their static, stagnant lives takes on troubling connotations here.

Like Josef Virek, Gibson's AIs usually communicate visually with humans through either holograms or virtual realities, the most pervasive means by which thought and information appears to be represented at this stage of economic and social history. The images that feel real confuse reality and “virtuality” to the point that only a residual valorization of the human body (or “meat” in cyber parlance) remains a way of choosing one or the other, as it turns out with Case. Indeed, the visual exhilaration of cyberspace is for some a high compared to the lapsarian life in the meat world—the “Fall.” And although various other virtual constructs distinct from the cubist datascape of the matrix are woven through with non-visual sensual details—damp sand of Neuromancer's electronic beach, the smell of rain and wet earth in Virek's Guell Park—there is eventually the sense on the part of the characters that these scenes are visually-dominant and therefore inauthentic, that they are holographic to the core and that the sensual totality of virtual experience is often added on only after the fact as a kind of consent to the human agents operating therein or as a method of manipulating them. One can detect here an awakened consciousness (if not specifically of the class kind) to the illusory nature of some apparently unchangeable reality.

The tendency to equate or synonomize “seeing” and “being” is evident in the console cowboys' willing seduction by the visually intense formations of the matrix. One imagines them suffering from Jameson's postmodernist version of schizophrenia, characters who experience “euphoria, a high, an intoxicatory or hallucinogenic intensity,” awash as they are in “a sea of technological change, information overload and random—but extraordinarily vivid—sensory stimulation” (Postmodernism 28; McCaffery, “Introduction” 10). In Count Zero, Bobby Newmark recognizes the nature of his mother's simstim addiction, although he ultimately abandons his own body to slow death on life support while his consciousness is jacked inside the aleph.

[Bobby] knew her, yeah, how she'd come through the door with a wrapped bottle under her arm, not even take her coat off, just go straight over and jack into the Hitachi, soap her brains out good for six solid hours. Her eyes would unfocus, and sometimes, if it was a really good episode, she'd drool a little. About every twenty minutes she'd manage to remember to take a ladylike nipp out of the bottle.

She'd always been that way, as long as he could remember, gradually sliding deeper into her half dozen synthetic lives, sequential simstim fantasies Bobby had had to hear about all his life. … Maybe, he thought now, it had been true, in a way; she'd jacked that shit straight through the pregnancy, because she'd told him she had, so he, fetus Newmark, curled up in there, had reverberated to about a thousand hours of People of Importance and Atlanta.


The paradox of Marsha Newmark's simstim addiction is that she simultaneously experiences the illusion of control but is unconsciously and in reality being controlled. Simstim's perverse genius is its ability to conflate the two poles of this power axis into one experience of jouissance, whereby watching the latest star is also to be watched, to feel for the duration of any given episode what it is like inside the skin of someone very rich and very glamorous. Simstim is like a techno version of the panopticon in which viewers are objects of their own gaze, except here they do not feel that they are monitoring themselves. Although Gibson provides instances of surveillance on the part of “official” agencies like the Turing police, or of various crime organizations, clans, or AIs, in this world the “guards” seem increasingly to be the anonymous, sourceless directives of multinational capitalism itself, whose visually-based apparatuses like simstim are most effective in seducing subjects. Most of Gibson's characters are forced to transform themselves mentally and physically according to the exigencies of the perpetual dance of biz, which takes some of them from urban criminal-infested sprawls to the other side of the computer screen.

One of Gibson's main interests under the rubric of reified consciousness is the role of memory in the shaping of identity. Gibson's near-future society sees the past (in this case, personal past) in visual terms. The connection between vision and memory implies some of the same panoptic overtones in multinational capitalism's infiltration of consciousness as the connection does in terms of the control of the body. While many characters in Gibson's work show little nostalgia for the past (history and tradition are considered memories seemingly designed for obsolescence in a culture whose data capacities, ironically, are perpetually growing), Gibson often seems to privilege historical consciousness and the concept of an essential universal humanity, which indicates his ambivalence toward the technoscape in which his stories are situated. In Neuromancer, Wintermute's ability to access Case's memories and cull forth images of exporter-importer Julius Deane and the hustler called the Finn, for example, might be understood as a way of representing the corporate adeptness at seeing and reifying our desires visually in the images or auras surrounding commodities. As consciousness becomes reified optically, it loses its quality of imperviousness to the gaze from outside. Moreover, capitalism's power even extends to recording and altering memory and identity, although the comments by Wintermute (through the Finn) suggest that memory differs from mind because the latter appears more inviolable and cannot be plotted or controlled to the same degree.

In Count Zero, the way that a character can be subjected to memory reconstruction is presented in the case of Turner, who after being blown apart in New Delhi is shipped to Singapore and rebuilt by a Dutch physician.

He spent most of those three months in a ROM-generated simstim construct of an idealized New England boyhood of the previous century. The Dutchman's visits were gray dawn dreams, nightmares that faded as the sky lightened beyond his second-floor bedroom window. … The Dutchman opened a door in his back brain and came strolling in to ask questions, but in the morning his mother called him down to Wheaties, eggs and bacon, coffee with milk and sugar.


While not all Turner's memories are artificial, the ones that are have been inserted by the Hosaka corporation merely in order to insure the reliability of their investment. Hosaka has effectively done away with the concept of a personal past as an authentic register of experiences, reducing it to a simstim show that may or may not approximate the real thing. Memory therefore falls victim to the same simulational workings as the body, perhaps an even greater transgression because of the residual trans-cultural sense of divinity attributed to human consciousness. As a kind of antidote to this state of affairs, Gibson's final chapter in Count Zero returns some lost human dimensions to the novel, a utopian foil to the simulational overload of the 21st century: Turner's squirrel wood.

Another of Gibson's characters subjected to mental reconstruction is Armitage in Neuromancer. An important difference between Armitage and Turner, however, is the former's ultimate breakdown, which puts a noticeably dystopian slant to the entire process. Armitage was once Colonel Willis Corto, an American military agent who, with his team, dropped through Russian defenses in gliders to install a virus program, but were thwarted when Russian pulse guns caused them to crash. After being “[r]epaired, refurnished, and extensively rehearsed” he gave false testimony provided by a Congressional cabal to a Congressional investigation of the Screaming Fist mission. His testimony was “instrumental in saving the careers of three officers directly responsible for the suppression of reports on the building of the emp installations at Kirensk” (83). Corto's history after the hearing was a trail of murders and criminal activity declining into a state of schizophrenia. His incarceration in a French asylum and subsequent cybernetic cure at the direction of Wintermute transforms him into a construct named Armitage. As Wintermute says to Case, however, “He's not quite a personality. … But Corto is in there, somewhere, and I can no longer maintain that delicate balance. He's going to come apart on you, Case” (121). So not only do Corto's long suppressed memories of Screaming Fist finally resurface as the Armitage construct wears out like a battery, but the partially-revised personality or identity also begins to dissolve. Case wonders, “where had Corto been, those years?” (194).

Although not the first time this question has been asked, it may be the first time within this context of technological mastery over memory by an artificial intelligence born from a capitalist system where even the most personal, inaccessible, and non-material things acquire some form of exchange value. Control of this kind is conceivable only because of capitalism's long process of abstraction and objectification of individuality. Marx referred to this process as the decline of “species being,” a term now dismissed for its essentialist connotations. Yet it appears appropriate in the context of Gibson's somewhat romantic, nostalgic presentation of some of his characters. Ultimately, Corto/Armitage serves as a point of entry into a discussion of the schizophrenic relation between memory and identity—the way time and history have broken down and separated from personality, the way they have separated personality into various components created for market production and consumption so that personality becomes a sort of superfluousness necessary to the proper functioning of a computerized world-system. Evidence of the way that Gibson's world profoundly abstracts and devalues identity is its privileging of the simulational form of simstim stars like Tally Isham, Angela Mitchell, and finally Mona, who is appropriately, doubly artificial—a fake of Angela's screen persona.

The cyberpunk landscape “tends to be choked with the debris of both language and objects; as a sign system it is overdetermined by a proliferation of surface detail” (Hollinger 212). The high-speed proliferation of (usually) high-tech commodities results in a proliferation of obsolete junk. This material finds its way into alleys, empty warehouses and trash cans in urban ghettos scavenged by street kids. In Neuromancer, for example, as Case and Molly are on their way to see the Finn, they find themselves standing in a cluttered space.

The junk looked like something that had grown there, a fungus of twisted metal and plastic. He could pick out individual objects, but then they seemed to blur back into the mass: the guts of a television so old it was studded with the glass stumps of vacuum tubes, a crumpled dish antenna, a brown fiber canister stuffed with corroded lengths of alloy tubing. An enormous pile of old magazines had cascaded into the open area. …


Similarly, in Count Zero, Bobby Newmark comes across a loading bay blocked by a dumpster in a ramshackle collection of projects called Barrytown.

The dumpster was overflowing with a varied hash of industrial scrap. Barrytown had its share of gray-legal manufacturers, part of the “shadow economy” the news faces liked to talk about, but Bobby never paid much attention to news faces. Biz. It was all just biz. …

Bobby watched blankly as three kids, maybe ten at the oldest, scaled the blue wall of the dumpster with a length of dirty white nylon line and a makeshift grapple that might once have been part of a coatrack. … Small white hands tipped a dented alloy canister up and over the edge, lowering it on the nylon line. Good score, Bobby thought; you could take the thing to a metal dealer and get a little for it. They lowered the thing to the pavement, about a meter from the soles of Bobby's boots; as it touched down, it happened to twist around, showing him the six horned symbol that stood for biohazard. “Hey, fuck,” he said, drawing his feet up reflexively. …


For Bobby, the canister is not worth the risk of contamination, but for the scavengers it appears worth its weight in gold. In any case, the object holds no meaning beyond its exchange value or its use value, the latter likely to be involved in some sort of exchange later.

In contrast to this kind of junk, Gibson also features another type which consists of dereified objects that are usually those bound to the history of individuals or families, and connected with the slowly evolving totality of human experience. They are dereified in the sense of their retention of a historical trace and in their general lack of exchange value. As such they are rare in a world where the human element is increasingly peripheral. Examples may be found in Neuromancer in Case's run through the Tessier-Ashpool corridors where objects belonging to the family are encased in shelves, or in Molly's encounter with Ashpool which offers a view of his cluttered room. One scene which privileges dereification of this kind is that of the boxmaker near the end of Count Zero. The episode takes place in the remains of the Tessier-Ashpool cores which hold the mainframes for their corporate memories. The woman hired by Josef Virek to find the maker of various delicately made boxes, Marly Krushkhova, ends her hunt in a half-atmosphere space which houses a multi-armed robot.

[S]he caught herself on the thing's folded, jointed arms, pivoted and clung there, watching the swirl of debris. There were dozens of the arms, manipulators, tipped with pliers, hexdrivers, knives, a subminiature circular saw, a dentist's drill. … They bristled from the alloy thorax of what must once have been a construction remote, the sort of unmanned, semi-autonomous device she knew from childhood videos of the high frontier. But this one was welded to the apex of the dome, its sides fused with the fabric of the Place, and hundreds of cables and optic lines snaked across the geodiscs to enter it. Two of the arms, tipped with delicate force-feedback devices, were extended; the soft pads cradled an unfinished box.

Eyes wide, Marly watched the uncounted things swing past.

A yellowing kid glove, the faceted crystal stopper from some vial of vanished perfume, an armless doll with a face of French porcelain, a fat, gold-fitted black fountain pen, rectangular segment of perf board, the crumpled red and green snake of a silk cravat … Endless, the slow swarm, the spinning things. …

“I understand,” she said, sometime later. … “You are someone else's collage. Your maker is the true artist. Was it the mad daughter? It doesn't matter. Someone brought the machine here, welded it to the dome, and wired it to the traces of memory. And spilled, somehow, all the worn sad evidence of a family's humanity, and left it all to be stirred, to be sorted by a poet. To be sealed away in boxes. I know of no more extraordinary work than this. No more complex gesture. …”


For the scene to achieve its full impact the boxmaker's work must be set against Virek's selfish calculating hunger to discover the secret behind the Maas biochips technology, which he thinks will free him from his original physical self, and which he believes to be held by the robot. Virek perceives the boxes as merely means to an end, a trace toward a very different destination. The boxes, however, are signs not only of the history of the subjects they represent, but also of the labor that went into making them—labor in general, both aesthetic and otherwise. Ironically, the “hands” performing this labor belong to a machine not a human, though “someone” created the AI that speaks as the boxmaker. In Gibson's world, the remainder of that imprecise universal quality connoted by the word “human” is located within the concrete forms of dereified objects.

The subject/object relation in Gibson's trilogy—of which the object pole can be viewed as the multinational system rather than, more specifically, the object as “commodity”—is rendered through cyberspace. This parallel world is a uniquely multinational capitalist space which acts as a point of conflation between reified subject and object, and is not (as Jameson argues) solely the object pole of late capitalism or a representation of the almost unrepresentable configurations of a high-tech hyperurban world, although both approximate it. Cyberspace is a point of conflation in the sense that it is thought to represent all the data produced in the “human system”; to enter it is, ideally, to become part of a world of information that is part of us and knowable by us since it is our creation. This conflation, however, is a limited one because just as the reified object world confronts its subjects like an alien force, cyberspace itself functions in a similarly alienating way. Its operators cannot know it in its totality because many of its sectors are the privileged private domains of multinationals or corporate clans like the Tessier-Ashpools.

In addition, the relation between reified subjects and reified space in modernity—of which the promenade guided by subjects' abstract “flat” sight is an earlier type—is now refigured in that static hooked-in relation between console cowboy, cyberdeck, and screen. To understand this refiguring, one should note how the 19th-century space of the arcade involves a similar set of relations as the contemporary games room arcade. Here, as with the console cowboy's relation to the matrix, the player is located within the same spatial-visual nexus that characterizes both the old and new arcade experience. There is the same emphasis on passive vision and fragmented space, since the players, like consumers, are separated from each other while they are assembled, and interfaced with a screen that is centered on their vision, with the rest of their bodies mere supports for their eyes. Whereas the arcade as commodity festival reduces social relations to relations between commodities, video arcades reduce social relations to those between individuals and the game screens (although there is a necessary exchange of money that begins the game). Furthermore, the privileging of sight in the arcade, which appears causally related to the differentiation between capitalist spaces of production and consumption, is here a sign of the shift to non-material information production as a central factor in the economy, a way of showing the extent of abstraction in third-stage capitalism.

Cyberspace, or what in Neuromancer Gibson calls the matrix, is a “graphic representation of data abstracted from the banks of every computer in the human system” arranged in “clusters and constellations” like “city lights receding” (51). A three-dimensional non-space centered upon the eye, the matrix addicts users. In privileging sight over the other senses, the “human now exists as pure gaze while the fragmented ‘nonplace urban realm’ is translated into visual terms” (Bukatman 151). Consider here Gibson's depiction of Case's entry into cyberspace:

He closed his eyes.

Found the ridged face of the power stud.

And in the bloodlit dark behind his eyes, silver phosphenes boiling in from the edge of space, hypnagogic images jerking past like film compiled from random frames. Symbols, figures, faces, a blurred, fragmented mandala of visual information.

Please, he prayed, now

A gray disk, the color of Chiba sky.


Disk beginning to rotate, faster, becoming a sphere of paler gray. Expanding—

And flowed, flowered for him. … the unfolding of his distanceless home, his country, transparent 3D chessboard extending to infinity. Inner eye opening to the scarlet pyramid of the Eastern Seaboard Fission Authority burning beyond the green cubes of Mitsubishi Bank of America, and high and very far away he saw the spiral arms of military systems, forever beyond his reach.


A principle question arising from the phenomenon of cyberspace is the degree to which it is undermined by its subjects' awareness of its artifice. For example, at a critical moment when Wintermute's plan hangs in the balance, Case chooses to fulfill it by leaving his former girlfriend in Neuromancer's simulation of a beach and returning instead to the corporeal world, thereby abandoning a place that was no more than “a coded model of some stranger's memory” combined with his own memories of his relationship with Linda Lee (240).

Although the irony is that by recalling the integrity of his physical self he permits the most calculating, mercenary, and “cybernetic” AI to succeed, the positive side is that by no longer privileging abstract over material existence, Case penetrates his own reified consciousness and begins to see, both figuratively and literally. The beach construct created by Wintermute, into which Case has been projected, begins to wear down at this moment of awakened consciousness.

His vision crawled with ghost hieroglyphs, translucent lines of symbols arranging themselves against the neutral backdrop of the bunker wall. He looked at the backs of his hands, saw faint neon molecules crawling beneath the skin, ordered by the unknowable code. He raised his right hand and moved it experimentally. It left a faint, fading trail of strobed afterimages. …

“Hey,” he said, “it's breaking down. Bet you know, too. What is it? Kuang? Chinese icebreaker eating a hole in your heart?”


In contrast to Case's decision to abandon cyberspace, Bobby Newmark in Mona Lisa Overdrive abandons his body while jacked into an enormous microsoft called an aleph in the shape of a small rectangular slab, “a sort of model of cyberspace” (307). From Bobby's perspective it constitutes an ideal Platonic realm twice removed from the corrupted or imperfect material world, “an appreciation of everything” (154). But this “approximation of everything” within a package of “dead storage” shows that things have become even more distorted and reified than they were in Neuromancer's beach construct.

Gibson's accent on visuals and his use of heightened language becomes something like pure exhilaration as the corporeal world is escaped. The descriptions of a Chinese military ice-breaker cutting through the Tessier-Ashpool forms in cyberpsace typifies this ecstatic experience.

Kuang Grade Mark Eleven was filling the grid between itself and the T-A ice with hypnotically intricate traceries of rainbow, lattices fine as snow crystal on a winter window. …

The Chinese program was face to face with the target ice, rainbow tints gradually dominated by the green of the rectangle representing the T-A cores. Arches of emeralds across the colorless void. …

Headlong motion through walls of emerald green, milky jade, the sensation of speed beyond anything he'd known before in cyberspace. … The Tessier-Ashpool ice shattered, peeling away from the Chinese program's thrust, a worrying impression of solid fluidity, as though the shards of a broken mirror bent and elongated as they fell.

“Christ,” Case said, awestruck, as Kuang twisted and banked above the horizonless fields of the Tessier-Ashpool cores, an endless neon cityscape, complexity that cut the eye, jewel-bright, sharp as razors.


In a system which has done away with traditional unified subjectivity and its clear relation with its labor and product, which has shifted from a production-based economy to an information-based one, the relation between language and the material productive world no longer exists. Unlike the complex labor-intensive language of William Faulkner, for instance, seemingly consonant with the hard labor of poor tenant farmers, Gibson's style in Neuromancer fittingly reflects the very different socio-economic conditions of the present. His high-speed language is suited to the high speed of “biz,” the high of cyber-travel, the depthless rhetoric of multinational capitalism. Although this organicism could be considered a weak point in Gibson's own aesthetic response to this world, he might actually speak to the problem by avoiding direct intrusive commentary that would blunt readers' abilities to experience such rarification by themselves, albeit vicariously through the text.

With BAMA (Boston-Atlanta Metropolitan Axis) and the mega-city of Ninsei, Gibson resituates the ideological imperatives of a ruling elite within a spatial configuration that is based on the differentiation between, on the one hand, lower-class suburbs and disintegrating urban criminal wastelands which serve as a refuse pile for old technologies and an experimental playground for new ones and, on the other, the virtual level of cyberspace and orbiting colonies, accessible to those with the money, good fortune, or thieving qualities necessary to acquire the means or the technology for entrance. As a result, the separation between public and private space and consciousness, which formerly served to distinguish the world of work from that of leisure, the crowded boulevards of fashion-conscious flaneurs from apartment spaces belonging to private property-owners, is subverted. Gibson depicts the disintegration of the authoritarian Haussmann-type urban fabric and the invasion of both private space and consciousness by high technology.

On the public side, zones like Night City in Japan or the Sprawl in BAMA are presented as chaotic crumbling urban sectors where masses of people live in a perpetual swirl of criminal business. There, no one promenades down long avenues in order to see and be seen because that spatial structure in combination with that ideology of vision and free time has changed. Again, this does not imply the elimination of a facet of modernity so much as an extension or intensification of elements just beneath the surface of 19th-century Paris. In Gibson, the equivalent of those long narrow panoptic corridors are the pristine neon cityscapes in cyberspace; similarly, visual jouissance has shifted its site of operation—moving from the street onto simstim screens and into cyberspace. Indeed, Haussmann's type of urban configurations, which sought in part to keep confrontation at bay, seems in the process of breaking down—Gibson's urban sprawls having become crime-infested spaces. One might regard this transformation as an inevitable result of the exclusionary tactics of capitalism, the “proletariat” now resorting to crime within a system that has finally revealed itself to be openly “criminal.” Or one might see the breakdown as an abandonment of certain sectors of the city by the ruling elite, and a further entrenchment of reified space, which is abstracted another level away from the material world.

I have spoken earlier of the interpellative function of public space, the way it constitutes the movements of subjects and their ways of seeing. One of the possible equivalents in Gibson's cyberpunk novels involves, first of all, the manifestation of the decline in spatial order in the specific coded posturing of various ephemeral subcultures or gangs, whose purpose continues to be that of being seen, but also that of marking out their territory. Another reflection of decaying urban Haussmannesque space (or perhaps a cause) are the underground hit and run attacks of a tiny section of class-conscious gangs like the “Panther Moderns” in Neuromancer. Described as “nihilistic technofetishists,” the Moderns are born from an increasingly chaotic urban world; they attempt to appropriate technology in order to subvert its power sources—in this case the Sense-Net Library, but ultimately, although they are unaware of it, the complete structure of the matrix itself.

The interpellative function of cyberspace, even in its more constructive active form of sabotage, is essentially like the passive mode of simstim viewers. A difference is the kind of conflation between subject and object world, since cyberspace's bodiless jouissance remains charged with the possibilities of a positive distance between operator and data, such as the awareness that this otherwise seductive virtual world is an abstraction, not a real manifestation of our concrete labor. In other words, the subject/object relation in the matrix is essentially an epistemological one, not an ontological one as in the case of simstim. This is why Neuromancer tries to appeal to Case's physical needs in order to flatline his real self outside the beach construct.

In terms of private space, an example might be the private sectors within the matrix, protected by ice of varying intensity (which causes intruders' brain death or “flatlining”). As an example of concrete lived private space, one might consider Ashpool's crammed room, an equivalent to the cluttered 19th-century bourgeois apartment, though it now tends to connote the vestiges of humanity (albeit demented and artificially prolonged) rather than personal wealth and control over private space (although Ashpool does jealously protect his). Gibson's description of Molly's encounter with Ashpool is noteworthy not only because of all the objects filling his room, some of which undoubtedly end up in the robot's boxes, but because of his Victorian dress and the small detail of his missing slipper which suggests his fallible humanity.

He wore a heavy robe of maroon silk, quilted around the long cuffs and shawl collar. One foot was bare, the other in a black velvet slipper with an embroidered gold foxhead over the instep. He motioned her into the room. “Slow darling.” The room was very large, cluttered with an assortment of things that made no sense to Case. He saw a gray steel rack of old-fashioned Sony monitors, a wide brass bed heaped with sheepskins, with pillows that seemed to have been made from the kind of rug used to pave the corridors. Molly's eyes darted from a huge Telefunken entertainment console to shelves of antique disk recordings, their crumbling spines cased in clear plastic, to a wide worktable littered with slabs of silicon. Case registered the cyberspace deck and trodes. …

[Ashpool] sank back into the creased softness of a huge leather arm-chair with square chrome legs, but the gun never wavered. He put her fletcher on a brass table beside the chair, knocking over a plastic vial of red pills. The table was thick with vials, bottles of liquor, soft plastic envelopes spilling white powders. Case noticed an old-fashioned glass hypodermic and a plain steel spoon.


Three other observations might be made about this scene. First, there is a tension between the kinds of objects in the old man's room: some belong to the 20th century and perhaps earlier (since Ashpool is 200 years old, his life extended by frozen sleep), yet others like the cyberspace deck are contemporary. The combination of either hand-made or high-tech things belonging to different periods makes no sense to Case because he is not used to seeing old and new in sharp juxtaposition, having grown up in a culture where obsolescence precedes (if not replaces) death. Second, Molly's entrance coincides with Ashpool's murder of one of his cloned daughters and his own planned suicide. After two centuries of an existence interspersed with dark dream-filled cybersleep he has decided to end his perverse life. The episode concerns primeval and age-old human terrors and atrocities of a family within the larger context of a plot run by an artificial intelligence, whose new existence is simultaneous with one of its creators' demise. Third, the scene's perspective is unusual because Case sees things through Molly's machine eyes, via a simstim rig. He has not accessed her memories but entered her body. There are no sexual connotations at this point so much as questions about the private “space” of the body and its invasion by some external “public” force. In Gibson, private space sometimes appears less as an unfortunate bourgeois by-product than a retreat or haven for his characters, a place of resistance to whatever overwhelming power—whether AI or corporate clan—that seeks to manipulate them. Case's “coffin” in Night City, his physical screening by the Finn's scanners and his avoidance of Wintermute's sinister telephone calls, are some examples of resistance to invasion of the private (i.e. personal) by a corporate public (“private”) sphere. This point takes us back to the corporate takeover of bodies and the invasion of human memories, but it also raises the issue of gendered space.

Molly was once a “neural cut-out” or prostitute in a Sprawl brothel. As she explains to Case, she had a microchip slotted into her head during her work in a sex cubicle that allowed any number of identities or personas desired by customers to be installed, and which replaced her own consciousness during use.

“Costs to go to Chiba, costs to get the surgery, costs to have them jack your nervous system up so you'll have reflexes to go with the gear. … You know how I got the money, when I was starting out? Here. Not here, but a place like it, in the Sprawl. Joke, to start with, 'cause once they plant the cut-out chip, it seems like free money. Wake up sore, sometimes, but that's it. Renting the goods is all. You aren't in, when it's happening. House has software for whatever a customer wants to pay for. … Fine. I was getting my money. Trouble was, the cut-out and the circuitry the Chiba clinics put in weren't compatible. So the worktime started bleeding in and I could remember it. …

“They knew you were picking up on this stuff? That you were conscious while you were working?”

“I wasn't conscious. It's like cyberspace, but blank. Silver. It smells like rain. … You can see yourself orgasm, it's like a little nova right on the rim of space. But I was starting to remember. Like dreams, you know. And they didn't tell me. They switched the software and started renting to speciality markets.”


Molly's experience under the software's “anaesthetic” is presented in spatial terms, as being inside the emptiness of a blank monitor into which images are constantly encroaching. If the image is the final stage of commodity reification, the monitor is the end point of a long process of the spatial/physical control of women. What Gibson seems to suggest here is not only that Molly's physical and mental relation to the space she was allotted was severely reified, but that her situation foregrounds the one for women that has actually existed in capitalism since its inception.

Gibson's apparently critical stance, however, is tempered by the fact that he makes Molly choose prostitution to finance her physical reconstruction. Also, as Nicola Nixon suggests, Gibson unconsciously figures the matrix “as a feminine space” and implies that the “matrix turf can potentially be won back, reconquered” by men (227). But such gendered readings overlook the way that Gibson frequently presents the matrix as multinational capitalist space in which all subjects are potentially in danger of losing touch with their original selves, in which they are all reduced to the Ono Sendai riders whose only significance is to the information bases of major corporations or military systems, or in which subjects are seduced into abandoning the real world for some virtual offshoot of cyberspace.

Gibson's narrative form both reflects and attempts to repudiate the political situation he addresses. His prose style both participates in and undoes the transformations in postmodernism bound up with the shift from modernist spatial form to so-called schizophrenic narrative or anti-narrative, wherein the modernist fragmentation is intensified without the underlying volition toward wholeness and where a series of ephemeral presents are unbound in a cohesive linear time frame. On the one hand, and especially in Neuromancer, he allies himself with postmodernism's “time sickness” via his full-throttle presentation of technological and cultural evolutions in equally high-speed narrative; he dramatizes the spectacular simulational surfaces of late capitalism through his visually-charged style; and he provides a sense of the uncertain center of relations among late capitalist subjects, the unlocalizable center of the economy's workings, the information overload in late capitalism and the typical postmodernist urban wastelands, all in densely detailed highly complex language and narrative form. Where Gibson differs from the postmodernist tendency is in refusing fully to translate “time sickness” into the kind of hyper-fragmented disconnected units evident in works like J. G. Ballard's Love and Napalm. Rather, by founding his novels on the popular form of hardboiled detective/picaresque novels, by appropriating borrowed forms, he tempers the ahistoricity of schizophrenic form while at the same time narratively introducing questions about our culture's loss of historical sense.

Gibson's spatial devices of juxtaposition and superspecificity represent the experience of inhabiting modern mega-cities. The process whereby 19th-century Paris underwent fragmentation in the enforcement of a new homogenization is intensified at every turn. Spatial reorganization continues to mean separating rich from poor, not necessarily by pushing the latter toward the urban periphery or relocating them in downtown cores or even in the slightly better conditions of middle-class suburbs, but by an increasingly chaotic agglomeration of spaces where a constantly growing middle and lower class is imprisoned, separated from the privileged and rarefied atmosphere of orbiting colonies or virtual spaces accessed through high technology.

What I would like to suggest here is not only that these spaces are all jammed together in a vast complex network, that the speed of change—particularly in the world of “biz”—is perpetually increasing so that any improvement in characters' standard of living depends on continual awareness of changing conditions and lightning reactions to them, but that these elements are translated into style and narrative form. Thus, the importance of juxtaposition, as Brian McHale notes:

Gibson's fiction functions at every level, even down to the “micro” structures of phrases and neologisms, on the principle of incongruous juxtaposition—juxtapositions of American culture with Japanese culture, of high technology with the “subculture” of the “street” and the underworld, and so on. The term “cyberpunk” has been constructed according to this incongruity principle.


While juxtaposition on the level of the sentence does not involve Faulkneresque tropes like oxymorons, it tends toward compound words like “pillhead” or “wirehead” which conflate a technological and biological component to describe different types of addicted individuals. Other compounds like “slamhound” (a mobile heat-sensitive explosive) are inserted into the omniscient narrative as part of Gibson's defamiliarizing strategy whereby a new world for readers is already fully realized in an objective third-person discourse.

Throughout his trilogy a clash occurs between various idioms—the “dialect” of the street with the formal seriousness of a pseudo-modernism, the technical or computer jargon with the near romantic descriptions of human experience. What distinguishes Gibson's conflictual languages is above all the speed of transition from one to another, prose that pulsates with sharp filmic or MTV-like emissions of style. Furthermore, the anti-romantic juxtaposition by modernists like T. S. Eliot of urban and agrarian or social and natural is taken a step further by Gibson; the natural world is not so much at odds with or juxtaposed with the urban world but superseded aesthetically by (what appears like, if only superficially) a new dominant in content and in imagery which virtually results in its obsolescence. Most memorably perhaps, the opening sentence of Neuromancer sets the tone by subsuming the most seemingly unassailable part of the phenomenal world within a spectacular regime: “The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel” (3). This sentence appears to mark a permanent breakdown in the opposition between nature and culture, but one that might suggest a longing for some pristine, pre-technical age, a longing which seems shared by both conservatives and nostalgic socialists.

Other forms of juxtaposition in Gibson's works include the modernist spatial technique of multiple references introduced at different points in order to make readers assemble them coherently. For example, in Count Zero Turner's experience in Heathrow—when a “chunk of memory” falls on him and causes him to vomit—is explained only much later when he recalls the Zeuss-Ikon eyes of the Sense/Net simstim star being carried off in a briefcase by an agent. Similarly, the squirrel wood scene at the end of the novel forces a return to the beginning to construct the full meaning of the denouement: the lost human dimensions in this high-tech world. These dimensions partly involve the reader's own ability to span this narrative distance, to maintain the perspective from which reality and simulation, authentic human experiences and artificially generated ones are always distinguishable, even if the latter seems authentic. Csicsery-Ronay points out that one of the effects of Count Zero's narrative fragmentation is the maintenance of distance between the techno plot and the more “realistic” plot which involves Marly's search for the boxmaker. In Gibson's writing, cross-referencing of this sort foregrounds the sense-making process required to filter through a welter of information overloaded on characters and readers (which is also in keeping with the hardboiled detective genre, its narrative parent).

This process is evident in modernist novels like Lord Jim,The Good Soldier, and Ulysses, although in Gibson's work its purpose is not to depict the complex nature of truth or early 20th-century urban experience in which gossip is a unifying discourse, but rather to continue the modernist dereifying strategy or form of resistance to perpetual social alienation. More than privileging historicization, however, dereification of this kind actually relocates meaning within a journey back and forth across the text (for both characters and readers) so that the process takes on, in and of itself, a degree of importance in the work's final meaning. Appropriately, Gibson's novels also belong to the detective genre, but as such they focus attention not only on the mystery's end but the means to it. His novels clearly move toward closure, but simultaneously involve the return to the origin and evolution of a situation. Thus, Neuromancer is geared toward explaining the intricate network of elements which resolves into the amalgamated sentience calling itself the “matrix,” a sentience which erases all traces of its transformation, so that uninformed subjects will see it as an objective “reality” which confronts them, as Lukacs' capitalist system, like an alien force.

Another component of Gibson's spatialized narrative is the device or style of superspecificity. “[Dashiell] Hammett may have been the first guy,” Gibson recalls, “who turned me onto the idea … which is largely lacking in most SF description. SF authors tend to use generics—‘Then he got into his space suit'” (“Interview” 269). Left over from modernism's “direct treatment of the thing concerned,” Gibson's style involves loading descriptions with minutiae; his best writing is dense to the point of saturation. Any number of excerpts might serve as an example, although a passage from Count Zero in which Marly first meets Joseph Virek in his construct of Guell Park, is particularly instructive because it involves a description of a virtual reality:

As her fingers closed around the cool brass knob, it seemed to squirm, sliding along a touch spectrum of texture and temperature in the first second of contact.

Then it became metal again, green-painted iron, sweeping out and down, along a line of perspective, an old railing she grasped now in wonder.

A few drops of rain blew into her face.

Smell of rain and wet earth.

A confusion of small details, her own memory of a drunken art school picnic warring with the perfection of Virek's illusion.

Below lay the unmistakable panorama of Barcelona, smoke hazing the strange spires of the Church of the Sagrada Familia. … She was in the Guell Park, Antonio Gaudi's tatty fairyland, on its barren rise behind the center of the city. To her left, a giant lizard of crazy-quilt ceramic was frozen in midslide down a bed of tired flowers. …

Josef Virek was perched below her on one of the park's serpentine benches, his wide shoulders hunched in a soft topcoat. … She took her place beside him and peered down at the dirty pavement between the scuffed toes of her black Paris boots. She saw a chip of pale gravel, a rusted paper clip, the small dusty corpse of a bee or hornet. “It's amazingly detailed. …”


The point about superspecificity, besides its role in fleshing out a fictional universe, is its dual paradoxical effect of speeding up and slowing down the narrative. On the one hand the sentences generally follow each other quickly and give the illusion of a camera panning back and forth across a highly complex world. They are condensed, sharpened and visually intense. This is “optical prose, one more proof that the printed word … has succumbed to the fragmentary speed, the instantaneity and monodimensionality of the visual image” (Slusser 334). But on the dereifying side of things, such deliberately detailed prose which tends toward the spatial reified form of Robbe-Grillet's writing actually encourages readers to account for the excess of detail, to apply the lessons learned from focusing on detail to the process of filtering through and distinguishing the critical even unenunciated points in the story, to duplicate narratively the sense-making activity of characters like Case or Marly who rebel against powerful non-human elements. Superspecificity, in short, encourages the modernist activity of reshaping the fragmented, intricate and even counterintuitive narrative patterns into some more cohesive form—of discovering, as Jameson might suggest, the cancelled realist story beneath the surface.

Ultimately, Gibson's work begins the process of mapping out the multinational capitalist world in all its complexity, beginning with the material and virtual spaces that subjects occupy, and going on to explore various political, philosophical, moral and cultural issues. As Larry McCaffery suggests, these include the implications of “recent breakthroughs in cybernetic and genetic engineering, organ transplants and artificial intelligence research,” the control of information for private business in order to wield power over nation-states and individuals, the “social, psychic, political, and behavioral impact resulting from the shift away from the older industrial technologies to the newer information ones,” and the capacities of the media to introduce information into our homes and, indeed, into the “most intimate reaches of our imaginations, our self-definitions, our desires” (8).

Works Cited

Benjamin, Walter. “Paris: Capital of the 19th Century.” Trans. Ben Brewster. New Left Review 48 (1968): 77-90.

Bukatman, Scott. Terminal Identity: The Virtual Subject in Postmodern Science Fiction. Durham: Duke UP, 1993.

Calinescu, Matei. Five Faces of Modernity: Modernism, Avant-Garde, Decadence, Kitsch, Postmodernism. Durham: Duke UP, 1987.

Csicsery-Ronay, Jr., Istvan. “Antimancer: Cybernetics and Art in Gibson's Count Zero.” Science Fiction Studies 22.65 (1995): 63-86.

Gibson, William. Count Zero. 1986. New York: Ace, 1987.

———. “An Interview with William Gibson.” McCaffery 263-85.

———. Mona Lisa Overdrive. 1988. New York: Bantam, 1989.

———. Neuromancer. New York: Ace, 1984.

Hollinger, Veronica. “Cybernetic Deconstructions: Cyberpunk and Postmodernism.” McCaffery 203-18.

Jameson, Fredric. The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1981.

———. Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Durham: Duke UP, 1991.

Kroker, Arthur, and Marilouise Kroker. “Body Digest: Theses on the Disappearing Body in the Hyper-Modern Condition.” Canadian Journal of Political and Social Theory 11.1 (1987): i-xvi.

Lefebvre, Henri. The Production of Space. 1974. Trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith. Oxford: Blackwell, 1991.

Lukacs, Georg. History and Class Consciousness: Studies in Marxist Dialectics. Trans. Rodney Livingstone. Cambridge: MIT P, 1971.

McCaffery, Larry, ed. and Intro. “Introduction: The Desert of the Real.” Storming the Reality Studio: A Casebook of Cyberpunk and Postmodern Science Fiction. Durham: Duke UP, 1991.

McHale, Brian. Postmodernist Fiction. New York: Methuen, 1987.

Nixon, Nichola. “Cyberpunk: Preparing the Ground for Revolution or Keeping the Boys Satisfied?” Science Fiction Studies 19.57 (1992): 219-35.

O'Neil, John. “Bio Technology: Empire, Communications and Bio Power.” Canadian Journal of Political and Social Theory 10.1-2 (1986): 66-77.

Sack, Robert David. Place, Modernity, and the Consumer's World: A Relational Framework for Geographical Analysis. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1992.

Slusser, George. “Literary MTV.” McCaffery 334-42.

Soja, Edward. “The Spatiality of Social Life: Toward a Transformative Retheorisation.” Social Relations and Spatial Structures. Ed. Derek Gregory and John Urry. London: MacMillan, 1985. 90-127.

Williams, Raymond. The Country and the City. London: Chatto, 1973.

Edward Bryant (review date December 1999)

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SOURCE: Bryant, Edward. Review of All Tomorrow's Parties, by William Gibson. LOCUS 43, no. 6 (December 1999): 23-5.

[In the following excerpt, Bryant applauds the many interesting characters in All Tomorrow's Parties and contends that the novel is accessible to a mainstream audience.]

Last month two of my Locus colleagues offered their evaluations of William Gibson's new novel; one seemed more enthusiastic than the other; both had valuable things to say about All Tomorrow's Parties. I've got my own take.

It's hard to think that a sizable chunk of science fiction writing and reading was suddenly hyper-energized by Neuromancer a mere fifteen years ago. Time compression took on new meaning for me in 1994 when Ace published a hardback ten-year commemorative edition. A mere decade, for crying out loud. To Kill a Mockingbird got its commemorative edition 35 years after first publication! Not that Neuromancer didn't deserve hardback permanence in the US. But the gestation time for a recognized modern classic seemed so damned brief.

Perhaps the answer may lie in the book's hyperkinetic landscape and style. It's a novel that never really did have the time to wait around patiently for recognition. It 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 and vice versa. William Gibson has said that he really knew he was on the right track the first time he heard someone use interface as a verb.

Whether he wanted it or not, Neuromancer and its successor novels brought the author something of a mantle of cybergodhood. He has been looked upon as a techno-prophet from the Far North, offering astute insights into human relationships with machine intelligence systems. He's viewed as a guru, however unlikely and unwilling he is to accept the weight of the label.

And in the real world during the past fifteen years, everything about the cyber universe has accelerated. Today's PCs make yesterday's 386s look like kids' toys—except today's kids want the next generation of Pentiums or Mac's G-4 personal supercomputer. The Internet has proliferated like a runaway nanotech plague, offering astonishing excesses of benefit, bewilderment, and abuse.

I suspect that William Gibson's value as a writer, artist, and cultural observer seems to be wrapped up in the kernel of one of the more intriguing characters in All Tomorrow's Parties.

This is a novel replete with a huge number of interesting characters. The third in a sequence of novels beginning with Virtual Light and continuing with Idoru, this novel offers the leisurely luxury of continuing the existence of a variety of players.

As the novel opens, it would seem two characters have widely divergent ambitions in regard to effecting some form of pattern on the chaos of next-century life as it's warped by difficult-to-codify change. One is Cody Harwood, a ruthless, ambitious variant on the Rupert Murdoch archetype. Harwood's a guy who thinks he knows which way the wind's blowing, and will move heaven and earth to ensure he's properly positioned to survive and profit when the storm abates. Then there's Colin Laney, the chemically enhanced information seer who lives at death's door in a cardboard box in a Tokyo subway station. Laney lives virtually full-time in the data flows, and it's the currents in those information rivers that enable him to figure out something really big is coming up on the horizon. He can divine the magnitude but not the exact details of what's coming, and so must depend on someone trustworthy to act as his physical eyes and ears.

That someone is Berry Rydell, a perfectly decent guy who can never seem to hold down a job for long. Ex-cop and ex-cop show star Rydell is working security at an L.A. branch of a sinister Singapore-based convenience store. As the novel opens, the Lucky Dragon chain is fitting all their stores out with a wacko global link-up of solid matter “faxing” devices.

But Rydell gets kicked off his job and is recruited by Colin Laney to travel to San Francisco, the epicenter of whatever large event is crossing the horizon. San Francisco, and more specifically the Bay Bridge, damaged in a big quake to the degree it can't be driven upon, but has now been appropriated by legions of squatters as a brave new residential and retail world. It's a perfect image of one likely outcome of the growing chasm between American have and have-not culture.

Rydell makes it to San Francisco and becomes the custodian of a technological genie-in-a-bottle. Cody Harwood's already there. And on her way is Chevette Washington, onetime bike messenger and Berry Rydell's former lover. Then there's a nameless dream-haunted assassin. And Buell Creedmore, the wretched but talented reborn country music star. There's Idoru's Rei Toei, the Japanese virtual pop star. And seemingly zillions more. Synchronicity and planning are drawing a variety of desperate folks together. There's very much the feeling here of a Robert Altman kind of script.

All the players, all the action, all the cool details and fascinating surface textures are funneling down into the apparently inexorable advent of the Big Change Colin Laney senses. While the last portion of the novel does indeed swirl around a huge melodramatic set piece of fire and destruction, the actual Big Change arrives with a whimper rather than a bang. I suspect that's a calculated auctorial risk, and I think it works. Like any other good writer, William Gibson doesn't want to write the same book, till the same soil over and over in the same way. The ruts can get boring.

So All Tomorrow's Parties ultimately gives us a transformed future through hint and suggestion rather than bombast. Not everyone will like that. Fair enough. But I think it tonally fits Gibson's approach to his materials here, still giving us an Impressionist view of a complexly layered future world by utilizing the sensory filters of a whole repertory company of diverse characters.

The author claims his only regular magazine reading in science and technology is an organ of the materials fabrication industry. I can believe it. That could well explain the long-time Gibsonian love of adroitly covering his emotion-charged plot situations with a variety of materials, some glitzy with hypnotic lights and baubles, others more somber and textured. All Tomorrow's Parties suggests the latter.

The book closes with some astonishing suggestions, all quick, all provocative, all worthy of reflective consideration. The suggestion is implicit that should the author wish, his universe is wide open for another volume or more. And if he chooses not to, then certain mysteries will always remain fresh and, for some, irritating.

I mentioned the thought earlier that one of the book's characters suggests an incarnation of the author himself to me. That would, of course, be Colin Laney, the man who can immerse himself in the data flows and divine suggestions of what will happen next. I think William Gibson has always done that. He's not a techno-geek, though he now uses a computer (he didn't for Neuromancer). He knows the vocabulary of computer technology and recognizes the poetry of it. He has an astute magpie eye and mind for picking up the telling details and imagery of our world. He seems to have a good intuition for stitching together versions of those details and images in such a way that they appear to portend the future and bring it to life in his fiction. His is a universe more Mac than Windows.

In its own quiet, powerful way, All Tomorrow's Parties functions as a solid novel distinct from genre designations. SF? Well, sure. But it also reads like a contemporary novel of its own time and setting.

Proof that the post-modern doesn't have to be either arid or unintelligible.

Rudy Rucker (review date February 2003)

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SOURCE: Rucker, Rudy. “Logomancer.” Wired 11, no. 2 (February 2003): 64.

[In the following review, Rucker praises Pattern Recognition for its thematic scope and “the sensual pleasure of its language.”]

Science fiction has long been William Gibson's electric guitar—the instrument he uses to gain perspective, to transform life's ditties into anthems of transcendent strangeness. In Pattern Recognition, he goes acoustic, unplugging the overt sci-fi tropes that have marked his work and producing a mainstream product. He succeeds because our real world has such gnarly tech (Web surfing on a laptop with a Wi-Fi connection is functionally the same as jacking your brain into a cyberspace deck) and because his riffs make such a good read.

What Gibson gives us is an international spy thriller comparable to the slightly skewed tales of Jonathan Franzen or David Foster Wallace. His story's central McGuffin is a fragmentary, workstation-rendered romance movie known simply as The Footage. It consists of 100-odd supernally beautiful snippets of video that someone has anonymously posted on the Web. A rabid online cult has grown around the flick, and a Belgian advertising exec (with the improbable name of Hubertus Bigend) hires Cayce Pollard to find the maker. Bigend's goal: Tap into The Footage's primo street cred strategy for profit. The gig isn't unusual for a professional “cool hunter” like Pollard. Her job is to walk around cities, spot new trends, and advise advertising agencies and marketeers how best to commodify them. Indeed, she's so good at her job that she's literally allergic (read: fainting spells and sneezing fits) to overexposed trademarks. She can be reduced to jelly by a drawing of the Michelin Man. She clips the labels off all her clothes, even going so far as to grind down the Levi's logo on the metal buttons of her 501s. Mickey Mouse is just this side of tolerable.

Cool hunting, advertising, and marketing pervade Pattern Recognition—the book's acronym is PR, after all. Pollard “knows too much about the processes responsible for the way product is positioned in the world, and sometimes finds herself doubting that there is much else going on.” But The Footage is there to prove her wrong. The Web makes it possible for an independent artist to gain a global following for no commercial purpose whatsoever. Gibson exploits the inherent tension between the monoculture and the emergence of novelty. On one hand, the monoculture lives by assimilating originality. On the other, new art has nothing but the monoculture to launch itself from. It's one of the happy paradoxes of modern life.

Gibson pulls you in with big ideas that make solid material for word-of-mouth proselytizing. But Pattern Recognition's essential quality is the sensual pleasure of its language. Gibson has a knack for choosing—or coining—the right phrase. With a poet's touch, he tiles words into wonderful mosaics. An expressway is “Blade Runnered by half a century of use and pollution.” The Tokyo skyline is “a floating jumble of electric Lego, studded with odd shapes you somehow wouldn't see elsewhere, as if you'd need special Tokyo add-ons to build this at home.” Who needs sci-fi when you've got Japan? Gibson deftly taps the eccentricities of modern civilization to make our world look like an alien planet.

This ultracool sensibility lets Gibson tell us something new about the events of 9/11. In a flashback, we see the attack through Pollard's eyes: “It will be like watching one of her own dreams on television. Some vast and deeply personal insult to any ordinary notion of interiority. An experience outside of culture.” The blending of our interior and our exterior is an idea Gibson returns to again and again. Pattern recognition itself can morph into the disorder apophenia, “the spontaneous perception of connections and meaningfulness in unrelated things.” Which means that even when Pollard discovers The Footage's maker, it's an ambiguous—and potentially apophenic—resolution. Are the subtlest patterns we see really there? To Gibson, the most satisfying moments of our reality are possibly just reflections of our needs and dreams.

William Gibson and David L. Ulin (interview date 4 March 2003)

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SOURCE: Gibson, William, and David L. Ulin. “Present Worries in Future Tense.” Los Angeles Times (4 March 2003): E1.

[In the following interview, Gibson discusses Pattern Recognition within the context of American society after the terrorist attacks on the United States on September 11, 2001.]

The last year and a half have been difficult for fiction writers. How, after all, are they to provide, in Lionel Trilling's phrase, a “buzz of implication,” a sense of cultural context, when the entire idea of context is now up in the air?

Last March, at a symposium on post-Sept. 11 literature, one frustrated novelist framed this conundrum explicitly, bemoaning her inability to evoke the textures of daily living in a world where even the most trivial interactions could no longer be assured. How, this writer wondered, was she to re-create the present when the present could now be altered in an instant? How was she to continue working in fiction when events seemed to have passed fiction by?

Leave it to William Gibson to come up with a solution. In his new novel, Pattern Recognition, he writes explicitly about the world after Sept. 11, weaving the collapse of the World Trade Center—as both image and crisis point—into the fabric of his characters' lives. Pattern Recognition, with its story of Cayce Pollard, a 32-year-old “coolhunter” who stakes out subcultures for an advertising agency, suggesting ways in which the hip and the commercial might merge, is the first of Gibson's books to be set in the recognizable present, although it is less a contemporary novel than what we might call a science-fiction novel about contemporary life.

“I think of this book as very much like my other novels, but more overt,” the author says. “The scarf of imaginary futurity has been pulled off to reveal what's underneath, which has always been the unimaginable worrisome present.” As for why such a paradigm shift now seems necessary, perhaps the most cogent explanation comes from Hubertus Bigend, the elusive advertising executive who may or may not be Cayce's chief antagonist in the novel:

“Where we have been,” Bigend says, “is a fiction, subject to change. Where we are going, we don't know. Though we at least know that we don't know, which counts for something. … But the moment, our narrow and magnificent little now, that was restored to us when the towers fell. When they came crashing down, we blinked, and shivered, and were restored to the moment. Nothing, really, has been the same since.”

Gibson has made a career of identifying these blinks, these shivers—these “nodal points,” as he has called them—the collective flashes of transition that alter our culture in unexpected ways. In the Vancouver-based author's 1984 debut, Neuromancer, he coined the term “cyberspace” and helped dream the Internet into being, and like Cayce, he's always been a coolhunter, investigating territories inspired in equal measure by bohemia and technology, along the imaginative cutting edge.

With Pattern Recognition, however, he's effectively upped the ante—or maybe it's that the game has changed. “I had been in the early stages of this book for at least a year and a half when Sept. 11 arrived,” Gibson says. “And about three weeks afterward, when I went into my office and blew the dust off the computer, it struck me that something had happened that changed the meaning of everything, and either I had to abandon this book or do what I took to be the very scary and serious thing of going back to the beginning and starting again in light of what had happened.

“I had this very surreal, unpleasant, Kafkaesque sense of the world that I had been blithely telling interviewers was incomprehensible and catastrophic and terrifying—and suddenly it was. It was like the universe had called my bluff; something had happened that I couldn't get my head around. I felt like my science-fiction writer's head was screaming with the stretch to do so … and everybody else's was too.”

For all the implications of that statement, Gibson offers it up matter-of-factly, with the offhanded tone that has become a trademark of his work. At 55, brown hair thinning at the crown and eyes electric behind John Lennon-style glasses, he perches like an enormous praying mantis on the edge of an ancient sofa in the lobby of the Chateau Marmont, speaking in a high monotone that carries just the slightest trace of a Southern accent, left over from his boyhood in South Carolina and Virginia.

He's tall, angular, dressed in black jeans and an olive-green button shirt, cuffs fastened with a pair of playing-card cuff links. As he talks, he carves precise shapes in the air with his fingers, and in conversation, he often pauses or repeats a phrase as a kind of place holder, a way of retaining a listener's attention while he searches for the proper word.

That attention to detail, to the nuances of imagery and language, has always been one of Gibson's most essential attributes as a writer. From the now-iconic first sentence of Neuromancer—“The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel”—to the recently completed trilogy, Virtual Light,Idoru and All Tomorrow's Parties (in which, among other things, the San Francisco Bay Bridge has been transformed into an elaborate squatters' compound), his prose is vivid, crystalline, creating an environment that exists in three dimensions, beyond the borders of the page.

This, Gibson notes, was one of the challenges that led him to consider writing science fiction in the first place, the idea of creating a fully manifested imaginary world.

“When I had a good hard look at science fiction as an adult in the late '70s,” says Gibson, who had been a devoted reader of the genre, “one of the things I found lacking was specificity of language. I'd read short stories where nothing was described in detail, stories that often seemed to take place—as indeed does the entire ‘Star Trek’ universe—in what one could easily conceive to be a world of absolutely evolved communism, in which no one has a job, there are no brand names, no advertising. No logos. Gene Roddenberry's universe is like Danish socialism squared, and I wanted to go the other direction. I wanted to try for a kind of high naturalism, or a kind of noir naturalism, to make science fiction more mimetic, and that kind of writing became my technique, or my style.”

What makes such a style so compelling is its immediacy, its sense of reality, which allows Gibson's universe to seem less a matter of some invented future than an extrapolation of the present, “an alternate history.” This notion also runs throughout Pattern Recognition, which, as its title attests, is a book about connections, about taking the detritus of a suddenly unfamiliar landscape and piecing it into a world we understand.

Cayce, we learn early on, has lost her father, a former U.S. intelligence official, at the twin towers; he was last seen heading toward lower Manhattan on the morning of Sept. 11, and was never heard from again. His absence adds an undertone, a deepening, to his daughter's dislocation, a sensibility Gibson makes explicit by staging much of the novel's action in London, which the American-born Cayce refers to as a “mirror-world,” a real-time alternate universe in which not only is the slang, the terminology, different, but even the technology. (“The switch on Damien's Italian floor lamp feels alien,” Cayce reflects, “a different click, designed to hold back a different voltage, foreign British electricity.”)

This is heightened further by “the footage”—short, apparently related bits of film that appear at odd intervals on the Internet, and have spawned a hermetic subculture devoted to deciphering their meaning in discussion forums and chat rooms. “I'm fascinated,” Gibson says, “by how projection works in art and marketing, by ‘apophenia’ as Cayce's father calls it, the apprehension of patterns that may, in fact, not be there. We are so much the animal that recognizes patterns that we see them when they're not even there. I wondered about the people on the footage site, what they're projecting into what they've seen, how each of them is making his or her own film.”

In other words, the novel seems to be saying, we can't help but make our own meaning, even, or especially, if there is no apparent logic to what we see.

In many ways, this is the issue all of us are confronting as we try to navigate the open-ended layers of post-Sept. 11 life. These days, everyone has been cast into a mirror-world, where, as Don DeLillo once wrote, “Stories have no point if they don't absorb our terror,” and science fiction and reality have finally merged. “You know,” Gibson says, “on my last couple of book tours, I kept trying to make the point that I could write a novel set in the present and nobody would know the difference. It would have exactly the effect of my previous books. I was never sure if that was really the case. I didn't want to look at how much of a stretch it might be, but I finally called myself on it, with considerable misgivings, and decided that I would give it a try.”

In the end, Gibson realized, he needed to move beyond the universe he'd first staked out in Neuromancer. He needed to reorient himself as a fiction writer to allow himself to get caught up.

“It was very challenging,” he says. “It took longer than I thought. It would have taken longer, I think, without Sept. 11 to put the whammy to it. But I needed a baseline for present weirdness. I'd started with a baseline, really, for '80s weirdness, took the measure of the mid-'80s and headed into the future, and I'd been working from that for a long time.”

Bernadette Murphy (review date 4 March 2003)

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SOURCE: Murphy, Bernadette. “Whodunit Cloaks Issues of Marketing, Technology.” Los Angeles Times (4 March 2003): E11.

[In the following review, Murphy asserts that Pattern Recognition is both an intriguing mystery and a timely social commentary.]

Cayce Pollard is the cutting edge of contemporary culture. An uber-cool young urban woman, Cayce is able to recognize hip trends before they take off, thereby allowing her marketing clients to “commodify” those trends and reap abundant profits. “It's about group behavior pattern around a particular class of object,” Cayce explains in William Gibson's Pattern Recognition, an intriguing novel of technology, art, marketing manipulation and mystery.

“I try to recognize a pattern before anyone else does,” Cayce explains, and then “I point a commodifier at it.”

There are two particular developments, though, that Cayce can't decipher. First, the whereabouts of her father, a security expert with possible ties to the CIA who went missing in New York on Sept. 11. She can't pin down what he was doing in the city that day and where he might have been at the fateful hour. Did he perish in the tragedy or simply disappear?

And what, exactly, is the story behind the anonymous footage that's been popping up on the Web?

Cayce, we learn, is a “footagehead,” one of a group of fanatics obsessed with a series of video clips that have begun to show up on the Internet. The footageheads gather in an online conference to watch and track each segment as it appears, spending hours in cyberspace debating the footage's possible creator, and whether the film is a work in progress or a completed narrative simply awaiting a perceptive arrangement of its pieces, like a jigsaw puzzle whose shape is known to the creator alone. (The segments have appeared in what seems to be a random order, telling no particular story but offering such compelling images that people become hooked on trying to figure out how it all fits together.)

The footage offers Cayce a respite from brand names and iconographic images in the world of trend forecasting and marketing, since the footage's two main characters offer no clues via fashion or hairstyle as to their location or era: “He might be a sailor, stepping onto a submarine in 1914, or a jazz musician entering a club in 1957,” Gibson writes of one of the characters. “There is a lack of evidence, an absence of stylistic cues, that Cayce understands to be utterly masterful.”

In these cinematic segments, Cayce glimpses a world more real, perhaps, than the actual world she knows, and wants nothing more than to see the whole film. Yet the “one hundred and thirty-four previously discovered fragments, having been endlessly collated, broken down, reassembled, by whole armies of the most fanatical investigators, have yielded no period and no particular narrative direction.”

The irony is that Cayce, for all her edginess and market savvy, is allergic, if you will, to branding and feels physically ill when confronted by logos, billboards and marketing displays. She cuts all labels off her clothing and belongings, and must work to isolate herself from offending images lest they make her sick. (The flip side of this allergy is her ability to know, on first sight, whether a new logo design will be a hit—a talent that garners her great money and acclaim.

Cayce travels to London to assess a new footwear logo, and it is there that the three compartmentalized strands of her life—her interest in the footage, her need to learn what happened to her father and her trend-spotting profession—will collide in a sophisticated whodunit that is as fresh and literary as one could hope to find.

Blue Ant, the company that has hired Cayce to consider a client's logo, asks her to find the footage's creator so the firm can use this new way of gaining worldwide recognition for its own commercial ends.

Gibson (author of Neuromancer and other sci-fi works, as well as the individual credited with coining the word “cyberspace”) succeeds in bringing to light the subtle and sometimes frightening aspects of today's Internet culture. Pattern Recognition works compellingly on two levels: As an intriguing mystery with delicious vigor and bite, the novel lures readers into unfamiliar provinces and unforeseen situations to solve the problem at hand. On a deeper level, the tale is a social commentary, taking a long, hard look at the monoculture in which we live: “whatever it is that gradually makes London and New York feel more like each other, that dissolves the membranes between mirror-worlds.”

Combining old-fashioned storytelling techniques with a recognition of yet-to-be-defined patterns, Gibson's tale is a robust inquiry into the many (and often veiled) ways that marketing shapes the world in which we live.


William Gibson Short Story Criticism