William Gibson Contemporary Criticism - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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. 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.

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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,...

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William Gibson and Larry McCaffery (interview date 1986)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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John Sladek (review date 12 May 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Lance Olsen (essay date fall 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Claire Sponsler (essay date winter 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Paul Alkon (essay date 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Ronald Schmitt (essay date spring 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Rob Latham (review date July 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Richard Ryan (review date 26 August 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Peter Schwenger (essay date fall 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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John Lanchester (review date 3 October 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Frederic Tuten (review date 17 October 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Lance Olsen (review date spring 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Randy Schroeder (essay date July 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Manohla Dargis (review date July 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Tom Moylan (essay date fall 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Charles Shaar Murray (review date 11 October 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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John Clute (review date 27 October 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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N. Katherine Hayles (essay date 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Ross Farnell (essay date November 1998)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 10631 words.)

Edward Bryant (review date December 1999)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 1307 words.)

Rudy Rucker (review date February 2003)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 668 words.)

William Gibson and David L. Ulin (interview date 4 March 2003)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 1645 words.)

Bernadette Murphy (review date 4 March 2003)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 786 words.)

Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


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...

(The entire section is 346 words.)