“A thing of random human accretion, monstrous and superb”

Idoru is a return to William Gibson’s stylish preoccupation with dense cityscapes, something that had been set aside in favor of the chaotic earthiness of the shantytown of The Bridge in Virtual Light. The novel is set in a near-future Tokyo, which has been partially reconstructed via nanotechnology following a massive earthquake. One of the most engaging elements of Gibson’s fiction has always been a sense of atmosphere, and his affection for Tokyo manifests through the constantly-shifting backdrop of bars, hotels, arcades and general streetlife of the deeply-urbanized megacity.
Tokyo itself has a reputation for being something of an aesthetic science fiction wonderland. By capturing some of its natural strangeness, Gibson is able to use it as an exploration of his most commonly-recurring theme: the unexpected ways that ideas develop or are adapted into completely new phenomena. Throughout Idoru we have, for example, one bar which preserves the post-apocalyptic atmosphere of the city post-quake and another, Kafka-themed, complete with insectile bar stools and bruised inmate waitresses. Tokyo itself, its new buildings “grown” out of the rubble of the old through nanotechnology, is itself a metaphor for the ways that modernity re-appropriates and recontextualizes original meanings. Modern life is not directed; it simply grows, often in complex and unintended directions. Society and technology do not meld seamlessly; they tangle into each other and emerge like some sort of Cronenbergian mutant.
The plot of Idoru concerns rumors that Rez, an aging rock star, wishes to marry Rei Toei, a Japanese virtual idol – the titular Idoru, a megacelebrity singer that is entirely a software construct. Rei inhabits the virtual world, drawing experience from the well of all available human information. This, the novel implies, allows Rei to remain relevant, to analyze the currents and patterns of human culture and so maintain celebrity indefinitely. The marriage of Rez and Rei Toei is a bridging between the abstract density of data and the singular experience of wealth and celebrity leading towards some new creation: an organic personification of all available human experience. “Popular culture … is the testbed of our futurity,” Rei’s human handlers explain. “If there were going to be genuine AI, the argument ran, it was most likely to evolve in ways that had least to do with pretending to be human … AI might be created accidentally, and … people might not initially recognize it for what it was.” The post-modern suggestion, here, is that in creating a believable celebrity, the software engineers have inadvertently created something which by necessity has become organic, conscious life.
It’s impossible to talk about Gibson’s work without also addressing the moments of prescience within. Gibson himself points out that his moments of imaginative creation were meant to address what he himself observed in the increasingly fracturing modern world. Yet at the center of the novel lies the Walled City – a distributed virtual environment modeled after Kowloon Walled City which functions as a sort of off-the-grid hacker commune. It is the digital equivalent of The Bridge – a virtual deadzone re-appropriated by the computing underground. Gone completely, here, is the romance of Neuromancer‘s hacker community; Walled City is a community not of criminals but one defined by its independence, its removal from corporate powers of influence. It’s a prophetic examination of emerging issues of internet neutrality, a sort of virtual micronation, and eventually the only place within which the Idoru, Rei, is free to realize total organic growth.

“Something amorphous, startlingly organic;” Virtual Light

Virtual Light is, in many ways, the first really singular work of William Gibson, having broken with the romantic futurist stylings of his earlier novels while introducing recognizably modern weirdnesses into his fiction. Instead of the vast cityscapes of Neuromancer, we have a slum built atop an unstable Bay Bridge. We have out-of-work rentacops and bicycle messengers instead of hackers and street mercenaries. Gibson has stated that his move away from the high-tech “cyberpunk” motifs of his earlier novels was necessary in order to examine the pervasive weirdness already happening outside his window. Virtual Light, as such, is set in a then-slightly-in-the-future California, which has bifurcated into two very different states. The glimpses we have of America reveal a society fracturing into creative weirdnesses: a religious cult that studies television, immigrant homicide detectives hired to counter their own national mafias, high-end retail shops that sell antique Southern racist memorabilia to wealthy South Central minorities with a sense of irony. The dystopia of the novel is one of class and economics – the middle class has liquified and the street has since found its own use for an abandoned Bay Bridge as a shantytown for the city’s homeless. Virtual Light contains the familiar downtrodden bottom-class on the edge of dystopia but, instead of the high-tech nightlands of Neuromancer, the residents of The Bridge operate coffee shops and booksellers. They recycle water and trade goods and services. They get by, and there’s a sense – for once, amidst all of fiction’s dystopic predictions – that maybe this is not such a bad thing.

The Bridge is a patchwork of improvisation. It’s organic and unplanned, teeming with the warmth of human adaptation. Every addition and modification of the structure resounds with its creators’ personalities. It contrasts the rigid, grid-like world of San Francisco’s commercial sector. The plot of the novel concerns plans for a city-wide transformation into the sort of towering, sterile corporate arcology typical to something from Neuromancer. Gibson’s first three novels, the Sprawl trilogy, depicted enormous urbanized environments as large beyond reason, defined by their anonymous massiveness, but it does not seem to comment as to whether or not this is necessarily bad for the human condition (though we can infer, on our own, the significance of the Sprawl’s obsession with wealth, its teeming criminal underground, the high human price of technology). Yet in Virtual Light, Gibson clearly has affection for the underclass resisting that kind of assimilation and urbanization. The Bridge is the only community in the novel truly connected with itself, a self-sustained ecosystem in which services are traded and in which a police force does not exist. The horror of the novel’s re-development plan is that the new city, which will “just grow” via nanotechnology, is completely planned and compartmentalized, unfeeling and indifferent. It is data and corporate commerce and not a human city at all.

William Gibson has stated that Virtual Light is “an attempt at literary naturalism” and that the two protagonists are “more like most people than most people are like those console cowboys and razor girls in Neuromancer”. Appropriately, both Chevette and Rydell spend the novel worrying about their jobs. Chevette is a bicycle messenger who doesn’t live well, but the opportunity of the job itself is enough. Rydell has gone through stints as a police officer and with private security but, not being good at anything in particular, is now considering a position in retail. Tellingly, this is in contrast to Neuromancer‘s cyber-criminals and high-tech mercenaries. In a novel concerned with the organic warmth of human habitation, the characters here are sympathetic non-cartoons, and we feel through them the alien-ness of these information-dense, wealth-saturated and abstract ideals of high corporate commerce, worried as they are with getting by. They cannot afford ideology. The sentiment, here, is that actual human beings are too busy with day-to-day life to worry about artificial intelligences and information systems so prevalent to Gibson’s science fiction works.

Personally, I’ve been living on the move for the past year. I have no set residence, no long-term employment. Nothing is certain and, in a way, it’s liberating; I can discard all the superfluous economic dressing of the suburban past. But the romance of backpacking can never completely remove any worries I have about what will happen when I have to go back. What will happen when I have no choice but to return to a society that is rapidly destabilizing? I recently found Virtual Light to be newly relevant (I had always preferred the stylish Idoru), centered as it is on The Bridge as a self-sustaining near-utopia bereft of ideals but instead a place of practical, communal beauty. I think that The Bridge approaches the thematic core of Gibson’s work, which are the surprising intersections between ideal and reality. The Bridge is a place “around [which] had grown another reality, intent upon its own agenda. This had occurred piecemeal, to not set plan, employing every imaginable technique and material. The result was something amorphous, startlingly organic.” It’s fictional ancestor, after all, is the antique space station inhabited by Rastafarians, refitted with hydroponics and stereo speakers in Neuromancer. Gibson is something of a post-modern author because all of his works address the dissonance between an ideal as something abstract and distant, and reality, which appropriates meaning for functional practicality and, in doing so, creates new meanings. As much as he hates the “cyberpunk” label, the “-punk” suffix is appropriate, since his works actively resist the urbanization or plasticization of human experience and the gentrification of beautiful, human spontaneity. Science fiction may have been the most efficient vehicle for exploring these strange dichotomies, but there remains an underlying human tenderness in Gibson’s novels as they explore the unexpected ways that cultures develop and adapt around the material intrusions of modern life. “San Francisco has about much sense of where it wants to go, of where it should go, as you do. Which is to say, very little,” Virtual Light’s antagonist states; but this is fine. The idea of life is to end up in unexpected places.

“An architecture of broken dreams”: Burning Chrome and the Gibson Marathon

Since the backpacking lifestyle doesn’t involve work or any major responsibilities, I took it upon myself to get ahold of all of William Gibson’s work with the idea that I would read it all through, in chronological order. I finished the first three books – the Sprawl trilogy – and, unsurprisingly, got worn out of the idea and went looking for something else to read. I’d read those first three novels maybe three or four times now, and I think that I’ve gotten everything out of them that I ever will. Neuromancer is always great, because it doesn’t really sound like a science fiction novel sounded up to that point – you can hear how much of the paranoid 70’s counterculture Gibson had taken in by then (and he cites Robert Stone’s excellent Dog Soldiers, specifically, when talking about major influences).

Gibson  admits that he had not been ready to write an entire novel when he wrote Neuromancer, but he got it to work. Upon reading Count Zero, the follow-up, it almost feels like he got lucky the first time out. Not much about this novel still interests me. Enough has been said about how well Neuromancer described the increasing presence of technology and the looming influence of corporations in the 1980’s, but I feel that Count Zero not only brought nothing new to the table, it also fell victim to all of the cliche trappings of the cyberpunk genre. And even if cyberpunk hadn’t yet calcified into a silly catalogue of genre conventions by the time of Count Zero‘s publication, this novel certainly lays them out: the primary antagonist is a corporate head who has become so wealthy that he lives in a suspended state of undeath, and his wealth has become so immense that he himself exists as an abstract corporate idea.

I mean, to be fair, there are a few things here that are still interesting: Marly, the art dealer, is an unusual character to find in a science fiction novel, and the idea of the authenticity of art in an increasingly artificial world is an under-appreciated idea. But I think that this was easy for Gibson, who finds this sort of thing more interesting (thankfully) than being “a science fiction writer.” I think that the success of Neuromancer was so surprising that Gibson got caught up with it and wrote a novel that, at least in part, he consciously thought would build on the successful science-fiction elements of the the novel, because he still had those doubts about his own ability. Mona Lisa Overdrive was an improvement, but it still doesn’t grab me like it used to.

I think that I took a month-long break because it was the first time that I realized that these novels, which have been my favorites since those teenage years in which I discovered good science fiction, could actually be flawed. Which is something that we eventually realize with everything; you can never go back to that feeling of being totally swept up in the discovery of something. I remember the following three novels – the Bridge trilogy – as being those which really exhibit Gibsons’ strengths describing the shifting weirdness of modern life without the sci-fi dressing.

I wanted to go back to Burning Chrome before moving on. I think that I passed over this collection of short stories because they lacked the polish of his more refined novels (while I know that some of these stories were written earlier than the novels, I’m a little rough on the order of most of them). And I really like most of them, this time around. Fragments of a Hologram Rose is pretty forgettable, as is Johnny Mnemonic, which everyone likes to remember how horrible its movie adaptation was.

The central draw, here, is The Gernsback Continuum. It’s atypical, as it isn’t a stylized science-fiction story – it’s set in the early-80’s – but it’s the ur-Gibson work, as well as a mission statement of sorts. The story is about a photographer locating leftover ‘raygun gothic’ architecture – the 1930s’ shiny-metal-rocketcars and cloud-cities aesthetic that represents a pre-war obsession with a future that would never happen.  They’re a “dreamworld, abandoned in the uncaring present” – these relics are always found in worn-out strip malls, obsolete and forgotten. The photographer eventually hallucinates entire cities and cars, in the distance, having somehow tapped into the psychic residue, “semiotic phantoms” of a past “mass unconscious”.

This is the central theme, I think, of all of Gibson’s work: the distance between preoccupations with an idealized future and the unexpected realities of a present which contains all these stratified layers of ‘past futures’, stacked up all around us. The American visual landscape is littered with the physical remnants of what everyone wanted the future to look like at any given time. Fashion and design trends exist as aesthetics of an ideal being projected into the future which only reflect the culture from which that aesthetic originates. When cyberpunk became a fashion subculture it became the best example of this process: it attempted to describe the near future of dense urban environments, completely buried by technology and information commerce. But it looks and feels exactly like the future only if the 80’s never ended. It’s a future of omnipresent VHS decks and floppy disks, and it missed the point of an information society because it inevitably focused on window dressing.

The past decade of William Gibson’s fiction has been pointedly non-science-fiction because, he maintains, the present day has become so strange and unpredictable and develops in such interesting ways that it is now useless try to describe what the future may look like. It is useful only to describe this post-modern feeling that there is no inherent meaning, no predestined future ideal, towards which society progresses. This is all anticipated in The Gernsback Continuum; that raygun gothic style, that longing for a future of shark-finned tube-cars and crystal city spires, becomes grotesque as an aesthetic ideology which failed to anticipate the horrors of the Second World War, or Vietnam, or of the meaningless modern age. To the story’s main character, who has been through the roller coaster of the counterculture and the cynicism of the 70’s, these apparitions – these realizations of a past-future fantasy – are more terrifying than an uncertain reality. Because, I think, a designed future – a reality designed by idealists of the past – is the worst kind of predestination; it is one that has no relation to the circumstances of reality. It is the opposite of the modern world that Gibson describes as having no inherent meaning, no linear connection of cause and effect.

It’s easy to forget that the ‘punk’ suffix of cyberpunk did once have a practical meaning. Gibson and that generation of writers rejected the romantic sentimentality and moral polarities of Heinlein and Asimov, who represented the ideological exceptionalism of the industrialists that were eventually responsible for Vietnam. Cyberpunk was a protest which took inspiration from Dick and Delaney and Ballard and adopted their experimental forms of science fiction to address the fragmented and hallucinatory substance of reality.

Golden Age-era science fiction has this notion that the future looks shiny and new and that everything is clean surfaces, a-la 2001. But the central subversion in Gibson’s work is that there is always this fascination with old architecture and antiques, the ghostly remnants of the past – and junk. Gibson famously said, in this collection, that the ‘street finds its own uses for things’ and that nothing, in the stylized future, is still used for its original purpose.

I think that The Gernsback Continuum, while adopting that same attitude of rejecting the Golden Age of Science Fiction’s disconnected optimism, was an instinctive early moving-away from typical science fiction form. It’s a subversive move away from an already subversive form, and it’s the strongest piece in the collection. I really enjoy Hinterlands and The Winter Market in a way that I enjoy really human science fiction stories, but I think that if Gibson’s entire career sprung from those stories alone, we wouldn’t be talking about him today. Gernsback is the moment that we realize, from a historical perspective, why Gibson became so important, and not just a genre pioneer. There’s a strength to a science fiction writer that can cover the same territory without having to write science fiction.