Did William Gibson invent cyberspace? Sure, we’d have all the technologies and platforms regardless, but what would we have called it if he hadn’t named it already in 1986?
William Gibson (1948) is an American fiction novelist and essayist whose career began in 1977 with the publication of his short story ‘Fragments of a Hologram Rose’ in the science-fiction journal Unearth. He was born in South Carolina into what he considered a fairly unremarkable ‘monoculture’ and lost both parents early in life. Gibson became immersed in the counterculture of the late 60s and 70s and told his draft interviewers that he honestly had intended to try every mind-altering substance known to man. He spent years adrift in the relative wilderness, sometimes homeless, before the simple beauty of being commissioned to write a novel — with a deadline — shocked him into writing Neuromancer in the early 80s.
Neuromancer (1984) signalled Gibson’s emergence as a serious writer, although it very nearly didn’t. After watching the first parts of the now-legendary film Bladerunner (1982) and having already written a third of Neuromancer, he thought the novel was ‘done for.’ He subsequently re-wrote the first two-thirds of the book twelve times. What he produced became a genre-defining piece of science fiction.
Before Neuromancer’s release in 1984, Gibson’s stories appeared in sci-fi journals in 1977. But the term cyberspace was first used in his short story compilation Burning Chrome (1986). As a pioneer of the cyberpunk genre, he not only invented the term cyberspace but also collaborated with Bruce Sterling in establishing the steampunk sub-genre in The Difference Engine (1990).
Gibson has earned a reputation as a super sharp writer. He doesn’t waste a single word in his characterisations of post-industrial society, postmodern consumer culture, capitalism, and the digital age. There are no happy endings in Gibson’s novels, only mystifying, yet satisfying outcomes. The characters are vivid and real, including the AIs. He saw the internet and the world wide web, augmented reality, and virtual reality before they existed. He saw data trails and even wrote about metadata in 1996.
Neuromancer has since sold around six million copies. Two more novels, Count Zero (1986) and Mona Lisa Overdrive (1988), completed this first ‘trilogy’. ‘Trilogy’ is just a term used to group the novels together in the same universe rather than being interdependent narratives. In the tech-noir Sprawl trilogy, right and wrong are unclear, and characters are mostly irredeemably flawed. ‘The Sprawl’ is a dark and dirty world where endgame capitalism has transformed culture into a brutally chaotic mash-up of technology, money, media, and vice. The opening line of Neuromancer sums it up: “The sky above the port was the colour of television, tuned to a dead channel”.
His second trilogy, the so-called Bridge trilogy, consists of Virtual Light (1993), Idoru (1996) and All Tomorrows Parties (1999). In this world, Gibson turns his gaze away from corporations and AI to the mass media cults of personality in a more matter-of-fact way.
The next trilogy (sometimes known as the Blue Ant trilogy) begins with Pattern Recognition (2003) and continues with Spook Country (2007) and Zero History (2010). Set in a contemporary universe, they mark a shift to realist fiction which finally saw Gibson hit the mainstream best-seller lists.
Finally, we reach The Peripheral (2014). Gibson effortlessly blends alternate reality with pop-culture and the far-future. It’s a wild ride with insanely relatable characters and scenes twisted just the right way: not dystopian but not nice. He followed this up with Agency (2020) which begins in a contemporary setting, then gets mixed up in the same mysterious world as The Peripheral.
Gibson has written several film screenplays and television episodes. He wrote an early script for Alien 3. Only some of the elements made it to the movie. He released a comic/graphic novel Archangel in 2017 and there is chatter around Neuromancer being made into a film.
He has also been an active essayist, commentator, and journalist, releasing a compilation of non-fiction writing and journalism called Distrust That Particular Flavour in 2012. Gibson’s incisive writing includes famous pieces like Disneyland With The Death Penalty: a 1993 essay about Singapore that resulted in Wired magazine then being banned from the country.
It’s easy to suggest that William Gibson has been predicting the digital future for decades but don’t call him a futurist. In a 2007 interview with ‘The Tyee’ he said, “Only charlatans say they really know the future” but he’s happy to sit near the futurist ‘tent’ raising questions.
His work is essential reading if you like to ask questions. Agency is the latest example of Gibson’s ability to find the bleeding edge of contemporary culture and ask gripping questions. You don’t always get the answers you’d expect. Agency was released early 2020 and you can get it at bookstores everywhere.
Today, Gibson continues to poke at establishments. He’s active on Twitter as @GreatDismal and revels in using technology as a prop to explore the humanity we see around us every day. Gibson won’t be pinned down to any one platform or genre and remains a prolific cultural icon.