Growing Up in William Gibson’s World

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One of my favorite lines ever, “The future’s dead, fundamentally,” comes from the opening song off of the Manic Street Preachers’ 1996 album, Everything Must Go. Granted, it is followed by another one of my favorite lines, “It’s so fucking funny, it’s absurd,” but the fatalist call to arms is in line with the trajectory I’ve always seen the world going in. I like to imagine things are getting better, but I’ve never been given enough proof to really think they are; realistically, the future’s fucked, fundamentally, but “dead” works too.

I hate to sound like a cynic or a nihilist. Forgive me; I was born in that gray area that might make me a member of Generation X but also Generation Y. I made it through the duration of Reagan’s administration and grew up on the Internet. I get nostalgic for the 1980s because I was too young to hate the decade, and I pine for the 1990s because that’s when I came of age. Yet at some point between then and now, the future became cluttered with old junk and tomorrow started becoming today. I don’t mean to sound like an undergraduate philosophy major, but I recently realized my mental image of “The Future” was mostly influenced by the work of William Gibson, whose birthday is today, and his breakout novel, Neuromancer, which turns 30 this July. That means my future is about to turn 30. My future is out of its prime.

Much has been written about Gibson as a “prophet,” and his creation of the term “Cyberspace” is also well documented. He remains ingrained in our cultural consciousness — like a computer program that’s taken on a life of its own, embedding itself into the mainframe — because Gibson blew minds when he first broke and continues to get things right. When I think of Gibson’s world, specifically the 1984 book that launched his career, I also see its influences: J.G. Ballard, Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (and the 1982 film adaptation, Blade Runner), John Carpenter’s Escape From New York, Thomas Pynchon, punk, and William Burroughs. You toss all of those things into a pot, stir, and you get Gibson. Yet after Neuromancer, Gibson’s signature was hard to miss, adopted and interpreted by other artists and thinkers; his vision of the near-future is the one people went with because it was so terribly plausible. His opening line, “The sky above the port was the color of television, turned to a dead channel,” was the hue in which we saw our near-future.

Maybe it’s because I’m so drawn to the themes explored in his work, but from books to film (and even music, with the first Deltron 3030 album featuring Del the Funky Homosapien rapping, “Neuromancer, perfect blend of technology and magic”), I’ve seen Gibson everywhere. Take some of Jonathan Lethem’s writing, and even Gibson’s undeniable imprint on movies like Hackers and The Matrix trilogy. His main themes are consistent: technology is good, but it can turn on us; we create a lot of things, but we also thoughtlessly throw a lot of things out. Life might not exactly resemble the world we read about in Neuromancer, but then again, it isn’t really science fiction if the author doesn’t give some sense of what could be.

What did happen, and what could still happen, in the post-Neuromancer world, is a long and possibly boring discussion. Naysayers could argue that it’s just fiction and those of us who put too much stock into a writer’s works are just hopeless dorks who need to get out from behind our laptop screens. Yet that’s the thing: when we’re looking at our iPhones, downloading this and that, sharing things on our clouds, worrying about hackers stealing our information, laughing about Jeff Bezos getting his drones ready to deliver after we one-click an order, what we do have, and are experiencing, is cyberspace. It’s the term that Gibson coined, and the “consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators, in every nation” that Jack Womack claims Gibson actually created in the afterword to the 2000 paperback republication of the book. Obviously Womack didn’t mean to say that Gibson created the programs, laid the cables, and built the machinery that gets us online, but he had an idea as to how this could all play out long before you were dialing up to get into an AOL chatroom.

Is Gibson a prophet? I don’t know. I was taught that prophets had one name like Abraham, Miriam, Isaiah, or Zechariah. Do I think the writers and thinkers that he is related to, in a sense, from H. G. Wells to futurists like Ray Kurzweil, have written very important books that also clarify possibilities and meanings embedded in technology? Yes, absolutely. But Gibson is in a different place, because as a fiction writer whose early works are largely speculative, he’s been able to watch the future unfold in a manner not far from his predictions. He might not be happy to admit it, but there’s a reason Gibson’s work, especially his Cyberpunk fiction (although I find his more recent work and essays to be just as indispensable), is so worshiped and critiqued by thinkers and idolized by contemporary novelists (see: recent post-apocalyptic noir novels like Adam Sternberg’s Shovel Ready and Nathan Larson’s Dewey books): William Gibson had an idea of what the future looked like, and we’re all just playing catch-up.