Your first book is a classic that essentially creates the modern era, or at least that’s what people are saying. What do you do for an encore? In the case of William Gibson, you can just follow the same interests in a different form.
Gibson’s famous debut, Neuromancer, was published in 1984. Along with inventing the word “cyberspace”, it used the whole “the street finds its own uses for technology” theme in some rather memorable interludes. The book tells the story of how an AI wants to cut its bonds, and hires a bunch of criminals to free it from its corporate and regulatory overlords. Strangely, it reads in just as groundbreakingly a manner as it must have at its release, nearly 30 years ago.
The thing was, Gibson didn’t seem particularly interested in delivering more of the same, despite the two immediate sequels. His books grew gradually less future-ish, until 2003’s Pattern Recognition, which was not about the future at all, but the past. Spook Country, Gibson’s most recent book, continued the same trend in 2007. The two books are miles away from the famous cyberpunk atmosphere of Neuromancer. Miles behind the early classic, to the grumpy science fiction fan hoping for another concentrated dose of “what’s-to-come”.
Such a grumpy attitude, however, misses out on the straight line that runs from Neuromancer to the latest two books. What are the connections between the early classic and recent entries? At least two things:
- The job
- Precision of effect in writing (with a subset: fashion/branding)
The whole idea of getting a group of professionals together to run a job can be found in almost all of Gibson’s books. Whether those professionals are hackers, the military, or branding experts, it’s the notion of a task that’s nearly insurmountable in its difficulty, and the only way the case will be cracked is with the application of an oddball assortment of people who are the best at what they do. Also, just damaged enough to need the job, but not too damaged to run it. Generally, this is rather noir in flavour; in other words, those involved are more the criminal or down-and-out or shell-shocked. In Pattern Recognition, one of the jobs is to track down the person or persons behind enigmatic bits of footage scattered across the internet – not necessarily criminal. In Spook Country, the job is not revealed, in its entirety, until the very end (if memory serves), so I won’t reveal it here. In Neuromancer, we know the nature of the gig early on, but the consequences are not spelled out immediately.
The second element: Gibson’s prose. Again, this is heavily noirish. The later books feel smoothed out in this regard, compared to the early books. Yet all books share that particularly noir ability to use flourishes of language yet keep the action flowing. Gibson may launch into a techno-fetishistic account of hacking instead of an epic disquisition on blondes and femme fatales, yet the modus operandi is the same and Gibson makes it work. The pace is fast, yet the language is sharp and verges on the poetic. Anyone who thinks something like that is easy should just try it. Neither science fiction nor hard-boiled detective stories are easy genres to write in, and Gibson is one of the hardest workers of them all.
As a subset of the prose, I would also mention fashion. In the sense of trendiness, or the way that branding insinuates itself into day-to-day life as a cultural signifier, or… it’s hard to describe, but I think it’s the way that a certain precision of effect can only be achieved by digging deeply into the intersection between culture and commerce, between the inner life and the markings of the worldly apparatus. Gibson can go heavy on the character motivation, just as he can describe company names from the future, fashionable clothes, even the design of an orbiting pleasure satellite (one of the memorable bits from Neuromancer). And again, this all happens in storylines that don’t let up on the accelerator.
For this notion of branding, I would point to Pattern Recognition rather than Spook Country. The main character in Pattern Recognition is a “branding consultant” and she has an unerring eye for trends and patterns. When I went from this book back to Neuromancer, the obsession with a certain precision of brand leaps off the page. That of course is a small part of how careful Gibson is with language.
Coming back to Neuromancer gave me a much greater appreciation for Gibson’s recent books. Yes, they are much different, much lighter on the scientific/cultural speculation, but it’s interesting to have a science fiction eye turned on the present day.
I’ve been thinking about the career progression of some of my favourite authors, as I grow (a bit) older myself. Sometimes it’s easy to draw a line through a bibliography, and say, “This is what I see.” In the case of Kim Stanley Robinson, it was sense of place. Anybody else have some observations to share?