I have been known to say that William Gibson is arguably the most important author of the past 30 years. That’s a mouthful of an assertion, especially since we’re talking about a genre writer, I know. But even if I’m wrong, I’m not off by much. The man who more or less invented Cyberpunk, then abandoned it as quickly as he defined it, did more than simply alter the direction of science fiction, he literally helped shape the computing and Internet landscape as we know it today. That’s pretty big doings for a guy who had never so much as played with a computer before he wrote his first novel.
This story we’ve heard before, but here’s the Reader’s Digest version for those late to the party. Gibson’s Neuromancer (the first novel to ever win the SF triple crown – the Hugo, the Nebula, and the Philip K. Dick awards) introduced us to cyberspace, a “consensual hallucination” in which humans used computers to navigate around the global online network. He imagined it as an immense, three-dimensional virtual space, and as his “Cyberspace Trilogy” (Neuromancer, Count Zero, Mona Lisa Overdrive) unfolded, we also encountered killer viruses, psychic online projections of humans whose flesh was being kept technically alive in protein baths out in meatspace, and even artificial life forms that had evolved from advanced artificial intelligences created by powerful corporate interests.
He used the money he made from that novel to purchase a computer, his first. He has talked about how disappointed he was in it. That’s it? That’s all it does?
There’s a profound lesson in Gibson’s experience. We live in a culture where, sadly, we too often assume that you have to have significant experience to innovate a given field. Where creativity and insight are presumed to be a function of familiarity. Well, this can be the case, certainly, but it’s also true that knowledge of a subject can be a limiter. The more we know about what can and can’t be done, the more likely we are to restrict our thinking to what is feasible, to what is “possible.”
It’s sometimes worth remembering that those who architected the earliest of Europe’s great cathedrals had never been in anything quite so grand as what they dreamed of. DaVinci designed all kinds of machinery for which the world in which he lived offered no precedent whatsoever. And while MTV has evolved into something of a disappointment, in its early days it was relentlessly innovative. How did they do it? Well, the story goes that they went out of their way to hire people with no experience because they didn’t want the channel to be defined by people who knew “how it was done.” Innovation, in their view, was boosted when people didn’t realize what wasn’t possible.
We now know that a generation of computer engineers and designers, the people who literally built the Internet, envisioned the Web, dreamed the future of personal computing and gaming, many of these people had read Gibson and his imagination, unencumbered by the text-based limitations of the Commodore 64, served as an important resource as they set about crafting the electronic world in which we now live.
Gibson also deserves credit for another huge achievement: he saw, early on, that science fiction was a dead genre. (Calm down, let me explain what I mean by that.)
One of his early, landmark short stories was entitled “The Gernsback Continuum.” Hugo Gernsback, publisher of Amazing Stories, is sometimes called the “father of science fiction” because of his importance in helping the genre develop in the early and mid part of the 20th century. (It is for him that the prestigious Hugo Award is named.) What Gibson is poking at, in the story, are the precepts of the golden age of SF, the era of the god-scientist, of utopian futurism where the technologist holds the key to solving society’s ills. Flying cars, food pills, interstellar travel, and alien worlds that conformed to the demands of rational thought instead of the messiness of, well, actual humans. It was nerd lit of the highest order, and it was attended by both a pronounced design ethic (think about The Jetsons here) and a slavish concern with technical plausibility. A writer could make things up, of course – there wasn’t exactly a lot of tested hard science surrounding time travel in 1950 – but he (it was nearly always a he) was obliged to hew as close to what was actually known as possible. Speculation was great, but it must proceed from actual science.
The Gernsback Continuum, then, was Gibson’s way of characterizing the age of Hard SF. And he perceived, acutely enough, that Hard SF was in trouble. In 1950, the state of science was such that it was relatively simple to distinguish between what was possible and what was impossible – that is, between the present and the future. But Gibson understood that the future was gaining, as it were. As the curve describing technological advance grew more and more vertical, the lag time between today and tomorrow was shrinking.
Gibson addressed this dynamic in a couple of ways. First off, he abandoned technical plausibility. You can read the Cyberspace Trilogy backward and forward as many times as you like and you’ll not find any of the standard trappings of Hard SF. This was most decidedly not your father’s Asimov. He described how cyberspace looked and his writing certainly put you in the cockpit as Case approached that mountain of black ice, but he didn’t much care if you understood the nuts and bolts of how it all worked. It was Internet sci-fi without any coding whatsoever.
Instead, Gibson devoted his attentions to cultural plausibility. You might not know how a cyberdeck worked, but you had a pretty clear sense of how the politics and the economy were set up. Black and gray markets and DIY economies emerging from the poverty of the streets? Check. Rampant urban sprawl? Check. Uber-powerful corporations that answered to no government? Check. Ultra-rich who weren’t quite human anymore? Check. Gibson made no secret about how he constructed his all-too-likely future world: he took what he saw around him and exaggerated a bit in the direction things seemed to be moving. In doing so, he blazed a path that every decent SF/SpecFic author today is following.
The second step: he abandoned science fiction. Sure, his second trilogy still dealt with some technology that wasn’t yet reality, but you were no longer reading about an indeterminate moment off in the future. You were reading about the day after tomorrow in ways that were grounded enough in current reality to be more familiar than you might like. Then, that series put to bed, he dove headlong into the world of … contemporary marketing. And made it fascinating, again by riffing on cultural plausibility.
Gibson seems to have been the first to understand something important about SF: it’s hard to write about the future when, no matter how hard you try, your wild-ass technological fantasies are actually on the damned shelves by the time you can get the book to market.
If you follow science fiction today, you probably realize that very little of it behaves in a way that Hugo Gernsback would recognize as SF. You get plenty of blighted post-apocalyptic future speculation, but it’s all owing to Gibson’s innovations on cultural instead of technical plausibility. It’s speculative fiction, not science fiction, for the most part. About the only exception is found with authors who are cerebral (and brave) enough to tackle quantum mechanics (people like Dan Simmons, for instance, and even Neal Stephenson dips his toes into that river in Anathem). There is certainly a new frontier there, but its inherent complexity is going to make it harder to appeal to a broad audience, I’d imagine.
So, when I say that Gibson is the most important author of the last 30 years, this is why. It’s not easy exerting such a massive influence on an established genre. It’s next to impossible for a genre novel to literally transform the course of real-world technological development. Doing both? I don’t know – has anyone besides Gibson ever come close?