Gibson’s Magnetic Prose
By James Hass
I found William Gibson when I needed him. During San Francisco’s first tech bubble in the late nineties I was a tense wreck – every party ended with a circle of young guys talking about their stock options while I had no interest in working for a dot-com. Which is to say I was relatively broke and felt like everyone I knew was vaulting into wealth. Feeling a bit stuck in the town’s mud and riding a BART train one night, I found Virtual Light, his fourth novel, abandoned on a seat. I don’t recall exactly how aware I was of his work, but I know I had flipped through Neuromancer and Mona Lisa Overdrive a number of times on bookstore shelves, but for some reason had never grabbed either. I opened this one up, its first chapter entitled, The Luminous Flesh of Giants:
The courier presses his forehead against layers of glass, argon, high-impact plastic. He watches a gunship traverse the city’s middle distance like a hunting wasp, death slung beneath its thorax in a smooth black pod.
The chapter title alone grabbed me, but after reading the first paragraph I snapped the book shut and slipped it into my bag. Thank you, unknown forgetful stranger. After my night in the Mission with friends, I opened the book on my way home and so began my twenty year love of reading Gibson. I had just moved to San Francisco the year before in 1995 and Virtual Light was set in my city ten years later – 2005. The book’s narrative was set in an uncomfortable future populated by bike messengers and security guards struggling to keep afloat in an economy gone very strained, while technology pulled everyone into the future faster and faster. Given my state of mind at the time, what I found in those pages resonated with me.
I marched through the rest of his novels, saving each for a cross-country trip because his style and narratives felt at home while traveling through our violent country’s network of airports. I’ve taken nearly every book of his on an airplane. Neuromancer, then Count Zero and Mona Lisa Overdrive. Followed by a return to the bridge trilogy with Idoru. Reading these books lit up my fledgling writer’s mind because no matter how dystopian one might label his early work, the characters cared for one another, their humanity always pushing through like shoots of green grass in concrete.
Then in 1999, I bought my first Gibson hardback, All Tomorrow’s Parties, fresh off the press, which meant a book tour, and I was able to watch this tall, gaunt man lope through the crowd to the front of a packed room in a library basement. I received a charming lesson in author/prose dissonance that night. I had always attached an ominous knowing tone to his writing, this sense that truths were being spoken and we’d all better wake up or suffer the consequences of humanity’s blind plunge into its bright gloomy techno-future. While he read from the book, his mouth cracked into a half-smile, suppressing a laugh as he read what he clearly thought was cheesy good fun. I’d never attached a light-hearted mind to these heavy worlds he’d created, but he certainly saw the play present in his work. In all the interviews I’ve read with him since, including one I conducted myself for Spook Country, his dark humor lights up every conversation. Intelligent and curious, as well as keeping a healthy sense of his own limits, William Gibson knows the world has always been weirder than any book or piece of so-called science fiction.
The books he wrote after the Bridge trilogy were all set in a future much closer to the present such that you could call them contemporary stories. All of them as glassine in their speculative sensibility as Neuromancer had been in 1984. Except each were happening in the Now, a post-9/11 world where he didn’t have to worry about the manic march of technology that could leave a visionary book like Neuromancer quaint in its far-flung future that still had pay-phones on the street. Gibson would be the first to point out that not only did his books lack cell phones, but the technology was consistently a little incorrect because it always worked. Ono-Sendei decks didn’t crash and trode set wires didn’t crimp during a run. The tech in his futures never burped.
His last book, The Peripheral, was a little dark even by his standards. Apparently while writing the end, he surprised himself with how harsh the world he was conjuring had become. And I’m sure this is his work’s attraction for me – that it draws out the poison of the present day. A science fiction catharsis that helps me shake off the present’s deeply weird and oftentimes utterly shocking news feed. Which has been storytelling’s main game from day one, I suppose.
And here I am, twenty years later, surviving the second tech bubble in San Francisco. In the years since finding Virtual Light on BART, I’ve gained the ability to store thousands of songs and photographs on a phone, as well as traverse the internet with the swipe of a finger. Catastrophes both natural and political light up every news app. Guns can be printed, CDs and DVDs are cute compared to streaming a movie online, and the cost of living in San Francisco has become something far more brutal than I would have ever imagined back in 1996.
I am forever eager for William Gibson’s next book.