A taste for an edgy kind of cyberpunk fiction may not be an elevated one, but the novels of William Gibson have excited me since I began reading them. This is partly because of the fast pace of the action, appropriately laid out in very short chapters, partly because he writes of damaged and vulnerable characters in the power of intimidating individuals with names such as Lucius Warbaby and Hubertus Bigend (sometimes these are thoroughly evil, as in the experiences of Case and Milgrim) who end up doing the right things and often seem to be feeling their way towards romantic happiness, and partly because such demands as the hi-tech background make on the readers are, at least in his recent work, never too great; the environment is one that readers can inhabit without fearing that the author will confound them by introducing as the story proceeds another dimension of technology that throws everything into confusion. (I’m not sure this is true of his first novel, Neuromancer, famous for its opening sentence, ‘The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel’; the plot seems to rely too heavily on techno wizardry.) But the real reason for my enthusiasm is different.
Gibson’s earlier fiction, in particular the Sprawl series located in what seems to be a post-US reality, is set in the future, while his recent novels take place in the present, a change that may reflect a perception that the world around us has become too unknowable to be something an imagined future world could be usefully set against. But whether dealing with future or present, I have never read an author who conveys such a sense of the possibility of knowing the deep, hidden ways in which the world really works. The matrix of the early work can be seen as foreshadowing the Internet, and there was already an interest in something that defines contemporary reality, the interactions between people and hi tech, whether those of the obsessed jockeys who navigated the matrix or the rock star who fell in love with a sophisticated projection of a female entity. While the suggestion in some of the early novels that people would come to communicate by faxes proved to be off-beam, Gibson has been consistently interesting on how things are developing. Recently he has become more concerned with how things work in the world as it is. Cayce Pollard, in Pattern recognition (my favourite), is acutely sensitive to how brands operate, how something like a retro style can be ironic, and the subtle ways in which fashion and art can be communicated and manipulated, and for much of the novel is in the company of people who, despite their intelligence, lack her intuition of the directions in which the signs of the times point; some of the people she deals with are amateurs. Her employer, Bigend, is certainly up to speed, as he toys with how images can be constructed and disseminated for profit, and I am fascinated by the implication that there are ways in which this can be done.
The question of gender holds me back. Increasingly, Gibson’s heros are females, but they can give the sense of acting in rather masculine ways. Women I’ve tried to interest in Gibson tell me that his imagined worlds are too cold, too hard, and I think I can see what they mean. There are dimensions of human life that find little resonance in his sharply edged creations. But I find continual excitement in his statements about what’s really going on in our world, and his characters stimulate me to attempt a better understanding of people in the society around me and the statements they continually make about themselves.