Birthday Post: William Gibson

William Gibson“The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.” That’s the first sentence in William Gibson‘s iconic first novel, Neuromancer. And it is brilliant. It slams the reader into the world of virtual reality where the background is the pseudo-random noise of UHF on an old television. And today is Gibson’s 67th birthday.

I think that Gibson gets too much credit for being an innovator. The truth is that he didn’t move much past Philip K Dick. What’s more, Blade Runner came out right before Neuromancer was to be published, and Gibson went in and made changes to make the novel more distinct from the film. The point is: the concepts and that way of looking at the world were in the air.

But here’s the thing: as much as I love Dick’s work, he wasn’t nearly as good or interesting a writer as Gibson. As many people know, I am a pimp for films and books and music that I love. And one of those things I’m always pimping is what I think is Gibson’s first published short story, “Fragments of a Hologram Rose.” It is such a great story. In fact, it is the best thing he ever wrote. But short stories are like that. It is impossible to make novels perfect, and that’s most of what Gibson has written. But “Rose” is perfect. And it’s his birthday. It’s only 2,000 words — even I could read it in about five minutes! What are you waiting for? It’s online:

There was a film made based on what I think is Gibson’s worst work, Johnny Mnemonic. I actually think the film is pretty good. And I especially like this scene:

Anyway, happy birthday William Gibson!


After you read the story, you can check out my thoughts on it, Fragments of Reality.

2 thoughts on “Birthday Post: William Gibson

  1. I used to think the “room service” rant was the best thing about an otherwise bad movie. If you like Johnny Mnemonic I should probably go back and give it a second look. I have this problem since I became a liberal/leftist that I don’t engage with fiction like I used to. My favorite book, Dune, everything that was always great about it is still great. But it’s also just a story about pampered aristocrats, and how angry they are to be less pampered for awhile. Of course being an average citizen of the Atredies on pre Arakis Caladan is probably much like being an American, perhaps better if the economics are more egalitarian. You are still not a Person like the royals, and there is still the secret police. And these are the frendlies. But the room service rant is nakedly classist, and sexist. I don’t think there is any plausible way to finesse the “$10,000 a night hooker” line into anything sex positive and feminist. I should like to read the Gibson story it was adapted from. Supposedly the first appearance of Molly Millions (Trinity). I read Neuromancer recently, and I need to read it one or two more times before I decide what I think. I lean towards favorable. But… going back to Dune, Herbert uses ‘Gestalt’ as a verb (as does Gibson) to mean a person absorbing a complex thing as a distillation of it’s essence. Or so I suppose. Twenty year old me thought, “He’s a Great Man, and I’m just a little man.” Forty five year old me thinks, “We have a flag on the play. On the Author. Pretentious bullshit. Upon further review, reader declines the penalty. Still second down.” And that is right where “The sky was the color of a dead TV channel” takes me. But I really need to read it a couple more times. The first time I read a book I am plowing through it to find out what happens, and I can miss things. I also am reacting to a lot of crap that is derivative of Gibson’s work. I suspect I will end up embracing him, especially if I read more of him. It is interesting to see where Neuromancer was blindsided by history. It supposes the American Soviet antagonism will be a long game when in fact it will be over in a few years. It misses the 10 year Japanese recession. It fumbles toward understanding China as an emerging superpower (and misses India). And it imagines manned space flight/exploration as a going concern. That last point and the urban infrastructure project implied by The Sprawl, we just don’t have money for that anymore. We spent it on tax cuts and income for the 1%. Of all the things Gibson got wrong about the last 25 years of history, those are the most astonishing.

    • Be careful. Johnny Mnemonic is in that class of films that I quite enjoy, even while being very aware of its many failings. But I do think it comes out on the positive side. The character in the film is actually (Molly Millions)–. She doesn’t have the eye implants and she’s a whole like nicer a person. In fact, the film is very altruistic and the short story is about a bunch of low life looking to use high tech to rip people off.

      You are right about the rant. That’s what is so great about it. It is Johnny’s last gasp; it is where he realizes that his selfish lifestyle won’t cut it anymore — there is too much riding on him.

      There is a general political problem with literature. We are too caught in romanticism. It’s actually artistic laziness. It is easier to tell the story of the Trojan War from the perspective of Achilles and Hector than it is to tell stories that deal with the true complexities of such a conflict. Even One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich tends to romanticize the main character. But I think this is why I’m such a fan of John Steinbeck: he manages to portray groups in a way that few writers can. It would be nice, however, if more writers simply picked regular people as heroes. That’s one of the problems with Shakespeare: does a poor character act nobly? It will turn out he’s the long lost son of some aristocrat, because we all know that Shakespeare’s primary concern was getting into that class.

      I don’t know when the sprawl trilogy is supposed to take place. I’ve always assumed about the middle of this century. So I don’t think he’s so wrong about Japan. As for the Soviet Union, well, it seems we still have much the same relationship with Russia. Of course, as I said, I think people overstate how visionary he was. But I don’t remember the books that well. I was thinking of trying to read them all over a weekend and live blog it. We’ll see. Probably not.

      You do bring up something really interesting about the taxes. I do think that technological progress has slowed because of our inequality. It’s funny, because conservative think it is the opposite: if there is more “free market” there will be more innovation. But the truth is that the free market is not good at revolution. The free market is good at moving from iPhone 5 to iPhone 6. The internet would still be decades away if we were depending on the free market.

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