Future Past

Andrew Hultkrans on William Gibson at the New York Public Library

William Gibson and Paul Holdengraber at the New York Public Library on Friday, April 19. (Photo: Jori Klein/The New York Public Library)

PITY THE WRITER who coins a term or phrase that becomes a cliché, part of the culture (e.g., “the global village,” “Catch-22,” “cyberspace”). Not only are you asked to revisit and account for this eureka moment for the rest of your career, but you’re also often consigned to ignominious or obscure fates. If you’re Marshall McLuhan, you end up parodying your own ideological ubiquity in a Woody Allen film; if you’re Joseph Heller, you recede into the landscape and disappear. If you’re science-fiction novelist William Gibson, author of Neuromancer (1984) and prime mover of the “cyberpunk” subgenre, you’re compelled to prognosticate endlessly on the digital future as if you’d created the Internet.

Gibson didn’t invent the Web, even conceptually. Indeed, he composed his earliest novels on a manual typewriter from 1927. He did, however, overhaul the image of pre-browser netizen, at the time a painfully nerdy member of a netherworld of computer scientists and other academics, into something improbably cool—leather-clad and mirror-shaded—a process not unlike turning an earnest Spock impersonator into the Keanu Reeves of The Matrix (1999). He was invited to the New York Public Library last Friday night not because he has a new book or any other media product coming out, but simply because he is William Gibson.

Interviewed by Paul Holdengraber, the tall, slim Gibson spoke in a high Southern drawl. Soon after the writer had emerged onstage and exchanged introductory pleasantries with his host, Holdengraber played a short film of William S. Burroughs reading his mordant “Thanksgiving Prayer” (1986). More than any other author, SF or otherwise, Burroughs was Gibson’s primary inspiration and literary guide. An introspective kid in rural Appalachian Virginia during the early Cold War, Gibson grew up with a sense of almost total alienation from his community. A modest book rack at a general store near his home became a Tree of Knowledge in the otherwise culture-free Eden of his surroundings. He would check every day to see if any new books had been added. Early in his teen years, he bought an anthology of Beat literature from the rack, which he hid from his mother and devoured in private. The excerpt of Naked Lunch stood out. Gibson saw science fiction in Burroughs’s “bilious soup of rectal mucous.” He quipped that he’d likely discovered William S. Burroughs and Edgar Rice Burroughs during the same summer, both authors just part of the mix on the book rack.

“If the cover didn’t have something pornographic on it, they weren’t interested,” Gibson recalled of his neighbors. “They vaguely knew there were things called ‘beatniks’ that should be shot if they strayed too far from the Greyhound bus station, but I had actually read Kerouac.” There was a huge gap between him and the “extreme monoculture” of the rest of his peers because he “read too much.” Both of Gibson’s parents had died by the time he turned eighteen, and he fled to Canada to avoid the draft, eventually settling into a bohemian lifestyle in Vancouver, where he tried to become a science fiction writer.

William Gibson and Paul Holdengraber at the New York Public Library on Friday, April 19. (Photo: Jori Klein/The New York Public Library)

He intuited that the “central shaft of commercial SF” (Heinlein, Asimov, et al.) was no longer relevant to the postpunk early 1980s, rehearsing his distaste for the utopian space-opera tradition in the 1981 short story “The Gernsback Continuum.” He wanted to develop “another realm,” an “arena” where his characters could have a different kind of agency. Knowing little about computers, Gibson found the inspiration for what he came to call “cyberspace” while watching the agitated body language and extreme concentration of kids in early videogame arcades. Their behavior indicated a human longing to be “on the other side of the screen” and was a particularly telling example of simulacra having noticeable effects on the physical realities they simulated.

Although it was derived from the science of cybernetics, Gibson knew his coinage “meant absolutely nothing.” Holdengraber read the now familiar description of cyberspace from Neuromancer: “A consensual hallucination experienced daily. . . . A graphic representation of data abstracted from the banks of every computer in the human system. Unthinkable complexity. Lines of light ranged in the nonspace of the mind, clusters and constellations of data. Like city lights, receding.” Gibson joked that it was like a Discovery Channel voice-over—a facile method of selling a dry scientific concept as sexy—and compared it to the “friendly atom” PSAs of his childhood.

While writing Neuromancer, he was more influenced by musicians—Bruce Springsteen, Lou Reed, David Bowie (whose Diamond Dogs LP Gibson compared to “Moorcock-like SF”)—than other writers, though he credited Rudy Wurlitzer’s screenplay for Monte Hellman’s arty drag-racing film Two-Lane Blacktop (1971) as a model for exploring the man-machine interface through narrative. Holdengraber played the opening shots of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982)—near-future LA as an irredeemable urban blightscape, soaked in acid rain and cloaked in endless night, with low-flying blimps advertising “off-world” migration. Gibson praised the film, but said that despite aesthetic parallels, Neuromancer was not a reaction to it.

He had already written a portion of the novel when Blade Runner came out, and seeing the film upon its ill-fated opening run, he’d left the theater almost in tears, the richly detailed “beauty” of Scott’s vision making the fruits of his own imagination seem “tawdry.” “And then it was gone,” he said, laughing. “Imagine a time when you couldn’t access a movie after its theatrical release had ended.” The commercial death of the film actually renewed Gibson’s confidence in his fledgling manuscript. He recalled having lunch with Scott years later, where they admitted to each other that they’d both been inspired by French comics (likely Moebius and other artists published in Heavy Metal magazine).

Having toured the stack-lined bowels of the NYPL before the evening’s conversation, Gibson compared it to steampunk. “It’s the most Difference Engine–like environment I’ve ever seen,” he enthused, reminding the audience that we were sitting on top of “a massive information retrieval machine,” lined with “ganglia of pneumatic tubes” and housing the better part of recorded human history. Holdengraber read a favorite quote from Proust about the telephone, “a supernatural instrument before whose miracles we used to stand amazed, and which we now employ without giving it a thought, to summon our tailor or to order an ice cream.” Gibson had never heard this before and loved it. “We can’t see technology affecting us,” he said. “We are always simply ‘that which has been affected.’ ”