Meeting William Gibson, the Father of Cyberpunk
We spoke to the inventor of "cyberspace" about sci-fi movies and how he predicted the future.
Standing in the corner of a Foyle's on Charing Cross Road is William Gibson, the father of cyberpunk. This place – a clinical, strip-lit bookshop – is light years away from the seedy, dystopian underworlds depicted in his novels. A shitty bar somewhere in Rotherhithe would be a more appropriate venue – or, at the very least, the Computer Exchange round the corner on Tottenham Court Road.
At 66, Gibson is a slight man, softly spoken, affable and clearly drained from endless rounds of interviews for his new book, The Peripheral. He's the man, not the legend, standing in the corner while a hired pianist knocks out generic filler music to the milling crowd, who, disappointingly, are dressed nothing like the cast of the Gibson-inspired film The Matrix.
Thirty years ago Gibson changed sci-fi writing forever with his breakout hit, Neuromancer, spawning a new genre: cyberpunk. His novel was a crazed, delirious trip through cyberspace (a word he's famous for inventing) about a down-on-his-luck hustler and ex-hacker named Case who lives in the Sprawl, a Megalopolis of urban decay with a sky "the colour of television, turned to a dead channel".
The plot weaves through a blitz of networked computers, where junkies surf through a digital hallucination, hacking away precious information from global corporations for a fee. Gibson describes the enduring success of the book to me as like "having an adult child that you don't see very often, but is doing well in a field that you aren't that into".
To a generation of hackers, phreakers, computer programmers and punks who knew their way around a computer terminal, Gibson was a prophet – a man who would predict the digital world we now inhabit. The legend, he is happy to admit, is exaggerated. Yes, he may have coined "cyberspace", predicted the effects of technology saturating every aspect of our lives and foreseen the rise of reality TV, but he also missed a lot.
"If I was to add up the time that I have spent in interviews either qualifying or denying prescience then it would total more than anything else I have ever spoken about," Gibson tells me. "There's an ancient tendency to account for the alleged soothsayer's hits and ignore his misses. I've missed multitudes of things about imaginary futures. The hits are just click bait, and they have always been click bait."
His image as the "noir prophet" may be blown out of proportion, but the so-called "click bait" has kept his readers ever hungry. He's written over ten novels, numerous essays and articles for WIRED, as well as short fictions. Like it or not, the image of technological soothsayer continues to be his legacy.
But i f Gibson is tired of being asked what the future is, perhaps it's because his greatest success was mis-sold. It wasn't necessarily his envisioning of the future that made Neuromancer resonate, but how it spoke to the emerging tech world, giving the oft-ignored sci-fi lovers, programmers and nerds of the 1980s a voice with Chandleresque prose.
Throughout our interview he's keen to set the record straight – he may have written about fantastical futures that blur the digital and physical lines, but that doesn't mean he spends his nights soldering motherboards or hacking government databases.
"When I wrote Neuromancer the only personal computer I'd seen was the American version of a Sinclair ZX, hooked to a thrift shop television set that an eccentric friend of mine had in the 70s. He was painstakingly trying to programme it to do a really simple task using this cheap deckle keyboard that looked like a low-grade cable box. It was a leap of faith to see them as they are in Neuromancer, as these sexy and powerful beasts."
Gibson and his work have inspired a slew of sci-fi hits (and misses), including Ian Softley's skateboarding cyber-thriller Hackers. How did he feel about being referenced, with the movie's super-computer being dubbed "The Gibson"?
"Oddly, and for no particular reason, I have never seen Hackers," he tells me. "It never angered me, nor did it make me leap with glee."
His experience of films also includes penning the box-office flop Johnny Mnemonic, starring Keanu Reeves with a military grade hair-cut as a courier who transports data in his head. The film was a critical blow-out and Gibson revealed why: "It was made in a way that would be completely impossible now. The director [Robert Longo] and I began by trying to raise a million dollars to make a black and white short, and no one would give us the money. One of Robert Longo's biggest collectors happened to be a Hollywood big shot, and he turned around and said, 'No one is going to give you a million dollars – you have to ask for 10!' So he did, and he got it. It went rolling on from there. It was about five years from conception to release, and it was all wonderfully peculiar."
But why was it a flop? Wasn't he annoyed? "I was really fond of the film that I wrote and that Robert shot, but that wasn't the film that Sony Image Works released. It's a really extreme example of not being the director's cut. It was written to be comic in its own way, and be a commentary on sci-fi films and how they are made. Keanu never played any of it straight because we didn't want him to."
For years it's been rumoured that Neuromancer will be made into a movie. "If I were the director, which fortunately I will never be, I would update it conceptually," Gibson tells me. "I would not use the word 'cyberspace' – I think that word is on the brink of anachronism. In 1984 it was necessary to name the arena in which these events were taking place, because it didn't exist. Whereas, today, that arena is, in effect, the world we live in. No one, anywhere in the world, watching a film of Neuromancer needs the realm in which Case operates to be named. That in itself would be anachronistic. I think I've made that point with everyone who has ever considered a film of Neuromancer. 'Cyberspace' is a word that's increasingly long in the teeth as the reality becomes more ubiquitous by the day."
Gibson's abandoned sci-fi in his past three books, preferring to focus on the contemporary world in his Bigend Trilogy, the best known of which is Pattern Recognition. This book is as equally delirious as Neuromancer, but set in a world much closer to our own, where marketeers have developed psychological sensitivity to logos. It reads like a healthy kick in the gut to the modern religion of data analysis.
The author's latest novel will once again see him placing his characters in a dystopian future-scape, one that's been billed as "a brave new world of drones, outsourcing and kleptocracy".
Weirdly, Gibson seems keener to talk about his past works, and when I come on to the topic of Peripheral he tells me he's tired of talking about it. I guess, like the rest of his fans, I'm keen to press Gibson on what the future holds. But, once again, he insists that he simply doesn't know.
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