I read fiction sporadically, in a manner that exhausts all interest in holding another book when I’m done; a holdover from my university days when being asked to read five novels a week wasn’t unreasonable. So sometimes I go for months without, and then at other times like this past week, I bite down hard and can’t let go.
Aside: That last phrase gives me a mental image of Cory Doctorow’s domain name, craphound.com, where you should really go and get his latest book, “For The Win”, as a free download.
I’m currently on my fifth William Gibson, and the third for the week, Idoru. These books have been around for years, and I thought I was all alone in picking them up on a whim, until I saw on Twitter this morning that two other friends are currently rereading Neuromancer. A coincidence is a terrible thing-that-could-be-blogging-fodder to waste, so I decided I would suggest an author each month and maybe some of you would like to read along.
Gibson is a remarkable talent. Some critics find fault with his writing, or the alternating obtuseness and thinness of his plots, or his Japanophilia, but his sense of futurism is unassailable. This is a man who virtually invented the cyberpunk term and genre with Neuromancer… which he wrote on a manual typewriter and reams of paper. His experience with computers at that point was non-existent, yet the book is rife with systems that we can recognize today as variations of the internet, email, websites, search engines, personal handheld computers, and some others like virtual reality that are still far from perfection.
It’s as if he lived as a person displaced in time, to whom the thoughts of a 21st-century man would come without effort or the need for context: earlier, I came across a bit in Idoru where military-like airport security guards randomly stopped a passenger and compared a DNA sample (a strand of hair) against the data stored in her passport. That’s tight airport security, biometric passports, and invasive random searches, foreseen in a book published in 1996. Incredibly prescient work from a man who had just gotten his first email address and modem.
Most of his books are set in a not-too-distant future where pockets of physical ruin and squalor coexist with technologies that would be viewed today as luxurious. Instead, they are survival tools or commonplace opiates: cyberspace worlds into which people escape, conduct their shady businesses, or stumble onto valuable corporate secrets. This is the ground from which heroes spring, to be later oppressed by those who are obscenely rich and sometimes more machine than human. The Keanu Reeves movie, Johnny Mnemonic, was based on a Gibson story and is probably the best example for helping you visualize a typical cyberpunk setting and narrative.
I’ve read one set in the present, Pattern Recognition, and it might be a good place to start if hardcore SF turns you off. I love the hook: the heroine possesses an innate ability to perform what is usually a learned skill. She experiences involuntary reactions to logos and branding, intuiting which ones will perform and which will fail, and as such becomes something of an expensive guru for hire amongst multinational corporations. It’s a trick also seen in Idoru, set in a futuristic Tokyo where nanotech buildings grow like trees, constantly expanding upwards: a major character has the ability to quickly “feel” large amounts of statistical data on a person and understand the emotions and causes behind them. In one scene, he knows when a celebrity has begun to contemplate suicide, and moves to intervene.
The most tangible outcome of having immersed myself in Gibson’s futures all week – places where customized portable computers are a way of life – is something I only understood this evening, when I absentmindedly reached for my iPhone and realized that I no longer thought of it as anything but “my computer”. An object of pure utility, stripped of its brand, operating system, applications, and hardware specifics. Beyond a certain level of usability, there’s a parity between these portable devices and desktop systems. What matters is the network of information they access. This is by no means a new idea, but feeling it, and by extension feeling like a character in an SF story in one unguarded moment, was like an epiphany. There are certain passages I could point to as the seeds for that moment, persuasive little vignettes that idealize the relationships we seek to have with information technology, but this quote I found on Wikipedia demonstrates how Gibson’s philosophy of computing has always followed such a line of thought:
“I’ve never really been very interested in computers themselves. I don’t watch them; I watch how people behave around them.”
The Bridge Trilogy:
1. Virtual Light
3. All Tomorrow’s Parties