During next week’s Nebula Award weekend, venerable science fiction writer William Gibson will be honored as the 35th Damon Knight Grand Master by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America.
It’s a pretty huge deal: he joins such genre luminaries as Isaac Asimov, Peter S. Beagle, Ursula K. Le Guin, and Samuel R. Delany in recognition of his lifelong contribution to SFF literature. After bursting onto the scene with Neuromancer in 1984—a debut that went on to pick up both the Hugo and the Nebula—he’s maintained a metronome-steady career, putting out a new novel every three to four years while penning music reviews and critical essays, short fiction, screenplays, and comics on the side.
Gibson’s fiction has always been close to my heart. Burning Chrome, his short story collection from 1986, was pressed into my hands a few years after it was first published, and it rewred my brain. I was in high school at the time, at a humdrum school in the Midwest, and I simply couldn’t believe how grimy-sleek and techno-cool were the worlds he imagined. His work felt so different from the other science fiction I was reading at the time—Asimov, Herbert, the usual suspects—thickly urban, technologically stunning, displaying a weird mix of airless opulence and grubby street charm. I moved on to Neuromancer and immediately became a fan for life; its sequels and followup series spooled out across the years, and each was immediately downloaded into my central cortex, rewriting the code of my existence. Gibson is the first writer I followed from book to book, waiting to love whatever he wrote next.
With that context in mind, here are six essential books in William Gibson’s impressive catalog.
The first sentence of Gibson’s first novel is oft-cited alongside other perfect opening lines: “The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.”
It was only a few years ago (during my umpteenth reread) that I realized that one of the possible meanings of this line is a literal one: the port is covered with interlocking geodesic domes, a shining domed city run to ruin, speckled with broken panels that let the rain in. The ur-text of cyberpunk follows low level criminal and console cowboy Henry Case as he gets in over his head with street samurai, razorgirls, cloned daughters of industrialist royalty, and the best-laid plans of two inscrutable artificial intelligences. Invented slang generally doesn’t age well, but the tech patois of Neuromancer holds up, partially because it influenced how we speak and think about our new digital reality.
Though it has passed out of common parlance, for a long time we referred to the internet as “cyberspace,” a term that was coined in a short story featured in this collection and gained more traction when it reappeared in Neuromancer. (Due to the vagaries of publishing dates, the short story “Burning Chrome” was published first in Omni in 1982, two years before Neuromancer, but only widely republished in this collection two years after that.) Burning Chrome includes one of my top five favorite short stories ever: “The Gernsback Continuum”, about a phtotojournalist who begins hallucinating the futurism of the past superimposed upon the present. This is a wonderful collection of short fiction, full up with brio sketches of the people and places Gibson will become best known for; a cyberpunk grimoire.
Fun facts: Two of its stories were adapted into films: New Rose Hotel, which stars Christopher Walken, Asia Argento, and Willem Defoe (if you can believe it) and Johnny Mnemonic, which stars Keanu Reeves, Dolph Lundgren, and Ice-T. The latter is worth seeking out for its high camp value, delivered via a screenplay by Gibson himself. The author has written for the screen several times, and some of his scripts were even filmed, including two episodes of The X-Files during its pop culture heyday, while some which were not—though his unused script for the third Alien movie will soon be reimagined as an audio drama. (Apparently the only detail from his script that made it to the screen? The barcode tattoos that appear on the backs of the prisoners’ necks.)
The Difference Engine (with Bruce Sterling)
In The Difference Engine, Gibson and Sterling twisted cyberpunk into something both new and old, imagining the intrusion of various disruptive technologies well before they were culturally widespread. Which is to say: its Victorians have developed punch-card computers they use in the service of typically Victorian notions of class and criminality, like they would, those stuffy Victorians. It was here I first encountered Ada Lovelace, the only legitimate daughter of Lord Byron, and the mathematician considered by some to be the first programmer. And thus, steampunk was born. (Gibson’s most famous aphorism—“The future is already here—it’s just not very evenly distributed”—holds true even in the past.) As a novel, The Difference Engine maybe isn’t the most compelling, but the ideas, man. The ideas.
All Tomorrow’s Parties
All Tomorrow’s Parties, which takes it name from a Velvet Underground song, is the culmination of Gibson’s Bridge trilogy, which aptly enough centers on the eponymous Bay Bridge, which has been commandeered as a sort of vertical, spanning shantytown in the wake of earthquakes that decimated both California and Tokyo. The book collects the disparate people and themes of the previous two novels into a loose slipknot of an ending. Gibson’s finales don’t tend to the explosive, and a common complaint is that they end inconclusively. But I think his endings are more like creeper highs, best appreciated at a bit of a remove, after they’ve had time to expand in your mind. One of the endings within All Tomorrow’s Parties has stayed with me for years, for so long that I eventually had my own private name for what in the hell he was doing, and what it meant to me. Gibson really is a visionary, though I suspect that label would annoy him.
Pattern Recognition marked a sea-change in Gibson’s fiction, pulling back from the techno-future to the almost present. Heretofore, much of his fiction seemed set 20 minutes into the future, riding technology and its warping effects into near-future almost-nows. Pattern Recognition, instead, is on the bleeding edge of the then-present, which still feels like our now, detailing technologies out of the reach of the average human, but not impossible or unheard of. I think it is the first novel I read after 9/11 that incorporated the fall of the Twin Towers into its overt plot: main character Cayce Pollard’s CIA spook dad vanished after the attack, like he simply couldn’t exist in a post-9/11 world. There’s some winking to his first trilogy: Cayce pronounces her name like Neuromancer‘s own Henry Case. But Cayce lives in the here and now, in the unevenly distributed present. (And, speaking of the Bleeding Edge, there’s some back and forth between Pattern Recognition and the works of post-modern master Thomas Pynchon, but that’s a whole other rabbit hole to explore.)
After completing the Blue Ant trilogy, which takes place in the here-and-now-ish, The Peripheral strikes back out into not just one, but two futures. The Peripheral is also the first Gibson novel to take on the post-apocalyptic themes, at least overtly. (One could certainly argue that the Sprawl is at the most basic a mid-apocalyptic hellscape, though that might be semantics.) It shifts forward and more forward in time, from before the vague occurrence of the cataclysm called the Jackpot, to after, in a largely empty world. After the almost comforting familiarity of his proceeding books, The Peripheral felt like a leap into the black both structurally and thematically, experimental in ways I hadn’t quite seen before in Gibson’s work. I can’t wait to see what he does when he returns to its setting in Agency, which will be partially set in an alternate timeline in which Hillary Clinton won the 2016 presidential election. The book is currently scheduled for release in January 2020, though it has been delayed a few times already. Planning the future—more than one, actually—takes time, you know.
Distrust That Particular Flavor
This work of non-fiction collects several decades’ worth of Gibson’s essays—everything from a late ’80s musing about the future of “the Net” (remember when we called it that?) to his thoughtful writing about music and literature. Though he’s not as prone to essaying in his fiction as some other cyberpunk authors (*cough* Neal Stephenson), he’s not bad at the form.
Archangel (co-written by Michael St. John Smith, with art by Butch Guice, Alejandro Barrionuevo and Wagner Reis)
Gibson’s only foray into comics to date. There’s something of a genre joke in the setup: Junior Henderson goes back in time and kills his grandfather, only to replace him. This premise might be is one of the hoariest old chestnuts of time travel fiction, so naturally, Gibson duly blows it to pieces, as he does.
William Gibson will be honored with the Damon Knight Memorial Grand Master Award during this year’s Nebula Awards weekend, May 16-19, 2019.
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