Maddox on Gibson

Tom Maddox

This story originally appeared in a Canadian 'zine, Virus 23,1989.

Bill Gibson has been masquerading as a Canadian writer for some time now, carrying out his own version of Stephen Daedalus's "silence, exile, and cunning"; but to figure the man at all, you've got to know he was born in Virginia and grew up in an America as disturbing and surreal as anything J. G. Ballard ever dreamed.

Forget television evangelism, Reagan conservatism, or any such pallid stuff. Gibson lived in a region where people looked on someone from ten miles away as a member of another tribe and anyone from another state as a dangerous alien. Think hard-shell Baptists (they won't fuck standing up; someone might see them and think they're dancing), "Colored" drinking fountains and the word "Jew" used almost exclusively as a verb. Those days the South could put the Fear into you without even trying.

As you might expect, growing up in this world put some vigorous spin on the Gibson psyche. There on native ground were outlets for such energies; rock-and-roll, crime, preaching and, of course, the good old rural standby of going flat out crazy. And there was getting the hell away from it all and dealing with it later, which Gibson did.

We flash forward a long time here, past the sixties and the seventies. During these times the Gibson Bildungsroman happens, on sets as various as Georgetown, the Mediteranean, California, Canada - and if he wants to tell about that, he will, somewhere, somewhen...

In the early eighties, when Bill and I first met, we discovered a mutual regard for a number of writers, including Thomas Pynchon, William Burroughs, Hunter Thopson, John le Carre, Raymond Chandler - high-wire artists of obsession and extremity. Given the literary currents that have passed through sf in the intervening years, you might say sure, but at the time we were both amazed that anyone trying to write sf had ever heard of these folks. All that's been said about some possible "Movement" aside, there is a sort of bond among writers who take their measures of literary possibility and style from contemporary work done outside of sf.

Bill was in full flight as a writer by this time, and he sent me a packet of stories: "Fragments of Hologram Rose," "The Gernsback Continuum," "The Belonging Kind," "The Nazi Lawn Dwarf Murders," "Johnny Mnemonic," and an early draft of "Hinterlands." An amazing set of words to have someone lay on you, a trip through the emerging Gibson universe at very quick acceleration - that high-impact prose coming on all at once. I hadn't been paying attention to sf for a long time, and I thought, my god, is this what's been going on? Of course, it would be, thought, and soon.

Omni published, "Johnny Mnemonic," "Hinterlands" and "Burning Chrome" in fairly quick succession to acclaim, good reviews, award nominations, and the like.

Then Neuromancer was published. What a number, now and then, amazing both for what it is and what it triggered, a real-life "Russian program" up and running; still running right now, generating events weird and wonderful...

Of course Neuromancer got a Nebula and a Hugo, among other awards and recognitions - nice work for a first novel; in fact, one of the best moves ever off the line in sf. But this is only part of a story that got better and better. Outside the genre, where people routinely and unthinkingly equate science fiction with "sci-fi" and Star Wars and don't take any of it seriously, Gibson's work has generated unprecedented heat.

Articles have appeared just about everywhere. Stewart Brand lauded Neuromancer in the San Francisco Chronicle and Whole Earth Review. William Burroughs said in Esquire that Neuromancer was his favorite novel of the year. Rolling Stone, Interview and The Face ran features on Gibson, computer trade magazines such as PC World and PC Computing reviewed the books. At MIT, graduate work in computer science was done based on cyberspace and ICE. From Autodesk (a Silicon Valley company specializing in CAD/CAM software) came papers on "virtual realities" citing Gibson as length and using cyberspace as a model.

One sub-loop after another, the Russian Program running: Hollywood came calling, Wanting to buy books and stories, wanting Gibson to write scripts. Think before you leap; this is serious business, serious lunacy: a trip into the great pulsating wormhole at the centre of the media cosmos. A very testing environment shall we say...

But Gibson lives in Vancouver with his wife and children, and he babysits when he has to and answers his own phone and continues to write books, and sure he signed up for some of this movie action - wouldn't you? - but life goes on. As with the Lost Years, he'll tell you what he wants to about all that, or what he can. And somewhere in here Bruce Sterling (among others) got into the act, talking things up in Cheap Truth and using Gibson's work as the spearpoint of his own sometimes despairing and sometimes triumphant guerrilla raid on sf. Don't blame it on Bruce, but in the wake of Neuromancer's success, standard sf ghetto dwellers, writers and readers alike, started screeching a harpy chorus. Through teeth clenched in fury and envy, they said Gibson's work is all "surface" or "flash," "Never passes from ugly to ennobling" (that's from Orson Scott Card, sf's most malign visitation on contemporary criticism).

None of this is Bill's problem, and he's never treated it as such. He doesn't justify his work or defend it; he continues to produce it. Out of that strange Virginia of old-time religion and racism cam something alien: Bill became an artist - skin to bone, absolute.

Gibson is tuned to the Matrix - the one around us, that sings with information and energy - and he pays very close attention to what's happening in that semiotic space. He looks and listens like a thief, and he takes what he finds and reconstructs it in words, detail by detail, image by image. He doesn't have theories, and he's not extrapolating from what he things he knows about technology and science; he's reading signs and listening to the voices...

Because voices are important here, of a kind, though Bill doesn't do dialect, and he's not after the exact cadences of ordinary speech. Not long ago we were talking on the phone, and Bill had Emmylou Harris's new album playing in the background, repeating over and over on CD, country with lots of blues notes and high aching harmonies, music that strikes deeply for both of us, reactivating all those dormant Southern molecules. We talked about other music we'd heard and liked lately: Lou Reed's New York album, especially the song "Romeo and Juliet," the Cowboy Junkies doing Patsy Cline's "Walking after Midnight," Leonard Cohen doing "Tower of Song."

The voices of authentic experience, gifted with beauty and intensity grown in pain: those are the important ones to Bill (and to many of us). And among them now, high up in the Tower, is Gibson's own, which I think is the point of this story.

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