William Gibson Serves Up Zero History

William Gibson focused on the future in Neuromancer. Now he's helping us make sense of the present

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Christopher Morris / Corbis

Gibson's 10 novels have focused on how we interact with technology.

When William Gibson was 7 years old, in 1955, his father, a civilian contractor for the military, choked to death in a restaurant. Gibson's mother immediately moved the family to a small town in the Appalachians, where he grew up bright and nerdy and lonely.

Gibson read a lot: mostly science fiction but also the Beats. He spent one summer devouring the two Burroughs — Edgar Rice and William S. — side by side, a volatile mix even under ideal conditions. "I was reading A Princess of Mars and excerpts from Naked Lunch," he says. "I was 14 years old. Trying to understand Naked Lunch — it was like something from another planet. But I recognized science-fiction DNA in that text. There was some very basic part of me that was activated, maybe for the first time."

Gibson's mother would die early too, orphaning him at 18. He was interested in girls and drugs and not interested in going to Vietnam, so he moved to Canada. By 1972 he was married and settled in Vancouver, working odd jobs and thinking about becoming a writer.

In the early 1970s, the future wasn't what it used to be. Science fiction — the genre that had first attracted Gibson — now felt like a backwater, formulaic and conservative. "There was a kind of sadness in it for me," he says. "It was just like, Wow, look at this thing! This is one of the great viable forms of American pop art. Look at the dust on it!" After writing a few short stories, he tried his hand at a novel. That book, Neuromancer, published in 1984, is one of the most important works of fiction of the late 20th century.

Neuromancer is a vicious, violently intelligent vision of a future made from the broken shards of the present. Urban sprawl has overrun the planet. Prosthetics, neural implants and artificial intelligence have made the distinctions between human and computer, and between virtual and real, problematic at best. Just like George Orwell's 1984, Neuromancer was less a prediction of the future than a critique of the present. It was a distorted reflection of 1980s America's most toxic obsessions — money, sex, technology, drugs, weapons.

Back then, Gibson didn't have a computer. But he thought a lot about computers — not so much how they worked as how they changed the people who used them. It occurred to him that at some point, people would probably get around to connecting a lot of computers together, and the result would be an entirely virtual space — a digital alter ego of everyday reality, where much of Neuromancer's action would take place.

It would need a name. He wrote the word digispace in red Sharpie on a yellow legal pad, then crossed it out and wrote under it cyberspace. The name stuck.

Future, Present, Past
Gibson still lives in Vancouver. The man whose vision of the future was so powerful that it changed the present lives on a posh, tree-lined street that looks like something out of the 19th century. His house is a Tudor Revival beauty so venerable it has a plaque on it.

Gibson himself is startlingly tall and thin. At 62, he doesn't just write like William Burroughs; he looks like him too. He speaks softly, with a faint Southern twang left over from his Virginia boyhood.

He knows he's not what people expect. "I was doing a signing once in San Francisco," he says. "These two big motorcycles roared up outside the bookstore, and two guys walked in with black leather and tattoos and plastic bags, out of which they produced their copies of Neuromancer. And they sort of saw me there ..." Gibson mimes incredulous disappointment. "And one of them sort of sighed and said, 'Well ... you can sign it anyway.'"

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