William Gibson and Neuromancer: the man who saw tomorrow

Neuromancer, 30 years old this month, leapt into cyberspace almost before it existed

Prescience can be tedious for science-fiction writers. Being proven right about a piece of technology or a trend distracts from the main aim of the work: to show us how we live now. William Gibson knows this as well as anyone. Since the late 70s, the American-born novelist has been pulling at the loose threads of our culture to imagine what will come out. He has been right about a great deal, but mainly about the shape of the internet and how it filters down to the lowest strata of society.

In Neuromancer, published 30 years ago this month, Gibson popularised the idea of cyberspace: a "consensual hallucination" created by millions of connected computers. This network can be "jacked" into, while in the real world characters flit from Tokyo to the Sprawl, an urban agglomeration running down the east coast of the US. Gritty urban clinics carry out horrendous sounding plastic surgery. A junkie-hacker, Case, is coaxed into hacking the system of a major corporation. What once seemed impossibly futuristic is now eerily familiar.

"Neuromancer," says novelist and blogger Cory Doctorow, "remains a vividly imagined allegory for the world of the 1980s, when the first seeds of massive, globalised wealth-disparity were planted, and when the inchoate rumblings of technological rebellion were first felt. A generation later, we're living in a future that is both nothing like the Gibson future and instantly recognisable as its less stylish, less romantic cousin. Instead of zaibatsus [large conglomerates] run by faceless salarymen, we have doctrinaire thrusting young neocons and neoliberals who want to treat everything from schools to hospitals as businesses."

Neuromancer, winner of the 'big three' for science fiction: the Nebula, Philip K Dick and Hugo awards Photograph: PR

On its release, Neuromancer won the "big three" for science fiction: the Nebula, Philip K Dick and Hugo awards. It sold more than 6m copies and launched an entire aesthetic: cyberpunk. In predicting this future, Gibson can be said to have helped shape our conception of the internet. Other novelists are held in higher esteem by literary critics, but few can claim to have had such a wide-ranging influence. The Wachowskis made The Matrix by mashing Gibson's vision together with that of French philosopher Jean Baudrillard. Stieg Larsson's Lisbeth Salander is a facsimile of Molly Millions, the femme fatale in Neuromancer. Every social network, online game or hacking scandal takes us a step closer to the universe Gibson imagined in 1984.

The vision was not perfect, though. As Gibson himself has joked, Neuromancer has a "complete absence of cellphones, which I'm sure young readers must assume is a key plot point". Other features of the novel are still lumbering towards us from the horizon. Despite Facebook's $2.3bn purchase of the Oculus Rift virtual-reality headset system, we remain some way from Neuromancer's favourite entertainment: "simstim", where users share a star's whole sensory experience. Yet our world has enough of a Gibsonian hue for the writer to have acquired the mantle of a prophet. "The Ed Snowden moment is very Gibsonian," adds Doctorow. "Snowden could be Case's back-office support, an ex-spook trapped behind Putin's iron curtain, offering intermittent but vital support to people trapped in the system's relentless gear grinding."

As the world has caught up with Gibson's vision, the author, now 66, has turned his gaze closer to the present. (His next novel, The Peripheral, will be the first he has set in the far future.) Neuromancer is Gibson's most famous novel but not his most accomplished. Pattern Recognition was written in the wake of 9/11 and published in 2003. If Neuromancer looks at the future through a high-powered telescope, Pattern Recognition has its face pressed right up to the glass. Set partly in Camden Town, London, the book has as its protagonist Cayce Pollard, a marketing consultant who has a literal allergy to brands and logos. This makes her valuable to companies keen to seem cooler and less corporate.

The book is more than a decade old but, re-read today, it feels more astute than 99% of the novels written since.

Gibson has written many times of his belief that all cultural change is essentially technologically driven. As the progress of technology speeds up, it becomes more incumbent on authors to examine its effects. It is unthinkable that you could write a novel set in the UK today that did not in some address way the spread of computers into every crevice of the world.

"We have plenty of Booker-type authors who are lauded for their exquisite lyrical realism," says Ned Beauman, himself a Booker-nominated author. "But, for me, Gibson is better than almost anybody at noticing what's genuinely interesting about the world. He's the only living writer who was one of my favourites when I was 13 and is still one of my favourites. In that respect, he's been deeply influential on me."

Beauman's latest novel, Glow, is unmistakably shaped by Pattern Recognition and its two sequels, Spook Country and Zero History. Tech-savvy Londoners try strange new drugs while vast corporations employ strange new marketing techniques. Like Gibson's work, it shows us the present by imagining a hyper-real near future. "Gibson does texture and function in a way that I'm constantly trying to imitate," he says. "Like many great writers, he has a specific imaginative territory that he keeps going back to, but that territory happens to be where a lot of us now find ourselves living. Not only in terms of Google Glass and Uber, which are comparatively trivial, but in terms of the gap between rich and poor, the impunity of globalised commerce, the declining relevance of the west. It's a crime that he's not regarded as one of our most important novelists."


Ed Cumming

The GuardianTramp

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