Turning the tide – Gibson’s SF in the 80’s – trendy or visionary?

I picked up a copy of “Burning Chrome” by William Gibson, a collection of his short stories published in 1986. It has a preface by Bruce Sterling that is quite interesting, and gives a view into what he felt was Gibson’s impetus to revitalization of a stagnant genre. Gibson is one of the “creators” of the cyberpunk genre.

Burning Chrome

Examples of cyberpunk in movies includes Blade Runner, The Matrix, A Scanner Darkly, and the anime classic “Ghost in the Shell” which I watched for the first time last night. It was god, but I didn’t see it now as anything revolutionary or visionary as the cover said it to be.

For information on cyberpunk, Gibson, etc, see these Wiki sites. They might help give a background for this post:



And in the Wikipedia article on Gibson comes this:

“Lawrence Person, writing in his ‘Notes Toward a Postcyberpunk Manifesto’ (1998) identified the novel as ‘the archetypal cyberpunk work,’ and in 2005, Time magazine included it in their list of 100 best English-language novels written since 1923, claiming that ‘[t]here is no way to overstate how radical [Neuromancer] was when it first appeared.’ According to literary critic Larry McCafferty, the auspiciousness of the novel was in its originality of vision, exhilarating prose, and technological similes and metaphors. He described the concept of the matrix as a place where ‘data dance with human consciousness … human memory is literalized and mechanized … multi-national information systems mutate and breed into startling new structures whose beauty and complexity are unimaginable, mystical, and above all nonhuman.'”

Later, the article brings Gibson up to the 21st century, showing he wasn’t just an eighties phenom:

“After ‘All Tomorrow’s Parties,’ Gibson began to adopt a more realist style of writing, with continuous narratives—’speculative fiction of the very recent past.’ Critic John Clute has interpreted this approach by Gibson as the recognition that traditional science fiction is no longer possible ‘in a world lacking coherent “nows'”to continue from’, characterizing it as ‘SF for the new century.’ Gibson’s novels ‘Pattern Recognition’ (2003), and Spook Country (2007), were both set in the same contemporary universe—’more or less the same one we live in now’—and put Gibson’s work onto mainstream bestseller lists for the first time…”

His cultural significance is noted as:

“In his early short fiction, Gibson is credited by Rapatzikou in ‘The Literary Encyclopedia’ with effectively renovating Science Fiction, a genre at that time considered widely ‘insignificant,’ influencing by means of the postmodern aesthetic of his writing the development of new perspectives in science fiction studies. In the words of filmmaker Marianne Trench, Gibson’s visions ‘struck sparks in the real world’ and ‘determined the way people thought and talked’ to an extent unprecedented in science fiction literature. The publication of ‘Neuromancer’ (1984) hit a cultural nerve, causing Larry McCafferty to credit Gibson with virtually launching the cyberpunk movement, as ‘the one major writer who is original and gifted to make the whole movement seem original and gifted.'”


“His early novels were, according to The Observer, ‘seized upon by the emerging slacker and hacker generation as a kind of road map’. Through Gibson’s novels, words like ‘cyberspace,’ ‘netsurfing,’ ‘ICE,’ ‘jacking in,’ and ‘neural implants,’ entered popular usage, as did concepts such as net consciousness, virtual interaction and ‘the matrix.’ In ‘Burning Chrome’ (1982) [of which this post takes much of it’s material], ” he coined the term ‘cyberspace’ referring to the “mass consensual hallucination” of computer networks. Through its use in ‘Neuromancer,’ the term gained such recognition that it became the de facto term for the World Wide Web during the 1990s. Artist Dike Blair has commented that Gibson’s ‘terse descriptive phrases capture the moods which surround technologies, rather than their engineering.'”

“In ‘Neuromanceer,’ Gibson first used the term ‘matrix’ to refer to the visualised Internet, two years after the nascent Internet was formed in the early 1980s from the computer networks of the 1970s. In this conception of the ‘matrix,’ he predicted a worldwide communications network eleven years before the origin of the World Wide Web, although related notions had been described elsewhere. At the time of writing ‘Burning Chrome,’ Gibson ‘had a hunch that [the Internet] would change things, in the same way that the ubiquity of the automobile changed things.’ In 1995, he identified the advent, evolution and growth of the Internet as ‘one of the most fascinating and unprecedented human achievements of the century,’ a new kind of civilization that is—in terms of significance—on a par with the birth of cities, and in 2000 predicted it would lead to the death of the nation state. [Something yet to see, but it’s early days yet].

Observers contend that Gibson’s influence on the development of the Web reached beyond prediction; he is widely credited with creating an iconography for the information age.”

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_Gibson [cites have been omitted for ease of reading and can be found on the Wiki page cited.]

I’m quoting parts of the Preface to “Burning Chrome” (by Bruce Sterling, another cyberpunk author and who with Gibson, in the “Difference Engine,” created “steampunk.” ) in this post, as I try and look at the state of SF in the 80s, when I wasn’t reading it, and had turned away, and as I nowlook forward into my present journey back to the genre.

The beginning Preface of “Burning Chrome” starts out:

“If poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world, science-fiction writers are its court jesters…. We can play with Big Ideas, because the garish motley of our pulp origins make us seem harmless.

And SF writers have every opportunity to kick up our heels – we have influence without responsibility. Very few feel obligated to take us seriously, yet our ideas permeate the culture, bubbling along invisibly, like background radiation.

Yet the sad truth of the matter is that SF has not been much fun of late. All forms of pop culture go through doldrums; they catch cold when society sneezes. If SF in the late Seventies was confused, self-involved, and stale, it was scarcely a cause for wonder.

But William Gibson is one of our best harbinger’s of things to come … His amazing first novel, ‘Neuromancer,’ which swept the field’s awards in 1985, showed Gibson’s unparalleled ability to pinpoint social nerves. The effect was galvanic, helping to wake the genre from it’s dogmatic slumbers. Roused from its hibernation, SF is lurching from its cave into the bright sublight of the modern zeitgeist. And we are lean and hungry and not in the best of tempers. From now on things are going to be different.”

Now I quit reading SF, coincidentally (or NOT?) right about the late 70s. I began to feel that the Masters, esp. Heinlein and Clarke, which were about all I read, were going in odd, self-indulgent paths, and I fled the scene, so to speak. Was the late 70s stale, and if so, did Gibson help in refreshing it?

The self-indulgence of those late 70s left me so “bereft,” that I jumped ship, and did not return until a few years ago – a gap of about 25 years. So would Gibson back then have pulled me in? I’m not sure, reading his work now, whether I would have been ready for such a polar shift in reality. Maybe I would have been more ready for the cyberpunk than I am at a stodgy age 50?

“The Gernsback Continuum,” shows him consciously drawing a bead on the shambling figure of the SF tradition. It’s a devastating refutation of ‘scientifiction in its guise as narrow technolatry. We see here a writer who knows his roots and is gearing up for a radical reformation.”

Did he do that? Do those of you who recall his work from the ’80s, and those who have consciously, or unconsciously, absorbed the changes, felt that stirring of a paradigm shift in SF?

“Gibson hit his stride with the Sprawl series: ‘Johnny Mnemonic,’ [one of my fav SF movies] ‘New Rose Hotel, and the incredible ‘Burning Chrome’ ….[and] showed a level of imagination that effectively upped the ante for the entire genre…

The triumph of these pieces was their brilliant, self-consistent evocation of a credible future. It is hard to estimate the
difficulty of this effort, which is one that many SF writers have been ducking for years. This intellectual failing accounts for the ominous proliferation of postapocalypse stories, sword-and-sorcery fantasies, and those everpresent space operas in which galactic empires slip conveniently back into barbarism [a pet peeve of mine – the fall back]. All these sub-genres are products of the writers’ urgent necessity to avoid tangling with a realistic future.”

How do you feel about this – do you feel that a consistent realistic future IS the way to go – I for one love space operas, but prefer they stay in a nice high-tech future. And I don’t mind the occ. postapocalyptic story, but there was a proliferation back in the late 70s.

“But in the Sprawl stories we see a future that is recognizably and painstakingly drawn from the modern condition. It is multi-faceted, sophisticated, global in its view. It derives from a new set of starting points: not from the shop-worn formula of robots, spaceships, and the modern miracle of atomic energy, but from cybernetics, biotech, and the communications web – to name a few.”

So, for those of you (me) who like our spaceships, what do you think? I s the “formula” shopworn? And is his dystopian future what is really wanted/needed?

“Gibson’s extrapolative techniques are those of classic hard SF, but his demonstration of them is pure New Wave. Rather than the usual passionless techies and rock-ribbed Competent Men of hardSF, his characters are a pirate’s crew of losers, hustlers, spin-offs, cast-offs, and lunatics. We see his future from the belly up, as it is lived, not merely dry speculation.”

Now, I for one have read some of his work, Idoru being one of them, and didn’t quite like it, although I haven’t given up on him (obviously – I got this SS set), but I want, as I’ve said before, characters that I can root for, not characters I dislike – that has been a problem for me in many a novel – “Undertow,” which I came to love because of it’s notes of astonishing brilliance, was the first E. Bear book without likable characters, unless you counted the aliens, who were far “better” than their human counterparts. So I’m not sure the underbelly is necessary, or even a preferred method of SF.

…”Big Science in this world is not a source of quaint Mr. Wizard marvels [you may have to be my age to get that bit], but an omnipresent, all-permeating definitive force. It is a sheet of mutating radiation pouring wildly up an exponential slope.

These stories paint an instantly recognizable portrait of the modern predicament. Gibson’s extrapolations show, with exaggerated clarity, the hidden bulk of the iceberg of social change. This iceberg now glides with sinister majesty across the surface of the late twentieth century, but its proportions are vast and dark.

Many SF writers, faced with this lurking monster, have flung up their hands and predicted shipwreck. Though no-one could accuse Gibson of Pollyannaism, he has avoided this easy way out. This is another distinguishing mark of the emergent new school of Eighties SF: its boredom with the Apocalypse. Gibson wastes little time shaking his
finger or wringing his hands. He keeps his eyes unflinchingly open…”

How about it – although growing up with the Apocalypse (drills in school), and “On the Beach” – the seminal work, along with “Alas, Babylon,” there wasn’t much on the horizon except “The Postman,” which I loved (so sue me). But is this/was this, the wave that broke the “slumber” and self-indulgence of the 70s and brought us into the new age of SF? Is Gibson that prominent? Is this merely self- indulgent 80s crap wrapped up in “we are SO out there” commentary? Or has there been a polar shift again with Stross, Vinge, and post-singularity work? I do find that SF does tend to have “trends.”
Right now it’s all sort of post-singularity stuff – they read, they liked, they co-opted, and ran with it. But isn’t there also room for good old fashioned stuff like Karen Traviss’ Wess’har, K.K. Rusch’s Retrieval Artist series, Reynold’s space-operas, E. Bear’s Jenny Casey trilogy – somewhat dystopian in scope, and set in a realistic future, but without the low-life pond-scum that Sterling seems to think is the hallmark of the New Age. Have we moved beyond this New Age? Is Gibson now redundant, less a creative visionary, and more a part of the 80s scene?

“Another sign that shows Gibson as part of a growing new consensus in SF: the ease with which he collaborates with other writers.”

I seem to recall collaborations in earlier works in the 60s and 70s, but is that a thing of rarity, or is Sterling merely commenting on how seamless it now appears?

“In Gibson we hear the sound of a decade that has finally found it’s own voice. He is not a table-pounding revolutionary, but a practical, hands-on retrofitter. He is opening the stale corridors of the genre to the fresh air of new data: eighties culture, with its strange, growing integration of technology and fashion….

SF has survived a long winter on its stored body fat. Gibson, along with a broad wave of inventive, ambitious new writers, has prodded the genre awake and sent it out on recce for a fresh diet. And it’s bound to do us all a power of good.”

End of quotes.

So, what do y’all think? Is this just self-indulgent 80’s “visions,” or is it really a fresh insight: a look at a stale genre, and the influence of one writer (and others) on refitting it for a new generation? What do you younger readers feel? Are the classics so dated? Is Gibson and his cronies the start of something new, or is he merely a “phase” that we went through, as Sterling pointed out that the genre does, periodically going through the doldrums and shaking itself up? Have we reshaken ourselves again, or are we still in the Gibsoneque self-indulgent “underbelly”? Is Vinge and his work an outgrowth/extension of Gibson’s cyberpunk view, or a new world view of the future?

Is there still room in the genre, as I think, for space operas, aliens, and “cool” stuff, or are we doomed to pigeonhole ourselves again, as we did in the 70s, with Vinge style worlds? Have we learned nothing from our growing pains? Are we narrowing our future vision too far – or do you feel that this “style” is the way to open eyes? Having been busy working and starting a family in the late 80s, I can’t really say anything about that decade. I was too self- absorbed in making my personal life work to look to the far future. Now, as I bask on the cusp of senior citizenry, I have time to be self-indulgent and look back, wonder at the changes, and whether they actually mean anything at all, or are they truly effects of
generations passing through.

I am curious as to what others think of the trends of SF, where we are now, where we might be heading. I realize this is a lot of “thought”, but you all are “big boys” (and girls) who can parse out a sentence about it. I think we could all benefit from a deeper look and some insights into the genre we all love. Is HardSF Gibson, or he is merely one facet, either dated, or still relevant? Who IS relevant, if he isn’t?


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