Friday, April 17, 2015

Memes from a Sprawl

Neuromancer by William Gibson (1984): Science fiction can age badly in the specifics without losing its zing -- or its relevance to one's present-day situation. It isn't about prediction, after all. It's about imagining the social changes attendant on changed circumstances. 

And Neuromancer, gifted with one of the most famous first lines in science-fiction history, actually drops the predictive ball right there, at least for now: the sky over Chiba City, meant to look like a static-filled TV set to a dead channel in publication-year 1984, would now almost certainly connote the colour blue to a reader. And the sky over one of Gibson's technocruddy megalopolises certainly isn't deep blue.

Two things really set Gibson apart in the early 1980's -- his interest in something other than the plain style favoured by so many science-fiction writers over the decades, and his concern with the Inner Space of computers. Neuromancer, set some time in the late 21st century in a world with a massive, networked computer landscape known as The Matrix, offers us lots of locations to describe: the mercurial, neon world of the Matrix; the orbital habitats of the rich and infamous (or the stoned and immaculate) ; the technogrunge cityscapes of Chiba City and The Sprawl.

Gibson's descriptions, often dense and poetic, make it clear that the protagonist of his novel is really the world of the future itself. There's a plot here, and characters. But you don't really know that much more about cyber-jockey Case and techno-ninja Molly at Neuromancer's end than you did at the beginning. Really, the Artificial Intelligences who drive the plot are the most interesting characters, and certainly the characters with the most agency. Everyone else is being acted upon to secure a particular outcome that will Change The World Forever. And boy, will it ever, if Case and Molly survive to complete their mission.

One can see why both genre and mainstream critics went gaga over Gibson when Neuromancer broke. His style had few genre antecedents; the subject matter of the world inside The Matrix, really none. Overall, his obvious influences were Philip K. Dick, Alfred Bester, Fred Pohl and Cyril Kornbluth, and perhaps the Fritz Leiber of "Coming Attraction." All of them presented variations on a run-down, high-tech, over-crowded future in which corporations had supplanted governments. Gibson's film noirish plot and characters, combined with his almost baroque attention to telling detail, helped introduce us to the future we all live in, more and more every day: the cyberpunk present, born in the 1980's. Highly recommended.

Count Zero by William Gibson (1986): In this, the originally unintended second act of William Gibson's Sprawl Trilogy, we return to everyone's favourite late-21st-century Earth to see how things are going several years after the conclusion of Neuromancer. We get a mostly new cast of characters. We get Gibson stretching his muscles with a multiple-thread narrative. We get... a lot of fax and print-out paper?

Yes, fax and print-out paper, so ubiquitous in Gibson's future that endless scrolls of them blow down the city streets. Oh, well. 

By the end, this really feels like a second act -- nothing really major is resolved, though we learn a lot about the world of the Sprawl just a few short years after the Matrix-altering events of Neuromancer

For instance, an awful lot of artificial intelligences released upon the Matrix in the aftermath of Neuromancer have decided to play at being the quasi-pantheon of Vodoun (that's Voodoo to you!). There's a certain logic to it, though some of that logic won't be revealed for another novel. Of course, there's also a certain type of playfulness to it. One imagines that artificial intelligences with minds that work at the speed of light might start goofing around with role-playing just to pass the time.

In any case, Count Zero moves quickly and tensely from beginning to end, even if that end ultimately feels like a set-up for the next novel. Gibson's main characters have a lot more room to move this time when it comes to personality: his growth as a writer encompasses characterization as well as multiple-plot-line coordination. Recommended.

Mona Lisa Overdrive by William Gibson (1988): In his third solo novel, and third part of The Sprawl Trilogy, Gibson really flexes narrative muscle by giving the reader several narratives converging neatly at the conclusion. And this concludes not only the novel itself, but the trilogy as a whole, as questions left unanswered in the previous two novels are answered.

This novel gives us the broadest view of Gibson's quasi-dystopian, late 21st-century Earth we've had. We tour another incredibly grungy wasteland of the North American, East Coast Sprawl of urban, suburban, and exurban grunginess. We visit England, where there's still a semi-functional national government in place. We briefly see Japan.

Most importantly, we visit more areas of the Matrix, the cyberspace megalopolis that dominates Gibson's future world. Still the location of vast constructs of data, the Matrix is now also inhabited by artificial intelligences and the occasional electronic ghost of a dead person who's been uploaded into what we would now call the World Wide Web. That web didn't exist when Gibson created the Matrix. Indeed, a lot of people think his Sprawl novels influenced how people created and imagined and shaped the World Wide Web.

Gibson's work with characters here is first-rate -- he's a much better and more assured writer a mere four years after the publication of first-novel Neuromancer. There are flaws and mistakes in his imagination of the future, but such can be said of anyone who tries to think ahead in his or her fiction. His social theorizing seems awfully prescient -- his imagining of the relationship between our (then) future selves and the giant world of data and corporations and people connected electronically on Earth, and beyond the Earth.

Complaints? The ultimate 'villain' of Mona Lisa Overdrive almost seems like a tying off of loose-ends that didn't necessarily need tying off. I almost wonder if Gibson realized this while writing the novel -- the threat posed by the antagonist orchestrating the early crises of the novel just sort of drifts away in a puff of cyber-smoke at the end. 

So, too, a concluding scene that could use a few more pages. It's as if Gibson realized that advances in technology and geopolitical events had already started to make his Sprawl an obsolete science-fictional concept less than a decade after he first devoted a story to it. Like several of his characters in that conclusion, he's already in the car driving away. Still, a grand achievement in literature, genre or otherwise, studded with scintillating bits of extrapolation and hard-edged imagery. Highly recommended.

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