Posts Tagged ‘william gibson’
I may be persuaded to look again at the work of John Shirley but let’s be honest, when you want cyberpunk, you want Bruce Sterling and William Gibson. Or do you? It is possible they are sui generis of the very genre they created. As Sterling notes in the introduction, he was best known at this point for the Shaper-Mechanist stories, a body of work that essentially leapfrogged cyberpunk and rendered it irrelevant. Similarly Gibson’s cyberpunk novels are the least interesting thing he’s written.
Colonel Yuri Vasilevich Korolev was the first man on Mars. Now he is disabled, pensioned off and rotting away on the equally rotten Kosmograd space station. Typical Soviet political shenanigans ensue. Sterling and Gibson then spring a surprise cyberpunk on the reader that is actually pretty reminiscent of all those up-by-our-bootstraps stories from The Ascent Of Wonder. It is also pretty naff.
But this story led the way. It was a cooly accurate perception of the wrongheaded elements of the past – and a clarion call for a new SF estethtic of the Eighties.
That from the Sterling’s brief introduction to ‘The Gernsback Continuum’ which also notes that it is Gibson’s first professional publication. This is surprising not just for its immediate quality and Gibson’s already distinctive sensibility but because it much more closely resembles his current work, rather than what I think of when I think of his early cyberpunk period. It is set in the present (which is to say the Eighties), can be read as entirely mimetic and features none of the trappings we would usually associate with cyberpunk. Gibson may have become stylistically more oblique but the protagonist of this story wouldn’t seem out of place in Pattern Recognition:
I’d gone over to shoot a series of shoe ads; California girls with tanned legs and frisky Day-Glo jogging shoes had capered for me down the escalators of St. John’s Wood and across the platforms of Tooting Bec.
The photographer is commissioned to gather images for a coffee table book of “American Streamlined Moderne”, real world examples of the sort of architecture Paul R Frank drew for Hugo Gernsback. Gradually this never was world of fluted chrome and aluminium starts to impinge on his reality.
In terms of linking the story to anything Sterling identifies in his preface, that internationality is there from the beginning but otherwise it is hard to spot the nascent germ of cyberpunk. Rather this seems like an instinctively Ballardian story, albeit seen through the lens of a fresh generation. It is all there: architecture, 20th Century American history, invisible literature, commodity fetishism, alienation. As I said though, Gibson’s own sensibility shines through. To start with, he is a rather more open writer (although this has changed as his career has progress); a Ballard protagonist would never come out and refer to “my little bundle of condensed catastrophe”. There is more to it than that though. A line like “really bad media can exorcise your semiotic ghosts” makes you sit up and take notice. It is distinctly Ballardian but already distinctly Gibsonian. Really quite wonderful.
‘Johnny Mnemonic’ (1981) is very much a dry run for Gibson’s famous debut novel, Neuromancer (1984). The protagonist is a young man, disaffected and detached. He has a valuable technical skill which powerful criminal interests are using to hold him over a barrel. He is aided by Molly, a razorgirl (and irksomely trad combo of mother and whore). He triumphs over organised crime with the assistance of some colourful street tribes. He makes friends with a smack-addicted ex-Naval Intelligence dolphin. Wait, that last one only happens in the story…
‘Johnny Mnemonic’ is more of a scene than a story. I’ve already written about the way the story immerses the reader and immersion is the intent here; we enter after the story has begun and leave before the story has finished but in that period we have learnt the world. Although the plot rehearses Neuromancer, it is relatively perfunctory and Gibson is more interested in Johnny as an inhabitant of the Sprawl than in Johnny himself. I think we can safely say that is something that has remained true throughout his career.
This is the opening paragraph of ‘Johnny Mnemonic’ by William Gibson:
I put the shotgun in an Adidas bag and padded it out with four pairs of tennis socks, not my style at all, but that was what I was aiming for. If they think your crude, go technical; if they think you’re technical, go crude. I’m a very technical boy. So I decided to get as crude as possible. These days, though, you have to be pretty technical before you can even aspire to crudeness. I’d had to turn both those twelve-gauge shells from brass stock, on a lathe, and then load them myelf; I’d had to dig up an old microfiche with instructions for hand-loading cartridges; I’d had to build a lever-action press to seat the primers – all very tricky. But I knew they’d work.
And this is the opening text from Johnny Mnemonic, adapted by Gibson himself and directed by Robert Longo:
Second decade of the 21st Century.
The world is threatened by a new plague: NAS
Nerve Attentuation Syndrome, fatal, epidemic, its cause and cure are unknown.
The corporations are opposed by the Lo Teks, a resistance movement risen from the streets: hackers, data-pirates, guerilla fighters in the Info Wars.
The corporations defend themselves.
They hire the Yakuza, the most powerful of all crime syndicates.
They sheath their data in black ice, lethal viruses waiting to burn the brains of intruders.
But the Lo Teks wait in their strongholds, in the old city cores, like rats in the walls of the world.
The most valuable information must sometimes be entrusted to mnemonic couriers, elite agents who smuggle data in wet-wired brain implants.
That is quite a contrast. With Gibson’s original story, the game is afoot. Initially we know very little; we don’t know who the narrator is or where or when the story is set. But we can tease things out. We know the story is concerned with technology, we know it is important not just how things are constructed but how they are marketed (“Adidas bag”), we know the story is set in a world where a shotgun is arcane. We know violence is planned, we know our protagonist is smart, we know the world is hard. The whole techno-noir tone of the story is set by a single brilliant line: “If they think your crude, go technical; if they think you’re technical, go crude.”
The film, on the the other hand, takes the PowerPoint approach to narrative. Here is fact one, here is fact two. There is a nice, accidental poetry to “like rats in the walls of the world” but otherwise is composed of perfunctory sentence fragments. Before the the film has begun, it has already given the audience the information needed to dismiss it. Scrolling introductory text is never needed in a film: it assumes the audience are stupid; it usually indicates fundamental flaws later on in the film that should have been addressed at source; if a wodge of exposition really is required, a voiceover is always better. This example is particularly egregious because none of the information is actually necessary and the viewer is likely to end up more confused, not less.
I should say that I highly doubt Gibson had any hand in writing that introduction, it smells like the product of an anonymous studio hack. This is Gibson commenting on the film in a 1998 interview:
Basically what happened was it was taken away and re-cut by the American distributor in the last month of its prerelease life, and it went from being a very funny, very alternative piece of work to being something that had been very unsuccessfully chopped and cut into something more mainstream.
There is a huge sense of squandered potential to Johnny Mnemonic; Longo is an acclaimed visual artist – this was his first and last feature film – and Gibson is William freakin’ Gibson. It could have really been something. Wired organised a fascinating conversation between the two prior to the release of the film which features this depressing exchange:
Gibson: That meeting we had yesterday, though, with some of the studio hotshots – I came away from it with the feeling that there were people there who clearly didn’t get it. Who still didn’t have any sort of a clue about what we had been doing all this time.
Longo: Ha! We did a good job! They gave us $30 million and we gave them a movie they can’t understand. All riiighht! [Laughs.] It’s interesting that this started out as an arty 1 1/2-million-dollar movie, and it became a 30-million-dollar movie because we couldn’t get a million and a half.
The joke was on them.