Cyberspace: it's all this man's fault

The term 'cyberspace' might never have been invented if William Gibson hadn't been eavesdropping on some Seattle nerds. Then the alternate world of Neuromancer was born
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The Independent Online

As a writer of science fiction, William Gibson certainly looks the part: nicotine-stained fingers, faraway gaze, black jeans and anorak. Cyberspace is where he's most at home (in fact he came up with the word for a short story in 1981), but he's not much into e-commerce. He's a hacker at heart. He admits: "When I am presented with a new technology, the first thing I do is to try and come up with some atrocious abuse that one could put it to."

All Tomorrow's Parties, the last in his latest trilogy, is a cyber-noir tale set some years hence in San Francisco, featuring characters with fragmented, transient lives: a nameless assassin, a PR guru who's a synthesis of Bill Gates and Woody Allen, and a virtual player - the posthuman emergent entity Rei Toei.

The bleak realism of scenes set under the city's Bay Bridge owe nothing to real-life observation; Gibson did all his research virtually, and when he eventually arrived in San Francisco to promote the book, was relieved to find it accurate. "I used maps on the Internet, and found a website for the building that my villain takes over. It even had views from the observation tower, so it was very exact."

His plot is driven by the notion of a "nodal point" at which reality zips into warp speed. The hardest thing, he says, was to resist the temptation to pull out all the stops and give the readers the apocalypse some might have been expecting. "In the end I was happiest with the conclusion that the moment that changes everything goes by literally in a blink. If two pages stick together, you would miss it.

"I was probably reacting to the hysteria of Y2K and became concerned with making the point that big changes don't occur according to our schedule. They just happen. The last one, according to my character, was in 1911. Someone told me after publication that Virginia Woolf had half-seriously cited some weekend in 1911 as the beginning of Modernism, but I just pulled that date out of a hat."

He was intrigued by changes of mindset in the early years of the last century, but is dismissive of codification. "That theme is a reflection of my incredibly vague sense of what chaos theory might be about. All I really know I have got from skimming through a few Sunday supplement articles. I think I arrived at nodal points through trying to find a fictional metaphor for what I do. My traditional job description is that I am a cut-price prophet, but when I started to write I was certain that science-fiction writers never predicted the future, or at least never really got it right."

Now 52, Gibson grew up in rural Virginia and moved to Toronto in his late teens, after his mother died, in order to avoid the draft to Vietnam. "The army was not on my list of destinations. It seems silly to think of Toronto as exotic, but that experience of dislocation during a time of tremendous social change struck me as being very sci-fi indeed. I had to come to terms with the fact that, as I saw it, my country was trying to kill me. I was brought up in the usual unquestioning patriotism, and suddenly it was turned on its head."

In his teens he abandoned science fiction for Sixties swing. He took an English degree, got married, spent years as a "proto-slacker". "I was ahead of my time. I had no idea what to do except this odd impulse to try to write science fiction. In 1977 I remember spending months composing a single very long sentence in the manner of the early JG Ballard. I was quite incapable of narrative movement, and doing these faux-Ballard sentences I could really get some words on paper. You could basically do without verbs. But I couldn't turn those bits into narrative."

Three years later he started again, inspired this time by the Sony Walkman. "I stumbled across one in a shop and bought it on the spot. My wife could have killed me because it was a month's rent, but the idea of this little unit that would allow me to take music and move around with it was just irresistible. It was something about the intimacy, the secret virtual nature of the experience. No one knew what you were experiencing; it was like being able to give reality a different score."

Shortly after, he happened upon a group of first-generation nerds at a sci-fi convention in Seattle. "I was in the bar, eavesdropping on a conversation about computer viruses. The part of me that was an English major jumped right on the language and when I realised that "interface" could be used as a verb, I was off and running. I thought of Neuromancer as a sort of code. I think I was sensing that major change was about to emerge around the stuff I was writing about.

"The reason I was able to write effectively had everything to do with my ignorance of the subject and nothing to do with what I knew. If I had known about it, I think I would have been over the same barrel as my computer buddies in Seattle. They thought of it in pure terms, whereas I was able to see the forest for the trees. The one criticism from the technical squad that I have taken to heart is that in real life, technology doesn't always work." Hence the malfunctioning GPS spectacles in All Tomorrow's Parties, which flash up Rio street maps just when the crucial call comes in.

"I never accept an invitation to speak about science without enduring sharp pangs of the imposter syndrome," says Gibson, who last week concluded the ICA/Cap Gemini series of lectures on Cutting Edge Science. "The trouble with my giving a talk is that I am really doing it completely backward. Investigation is the only agenda I have. If people are asking for clarification, they will be out of luck."

He may claim scientific illiteracy, but his fictions are studded with concepts such as nanotechnology, the miniaturisation of computers which might enable architecture or fabric to take on a life of its own. "I have used nanotechnology as a sort of big counter on the board. I don't buy the rhetoric that once we get this thing going we will all be immortal and wealth will be meaningless, but I do think that our existing parameters will become quite plastic. At the moment it's so squishy that I can't really get any traction on it."

The assassin in his latest book is a Taoist, but Gibson points to Buddhism as the philosophy which most informs the e-revolution. He is intrigued by a more limber style of technology which pulls down structures as fast as it creates them. "That which is overdesigned, too highly specific, anticipates outcome; the anticipation of outcome guarantees, if not failure, the absence of grace," he writes in All Tomorrow's Parties. "History was plastic, was a matter of interpretation. The digital had not so much changed that as made it too obvious to ignore. History was stored data, subject to manipulation and interpretation."

Impermanence, he believes, has become a virtue. "Flimsy technology allows for a great deal of experi-mentation. Part of it would be quite pointless, but the idea is that it will do less damage in the long run. We are not building for the thousand-year run, we are simply preserving what's good and allowing ourselves as many options as possible."

At home, Gibson's vision of cyberspace seems distinctly limited by today's technology. "I am not an enthusiast," he acknowledges. "I'm at the bottom of the computer food chain in our household because my 17-year-old daughter tends to have whatever is most up to the minute and when she's tired of it my wife inherits it. I hate buying computers because I feel they're already obsolete in the trunk of my car."

More and more, though, he feels the pull of the web. "I avoided it for years, but Netscape was the breakthrough point. I find that it's like having an infinite magazine.

"It's become a social reality now because I am more conscious of the ways that people organise themselves post-geographically, through common interests," he says. "Who you are now is, to some extent, defined by who you hang with on the net, whether in Tokyo, Beijing or Rio."