William Gibson

Oct. 7, 2013
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  Probably no late 20th century author was more prophetic than William Gibson, the novelist who coined the word cyberspace before the space actually existed. The influence of Gibson novels such as Neuromancer and Count Zero can be seen in The Matrix and its imitators, along with a slew of derivative cyberpunk fiction. Oddly, only one film was ever shot from a Gibson story, the Keanu Reeves-vehicle Johnny Mnemonic (1995). It was unsuccessful at box offices and unpopular with critics. Reeves even received a Golden Raspberry for his role.

As Gary Westfahl points out in his cogent critical biography, William Gibson (published in the University of Illinois Press’ Modern Masters of Science Fiction series), the author’s lack of Hollywood presence wasn’t for want of trying. In the late ‘80s Gibson went to Hollywood “where he labored on several projects that never came to fruition.” His screenplay for Alien 3 was rejected, yet a central idea about the Aliens as a militarized genetic experiment turned up decades later in Ridley Scott’s prequel, Prometheus.

Gibson wrote the Johnny Mnemonic screenplay, tailoring his story to fit cinematic expectations, yet the script was altered in production and the film was reedited before its American release. As Westfahl writes, the result was dumbed-down in the expectation that moviegoers couldn’t grasp Gibson’s concepts. But as a result, moviegoers didn’t go. Understandably, Johnny Mnemonic left Gibson with little desire to continue in screenwriting, even though Westfahl also states that the author’s primary interest was in Hollywood was financial, not artistic.

Afterward, Gibson collaborated on a couple of episodes of “The X-Files,” including one that adapts aspects of Neuromancer to the series’ format. And after that, nothing.

Most of William Gibson analyzes the author’s biography, his writings and the interplay between life and fiction. Westfahl took the time to hunt down the obscure fanzines for which Gibson wrote in his youth, giving a fuller picture than previously available of his development as a writer. Sifting authorial intent from the sometimes convoluted academic theories Gibson has been saddled with, Westfahl identifies some salient characteristics in the work: Gibson’s protagonists tend to be stoically uncomplaining outlaws with a code Raymond Chandler might have understood, pitched into a shifting world where solid ground, human memory and identity itself are often softwear generated illusions.

Gibson neither extols nor condemns the future he envisions; like most savvy people in most times and places, his protagonists accept the world as given and make their way as best they can.


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