Finding his Own Uses for Things
Finding his Own Uses for Things
The Short Fiction
Abstract and Keywords
This chapter discusses William Gibson's short fiction. Among Gibson's early short stories are “Fragments of a Hologram Rose” (1977), which introduces the theme of virtual reality; “The Gernsback Continuum” (1981), his first metafictional consideration of science fiction and its effects; “Johnny Mnemonic” (1981), which first involves the underworld of the Sprawl, the vast megalopolis stretching down America's East Coast; and “Burning Chrome” (1982), which adds the ingredient of cyberspace. “The Gernsback Continuum” pays fond tribute to the prophecies of science fiction writers and futurists of the 1920s and 1930s, and ponders how their visions still influence residents of a future they failed to predict. This chapter examines other Gibson stories, including “The Belonging Kind” (1981, with John Shirley), “Hinterlands” (1981), “The Winter Market” (1985), “Doing Television” (1990), and “Thirteen Views of a Cardboard City” (1997).
One is tempted to interpret Gibson’s early stories as an extended process of discovering and experimenting with elements that became central to his novels. His first official story, “Fragments of a Hologram Rose” (1977), introduces the theme of virtual reality—here, “Apparent Sensory Perception” or ASP, a system for vicariously experiencing other people’s recorded activities—as well as an interest in the brief, easily shattered relationships of rootless drifters. “The Gernsback Continuum” (1981) is Gibson’s first metafictional consideration of science fiction and its effects, also involving a globalized world of multinational corporations and peripatetic characters navigating its subcultures, as later observed in Pattern Recognition and related novels. “Johnny Mnemonic” (1981) first involves the underworld of the Sprawl, the vast megalopolis stretching down America’s East Coast, with hustlers exploiting hijacked technology to stay alive amidst uncertain allies and violent opponents, while “Burning Chrome” (1982) adds the ingredient of cyberspace, (p.34) the illusory realm of data constructs that carry out the future’s business and face incursions from ingenious criminals. In this context, “Hinterlands” (1981) would be cast as a failed experiment, taking on the science fiction tropes of space travel and alien contact that left Gibson uninspired, as they figured in Neuromancer but became less and less important in later novels.
Still, Gibson never regarded these stories as trial runs for a novel, and seeing his stories solely through the lens of Neuromancer and its successors may hinder an appreciation of them on their own terms. Certainly, though only vaguely congruent with later writings, “Fragments of a Hologram Rose” represents an impressive piece of world-building that might be considered Gibson’s response to the “condensed novels” written by an author he admired, J. G. Ballard, in the 1960s (published in America as Love and Napalm: Export U.S.A. ), though it is a more conventional narrative.
Anticipating Japan’s emergence as a world power before other commentators, Gibson envisions a young man, Parker, who was “indentured” (44) to a Japanese company at the age of fifteen; he escapes to be plunged into an America beset by violent civil war involving the “New Secessionist regime” on the West Coast and lawless “shantytowns” in Texas (44, 45). There he discovers ASP machines, which, in a manner paralleling the later development of video games, were first available as public consoles or in theaters before being supplanted by home units. Then, fortuitously stumbling upon a corpse with some antibiotics—“worth twice its weight in cocaine” (46) in these desperate times—he gets away from the shantytowns and meets a girl who helps him obtain a job “writ[ing] continuity for broadcast ASP” (43). But she leaves him alone to carry on a disheartening life of constantly depending upon ASP recordings to sleep, though these are disrupted by power failures. The story, with enough content to fill another writer’s novel, is succinctly conveyed by scattered comments and brief flashbacks as Parker adjusts to the girl’s departure, demonstrating that Gibson had already mastered the technique, showcased by Heinlein and championed by Campbell, of artfully presenting well-developed future worlds by means of casual, indirect references.
The story also reveals that Gibson was already a superb prose stylist; indeed, his early confidence in this area is demonstrated by the fact that, while other writers might have suppressed an early story or extensively revised it for republication, Gibson republished “Fragments of a Hologram Rose” in (p.35) Burning Chrome with precisely one change: correcting the word “holodome” to “holodrome” (44). The story’s intriguing title, which alone might have persuaded editors to accept it, describes a literal event in the story—while ridding himself of possessions left behind by his girlfriend, Parker finds a postcard with a hologram rose and destroys it in his garbage disposal—and announces Gibson’s theme, bluntly epitomized at the end:
A hologram has this quality: Recovered and illuminated, each fragment will reveal the whole image of the rose. Falling toward delta, he sees himself the rose, each of his scattered fragments revealing a whole he’ll never know—stolen credit cards—a burned-out suburb—planetary conjunctions of a stranger—a tank burning on a highway—a flat packet of drugs—a switchblade honed on concrete, thin as pain. . …ut each fragment reveals the rose from a different angle, he remembered. (47–48)
In suggesting new that technologies might problematize people’s efforts to conceive of themselves in a satisfyingly unified fashion, Gibson introduced an issue raised in later works—“postmodern” challenges to traditional models of identity.
But the artistry in this passage is observed elsewhere in the story, when Parker looks for objects his girlfriend left behind: “The flashlight’s beam probes the bare shelves for evidence of love, finding a broken leather sandal strap, an ASP cassette, and a postcard” (43)—a small early sign of his recurring tendency to provide detailed lists of random objects filling his future worlds. As Lance Olsen puts it, “Gibson is infatuated with detail and inventory” (136). Gibson described these interests more eloquently while introducing Jeff de Boer: Articulation: “My writing always seemed to begin with the attempt to describe some imaginary object. Never with a line of dialogue, a human gesture, a landscape—always with an object, an artifact, some fragment, often broken, of a manufactured world” (). Indeed, this fascination with technological products, first gleaned in “Fragments of a Hologram Rose,” is evident throughout Gibson’s fiction; as he continued in his introduction to Jeff de Boer: “My works, naturally, abound with” such “fragments, these crumbs of imagined technology,” which are his “passport to the other side of the bridge” ().
While “Fragments of a Hologram Rose” attracted little attention, Gibson began building his reputation in 1981, when four stories appeared in rapid (p.36) succession. The first, “Johnny Mnemonic,” was published in Omni, the genre’s most prestigious venue, a sign that insiders at least were identifying Gibson as a major new talent. The story also commands attention because it first presents the dark, seedy future later observed in Neuromancer and other Sprawl novels. To be sure, “Johnny Mnemonic” is not without precedents in science fiction, for complex future underworlds had been crafted by earlier writers cited as cyberpunk precursors like Alfred Bester and Cordwainer Smith, and a story with particular resonances with Gibson is Samuel R. Delany’s “Time Considered as a Helix of Semi-Precious Stones” (1968), which he presumably read, given his fondness for Delany’s works.
However, there were also genuine novelties in Gibson’s emerging vision of the future, which would be celebrated at length by critics. Gibson was one of the first to anticipate a thoroughly globalized future wherein people and cultures would freely cross national boundaries; the villains of “Johnny Mnemonic” belong to the Japanese Mafia, the yakuza, described as “a true multinational, like ITT and Ono-Sendai” (14). He discerned that the most valuable items smuggled by the future’s criminals would be information—here, data stolen from the yakuza and implanted in the unknowing protagonist’s head; as Johnny comments, “We’re an information economy. They teach you that in school” (22). As Olsen concisely notes, “Information is power” in Gibson’s worlds (24), anticipating Gibson’s comment to Stephen McClelland in 1997 that “in post-industrial societies, it is information which will determine things like power, status, wealth” (“Coining Cyberspace” 123). Further, since “multinational corporations control most information,” they, not governments, “dominate the landscape in Gibson’s fiction” (Olsen 24). Also envisioning advances in bioengineering, “Johnny Mnemonic” introduces the intriguing character of Jones, a “cyborg” dolphin developed by the American military with a talent for extracting data—and an addiction to heroin—who becomes Johnny’s partner in crime.
Displaying another characteristic trope noted by commentators, Gibson combines these innovative elements with a traditional sort of story, with characters intent on obtaining a valuable object—what Alfred Hitchcock termed a “McGuffin,” the director’s way to convey that its nature is unimportant, since its function is solely to keep the plot in motion. Here, the information inside Johnny’s head makes him the target of yakuza assassins. To save his (p.37) life, Molly Millions—a bodyguard he encounters with built-in blades in her hands—takes Johnny to Jones, who helps him retrieve the data and protect himself by threatening to release the information. However, unlike the film penned by Gibson, the story never identifies what the data is, emphasizing that, as in Hitchcock’s films, it is merely a device to provoke an intriguing tour of an imagined future.
Although Bruce Sterling (driven by an ideological agenda unrelated to Gibson’s concerns) promoted Gibson’s third story, “The Gernsback Continuum,” as a savage attack on earlier science fiction (in his preface to Burning Chrome ), the story actually pays fond tribute to the now-quaint prophecies of science fiction writers and futurists of the 1920s and 1930s, and ponders how their visions still influence residents of a future they failed to predict. The story’s roots can be traced back to Gibson’s childhood, when his exposure to early television included antiquated documentaries showing “an obsolete future,” as he recalled in a 1975 review of a book on 1930s art and architecture, Donald J. Bush’s The Streamlined Decade, another influence on the story (1). That review even anticipated the story’s concept of an alternate universe in which that envisioned future materialized: “[Norman Bel] Geddes and his contemporaries in design set out to change the face of America—if they had succeeded, we might all have grown up in the pastel-wash cities that Frank R. Paul faithfully produced for the covers of Amazing Stories” (1). Further, the review’s bemused comment on one incongruous image from the book—“a Things to Come set misplaced on the outskirts of Racine, Wisconsin” (2)—conveys no hostility toward these quaint visions, which is also true of the story’s references to “the covers of old Amazing Stories pulps, painted by an artist named Frank R. Paul,” “Paul’s spray-paint utopias” (30), and the films Metropolis (1927), Things to Come (1936), and Flash Gordon serials (1936, 1938, 1940) (36). Gibson told Maximus Clarke in 2010 that “The Gernsback Continuum” came about because his review of Bush’s book had been “rejected,” and in response, “for some reason I sat down and rewrote it as a science fiction story”—confirming the review’s role in inspiring the story. However, when I noted in the interview below that the review had actually been published, Gibson speculates that “anger” about “having to do revisions,” not rejection, may have inspired the story.
To give Sterling his due, Gibson is not entirely uncritical of these outdated predictions—he says that the envisioned inhabitants of these futures had (p.38) “gone on and on, in a dream logic that knew nothing of pollution, the finite bounds of fossil fuel, or foreign wars it was possible to lose,” and calls them “smug, happy, and utterly content with themselves and their world” (38). However, there is no anger in these descriptions, nothing to justify Sterling’s overheated assertion that the story is a “devastating refutation of ‘scientifiction’ in its guise as narrow technolatry” (2). Like his protagonist, Gibson both observes and is part of the Gernsback Continuum, and while science fiction works had previously taken both fond and critical looks at the genre’s past—like Fredric Brown’s What Mad Universe (1949), which poked fun at the absurdities of space opera—Gibson may have been the first writer to examine Earthbound predictions from the 1930s in this fashion, perhaps introducing the now-common interest in such “retrofutures.”
The story is also arguably Gibson’s first work of realistic fiction, since one can interpret what the protagonist sees—“[s]emiotic ghosts” (35) of a Gernsbackian future—as nothing more than hallucinations, inspired by his assignment to photograph old structures with futuristic architecture (though the title suggests that they are glimpses of an alternate universe, what the paranormal investigator Mervyn Kihn tells him are “bits of deep cultural imagery that have split off and taken on a life of their own” ). And the relationship between the photographer and the people who hired him, the publisher Cohen and his associate Dialta Downes, anticipates the relationship between Pattern Recognition’s Cayce and Bigend: in each case, a talented craftsperson receives an assignment from a wealthy, sophisticated jet-setter and enters a more glamorous world. Further, both works take place in the present but feature people whose minds are very much on past predictions of the future—which represents Gibson’s own situation, and the type of narrative that may someday be accepted as his true strength.
Gibson’s next stories, “The Belonging Kind” (1981; with John Shirley) and “Hinterlands” (1981), were less successful than “Johnny Mnemonic” and “The Gernsback Continuum,” for reasons that foreground one issue that problematized Gibson’s relationship with science fiction: his discomfort with the genre’s most characteristic tropes, alien life and space travel. Future cities—both the gleaming constructs of “The Gernsback Continuum” and the dark underworlds of “Johnny Mnemonic”—had figured in previous science fiction, but stories about space travelers, distant planets, and exotic aliens were always (p.39) more central to the genre, so anyone entering the field would arguably have to write such stories, at least occasionally, as Gibson clearly believed when he began writing fiction. Even then, however, the results were less than satisfactory; as he reports while introducing Distrust That Particular Flavor, his unfinished stories in the mid-1970s “somehow involved outer space,” but “his wife parodied them all” (2). “The Belonging Kind” and “Hinterlands,” while not without their moments, must similarly be regarded as interesting failures.
As Gibson’s first published collaboration, “The Belonging Kind” also suggests that he will prove a consistently unassertive collaborator, content to allow partners to dominate the proceedings, resulting in stories that reflect their styles and interests more than Gibson’s. Apparently to acknowledge this, Gibson has his name listed second for this and two other collaborative stories, even when they were republished in his own collection, Burning Chrome. And Gibson has revealed that all his collaborations were primarily the other author’s creations. Gibson told McQuiddy in 1987 that “The Belonging Kind” came about because his friend Shirley sent him the manuscript of a “long, deadly serious piece of Kaf ka-esque horror,” inspiring Gibson to write a “very short parody” of the piece (6). When Shirley received this response, he made a few changes and submitted it as a Shirley/Gibson collaboration.
Knowing that its plot is essentially Shirley’s work, one is unsurprised to find that little about “The Belonging Kind” is congruent with priorities observed in other Gibson stories. The protagonist is all wrong: as a community-college instructor, Coletti has more formal education and enjoys a higher social status than Gibson’s usual characters; he becomes obsessed with his discovery that shape-shifting aliens are living on Earth, drifting from bar to bar and subsisting on alcohol, though Gibson elsewhere displays little interest in aliens; and he is so driven to learn more about these aliens that he devotes his life to following them, causing him to lose his teaching job, while a genuine Gibson protagonist, dedicated to staying alive at all costs, would never allow such unimportant matters to interfere with earning a living. Coletti, then, is more a Shirley hero than a Gibson hero.
More broadly, the story’s subject—the common science fiction trope that aliens are secretly living on Earth—surfaces only once more in Gibson’s works, in the vignette “Hippie Hat Brain Parasite.” Gibson values aliens solely as devices to improve our understanding of humanity; in praising the creators (p.40) of The X-Files, he said, “They have seen that which is even now abducting us, and it is us” (“The Absolute at Large” 11), suggesting little interest in the series’ literal argument that there are aliens among us. Gibson could not relate to Coletti’s desire to follow, socialize with, and eventually, in a sense, become one of the aliens he discovers. Instead, a Gibson hero observing an apparent alien would shrug his shoulders and get back to his business, unless he perceived some way to make money from the phenomenon. Consider, for example, how Gibson reacts nonchalantly to such news in “Hippie Hat Brain Parasite,” and how little interest Case demonstrates in Neuromancer when the existence of alien intelligences is confirmed. These individuals have other, more important things to worry about—namely, the alien-like humans around them. All things considered, Gibson would naturally regard Coletti, and his responses to the situation, as essentially silly—which is why he responded to Shirley’s earnest story by refashioning it as what he envisioned as a humorous vignette.
If there are any signs of Gibson in “The Belonging Kind,” they lie in its occasional rhetorical flourishes. One suspects that he worked hard to make the story’s opening passages distinctive, perhaps hoping even in this throwaway task to impress Shirley with his skills. Referring to the bar-hopping alien woman, the story says,
She swam through the submarine half-life of bottles and glassware and the slow swirl of cigarette smoke . …he moved through her natural element, one bar after another.
Now, Coretti remembered their first meeting as if he saw it through the wrong end of a powerful telescope, small and clear and very far away. (49)
As for “Hinterlands,” Gibson clearly chose, as a model for this story, Frederik Pohl’s Gateway (1976), a recent, award-winning novel by a veteran science fiction writer, and perhaps one book that Gibson purchased as part of his survey of mid-1970s science fiction. There are many similarities between the narratives: both involve a space station where human adventurers embark upon mysterious journeys through a sort of space warp to possibly obtain valuable evidence from alien worlds or civilizations. But in Pohl’s story, people who travel in deserted alien spaceships return more or less as they were, if they do return, and when lucky enough to obtain the right sort of artifacts or data, they can become fabulously wealthy, like the protagonist, Robinette (p.41) Broadhead. Further, due to such finds, humans soon achieve major scientific advances, allowing them to contact the race that constructed the spaceships and make provocative discoveries about the nature of the universe, as recounted in sequels to Gateway (one of which, Beyond the Blue Event Horizon , had already appeared when Gibson was writing “Hinterlands”).
However, in Gibson’s version of this story, little in the way of positive results or significant progress seems to come from similar ventures into space. Astronauts who depart from the space habitat Heaven to enter the space warp called the Highway inevitably return completely insane, compelled to commit suicide without communicating anything about what happened on their journeys. Toby Halpert and his colleague Charmian, part of Heaven’s staff, struggle to keep each returning astronaut alive as long as possible, hoping that one traveler might survive long enough to provide useful information. Returned objects occasionally yield data—since no recording devices ever function—but these do not always seem valuable. Gibson says of the first astronaut’s discovery, “Olga’s seashell generated an entire subbranch of the science, devoted exclusively to the study of . …lga’s seashell” (72). The statement suggests the sorts of pointless study that preoccupied scientists studying the sentient world of Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris (1961) more than the productive research in Pohl’s novel, which yields useful new technologies. True, one returned artifact is said to have proved “the Rosetta Stone for cancer” (77), but despite Tom Henthorne’s claim, the story does not specify that this actually engendered “a cure for cancer” (63). Further distancing himself from Broadhead, Halpert is one of the potential astronauts who, for unknown reasons, can never travel through the Highway, so he must remain in Heaven and tend to others who make the journey. In this story, all of the people involved in space travel are literally going nowhere.
Of course, other science fiction stories had featured alien presences that remained inexplicable and unresolved, and some of these—including Solaris, Damon Knight’s “Stranger Station” (1955), Arthur C. Clarke’s novel and Stanley Kubrick’s film 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), and James Tiptree Jr.’s “And I Awoke and Found Me Here on the Cold Hill’s Side” (1972)—involved space stations. From that perspective, “Hinterlands” is another story following a science fiction tradition. Yet previous writers attempted to solve as well as pose alien mysteries in their works, while Gibson solely emphasizes “the Fear” (p.42) (82) inspired by alien encounters, suggesting a disinclination to further pursue such matters. In fact, except for the collaborative “Red Star, Winter Orbit,” part of Neuromancer and one episode in Count Zero, Gibson never again sent any heroes into space.
After the uneasy diffidence of “Hinterlands,” Gibson displayed renewed energy—even joy—in returning to the Sprawl with his sixth story, “Burning Chrome” (1982), which introduced his most celebrated creation: cyberspace, “the simulation matrix, the electronic consensus-hallucination” (178), where the story’s central action occurs. Employing a stolen Russian program purchased from the Finn, who deals in illegal items, Bobby Quine, an expert at surreptitiously entering and exploiting cyberspace called a “cowboy,” and his partner, Automatic Jack, attempt to break into and steal vast sums of money (this story’s McGuffin) from the virtual headquarters of an underworld businesswoman named Chrome. Demonstrating an increasing mastery of technique, Gibson artfully intermingles the suspenseful story of their successful cyberspatial assault with flashbacks establishing the background and character of his protagonists. As is typical in his early fiction, these men are heavy users of illegal drugs, inspiring one of Gibson’s most memorable statements: after explaining that he employed a mixture of “booze and Vasopressin” as “the ultimate in masochistic pharmacology” while missing an ex-girlfriend, the narrator Jack says, “Clinically, they use the stuff [Vasopressin] to counter senile amnesia, but the street finds its own uses for things” (195). Displaying Gibson’s characteristic focus on failed relationships, the narrator feels briefly attached to a woman named Rikki, also Bobby’s girlfriend for a while, but she leaves the men alone when the story ends.
Even while following his own innovative paths, Gibson nods to science fiction traditions: Jack periodically attaches an artificial arm called a “waldo,” paying tribute to the Heinlein story “Waldo” (1942), which introduced the term. Also, Gibson at one point likens cyberspace to outer space, describing it as “nonspace where the only stars are dense concentrations of information, and high above it all burn corporate galaxies and the cold spiral arms of military systems” (178). As he later claimed to David Wallace-Wells in 2011, this analogy resulted from a conscious intent: he felt that he “lacked an arena for my science fiction” and concluded, “The spaceship didn’t work for me,” probably based on unhappy experiences like “Hinterlands.” Observing players absorbed in (p.43) video games, Gibson saw that for them, “the notional space behind all of the computer screens would be one single universe,” which could become a setting for his science fiction—though he immediately acknowledged two predecessors for the idea, Ray Bradbury’s “The Veldt” (1950) and Harlan Ellison’s “I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream” (1967). He told Robert Scott Martin in 1999 that he “invented cyberspace because traditional space travel as a metaphor, as it was in the books I read as a boy, wasn’t doing it for me emotionally”; in the same year he described cyberspace as “my own rocket ship” to Jim McClellan; and in 2012, he told Simone Lackerbauer and R. U. Sirius that he resolved to “replace outer space with cyberspace” in order “to write SF that I could stand to write.” Gibson returned to this theme more persistently in Neuromancer.
Gibson’s seventh story, the often overlooked “Hippie Hat Brain Parasite” (1983), was surely written solely because Shirley was launching his own fanzine, Modern Stories, and asked his friend to contribute to its first issue. Writing solely as a personal favor, Gibson evidently put little energy into this vignette, which is nonetheless fascinating. Essentially, he borrows a character from “The Gernsback Continuum,” Mervyn Kihn, and brings him into Gibson’s real world by having him make a telephone call to Gibson himself. In a confusing manner suggesting an unreliable narrator, Kihn explains that he saw a suspicious-looking man in a bar, wearing a distinctive cowboy hat, whom he regards as one of many insidious “alien fucking parasites” (110). The proof comes when the man slumps down and “his hat fell off,” revealing “[n]o brain. No top to his head. Just neatly nibbled off at the . …atline. Kinda scarred, in there, healed over, grayish-pink. I saw where the hat had had its claws in, kinda puppet trip” (111). Then, minimizing the importance of this revelation and further undercutting his credibility, Kihn is easily diverted into discussing another recent obsession, a conspiracy involving the Rosicrucians, Scientologists, the CIA, and the Walt Disney Company.
Though it appeared in Shirley’s own magazine, “Hippie Hat Brain Parasite” invites consideration as another, more obvious parody of the Shirley story that inspired “The Belonging Kind.” Both stories involve the same event: a man in a bar encounters an unusual person and sees apparent evidence of an alien presence. But the observers’ reactions are quite different: whereas Coletti feels compelled to track down the alien and become part of her life, Kihn and Gibson are not particularly interested. While Kihn initially seems (p.44) excited about his discovery, he is visibly more dedicated to investigating the other phenomena that brought him to Taos, New Mexico, where he observed the alien, and he returns to that topic after describing the incident. He only bothers to call Gibson because he “write[s] about stuff like that” (112) and hence would presumably be intrigued by the discovery. In fact, Gibson rarely wrote about such matters and does not care about them, since he brings the conversation to a close with two abrupt comments: “Thanks, Merv,” and, “Goodnight, Merv.” The final word of the story—the sound of Gibson’s ending the call with an italicized “Clik” (112)—seemingly confirms that he is firmly dismissing the whole matter as unimportant. Thus, he announces in this story, he is a writer obsessed not with possible aliens but with other, more terrestrial concerns.
As Gibson increasingly addressed the stressful task of Neuromancer, he had only one other publication in 1983, a collaboration with Sterling entitled “Red Star, Winter Orbit,” the most incongruous and dullest work published under Gibson’s byline. One suspects that Sterling originally drafted the story as an imitation of Jerry Pournelle, intended for the hard science fiction magazine Analog: Science Fiction/Science Fact, before realizing that if he asked Gibson to cosign the work, he might sell it to a better market, Omni. Gibson might have agreed for equally cynical motives: to earn some money and keep his name in the public eye while laboring on a novel that faced an uncertain reception. Gibson confirmed such suspicions in his 1987 interview with McQuiddy, reporting, “I just took a long manuscript of Bruce’s and sort of chopped it down, streamlining it a little bit” (6).
To explain why “Red Star, Winter Orbit” seems a cuckoo in Gibson’s nest, one can describe it as a celebration of space as the proper home for rugged individualists escaping from a decadent Earthbound government that fails to recognize the value of space travel. Where does one detect even a hint of such themes elsewhere in Gibson’s fiction? True, Gibson’s heroes manifest no fondness for governments, but they adjust to governments instead of running away from them, since they also wish to remain connected to society and enjoy its latest gadgets; they would never leave their worlds behind to inhabit isolated outposts in space. Indeed, Gibson’s lack of interest in the story is reflected in the fact that it involves absolutely no use of the innovative street-level technologies that are typically central to his fiction.
(p.45) In addition, the story’s protagonist—an aging, bitter Soviet cosmonaut, Colonel Korolev, living in a space station destined to be abandoned and allowed to fall to Earth—is a sort of person that rarely interests Gibson, whose heroes are young, active, and too busy staying alive to wallow in complaints or regrets. And while a future United States in decline is a typical Gibson background, he never elsewhere imagined the Soviet Union as the future’s major superpower, generally (and more accurately) forecasting a world with multiple centers of power, mostly dominated by non-Westerners.
As the story’s strange, upbeat ending, a group of independent Americans comes to the abandoned station, determined to maintain its orbit and make it their new home. One simply cannot imagine Gibson writing one American’s explanation for their decision: “It was our one chance to get out here on our own. Who’d want to live out here for the sake of some government, some army brass, a bunch of pen pushers? You have to want a frontier—want it in your bones, right?” (109). Asked to identify the author of these words, any science fiction reader would first guess Pournelle or Ben Bova, then suggest other names, never thinking of Gibson.
What finally makes “Red Star, Winter Orbit” seem so out of place in Gibson’s canon is that he apparently did not even bother to go through the piece to add flashes of the sort of evocative prose that enlivens “The Belonging Kind.” There is precisely one memorable passage, when Korolev recalls his pioneering visit to Mars: “The Martian sunlight, glinting within his helmet visor, had shown him the reflection of two steady, alien eyes—fearless, yet driven—and the quiet, secret shock of it, he now realized, had been his life’s most memorable, most transcendent moment” (93). This striking comment does reflect Gibson’s own attitudes, as it shows a character on another world who is more impressed by what he is learning about himself than anything he is learning about Mars.
Gibson returned to the Sprawl with “New Rose Hotel” (1984), which might be said, along with Neuromancer, to represent the full flowering of the writing and storytelling style that made him famous. Unusually written in the second person, the story’s typically rootless narrator speaks to his departed ex-girlfriend and ex-partner Sandii from the titular hotel where he is staying. He and his longtime colleague Fox specialized in “the skull wars” (110), persuading groundbreaking scientists to defect from employers to rival zaibatsus, or (p.46) multinational corporations. One of these, Hosaka, hires Fox and the narrator to obtain the scientist Hiroshi from another company, Maas. They recruit the beautiful Sandii to seduce him into agreeing to the switch, and she apparently succeeds, but when Sandii vanishes after the operation is completed, they realize that they were double-crossed: secretly working for Maas, Sandii employed an unknowing Hiroshi to transport a specially prepared “DNA synthesizer” (123) that kills or maddens Hosaka’s top scientists. Believing that the men were involved in the scheme, Hosaka’s agents murder Fox and, at the end of the story, are pursuing the narrator, who still longs for Sandii despite her betrayal.
Here, presented in the dense, brisk manner that Gibson had earlier mastered in “Fragments of a Hologram Rose,” are elements that would emerge as his hallmarks: a streetwise loner, unable to sustain a relationship, who struggles to survive in a murky borderland between the law and lawlessness in a near-future world controlled by multinational corporations; an economy in which information and know-how are valued more than material goods; and an environment where all players, always looking out for their own interests, can never be fully trusted. While not unrelated to a few futures in previous science fiction, Gibson stories like these synthesized old and new tropes in a distinctive manner, justifying the intense critical interest his works would attract.
Like all his best works, “New Rose Hotel” teems with distinctive prose, like the narrator’s comment on Sandii’s ability to constantly reinvent herself: “[Y]ou rolled against me, waking, on your breath all the electric night of a new Asia, the future rising in you like a bright fluid, washing me of everything but the moment. That was your magic, that you lived outside of history, all now” (118). But Gibson also finds poetry in the detritus of a technological age, as in a memorable list of the items Sandii left behind: “A freezer. A fermenter. An incubator. An electrophoresis system with integrated agarose cell and transilluminator. A tissue embedder. A high-performance liquid chromotograph. A flow cytometer. A spectrophotometer. Four gross of borosilicate scintillation vials. A microcentrifuge. And one DNA synthesizer, with in-built computer. Plus software” (113). This passage epitomizes much about Gibson’s prose style: the desire for “hyperspecificity” he repeatedly cites in interviews as one priority in his science fiction; a willingness to interrupt narratives with lengthy catalogs of items; and a belief that people’s identities can be understood by studying the objects that they cherish. Here, the abandoned gadgets (p.47) communicate that Sandii was far more intelligent and capable than Fox and his partner had imagined. There is even a glimmer of Gibson’s later intent to help readers better understand their own present-day world; for while one might imagine that he is coining complicated neologisms to suggest strange futuristic technologies, every word and device in this list already existed in 1984, though few people, then and now, were aware of them.
As for subjects more frequently found in science fiction, one of these briefly surfaces in “New Rose Hotel” in a fashion demonstrating that Gibson, like his characters, finds his own uses for things. Fox attempts to explain the nature of contemporary society to his partner:
Imagine an alien, Fox once said, who’s come here to identify the planet’s dominant form of intelligence. The alien has a look, then chooses. What do you think he picks? I probably shrugged.
The zaibatsus, Fox said, the multinationals. The blood of a zaibatsu is information, not people. The structure is independent of the individual lives that comprise it. Corporation as life form. (115)
The perspective of an alien visitor to Earth—often the center of attention in science fiction—is introduced hypothetically, solely to make a point about Earth, recalling how the astronaut of “Red Star, Winter Orbit” appreciated his Martian visit primarily because it helped him understand himself better. Aliens, for Gibson, are primarily useful as posited devices to illuminate human nature, which is invariably his preoccupation.
After Neuromancer’s success, Gibson had little incentive to write stories, and though he still produced scattered vignettes and oddities, he effectively concluded his career in short fiction with two works published in 1985, both likely begun before Neuromancer was published. “Dogfight,” officially cowritten with Michael Swanwick, at first seems more like Gibson’s work than other collaborations, but Swanwick is a protean writer, capable of writing in many different styles, who had the ability to mimic Gibson’s style. Thus, one could theorize that the seemingly Gibsonian elements of “Dogfight” were only the work of Swanwick channeling Gibson. That this is another story primarily produced by his collaborator is again confirmed by Gibson: as he told McQuiddy in 1987, after drunkenly telling editor Gardner Dozois about a dream he had involving people and little airplanes, Dozois relayed (p.48) the information to Swanwick, who built a story out of Gibson’s dream and sent the results to Gibson for his approval.
Deke seems like a typical Gibson protagonist in some respects: he has ventured onto the wrong side of the law (as a convicted shoplifter); he is a drifter and loner; he masters a form of virtual reality—a game involving projections of World War I fighter planes called “Spads & Fokkers”; and he proves unable to sustain a romantic relationship. However, like Coletti in “The Belonging Kind,” Deke allows himself to become obsessed with something unimportant, a computer game, whereas true Gibson protagonists are too savvy to get caught up in unproductive business. Also, while they often engage in underhanded behavior, Gibson’s heroes follow their own internal moral code, especially in dealing with women (like Neuromancer’s Case, who gives money to his ex-girlfriend Linda Lee and rescues Molly despite the risk to his own life), allowing them to remain sympathetic. As Gibson told Mikel Gilmore in 1986, “I tend to side with the ones who somehow manage to retain a degree of humanity,” though he is “sometimes […] intrigued by the ones who don’t” (78). A Gibson character would never do what Deke does—seize his girlfriend’s drug, which she desperately needs for an important interview, solely to win an upcoming game—which makes readers dislike him and diminishes the story’s impact.
Another appealing trait of Gibson’s characters—that they deal with problematic situations stoically, without complaining—is not displayed by Deke, whose reaction upon realizing that no one will join in celebrating his victory reeks of self-pity:
Nobody crowded around to congratulate him. He sobered, and silent, hostile faces swam into focus. Not one of these kickers was on his side. They radiated contempt, even hatred. […] He needed to celebrate. To get drunk or stoned and talk it up, going over the victory time and again, contradicting himself, making up details, laughing and bragging. […] But standing there with all of Jackman’s silent and vast and empty around him, he realized suddenly that he had nobody left to tell it to.
Nobody at all. (174–75)
A Gibson hero who finds himself alone may not be happy, but he silently accepts his solitude and carries on with daily routines; if no one celebrates something he did, he does not feel upset or rebuked.
(p.49) As for Gibson’s own feelings about the story, he described how uncharacteristic it was more circumspectly, telling McQuiddy, “That story is moralistic in a way I’m uncomfortable with” and is “much more misanthropic than my own stuff” (6). Indeed, Gibson tends to like his own wayward characters, not being “misanthropic” at all, and does not want to see them punished for occasional misdeeds, the consequence of a “moralistic” stance. But the most telling aspect of Gibson’s statement is that he contrasts “Dogfight” with “my own stuff,” indicating he does not regard it as his own work.
Gibson’s final story of this period, “The Winter Market” (1985), was commissioned for Vancouver magazine with the condition that its setting be his hometown Vancouver (a locale Gibson otherwise avoided until Spook Country). A triumphant conclusion to this phase of his career, the story is filled with tropes and issues he would continue exploring in novels, including virtual reality, the nature of identity, and the interface of advanced technology and streetwise operatives. The protagonist Casey (a name recalling Neuromancer’s Case and anticipating Pattern Recognition’s Cayce, perhaps signaling a character of special importance to Gibson) specializes in the art of downloading distinctive personalities into computers to be marketed to customers eager for vicarious experiences. Through a dealer in random technological merchandise named Rubin, he encounters Lise, whose deformed body requires an exoskeleton, and upon accessing her brain finds vivid, bitter images that he records, because they will prove attractive to young buyers. As Rubin explains, “Those kids back down the Market, warming their butts around the fires and wondering if they’ll find someplace to sleep tonight, they believe it. It’s the hottest soft in eight years. […] She’s big because she was what they are, only more so. She knew, man. No dreams, no hope. You can’t see the cages on those kids, Casey, but more and more they’re twigging to it, that they aren’t going anywhere” (142). Despite the money she makes for herself and Casey, the unhappy Lise commits suicide, though her virtual self lives on, and Casey dreads the day when that construct calls and he will not know, as he asks Rubin, “is it her?” Rubin can only respond, “God only knows” (149).
However, the recurring question of whether computerized simulations of people can be considered real is only one of the many issues percolating through this story. Previous science fiction about people purchasing other people’s memories—including Philip K. Dick’s “We Can Remember It for (p.50) You Wholesale” (1966) and Gibson’s “Fragment of a Hologram Rose”—involved pleasant experiences. “The Winter Market,” as indicated by its title, suggests that dissatisfied people might be equally attracted to provocatively miserable visions. Also, to describe the eclectic items in Rubin’s shop, Gibson characteristically looks both backward and forward: “Rubin […] is a master, a teacher, what the Japanese call a sensei. What he’s the master of, really, is garbage, kipple, refuse, the sea of cast-off goods our century floats on. Gomi no sensei. Master of junk” (127). Paying homage to an important predecessor, Gibson uses the term “kipple,” introduced and defined as “useless objects” in Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968) (65)—a novel that ponders in other ways whether imitations of humans can be considered human. Yet he otherwise employs a new term, taken from Japanese, “gomi.” While not as prominent as “cyberspace,” this word, never before applied to this particular sort of refuse, represents another Gibson neologism. Finally, expanding upon the insight of “the street finds its uses for things,” Rubin explains precisely how certain kinds of people can adapt new technologies for unexpected purposes: “You know what your trouble is? […] You’re the kind who always reads the handbook. Anything people build, any kind of technology, it’s going to have some specific purpose. It’s for doing something that somebody already understands. But if it’s new technology, it’ll open areas nobody’s ever thought of before. You read the manual, man, and you won’t play around with it, not the same way” (137). Throughout his career, Gibson will always be interested in how creative, sometimes desperate, denizens of the street “play around with” new technology to obtain an edge in their dealings.
Now a popular novelist, Gibson essentially abandoned short fiction; when he was asked why, a January 17, 2003, blog entry gnomically and characteristically cited both artistic and practical reasons:
Why I Don’t Write Short Stories
- Good ones are to novels as bonsai are to trees.
- Might as well go ahead and grow the tree.
- It’s easier to pay the rent with trees.
During the 1990s, however, he published six increasingly bizarre vignettes, usually in response to specific assignments, which allowed Gibson to indulge (p.51) in more experimental forms of writing outside the confines of commercially successful novels.
“Doing Television” (1990), slightly expanded and republished as “Darwin,” vividly but unadventurously revisits several Gibson tropes. An eight-year-old girl, Kelsey, endures a vagabond existence as her single mother, working for one of the multinational corporations dominating the future, takes her and her brother from place to place as her job demands. Currently in Southern California, they are awaiting a move to the “Darwin Free Trade Zone” in Australia. Her brother irritates Kelsey by constantly “doing television,” or immersing himself in virtual worlds; he plays a violent game called “Gladiator Skull,” while Kelsey prefers a gentler experience called “Natureland.” As Kelsey visits a virtual Australian mall to hear a “Chinese announcer” with a “broad Australian accent,” recalls her more pleasant life in Moscow, and anticipates moving to Australia, she embodies the restless, globalized world Gibson long anticipated, and when she remembers learning from her departed father that she was born to a surrogate mother, she represents the ways technology can challenge traditional notions of parenthood and identity. Perhaps the story’s second title, referencing both the city of Darwin and Charles Darwin, was intended to convey that her experiences represent a new stage in human evolution. Overall, while “Doing Television”/“Darwin” is artfully done, there is nothing here that Gibson’s readers had not seen before. The story’s only noteworthy aspect is that, in the narrator’s criticism of her brother’s fondness for video games, one finds more evidence that, in contrast to the hero of “Dogfight,” Gibson is not interested in playing games.
If “Doing Television”/“Darwin” represented Gibson mechanically revisiting his artistic past, “Skinner’s Room” (1990) proved the gateway to his artistic future, because the assignment he confronted—to describe a future San Francisco—inspired the creation of the Bridge, the memorable setting of his next novel. In the story, Gibson envisions a Bay Bridge abandoned because of an economic crisis—a “devaluation” of some sort—though Virtual Light reports that it was closed to vehicular traffic after an earthquake rendered it potentially dangerous. On one memorable evening, hordes of homeless people on both sides of the bridge resolve to seize this unclaimed property, tearing down the fences around it and constructing makeshift habitations on, above, and below its surface. The result is effectively an American Mumbai—a crowded metropolis of desperately poor people inhabiting their (p.52) own improvised spaces and struggling to survive any way they can. As it is memorably described in the story,
The bridge’s bones, its stranded tendons, are lost within an accretion of dreams: tattoo parlors, shooting galleries, pinball arcades, dimly lit stalls stacked with damp-stained years of men’s magazines, chili joints, premises of unlicensed denturists, fireworks stalls, cut bait sellers, betting shops, sushi counters, pawnbrokers, wonton counters, love hotels, hot dog stands, a tortilla factory, Chinese greengrocers, liquor stores, herbalists, chiropractors, barbers, tackle shops, and bars.
These are dreams of commerce, their locations generally corresponding with the decks originally intended for vehicular traffic. Above them, toward the peaks of the cable towers, lift intricate barrios, zones of more private fantasy, sheltering an unnumbered population, of uncertain means and obscure occupation. (159)
There is some poetry in the introductory references to the Bridge’s “bones” and “tendons”; but by proceeding to meticulously list all the various businesses found on the Bridge, Gibson conveys the energy and diversity of its inhabitants more effectively than the series of adjectives that another writer might employ. As Gibson grew bored with cyberspace and virtual worlds, this represented precisely the sort of tangible, vibrant environment he would increasingly explore in his fiction.
Primarily attentive to describing, and relating the history of, this memorable new setting, Gibson provides little in the way of a narrative: a young woman (named Chevette Washington and given a job in Virtual Light) follows some people to a hotel party before returning to her Bridge home, a room she shares with the elderly Skinner in exchange for helping him with daily life. She later has a cup of coffee with one of the Bridge’s entrepreneurs, Maria Paz (who reappears, differently characterized, in Virtual Light). As one of the first people who occupied the Bridge, Skinner can recall that experience and others, in both conversations and dreams, though his memories at times are fading, and his inability to leave his room requires Gibson to focus his novel on the more active female protagonist. Overall, while only a little of its language found its way into Virtual Light, “Skinner’s Room” seems best considered as an introduction to that novel, not a standalone story. (Perhaps “Doing Television”/“Darwin,” published around the same time, was also a sketch for a future novel, rejected in favor of “Skinner’s Room.”)
(p.53) “Academy Leader” (1991), written for Michael Benedikt’s critical anthology Cyberspace: First Steps, might be classified as an essay with fictional elements, a story, even a prose poem—but its title (referring to the numerical “countdown” footage that precedes most films to aid projectionists) and position in the volume suggest that it is best viewed as an introduction, Gibson striving in an innovative manner to set the stage for the book’s far-ranging speculations. Implied by its title, this is made explicit in the final sentence: “The targeted numerals of the ACADEMY LEADER were hypnogogic sigils preceding the dreamstate of film.” As Gibson noted in an April 7, 2010, blog entry, that sentence was lifted from the first sentence of the first story he ever attempted to write, and the piece’s opening passage—which, Gibson told Mike Rogers in 1993, was “the only bit that I think I actually custom-wrote”—pays tribute to the man who pioneered the “cut-up” technique employed in the story, describing Burroughs as “this dangerous old literary gentleman who sent so many of us out, under sealed orders, years ago,” and mentioning a character from Nova Express: “Inspector Lee taught a new angle” (27). While the piece mostly assembles passages from Gibson’s own writing, phrases from other writers also appear (like “islands in the stream,” from Hemingway).
To the extent that the piece has a clear narrative, it seems a sequel to “Doing Television”/“Darwin,” wherein Kelsey, her mother, and brother, perhaps accompanied by Gibson himself, finally reach the Darwin Free Trade Zone. Kelsey purchases a disk from a street vendor, which provides a virtual copy of the city of Kyoto, and disturbs her mother when she responds to the data by saying, “I want to go there,” again showing the powerful allure of artificial experiences (29).
What may most interest Gibson scholars is the passage wherein he describes, or reinvents, how he developed the concept of cyberspace, in a passage that borrows from “Doing Television/Darwin,” “Skinner’s Room,” and his 1989 essay “Rocket Radio”:
Assembled word cyberspace from small and readily available components of language. Neologic spasm: the primal act of pop poetics. Preceded any concept whatever. Slick and hollow—awaiting received meaning. All I did: folded words as taught. Now other words accrete in the interstices. “Gentlemen, that is not now nor will it ever be my concern. …” Not what I do. I work the angle of transit. Vectors of (p.54) neon plaza, licensed consumers, acts primal and undreamed of. . …he architecture of virtual reality imagined as an accretion of dreams. […] These are dreams of commerce. Above them rise intricate barrios, zones of more private fantasy. (28)
Two intriguing aspects of the passage are that Gibson attributes the coinage of “cyberspace” to Burroughs’s influence (“All I did: folded words as taught”) and links this imagined realm to his earlier description of the Bridge’s “dreams of commerce,” emphasizing in this context that Gibson always focuses on practical aspects of his predictions.
“Cyber-Claus” (1991) was commissioned by The Washington Post, which asked four writers to “retell the story” of Clement Moore’s “A Visit from Saint Nicholas” (1823) “in their own inimitable styles” (14). Certainly, the piece can be dismissed as a frivolous vignette, transplanting an iconic holiday event—Santa Claus visiting a man’s house—into the darker future of cyberpunk, with new forms of technology detecting and monitoring the intruder. Yet interestingly, especially considering when it was written, it seems a sign that, by this time, Gibson had tired of the stories that established his reputation and was ready to engage in playful self-parody. Critics might justify their neglect of this story by maintaining that it is too inconsequential to merit attention, but they may also feel discomfited to find Gibson refusing to take the world of cyberpunk as seriously as they do. For in its own frivolous way, the piece seems to undermine all of their earnest arguments.
The opening passage is a deliberately overwritten version of the situation initially confronting Moore’s narrator: “In the night of 12/24/07, though sensors woven through the very fabric of the house had thus far registered a complete absence of sentient bio-activity, I found myself abruptly summoned from a rare, genuine, and expensively induced example of that most priceless of states, sleep” (14). Naturally enough, a sentient computer program, Memory, alerts him to potential home invaders on his roof, first describing them as “[s]eventeen, assuming we’re talking bipeds” (14), before refining her analysis to say, “that stuff’s registering, like, hooves. Tiny ones. Unless this is some kind of major Jersey Devil infestation, I make it eight quadrupeds—plus one definite biped.” Fearing hostile visitors, the narrator “holstered a 3mm Honda and pocketed half a dozen spare ampules of gel,” while Memory warns, at the piece’s close, “I think he’s coming down the chimney …” (15).
(p.55) The passage most strongly suggesting an author making fun of himself comes when he speculates about the visitor’s identity: “Was it my estranged wife, Lady Betty-Jayne Motel-6 Hyatt, Chief Eco-Trustee of the Free Duchy of Wyoming? Or was it Cleatus ‘Mainframe’ Sinyard himself, President of the United States and Perpetual Chairman of the Concerned Smart People’s Northern Hemisphere CoProsperity Sphere?” These are precisely the sorts of odd names for people and places that Gibson had sprinkled throughout his fiction, here taken a little too far for satiric purposes. And since so many commentators note Gibson’s concern for appearances, it is fitting that, during this potential crisis, Memory troubles to warn the narrator, “[Y]ou’re on the verge of a major fashion crime,” inspiring him to change the shirt and pants he threw on when awakened (15).
In 1993, Gibson wrote “Where the Holograms Go” for The Wild Palms Reader, a compilation of literary responses to Oliver Stone’s miniseries Wild Palms (which also featured a cameo appearance by Gibson). The book’s back cover identifies his contribution as “song lyrics.” Although the piece is introduced in this fashion—
- Chap Starfall
- Chickie’s Song
—it otherwise takes the form of prose, or prose poem, including only two actual lines from Chickie’s “song”: “Leave this place. Leave it./Drive a long, long way” (122). While it is said to represent what was sung by a minor character in the miniseries, the lounge singer Chap Starfall, “Where the Holograms Go” describes the dying moments of another character, Chickie Levitt, a computer genius who constructs virtual worlds. While “paralyzed,” he enjoys a virtual ride through Los Angeles, “as his gray wheels carry him deeper into lines of an increasingly pure geometry. Between virtual planes grown abruptly abstract, playroom planes of shadow-play, walls of Pure Television. And every pixel is a life. A soul. A moment in the dance” (122).
What gives the piece emotional impact is a striking image of impending death, adapted from the experience of watching television and recalling the opening of Neuromancer: “At this point, forever (it must seem) receding, where the planes converge, there is something bright. It is the color of that (p.56) single terrifying phosphor dot recalled from the age of black and white TV. That dot the images fell into when the set was turned off. That very dot that lingered, sentient and utterly radioactive, in the dark” (122). This metaphor for dying is invoked again in the powerful concluding paragraph, apparently relating his approaching death: “Chickie blinks, gives his left-hand wheel a last, major shove, bounces off the curb, and plunges toward Santa Monica Boulevard, the Dot growing and just growing, the closer he gets” (122).
Overall, while “Where the Holograms Go” contains memorable passages, the piece, more so than other commissioned vignettes, is incomprehensible without some knowledge of Wild Palms, which was unpopular when it aired and is now forgotten. Readers need to know that “the Senator” is Senator Tony Kreutzer, a former science fiction writer now involved in a sinister scheme to promulgate a form of virtual reality, and references to “the chip,” the Senator’s inability to “GO,” and Chickie’s ability to “GO” involve the miniseries’ McGuffin, the “Go-chip” that allows people to enter a virtual world. When republished, the piece will require either an introductory explanation or footnotes.
Finally, in 1997, Gibson published “Thirteen Views of a Cardboard City,” which seemingly embodies the aspiration, expressed in a 1995 interview with Rogier van Bakel and Robert Longo, “to write books that don’t need verbs. Just large collections of nouns and modifiers would work for me. [Laughs.] The ongoing descriptions of things is where the pleasure is in writing” (206). It also supports his 2007 observation to Christine Cornea that “in my fiction […] some of the most memorable, central characters are environments rather than people” (27). For the piece, its title if not contents suggested by Wallace Stevens’s 1917 poem “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” is little more than a description of a memorable environment—Tokyo’s assemblage of cardboard boxes used as houses, soon revisited in All Tomorrow’s Parties—which often dispenses with verbs. It also lacks any sort of narrative, underlining Gibson’s implicit point that the construction of plots, unlike the “pleasure” of “descriptions,” is a chore, one he could avoid in a throwaway piece that was not crafted to appeal to a large audience. Though “Thirteen Views” is evocative, it seems hard to justify its appearance in a science fiction anthology, though its detached, clinical tone, reminiscent of Ballard, arguably provides a science-fictional perspective on a mundane subject.
(p.57) The piece also conveys two of Gibson’s recurring fascinations, art and brand names. Murals and other decorations adorning the boxes are likened to the works of the artists Diego Rivera (340), Paul Klee, Piet Mondrian (341), and Pablo Picasso (342), and there are references to “New England folk art” (340) and “Oxfam Cubism” (342). The boxes and artifacts feature a variety of brand names, including Microsoft (339), Nike, Reebok (343), Casio (347, 348), Brother (348), and Lucky Strike (348). There is also a fleeting bit of autobiography, as Gibson likens “[a] space” to “the upper berths on the Norfolk & Western sleeping cars my mother and I took when I was a child” (343). As also evidenced by “Agrippa,” Gibson can always produce haunting descriptions, but shrewdly realizing that it is more profitable to tell involving stories, he rarely bothers to do so.
After writing no short fiction for over a decade, Gibson unexpectedly published a new story, “Dougal Discarnate,” in 2010. It represents a major departure in other ways, since the story is both his first work of fantasy and an exploration of a new theme more characteristic of aging authors than the eternal adolescent that Gibson long seemed to embody. For “Dougal Discarnate” apparently finds Gibson looking back to his past and pondering roads not taken.
As in “Hippie Hat Brain Parasite,” the story’s protagonist and narrator is Gibson himself, which is established by references to his own career. He first describes how he met, in the “early eighties” (231), a sort of ghost named Dougal, a man who somehow, after taking massive amounts of drugs in 1972, become “discarnate,” disconnected from his body. While his now soulless body became an accountant, the ethereal Dougal finds himself able to roam solely within a limited area of Vancouver, which Gibson relates to his long-standing interest, “psychogeography,” while Dougal speaks more mystically of “ley lines” (232). Fitfully able to interact with the physical world, he starts spending time with Gibson, and they “bonded in large part, around cheesy science fiction movies” (236). Eventually, the companions drift apart, as Dougal discovers that he can get “high” by placing his head in a television’s cathode-ray tube, while Gibson “had started not getting high, myself, some time before” (238). But Dougal finds happiness by meeting a Japanese woman from Okinawa, a “shaman” (240) who adopts him as “her familiar” (241) and sexual companion and liberates his spirit so the couple can travel around the world.
(p.58) Clearly, Dougal invites consideration as an incarnation of two of Gibson’s possible futures: he might have carried on as an idle, drug-using hippie, accomplishing nothing but perhaps achieving happiness by settling into a vagabond existence with a kindred spirit. Alternatively, he might have been driven by financial necessity into a boring career like accountancy, working competently and earning a good income but abandoning his dreams and personal freedom. (Reflecting similar fears that something like this might have occurred, Gibson told Jack Womack in 1997, “I have mildly creepy intimations that I might have not done all that badly in advertising” .) By becoming a writer, one might say, Gibson achieved a balance between the extremes of Dougal’s two lives, as he does what he wants to do and expresses himself while holding a profitable steady job. But since Dougal is described as Gibson’s longtime friend, he may also represent one or more of the people Gibson socialized with in the 1970s, who either held on to their hippie lifestyles or settled into dull day jobs, becoming people Gibson could no longer relate to.
“Dougal Discarnate” is also interesting because it offers additional fragments of autobiography. The story’s Gibson “explained my theory that the best cinematic SF is almost always to be found in very bad films, but only in tiny, brilliant, fractal bursts” (236–37), and he attributes much of his early fiction to his brief sojourn in New York City, noting, “Somehow I carried some of that home with me. […] And dipped into it as needed. In kits. Building what I was always somewhat annoyed, later, to see described as dystopian fiction” (238). Thus, while “Dougal Discarnate” has the aura of something written quickly and casually, it suggests that Gibson might enjoy writing a fictionalized autobiography, intermingling reality and fantasy to enliven the tedium of remembering and reporting.
In 2012, Gibson published another work of short fiction—of sorts. Responding along with other writers to two editors’ challenge to write vignettes about random used objects they had purchased, Gibson chose as his inspiration an ashtray showing an obsolete missile system, the “‘Hawk’ Ashtray.” The piece begins with a discussion of what the father of the narrator’s friend, “a Pentagon technocrat” (), had said about new weapons systems: that the most appealing of these were distinguished by the fact that men involved would begin wearing “tie-tacks” showing the new technology. The titular ashtray is then an afterthought, something made “further along the Hawk (p.59) missile system’s developmental span” (), and less interesting because it is not “liminal” like the tie-tacks, which signal a system that is still emergent. While not greatly interesting, the passage, which reads like a conversational interlude from Spook Country or Zero History, is another reflection of Gibson’s recent interest in the relationship between fashion and the military, and it concludes with a nice description of one of these tie-tacks as “[a] fossil from a future that you knew might not even happen. Dashing, enigmatic, unworn. Not yet tangled in the darkness of history’s dad box, with the dead boys and the lost stupid war they died in” ().
Although several Gibson stories merit attention, one struggles to argue that he is a natural short-story writer who was unhappily pressured into writing novels by a marketplace that makes such products more profitable than short fiction. In contrast, Gibson might be better regarded as a natural novelist who blossomed only when prodded to abandon short fiction and write novels instead. For while both forms inspire evocative prose, novels either force or allow Gibson to produce fully developed characters, in contrast to his stories’ typical focus on descriptions animated by a narrative. Novels further enable Gibson to more fully explore provocative themes and possibilities only hinted at in stories. Finally, if he does long to write something shorter, Gibson’s approach to writing novels offers a way to develop story ideas as digressions or minor characters within a novel. In sum, while Gibson might have achieved consistent success and acclaim by sticking to short fiction, like Harlan Ellison, his novels made him a leading science fiction writer.