The Future Around the Corner
Every time I read a William Gibson book, I feel a little like my mind is being turned inside out. Gibson is so prescient and so aware of the interface between technology and humanity – it’s as if he can see what’s coming in our hyper-connected world, well before anyone else.
As he does in “The Peripheral,” where people from the future link up with people from the past (though it’s a past that is our future) to try to solve a murder, he examines not just the future of technology, but the nature of time itself. “The Peripheral” touches on notions of quantum physics, the idea that at any given point in time, there might be multiple futures out there.
I interviewed him about seven years ago when his book “Spook Country” was published. He talked about the pace of technological change. Gibson was raised in the hill country of southwestern Virginia, where his mother knew people who had never heard recorded music. Gibson could remember the birth of television, but he said television may seem like a quaint concept for our children’s children. “Wherever it is that our children are going, things that are major concerns for us are probably not going to be that important for them,” he said.
In 1982, Gibson coined the term “cyberspace,” – he called it a “consensual hallucination” caused by millions of connected computers. But even seven years ago, he said the term was out of date. “Fifteen or 20 years ago, the time we spent in digital systems was a special time,” he told me. “We spent less time there and we noticed it more. Now that’s reversed. The increasingly rare time we spend is that which is not in the system. That’s how it turns itself inside out.”
You have to pay attention when you read a William Gibson novel, but the rewards are many. Plot summaries can seem outlandish, even nonsensical, but once you enter his world, he makes it all explicable, coaxing his readers into thinking about things they may have had only the dimmest awareness of (quantum physics, for example). Here are a few William Gibson books, one of a library of work that has gained him a worldwide cult following:
“Neuromancer.” This was Gibson’s 1984 breakout book. It tells the story of Case, a down-at the mouth computer hacker, living in Japan, who is hired by a mysterious employer to pull off a very big hack. Case has effectively been poisoned as punishment for his hacking activities, and this offers him a chance to get his health back. One very creepy aspect of Gibson’s books is how omniscient and intrusive the authorities can be; this was true of his books early on, and he jacks this concern up to new levels in “The Peripheral.” It will not surprise you to learn that “Neuromancer” helped inspire the groundbreaking movie, “The Matrix.”
Gibson followed “Neuromancer” with the books “Count Zero”, published in 1986, and “Mona Lisa Overdrive,” which has to be one of the coolest book titles ever. “Count Zero” features what appear to be voodoo gods inhabiting The Matrix, though this being a William Gibson novel, they may be something else entirely!
1988’s “Mona Lisa Overdrive” attempts to bring the trilogy to a conclusion, but this being a William Gibson novel, in addition to the main story, he throws in the daughter of a Japanese crime boss who is being sheltered in London from her father’s enemies, and an artist who lives in a hazardous waste dump in New Jersey.
Fast forward to another William Gibson trilogy:
“Pattern Recognition.” This 2003 novel is set more or less in the present. The hero is Cayce Pollard, a corporate consultant who hates branding so much she sands the logos off the metal buttons of her jeans (I’m with you, Cayce). But because of her hypersensitivity, the advertising world thinks she has an uncanny sense for what the next “cool” thing will be.
Then a Belgian billionaire named Bigend hires her to track down the source of some mysterious films circulating on the Internet, and commits unlimited resources to the search. Cayce thinks this might help her find out what happened to her father, a retired CIA man, in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. Like “Pattern Recognition,” many of Gibson’s novels have a mystery embedded in them, and that’s part of what makes them so entertaining.
Book Number 2, “Spook Country,” features an exceedingly colorful cast of characters. There’s a former rock star turned magazine journalist; a Chinese-Cuban immigrant from an underground crime family who looks “like an ethnic version of a younger Johnny Depp,” trying to find out what happened to his dead father; and Milgrim, an amphetamine addict and Russian translator with an expertise in communication and cryptography. Milgrim is in thrall to a government agent (at least, he appears to be a government agent,) who threatens to cut off his drug supply if he doesn’t cooperate. Bigend makes an encore appearance. A mysterious shipping container plays a big part.
One intriguing technological idea Gibson played with in “Spook Country” was virtual reality, except that it was virtual reality turned outward on the world – with the right equipment you could stand at the sites of historical events and watch them happen. Yikes. This device enabled Gibson to play with the past, the present AND the future. There is a mystery to be solved in this book, but it’s almost beside the point – you read Gibson to look for clues to where we’ve been, where we are and where we are headed.
2010’s “Zero History” is set in Britain, where if you watch a lot of British TV, you know that the British government’s set of security cameras is capable of filming almost everything that goes on in the country (outdoors, anyway. I think). Bigend is back, and uses a couple of characters from “Spook Country” (including Milgrim) to investigate an exclusive line of clothing that is so exclusive that no one knows where it is made, who owns it or anything about it. Why is he so interested? You’ll just have to read the book.