"Johnny Mnemonic" was originally published in Omni magazine in 1981, four years after William Gibson first began writing it. That same year, the story was included in The Second Omni Book of Science Fiction; in 1986 it was also included in a collection of Gibson's short stories, titled Burning Chrome (recently available in a 2003 edition). The story tells of Johnny Mnemonic, a high-tech courier who has had his brain altered to serve as secure storage for sensitive data. Johnny discovers that he is the target of a hit man sent by a criminal organization seeking to ensure that no one is able to access the information stored in Johnny's brain. "Johnny Mnemonic" is an early example of the genre known as "cyberpunk," fiction characterized by advanced technology and dystopic, disintegrating societies. Though the story is set in the future, it is written in a style more reminiscent of 1930s hard-boiled detective novels than of traditional science fiction. Using this retro, film-noir-type style to write about futuristic events is another hallmark of cyberpunk, and Gibson is widely recognized as the father of the genre.
Written over twenty-five years ago, Gibson's story (and much of his other work) was remarkably prophetic, raising questions about the invasion of individuals' personal lives by the government and corporations through the use of technology, the proliferation of plastic surgery, identity theft, and many other issues. Identity is an important theme in the story; in a world where one's face, body, even gender can be easily altered, where even one's brain
can be offered up for rent, how do people define themselves? Where does virtual reality end and reality begin?
Some of the characters in "Johnny Mnemonic" appear again in Gibson's acclaimed first novel, Neuromancer, considered a seminal work in science fiction.
William Gibson was born on March 17, 1948, in Conway, South Carolina. His father, William Ford Gibson, worked for a construction company building housing developments throughout the south, and frequently traveled on business. In "Since 1948," an autobiography featured on Gibson's website, Gibson writes that on one such business trip, his father "choked on something in a restaurant, the Heimlich maneuver hadn't been discovered yet, and everything changed."
Gibson was just six years old when his father died, and his mother Otey Gibson moved them to her hometown of Wytheville, Virginia. Bored by the small town's lack of cultural and intellectual stimulation, Gibson began reading science fiction, eventually becoming, as he states in his autobiography, "the sort of introverted, hyper-bookish boy you'll find in the biographies of most American science fiction writers." At fifteen, Otey Gibson sent her son to a private boys' school in Arizona, and there his reading became more sophisticated; he discovered William S. Burroughs, Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg. Before he could graduate, however, his mother died suddenly of a stroke, and once again, everything changed. Gibson dropped out of school in 1967 and traveled to Toronto, Canada, to avoid the draft.
In Toronto, Gibson lived the hippie life and met Deborah Thompson, his future wife. After he married Deborah, they moved to Vancouver, where she had grown up. There, Deborah taught at the University of British Columbia, and Gibson took his time earning his bachelor's degree in English.
After Deborah gave birth to their first child, Graeme, in 1977, Gibson became a stay-at-home father, and began writing short stories as a way to earn money while caring for his son. His early interest in science fiction resurfaced, and that same year he sold his first short story, "Fragments of a Hologram Rose," which he had originally written in lieu of a term paper for a college writing class. "Johnny Mnemonic," the next short story Gibson wrote, took four years to go from first draft to its first publication in Omni magazine in 1981. It was included later that year in The Second Omni Book of Science Fiction anthology. The story was next included in Gibson's short story collection Burning Chrome (1986). This story was the first of Gibson's "Sprawl" stories, followed by "New Rose Hotel," and "Burning Chrome." "Burning Chrome," in which Gibson first coined the term "cyberspace," was nominated for a Nebula award from the Science Fiction Writers of America in 1983.
After his success with several short stories, Gibson began work on his first novel, Neuromancer. Published in 1984, the book swept science fiction's major awards, winning the Nebula award for Best Novel of 1984, the Hugo award for Best Novel of 1984 from the World Science Fiction Society, and the Philip K. Dick award for Best Paperback of 1984 from the Philadelphia Science Fiction Society. Gibson's unique take on the not-so-distant future, in which technology is used, abused and manipulated in ways never intended by its creators, fascinated readers and critics alike. Neuromancer was the first novel in the "Sprawl Trilogy," followed by Count Zero (1986), and Mona Lisa Overdrive (1988).
For a change of pace, Gibson next teamed with fellow science fiction writer Bruce Sterling to write The Difference Engine (1990), in which an inventor in Victorian England succeeds in building a computer. Next Gibson returned to more familiar territory for a second trilogy, beginning with the novel Virtual Light (1993), followed by Idoru (1996), and completed by All Tomorrow's Parties (1999). During this time he also wrote the screenplay for the movie version of "Johnny Mnemonic," which was released in 1995.
In 2003, Gibson surprised readers with Pattern Recognition, a novel set in the present, and written in a more traditional format. This new direction resulted in one of Gibson's best works. Though not set in the future, the story deals with familiar Gibson themes, including the use and misuse of computer technology. Gibson's 2007 novel, Spook Country, is also set in the present day, and features some of the same characters that appeared in Pattern Recognition.
As "Johnny Mnemonic" begins, Johnny is preparing for a meeting with Ralfi Face, a fence who deals in stolen high-tech information. Johnny has had his face altered, and his new identity is Eddie Bax, importer. He has heard that Ralfi Face has put out a contract on him, and he wants to find out why. Johnny makes his living by storing clients' sensitive information in his brain, which has been altered for this purpose. The information is stored "on an idiot/savant basis," meaning Johnny has no conscious access to the data.
Johnny enters the Drome, a low-life bar populated with drug dealers, pimps and an assortment of other criminals. He is carrying a gym bag in which he has concealed a shotgun, a weapon so archaic in this time period that he had to make his own bullets and research how to load them. Johnny explains his reasoning behind the shotgun: "If they think you're technical, go crude."
Johnny meets Ralfi Face at his usual table. Ralfi, with the help of plastic surgery, has the face of a once-popular singer named Christian White (of the Aryan Reggae Band). He is accompanied by a large thug named Lewis. Johnny learns from Ralfi that the data stored in Johnny's brain was stolen from the Yakuza, "the world's wealthiest criminal order … so powerful that it owns comsats and at least three shuttles." Though the information can only be accessed by a special password known only to Ralfi, the Yakuza wants Johnny dead, because they know about Squids—Superconducting Quantum Interference Detectors—devices that can read the traces the program has left behind, even after the information has been removed.
During their discussion, Ralfi cues Lewis to push a button under the table, which activates a neural disrupter. This device renders Johnny incapable of movement or speech: "My hands were cool wax, distant and inert." Johnny is saved by the arrival of Molly Millions, a young woman with mirrored lenses surgically implanted into her face and razors that extend from beneath her fingernails. She offers to sell Ralfi drugs. When Lewis attempts to knock her away from the table she slits his wrist with her razored nails and steals the neural disrupter control unit from him. Ralfi asks her what she wants to give it back; she says she wants a job, starting at a quarter of a million for a retainer. Johnny, released from his paralysis, ups the ante to two million. Together Molly and Johnny usher Ralfi from the bar, with the shotgun pressed into his back.
Just as Molly, Johnny and Ralfi are leaving the bar, they are approached by a seemingly innocuous little man, who flips open his thumb, revealing a thin, razor sharp wire which he projects outward and through the body of Ralfi Face, slicing him into three sections. Johnny fires the shotgun at him, but misses. Johnny realizes the man is a Yakuza assassin, surgically and genetically altered to be a lightning-fast killing machine, and that Johnny is his next logical target. Molly tells Johnny: "I'm gonna get that boy. Tonight."
Molly takes Johnny to Nighttown, a ghetto where the neon arcs that light the rest of the city no longer function (the whole city is housed inside acrylic geodesic domes). She asks him if there is any way to access the information stored in his brain without Ralfi's password. Johnny explains that without the password, only a Squid could access it. He tells her the Navy used Squids to find submarines during the war. Hearing this, Molly takes Johnny to meet her friend Jones, who used to be in the Navy.
Jones is a cybernetic, surgically altered dolphin who communicates through symbols that light up on a crude display near his tank ("a clumsy wooden framework, crossed and recrossed by rows of dusty Christmas lights"). Jones is currently an attraction at "Funland," a sort of amusement park. As payment for his help, Molly brings Jones a syringe of heroin; according to Molly, the Navy deliberately addicted the dolphins to heroin during the war ("How else you get 'em working for you?").
Molly tells Jones they need the password to the information Ralfi stored in Johnny's brain. Through his light display Jones shows them a red swastika; as his reward, Molly injects him with the heroin and he swims away.
After buying two recorders and making a deal with a pirate broadcaster, Molly and Johnny use the password to access Ralfi's program and record it. The pirate broadcaster will later send a message to the Yakuza: "Call off the dogs or we wideband your program."
Next they head upwards, climbing stairs and ladders for hours to reach Lo Tek territory. The Lo Teks are the cast-offs of society, living high above Nighttown; they sleep in hammocks suspended from the ceiling, in the rafters of the geodesic domes. When they finally finish their climb, they are greeted by Dog, a friend of Molly's. Dog is a Lo Tek with one eye who has had the canine teeth of a Doberman implanted in his gums. Dog tells Molly that she and Johnny are being followed. While Johnny muses about the assassin, the Lo Teks, and the program he and Molly are hiding from the Yakuza, Molly argues with Dog about using something she calls "The Killing Floor." Dog finally acquiesces, and Johnny follows Dog and Molly to the Killing Floor.
- "Johnny Mnemonic" was made into a motion picture in 1995, starring Keanu Reeves, Dina Meyer, and the rapper Ice-T. Gibson wrote the screenplay. The movie is available on DVD and VHS from Sony Pictures, and also as a video download from Amazon.com.
- A "Johnny Mnemonic" computer game was released by Sony Imagesoft in 1995. Players take on the persona of Johnny; the object of the game is to discover a missing download code before being apprehended by the Yakuza.
The Killing Floor is a floor made of junk: scrap metal, machine parts, and other debris, suspended in the air by steel cables and coil springs to create a sort of trampoline. A plywood shelf surrounding the Floor allows other Lo Teks to watch the action. Across the floor, Johnny sees the Yakuza assassin coming for him. The assassin steps onto the Killing Floor, easily making his way across the debris. Then Molly jumps onto the floor, causing it to rise and fall. She dances across the floor; the assassin tries to slice her with the retractable filament in his thumb, but she nimbly rolls out of the way. Molly continues to jump and dodge, and as the assassin makes another attempt to catch her with his thumb wire, Molly pounces on an old engine block near one of the giant coil springs, causing the floor to rise and sending the assassin into the path of his own wire. It slices off his hand at the wrist, and he falls from the Killing Floor, down, down to Nighttown.
The last portion of the story is a short epilogue, in which Johnny tells the reader what has happened in the time since Molly defeated the assassin ("it's been nearly a year," he says). Johnny is now living above Nighttown with the Lo Teks, and has the same kind of dental implants as Dog. He and Jones are partners, retrieving the traces of old programs from Johnny's brain using Jones's Squid, and then using the information to blackmail Johnny's former clients ("I was sick of being a bucket," Johnny says). He says that someday, he will "have a surgeon dig all the silicon out of my amygdalae, and I'll live with my own memories and nobody else's."
Dog is the first Lo Tek that Johnny meets after climbing into their territory high above Nighttown. With his surgically implanted Doberman canine teeth, missing eye and generally savage appearance, this Dog is a stray, cast aside by the futuristic society of Gibson's story, and left to fend for himself. He and his sentries guard the entrance to the Lo Teks' world, like mongrels guarding a junkyard.
Ralfi Face is a fence (he prefers the title "broker") who steals valuable information and then hires Johnny to store it for safekeeping. In Johnny's world, surnames are not handed down but rather chosen; people have names that describe them. For twenty years, Ralfi has worn the face of his idol, "Christian White of the Aryan Reggae Band … final champion of race rock," and this is how he acquired his odd surname. Though mercenary, unscrupulous, and a white supremacist, Ralfi is not normally as ruthless as the Yakuza mob. Johnny is surprised to find Ralfi has a contract out for his life: "Killing wasn't Ralfi's style."
Jones is a cybernetic dolphin, surgically altered during the war (exactly what war, and who the combatants were, is never specified) to detect enemy submarines. Jones gets his name from his addiction to heroin ("jones" is slang for heroin addiction). Johnny can relate to Jones, having been altered himself to serve as a courier for information to which he has no conscious access. By the end of the story Jones and Johnny have formed a symbiotic partnership, in which Jones accesses the parts of Johnny's brain he cannot reach, and Johnny provides him with a bigger tank, fresh seawater, and "his junk, when he needs it." Both Jones and Dog are examples of how, in this future world, the line between beast, human and machine have been blurred. Jones is part machine, part dolphin; Johnny is part human, part computer; Dog is part human, part dog.
Johnny meets Molly Millions when she attempts to sell drugs to Ralfi Face, and then uses her razored nails to steal the neural disruptor that holds Johnny captive. Her motive is money; her name could come either from this motivation, or from the money invested in her many alterations: surgically implanted mirrored lenses, razor blades that extend from beneath her fingernails, and "faint telltales of Chiba city circuitry traced along her thin arms."
Molly becomes Johnny's streetwise guide to Nighttown, a sort of high-tech Artful Dodger to Johnny's Oliver Twist. Though Johnny is by no means an innocent, he knows very little of the world Molly shows him; not only has he never met a Lo Tek, Molly has to define the term for him when they see it scrawled on a wall. Molly is a paradox; even though her body has been altered by computer circuitry and high-tech gadgets, she retains an untamed, animalistic quality, demonstrated by her uninhibited dance on the Killing Floor. It is this quality that helps her prevail over the Yakuza assassin, even though his technological modifications are more advanced than hers.
The name Johnny Mnemonic is derived from computer terminology; a mnemonic is a word or acronym used to represent a binary machine instruction code. The more commonly used meaning of the word mnemonic, however, is "helping or meant to help, the memory"; in Johnny's case this meaning is ironic, since he cannot consciously "remember" any of the information clients have stored in his brain.
Johnny relates the story in a very objective tone, with little emotion. Occasionally there is a trace of bitterness: "I'd spent most of my life as a blind receptacle to be filled with other people's knowledge and then drained…. A very technical boy. Sure." The reader gets the feeling that in allowing his brain to be used by others, he has forfeited knowledge of his own feelings, his own desires. He is so completely identified with his occupation (being a "bucket," as he describes it) that there is nothing else to define him. There is no mention of Johnny's past, of any friends or family; Ralfi is the only character with which he has had any previous connection. Near the end of the story, Johnny admits this to himself: "I saw how hollow I was. And I knew I was sick of being a bucket."
Though we know little about Johnny, there are indications that despite his jaded tone, he still has compassion for others. For instance, when Molly and Johnny first visit Jones at Funland, Jones goes underwater and takes a long time to surface, and Johnny "felt a strange panic, remembering he wasn't a fish, that he could drown." Then later, while waiting for Molly to negotiate with Dog, he thinks of Jones again: "Somewhere beneath us, Jones would be circling his tank, feeling the first twinges of junk sickness."
The deceptively mild-looking man sent to kill Ralfi and Johnny is more machine than man; as Molly describes him, "he's factory custom. … He's the best, number one, top dollar, state of the art." Ironically, he is defeated by Molly with the help of the Lo Teks, who are as far from state of the art as possible. In the low-tech, scrap metal trampoline called the Killing Floor, his technology fails him; "She'd killed him with culture shock," Johnny says.
Characters in literature often struggle with identity crises, but in Gibson's futuristic world they have unusual new ways of defining themselves. For Johnny Mnemonic, a trip to a surgeon for a new face is as mundane as a trip to the salon for a new hairstyle. Ralfi's insistence on wearing the same face for twenty years (though it is someone else's) is considered unusual. Every character in the story has been altered in some way of their own choosing (with the exception of Jones the dolphin, who did not volunteer for his high-tech modifications).
TOPICS FOR FURTHER STUDY
- The movie version of "Johnny Mnemonic" was not well-received by critics, although the original story was. After reading the story, watch the movie, and then write your own analysis of the film. Do you agree or disagree with general critical opinion? Why or Why not? What would you have done differently if you were the director? If you would not have done anything differently, explain why.
- Read a story by Robert A. Heinlein or Isaac Asimov, both considered more "traditional" science fiction writers than Gibson. How does Gibson's work differ from theirs? Divide a piece of paper into two columns; on the left, list features of the traditional story, and on the right, list how these features differ from Gibson's cyberpunk vision.
- Though science fiction deals with the future, it still reflects the mindset of the era in which it was written. Research the 1980s and then make a list of the ways the story reflects that decade, its attitudes, and its style.
- Research the life and work of Buckminster Fuller and his geodesic dome structures. Given what you learn, do you think it would be feasible to house an entire city in Fuller's domes? What would be the benefits of this? What would be the drawbacks? What environmental phenomena might necessitate the housing of cities in this manner? Write an opinion paper on whether or not you think such housing would be possible, and be sure to note why or why not.
The story centers on Johnny's search for identity; he is aided in this search by Molly Millions. It is appropriate that Molly's eyes are obscured by her surgically implanted mirror lenses, so that when Johnny looks at her, he sees himself. Johnny has given over so much of his own mind to the storage of others' information, he is unsure of his own thoughts and memories. Similarly, people often carry the beliefs and prejudices of others in their subconscious, "storing" the ideas of their parents, relatives and peers without being conscious of how these ideas influence their actions. Jones helps Johnny decipher these hidden messages just as a psychotherapist might help a present-day patient discover internalized beliefs and attitudes. Johnny says: "One day I'll have a surgeon dig all the silicon out of my amygdalae, and I'll live with my own memories and nobody else's, the way other people do," but one could argue that this hope is naïve; with the family stories, past prejudices and unquestioned assumptions that are passed on to us over the years, no one really lives with just their own memories.
Technological Invasion of Privacy
In Johnny's world, computer technology has invaded every aspect of life; bodies are altered, brains implanted with silicon chips, and according to Johnny, "it's impossible to move, to live, to operate at any level without leaving traces, bits, seemingly meaningless fragments of personal information. Fragments that can be retrieved, amplified." Even after Johnny and Molly flee to the Lo Teks' territory high above Nighttown, technology still tracks them down, in the form of the Yakuza Assassin. After Molly defeats the assassin, Johnny gets a bit of peace: "It's really okay up here, way up in the dark, smoking a Chinese filter tip and listening to the condensation that drips from the geodesics. Real quiet up here." The power of the Yakuza's technology is only temporarily stalled, however; in his novel Neuromancer, Gibson reveals that the Yakuza tracked Johnny down and killed him. Molly Millions survives to become a recurring character in Gibson's novels.
Gibson demonstrates how a society's increasing dependence on technology begins to rob its citizens of their humanity. Many of his characters are more like robots than actual humans, and Johnny has even lost the basic human right of owning his own thoughts. On the other hand, the Lo Teks, with no technology at all, live more like animals than humans, and some even look like animals; Johnny describes Dog's face as a "mask of total bestiality." With this cautionary tale, Gibson shows the importance of finding a happy medium between shunning technology altogether and letting it dominate our lives.
The Domination of Corporations and Organized Crime
Johnny's world is dominated by huge, multinational corporations and the Yakuza, a multinational crime organization so large it owns its own satellites. Gibson mentions the government only briefly (in a reference to the police) but brings up a corporation called Ono-Sendai more than once. One of the ways the Yakuza makes its money is to steal proprietary information from Ono-Sendai and other corporations, and then hold it for ransom.
In a world where corporations are so enormous that they dwarf even the government, the government loses its ability to regulate and govern society. This allows crime to flourish, especially when the crime organization becomes just as large as these corporations. In Johnny's society, the domination of these corporations is a natural outgrowth of the society's overwhelming dependence on technology; when technology is life's blood, who has more power than the companies that provide it?
A less exaggerated example of this idea can be seen today in the power that certain political lobbies have over legislation. Actions that would arguably be in the people's best interests—a reduction in fossil fuel emissions, for example—are often stymied by protests from large industries whose economic clout give them greater influence than any environmental lobby can hope to overcome. While the argument can be made that the high cost of making such changes could lead to the loss of jobs and lower profits, in any such confrontation, clearly a huge corporation employing thousands of people and contributing millions to the economy would have a huge advantage in pressing its point. Gibson has taken this idea to the extreme: the corporations are so dominant that the government is powerless to control them. Only the Yakuza is big enough to threaten them, but the Yakuza's only motive is financial gain. As a result, the future world that Gibson envisions is a dark, sinister and nearly hopeless place.
The Cyberpunk Genre
Two hallmarks of the cyberpunk genre (a subgenre of science fiction) are a dark, pessimistic vision of the future and a writing style that harkens back to the hard-boiled detective novels of Raymond Chandler. Since Gibson is considered the father of cyberpunk, it is not surprising that both these elements appear in "Johnny Mnemonic." Gibson's view of the future is relentlessly dark and ominous, and his style is classic detective fiction: "Lewis was grinning. I think he was visualizing a point just behind my forehead and imagining how he could get there the hard way." Later, when Molly introduces herself, the reader is reminded of James Bond: "Name's Millions. Molly Millions. You want to get out of here, boss? People are starting to stare." The vision is futuristic, but the writing style is not.
Symbolic Use of Darkness and Light
Gibson describes a dark, unsettling world which is housed inside acrylic geodesic domes. Most of the light is provided by neon arcs; without the arcs, "on a clear day, a gray approximation of sunlight filters through layers of acrylic, a view like the prison sketches of Giovanni Piranesi." Nighttown is the darkest of all: "The neon arcs are dead, and the geodesics have been smoked black by decades of cooking fires." The Lo Teks prefer the darkness, where they can live hidden from the rest of the world. Even Molly's flashlight is too much for Dog; he yells at her to turn it off. The Lo Teks match their world. Dog, for instance, is dressed in "a pair of decaying jeans, black with grime."
The character that offers Johnny the opportunity to shed some light on his own identity is Jones; appropriately, Jones's display board is made up of Christmas lights, hundreds of small bulbs that he uses to communicate.
Gibson is known, at least in his earlier works, for maintaining a breakneck pace, rarely stopping to explain. He leaves it up to the reader to define certain terms. In the third paragraph of the story, Gibson writes that "the girls at Under the Knife were big on Sony Mao, and it was getting harder and harder to keep them from adding the chic suggestion of epicanthic folds." Sony Mao is mentioned again later, but exactly who he is, Gibson never explains.
Sometimes, to keep a particular scene moving quickly, Gibson drops names or terms without explaining them, and then returns to them later for clarification. For instance, during the meeting with Ralfi, Johnny muses that "The Yakuza would know about Squids, for one thing, and they wouldn't want to worry about one lifting those dim and permanent traces of their program out of my head." Several pages later, he finally defines the term "Squid" as "Superconducting quantum interference detectors," and explains to Molly how they work.
First Person Point of View
"Johnny Mnemonic" is told in the first person point of view, from the viewpoint of Johnny. This lends the flight of Molly and Johnny more urgency, since Johnny doesn't know how close the Yakuza assassin might be at any moment. Also, because Johnny has never been to Lo Tek territory, he describes it more completely than he describes other settings in the story (for instance, the Drome, in the first scene, gets a single sentence of description). The reader and Johnny are both experiencing this bizarre environment for the first time, and the reader can easily understand Johnny's sense of disorientation.
Corporate Mergers and Takeovers
The 1980s brought a tide of corporate mergers and takeovers that continued into the 1990s. Many companies in the oil, retail and railroad industries merged in response to industry changes. Deregulation in the airline and telecommunication industries encouraged more mergers and takeovers. The combining of corporations created larger, more powerful corporations with greater market share in their industries. In "Johnny Mnemonic," Johnny speaks often of a corporation called Ono-Sendai, a huge multinational company that appears to dominate the high-technology industry.
The Development of the Personal Computer
Gibson began writing "Johnny Mnemonic" in 1977, but didn't finish it until 1981, the year it was published. In Gibson's story, computer technology is everywhere, including within humans themselves. In 1981, however, home computers were still a novelty, though their use was on the rise. The first consumer computers came on the market in the mid-to-late 1970s; some came in the form of kits that had to be assembled by the consumer, and others were so expensive as to be impractical for most people. In August of 1981, however, the IBM PC was released. The PC ran on a new operating system called MS-DOS, written by Bill Gates of Microsoft. This operating system became the standard for personal computers for years to come.
The Rise of Biotechnology
Scientists Stanley Cohen and Herbert Boyer discovered recombinant DNA technology in 1973, and went on to develop methods for cloning DNA. In 1976, Boyer founded a biotech company called Genentech, which went public in 1980. As more and more biotech companies were created, public debate over the ethics of genetic cloning escalated; people feared the possible consequences of "tinkering" with the basic building blocks of human life, especially by profit-seeking corporations. In 1980, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office issued the first patent on gene cloning to Stanford and the University of California.
The character Johnny Mnemonic is himself an example of using biotechnology for profit alone; the computer chips in Johnny's head exist only for making money, not for any medical purpose. In the end this same biotechnology both makes him the target of a Yakuza assassin, and gives the Yakuza a means for tracking him down. Technology being used on the street in ways not originally intended by its creators is a recurring motif in Gibson's stories, and financial profit is the driving motive of many of his characters.
The Japanese Economic Boom
Throughout the late 1970s and most of the 1980s, the Japanese enjoyed a huge economic boom; taking advantage of the energy crisis, their reliable, fuel-efficient cars gained market share in the United States, and innovative new technologies increased their business in high-tech industries. Anti-Japanese sentiment began to rise in the United States, where Americans were enduring a recession. This sentiment was increased when the Japanese began buying American real estate.
COMPARE & CONTRAST
- 1980s: In 1984, only seven percent of American households have personal computers.
Today: As of 2003, 61.8 percent of American homes have their own computer.
- 1980s: From 1981 to 1987, the number of cosmetic surgeries performed in the United States doubles. Prior to this time cosmetic surgery was mainly obtained by wealthy older women.
Today: The number of cosmetic surgeries between 1997 and 2005 increases by 119 percent; if non-surgical procedures (such as Botox and microdermabrasion) are included, the total procedures increase 444 percent in that same time period.
- 1980s: The Japanese dramatically increase their market share in the automotive and technology industries. This boom leads the Japanese to invest in real estate in the United States; the Mitsubishi corporation purchases Rockefeller Center in New York City.
Today: The Japanese boom is over, and the 1990s and early 2000s are difficult years for Japan's economy, punctuated by alternating periods of stagnation and recession.
Gibson's unsettling, violent vision of the future may have especially resonated with readers in 1981, due to several high-profile acts of violence. First, in December of 1980, former Beatle John Lennon was shot and killed in New York City by a mentally unstable fan, Mark David Chapman. Then in March of 1981, President Ronald Reagan was wounded in an assassination attempt by John Hinckley, Jr. Just two months later, Pope John Paul II was shot twice in the stomach while riding in an open car among 10,000 worshipers in St. Peter's Square (he survived after emergency surgery). To readers in this time, Gibson's
dark, lawless society may not have appeared to be so far-fetched.
Little notice was taken of "Johnny Mnemonic" when it was first published in Omni magazine in 1981. After the success of Gibson's first novel Neuromancer in 1984, however, ten of his short stories (including "Johnny Mnemonic") were collected and published in Burning Chrome, which was released in 1986.
Many critics read the collection after reading Neuromancer, although most of the stories were written before the novel. Notably, Gibson used some of his stories to create the world that would later gain him acclaim with the novel. The collection was well-received by many critics, including a reviewer from Booklist, who calls the stories "well-crafted, grittily realistic, and frequently gripping explorations of high-tech futures." Josephine Saxton, writing in the New Statesman describes the stories as "the most convincing, vivid, real and weird of anything I have read recently, in or out of the sf package." In her review, Saxton specifically references "Johnny Mnemonic," writing that it "got me so tense with its truly hallucinatory predictions of how technology will be used in streetwise societies that I went into the garden to get some air." Not all critics were so affected, however. Are viewer in Publishers Weekly describes the character Johnny Mnemonic as "just a variation of Mr. Memory from The 39 Steps," and calls Gibson's other characters "clichés without conviction."
Other reviewers mention Gibson's impressive literary style, though some feel it is a little too dazzling. In a Village Voice review of Burning Chrome, Dorothy Allison states that "the glitzy prose occasionally overwhelms the plots, burying characters in stream-of-consciousness descriptions." But whatever shortcomings critics may find in Gibson's writing, many agree that the haunting appeal of Gibson's futuristic vision is compensation enough. As Saxton puts it: "He consistently shows that, for strange, you do not need monotonous monsters in any space. His future humans chill sufficiently."
Pryor has a B.A. from the University of Michigan and over twenty years' experience in professional and creative writing with a special interest in fiction. In this essay, she explores comparisons between the real Yakuza organization and the one in "Johnny Mnemonic." Pryor also examines the influence of the Japanese economic boom on Gibson's vision of the future.
William Gibson's "Johnny Mnemonic" was written during a time when many Americans were feeling both threatened by, and resentful of, the Japanese economic boom. As recession left many in the United States out of work, the Japanese gained market share in the automotive and technological industries, and anti-Japanese sentiment was on the rise in America. One of the more tragic examples of this trend was the 1982 killing of Chinese-American Vincent Chin. Chin was beaten to death in Detroit by two laid-off autoworkers who believed he was Japanese.
Gibson, who proved prophetic in many of his other predictions, apparently felt that Japanese dominance would continue unabated, because in this story (and many other Gibson tales) Japanese influence has spread to every part of society.
The Japanese influence that weighs most heavily on Johnny is the Yakuza, the Japanese mafia. The Yakuza is a real entity in Japan, but in "Johnny Mnemonic," it has absorbed the mafia, the Chinese Triads and the Union Corse to become the most powerful and dangerous crime organization in the world. The Yakuza is not the only Japanese behemoth in Johnny's world, however; there is also frequent mention of a huge multinational corporation called Ono-Sendai. Sendai is a city in Northeast Japan that is known as the City of Trees. Ono is the Japanese word for axe. The word sendai also means a predecessor or previous era; so the company name could stem either from its destruction of the environment, its break with traditions of the past, or both. Either way, a company with "axe" as its first name seems unlikely to be a warm, friendly kind of enterprise.
WHAT DO I READ NEXT?
- Gibson's most famous work is undoubtedly his first novel, Neuromancer. It tells the story of Henry Case, a computer hacker who connects to cyberspace directly through his brain. Published in 1984, the book was the first to win all three of science fiction's major awards.
- One of Gibson's early influences was William S. Burroughs, who is best known for writing Naked Lunch. Written in a Moroccan hotel room in the mid-1950s and first published in 1959, the book presents the distorted thoughts and hallucinations of a heroin addict as he descends into his own drug induced hell.
- Gibson coined the phrase "cyberspace"; Tim Berners-Lee brought the term from concept to reality when he wrote the first programs that are the foundations of the Internet. In his 1999 book, Weaving the Web, Berners-Lee discusses the development and the future of his invention.
- Gibson's own website, www.williamgibsonbooks.com, includes a short autobiography, Gibson's blog, links to other cyberpunk websites, and a message board where fans discuss Gibson's work.
It is the Yakuza, though, not Ono-Sendai, that is looking to axe Johnny. To take care of this task, they have sent a nameless assassin with a trick thumb that reveals a spool of ultra-thin, ultra-sharp wire to slice and dice his prey faster than a Ginsu knife. This thumb trick is an interesting allusion to an actual Yakuza ritual, called Yubizume. If a Yakuza underling has committed some offense or mistake, he must cut off the end of his left pinky finger and give it to his boss as a peace offering. Some Yakuza members wear prosthetic fingertips to cover up the evidence of their transgression. Whatever transgression the Yakuza assassin in "Johnny Mnemonic" has committed to warrant the loss of his thumb rather than his pinky, it must have been a big one, because Yakuza punishment protocol generally begins with the loss of the pinky and then works their way across the fingers with subsequent misbehavior. In the climactic confrontation between the assassin and Molly Millions, the assassin's entire hand is severed at the wrist. Failing to kill Johnny turns out to be his biggest mistake of all.
Clear cut good guy/bad guy scenarios are not Gibson's style, however, and the people that help Johnny in his flight from the assassin have more in common with the Yakuza than with any heroes in white hats. For instance, in the real Yakuza organization, many members have full body tattoos; their entire torsos are covered with elaborate, detailed drawings that take hours and hours to complete. Members usually keep their tattoos covered in public, only revealing them to other Yakuza. Similarly, Johnny notes that "Lo Tek fashion ran to scars and tattoos," and Molly has her own special kind of tattoo that she keeps covered under her leather jacket until the final scene: "Faint telltales of Chiba City circuitry traced along her thin arms." Another marked similarity between the Lo Teks and the real-life Yakuza is that both are composed of the outcasts and misfits of society. The name Yakuza comes from the numbers eight (ya), nine (ku) and three (sa), a losing hand in a traditional Japanese card game. The Yakuza are losers, and proud of it, just as Dog is proud of his one-eyed, savage appearance: "It had taken time and a certain kind of creativity to assemble that face, and his posture told me he enjoyed living behind it." In creating the misfit Lo Teks, Gibson does not resort to the erroneous assumption that poverty equals virtue. Virtue is in pretty short supply with all of Gibson's characters; one suspects that, given enough money, Dog and Molly could match the Yakuza, evil for evil. Gibson even makes the reader feel a little sorry for the assassin. "There was a gap in the floor in front of him, and he went through it like a diver, with a strange deliberate grace, a defeated kamikaze on his way down to Nighttown." The assassin is described as a mild-looking little man in a silly Hawaiian shirt, but the reader soon learns that his appearance is deceiving. Perhaps this is an allusion to the Japanese threat to the American economy: after World War II, the Japanese were seen as a defeated, inconsequential entity (at least in economic terms), and the phrase "Made in Japan" connoted a cheap, inferior product. As with the Yakuza assassin, however, this image eventually proved inaccurate, and underestimating the Japanese turned out to be a mistake.
In Gibson's future, Japan controls everything the citizens of the Sprawl hold dear. Ono-Sendai is the biggest name in high technology; Sony Mao is the name of the most popular face to "wear," courtesy of surgical boutiques with names like "Under the Knife." Johnny says: "The girls at Under the Knife were big on Sony Mao, and it was getting harder and harder to keep them from adding the chic suggestion of epicanthic folds." The pressure to adopt all things Japanese—even down to facial features—is reminiscent of a more traditional science fiction story, where space aliens insist that all earthlings be "assimilated." The only time that food is mentioned in the story, even that is Japanese; the Yakuza assassin is described as "the kind most likely to wind up drunk on sake in a bar that puts out miniature rice crackers with seaweed garnish."
Paranoia about the Japanese and their economic boom probably made Gibson's work even more disturbing for those reading it in the early 1980s. In a 1989 article in the Wall Street Journal, libertarian writer David Boaz writes of how 1980 presidential hopeful John Connally used the paranoia to manipulate voters; he stridently told the Japanese that they "better be prepared to sit on the docks of Yokohama in your little Datsuns and your little Toyotas while you stare at your own little television sets and eat your mandarin oranges, because we've had all we're going to take!" While one cannot be sure what Connally had against mandarin oranges, since they are mainly grown in China, the frustration he displays in this outburst was something American workers could easily relate to.
Japan's boom ended in the 1990s, and their economy still has not fully recovered. Ironically, some of the strategies that helped their economy rise in the 1980s became their downfall; heavy regulation of industries by the government and foreign trade barriers have made it difficult for Japan to respond rapidly to changes in the global market, making them less competitive. Unwise loans made during prosperity came back to haunt Japanese banks. The economy that was known for innovation in high-tech industries now lags behind their foreign competitors. The frightening economic juggernaut of the 1980s has turned out to be just as flawed and vulnerable as any other system.
Knowledge of Japan's subsequent economic bust gives Gibson's story, with its Japanese villains, a more dated feel. As Gibson himself wrote in the 2003 introduction to a later edition of Burning Chrome, "nothing acquires quite as rapid or peculiar a patina of age as an imaginary future."
Source: Laura Pryor, Critical Essay on "Johnny Mnemonic," in Short Stories for Students, Gale, Cengage Learning, 2008.
Tatiani G. Rapatzikou
In the following excerpt, Rapatzikou identifies elements of Gibson's "Johnny Mnemonic" that are characteristic of the film noir genre of cinema.
The dwelling of cyberfiction on a set of motifs connected with models of social disarray, marginal urban regions, and paranoia is justified by its convergence with stylistic conventions deriving from crime or hard-boiled fiction, which was popularised by the film noir ‘dark cinema’ directors in the 1940s and 1950s. The combination of film noir visual cues in the construction of setting and background with the description of a cyber-run spatiality has offered more opportunities for narrative diversity and innovativeness. John L. Fell explains the usefulness of integrating film techniques into fiction writing as such:
We gain a workable sort of perspective by allowing the idea of storytelling technique to transcend disciplinary boundaries, especially if we try to view it as one among several evidences of mounting dispositions: concerns with fragmenting exposition in terms of time sequence, with particularizing the images and their compositions, with the interjection of "movement", and with the externalisation of memory into tangible, "visible" experience. (1974:54)
In Gibson's case, the vividness of the pictures he creates, the emphasis he places on the description of detail and change of colour, his ability for the construction of close-ups and various angles of view, reveal his interest in how the events described in his narratives are seen rather than just read. This can be explained by the various or alternative perspectives he employs for the depiction of urban space, which features either as a perceptible or as a constructed by information technologies entity. For an exploration of the links that exist between Gibson's visual effects and noir, we need to be reminded of the visual essentials that define this film genre. Elizabeth Cowie explain:
[L]ow-key lighting; the use of chiaroscuro effects; strongly marked camera angles, either low or high; jarring and off-balance shot composition; tight framing and close-ups that produce a claustrophobic sense of containment, […] action taking place at night […] a strong contrast between the enveloping dark and intermittent pools of light. (in Copjec 1993: 126-127)
The manipulation of different sources of light is what enables the distinction and juxtaposition of urban realms in the film noir as well as the creation of its mysterious atmosphere. This certainly provides a key for appreciating Gibson's stylistic diversity and narrative complexity in its visualisation of space, but most of all, for recognising the cinematic background of his fiction. One of Gibson's short stories, ‘Johnny Mnemonic’ in Burning Chrome: And other Stories (1986), could serve as a good example.
From its opening paragraphs, the narration plays with a variety of visual elements that highlight the plot from various perspectives by making it more satisfying to the eye of the reader. In this story the principal character, Johnny Mnemonic, is described roaming the shadowed and deserted streets of Nighttown. This is not an ordinary town but a highly technologised version of the city with its new range of black markets and rundown shopping malls:
The mall runs forty kilometres from end to end, a ragged overlap of Fuller domes roofing what was once a suburban artery. If they turn off the arcs on a clear day, a gray approximation of sunlight filters through layers of acrylic, […]. Nighttown pays no taxes, no utilities. The neon arcs are dead, and the geodesics have been smoked black by decades of cooking fires.
It is interesting here how the writer plays with different sources of unobtrusive lighting as denoted by his choice of words. The shades of gray and black that Gibson employs for the depiction of Nighttown represent a dispirited world, whose shabbiness makes it appear tawdry, depressing and more dramatic. This effect is further intensified by the use of close-ups, while Gibson's insistence on precise detail reinforces the visual quality of the descriptions in their gradual release of more and more information: "Nighttown spread beneath us like a toy village for rats; tiny windows showed candlelight, with only a few harsh, bright squares lit by battery lanterns and carbide lamps." In the fashion of the hard-boiled narratives, every passage of description contributes to the retardation of the narrative so as to create a greater dramtic effect or to the diversion of our attention in order to surprise us with another revelation.
In addition to the shadowed and deserted streets of Nighttown, the underground authorities of Yakuza feature as an imminent danger:
The Yakuza could be settling its ghostly bulk over the city's data banks, probing for faint images of me reflected in numbered accounts, securities transactions, bills for utilities. We're an information economy. They teach you that in school. What they don't tell you is that it's impossible to move, to live, to operate at any level without leaving traces, bits, seemingly meaningless fragments of personal information. Fragments that can be retrieved, amplified …
It is in this world that the main character strives to defend himself against those who threaten his physical integrity and freedom because of the data that has been implanted in his brain. The new range of black markets one can find in Nighttown and their renting out of memory chips to gangsters who need secret storage space charge the descriptions of the town with an overpowering intensity. In this landscape of technological crime and espionage, Yakuza is always on the move impeding the character's progress toward the solution of the case. However, in his attempt to heighten suspense. Gibson reads the future city as a space of constant monitoring and restraint ("it's impossible to move, to live, to operate at any level without leaving traces"); while his narrative sets off from the fixed urban spatiality crime writing in order to arrive at another distinct but abstract electronic spatiality ("the city's data banks"). In this way, Gibson enlivens the narrative structure of the hard-boiled detective story whose reliance on the succession of separate episodes aims at the "postponing of an end simply because articulate speech is linear and expresses itself in the dimension of time" (Porter 1981: 41). The idea of the existence of another spatial dimension changes the conceptualisation of time and space by offering new kinds of narrative divergence. The transition from a discernible space to an indiscernible one is happening gradually in the story. Gibson is initially trying to establish a sense of visible spatiality, as with the images of Nighttown, in order to be able to introduce the existence of a separate, but not entirely different, electronic realm. The interweaving of Gibson's writing with crime fiction, judging from the crossover in the visual motifs used for the establishment and parting of the spatial territories found in the story, not only strengthens its links to film noir but also to the gothic belief "that the world is fundamentally divided: that it may appear thus on the surface, but that is merely the surface and elsewhere there is something entirely different" (Punter 1996: 186). This is how David Punter, in his commentary on Gibson's Neuromancer, describes this tendency:
[T]here is in [the text] a real tension between new and older forms of excess and monstrosity, and [the character moving] precisely between the two-worlds, the hi-tech world of gleaming surfaces, pure metal, the unfailing machine, and the sour world of small-time crooks and flashing menace: the world of mind and the world of ‘meat’. (1996: 174)
What brings all these parallels together is the continual recourse to the paranoid feeling that the world can always be more peculiar and fearful than it really appears to be. This charges Gibson's narratives with double significance by combining past visual clichés and writing conventions with the fears of an anti-human future technology …
Source: Tatiani G. Rapatzikou, "The Machine in Art and the Cinema," in Gothic Motifs in the Fiction of William Gibson, Rodopi, 2004, pp. 17-27.
In the following essay, Ivison gives a critical analysis of Gibson's work.
No other Canadian speculative fiction writer, and possibly no other Canadian writer of fiction, has had as great an impact on late-twentieth-century culture as has William Gibson. Beginning with a series of short stories in science-fiction magazines in the early 1980s, and then the publication of his first novel, Neuromancer (1984), as a paperback original, Gibson quickly rose to the status of a cultural visionary and prophet of the information age. Winning five major science-fiction awards, Neuromancer went on to become a key influence on late-twentieth-century popular culture; its impact can be traced in the worlds of motion pictures, television, popular music, video games, interactive technology, and cultural theory. With its success, and that of its sequels, Gibson became a celebrity, courted by publishers, the news media, academics, art gallery curators, and Hollywood. While this quick rise to stardom may have been partially a result of the excesses of the media, no one can doubt Gibson's ability to imagine and articulate the cultural and technological changes that defined the late twentieth century. Gibson's work provided, and continues to provide, the media and society with the language with which to describe and understand these changes.
William Ford Gibson was born on 17 March 1948 in Conway, South Carolina, a small town near the coastal resort of Myrtle Beach. He was the son of William Ford Gibson, a prosperous contractor, and Otey (Williams) Gibson. The family traveled frequently, as his father went from one job to another. One of his father's contracts had a significant impact on the young Gibson: installing toilets in the Oak Ridge, Tennessee facility in which the first atomic bomb was made. Gibson grew up with stories about the intense security arrangements, and this exposure was the first intervention of a science-fictional reality into his life. As a child, he was also a consumer of science-fiction television shows and toys. His father died when Gibson was eight years old, and he and his mother moved to Wytheville, a small town in southwestern Virginia on the edge of the Appalachian Mountains, to be with her family. He described himself to Larry McCaffery in Across the Wounded Galaxies: Interviews with Contemporary American Science Fiction Writers (1990) as being a "bookish, geekish, can't-hit-the-baseball kind of kid" during this period. As a teenager he was a voracious reader of science fiction, increasingly drawn to the darker visions of writers such as J. G. Ballard as well as avant-garde authors such as William Seward Burroughs and Thomas Pynchon, whose visions are in many ways consonant with the grimmer science-fiction writers.
When Gibson was sixteen he went to a boarding school in Tucson, Arizona, where he was first exposed to "urban kids" and hippies. During his time in Tucson his mother died and, having been kicked out of school for smoking marijuana, he returned to Wytheville but quickly decided to leave and "spent sometime bumming around," as he told McCaffery. Like many American youths during this period, Gibson headed for Canada when he was nineteen, arriving in Toronto in 1968, where he participated in the thriving hippie scene. He and his future wife, Deborah Thompson, traveled in Europe and then settled in Vancouver, British Columbia in 1972, marrying in June of that year (they went on to have two children, Graeme Ford Gibson and Claire Thompson Gibson).He enrolled in the University of British Columbia, where he received a B.A. in English in 1977.
Gibson first started writing science fiction during his time at the university, where he took a course on science fiction with the well-known scholar and critic Susan Wood. Rather than write an essay for the course, Gibson wrote a short story. After three months of work, Gibson produced "Fragments of a Hologram Rose," which was first published in the Summer 1977 issue of the Boston science-fiction fanzine Unearth. This brief, dense story introduces many of the elements that became identified with Gibson's later writing: a poetic evocation of the technology of what is now called virtual reality; densely referential prose; a description of a world dominated by transnational capital; and an interest inmarginal spaces and characters. At the same time, this elliptical, fractured story is devoid of interesting characters and lacking in narrative drive.
After graduating from the university Gibson continued to drift, spending his time looking after his children (his wife worked as a teacher) and buying punk-rock singles, until he met John Shirley, an American science-fiction writer and punk musician, who urged him to continue writing. The result was four stories published in 1981: "Johnny Mnemonic" and "Hinterlands" appeared in the glossy science-fiction magazine Omni; "The Belonging Kind," a collaboration with Shirley, was published in the anthology Shadows 4; and, possibly most significantly for the future development of his career, "The Gernsback Continuum" was included in the anthology Universe 11, edited by famed science-fiction anthologist and editor Terry Carr. These four stories were the first real indication of the impact that Gibson would have on the world of science fiction.
"Johnny Mnemonic," which was later made into a movie of the same title with a screenplay by Gibson, became one of the iconic and highly anthologized stories of the so-called cyberpunk movement, of which Gibson became a leading figure. Cyberpunk arose in the 1980s in seeming reaction to the progressivist ideals of mainstream science fiction, and it injected science fiction with a romanticized vision of "street culture." It combined the cynicism and tough-guy morality of the hard-boiled detective novels of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett with the bleak nihilism of punk rock and its precursors (particularly, in the case of Gibson, Lou Reed and his groundbreaking late-1960s art-rock band, The Velvet Underground), and an awareness of the dramatic ontological and epistemological changes that advances in computer technology had already begun to effect. As Gibson himself has admitted on various occasions, his writing, and that of the writers who followed him, bears the traces of a multiplicity of literary and cultural influences, from popular-culture genres such as science fiction and rock music and elite-culture figures such as Pynchon and Burroughs.
Johnny Mnemonic is a courier who has been technologically altered to allow him to carry information by storing it in his brain, and with the help of Molly Millions he is, by the end of the story, able to utilize that stored information to the benefit of himself and his friends. But the plot of the story is not what is most significant; rather, it is the setting, the underworld of the near future, a world in which the characters speak in a cynical street language and have bodies that have been technologically augmented. It is a romanticized world of drugs, despair, and random violence, in which access to technology is determined by, and determinative of, power and status. While the impact of the story has been diluted by the plethora of imitations that have appeared since its initial publication, "Johnny Mnemonic" is a remarkable work.
His other story to appear in Omni that year, "Hinterlands," is quite different from the cyberpunk stories with which Gibson is usually identified, but is powerful nonetheless. The unnamed narrator is a surrogate, a person who greets astronauts returning from their solo missions into the unknown. Nearly all of the astronauts come back from their missions mad or suicidal, but carrying invaluable information with them, such as a cure for cancer. It is ultimately a powerful meditation on the sublimity of the unknown and on the limits of human knowledge. Ultimately, in contrast to the explicative imperative of science fiction, nothing is explained (though Gibson is certainly not the first genre writer to write against this imperative).
"The Gernsback Continuum," which has been repeatedly anthologized since its initial publication, is a short but suggestive story in which the narrator sees "semiotic ghosts … bits of deep cultural imagery that have taken on a life of their own." It describes the bleeding of past visions of the future into another time, and it is a provocative meditation on popular culture and its impact on perception, recalling the short fiction of 1960s British science-fiction writer Ballard. Although cyberpunk activist (and Gibson's friend) Bruce Sterling, in the foreword to Gibson's 1986 collection Burning Chrome, describes "The Gernsback Continuum" as a "devastating refutation" of the simplistic "technolatry" of much science fiction, it can also be read as a less radical story, one that simply comments upon that tradition and its impact upon society.
"The Belonging Kind," written with his friend Shirley, was the first of Gibson's many collaborations. Michael Coretti, a dialectologist, encounters an intriguing woman in a bar and decides to follow her, only to discover her secret: that she physically transforms into an appropriate person as she moves from bar to bar. He discovers that there are many more like her, aliens posing as humans, and eventually becomes one himself. This story, although readable, is the least interesting and least typical of the quartet of stories Gibson published during 1981, and seems to bear more of the traces of Shirley than it does of Gibson.
Gibson's next Omni story, "Burning Chrome," which was published in the July 1982 issue and which was nominated for a Nebula Award, introduced the elements with which Gibson became most identified. Much of the action of the story takes place in cyberspace, or the matrix, which is "an abstract representation of the relationships between data systems." Bobby Quine, a "console cowboy" or a hacker, breaks into the computer systems of major corporations, trying to outwit the ice, or computer security systems. The narrator, Automatic Jack, builds and reconstructs computer consoles. "Burning Chrome" essentially tells the story of a high-tech bank robbery. Jack and Bobby break into a corporation's Swiss bank accounts and electronically steal the money. What is most memorable about this story, however, is its highly influential evocation of the matrix and its poetic description of the abstract space that is cyberspace. Much of the way in which cyberspace has been represented and understood is based on Gibson's description of it in this short story and on his elaboration of the concept in Neuromancer.
The second of his collaborations, "Red Star, Winter Orbit," was written with Sterling (with whom he later wrote The Difference Engine, 1990) and appeared in Omni in July 1983. The first man on Mars, Colonel Yuri Vasilevich Korolev, whose limbs have atrophied after years in space, is stranded on a Soviet space station after it is decommissioned and damaged in the rebellion that ensued. Korolev is preparing to die as the last man in space while the station's orbit decays, but two American squatters arrive to take possession and restore it to its orbit. Although the geopolitical speculation of the story, in which the Soviet Union is triumphant in the Cold War, now seems quaint, its libertarian identification of a site such as a space station as a resistant, autonomous place is of interest and is an idea that Gibson developed in his first novel.
By this time, something beginning to resemble a movement was beginning to coalesce around Gibson. Shirley had introduced Gibson to Sterling, a science-fiction writer from Texas who went on to enthusiastically promote both Gibson and what was soon described as the cyberpunk movement, which was canonized with the publication of Sterling's 1986 anthology, Mirrorshades. In October 1982 Gibson attended a science-fiction convention, ArmadilloCon, in Austin, Texas, where he read excerpts from the opening chapters of the novel he was writing. At that conference was one of the first panels on what was then being called "punk SF," and participants discussed Gibson, among other writers. In Austin he formed the writing and personal friendships that coalesced into the group of writers known as cyberpunk writers, or as the Movement. Upon leaving Austin, according to fellow science-fiction writer and friend Lewis Shiner in Fiction 2000, edited by George Slusser and Tom Shippey, Gibson joked, "A new axis has been formed."
Yet, charismatic as he may have been, Gibson was nervous about his ability to meet the challenge he had taken on when he had accepted Carr's commission to write a novel. He told McCaffery that "I was terrified once I actually sat down and started to think about what it [writing a novel] meant." When he found out that a novel was about three hundred pages long, he thought, "My God!" Despite his concerns, Gibson was up to the challenge. When Neuromancer appeared as a paperback original in 1984, it received an enthusiastic critical and commercial response and went on to sweep all the major science-fiction awards, winning the Philip K. Dick Award for best paperback original book, the Hugo Award (voted on by readers), the Nebula Award (voted on by members of the Science Fiction Writers of America), and other awards around the world (although it is interesting that it did not win the Canadian Science Fiction and Fantasy Award). As McCaffery put it, Neuromancer "burst onto the science fiction scene like a supernova." In fact, its impact was felt far beyond the genre boundaries of science fiction. McCaffery, for one, observed that "after reading Neuromancer for the first time, I knew I had seen the future of SF (and maybe of literature in general)." Gibson's novel has become the subject of much attention by literary, film studies, and cultural studies scholars since its publication, and it has been given a level of academic scrutiny unmatched by any other genre science-fiction novel. Famously, the influential critic of postmodernism, Fredric Jameson, noted in his 1991 book Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism that cyberpunk, exemplified by Gibson, was "the supreme literary expression if not of postmodernism, then of late capitalism itself."
The impact of Neuromancer can be seen in the acceptance of the word "cyberspace" into the modern vocabulary and in the extent to which Gibson's representation of computers, computer hackers, and the Internet has determined how they have been represented subsequently in popular culture and the news media. Gibson became the prophet of the Internet age—despite the notorious fact that he wrote the book on a typewriter, not a computer—and reading Neuromancer became a lifestyle statement, to an extent that few science-fiction novels have achieved before or since. In The New York Times Book Review of 8 September 1996 Laura Miller remembered that "in the shabby apartments of young, black-clad aficionados of punk rock and fashionable nihilism," a copy of Neuromancer "was de rigeur."
The opening sentence of Neuromancer is one of the most famous in all of science fiction: "The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel." That sentence exemplifies what Gibson brings to science fiction: a poetic evocation of the near future, filtering scientific extrapolation through a popular-culture sensibility. The main character of Neuromancer is Case, a computer cowboy or hacker. After betraying one of his employers, he was punished by having his nervous system damaged, which prevented him from accessing cyberspace. Despondent, he accepts a mysterious offer from a former soldier, Armitage: he will be repaired if he agrees to do the work that Armitage requires. This agreement propels Case through the near-future world that Gibson describes, a world controlled by Japanese corporations. Case travels through the seedy underworld, meeting a wide variety of characters, memorably including space Rastafarians and some of the characters from Gibson's earlier short stories, including Molly Millions from "Johnny Mnemonic." Eventually, he penetrates the conspiracy behind Armitage's offer, only to discover an artificial intelligence at the heart of it.
Neuromancer reflects the 1980s North American fascination with and fear of Japan, which may seem slightly dated, but the book effectively limns a future not-so-alien world in which computers dominate; information is the most important currency; and bioengineering is commonplace, with the result that it becomes difficult to determine where the machine ends and the human begins. As in the 1982 motion picture Blade Runner, the world described in Neuromancer runs counter to the progressivist, pristine futures of much science fiction, substituting for it a gritty, hard-boiled sensibility. Yet, what really distinguished Gibson's first novel from much of the rest of science fiction was its sheer stylishness. Gibson was clearly as interested in the literary description of the future as in its scientific description. It is also a densely detailed, frenetically paced novel; one of the reasons for this abundance, Gibson told McCaffery, was Gibson's "terrible fear of losing the reader's attention," which motivated him to try to ensure that there was something of interest on every page.
In addition to its description of a gritty, noir future in which information is the basis of exchange, both legal and illegal, Neuromancer is possibly most notable for its description of cyberspace, or the matrix, that nonmaterial realm defined by the interaction of computer systems, which Gibson developed after watching Vancouver teenagers playing video games. He was intrigued by the fact that the video-game players were acting as if there were a real space inside the video screen. What makes Gibson's portrayal of cyberspace so effective is precisely its lack of technical limitation; cyberspace is a transcendent, dreamlike space, populated by ghosts and gods, though the degree to which Gibson's portrayal of cyberspace approaches the mystical is only hinted at in Neuromancer, in the artificial intelligence Wintermute, and in Wintermute's unification with its double, Neuromancer. The new entity approaches God in its representation of the entirety of cyberspace. The religious and mystical dimensions of cyberspace are further developed in the two sequels to Neuromancer.
Gibson followed the immense success of Neuromancer with the publication of two short stories, "Dogfight" and "The Winter Market." "Dogfight," written with Michael Swanwick, was published in the July 1985 issue of Omni. It tells the story of Deke, a petty thief and video-game shark, who is obsessed with beating all challengers in an aerial combat game. Ultimately the story serves as a commentary on the emptiness of Deke's obsession and the culture that it represents. "The Winter Market" is an unusual story in Gibson's body of work, for it incorporates what had been a remarkable absence from his fiction: Canada. It was first published in the November 1985 issue of Vancouver and is set in that city, his hometown. Gibson creates a portrait of Vancouver while telling a story that seems to be a meditation on the role of the artist. Casey, the narrator, is an editor of people's "psychic waveforms." He discovers and edits a new star, Lise, who becomes a media celebrity saved inside a computer, transcending her disabled physical body and achieving "cybernetic immortality." Casey's friend and confidant, Rubin, is an artist who makes art out of other people's garbage. "The Winter Market" is a moving meditation on the tension between art and commerce, on what it means to be human or machine, and on the value of place.
In 1986 Gibson published Burning Chrome, which collects all the short fiction he had published to date, including his three collaborations. Since the mid 1980s Gibson has published only occasional pieces of short fiction and has primarily devoted himself to writing novels and screenplays.
Count Zero, the sequel to Neuromancer, was also published in 1986, in hardcover (though still by a nonmainstream publisher). Bobby Newmark, the Count Zero of the title, is a computer cowboy who runs into deadly ice, or security software, on his first run, but he is saved by a cyberspace "angel." Later attacked by hit men, he is protected by a group who are loyal to the voodoo gods that exist in the matrix. Angela Mitchell, the daughter of a famous biochip developer, possesses artificially augmented intelligence and can access cyberspace without a deck, the device that all others use to enter the matrix. Controlled by gods of the matrix, Angie is the angel who had saved Bobby. Biochip technology provides the impetus for much of the plot, as Josef Virek, a multibillionaire, is trying to acquire this technology to help him achieve immortality. By the end of the novel, Angie has become a simstim or virtual-reality star, one of the celebrities of cyberspace. The plot is resolved with the help of the supernatural forces that exist in cyberspace. This supernatural or mystical element is what differentiates Count Zero from Gibson's earlier work. He had hinted at the supernatural at the conclusion of Neuromancer, but in its sequel, cyberspace is clearly dominated by supernatural presences.
The frenetic narrative and overpowering descriptive intensity that had defined Neuromancer are less present in Count Zero, which marked the beginning of Gibson's gradual shift away from the genre conventions and styles of science fiction toward a more mainstream writing style. Count Zero is cleanly written, still with emphasis on detailed description but with less attempt to overpower the reader with a densely realized future. Response to the novel, although enthusiastic, inevitably did not repeat the hyperbolic adulation of Neuromancer. Unlike its predecessor, Count Zero did not win any major awards, although it did place highly in the yearly readers' poll held by Locus, a science-fiction magazine. Science-fiction critics still praised the novel, though Gibson was obviously no longer an exciting new presence in the field; but many mainstream critics were more receptive to the less obviously pulpish, conventionally written sequel. Writing in the Summer 1989 issue of Canadian Literature, J. R. Wytenbroek, for instance, observed that Count Zero "is a better-written, better-structured novel with a more coherent and interesting plot-line, and more realistic and interesting characters than Neuromancer." Science-fiction writer and critic Colin Greenland, on the other hand, suggested in the 20 June 1986 TLS: The Times Literary Supplement that Count Zero simply built on the achievements of its predecessor, adding that "Count Zero shows a conscientious broadening of scope and modulation of tone without any loss of brio."
After Gibson's explosion into the media landscape during 1984 and 1985, many of his short stories, as well as Neuromancer, were optioned by movie producers. Gibson began to get involved in the movie industry himself as the 1980s progressed; he was commissioned to write several screenplays, none of which actually were produced. The most famous of these scripts was that for Alien 3 (1992). Gibson seemed an obvious choice, since the first Alien movie (1979), directed by Ridley Scott, had many obvious affinities with the developing genre of cyberpunk, in both the future world that it sketched and the H. R. Giger-designed sets that combined the mechanical and the biological. Gibson's screenplay was not used in the resulting form, however, though it is widely available on the World Wide Web. His screenwriting experience was influencing his novel writing, as Count Zero and, to a greater extent, Mona Lisa Overdrive reflected.
Mona Lisa Overdrive, published in 1988, was Gibson's first book to receive hardcover publication by a major publisher, although still through its science-fiction imprint. Bobby Newmark, now a successful computer cowboy, has become the occasional boyfriend of Angie Mitchell, who is a worldwide simstim star while Bobby, in a self-imposed coma, devotes himself to the theological project of determining the shape of the matrix. The Mona Lisa of the title is a sixteen-year-old junkie who has been surgically altered to look like Angie. At the violent conclusion of the novel Angie is killed, to be replaced as a simstim star by her look-alike, Mona Lisa. But Angie and Bobby live on happily ever after in cyberspace, in a virtual heaven. Although Gibson's style may have altered, the world that he describes in Mona Lisa Overdrive remains essentially the same as that of its two predecessors. It is a world dominated by transnational capital, and his characters are those people who move through the margins of society living off what they can scam. The action moves between the grimy, overcrowded, polluted streets and the hideaways of the elites, with the media often serving as a point of contact between those two worlds. In fact, his increasing interest in the media world, which was further developed in his novels of the 1990s, reflected his own increasing entanglement with the media, whether as a celebrity in his own right or as a screenwriter.
With Mona Lisa Overdrive Gibson continued to broaden his audience, though it was becoming clear that cyberpunk, which Gibson's writing exemplified, had run its course. Certainly Mona Lisa Overdrive, though based in the same world as Gibson's earlier fiction and featuring many of the same characters, including the iconic Molly Millions, was (at least stylistically) quite different from Neuromancer, let alone his earlier short stories. Critical reaction, while still generally positive, reflected the sense that Gibson was no longer a revolutionary presence in the field of science fiction but increasingly becoming a figure of the status quo. In a typical review Paul Kincaid observed in the 12 August 1988 TLS that Gibson "is showing clear and dramatic improvement as a writer, but is doing nothing fresh with this talent," and that Count Zero "is very much in the mainstream; it will take a fresh vision to confirm Gibson's place in the first rank." Istvan Csicery-Ronay Jr. similarly complained, in the January/February 1989 issue of American Book Review, that despite Gibson's "wonderfully inventive imagination and scintillating style, he has nothing new to say about the new, which is all he claims to know."
Gibson's next novel, The Difference Engine, collaboratively written with the Austin-based Sterling, seemed to represent a break with cyberpunk. It is an alternative-history novel set in Victorian Britain, based on the premise that the protocomputer invented by Charles Babbage but never actually built had been put into production and then transformed Victorian society, which then develops much of the technology associated with the twentieth century but based on nineteenth-century technologies such as steam power. Combining espionage and adventure with an interest in mid-Victorian geopolitics, technology, and paleontology, The Difference Engine is an engaging alternative history.
The Difference Engine was not so great a leap from Gibson's earlier work. Alternative history has a long tradition within science fiction, and many of Gibson and Sterling's contemporaries were also attracted to the Victorian period, writing stories and novels in what came to be called the "steampunk" subgenre. The world they described, influenced by the Victorian England of Charles Dickens, Wilkie Collins, Jekyll and Hyde, and Sherlock Holmes, was similar to that of cyberpunk fiction. As in cyberpunk, steampunk focused on the transformation of society by a technological revolution and the resulting political and economic consequences. As in cyberpunk, many steampunk writers focused on characters moving through the underworld and living at the margins of society, and on the impact of capital on everyday life. The Difference Engine is certainly in keeping with many of Gibson's interests, and those of Sterling, in its emphasis on the impact of technological change and its genre interest in world building—constructing a realistically extrapolated world resulting from the introduction of new technology. In addition, the novel concludes with a gesture toward the transcendent, fully in keeping with Gibson's later cyberpunk fiction. The Difference Engine does not represent a radical departure for Gibson, but a logical progression. Still, it did allow him to escape the limitations imposed by the expectations his earlier fiction had raised.
Gibson's next project, Agrippa (A Book of the Dead) (1992), was a collaboration between Gibson, visual artist Dennis Ashbaugh, and art-book publisher Kevin Begos. Released in a limited edition of fewer than five hundred copies, costing 500 for the basic edition and 1500 for the deluxe edition, Agrippa is composed of a series of etchings by Ashbaugh surrounding a computer disk that includes a three-thousand-word prose poem by Gibson. The disk containing the poem self-destructs after the poem is read. Gibson's poem, a semi-autobiographical meditation inspired by an old photo album that Gibson found in his family home in Virginia, is now widely available on the World Wide Web. The novelty of the project resulted in critical attention being devoted to Agrippa, both in the popular media and in academic and art journals, though most of the interest was in the idea of the self-destructing book rather than in Gibson's text itself.
In 1991 Gibson had contributed to an exhibition at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art called Visionary San Francisco. The result was the short story "Skinner's Room," which became a central part of his next novel, Virtual Light (1993). "Skinner's Room" describes life on a Golden Gate Bridge turned into a shanty town, and this vision is one of the most appealing ones in Virtual Light and its two sequels. True to Gibson's narrative strategy in most of his other novels, Virtual Light begins with apparently unrelated plot lines that gradually converge as the novel develops. Chevette Washington is a San Francisco bike messenger who lives among the homeless on the bridge. She steals what appears to be a pair of expensive yet ordinary sunglasses that turn out to be high-technology glasses called Virtual Light, which directly feed the optic nerve with electromagnetic pulses. Unknown to her, the glasses contain top-secret information: a plan to rebuild San Francisco as huge, self-sufficient towers. For that reason, she is being hunted down and has to flee. Meanwhile, Bobby Rydell, a former Los Angeles policeman who had been expelled from the LAPD for killing a man who held his family hostage, has been drifting through looking for a job. At first he is signed by a reality police television show, Cops in Trouble, but he is dropped when the show signs someone with a more exciting story. After that experience, he takes a job with a private security firm, IntenSecure, as a driver, but he loses that position after being sent on a fake operation as a result of misdirections received from a group of computer hackers called the Republic of Desire. Then he begins working for a private detective. In that capacity he meets Chevette, and they flee her pursuers together. Bobby eventually escapes to a trailer camp of television worshippers and then contacts the Republic of Desire, who agree to help him and Chevette. At the conclusion of the novel both Bobby and Chevette are signed by Cops in Trouble.
Other than Gibson's description of the shanty town on the bridge and a few other details, the world described in Virtual Light has less in common with the extrapolative claims of science fiction than with the critical claims of satire. The near future of Virtual Light seems to almost exist already, unlike that of Neuromancer, which seemed like audacious prophecy rather than satirical critique. For those readers who had begun to feel that Gibson's cyberpunk future had lost its novelty and had become a bit stale, the stylish prose and detailed near-present of Virtual Light represented a reinvigorated Gibson. Furthermore, rather than representing the failure of Gibson's imagination, Virtual Light simply reflects that the future that Gibson had described in his earlier fiction had nearly arrived. Virtual Light was Gibson's most mainstream novel to that point and certainly the most successful of his 1990s novels.
While some critics, such as Richard Ryan in the 26 August 1993 Christian Science Monitor, found that Virtual Light lacked "the same incandescence that made Gibson's Neuromancer and Count Zero so riveting," others were less distressed by its "more likable characters, a more subdued style, a less claustrophobic setting and a more upbeat ending," as Gerald Jonas wrote in the 12 September 1993 New York Times Book Review, for Gibson's "main interest, as always, is in creating a near-future world that can hold its own with the mind-bending reality of the present." Virtual Light not only confirmed Gibson's status within science fiction but also marked his increasing acceptance as a mainstream literary figure. Although the novel was published by a genre imprint (Bantam Spectra), Gibson was being marketed to the general public as a mainstream writer, as evidenced by jacket endorsements from such non-science-fiction, trendy authors as Tom Robbins and fellow Vancouverite Douglas Coupland.
Gibson's next project was his first completed movie project. Although nearly all of his fiction had been optioned at various times, and he had been commissioned to write screenplays, his first movie to actually be produced was his adaptation of "Johnny Mnemonic." He wrote the screenplay for the 38 million motion picture, which starred Keanu Reeves and was directed by his friend, artist Robert Longo. However, it was both a commercial and critical disaster, which was especially disappointing to Gibson given the extent of his involvement; not only did he write the script but also he was involved in many of the day-to-day production decisions. He vocally blamed the problems on the interference of the movie studio and made clear that he disliked the version that was released to theaters, telling Edo van Belkom in Northern Dreamers, for instance, that "the film that was released bears almost no resemblance to the film we shot." To coincide with the release of the movie in 1995, Gibson published Johnny Mnemonic, which combines the original short story and his original script and which provides a clearer indication of Gibson's vision for the movie than does the finished product. During this period Gibson also dabbled in other media, making a cameo appearance in the 1993 television miniseries Wild Palms (his brief dialogue is widely available on the World Wide Web), and cowriting a song, "Dog Star Girl," for pop singer Deborah Harry, who included it on her 1993 album Debravation.
Gibson's status at this point can be measured by the 1.4 million advance he received for his next novel, Idoru, which was published in 1996. An idoru is a virtual Japanese pop star, and the plot of Idoru centers around the rumors that Rez, a member of the popular rock band Lo/Rez, is about to marry an idoru. Chia Pet McKenzie, a Seattle teenager and member of the Lo/ Rez fan club, is sent to Japan to investigate these rumors, but in doing so becomes involved in activities of the Russian mafia, as she unknowingly smuggles a nanotech assembler into Japan. Colin Laney, who is able to read patterns and nodal points in data—and can, in a sense, predict the future—is a net runner who has been hired by Lo/Rez's management to determine whether the Russian mafia is involved in Rez's upcoming marriage. As usual with Gibson, the plot of Idoru is of little significance; the heart of the book is in its detailed description of the media age and in its satire of contemporary society. It is also notable, however, for its creation in Chia of a believable teenaged female protagonist, a rarity in male-written science fiction and even more so in the often heavily masculinist world of cyberpunk. As Miller wrote in the 8 September 1996 New York Times Book Review, "Gibson has a remarkable insight into the minds of teen-age girls, and Chia, perhaps his most typical, is also one of his most winning creations, a Judy Blume heroine plopped down in the middle of a futuristic thriller." Despite Chia, however, Miller, like many critics, found Idoru to be a disappointment. In her review she wrote that although Gibson provides many interesting and provocative details and observations, these simply provide "scenery for a trip that finally doesn't seem to go anywhere … although Idoru does some unconvincing hand waving in the general direction of import, its many pleasures remain small ones." Other critics, such as Paul Quinn in the 27 September 1996 TLS, were more enthusiastic. Quinn wrote that "Idoru confirms Gibson as, virtually, a realist writer for the post-Net generation, offering us a new mimesis that opens windows on our onscreen world."
All Tomorrow's Parties, published in 1999, is the third volume in Gibson's loosely connected 1990s trilogy and, in the opinion of many, his weakest novel. Colin Laney, now living in a cardboard box in a Tokyo subway station, is obsessed with Cody Harwood, a multibillionaire public-relations genius. Laney believes that something big is about to happen and that it will involve Harwood and the idoru. He sends his friend Bobby Rydell, now working as a convenience store security guard, to Los Angeles to protect the idoru projector. The fragmented narrative and difficult- to-summarize plot conclude with the idoru stepping out of every Nanofax unit in the world. All Tomorrow's Parties is a confusing novel that recycles many of the ideas that Gibson had introduced in its prequels and in his earlier fiction, but to less impact. The short chapters, fragmented narrative, and multiple characters prevent the reader from really engaging with the plot or any of the characters, and All Tomorrow's Parties received the worst reviews of Gibson's career. Michael Krantz, writing in the 6 December 1999 issue of Time, exemplified critical response to the novel when he wrote that "this time his teasing, multicharacter narrative leads only to an irritating headscratcher of a solution."
Despite his success and his resultant celebrity in North America, Europe, Australia, and Japan, Gibson continues to live in Vancouver, raising his family and working in his basement. A landed immigrant, Gibson has no intention of moving back to the United States, telling van Belkom that "I probably wouldn't be very comfortable, at least initially moving back to the States because it's not the place I left … and I've become uncomfortable living in cities where the majority of the population is armed." He is ambivalent about his identity, however, telling van Belkom that although he identifies "with the state of being Canadian" he does not quite feel that he is one.
All Tomorrow's Parties may have been a relative failure, but Gibson remains one of the highest-profile science-fiction writers and one of the few who have achieved success outside the confines of the genre. The documentary No Maps for These Territories (2000), directed by Mark Neale, reflects his status as a cultural visionary. The movie follows Gibson's travels across the United States by multimedia limousine as he comments on America and engages with personalities such as Sterling and members of the rock band U2. The documentary premiered at the Slamdance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, in January 2001. Although Gibson is frequently described as an American, his success has had a huge impact on the development of Canadian science fiction. His achievement, and the fact that he has remained in Canada, suggested that it was possible for science-fiction writers living in Canada to compete in the American-based science-fiction marketplace. The incredible success of Neuromancer signaled what David Ketterer, in Canadian Science Fiction and Fantasy (1992), has described as "the international arrival of Canadian science fiction." Gibson has also participated in the Canadian science-fiction community, allowing some of his fiction to be reprinted in the Tesseracts anthologies and participating in the founding of what is now called science-fiction Canada, the Canadian professional organization for science-fiction writers. Writing in The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction (1995),moreover, expatriate Canadian science-fiction critic John Clute suggests that Gibson's work exists within a pessimistic Canadian tradition that is skeptical about the possibility of transforming the world and that seeks to establish a niche, as does Canada as a whole, within the world as it exists.
Although he is often cited as a computer prophet and has been called the "poet of cyberspace," Gibson was slow to participate in the quickly expanding Internet. As recently as the mid 1990s his old Macintosh computer, which he was disappointed to discover did not live up to his idealized image of sleek high technology, did not even have a modem. That is not to say, however, that he is not interested in making use of the technology that is available. His cyberpunk trilogy is available as an electronic book, and he worked with website designers to create an elaborate William Gibson homepage (which is no longer active). Yet, his identification with "cyberspace" is both the basis of much of his success and a burden. He told Brian Johnson, in the 5 June 1995 issue of Maclean's, that "I know now that the word is in The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary and it kind of horrifies me that that's what I'll be remembered for, the thing that lasts the longest, because actually I wanted to be a novelist."
Source: Douglas Ivison, "William Gibson," in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 251, Canadian Fantasy and Science-Fiction Writers, edited by Douglas Ivison, The Gale Group, 2001, pp. 96-107.
Brian D. Johnson and William Gibson
In the following article, Johnson interviews Gibson and discusses the author's life and influence on science fiction and cyberculture.
It seemed like a good idea to take William Gibson up the CN Tower. From the virtual-reality arcade in the basement to the space needle's blinking spire, the tower is Toronto's earnest monument to The Future. And people are always asking William Gibson about The Future. The Vancouver-based science fiction writer is, after all, the oracle credited with coining the word "cyberspace." But Gibson—whose work ranges from the blockbuster novel Neuromancer (1984) to the new movie Johnny Mnemonic—is quick to disclaim any prophetic powers. And as it turns out, he is bemused, even faintly annoyed, by the tower, an artifact of '70s naivete that reminds him more of the past than the future. "It's just like the one I went to in East Berlin," says the lanky author as he steps from the elevator onto the turntable floor of the revolving restaurant. Over dinner, he admits to feeling a little queasy from watching the windowsill slowly slide by. But as the sky darkens, he marvels at the view, the electric riddle of the city spread out below, like a vast circuit board. He picks a glowing blue rectangle out of the matrix. "Is that a swimming pool," he asks, "or a giant PowerBook screen?"
Gibson has become adept at viewing the world from a mind-warping distance. In essence, that is what he does in his writing. The 47-year-old author, who was raised in Virginia but has lived in Canada since 1969, has reinvented the landscape of science fiction. He brought fresh literary cachet to a pulp genre, a New Wave sensibility that owes more to William Burroughs than to Jules Verne. Neuromancer, a first novel that swept the major sci-fi awards, lit up the zeitgeist in flashing neon. With lyrical prescience, it described the Internet before the Internet really existed: "Cyberspace. A consensual hallucination … data abstracted from the banks of every computer in the human system. Unthinkable complexity. Lines of light ranged in the nonspace of the mind, clusters and constellations of data. Like city lights, receding." Gibson, says Derrick de Kerckhove, director of the McLuhan Program in Culture and Technology at the University of Toronto, "is a poet of this new world. He has popularized it, and coined new words, without even trying."
Remarkably—and this has become part of the Gibson mystique—the poet laureate of cyberspace has never really spent any time there. He wrote Neuromancer on a 1927 Hermes portable typewriter. He now uses a relatively ancient Macintosh SC/30 computer—without a modem. Recently, he did some on-line publicity stunts to promote Johnny Mnemonic. But he says he has not surfed the Net, and is in no hurry to. Now, Gibson figures that he might as well wait for the technology to mature. "I'll have a much more intense initial experience if I let it cook for a few years," he says. "I want real-time video, the works."
Gibson speaks in an easygoing, laconic drawl that is still strongly colored by his Virginian upbringing. There is a studied casualness to his appearance: a wayward thatch of brown hair, polished English walking shoes, a black jean jacket framing a green Gaultier tie with a gold handprint. Gibson is not entirely comfortable with his media image. "I owe my reputation as an oracle to the Sunday supplement writers of the world," he says. "But I can't claim to have completely clean hands, because I'm marketed as science fiction—‘Yo! Here's your hot ticket to the future, get the new William Gibson novel!’ As penance, I spend almost every interview saying [in a singsong cant], ‘Science fiction is not really about the future. I'm not predicting anything. I just want you to watch CNN through a different lens.’"
Gibson is often called the father of "cyberpunk," a mongrel blend of hallucinatory sci-fi, existentialism, satire and hard-boiled crime narrative. Since Neuromancer, he has published three novels—Count Zero (1986), Mona Lisa Overdrive (1988) and Virtual Light (1993). They are tales of computer cowboys riding the digital badlands and lethal women performing hot-wired voodoo. They live under terminal capitalism, in cities of scary drugs and secret data, where outlaw hackers hide out in industrial ruins, trying to outwit sinister corporate entities with roots in Japan. It is a multinational world of multiple personalities, overlapping characters who fade in and out of the cybernetic ether. Duelling with hardware and software, they chase each other down byzantine corridors in places with names like Night City and the Sprawl.
Gibson's fiction is intensely cinematic, but translating it to the screen is a daunting prospect. "Some very bad movies could have been made of Neuromancer over the years," says the writer, who has vetoed a variety of proposals. ‘"It's a franchise. In order to do it well, it would have to be an $80-to-$90-million movie." But Gibson offered "Johnny Mnemonic," one of his early short stories, to a friend, New York City artist Robert Longo, who had directed some experimental films and rock videos. "By then, virtually everything else I'd written was under option," he recalls. "So I dusted this off and said, ‘Look, it's short, but it has in larval form everything that I did subsequently, which we could appropriate for our own purposes."
In fact, Gibson's script freely pirates material from his novels. "It's heavily larded with Gibsonisms and quotes from my work," he admits. "Part of me was saying, ‘If they make this, you may never get to do it again, so you might as well put in all your favorite things.’" But he was careful not to use certain franchise trademarks, such as the retractable razor nails that Neuromancer's heroine inherited from her predecessor in the original Johnny Mnemonic. Longo and Gibson had originally planned to make a low-budget art film. But "Johnny Mnemonic" mushroomed into a $38-million movie backed by Tri-Star Pictures and Canada's Alliance Communications, with Keanu Reeves heading an eclectic cast including rapper Ice-T and Japanese star Takeshi. Gibson plunged into the film-making process, lending a hand in everything from set design to editing. The shoot took place in Toronto and Montreal, and by most accounts it was a rough one—a case of a novice director in over his head. "It's the closest I'll probably get to what it's like to be in a war," says Gibson, "except you're not killing anyone. The actual production is like a medieval military operation. It has enormous charm. You fall in love with people two or three times a day. But overall it's a difficult thing."
Stung by some early hostile reviews, last week Gibson was bracing himself for the possibility of a disastrous reception to his movie. "But I don't think I have anything to be ashamed of," he says, adding that he cannot be accused of selling out. "This took four years, longer than it took me to get a BA in English. I made less on this than I make on writing a novel in a year and a half." Gibson's contract for his new novel, Idoru, which is due out next year, could earn him well over $1 million, although the figure is contingent on it becoming a major best-seller and generating a Hollywood movie deal. Meanwhile, he says that Neuromancer "sells more copies every year. It gives me a good living all on its own."
A landed immigrant, the author lives with his wife of 24 years, Deborah Thompson, a former English teacher, and their two children—Graeme, 18, and Claire, 12—in a restored 1911 wood-frame house in Vancouver's Kitsilano district. He drives a Dodge Caravan. He is about to move to a slightly larger wood-frame house a few blocks away. And he says he has no desire to go back to live in the United States—"I like countries with strong gun laws."
William Gibson III (as he is named on his passport) grew up in Wytheville, Va., near Roanoke, a small town where the military draft board could be found just upstairs from the gun store. "I had an unspeakably ghastly Southern gothic childhood," he says. "Memories of it are like memories of the 1930s. It was so backward. I grew up under apartheid. Black people couldn't drink from the same water fountain. It was a world where the people who cleaned people's houses were the descendents of people who cleaned their great-grandparents' houses."
An only child, Gibson lost his father when he was 6 and his mother when he was 18. His father, William Gibson Jr., was a relatively affluent, white-collar employee in the construction industry. "His company made their nut installing all the toilets for the Oak Ridge atomic bomb project," recalls the author, adding that his father choked to death on a piece of steak in a restaurant while travelling on business. His mother, Elizabeth Otey Gibson, was a housewife and [a] volunteer librarian—the town had no library, but she helped set one up in a storefront. William shared her passion for books and, as a teenager, became obsessed with science fiction.
At 16, Gibson went away to boarding school in Arizona at his own request. Two years later, at the height of the Vietnam War, he was called in for a preinduction examination in Roanoke and was temporarily branded unfit for military service. "I was such an odd duck," he explains. "I'd been in Arizona and California, and I had inhaled, and it showed." Eager to put a little more distance between himself and the draft, Gibson decided to check out Toronto. Gradually, he ended up living there and discovered the counterculture in the boom-town bohemias of Yorkville and Rochdale College.
Marrying his Vancouver-born wife in 1971, he moved with her back to her home town, where they both completed bachelor degrees at the University of British Columbia. Gibson began his writing career shyly, with a series of short stories published in magazines. The first, "Fragments of a Hologram Rose" (1977), is just seven pages. But its fiercely poetic, elliptical narrative is like a strand of DNA that predicts all the basic traits of his future work: coded memories, virtual leisure, shantytown outlaws, revolution, surveillance, dreams, sex, drugs and switch-blades. With his next few stories, notably "Johnny Mnemonic" and "Burning Chrome," he introduced cyberspace scenarios and characters that resurfaced again and again in the trilogy of Neuromancer, Count Zero and Mona Lisa Overdrive.
Shifting gears in 1990, he co-wrote a backward time-travel novel called The Difference Engine with a former mentor, Texan writer Bruce Sterling. "Bill has enormous natural gifts," says Sterling. "He has good taste yet he's not restrained, which is an odd combination. And he personifies his generation—he really put his thumb on something."
Cyberculture could be seen as a '90s upgrade of '60s psychedelia—mind expansion by other means. "It's historically safe," Gibson acknowledges, "to say that personal computers were invented by acidheads—acid-eating, garage-living hippies in Calfornia. I'm sorry, but it's true."
Just as the drug culture was colonized, commercialized—and diverted to dangerous new tastes such as crack cocaine—cyberspace is rapidly losing its innocence. "The thing I've always admired about the Internet is that it is not a corporate entity," says Gibson. "But corporations are free to come and go in there as well as individuals." As advertising invades the Net, his own movie is right in there with the Johnny Mnemonic Scavenger Hunt, a contest sponsored by Tri-Star's parent, Sony, on the World Wide Web. Net advertisers are "inventing the equivalent of the sandwich board," Gibson adds, "but it's going to get much more intense. I got tired of all that talk about the information highway. It reminds me of a shopping mall, and malls have something to do with privatization of public space."
Gibson says he coined "cyberspace" after watching teenagers play primitive video games in a Vancouver arcade. "Their posture seemed to indicate that they really, sincerely believed there was something behind the screen," he recalls. "I took that home and tried to come up with a name for it. I literally did sit down at a typewriter one night and go, ‘Dataspace? Noooo. Infospace? Boring. Cyberspace? Hmmm. It's got sibilance. It sounds interesting.’ What did it mean? I had no clue. It was like an empty chocolate cup awaiting the whipped cream."
Now, the cup runneth over. On his current publicity tour, Gibson had the sobering experience of being called the grandfather of cyberpunk by a radio host. And he was interviewed by a Wall Street Journal writer who had "cyberspace correspondent" on his business card. "I know now that the word is in The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary," he sighs. "And it kind of horrifies me that that's what I'll be remembered for, the thing that lasts the longest, because actually I wanted to be a novelist."
Gibson modestly maintains that, in fact, he has had no influence on the architecture of cyberspace, only on its marketing. But for all his complaints of being typecast, he has done little to avoid it. His fiction continues to rework the same themes that made him famous. And, while his early writing was dense and incandescent, beautifully cryptic, his last novel, Virtual Light—and his Johnny Mnemonic script—marshals his ideas into more conventional, linear narrative.
All Gibson's fiction keeps coming back to the idea that media images are just shards and constructs, pixel personas refracted through the media. His new novel, Idoru, is about a Japanese pop star who does not really exist. The idea was inspired by the true story of a Tokyo teen idol who was a virtual construct, a composite of a singer's voice, a lip-synching performer, and a model whose face appeared on magazine covers. "We are being shoved up against futurity with such violence," says Gibson, "that science fiction may become a historical term." His ultimate challenge, he adds, would be to write a novel set in the real world that would have all the weirdness of his science fiction.
Meanwhile, he has published one intimate, autobiographical work, a poem called "Agrippa (Book of the Dead)." It was sold as a high-priced art object, with the text on a disk programmed to erase itself after one reading. Hackers, however, managed to download "Agrippa" onto the Internet, where it is now freely available. The poem, an evocative account of his Virginian youth—playing with a gun "so worn you hardly had to pull trigger"—and of finding haven in Toronto, "mazed in Victorian brick/amid sweet tea with milk/and smoke from a cigarette called a Black/Cat."
The city has changed since then. At the CN Tower, Gibson poses for photographs with the virtual-reality games in the basement. He examines them with weary dismay, saying he tested one when it was just a prototype. Reluctantly, Gibson dons a Day-Glo harness and a gun to pose with a laser-tag game called Q-ZAR. The space-cadet image is all wrong, he says. "Run this photo," he laughs, "and it will undermine everything I've tried to do for 10 years." But before leaving, he plays a round of the game like an eager kid.
After dinner, Gibson steps outside for a smoke on the observation deck. It is a clear night, and there is a stiff wind. Far below, the city's circuitry is spread out as flat as a prairie, a shimmering sprawl of light that seems suspended in space, cross-hatched by the mesh of the deck's safety net. Gibson remembers picturing cyberspace in "the first micro-photographs of computer chips—which looked a lot like aerial photographs of cities." He says: "One insight I've had recently is that the Internet may be important because we are seeing something akin to what we did when we invented cities." Gibson glances to the horizon, at Victoria Day fireworks making zinnia blooms in the distance. "We invented this, as a species! Amazing really," he says, looking out at the city—like someone staring up at the stars and glimpsing infinity.
Source: Brian D. Johnson and William Gibson, "Mind Games with William Gibson," in Maclean's, Vol. 108, No. 23, June 5, 1995, 4 pp.
In the following article, Maddox discusses characteristics of Gibson's work, including "Johnny Mnemonic," that make it distinctive among contemporary science fiction.
In terms of the esteem of his peers and the fans, William Gibson was the most successful science fiction writer of 1985. His first novel, Neuromancer, published in 1984, won the Philip K. Dick, Nebula and Hugo Awards, as well as the Ditmar, the top award given in Australia. Neuromancer tapped the source, hit a nerve. To many of those who voted for it or just read and admired it, the book seemed to manifest a new set of possibilities for sf.
The questions naturally arise, what are the characteristics of Gibson's work and what is its novelty by the standards of sf? The primary difference, especially in terms of reader response, is that—untypically in sf—the ideas are not the hero. Rather, line for line his narratives contain a precise and detailed inventory of perception. Also, they are built around the narrative conventions of the thriller and executed with an intensity not seen in the genre since Alfred Bester's The Stars My Destination and The Demolished Man. Finally, Gibson's fiction is an art of collage, assembled fragment-the work of a junkman and vandal: post-apocalypse biker rooting through Bloomingdale's for a piece of fine lace to hang from his sleeve.
Gibson claims not to invent anything. He says he just looks around. If that's the case, it's weird in here. Altered states of being, rewritten flesh—in sum, technology redoing fundamental ways of human life. Perhaps Gibson is right: perhaps he's extrapolating, not inventing. The concentrated tunnel vision of the videogames player mutates into cyberspace, the audio-visual intensity of color television and Walkman earphones into simstim, the password and data encryption programs of telecommunications into ICE, the Atlantic corridor into the Sprawl. Just extrapolating—as surpassing the speed of sound just required speeding things up a bit.
In fact, the essence of Gibson's technique is not dependent upon any sf device. He can work his effects with objects we can obtain here and now. Here, chosen more-or-less at random, is an example:
She brought an oblong box from beneath the counter. The lid was yellow cardboard, stamped with a crude image of a coiled cobra with a swollen hood. Inside were eight identical tissue-wrapped cylinders. He watched while mottled brown fingers stripped the paper from one. She held the thing up for him to examine, a dull steel tube with a leather thong at one end and a small bronze pyramid at the other. She gripped the tube with one hand, the pyramid between her thumb and forefinger, and pulled. Three oiled, telescoping segments of tightly wound coil spring slid out and locked. "Cobra," she said. (Neuromancer …)
Though there's nothing to mark this passage as sf, the presence of Samuel Delany comes through strongly in the insistently precise visual images. One could slide this paragraph into Dhalgren without creating a ripple.
Gibson constantly pushes forward. There are indeed other technologies to explore. For instance, there is cyberspace:
And in the bloodlit dark behind his eyes, silver phosphenes boiling in from the edge of space, hypnagogic images jerking past like film compiled from random frames. Symbols, figures, faces, a blurred, fragmented mandala of visual information.
Please, he prayed, now—
A gray disk the color of Chiba sky …
Disk beginning to rotate, faster, becoming a sphere of paler gray. Expanding—
And flowed, flowered for him, fluid neon origami trick, the unfolding of his distanceless home, his country, transparent 3D chessboard extending to infinity. Inner eye opening to the stepped scarlet pyramid of the Eastern Seaboard Fission Authority burning beyond the green cubes of the Mitsubishi Bank of America, and high and very far away he saw the spiral arms of military systems, forever beyond his reach.
And somewhere he was laughing, in a white-painted loft, distant fingers caressing the deck, tears of release staining his face. (Neuromancer …)
There are also styles—of clothing, architecture, cosmetic surgery, drugs, sex—on and on, a veritable catalog of apparently disconnected items which seem part of an unnamed, probably unknown gestalt whose structure shifts with every moment.
What is this structure? What is the nature of its elements? Gibson himself provides the clue. In an interview given to the British sf magazine Interzone, he says, "I see myself as a kind of literary collage-artist, and sf as a marketing framework that allows me to gleefully ransack the whole fat supermarket of 20th century cultural symbols." The "fat supermarket" is of course itself a powerful cultural symbol—one can see Gibson as the winner in a mad gameshow competition which allows him to wheel his basket through the store and take anything he wants.
More precisely and comprehensively, he is talking about semiotic—signs, symbols, signifiers. As Umberto Eco says, in A Theory of Semiotics, everything that can be used to lie. As the twentieth century has gone on, and the means for producing and distributing signs have proliferated wildly, our environment becomes evermore densely layered with them. From the viewpoint of semiotics, human culture is seen as a vast assemblage of signs, shifting in meaning from moment to moment, place to place; both structuring and structured by human understanding and emotion. In some ways, the study of culture has become the study of signs … (p. 46)
Granted the semiotic supermarket as the source of his loot, Gibson is then confronted with the question, in what form should these elements be presented? His answer to this question emerged with "Johnny Mnemonic"—which stands to the Gibson cosmos as the Big Bang does to our own. The form Gibson chose is, of course, the hard-boiled thriller.
Though the elements of hard-boiled fiction vary, certain constants remain. The primary one is affect: the writing must be intense, the action violent, the atmosphere erotically charged. Hard-boiled fiction can be crude and direct, as in early Dashiell Hammett; ornate and meditative, as in the Philip Marlowe novels of Raymond Chandler; extravagant and hallucinatory as in William Burroughs. If the 20th century has a distinct narrative voice, this is it.
The version of hard-boiled that Gibson employs has proven one of the most durable: the cosmopolitan, great game narrative. First seen in primitive form in Somerset Maugham's Ashenden, it became widely known in the works of Graham Greene and Eric Ambler, and has served authors as various as John Le Carre and Robert Stone. In it, the hard-boiled atmosphere is made more complex by the presence of what we might call vast powers. The British Secret Service has provided a flexible and eloquent framework for many writers—its antagonisms span decades and range from Nazis to Russians to traitors within. But always, whoever is doing the writing and in whatever context, the narratives are figured by what a character in Count Zero, Gibson's second novel, calls an "articulate structure," an "unnatural field." … It is created by vast power or vast wealth—governments, their secret services and hidden armies, industrial combines licit and illicit, families and individuals whose wealth elevates them to these precincts. As Thomas Pynchon showed in V., The Crying of Lot 49, and Gravity's Rainbow, the intuited presence of such forces is the characteristic 20th century paranoia. Thus, as in Elizabethan drama, we have a sense of the familiar and profound—of a whole literary style, yes, but more: of a metaphysics of 20th century life.
Behind all I have said about Gibson thus far remains a fundamental fact about his work that is extremely difficult to talk about analytically, and yet is central to it. Reading Gibson is an intensely involving, sometimes exhausting experience. The constant flow of sensual detail embedded in an unfamiliar, often grotesque technology makes for a quintessential sf experience, but for some people the experience is either too intense or too unrelenting. For instance, I know of several people whose response to Neuromancer went something like, "It's really well done, but I got tired of it towards the end." Then usually comes an addendum to the effect, "I couldn't get involved with the characters."
In old-fashioned terms, this is a sensible response. It is a call for "rounder" characters, more believable plot lines, and so on. However, I think the response is also quite mistaken. For a cautionary instance, one can look at Kim Stanley Robinson's The Wild Shore, which succeeds in precisely these old-fashioned ways, and also succeeds in seeming irrelevant, unexciting—sf by a serious, well-intentioned 50s writer, someone on the order of Louis Auchincloss.
In this light, I think that critics or reviewers who are waiting for Gibson to make some radical move outside this narrative framework are simply kidding themselves. For him to do so would be no more or less unexpected than for Robert Stone or John Le Carre. And no more or less ill-advised. If Gibson is going to go anywhere, he cannot relinquish the values of the hard-boiled thriller.
My point is this: much of contemporary art is strenuous, but weave learned to meet its demands. So my advice to the reader of Neuromancer is simply read it again. Its supposed flaws—plot fatigue, weak character development—are in fact manifestations of its strength and modernity.
Semiotic fragments, then, caught in the thriller's web—here we have essential Gibson. One other element remains to be discussed: Gibson's characterization of himself as a "collage artist." A recent story, "Winter Market," features a character who puts together constructions out of junk of all sorts. The story's narrator says he is "a master of … garbage, kipple, refuse, the sea of cast-off goods our century floats on. Gomi no sensei. Master of junk." However, as the narrator also recognizes, our century poses a difficult question: "Where does the gomi stop and the world begin?" The answer the narrator seems to give is that there is no separation, not if one understands gomi correctly. There is the gomi which the Japanese have piled in Tokyo Bay and named "Dream Island," and there is the gomi which is the entire collection of human symbols, conscious and unconscious—semiotics in its entirety. Here is Gibson as post-modernist: cultural vandal, junkman, box-maker.
He makes even more explicit his ancestry in the visual arts, in references to Marcel Duchamp and Joseph Cornell. In Neuromancer, Molly passes through the Tessier-Ashpool family's art gallery and without comment or recognition sees "a shattered, dust-stenciled sheet of glass" (Neuromancer …) with an inscription in French which translates, "The bride stripped bare by her bachelors, even." This is of course the legend on Marcel Duchamp's "Large Glass," one of the first pieces of assemblage art and perhaps still the most influential. Gibson has appropriated yet another semiotic element from the cultural store—through implication he has invoked Dada and Surrealism and has claimed allegiance to that form of the avant-garde which continues today in painting, sculpture, dance, music, and performance art combining any number of these elements. Neuromancer's "Big Scientists" are a tribute to Laurie Anderson, the New York City musician and performance artist who works in the musical tradition of Philip Glass and Robert Wilson's more recent Einstein on the Beach … (pp. 47-8)
Finally, there is a minor but persistent theme in Gibson's work which can serve as a coda. It is this: technology produces results different from and more radical than the intent of its creators. In "New Rose Hotel" (Omni, July, 1984), the narrator says, "Nothing here seems to serve its original purpose." … In "Winter Market" the gomi no sensei—master of junk—says, "Anything people build, any kind of technology, it's going to have some specific purpose … But if it's new technology, it'll open areas nobody's ever thought of before." One of Gibson's primary obligations is to portray these "new areas," to show the capable human monkey at its elaborate, ever changing play; in the process he has perhaps used sf in new ways.
As I indicated at the beginning of this paper, he has been well-rewarded so far. However, sf's honeymoon with Gibson will end, and other writers with other concerns be spotlighted. It is the way of things in our culture. To quote Neuromancer, "Fads swept the youth of the Sprawl at the speed of light; entire subcultures could rise overnight, thrive for a dozen weeks, and then vanish utterly." … But Gibson has also received Molly Millions' warning: "You can't let the little pricks generation-gap you." … And he won't. Like the gomi master he will continue to pick through our culture's semiotic junk, looking for "things that fit some strange design scrawled on the inside of his forehead by whatever serves him as a muse." (p. 48)
Source: Tom Maddox, "Cobra, She Said: An Interim Report on the Fiction of William Gibson," in Fantasy Review, Vol. 9, No. 4, April 1986, pp. 46-48.
"Access to Information: Homes with Personal Computers," http://www.earthtrends.wri.org/text/population-health/variable-1494.html (accessed September 24, 2007); originally published in World Telecommunication Indicators 2005, International Telecommunication Union, 2005.
Adams, Tim, Interview with William Gibson, in the Observer, August 12, 2007.
Allison, Dorothy, Review of Burning Chrome and Count Zero, in Village Voice, May 6, 1986, p. 57.
American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery, "Cosmetic Plastic Surgery Research: Statistics and Trends for 2001-2005," http://www.cosmeticplasticsurgerystatistics.com/statistics.html (accessed September 25, 2007).
Boaz, David, "Yellow Peril Reinfects America," in the Wall Street Journal, April 7, 1989.
Bruno, Anthony, "The Yakuza," http://www.crimelibrary.com/gangsters_outlaws/gang/yakuza/1.html (accessed September 26, 2007).
Bunton, Robin, Roger Burrows, Barry Glassner, and Sarah Nettleton, "In the Name of Health," in The Sociology of Health Promotion: Critical Analyses of Consumption, p. 168.
Daniel, Clifton, ed., Chronicle of the Twentieth Century, Chronicle Publications, 1988, pp. 1183, 1187, 1189.
Feeley, Gregory, Review of Count Zero, in Washington Post Book World, March 23, 1986, p. 8.
Gibson, William, "Johnny Mnemonic," in Burning Chrome, EOS, 2003, pp. 1-23.
———, "Since 1948," http://www.williamgibsonbooks.com (accessed September 10, 2007).
———, "Source Code: An Introduction," in Burning Chrome, EOS, 2003, pp. xv-xviii.
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Saxton, Josephine, Review of Burning Chrome, in the New Statesman, September 1986, pp. 33-34.
Cavallaro, Dani, Cyberpunk and Cyberculture: Science Fiction and the Work of William Gibson, Athlone Press, 2000.
Cavallaro examines the cyberpunk genre (with an emphasis on Gibson's work), its origins, and the way it has influenced popular culture through movies and music. This book is a basic introduction to cyberpunk for those unfamiliar with the genre.
Chandler, Raymond, The Big Sleep, Vintage, 1988.
A typical feature of the cyberpunk genre of science fiction is a writing style taken from hard-boiled detective novels. The Big Sleep is a quintessential example of the genre.
Glannon, Walter, Bioethics and the Brain, Oxford University Press, 2006.
In this book, Glannon examines the ethical difficulties arising from new medical technologies in neurology, such as drugs used for behavior modification, electric and magnetic stimulation of the brain, and brain imaging. These technologies are precursors to those used to create the human-animal and machine-human hybrids in "Johnny Mnemonic."
McCaffery, Larry, ed., Storming the Reality Studios: A Casebook of Cyberpunk and Postmodern Science Fiction, Duke University Press, 1992.
In this book, McCaffery has assembled over fifty essays, short stories, novel excerpts, criticism, poetry, artwork, and even a comic, to demonstrate the influences of cyberpunk on the science fiction genre.
Sterling, Bruce, Mirrorshades: The Cyberpunk Anthology, Ace Books, 1988.
One of Gibson's frequent collaborators, Bruce Sterling put together this sampling of cyberpunk stories, which includes two of Gibson's early stories, "The Gernsback Continuum" and "Red Star, Winter Orbit." The book also includes stories by Sterling, John Shirley, and Pat Cadigan.