Gibson, William (Ford)

views updated May 21 2018

GIBSON, William (Ford)

Nationality: American. Born: Conway, South Carolina, 17 March 1948. Education: University of British Columbia, B.A. 1977. Family: Married Deborah Jean Thompson in 1972; one daughter and one son. Awards: Hugo award, Philadelphia Science Fiction Society Philip K. Dick memorial award, Nebula award, Porgie award, all 1985, and Australian Science Fiction Convention Ditmar award, all for Neuromancer. Agent: Martha Millard Literary Agency, 293 Greenwood Avenue, Florham Park, New Jersey 07932-2335, U.S.A.



Neuromancer. New York, Ace, 1984, London, HarperCollins, 1994.

Count Zero. New York, Arbor House, 1986.

Mona Lisa Overdrive. New York, Bantam, 1988.

The Difference Engine, with Bruce Sterling. London, Gollancz, 1990;New York, Bantam, 1991.

Virtual Light. New York, Bantam, and London, Viking, 1993.

Johnny Mnemonic. New York, Ace Books, 1995.

Idoru. New York, Putnam, 1996.

All Tomorrow's Parties. New York, Putnam, 1999.


Dream Jumbo (text to accompany performance art; produced, LosAngeles, 1989).


Film Adaptation:

Johnny Mnemonic, 1995.

Critical Studies:

William Gibson by Lance Olsen, San Bernardino, California, Borgo Press, 1992 (includes bibliography); Cyberpunk and Cyberculture: Science Fiction and the Work of William Gibson by Dani Cavallaro, New Brunswick, New Jersey, Athlone Press, 2000.

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In 1922, T.S. Eliot published a review of Joyce's Ulysses, coining the now famous phrase "mythical method" to describe how Joyce created an effect of order in the chaos of modern fragmentation by invoking old stories and myths as compositional forms. William Gibson has demonstrated the continuing vitality of this "method" and come up with some new developments of his own in his "cyberpunk" trilogy that dominated science fiction of the 1980s, (Neuromancer, Count Zero, and Mona Lisa Overdrive ), as well as in a second trilogy in the 1990s (Virtual Light, Idoru, and All Tomorrow's Parties ).

There are strong plots in Gibson's novels, but they have little to do with the characters who inhabit them, who for the most part don't know much at all about the plot they are acting in. In Neuromancer, the "cowboy" computer-jockey Caselike the readeronly discovers at the end that he has been acting out a scheme composed by a seemingly omniscient and nearly omnipotent embodiment of artificial intelligence (AI) that merged with another AI to become the "matrix." In the later two novels the AI/matrix chooses to manifest itself in the form of Voodoo beings called Loa. As the initiated Beauvoir explains to the novice Bobby, in Count Zero, we don't have to worry about "whether it's a religion or not. It's just a structure. Lets you an' me discuss some things that are happening. What it's about is getting things done." Gibson reports in an interview that all he knows about Voodoo he found by accident in an issue of National Geographic just when he needed to find a way to "get things done" in his second novel: "That probably has a lot to do with the way I writestitching together all the junk that's floating around in my head." This self-reflexivity in the writing, together with self-effacing creative modesty and tactics of conspicuously parodic pastiche, place Gibson's work within the discourse of postmodernism. Recycled cliches are the staple of his work, shared with the knowing reader who is hip to the ironic game being played with cultural artifacts.

Gibson's publishing career began the same year MTV hit the video market (1981), and his style reflects some of the same tactics and pace, where mundane music is transformed into a montagecollage of rapid-fire imagery in a placeless and timeless stream-of-consciousness continuum. Like the typical MTV presentation, his work seems designed to force a sensory overload onto a reader who can't keep up with the frantic pace. Oft-quoted lines from Neuromancerdescribe the effect nicely: "Night City was like a deranged experiment in social Darwinism, designed by a bored researcher who kept one thumb permanently on the fast-forward button." The sensory overload is reflected in a stylistic saturation that has been aptly characterized as a "neon epic style," a breathless linguistic texture that sweeps lyrically through mental states of stressed-out tension and drug highs, with an exhilaratingly desperate hallucinatory intensity, in a futuristic reenactment of the film noir cityscape of movies like Blade Runner (1982) or The Terminator (1984).

Things slow down a bit in the second and third novels of the trilogy, to allow for more complex character development and for a shift from major male characters to female ones. Things slow still more in Virtual Light, where we find a female main character who is a bicycle courier in San Francisco, physically transporting bits of information like a rider for the Pony Express. Both Idoru and All Tomorrow's Parties feature brisk capers as part of their plots: the former tells of the efforts of an adult data analyst and a teenage music fan to discover why a pop music performer has declared his intention to marry a virtual pop star, while the latter merges several plotlines at the point of discovery of a coming radical, worldwide change. However, they share with Virtual Light not only recurrent characters and settings, but also a more studied approach to their subject matter.

Gibson's work has an uneasy relationship to the genre of science fiction, comparable to what's called a "crossover" performance in the music world. In the early period of SF, the conventional goal was to expand human consciousness into outer space, under the secure control of scientist adventurers who combined the classical liberal virtues of morality with the forces of technological production. Gibson represents a strong turn away from this outward-bound surge, toward a more problematic contemporary frontier of science that is focused inwards, on an infinity of microcosms rather than the old-fashioned infinity of open space. Gibson's fiction follows the investments of current scientific research in the practical/theoretical fields of communication, data storage, miniaturization, artificial intelligence, bionic prosthetics, neurochemistry, genetics, and surgical interventions while continuing the exploration of paranoid subject positions inaugurated by the "serious" writers who inspired and influence him, like William S. Burroughs, J.G. Ballard, and Thomas Pynchon.

Paradoxically, the fact that Gibson himself knows no science ("I have no grasp of how computers really work," he admits in an interview), enables him to be all the more convincing to the millions of his readers who also know nothing about science. Like Edgar Rice Burroughs, who knew nothing of Africa, Gibson creates characters who glide mentally through cyberspace as effortlessly as Tarzan glided through the jungles of the Dark Continent. "My ignorance had allowed me to romanticize them [computers]," he admits, and our ignorance allows us to accept the romanticized exaggerations. Gibson's famous invention, "cyberspace," is technically sheer nonsense, but since it exists as a form of belief, it also has a certain kind of reality, as "a consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators, in every nation."

The cyberpunk movement leapt to prominence in the early 1980s, with Gibson at its helm, as an apparent manifestation of countercultural art. Ten years later, his fourth novel was on the New York Times bestseller list, raising an important question: can there be an authentic countercultural literature that achieves popularity and also resists becoming an imitation of itself suitable for mass consumption? Gibson himself has referred to the cyberpunk movement as "mainly a marketing strategyand one that I've come to feel trivializes what I do." His most recent work makes clear that he is no longer concerned by this "marketing strategy," but instead is quite comfortable writing novels that show an increasingly mature concern for character, a confidently leisure approach to delineating those characters, and a calm acceptance of the fact that the startling innovations of Neuromancer are now simply part of the worldthe characters', and the readers'.

Thomas A. Vogler

, updated by F. Brett Cox

William Gibson

views updated May 18 2018

William Gibson

An author of plays, poetry, fiction, and criticism, Gibson (born 1914) is best known for his drama The Miracle Worker (1959). Praised for its honest, unsentimental treatment of the relationship between Helen Keller, a woman born deaf, blind and mute who grew up to became a nationally celebrated writer and public figure, and Annie Sullivan, the nurse who teaches Helen language and morals, The Miracle Worker remains Gibson's most admired and revived work.

Although Gibson's works have been variously faulted as superficially realistic dramas that sentimentalize the serious issues they raise, Gibson is praised for his accurate ear for dialogue and strong command of dramatic conflict. Robert Brustein observed: "Gibson possesses substantial literary and dramatic gifts, and an integrity of the highest order. In addition, he brings to his works authentic compassion, wit, bite, and humor, and a lively, literate prose style equalled by few American dramatists."

Gibson was born in New York City, where he attended City College of New York from 1930 to 1932. Following his graduation, he supported himself as a piano teacher in Kansas while pursuing an interest in theater. His earliest plays, produced in Topeka, were light comedies that Gibson revised and restaged during his later career. The first, A Cry of Players (1948), concerns a sixteenth-century English playwright named Will who is prompted to leave his wife and family for the life of the London theater, while the second, Dinny and the Witches (1948), features as its eponymous protagonist a Faustian character who is sentenced to death by three comic witches for having stopped "the clock of eternal time." Gibson first achieved widespread popular success with Two for the Seesaw (1958), his first major play produced in New York City. Set in New York in the 1880s, this work combines humor and melodrama to depict the relationship between Gittel Mosca, an overgenerous, unemployed dancer, and Jerry Ryan, a selfish Nebraska lawyer who becomes involved in a love affair with Gittel while preparing to divorce his wife. Although Jerry leaves Gittel to return to his wife, Gibson concludes the play by implying that Gittel has gained from the brief relationship by becoming more self-assertive, while Jerry has learned humility and concern for others. Characterizing Two for the Seesaw as a casual entertainment, most critics praised the play's brisk dialogue and Gibson's compassionate treatment of his characters. Brooks Atkinson commented: "By the time the curtain comes down, you are not so much aware that Mr. Gibson has brought off a technical stunt as that he has looked inside the hearts of two admirable people and made a charming full-length play out of them."

Gibson achieved his greatest success with The Miracle Worker. Originally written and performed as a television drama, the play was later adapted for stage and film. Although realistic in tone, The Miracle Worker often makes use of cinematic shifts in time and space to illuminate the effect of the past on the present in a manner analogous to Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman. Using innovative lighting and onstage set changes, Gibson juxtaposes Helen's present quest for language and meaningful human connection with the past experiences of Annie Sullivan, the "miracle worker" of the title who was partially cured of childhood blindness through surgical operations during her adolescence. Summoned to the Keller home in Tuscumbia, Alabama, Annie becomes locked in a test of wills with Helen as well as her family, who have allowed Helen to become spoiled and uncooperative due to their pity for her and attendant refusal to administer discipline. Although faulted as superficial or exploitative by some reviewers, The Miracle Worker has been praised for Gibson's alternately heroic, humorous, and sympathetic treatment of Annie and Helen's struggle for human language and love. Walter Kerr asserted: "[Gibson has] dramatized the living mind in its incredible energy, in its determination to express itself in violence when it cannot arrange itself into thought…. When it comes, the physical contact of the child and the teacher—a contact that is for the first time meaningful and for the first time affectionate—is overwhelming."

In his nonfiction volume The Seesaw Log and Two for the Seesaw (1959), Gibson combines the text of Two for the Seesaw with a chronicle of his participation in initial productions of that play and The Miracle Worker. Asserting that the producer and director of both productions had taken commercial liberties that obscured the artistic integrity of his plays, Gibson largely withdrew from the New York theater during the 1960s and 1970s. His last major play for the New York stage, Golden Boy (1964), is a musical adaptation of Clifford Odets's book of the same title about the moral consequences that confront a talented black boxer after he accidentally kills a man in the boxing ring. Gibson's miscellaneous works of the 1960s and 1970s also include A Mass for the Dead (1968), a family chronicle about Gibson and his ancestors; A Season in Heaven (1974), a chronicle of specific events in Gibson's immediate family; and Shakespeare's Game (1978), a volume of theoretical drama criticism that borrows terminology from chess and psychology to explain relationships between scenes and between author and audience.

Further Reading

Contemporary Literary Criticism, Volume 23, Gale, 1983.

Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 7: Twentieth Century American Dramatists, Gale, 1981.

America, November 10, 1990, p. 350.

Cosmopolitan, August, 1958.

Los Angeles Times, October 19, 1982.

Nation, December 2, 1968.

New England Theatre, Spring, 1970. □

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