William Gibson

Making Light of Cyberpunk Schtick

By J. Stephen Bolhafner
Published in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch
Sunday, August 29, 1993

(NOTE: Another article from this same interview
appeared in Starlog Magazine, issue #200, March 1994)

SCIENCE-FICTION author William Gibson is a soft-spoken sort who couldn't seem more different from his brash characters, whom he mockingly describes as "romantic hacker figures in black leather jackets."

And he's not all that crazy about his cult-figure status, or even about the term "cyberpunk," which was more or less hatched to describe his novels.

In fact, his latest, "Virtual Light," is something of a self-satire of his own work and what he calls "that whole cyberpunk schtick."

Of course, none of that dampens the enthusiasm of his fans, like rock singer Billy Idol, whose new album is called "Cyberpunk" and includes a cut called "Neuromancer," the title of Gibson's first novel. The Irish band U2's new album, "Zooropa," is also influenced by Gibson's work, according to lead singer Bono.

Being a cult figure is "pretty unnatural" for him, Gibson says. It is, he says, "not quite as bad as real celebrity, but occasionally it feels that way."

Of course, writers are generally not as recognizable as, say, rock stars, so Gibson doesn't usually have problems walking down the street.

"If you want to know what it's like being a cult figure, ask Billy Idol," says Gibson, who had lunch with Idol once. "Pretty much wherever he goes, people just come up and ask him for his autograph. It could be like grandmothers asking for their children or something, and they don't really care that he's wearing ripped clothes and a necklace of inverted crucifixes."

But Gibson himself doesn't like celebrity status, and so he's stopped attending large science-fiction conventions.

"The bigger ones, that's actually kind of stressful," he says, "because it's like an artificial reality where I get to be Billy Idol. It's not so cool, because I'm the guy signing the napkins 24 hours a day."

Gibson has become a sort of mini-celebrity in the literary world at large in recent years, profiled in news magazines and the like, but he has been a major star in the science-fiction world almost since his first novel, "Neuromancer," was published in 1984. It won the Hugo, Nebula and Philip K. Dick awards, a sweep that had never before been accomplished.

"Neuromancer" was followed by "Count Zero" and "Mona Lisa Overdrive," a trilogy that cemented Gibson's reputation. By then, the term "cyberpunk" had been coined as a literary description of the work of Gibson and several other writers who dealt with characters on the fringes of society and with the cybernetic world of computers.

As the most visible symbol of the cyberpunk school, Gibson has come to realize that he might as well learn to live with the term.

"I've sort of quit objecting," he says. "There seems to be no way to escape it. It's just that I don't know what it means. It seems to have at least five or six different definitions."

One reason that the term has gone beyond easy definition may be that cyberpunk has become a subculture all its own. Reporters were once struck by the difference between Gibson's two distinct followings: bizarrely dressed punks and nerdy-looking computer geeks. Now, there are more and more reports of computer hackers who dress in weird clothes and do strange things to their hair - living up to the image.

Today, some of the new "virtual reality" games use visual effects that mirror the strange appearance of "cyberspace," a term Gibson coined for the "consensual hallucination" through which his characters move inside the computer network. Meanwhile, the term itself has come into common use to define the more prosaic reality of what goes on inside computer networks.

A few years ago, Gibson fought the attempt of a company called Autodesk to trademark the term "cyberspace" for its foray into virtual reality.

"I just wanted the word `cyberspace' to remain completely in the public domain," he says. "It's in several dictionaries of neologisms, and the vice president of the United States uses it on a regular basis."

Autodesk eventually trademarked the phrase "Autodesk Cyberspace," which left "cyberspace" itself available for use in other contexts. In any case, the firm dropped the project as other virtual-reality systems beat it to the market.

With "Virtual Light," Gibson is taking a few steps away from the cyberpunk world.

"The characters have jobs," he says. "They pay taxes, they've got parents." And the unseen hackers who have a major effect on the story line are "really, really horrible, in a kind of distant way." The self-satirical element is certainly intentional, Gibson says.

"It's the most blatantly ironic text that I have ever produced," he says.

Some readers obviously don't (or won't) get the joke, but that's OK, because Gibson is also a believer in subtlety.

"I don't want to spoil the fun of some guy who comes in just to read a good story," he says.

Gibson reliably turns out good stories, action-filled tales of bleak new worlds and runaway technology. This one, though, has an unusual subplot about an AIDS martyr, J.D. Shapely, whose story is already in the past when the novel opens and is revealed gradually in bits and pieces.

"In a way," says Gibson, "the real story of that book is the background story of J.D. Shapely. That's the really heavy part of the book. It's tied in in a whole lot of ways with a lot of other things going through there - although so far, nobody's noticed it. None of the reviewers have. Nobody's wanted to deal with that. I'm still waiting to see what they'll make of it."

Gibson, whose work is taken seriously by many mainstream critics, is often asked why he decided to write science fiction rather than some other form of fiction. Unlike some s-f writers, he neither tosses off the question with a joke nor seems to resent it, but gives a thoughtful answer.

"Potentially, I thought there was no better way of dealing with contemporary reality than to treat it as science fiction . . . I think that anyone today attempting to write a realistic novel, whatever that is, will be dealing with certain themes that have always been the provenance of science fiction.

"It's a nice, sunny, West Coast day outside," says Gibson, who was speaking by phone from his home in Vancouver, British Columbia. "If you go out and lay in the grass with your shirt off long enough, you're going to get skin cancer, and that's because we've altered the planet to that extent."