Guide to Cyberspace

By J. Stephen Bolhafner
Published in Starlog #200
March, 1994

(NOTE: Another article from this same interview
appeared in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch on August 29, 1993.)

(NOTE: I have deleted some editorial insertions, mostly references to earlier Starlog magazine stories and one paragraph updating the then current status of the movie rights to some of Gibson's books.

William Gibson's back, with his first New York Times Bestseller and a couple of movie projects that show promise of starting after doing time in that Hollywood limbo called "development."

Lately, Gibson has been in the news more than ever. The world at large has discovered what the science-fiction universe has known since 1984, when his first novel, Neuromancer, swept the Hugo, the Nebula and the Philip K. Dick awards: William Gibson is hot. He's everywhere from Time and Newsweek to rock 'n' roll albums. Billy Idol's Cyberpunk has a cut called "Neuromancer," Bono says that U2's Zooropa is heavily influenced by Gibson's work, Deborah Harry has recorded a song with lyrics by Gibson.

But since 1989, when the Neuromancer trilogy wound up with Mona Lisa Overdrive, Gibson has only given readers half a novel, so to speak, in The Difference Engine, which he co-wrote with Bruce Sterling, plus a quirky little software piece called Agrippa. The publication of Virtual Light in fall 1993 marked a virtual return to publishing for Gibson.

At the same time Mona Lisa Overdrive was published, it was announced that Gibson had written the screenplay for ALIEN3, but that project became a story of its own, resulting in a film for which Gibson received no credit.

"With ALIEN3 I wrote the first screenplay of God knows how many - a dozen, or 20 or something. See, they just had to have an enormous number of screenplays, and the shooting script they came up with, quite logically, had nothing - except for one tiny little set decoration - to do with the work I had done for them. But that's not unusual."

Having sold a script, however, he was now recognized as a professional screenwriter, and other offers came his way. "All of the ones I've accepted have been adaptions of my early fiction," he says.

Gibson's increasing influence outside the somewhat insular world of SF fandom has led Newsweek magazine to name him as one of the 100 "Cultural Elite." He admits that being a cult figure is "pretty unnatural" for him. "Celebrity is a pretty weird phenomenon, particularly this late in the 20th century, and people who get to be cult figures . . . I don't know. It's not quite as bad as real celebrity, but occasionally it feels that way. I look at it as one of the disadvantages of the job - the downside of my gig."

The author is quiet and reserved, perhaps even a bit shy, and is glad that he can walk down the street in New York City and not be recognized. Reminiscing about a lunch with Billy Idol, Gibson recalls being amazed at how the singer copes "in a good-humored way with the really weird level of celebrity that his job entails."

Billy Idol is a real cult figure, asserts Gibson. "Pretty much wherever he goes, people will just come up and ask him for his autograph. It could be grandmothers asking for the children or something, and they don't really care that he's wearing ripped clothes and a necklace of inverted crucifixes - which at that time was the Billy Idol outfit. They don't care. He could be Mickey Mouse. In fact, that's what he said to me. I said 'How can you stand this?' And he said, 'That's my job. Hollywood is Disneyland and I'm Mickey Mouse. So, I'll sign the napkin. I'm paid for this.' It didn't seem to bother him. But writers don't get that too much, I hope."

On the other hand, Gibson no longer attends the larger SF conventions. "That's actually kind of stressful, because it's like an artificial reality where I get to be Billy Idol. Then, it's not so cool, because I'm the guy signing the napkins 24 hours a day."

He still attends some conventions, though. "Well, you know, I'm sort of from the SF culture, and I used to go to conventions quite regularly just for the heck of it. In order to enjoy science-fiction conventions, you have to learn how to skate on the surface tension of the thing, and not let yourself be pulled into corners. I can still do that at fairly small conventions."

Cyber Dad

Gibson is best known, of course, as the "founding father of cyberpunk," as the publisher's press release calls him - a somewhat misleading title, since Gibson has long protested against the label.

"I've sort of quit objecting - there seems to be no way to escape it," he says wearily. "It's just that I don't know what it means." He points out that it has grown from a literary definition to describe his writing and the work of several other writers emerging in the 1980s into a word with at least half-a-dozen different definitions. "I think of it now as being possibly a kind of useful stylistic shorthand for something that could pop up in any number of media and various art forms. The new Billy Idol album is called Cyberpunk. I haven't heard it yet, so I couldn't tell you whether it is cyberpunk, but it's called Cyberpunk."

Gibson's own latest novel, Virtual Light, is not cyberpunk. "It's trying not to be," he says, calling it "at one level a deconstruction of my previous work, and that whole cyberpunk shtick. I mean, the characters have jobs, they pay taxes, they've got parents. They're not romantic hacker figures with black leather jackets."

The hackers in the book, in fact, never appear onstage, although their unseen manipulations are essential to the plot. "The hackers are really, really horrible, in a kind of distant way," says Gibson.

"It's the most blatantly ironic text that I've ever produced. I mean, there are lots and lots of tropes from the earlier books that are inverted, quite regularly. It's a a deeply self-conscious work."

On the other hand, one doesn't have to identify the places where cyberpunk expectations are set up and then yanked away to enjoy the book. "I think you could read it, and probably enjoy it, just for the ride, without plugging into those levels of irony or virtual self-satire."

Gibson is, after all, a big believer in subtlety. "I don't want to spoil the fun for some guy who just wants to read a good story. I have no problem with a good story. So, I try to give them some story, but to maintain my own interest, I was doing all these other numbers."

The story involves Berry Rydell, an ex-cop security guard who rides around in a tank designed by Ralph Lauren. He lives in Los Angeles, in SoCal - which is Southern California, a different state from NoCal, where the other main character, ChevetteWashington, is a bicycle messenger in San Francisco. Chevette lives on the Golden Gate Bridge, in a squatters' community that took over after an earthquake rendered the bridge unusable. This is Gibson's future of 2005.

Chevette, on an impulse, steals a pair of fancy sunglasses from a guy she meets at a party. After the man she stole them from is brutally murdered, Rydell is hired to get them back. They're not sunglasses at all, they're virtual reality glasses (the "Virtual Light" of the title), and the are very important to some very nasty people. Rydell and Chevette soon find themselves together, and in big trouble. It's interesting to find Gibson extrapolating from current Virtual Reality technology. The entire VR game industry owes much to Gibson, perhaps as much as the robotics industry owes to Karel Capek and Isaac Asimov. Although people working with flight simulators and the like strive for exact verisimilitude to real surroundings, most VR games take place in worlds that resemble the "consensual hallucination" called "cyberspace" that Gibson invented for his computer hackers ("cowboys" in his 21st-century slang) to jack into.

Of course, Gibson's cyberspace is much more than just a visual effect. Both a prediction of the growing webs of computer networks and intercommunications and a metaphor for the ubiquity of computers in our daily lives, "cyberspace" is quickly coming into common usage - although when Vice President Al Gore uses it, the images conjured up aren't quite as exotic.

Gibson wasn't happy when a company called Autodesk tried to trademark the word "cyberspace" for use with their foray into VR. "I heard about it and gave them my opinion," he says with surprising mildness.

"See, my problem wasn't that they were taking away my intellectual property, I just wanted the word 'cyberspace' to remain completely in the public domain and find its way into the shorter Oxford English Dictionary - which it hasn't done yet, but it has a chance. It's in several dictionaries of neologisms, and the Vice President uses it on a regular basis.

"It really bugs me," he continues, "that these computer software manufacturers are really harsh about intellectual rights when it's something they've written or they've hired someone else to write for them. I was talking to someone down there, and they said, 'We don't understand what you're upset about, and we don't understand what you want.' And I said, 'That's my invention, and if you want to use it, why don't you treat it as a piece of code that I wrote for one of your software products and give me a royalty on it?' They weren't hearing any of that."

Gibson spent a little money talking to lawyers, enough to discover that any more money spent on lawyers would be wasted. "Basically, there was nothing I could do. You can't trademark things like that."

Autodesk eventually trademarked the phrase "Autodesk Cyberspace," leaving Gibson's term itself free, and have since apparently canceled the project. "Someone I met recently who left the company said their cyberspace gear was gathering dust in some forgotten closet."

Cyber Play

Gibson has made his own foray into software with 1992's Agrippa - a unique work he produced with New York artist Dennis Ashbaugh. The package consisted of a computer disk and several etchings by Ashbaugh - etchings of two distinct pictures, one of which would fade irretrievably when exposed to light for one hour, another which could become visible only after such exposure. Gibson's part of the package, the reportedly autobiographical "story," disintegrated into unintelligible code after a single reading. Only 455 copies were produced, in various editions ranging in price from $450 to $7,500, and Gibson vowed never to publishh it again, pointing out that he had even erased his own copy of his hard disk. So what are future scholars going to do to get their hands on this piece?

"You can get it free," says Gibson. "It'll be free forever. It was cracked by hackers three days after it was released and posted on the Internet. It's probably on umpteen different addresses. Free for the taking."

While this wasn't exactly planned, Gibson points out that it "wasn't at all outside the parameters of what we were doing, because in a sense the whole thing really was an experiment to see just what would happen. That whole Agrippa project was completely based on: Let's do this. What will hapen? Something happens. What's going to happen next?"

Agrippa is a piece of performance art, really. "It's only a couple thousand words long," Gibson says, "and dangerously like poetry. Another cool thing was getting bunches of net-heads to sit around and read poetry. I sort of liked that."

"Having it wind up in permanent form, sort of like a Chinese Wall in cyberspace . . . anybody who wants to can go and read it, if they take the trouble. Free copies to everyone. So that it became, really, at the last minute, the opposite of the really weird, elitist thing that many people though it was.

On the other hand, Gibson admits, "In a sense, it was like a cruiel joke on book collectors."

Although born and raised in the United States, Gibson has lived most of his adult life in Canada. He resides now with his wife and children in Vancouver, British Columbia, but retains U.S. citizenship.

"My wife is Canadian," says Gibson. "My children have dual citizenship. Besides, renouncing one's citizenship seems such a strange and kind of melodramatic thing to do. Very heavy. And being fortunate to have U.S. citizenship, I can work in Hollywood whenever I want to without having to obtain a green card."

He has been there frequently lately, trying to turn old stories into new movies. So far there have been few results, but that may be changing. "Abel Ferrara, who directed The King of New York and The Bad Lieutenant is set to direct New Rose Hotel - although not from any of the three or four scripts I did."

How close the screen version will be to the original is an open question, but Gibson says that Ferrara has "much, much more of a commitment to the original material than I do."

He has little patience with writers who complain about how their work is treated in Hollywood. "I never understood these writers who got upset because Hollywood messed up their work. In the first place, the writers sold the works to Hollywood, and in the contract it states that 'we have the right to mess up your work, and we can cast it with pink poodles. We can do anything we want to it. And sign on this dotted line, take the money and never darken our door again.' After you sign one of those, what hope do you have?"

Gibson knows how difficult it can be to get a movie made. In addition to ALIEN(3), he has seen New Rose Hotel go through several directors, and one cancellation after lensing had begun, and is still not certain the film will ever be made. He's hoping for more luck with Johnny Mnemonic, currently in production. The director is Robert Longo, described as a "famous post-abstract expressionist painter." It will star Val (Willow) Kilmer and feature Ice-T, Jane March and Dolph Lundgren. Tri-Star Pictures plans it as a fall release.

(NOTE: the movie ended up starring Keanu Reaves and Dina Meyer, not Kilmer and March, though it did feature Ice-T and Dolph Lundgren.)

Longo came to the project out of his admiration and respect for Gibson's work, and is working from a screenplay Gibson wrote himself, but that doesn't mean it will be faithful to the original. "I don't care about those stories," Gibson announces. "I don't care. They're OK stories, but I don't feel any compunction to try to bring pristine versions of them to the screen.

It still has a cyborg dolphin who's a heroin addict, and it still has a guy who has lots of other people's information stored in his brain and he doesn't know what it is, and they're trying to kill him for it, but that's about it. The rest of it is completely different.

"If people are gonna pay me to sit and invent stuff," says William Gibson, "I might as well invent new stuff. I would like to invent stuff that will make a pretty entertaining little movie. That has always been my take on it.