William Gibson

Been a little quiet lately, I know. My writing continues apace, and I’ve got some good bits down lately. Finding the voice of some of the minor characters has been a little tough; knowing that I want to get a particular plot point out of a conversation can be tricky. Try too hard and it becomes leaden and unnatural, try too little and what you’re doing becomes bloody obvious. Characters should never be ciphers, after all. Anyhow, some days coming off over the Easter / Anzac Day break should help me catch up for lost time. At this point, I’m aiming to double my current output over next week.

So, onto other things. First, time to put some of my influences and inspiration out there in the open. I figured it may be useful to touch on my favourite authors and how they inspire me. First on the list, which is in no particular order, William Gibson.

I came to Gibson’s work when I was, what, mid- to late-teens? His sparse, stripped back style shows, to me, phenomenal control over language, pace and mood. I’ve heard that (at least in the early days) he’d spend weeks honing his prose, stripping back sentences, word by word, until only the sparsest conjuring remained. That’s powerful stuff, for me; such an ability – to strip back a paragraph, a line of dialogue, to its essence – is something I strive for. (It’s not something that comes easily to Gibson, though, from what I’ve heard; interviews seem to indicate that he doesn’t derive a great deal of pleasure from the act of writing.)

I think that it’s particularly daring as so many of Gibson’s works are set in the near-future, which means we, as a reader, have so much more to learn about the worlds he creates. The characters never bother to explain the setting – why would they? – so instead the reader builds up a view of this altered reality through incredibly narrow, evocative slices.

Gibson isn’t always easy to read. With so much detail never revealed or only hinted at, it’s often like coming into a conversation halfway through – not everyone has the patience to hang around and work out what the hell people are talking about. (That’s not bagging people who don’t appreciate his style – it’s not for everybody.) Typically, you have to hang around for several chapters before characters and conversations subtly accrete themselves into plot or any sort of forward momentum. This is complicated by Gibson’s tendency, in all bar a couple of novels, to have multiple protagonists, each inching their way toward a cleverly balanced finale. If the multiple protagonists scare you off, I’d recommend Pattern Recognition or his first novel, Neuromancer. The latter stands up surprisingly well for its age, although it is very raw in comparison to his later works.

Apropos of nothing, I can thank a write-up of Neuromancer in a 1984 issue of Dragon Magazine for getting me interested in Gibson, although many years would pass before I actually read it. I can’t remember exactly what they said, but I do recall the reviewer seemed a little baffled by the book, although there was an unmistakeable touch of awe to his write-up. ‘Cyberpunk’ wasn’t a term in common use at the time, from what I know, but I wouldn’t be surprised if ‘dystopian’ made its way into the review.

So, what do I recommend, and which are my faves?

Burning Chrome is a collection of Gibson’s short stories from the late 70s and early 80s, and I think they do a fantastic job of setting the scene for his later work. A few of these stories are rather more eccentric in nature than what Gibson aims for in his novels, so it’s interesting to see these other styles, other themes, in play. Overall, it’s simply a solid selection of stories from a then- crackling fresh star to the sci-fi scene.

Count Zero is one I have a soft spot for, perhaps because of the ingenious manner it looped voodoo structures into a high-tech world. That pairing of mythology/religion/complex real-world belief systems with a well-constructed alternate world is something that always gives me a buzz, and is something that I also admire in Neal Stephenson (more on him in a later entry).

Virtual Light and Idoru are probably the best two of Gibson’s six futuristic novels. If you get through them, try out All Tomorrow’s Parties, which closes off the pseudo-trilogy.

Of his three most recent releases, Pattern Recognition is, for my money, the most affecting of the three. The follow-up, Spook Country is good but never quite resonated in the same way. Similarly, the third volume, Zero History is great but never popped with the same ‘wow’ factor that I got from PR.

And, what about The Difference Engine? Fans seem split down the middle on Gibson’s collaboration with Bruce Sterling (again, more on him later). I’m in the ‘don’t really like it / not quite sure if I get it’ category. It’s not a bad book by any means, but it doesn’t hold together in the same way as a typical Gibson book, and the strengths of Gibson’s style that I love so much are muted by Sterling’s influence. For me, much of the self-styled steampunk genre begins and ends here, and this is possibly where some of my discomfort with that genre comes from. For me, Gibson (and Sterling) did it first and better than most, but even then it felt like a consolation prize, the poor cousin to something else. So many other steampunk things seem like affectations, since.

Okay, that went on for a bit longer than anticipated. Back to work.

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