William Gibson

gibson
Gary Westfahl

2013

Westfahl’s insightful analysis of the works of William Gibson, the author who introduced us to “cyberspace” in the 1980’s, is as exhaustive as a 224-page book possibly could be.

William Gibson, the latest entry in the Modern Masters of Science Fiction series, covers not just Gibson’s well-known novels and less-familiar short stories but also his early fanzine writing, illustrations, and poetry — and dozens and dozens of interviews, some of which haven’t been closely considered before.

Stitching all of this material into a unified understanding of Gibson’s authorial journeys is ambitious, to say the least, but it’s a job that Westfahl tackles with enthusiasm, and with considerable success.

Some may be put off by the deluge of detail, and others by Westfahl’s very opinionated interpretations. If you’re looking for a completely bibliographical tome, or for a fanboy’s tribute, this isn’t the book for you.

But I quite enjoyed the book. I appreciated the consistency of Westfahl’s viewpoint. He was able to present a coherent over-arching theme in Gibson’s work, from the earliest stories to the latest novels. This thematic insight unified what otherwise could have been a series of separate, scattered chapters. Westfahl’s conceptual control is the primary method by which he raises his book from the level of annotated bibliography to that of illuminating interpretation.

At the very beginning of the book, Westfahl expresses Gibson’s core understanding:

People in the twenty-first century were already living in a constantly changing future world filled with advanced technology that they were struggling to adjust to and comprehend; thus, the tropes and techniques of science fiction could now be deployed not to help people understand possible futures but to help them understand a real present that effectively overlapped with their future.

For me, the most interesting parts of the book are the lengthy analyses of the novels, with which I am much more familiar than I am with the short stories and other works. And these are, indeed, lengthy analyses. Settings, storylines, characters, themes, and points of style are investigated in turn. And as one novel becomes another, Westfahl shows how Gibson’s fiction evolves. While his core concerns remain the same, his treatment of them grows more complex, and less and less like “traditional” science fiction, or even “cyberpunk.”

Of all of Gibson’s novels, I particularly like Pattern Recognition, and Westfahl’s unifying approach nicely ties this novel to all of Gibson’s work that had gone before. In Pattern Recognition and its sequels, we see the most complete iterations of the idea that one can write about the present with the sensibilities of a science fiction author, without writing a traditional science fiction novel.

Pattern Recognition and its sequels continue Gibson’s exploration of the forms and evolution of the “hallmarks” that Westfahl finds in all of the novels, from Neuromancer to the present:

… a streetwise loner, unable to sustain a relationship, who struggles to survive in a murky borderland between the law and lawlessness in a nearfuture world controlled by multinational corporations; an economy in which information and know-how are valued more than material goods; and an environment where all players, always looking out for their own interests, can never be fully trusted.

If you haven’t read much (or any) William Gibson, this book may not be for you. But if you’re somewhat familiar with Gibson’s novels, or if you’re a true fan, you’ll find Westfahl’s treatment a source of interesting detail and useful insights.

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