Introducing William Gibson

Recently I introduced a reading by William Gibson, from his new novel Pattern Recognition, as follows:

There's a character named Colin Laney, who appears in two of William Gibson's books: Idoru and All Tomorrow's Parties. Laney is a man who spots patterns that nobody else can. Thanks to an experimental drug that he took in childhood, Laney is "an intuitive fisher of patterns of information: of the sort of signature an individual inadvertently created in the net as he or she went about the mundane yet endlessly multiplex business of life in a digital society." Laney finds "nodal points," or "emergent systems of history," "the shapes from which history emerges," in "vast floes of undifferentiated data"; "he palps nodes of potentiality, strung along lines that are histories of the happened becoming the not-yet."

Colin Laney, I'd like to say, is half of William Gibson. Part of the novelist's job, and particularly the science fiction writer's job, is to find the seeds of the future in the present. Science fiction does not claim to predict what will actually happen ten, or a hundred, or a thousand years from now. Rather, it explores the vast reservoirs of potentiality that lie hidden, already, in the here and now. We often say that we are haunted by the past, but science fiction readers know that we are also haunted by the future, by the impalpable and incipient ghosts of things that have not yet happened (and never may). William Gibson is the poet and the chronicler of these hauntings.

I said that Laney was half of William Gibson. The other half is Gibson the narrator, the weaver of fictions. Laney is basically a passive figure, obsessively caught in the grip of the patterns he apprehends. But Gibson, as a novelist, actively shapes and reworks those patterns. He gives us characters, plots, and situations, focusing our hopes and desires and fears. And in some ironic manner, Gibson's novels are even helping to mold the future which they apprehend. The story has often been told about how Gibson invented the word "cyberspace," whose use is now all but ubiquitous; and how his dystopian visions of a digital, virtual world were creatively misread, and used as something of a blueprint, by many of the scientists and engineers who built the Internet.

Gibson's writing is full of sensuous detail, starting with the famous opening sentence of his first novel Neuromancer: "The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel." Others have also written about the strange new world that is emerging all around us, the "network society" of digital and communications technologies, of rootless simulacra floating in a void, of corporate conglomerates replacing the nation-state, of culture become indistinguishable from advertising and celebrity and public relations. But nobody has done more than Gibson to pin down, and express in words, what living in such a world feels like.

William Gibson is the author of two science fiction trilogies: Neuromancer/Count Zero/Mona Lisa Overdrive, and Virtual Light/Idoru/All Tomorrow's Parties; of Burning Chrome, a collection of short stories, several of which have been made into movies; and (in collaboration with Bruce Sterling) of the "steampunk" or alternative-Victorian fiction The Difference Engine. His new novel, Pattern Recognition, is his first to be set unambiguously in the present; but if anything, this only makes it all the more gripping and visionary.

Please join me in welcoming William Gibson.