Each week we pay homage to a select “Original Creator”—an iconic artist from days gone by whose work influences and informs today’s creators. These are artists who were innovative and revolutionary in their fields. Bold visionaries and radicals, groundbreaking frontiersmen and women who inspired and informed culture as we know it today. This week: William Gibson.
The future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed.
In order to fully comprehend the protest movement that swept the Western world at the speed of a trending Twitter hashtag last year, one has to understand the roots of its imagery as well as its ideology. The righteous global network of hackers known as Anonymous collectively adorns a mask conceived by Alan Moore and David Lloyd, but their actions are a worldwide art happening inspired by the life and work of William Gibson—author, sci-fi novelist, cyberpunk prophet, steampunk godfather, and the man who made nerds look cool, turning the hacker into a modern-day Spartacus.
After living the hectic life of a counterculture enthusiast, draft-dodger, nonchalant student and psychedelic drug aficionado, Gibson turned to writing fiction in the late 1970s. The science fiction genre was already quite established, and the audience’s appetite for dystopia was growing. Gibson used both his exploratory youth and his imaginative skills to craft a brand new subgenre of sci-fi that would become the standard for dystopian novels in the 1980s and a subsequent source of inspiration for film directors, visual artists, comic artists and the like. Cyberpunk was born.
The Neuromancer ; Sprawl Trilogy 1 ; 1984.
The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.
W. Gibson; Neuromancer, 1984
Few writers gain as much success and critical acclaim from a debut novel as Gibson did with Neuromancer in 1984. The first opus of his Sprawl Trilogy, it became an instant classic that soon renewed the codes of science-fiction writing. The epic dystopian tale follows a loner computer hacker and dope fiend trying to make his way through a global hacking conspiracy. His world is a fictional Japan that looks like a technological wasteland abandoned to street gangs, thugs, bikers and a whole crowd reminiscent of John Carpenter’s seminal Escape from New York, released three years prior.
This bleak atmosphere, the creepy man-machine pattern embodied in the “brain-computer interface,” and the virtual “Matrix” where the action takes place, comprise the foundational elements of the “cyberpunk” aesthetic. His later books expand on this universe, but none ever matched the renown achieved by Neuromancer, a work that became the gospel for subsequent writers who further developed the cyberpunk world.
Count Zero, Sprawl Trilogy 2, 1986.
While the aftermath of World War II offered an immediate, crude, and undeniable justification for dystopian and pessimistic visions of the future, the rise of the age of information in the 1980s provided a brand new template for science-fiction writing. Gibson, and later his followers, described a futuristic world where technology is no longer embodied in objects, be they machines, robots, or devices, but rather in flux, in flows of information, in cyberspace, and in pervasive networks of invisible data. The line blurs to a degree of indecipherability. In this world, the villain is no longer the massive Nazi-like robot tank that tries to kill you with its laser ray, but rather something more akin to CCTV—mind-altering electronic chips surgically implanted into your brain. The protagonist is not the beefy muscle type nor the romantic saint, but an exhausted, skinny hacker, an anti-hero of sorts with an intuitive understanding of cyberspace, of how information works, and how it can be hacked.
This arch can be traced back to Philip K.Dick’s 1966 We Can Remember It For You Wholesale (which was later adapted into Total Recall) and evolved more recently with films like The Matrix trilogy. Gibson’s dystopian cyberpunk world relied heavily on the emerging network and cybernetics theories, but also evoked the French Theory, which gained massive recognition on college campuses in the 1970s with its analysis of “surveillance societies” and “biopower."
Mona Lisa Overdrive, Sprawl Trilogy 3, 1988.
From sci-fi literature to comics to films to video games to social networks, William Gibson’s influence is virtually impossible to quantify. Beyond his popularity, his accurate predictions were a precursor to our daily digital life. His insights into the information age and the importance of data forecasted the rise of cloud data, social networks, issues of privacy, and the tech devices upon which we grow more and more dependent. In 1999, the Guardian termed Gibson "probably the most important novelist of the past two decades”, a fair tribute to an author who helped promote sci-fi in the mainstream and turned our digital age into a ongoing epic tale.
A year here and he still dreamed of cyberspace, hope fading nightly. All the speed he took, all the turns he’d taken and the corners he’d cut in Night City, and he’d still see the matrix in his sleep, bright lattices of logic unfolding across that colorless void.
W. Gibson, Neuromancer, 1984