It’d be a criminal oversight not to feature William Gibson during Tor.com’s Cyberpunk Week. More than thirty years have passed since Neuromancer and Burning Chrome were published and while some may debate who actually invented the term cyberspace, it’s without doubt that Gibson is the author who popularized it. In the time since the American-Canadian author debuted, our concept of the internet has changed from a flashy representational grid of glowing lights and towering monoliths of code into something so commonplace, even your grandparents have a Twitter account. You can purchase a drone at your local Walmart. So what does William Gibson observe now?
“The future is here,” he has said, several times. “It’s just not very evenly distributed.”
Gibson’s work is best appreciated in chronological order, to see those publication dates and gain a better understanding of the frame in which the stories were written. Technology outpaced speculative fiction in ways even the genre’s best minds couldn’t foresee and our visions of the future—and the people living in them—changed, too.
Burning Chrome (1986)
The ten stories collected here, written between 1977 and 1985, are some of the most finely-honed short fiction in the genre. Featuring some award-winning collaborations with genre heavies including John Shirley and Michael Swanwick, Gibson’s solo stories give readers a glimpse at a futuristic noir underbelly. From the salvaged tech in a Vancouver dumpster to the neon promises glittering in Tokyo’s skyline to the towering walls of ICE in cyberspace, the desperate men and women of these futures are cool as rock stars and familiar as the femme fatales and hard-bitten detectives of a Raymond Chandler novel.
Not to be missed: the introduction to the girl with the razor fingernails and mirror eyes, Molly Millions, making her first appearance in “Johnny Mnemonic,” the Sprawl story of corporate espionage “New Rose Hotel,” “The Winter Market” centered around the conflict between humanity, immortality, and consumer waste—themes echoed in Gibson’s 1996 novel Idoru— and the title story, which combines a heist job, a love triangle, and an ending that perfectly, memorably, poignantly captures what fellow SF visionary Bruce Sterling calls in his introduction “Gibson’s classic one-two combination of high tech and lowlife.”
Come now, you know this opening line, one of science fiction’s greatest. The stories in Burning Chrome were just a taste of what was to come in Gibson’s long-form debut, the first of his Sprawl novels. Case is a washed-up hacker living in Chiba City, Japan, long after a boom of megacorporations and Cold War espionage, a favorite topic of the author’s. Permabanned from jacking into cyberspace after he was caught stealing from his employer, Case is, like all good has-beens and never-wases in a pulp novel, drinking and drugging and barfighting his way to an early grave. Then “street samurai” Molly Millions enters the picture, offering Case another shot at becoming the console cowboy he longs to be and pulling off bigger jobs for a mysterious employer. The mystery patron behind these heists spirals out into a world of off-planet billionaire playgrounds, military conspiracy, sociopath hologram-creators, rogue AI, and space-Rastafarians. Space-Rastafarians. Hell yes.
The novel launched terms like “cyberspace” and “the Matrix” into the popular lexicon, as well as a host of pale style-heavy imitators, stellar RPGS both online and off, and some interesting works riffing on Gibson’s vision, like Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash and Richard K. Morgan’s Altered Carbon. Kathryn Bigelow’s 1995 movie Strange Days. And, yeah, the first Matrix movie at least. But you can’t beat the original and Neuromancer should be required reading for… well, everyone who uses the internet.
All Tomorrow’s Parties (1999)
It was really, really difficult not to include all three novels in Gibson’s Bridge Trilogy, which begins with Virtual Light and continues in Idoru. Largely set in an America closer to the present day than the preceding Sprawl novels, one where California has split into two warring states, the Bridge referred to is the Oakland-Bay bridge, which has become a giant shantytown of street hustlers, food stalls, and enterprising (and illegal) businesses. The Bridge can also be viewed as a metaphorical term, the span of years between the present and the posthuman—represented by emerging AI and nanotechnology. All Tomorrow’s Parties could be read as a stand-alone, but it’s definitely enhanced by knowing where gun-for-hire Berry Rydell and savvy bike-messenger Chevette and nodal-point analyst Colin Laney have been.
What makes the Bridge trilogy as a whole such a standout is Gibson’s prose. The author describes Neuromancer as “a young man’s novel,” and here, with a few years on him, Gibson’s language is more honed, less purple, but increasingly vibrant and dotted with little pleasures—like a delightful David Bowie cameo in Idoru and, in All Tomorrow’s Parties, a mute character’s fascination with watches, long one of Gibson’s obsessions, too. The final book in the Bridge trilogy is the interstitial space between 80’s cyberpunk chestnuts and Gibson’s jump into mainstream literary success as a valued commentator on the near-future.
Pattern Recognition (2003)
From pre-Y2K to post-9/11, Pattern Recognition is stripped down barely-there futurism and the first in a new cycle of bestselling novels set nearest to the present (at the time of publication.) In fact, the tech aspect of this story and its follow-ups Spook Country and Zero History, are so grounded in existing concepts these books read more like thrillers than science fiction. This is what has kept Gibson at the forefront of genre fiction—he’s moved far beyond the tropes he helped established, always moving onto the next thing that catches his attention. Much like Pattern Recognition‘s protagonist, Cayce Pollard, in fact. Cayce is a “coolhunter,” a marketing consultant with an allergy to corporate branding. Her visceral reaction to iconic logos makes her a good test subject for giant firm Blue Ant’s new design project and another job besides: tracking down the mysterious found footage that’s become an internet cult hit.
At the helm of Blue Ant’s global power is one of Gibson’s most memorable characters, Hubertus Bigend, described as looking like “Tom Cruise on a diet of virgins’ blood and truffled chocolates.” Cayce and Bigend represent different sides of a conflict between artistic integrity and monoculture and humanity’s search for understanding in a society that seems largely unknowable. In “Burning Chrome” Gibson wrote that “The street finds its own uses for things,” and in Pattern Recognition, there is nothing to stop a megacorporation from selling them back to you at a markup.
In an amusing footnote, Cayce’s aversion to brands forces her to wear a vintage black Buzz Rickson MA-1 bomber jacket, which ironically became one of the internet’s most sought-after fashion pieces upon the novel’s publication.
The Peripheral (2014)
Gibson called his latest novel “Justified with drones” and that’s pretty much my favorite elevator pitch ever. But it’s not quite accurate, aside from the Appalachia trailer home of a few major characters. Set in two different timelines, one about a decade out from ours, where war vets with glitchy neural implants pilot drones in a game for some cash and the other set in a London post-apocalypse, where 80% of the world population is gone—and yet reality stars still remain and thrive—people from one timeline meet their counterparts in the future in surprising, loaded fashion.
The Peripheral could be a pointed response to people who feared Gibson was leaving behind his SF roots—as if a writer of Gibson’s stature hasn’t earned some trust—but mostly it stands as a compelling pageturner brimming with sexy tech, fleshed-out people, and some grim forecasts for a post-scarcity, post-cataclysm society.
With the publication of the 1990 alternate history novel The Difference Engine, co-authored with frequent collaborator Bruce Sterling, not only is Gibson a godfather of cyberpunk, but an innovator of steampunk, too. If you like that sort of thing. For more historical SF, check out Archangel, a four-part comics miniseries from IDW. Alternate realities splinter from a nexus in time—1945 Berlin, to be exact—and the discovery leads to espionage, chilling militarized tech, a badass Brit intelligence officer (hello, mourning Agent Carter fans) and general mindfuckery. Also not to be missed: the rejected Alien 3 screenplay that starred Hicks and Bishop fighting a Xenomorph contagion while Ripley was mostly comatose. It’s an interesting bit of Hollywood detritus.
If following the author on Twitter isn’t enough non-fiction for you, check out his collection of essays, Distrust That Particular Flavor.
Lastly, it’s worth scouring the internet for the fascinating documentary No Maps for These Territories, which features a lengthy William Gibson interview filmed in the back of a car and interspersed with found footage and jazzed up with a moody, hypnotic score.
Theresa DeLucci is a regular contributor to Tor.com. She’s also discussed entertainment for Boing Boing and Wired.com’s Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy. She’s a graduate of the 2008 Clarion West Writers’ workshop. Follow her on Twitter. She once made a joke about Pacific Rim that was retweeted by William Gibson, to her sheer delight.