Gibson and I got off on the wrong foot.
My first encounter with Gibson was the third book in the Sprawl trilogy, Mona Lisa Overdrive. I was in my teens, and stole it from my sister to read, along with Count Zero. I hated both. Viscerally. They’re only subtly interlinked, so order wasn’t the issue, it was more perhaps that I felt that world was too distant. The internet was foreign to me. I only had a basic computer for writing, and I wouldn’t encounter the internet until much later, and so the whole thing felt unreal. Fantasy instead of SF.
Perils of a lower middle class, low income upbringing, disconnection with the very connection that the rest of the world seemed to be getting into.
I can’t remember how long after that I found and read Neuromancer, but I wasn’t massively taken with that either, except in terms of the writing, which I thought was incredible. It was only when I found Pattern Recognition in the library and decided to give Gibson another go that I found my resonance with him. I had, by this time, long since encountered the internet, which at first had been all picture hunting and weird American kids in chat rooms, who cloned your username to start flame wars to make you look bad, or who’d start to talk immediately in German if you tried to join their chat, and then became… everything really. A proliferation. A madness.
From the first time I encountered it, the internet grew in massive leaps, twining its way into everyday life until it was indispensable, and at that point, even if I still wasn’t much taken with his Sprawl trilogy (though I hadn’t re-read them), I at least had this underlying thought that Gibson had fixated on a thing before it happened and wasn’t that kind of cool really? I envied his immersion in the thick of things, and admired his foresight. All the other SF I read didn’t try and postulate the future as now in the way Gibson did (and does), and they certainly didn’t have his poetry on the whole. So when I found Pattern Recognition I think I was ready to be convinced by him.
And he did not disappoint.
Here was the world all around us, slightly stretched to future—not impossibly so, recognisably. Familiar. Not only that, but here it was delving deep into all those issues most concerning me as I watched the world take huge, breathless bounds forward around me. Dives into the void, seemingly without a parachute. The world of Pattern Recognition, with its pervasive pressure of progress and cultural brand saturation, reflected both that particular time with almost painful accuracy, and looked into a near future of brand assimilation, the all-consuming eye of media culture we drown in actively used against us.
Me, I didn’t really have any of the shit Gibson talked about. Too broke. But I saw it everywhere and I understood it, and I felt the grasping fingers of that near future already wound inexorably into the present. Unavoidable catastrophic cooption. Brand becoming big business, bringing marketing full circle from this monster that persuaded us all to smoke and used sexist imagery to sell products to closed minds eager for ways to burn cash, to a sort of overseeing god, pervading every corner of our lives. Go on Google to search a thing and it will follow you everywhere, a virtual ghost of persuasion. Will try to sell you something it thinks, in its addled algorithmic brain, might be connected.
It’s all about connection after all.
In Pattern Recognition and then in Spook Country and Zero History, Gibson also explores how fast tech might boil from brand new to obsolete. How, much like the Cubans keeping cars running from refashioned scraps of metal and hope, there would always be those waiting to rejig, rebuild and make use of that which the crowds at the cutting edge so readily and thoughtlessly discard. That they would be the ones, these salvagers, who learned how to exploit technology rather than being eaten alive by it, even as it developed user interface so seamless and absorbing it could begin to blur that real/fantasy divide.
As for that reality/fantasy divide, look at us now, on the verge of the hyperreal. One small step away from being able to take Gibson’s Second Life IRL, layering it over the parts of reality we no longer want to acknowledge, or completely deleting reality behind a wall of fantasy we never have to look over or around. So maybe it is all fantasy Gibson writes, in as much as he’s describing our descent into it.
And here I come back to Blue Ant, to Hubertus Bigend, if he’s not the best allegory and satirisation of big business I don’t know what is, a charismatic figure whose life’s work is to be on the razor’s edge of what’s hot next, so he can make sure someone somewhere is the first to sell it.
With him at its core, the Blue Ant trilogy reads to me like a warning. Be careful what you want, rather than what you wish for. Someone might be reading your subconscious. And now all of us keep our subconscious online, a litany of our hopes, dreams and desires—available to be collated and used as marketing algorithms. In product creation focus groups. We’re victims of our own consumerism. Data in the machine. Functions in an algorithm of need, a matrix derived of our own insatiable hunger and curiosity.
When I read the Blue Ant trilogy, just as when I first read it, I feel that truth clear as the walls around me and I never know whether to be horrified or fascinated. And I think that’s the crux of it. None of us do. William Gibson seems to have understood that decades ago—and perhaps in the future, if we survive that long, we might take what he’s written as Aesop’s Fables of sorts. Parables of warning about the ways we might be buried alive under our own greed. Our own need.
Be careful what you want, they’ll be saying. Someone might be reading your subconscious.
The Blue Ant Trilogy—Pattern Recognition, Spook Country, and Zero History—is available from Berkley Publishing.
Ren Warom lives in the West Midlands with her three children, innumerable cats, a very friendly corn snake, and far, far too many books. She haunts Twitter as @RenWarom, and can be found on her YouTube channel talking about mental health issues and, of course, books. Her latest novel, Virology, is now available from Titan Books