This Day In Literary History
On March 17th, 1948, the legendary American science fiction writer William Gibson was born in Conway, South Carolina. Though he spent most of his childhood in Wytheville, Virginia - his parents' hometown - his family moved frequently due to his father's position as a manager for a large construction company.
While his family lived in Norfolk, Virginia, Gibson attended Pines Elementary School, where his teachers never encouraged him to read, much to the chagrin of his parents. Around this time, his father died suddenly; he choked to death in a restaurant while on a business trip.
The family returned to Wytheville, which was a small Appalachian town, a place that Gibson described as "a place where modernity had arrived to some extent, but was deeply distrusted." He hated it.
Living in such a disturbing and surreal atmosphere led William Gibson to become a shy, withdrawn adolescent who kept to himself. When he was twelve, he "wanted nothing more than to become a science fiction writer."
A year later, without his mother's knowledge or permission, he bought an anthology featuring works by the Beat generation's greatest writers - William S. Burroughs, Jack Kerouac, and Allen Ginsberg. Burroughs would become Gibson's favorite writer and a major influence on his work.
As a teenager, Gibson rejected his religion and read voraciously, with the works of Burroughs and Henry Miller being his favorites. However, at school, his grades were poor. His mother threatened to send him to a boarding school.
To her surprise, he was enthusiastic about going to boarding school, so she sent him to the Southern Arizona School for Boys in Tucson. Gibson hated the structure of the school, but he was glad to escape from Wytheville and his "chronically anxious and depressive" mother.
He was also glad that the school forced him to come out of his shell and develop social skills. His academic performance was strangely uneven. When he took the SAT (Standard Achievement Test) exams, his teachers were baffled by his scores. In math, he scored near zero, but his score on the written test was near perfect.
When Gibson was eighteen, his mother died. He left school without graduating and drifted through the United States and Europe, choosing a mostly solitary life and becoming part of the late 1960s counterculture.
In 1967, he was called to appear at a draft hearing, and honestly told the interviewers that his goal in life was to indulge in every mind-altering substance known to man. He was never drafted, but moved to Canada anyway.
He would later quip that he avoided the draft not out of conscientious objection to the Vietnam War, but to remain free to "sleep with hippie chicks" and smoke hashish.
After arriving in Canada, Gibson met a girl in Vancouver and spent the rest of the 1960s traveling with her, as he couldn't stand living amongst the community of his fellow American expatriates, which was was rife with depression, suicide, and hardcore drug abuse.
He financed most of his travels with the $500 he was paid for appearing in a CBC newsreel story about the hippie subculture in Yorkville, Toronto. During their travels, Gibson and and his girlfriend spent time in countries such as Greece and Turkey.
In 1972, Gibson and his girlfriend returned to Canada. They settled in Vancouver and married. Gibson earned most of his living by scouring thrift stores for rare items priced well below their value, which he would resell to collectors at a huge profit.
When he realized that instead of working, he could receive generous financial aid from the government by going to college, he enrolled at the University of British Columbia, (UBC) from which he graduated in 1977 with a degree in English.
Gibson considered entering a Master's degree program with the topic of his thesis being hard science fiction novels as a form of fascist literature, but he changed his mind and worked at various jobs including a three-year stint as a teaching assistant in a film history course at UBC.
He also indulged in his passion for punk rock music. Around 1980, he attended a science fiction convention in Vancouver, which turned him off the genre, even though he had already written several early works of science fiction.
Around this time, Gibson met John Shirley, who would become his lifelong friend. Shirley was a punk rock musician turned sci-fi / horror writer. He encouraged Gibson to submit his stories for publication and introduced him to fellow sci-fi writers Bruce Sterling and Lewis Shiner.
When they read Gibson's stories, they proclaimed them to be "breakthrough material." So, Gibson began submitting his work, and soon, his short stories were appearing regularly in magazines such as Omni and Universe 11.
William Gibson's stories were indeed breakthrough material, far outside the mainstream of science fiction. They were in the cyberpunk tradition, akin to the legendary early 1960s "cut-up" novels of Gibson's idol, William S. Burroughs.
Gibson's stories dealt with concepts such as cyberspace - a term coined by Gibson which refers to a computer-simulated reality - and were written in the style of the pulp novels and noir films of the 1940s and 50s.
In 1984, Gibson's first novel was published. Neuromancer wasn't a commercial success, but word of mouth spread quickly and made the novel an overnight underground hit - a cult classic that sold over 6,500,000 copies worldwide.
It became the first novel to win all three major science fiction awards - the Nebula Award, the Hugo Award, and the Philip K. Dick Award.
Neuromancer was the first novel in Gibson's classic Sprawl trilogy. It eerily predicts the development of the Internet and its World Wide Web. Set in a futuristic, dystopic Chiba, Japan, the novel tells the story of Henry Dorsett Case, a low-level hustler who was once a talented computer hacker.
Then his employer caught him stealing, and as punishment, damaged his central nervous system with a mycotoxin, leaving him unable to access the global computer network with his brain-computer interface. Now, Case is an unemployable, suicidal drug addict.
While searching for a cure for his damaged nervous system in Chiba's "black clinics," Case is saved by Molly Millions, a "street samurai" and mercenary who works for Armitage, a shadowy ex-Green Beret officer.
Armitage offers to cure Case in exchange for his services as a hacker. Armitage fixes Case's nervous system but installs in his body sacs of mycotoxin that will burst if he fails to complete his work in time.
So, Case and Molly work together and form a close relationship. They don't know what Armitage really has planned, but they investigate and eventually discover the truth - he plans to merge two AI (Artificial Intelligence) entities, Wintermute and Neuromancer, into one all-powerful, godlike being.
William Gibson's Sprawl trilogy would include the novels Count Zero (1986) and Mona Lisa Overdrive (1988). The trilogy brought the author out of obscurity and made his name as one of the all time great science fiction writers.
He would write more great novels, including the Bridge trilogy, Virtual Light (1993), Idoru (1996) and All Tomorrow's Parties (1999) as well as other novels and short stories.
In 1993, he wrote his first major nonfiction work, an article for Wired magazine called Disneyland with the Death Penalty, which was a stinging critique of life in modern Singapore.
Gibson describes Singapore as having a government that functions like a mega-corporation and is fixated on constraint and conformity, with a marked lack of creativity and humor. Life in Singapore is a "relentlessly G-rated experience."
It's a conservative Republican wet dream of meticulously clean streets, practically nonexistent crime, (thanks to a harsh capital punishment system where one can be executed for offenses such as drug smuggling) and a culture of mindless, vapid materialism where shopping becomes a nearly religious experience.
And yet, there are also no slums in Singapore, and instead of a visible sex trade, there are government sanctioned "health centers" which are really massage parlors where one can get far more than a massage.
The government enforces morality with strict censorship of movies, music, and the media. It places great value on marriage and procreation, and both organizes and enforces mandatory dating policies.
In his 1993 essay, Gibson predicted the explosion of online pornography and cast doubt on the resilience of Singapore's controlled, conservative society in the face of the mass exposure of its citizenry to the coming "wilds of X-rated cyberspace."
He speculated that "Singapore's destiny will be to become nothing more than a smug, neo-Swiss enclave of order and prosperity, amid a sea of unthinkable weirdness." Creative Review hailed Gibson's essay as "fabulously damning."
Singapore reacted to it with outrage, banning the sale of Wired magazine there. "Disneyland with the Death Penalty" became a famous catch phrase used to describe Singapore - especially by Singaporeans opposed to their country's authoritarian conservative government.
Two of Gibson's short stories were adapted as feature films. Johnny Mnemonic (1995), featuring a screenplay by William Gibson, starred Keanu Reeves in the title role. New Rose Hotel (1998), directed by Abel Ferrara, starred Christopher Walken and Willem Dafoe.
Gibson also wrote for television. He penned the teleplays for two classic episodes of The X-Files (1993-2002) - Kill Switch and First Person Shooter.
William Gibson's latest novel, The Peripheral, was published in October, 2014. It's a dazzling, surreal science fiction / mystery thriller that takes place through the 21st and 22nd centuries.
Quote of the Day
"To present a whole world that doesn’t exist and make it seem real, we have to more or less pretend we’re polymaths. That’s just the act of all good writing." - William Gibson
Today's video features William Gibson discussing his most recent novel, The Peripheral at the Politics and Prose bookstore and coffeehouse. Enjoy!