Maps for a Few Territories: Guides to Gibson

Any web wanderer worth her bookmarks knows that William Gibson coined the term for the spaces and places that we all explore online. So strong was the word that one large software company attempted to trademark it for their own purposes (Woolley, 1992). So many such ideas have been co-opted by others that Gibson has jokingly referred to himself as “the unpaid Bill” (Henthorne, p. 39). We have recently been called “people of the screen” by some other big-name dude, but this idea was evident in Gibson’s early work some thirty years ago. He saw an early ad for Apple Computers, and the idea hit him: “Everyone is going to have one of these, I thought, and everyone is going to want to live inside them. And somehow I knew that the notional space behind all of the computer screens would be one single universe” (quoted in Jones, 2011).

“I needed to replace the ‘rocketship’ and the ‘holodeck’ with something else that would be a signifier of technological change,” he tells Mark Neale in No Maps for These Territories, “and that would provide me with a narrative engine, and a territory in which the narrative could take place… All I really knew about the word ‘cyberspace’ when I coined it was that it seemed like an effective buzzword. It was evocative and essentially meaningless. It was very suggestive of… it was suggestive of something, but it had… no real semantic meaning, even for me, as I saw it emerge on the page.”

FADE UP MUSIC. Slowly, images start to bleed through. Red swirls, white, black dots… As more and more of the image bleeds through the titles we begin to make out what we’re watching…
— Opening lines, William Gibson’s Johnny Mnemonic screenplay

In the preface to Burning Chrome (Ace, 1987), Bruce Sterling wrote that Gibson’s early stories had made apparent ”the hidden bulk of an iceberg of social change,” an iceberg that the web’s social warming has melted over the years since. In his later work, Gibson writes in a world informed by his previous prophecies. It is as if the present caught up with his projected future: “I suppose I’ve always wanted to have a hedge against the literal assumption that these stories are fictions about ‘the future’ rather than attempts to explore an increasingly science fictional present. I think we tend to live as though the world was the way it was a decade ago, and when we connect with the genuinely contemporary we experience a species of vertigo” (quoted in Eshun, 1996). His latest trilogy is intentionally set in that science fictional present. Pattern Recognition (2003), Spook Country (2007), and Zero History (2010) read like Gibson’s earlier science fiction, yet the weird gadgets and odd characters they’re riddled with are all readily available outside the book’s pages. He’s not making any of those things up. Anymore. In spite of its uneven distribution, the future is already here. The merging of cyberspace and the everyday as well as the techno-paranoia he projected in his early work is pervasive post-9/11.

As a guide to his many fictions cum realities, Tom Henthorne’s William Gibson: A Literary Companion (McFarland & Co., 2011) goes a long way to mapping his fiction to our reality. Arranged encyclopedia-style and covering the breadth of Gibson’s novels, the book provides handy crib notes to the concepts and connections of his work. It also includes a chronology of Gibson’s life and work, a glossary, a technological timeline, writing and research topics, a bibliography, and a full index, all of which make it an easy entry point into Gibson’s world of work.

I have often thought he’d get more credit for his ideas if the times he’s talked about them were in print somewhere (e.g., the many ideas he discusses in Mark Neale’s 2000 documentary, William Gibson: No Maps for These Territories). Enter Distrust The Particular Flavor (Putnam Adult, 2012): thirty years of Gibson’s collected nonfiction. Essays, talks, observations, articles, and other ephemera are all collected in one place for the first time, some in print for the first time ever — from WIRED, Rolling Stone, and New York Times Magazine to smaller publications no longer in production.

William Gibson is one of our brightest minds and these two books not only provide a solid introduction into his fiction and ideas but are also valuable texts on their own. Whether you’re fumbling through his fiction, wishing his tweets were longer, or just curious, I recommend checking them out.

References:

Eshun, Kodwo. (1996, November). William Gibson in Dialogue with Kodwo Eshun: The Co-evolution of Humans and Machines. Unpublished outtake from Paul D. Miller (ed.), Sound Unbound: Sampling Digital Arts and Culture. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Gibson, William. (1995). Johnny Mnemonic [screenplay]. New York: Ace Books.

Gibson, William. (2012). Distrust That Particular Flavor. New York: Putnam Adult.

Henthorne, Tom (2011). William Gibson: A Literary Companion. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co.

Jones, Thomas. (2011, September 22). William Gibson: Beyond Cyberspace. The Guardian.

Sterling, Bruce. (1987). Preface. In William Gibson, Burning Chrome. New York: Ace Books, pp. ix-xii.

Woolley, Benjamin. (1992). Virtual Worlds. New York: Penguin.

Cyberpunk’s Not Dead: Rucker’s Nested Scrolls

Like birthdays, the end of the year always brings about a recounting of the previous twelve months. We reassess our existence every year, every ten years, every one hundred… Human and technological movements are cyclical. Heraclitus once posited that generational cycles turn over every thirty years. By that metric, the personal computer revolution has run its course, and with it, the cyberpunk genre. Running its course doesn’t mean it’s over. It means it has been assimilated into the larger culture. What was once weird and wild is now a normal part of the world in which we live.

In his autobiography, Nested Scrolls (Tor, 2011), Rudy Rucker tells the story of catching the cyberpunk wave just as it was swelling toward the shore. Rucker already had two science fiction novels out, a third in the pipe, and was out to change the genre with a vengeance. He’d won the first Philip K. Dick Award in 1982 just after Dick died, and met up with the reigning crop of the new movement. “I started hearing about a new writer called William Gibson,” he writes. “I saw a copy of Omni with his story, ‘Johnny Mnemonic’. I was awed by the writing. Gibson, too, was out to change SF. And we weren’t the only ones.” Around the same time, Bruce Sterling was publishing an SF zine called “Cheap Truth.” Rucker continues, “Reading Bruce’s sporadic mailings of ‘Cheap Truth’, I learned there were a number of other disgruntled and radicalized new SF writers like me. At first Bruce Sterling’s zine didn’t have any particular name for the emerging new SF movement — it wouldn’t be until 1983 that the cyberpunk label would take hold.” It was in that year that Bruce Bethke inadvertently named the movement with the title of his short story “Cyberpunk.” In this revolution, the names Rucker, Gibson, and Sterling were loosely joined by John Shirley, Greg Bear, Pat Cadigan, and Lew Shiner.

Rudy Rucker: Nested Scrolls

While cyberpunk sometimes seems a definitively 1980s affair, it was often ardently so at the time. It was post-punk and pre-web, yet wildly informed by the onset of the personal computer and the promise of the internet, which marks the genre in sharp contrast to its galaxy-hopping, alien-invaded forebears. Rudy Rucker is the bridge from Dick-era, drug-induced paranoia to Gibson-era, network-minded paraspace. He was around early enough to be a Dick fan before Dick died, but noticeably older than the rest of the cyberpunk crew. Nested Scrolls secures his place joining the generations of the genre.

It’s not all computer-generated virtual worlds though, Rucker has had a storied career as both an author of science fiction and nonfiction, as a college professor, and as a software developer, all of which inform each other to varying degrees, and all of which inform Nested Scrolls, making it an engaging narrative of high-science, high-tech, and high times. Cyberpunk’s not dead, it’s just normal now.

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Illustrating the initial disjointedness of the genre, here’s the 1990 Cyberpunk documentary, directed by Marianne Trench:

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References:

Georgoulias, Tom. (2007). Rudy Rucker: Keeping it Transreal. In Roy Christopher (Ed.), Follow for Now: Interviews with Friends and Heroes. Seattle, WA: Well-Red Bear.

Heraclitus. (2001). Fragments. New York: Penguin Classics.

Rucker, Rudy. (2011). Nested Scrolls: The Autobiography of Rudolph von Bitter Rucker. New York: Tor.

Rucker, Rudy. (2011, December 6). The Death of Philip K. Dick and the Birth of Cyberpunk [Book excerpt]. io9.com.

Trench, Marianne (Director) & von Brandenburg, Peter (Producer). (1990). Cyberpunk. Mystic Fire Video.

William Gibson and the City: A Glitch in Time

Though he’s better known as the paragon of paraspace, in the Sprawl of his numerous novels, William Gibson has explored the future of cities as much as any urban theorist, expanding upon the topography of late 20th-century exurban development with astute accuracy. “The record of futurism in science fiction is actually quite shabby,” Gibson says in an interview in the Paris Review. “Novels set in imaginary futures are necessarily about the moment in which they are written. As soon as a work is complete, it will begin to acquire a patina of anachronism.” While this might seem so statistically, Gibson’s visions of cities’ possible futures have come closer to reality than most others, and he regularly cites Tokyo as the human-made stone for sharpening his edge: “It’s hard to beat, these nameless neon streets swarming with every known form of electronic advertising, under a misting rain that softens the commercials playing on façade screens of quite surreal width and clarity. The Japanese know this about television: Make it big enough and anything looks cool.” In No Maps for These Territories: Cities, Spaces, and Archeologies of the Future in William Gibson (Ropopi, 2011), Karin Hoepker attempts to canonize Gibson’s excursions into our future urbs.

The suburbs are much more dangerous because in the city someone might come up and take your money, but in the suburbs they’ll take your soul. — William Gibson

Hoepker’s book extracts Gibson’s urban theory from his many novels. First, she establishes what she calls an “Archeology of Future Spaces,” then contextualizes Gibson’s work within 1980s science fiction. Next, she explores the future urban landscapes of his books in turn, illustrating not only the impossibilities of mapping these spaces via traditional means, but the invisible politics thereof as well. The gerrymandering of space for political gain is as much a part of the postmodern condition as advertising on every available surface.

Gibson’s tendency toward Tokyo notwithstanding, Los Angeles is widely considered The City of the Future, “nearly unviewable save through the scrim of its mythologizers,” as Michael Sorkin put it. Its metro myth-makers include Gibson, Norman M. Klein, Mike Davis, James Howard Kunstler, Ridley Scott, and Philip K. Dick, among others. The built environment shapes our lives like the dreamscapes in Inception shaped its ontology, but unlike Nolan’s metropolitan mazes, Gibson’s city of bits is the one we have come to inhabit: cities that connect us and reflect us like the hives of insects. Sleepily stretching out in “a vast generic tumble,” our cities and their limbs divide us even as they bring us together (see Shepard, 2011). More and more, this paradox includes the expanding matrix of cyberspace, which didn’t yet exist when Gibson first wrote about it in the July, 1982 issue of Omni Magazine. “Gibson’s influence is evident in everything from the Matrix movies to Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, which won this year’s Pulitzer prize for fiction,” writes Thomas Jones. Hoepker’s book exposes and explores Gibson’s continuing and consistent influence — on the blacktop rather than the laptop.

Exploring well beyond William Gibson, Miles Orvell and Jeffrey L. Meikle have put together a must-have compendium of of essays on urban spaces. Public Space and the Ideology of Place in American Culture (Rodopi, 2009) is rife with observations and theories. The idea that public space in America is regarded as little more than a waste of resources resonates with the rejection of the commercialization of everything here, as well as with the projections of Gibson’s stories mentioned above. There is an entire piece on desire lines and public space in Chicago, a chapter on Starbucks’ shilling of so-called “public” space (i.e. the illusion thereof, a “Third Place” in Howard Schultz-speak), one on urban communities including a bit on bum-proof benches, and another on designed space vs. social space, among many other things.

Technologist David E. Nye chimes in on public space as transformed by New York blackouts, arguing that they’re not an instance of technological determinism, a topic Nye has explored in depth previously (See chapter 2 of his Technology Matters, 2006). His take seems to flip the script on one of William Gibson’s well-worn aphorisms: The street finds its own use for things. If the technological use is culturally determined, then the use finds its own street for things. The line between a glitch in the grid and a glitch in The Matrix is in your head. Nye writes,

By the beginning of the twenty-first century, blackouts were recognized as more than merely latent possibilities. They were unpredictable, but seemed certain to come. Breaks in the continuity of time and space, they opened up contradictory possibilities. From their shadows might emerge a unified communitas or a riot. The blackout shifted its meanings, and achieved new definitions with each repetition. For some, it remained a postmodern form of carnival, where they celebrated an enforced cessation of the city’s vast machinery (p. 382).

While architecture and urban planning are tangential to my usual topics of interest, smart and expansive writing like this, writing that uses the same strokes and colors as science fiction, reminds me why I find the cumulative concerns of the built environment so fascinating. I recommend seeking out these titles. Also, it would be remiss of me not to mention that these two books are entries in two series from Rodopi. No Maps for These Territories is #12 in one called “Spatial Practices: An Interdisciplinary Series in Cultural History, Geography, and Literature,” and Public Space… is #3 in the “Architecture, Technology, Culture” series. This small sampling bodes well for two rich veins of new spatial knowledge, speculative theory, and stimulating writing.

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Here’s a clip from Mark Neale’s William Gibson: No Maps for These Territories (2000) in which Gibson discusses our post-geographical, prosthetic nervous system [runtime: 2:02]:

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References:

Eshun, Kodwo. (1996, November). William Gibson in Dialogue with Kodwo Eshun: The Co-evolution of Humans and Machines. Unpublished outtake from Paul D. Miller (ed.) Sound Unbound: Sampling Digital Arts and Culture. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Gibson, William. (1982, July). Burning Chrome. Omni Magazine.

Gibson, William. (2001, September). My Own Private Tokyo. WIRED Magazine, 9.09.

Hoepker, Karin. (2011). No Maps for These Territories. New York: Rodopi.

Jones, Thomas. (2011, September 22). William Gibson: Beyond Cyberspace. The Guardian.

Neale, Mark. (director). (2000). William Gibson: No Maps for These Territories [Motion picture]. London: Docurama.

Nye, David E. (2006). Technology Matters: Questions to Live With. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Orvell, Miles & Meikle, Jeffrey L., editors. (2009). Public Space and the Ideology of Place in American Culture. New York: Rodopi.

Shepard, Mark, editor. (2011). Sentient City: Ubiquitous Computing, Architecture, and the Future of Urban Space. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Sorkin, Michael. (1992). Variations on a Theme Park: The New American City and the End of Public Space. New York: Hill and Wang.

Wallace-Wells, David (2011, Summer). William Gibson Interview: The Art of Fiction No. 211. The Paris Review, No. 197.

Bringing the Attack to Your Network: Hacking 2.0

Hacking, as the term is generally (mis)understood, gets a bad rap. The longstanding attempts at distinguishing between hacking and cracking have yielded little results. If you self-identify as a hacker, most will still assume you illicitly break into computer systems to steal secret information or vast sums of money.

In Hacking (Polity, 2008), Tim Jordan puts great effort into developing a solid, working definition of the term. Not only is Jordan concerned with differentiating hacking from cracking, but also in not watering down the concept (as he claims McKenzie Wark, Pekka Himenan, and Sherry Turkle, among others, do). “A hack…” he writes, “is a material practice that produces differences in computer, network, and communication technologies” (p. 12). Grounding hacking as a material practice allows Jordan to explore what he considers the two major categories of hacking: information gathering (e.g., cracking) and creative hacks like the myriad tools and toys of the Linux operating system and the open source software movement, both of which push technology beyond its intended uses. Jordan’s book is a cogent, clear, and concise look at what is usually quite a muddy topic.*

Speaking of clear, if you know anything about computer books, you know that O’Reilly publishes the best of them. Hacking: The Next Generation (O’Reilly, 2009) by Nitesh Dhanjani, Billy Rios, and Brett Hardin (all of whom are security experts, engineers, or advisers at large companies with lots at stake) is about as good as these books get. Much like their sister imprint’s book by a similar name (Hacking: The Art of Exploitation on No Starch), this is a solid guide to how to break into things and how to keep someone from breaking into yours. Subtitled “Bringing the Attack to Your Network,” Hacking thoroughly covers everything from the usual corporate firewalls and email accounts to Facebook and Twitter with the hands-on depth you’ve come to expect from O’Reilly.

Bringing hacking to a much larger scale network, environmental futurist Jamais Cascio’s Hacking the Earth (Lulu, 2009) explores the consequences of geoengineering. If you can imagine the global climate as a system to be hacked, then Cascio is speaking your language. This collection of essays (culled from the past five years of his writings at World Changing and Open The Future) covers everything from techniques and terraforming to geoengineering and geoethics. It’s a lofty and enlightening look at hacking the very system of our planet.

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* Special thanks to John David Smith at Learning Alliances for recommending Tim Jordan’s book.

Guest Post: Ashley Crawford on Spook Country by William Gibson

William Gibson is justifiably renowned as one of the key founders of the now vast realm of cyberpunk. His 1984 novel Neuromancer was a foundation stone for a new style of futuristic fiction; high tech but gritty. The opening line of the novel said it all: “The sky above the port was the colour of television tuned to a dead channel.”

In Gibson’s world voodoo met with artificial intelligence. It was a dark realm of worrisome virtual realities. It was a soaring burst of imagination that, at the time, had no equivalent.

Spook CountrySince that time Gibson has gradually been re-inventing himself, coming closer to the present day with each book. His latest, Spook Country (Penguin/Viking), is very much placed in the here and now, resonant with references to 9/11, the Iraq war and corruption within the current American administration. At heart it is a thriller, without the flourishes of remarkable futurism that marked Gibson’s earlier works and as such it will be a disappointment to those hoping for the surreal leaps of vision in his earlier works. But Spook Country remains resolutely a Gibson book, replete with references to the gods and goddesses of voodoo belief. Here the iPod meets the goddess Ochun and a drug called RIZE clashes with the muscular, athletic god Oshosi.

The promotional blurb for Spook Country claims that the novel is “J.G. Ballard meets John Le Carré”, but the novel is far too American for it to fit into such a bizarre English context. One suspects that the Canadian-born Gibson is more influenced by the paranoiac sci-fi of Philip K. Dick and the stylistic tropes of Raymond Chandler, both denizens of Los Angeles where much of the novel is set.

Sense of place is a major aspect of Spook Country. Elements of LA and New York City are captured brilliantly. As one of the key protagonists, the youthful Cuban exile Tito, sprints through Canal Street in New York one can envisage the setting immediately. But although this is New York post-9/11 – a fact that is central to the story – Gibson fails to capture the sense of displacement many New Yorkers still feel, a sensation rendered palpable in Don DeLillo’s latest novel, Falling Man.

Like DeLillo, Gibson uses an artist as one of his triggers to get the action rolling, in this case an artist who uses a kind of virtual reality recreation of past events such as the death of River Pheonix. The artwork is the ostensible subject of a feature story for a not-yet existent magazine called Node to be written by a former indie-rock singer Hollis Henry. It rapidly becomes apparent that Node will probably never exist and its’ supposed publisher is seeking something else entirely. Running parallel to this story are the mysterious goings on of a group of Cubans, especially the athletic Tito who summons the aid of Ochun and Oshosi when necessary, a CIA-type thug and a drug addled character called Milgrim.

Central to the book is the “producer” Bobby Chombo, a paranoid and reclusive troubleshooter for manufacturers of military navigation equipment who refuses to sleep in the same place twice. Hollis Henry has been told by her editor to find him but not told why.

With his sprawling matrix of characters the narrative moves along at break-neck pace. Mis-information transfer run by the Cubans – often via iPod – constantly misleads shadow-agents of the government. Also central is the fortune of American cash set aside to help re-build Iraq that has been pirated away for other, unspecified, but clearly corrupt, uses.

At times Gibson’s narrative soars, at others it is dogged down by slightly lame character development. It is ideal Winter reading but fails to claim anything like the cultural potency of Neuromancer.

[Ashley Crawford is the editor of 21C Magazine and the compilation, Transit Lounge.]