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Athabasca University

William Gibson

William Ford Gibson was born March 17, 1948, in Conway, South Carolina. His father, a civilian building contractor for the U.S. military, died when Gibson was six. His mother brought William to her home state of Virginia, eventually sending him at age fifteen to private boys’ school in Arizona. His mother died when Gibson was eighteen. Now an orphan, he dropped out of school, and in 1967 he left his home state of Virginia to wander. By 1968 he was in Toronto, where he remained to avoid the Vietnam War draft. After living an itinerant life in Europe and North America, he and his wife settled in Vancouver in 1972 (where he has since lived). He started to write fiction while attending the University of British Columbia for his B.A. in English literature (1977). His first short story, "Fragments of a Hologram Rose," came out of a course in science fiction literature at UBC and was published in Boston’s Unearth magazine in 1977 (reprinted in Burning Chrome [1986]). He soon published more short stories in periodicals, notably in Omni magazine, known for its taste for gritty, dystopic science fiction. His first novel, Neuromancer (1984), won the Hugo Award for best novel from the World Science Fiction Society, the Philip K. Dick Award for best U.S. original paperback from the Philadelphia Science Fiction Society, the Nebula Award for best novel from the Science Fiction Writers of America, and the Ditmar Award for Australian Science Fiction Achievement (all awarded 1985). That novel, bolstered by the reputations of his subsequent novels and non-fiction articles, made Gibson a pop-culture celebrity.

He claims as a major influence the 1960s counterculture icon William S. Burroughs (particularly through the novel Nova Express). His work also shows affinities with the speculative fiction of J. G. Ballard, Philip K. Dick and Thomas Pynchon, with the hard-boiled detective fiction of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, and with the punk movement. His work also shows the influence of his collaborators, Bruce Sterling, Michael Swanwick, John Shirley, and Tom Maddox. Neuromancer forms a trilogy (the "Sprawl" or "Matrix" trilogy) with Count Zero (1986) and Mona Lisa Overdrive (1988). A second trilogy (the "Bridge" trilogy) consists of Virtual Light (1993), Idoru (1996) and All Tomorrow’s Parties (1999). Two of his short stories were republished in a key cyberpunk anthology, Mirrorshades (1986), edited by Bruce Sterling. The Difference Engine (1990) is a departure from these novels: it is an alternative history story that examines what the world may have been like if inventor Charles Babbage had been able to build his proto-computers ("difference engines") in the Victorian era. Pattern Recognition (2003) is another departure. Though it uses technology as a key element in its plot, it is set in contemporary London, under the shadow of the terrorist attacks on the United States in September 2001. The novel follows a fashion consultant in her search for the author of some cult-like film footage on the Internet. In addition to his novels, Gibson has been involved in film scriptwriting: he wrote successful scripts for his own Johnny Mnemonic and for Chris Carter’s television series The X-Files and a rejected script for the third Alien film.

Gibson has been a key figure in the cyberpunk movement in literature and a visionary in the theorization of the relationship between high technology and human culture. The word "cyberspace" was his invention: the term (along with the related term "matrix") first appeared in his 1982 Omni short story "Burning Chrome." Gibson’s fiction focuses on the effect of technology, especially computer technology and genetic and somatic engineering, on the ontological status of society and of personal identity within that society. Those stories that do not take place in Gibson’s cyberspace-based future nevertheless comment on the ways in which people conceive of material innovation, whether through nineteenth-century computing technology in Difference Engine or the societal impact of trend marketing in Pattern Recognition. His characters are often compromised by the affinity they have with technology, especially when that affinity touches upon the agenda of large organizations, especially multinational corporations, or upon the characters’ personal demons. Indeed, his characters behave like film-noir or counterculture antiheroes, motivated by the familiar human longings for wealth, love, and freedom. In this sense, his novels are examinations not of some imaginary projected world, but of the current world, and of that world’s aspirations for progress through technology. The combination of interests in the details of urban life, the invocation of earlier literary forms (such as detective fiction and pulp science fiction) and explicit invocation of contemporary cultural theory (such as semiotics and post-structuralism) marks Gibson as a postmodern writer. (Vivian Zenari)

Updated February 12 2015 by Student & Academic Services

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