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William Gibson’s future

March 3, 2008
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All Tomorrow’s Parties expressed a lot of it: William Gibson’s dark but somehow humane picture of what the modern world might be heading for. First the dark part — nation states that have fallen apart into NoCal and SoCal and the Kombinat states; whole communities of people living anarchically and precariously — but astonishingly, harmoniously — on the earthquake-damaged Oakland Bridge (“interstitial communities,” as Gibson’s observers call them); corporations that use deadly force to recruit top scientists from each other; weird new viruses that cause deadly epidemics and psychotic disorders; and, of course, the matrix of computer systems, hackers, console cowboys, and software simulations that constitute a counterpoint reality to all of it. And there is a lot more in Gibson’s imagination: a trend spotter who has a visceral allergy to brand marks, a Japanese anthropologist studying the micro-communities of what has become of North America, and, most recently, an elusive Chinese-Cuban crime family in quiet war with the national security apparatus of the United States government (Spook Country). Across the whole canvas there is a feeling of what Gibson refers to as “bit-rot” in a website that’s beginning to degrade: a social order that is no longer functioning.

So what is the humane part of the corpus? So many of the characters Gibson creates are decent, moral people, coping within the context of social breakdowns that they can’t entirely evade but can somehow live around. There is Chevette, the taut, orphaned bicycle messenger in San Francisco, living with the aging Skinner on the Oakland Bridge, bringing hot-and-sour soup up to the tiny cubicle Skinner has created on an upper reach of the bridge. There is Rydell, the ex-cop, ex-private security guard for a post-modern convenience shop, with a generous spirit and a willingness to go to bat for his friends. (He’ll go up against a team of assassins with a chain gun, if he needs to. ) And there is Fontaine, the used-stuff dealer on the bridge, friend to Skinner, and — once again — a morally grounded man coping in a world of nutty and irreversible breakdowns.

What the social message seems to be is something about non-sustainability. It’s the opposite of utopia; it’s a cool vision of what some of the most visible currents in contemporary society might lead to. (The currents that are highlighted include unfettered corporate power, accelerating breakdown of social welfare systems, states that no longer govern, cities that simply “sprawl” from Boston to Atlanta, and technologies that play an entirely ambiguous role in supporting human welfare.) Here is how things can fail to work out for us, Gibson seems to be saying. Our complex, interdependent, technologically skilled but socially inept civilizations seem to be falling apart in Gibson’s worlds. And ordinary people have to find their own human solutions, locally and provisionally. There’s a recurring motif of “re-use” of things — the knife that Skinner forges from a motorcycle chain and gifts to Chevette after his decline and death, or the intricate “collage” boxes that figure into the plot of Neuromancer. And re-use maybe points the way to a greater degree of sustainability?

It’s not exactly a social philosophy. It’s not Hobbes, for example, offering a description of the state of nature and the war of all against all. And it’s not Rousseau, expecting community to emerge from the commonality of shared interests. The category of power comes into the novels again and again — power used capriciously, self-interestedly, corporately, and unforgivingly. But at the same time the universe that Gibson describes is not one lacking moral rules. The people involved in the novels express their own commitments, loyalties, and values. But what does not seem to be possible in Gibson’s world is a polity — an organized community establishing a system of law and assuring the basic welfare of all its citizens. “Justice” is not a part of the picture. The closest thing to a functioning society that is described in the novels is the bridge community — the refugees from San Francisco who have taken up precarious residence on the Oakland Bridge, building ramshackle shelters, shops, gardens, and pubs out of recycled industrial materials, bits of plastic, and used motorcycle parts. And the bridge community seems to be entirely anarchic — the only order that exists is the order that is created and enforced by the bridge dwellers themselves.

Gibson’s novels are placed in the genre of science fiction. But the genre isn’t quite right. Really, they could be called “futurist social fiction” in the way that Thomas More’s Utopia was social fiction: a vision of what a social realm might look like. And in this description, the work is very appropriate content for ChangingSociety.

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