The Gibson Conundrum

I am haunted by William Gibson.  Which is interesting because, as much as I love his work, I find it rather difficult to read.  Most modern writing, especially science fiction writing, tends toward the less-is-more school of bare bones sentence structure, but Gibson is completely different.  Reading Gibson, with his dense and complicated paragraphs and stream of consciousness metaphors layered one on top of the other by dint of a massive vocabulary and a tendency to make up new words where the old ones fail, feels more like reading a late 19th century author. 

He’s one of the few writers I respect but whom I don’t want to emulate.  In fact, when I sometimes spot a Gibsonesque paragraph in my own stuff, I grab my whittling knife and start cutting.  It’s not that his writing isn’t good, it’s very good, it’s that that type of writing coming out of me isn’t natural.  It’s not the way my mind works and if you write in a way that is not organic to your brain structure, you are telling lies. 

I’ve always been curious what makes him so different from everyone else I read and I think I finally have an answer.  I picked up a DVD called No Maps for These Territories which turns out to be an interview with Gibson made while being driven around in the back of a limo.  There are few questions from the unseen narrator.  It’s mostly just Gibson free associating about his life, the world today (circa the late 90s when this DVD was made), and the future. 

It’s absolutely fascinating, not just for the insights into a great mind, but because you come to understand something about Gibson over the duration of the interview.  He is not like the rest of us.  His mind does not work the way most minds work.  His perception of the world is as beautifully twisted as Philip K. Dick’s was but in a completely different way.

I don’t mean that in a bad way.  That difference of perception is what makes him great.  Let me explain by way of an experience I had in my twenties.  I was living in New Orleans with some friends and one day we were walking down St. Charles Avenue and came upon a streetcar that was stopped and surrounded by mechanics, service personnel, and EMS.  When my eyes finally focused on what they were all working on, I saw a man had been run over by the streetcar and was trapped under it.

I had been taking those streetcars to work every day and was highly enamored of them, but when I saw this man trapped under there, it changed my perception.  I said to my friend, “I used to think of these streetcars like big, friendly anachronisms.  Like pet bears.  But now they seem more like relentless predators that feed on unwary pedestrians.”

My friend turned and regarded me for a moment before saying, “Your brain does not work like other brains.”

Now, in my case, that was a minor difference in perception, much like anthropomorphizing an animal that other people just see as an animal. But in Gibson’s case, he sees the entire world as a completely other thing.  He says in the interview that he came up with the concept of cyberspace after seeing kids with the first Sony Walkmans, the first truly personal entertainment device that isolated its user from the rest of the world, and kids playing the old arcade video games.  He said when he saw them working the controllers of those games it was like they were trying to get through the cabinet into a shared space behind the screen.  That is a patently amazing leap of intuition if you ask me and could only have come from a mind as different and special as his.

Listening to him wax about the world as I watched the DVD for fifth or sixth time, I began to get what it is about his writing that is so different.  I wasn’t looking at the video at that point, I was just listening to the audio while doing something else, and Bono came on and started reading a passage from Neuromancer.  It put me in mind of when I got the audio book of On The Road, the one read by Will Patton.  I had tried to read OTR several times but just couldn’t get into it, but listening to Patton narrate the story, I started to get the jazz phrasing that made it so special.  And once I got that Beat rhythm, I loved that book.  I finally got it.

Listening to Bono read from Neuromancer, I realized why Gibson’s writing so intimidates and awes me.  William Gibson isn’t a novelist.  He’s a goddamn poet.

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