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Out of Science Fiction, A New View of Contemporary Reality?

January 17, 1988|SHELDON TEITELBAUM

When William Gibson began writing in 1977, he did not set out to reform science fiction or ignite a controversy. In retrospect, however, it seems clear to him that he could never have written the kind of material he had devoured as a youngster.

"So much of the stuff I was buying off the Woolworth's rack had been written during the 1940s by people like Robert Heinlein, Theodore Sturgeon and Ray Bradbury--writers who came out of small towns in the Midwest," he said. "Virtually none of it was written with the urban sensibility I think is needed to describe most contemporary reality."

What Gibson came up with to describe that reality--and a future one--was a book called "Neuromancer" (Ace), a highly stylized vision that catalogues the wonders of the new New Age, including designer drugs, designer memory implants, and even designer personalities.

Published in 1985, the book hit the insular community of science-fiction writers like a bucket of ice water and went on to win many awards.

Soon after the book's appearance, Gardner Dozois, a well-known science-fiction editor, announced that "Neuromancer" had generated a new trend in science fiction and coined the term cyberpunks to describe the small coterie of writers whose stories--like Gibson's--deal with the feel of life in the information age.

In their view, technology has affected the surface texture of contemporary life in addition to the core of human existence. To communicate this vision of the techo-turbulent '80s, they have assumed a style that is hard-boiled and street-smart but also information-dense, hallucinatory and fast-paced.

George Slusser, an English professor at UC Riverside, and curator of the Eaton science-fiction collection there, recently described cyberpunk as "optical prose" depicting a new reality and reflecting "an increasing fusion of electronic matrix and human brain, the world of the global village, and its electronic nightside--rock music, artificial stimulants and vicarious sex."

Crossover Phenomenon

Indeed, in recent years, cyberpunk has leaked out of the realm of science-fiction writing and into the Zeitgeist to become what some trend-spotters characterize as a cultural crossover phenomenon--a controversial one at that.

Echoes of the genre have been popping up outside of literature in movies like "Blade Runner," "Brazil" and "RoboCop," and in television, commercials, music videos by Peter Gabriel and Sisters of Mercy, the compositions of John Cage, Laurie Anderson and Brian Eno, and the gyrations of performance artist Stelarc.

A Religious Experience

In fact, drug-guru-turned-technophile Timothy Leary said cyberpunk is to the '80s what the Beats were to the '50s and the hippies to the '60s. He said reading William Gibson's "Neuromancer" was, for him, a genuinely religious experience. "Like St. Paul, I was converted. Not only has Gibson given us a sociology and culture of the 21st Century, but a theology as well."

The term cyber , he said, comes from the Greek "to pilot." "And if you're going to pilot your way through the 21st Century, you have to know how to move electrons around.

"Gibson intuitively understands cybernetic technology," Leary said. "He knows where this technology is going, and he has an extraordinary sense of street smarts, which most science-fiction writers lack. But he hasn't invent ed this stuff--it's just out there, like rain clouds. And Gibson is the weather reporter."

Because he was among the first to articulate this sensibility in commercial fiction, Gibson is regarded--however reluctantly--as cyberpunk's founding father. But the 39-year-old Vancouver, Canada, writer does not look like the leather-clad literary terrorist his fans and detractors often expect. Thin and lanky, his manner low-key and affable, Gibson is still faintly embarrassed by the success of his first novel.

After devouring the literature of William Burroughs, Thomas Pynchon and J. G. Ballard, Gibson said he eventually returned to his roots. "I came to the conclusion that we need something like science fiction to describe the world we live in. And it never occurred to me that 'Neuromancer' was anything other than science fiction. I just never expected it to be well-received. It didn't seem to play with the usual deck."

With its punk sensibilities and noir outlook, the movement he inspired is not without its detractors. David Brin of Los Angeles, a science-fiction writer and astrophysicist, calls Gibson the "most brilliant metaphorist in the English language" but is critical of the pessimism and pretension of cyberpunk.

"I have never seen a better-managed campaign by a group of young writers claiming they invented things they never invented," he said. "The gritty, rhythmic style, the emphasis of metaphor overlaid by metaphor, the glitzy, high-tech future, the predominance of style and gloss over plot--these were done better by people like John Brunner, J. G. Ballard and the late Alfred Bester years ago.

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