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William Gibson's Second Sight : In Meetings of Man and Machine, Ecstacy and Dread, the Cyberpunk Guru Divines the Future

September 12, 1993|LAURENCE B. CHOLLET | Laurence B. Chollet is a free-lance writer based in the New York City area.

A good deal of William Gibson's peculiar gift rests in what has been called "The White Wall Thing." It's a relatively simple concept: Show Gibson a large white wall and have him tell you what he sees. It is virtually certain the wall he sees is not the wall you see. And the more he tells you about his wall, the more your wall will change. You'll see, perhaps, that it isn't white, but some kind of strange, opaque chrome. It's not a wall but a door. And it's covered with some kind of clear artificial flesh--factory-second stuff from a botched vat-job, now good only for shingles.

It's fascinating to watch how effortlessly Gibson can find ways to say the wall is not white. It's unsettling, too, because invariably he generates ideas that raise haunting, complex questions. Take his vision of high-definition television. Looking beyond those who either see it as the new industry of the 1990s or as the beginning of an unprecedented Age of Surveillance, Gibson just sees Marge with her housecoat on, hair up in curlers, having a great time--with Fred.

"We have people addicted to the soaps today," Gibson says in his soft Virginia drawl. "But in the real future it will be something like: Marge is in this interactive relationship with her television set and it actually talks to her. She comes in and sits down and it says, 'Hi, Marge, how are you? You look like you need a drink. Gosh, I was talking to Fred today and he said'--and of course Fred doesn't exist, but that doesn't matter because it's like only for her. (The TV) knows her name, and the longer she watches it, the more it knows about her."

Gibson has brought his peculiar vision to bear in his latest novel, "Virtual Light," which was published in August. It's set in the near future and centers on Berry Rydell, an ex-cop from Knoxville, Tenn., who is looking for professional redemption working as a rent-a-cop in Los Angeles. He winds up in San Francisco, tracking down a pair of mysterious sunglasses, which have been stolen by a young bicycle messenger, Chevette Washington. That's where the real story begins. The sunglasses, in fact, are virtual-light glasses--glasses that contain a multinational corporation's plan to redevelop San Francisco. And they mean big money to whoever wears them.

The book is a significant departure from Gibson's earlier, more futuristic works. He describes the plot as "Elmore Leonard meets the 21st Century": The characters are relatively normal, they even hold real jobs and the future is pretty recognizable. The Bay Bridge, for example, is still around in "Virtual Light." But it's been taken over by the disenfranchised--hustlers, gangsters, the homeless--who have transformed the lower roadways into street bazaars reminiscent of 19th-Century Istanbul, and erected jury-rigged housing in the bridge's superstructure. His Los Angeles is populated by immigrant Mongolian throat-singers working at carwashes and by rent-a-cops like Sublett, who is "a refugee from some weird trailer-camp video-sect . . . people (who) figured video was the Lord's preferred means of communicating, the screen itself a kind of perpetually burning bush."

This is Gibson's first solo novel in five years, and once again it seems he is trying to push the limits of his work. He earned his audience with short stories in the science-fiction magazines, made his name with "Neuromancer" in 1984 and gained an international reputation with his next two books, "Count Zero" and "Mona Lisa Overdrive." He then quit cyberspace to spend two years with a close friend, Bruce Sterling, writing "The Difference Engine," a novel set in a fantastical Victorian England that had invented a steam-driven computer.

Determined to keep exploring new forms, Gibson collaborated with two architects, Craig Hodgetts and Ming Fung, on the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art's 1990 "Visionary San Francisco" exhibit of architectural drawings and renderings. All of this defies the prevailing publishing wisdom, which virtually commands a writer to find a niche and mine it. But then Gibson, an orphan from the South who went to Canada to evade the draft, has never fit traditional molds. He still prides himself on being just a "science-fiction writer."

Now, at just 45, he's known worldwide, books are being written on him and he's in demand to speak at virtually any conference that has the word future in it. But he doesn't consider himself a prophet, and he's not really interested in technology--any kind of technology--except as a metaphor. His real gift, say people like his friend Hodgetts, a Santa Monica architect, is to see what is happening today. As Hodgetts explains it, Gibson sees a discarded motor by the road and it winds up in "Virtual Light" running an elevator on the Bay Bridge that connects the bazaars on the roadways to the shanties in the superstructure.

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