Future According to William Gibson
This paper provides an overview of the science fiction works of William Gibson as proof of his accuracy in predicting the future. A section is provided that shows other franchises’ take on a possible future but reveals that they are more fantastical than practical. The final section talks about the bleeding edge of science and references two authors who are looking to use science and technology to further the lifespan of humanity by transcending biology. It then ties their findings back to what Gibson had already been writing about.
William Ford Gibson was born in South Carolina in 1948. His father passed away when he was just six years old and his mother died about ten years later. After he lost his father, his mother relocated back to her hometown of Wytheville, Virginia, taking young William with her. As this was the mid to late-Fifties, he says that the modern technology of the time was not well-received in the town in which he now found himself. He encountered in the citizens of Wytheville a sort of “future shock”, to quote Alvin Toffler. His response to this, he says, is what drove him to invert and to begin reading science fiction; his desire to write it began around age 12. When his mother passed, the Sixties were in full swing. During his late teens, he drifted across the US, eventually winding up in Canada where he earned a degree in English at the University of British Columbia.
Gibson has published twelve books to date: ten novels (nine of which comprise three trilogies), one collection of short fiction, and another collection of non-fiction essays. He has also written a book with friend and author Bruce Sterling, called The Difference Engine, an alternate history novel set in the mid-19th century. The setting of his fiction (with the exception of his collaboration with Sterling and his third trilogy) has always been the near future. The scope of his stories, however, is not so far out that one cannot see in them the present day and age as well. With reference to this, he says he was taught (presumably at college) that “…imaginary futures are always, regardless of what the authors might think, about the day in which they’re written (Gibson, 2012).” Furthermore, his characterizations are varied and exceptionally well-drawn.
This paper is not titled The Future According to William Gibson. Rather, it omits
the article “the” to show that when thinking about and looking at “the future”, it behooves people to read William Gibson’s past work and also to look out for what he will be publishing down the road. To date, Gibson’s books have provided a glimpse into a future that has happened in many ways as he described.
This being said, Gibson, for all of the effort he has put in to showing his readers a possible future, has said that he is not “a didactic writer.” He said that he is not “couching some sort of message in prose fiction (Neale, 2000).” However, if one looks back on the futuristic points made in the books that he has written and published, they will see that he has been more right than wrong and that he is someone worth listening to and reading when it comes to knowing how technology will continue to affect the world.
Gibson’s first novel was called Neuromancer. Published in 1984, it tells its story in a world where the internet is likened to another dimension, one that humans have access to by “jacking in” and then navigating around with their consciousness. That world continues on in the sequel Count Zero in which one of the characters declares “Sure, it’s just a tailored hallucination we all agree to have, Cyberspace, but anybody who jacks in knows…it’s a whole universe (Count Zero, 1986).” That same character labels Cyberspace (as imagined and illustrated by Gibson): “Mankind’s unthinkably complex consensual hallucination.” This is not too far a cry from the interconnected web pages that humanity is viewing on little screens around the world. The trilogy ends with the novel Mona Lisa Overdrive. Gibson has said that the trilogy—officially known as The Sprawl Trilogy—was set in the 2030s (Distrust, 2012).
His second trilogy begins with Virtual Light, set in 2006. As it was published in 1993, one futuristic element in that book is virtual reality. While virtual reality had been in use prior to his writing it, he fleshes it out and predicts through the storyline that it will take shape and be a locale through which information is transferred and garnered and manipulated, much like his version of Cyberspace. Today, virtual reality visors are being mass-produced by Google and other third parties such as Oculus. Some visors are paired with cell phones whose screens provide the image.
The second book in the trilogy that began with Virtual Light, is titled Idoru. The third book is called All Tomorrow’s Parties.
Gibson’s third trilogy begins with 2003’s Pattern Recognition. The timeline for this story was based in the present world, post 9/11. The book’s release predates YouTube (About, 2005) and it deals with the emergence of internet video. The novel also deals with corporate branding and perception. The second title in the trilogy is Spook Country, about war profiteering and the third, titled Zero History, is about forthcoming trends in fashion. Zero History also develops a character who for the past ten years has been off the grid, recovering from a serious benzoate addiction. His name is Milgrim and he emerges back into society with what is essentially a blank-slate mind, hence the title of the book.
As we all know, the opening line to Star Wars is, “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.” This expression indicates that all the technologically advanced and fantastical gadgetry shown is actually taking place elsewhere and before our time. It is therefore not practical to look to the Star Wars universe to see what’s coming in the future, simply put. While there are certain elements in George Lucas’ franchise that lend themselves to scrutiny and study—such as an understanding of the Mythic Structure¹—Star Wars is, for the most part, fantasy.
Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek is a contender for studying up on future-prediction. The Star Trek storyline, unlike Star Wars, takes place—at least initially—in our solar system during the 23rd century and after. The technologies displayed for the viewer are more plausible than Star Wars, with handheld communicators and portable health computers aiding in medical science. We have already developed things like this today, far before the 23rd century. The overall tenor of the franchise, however, is more fantastical in feel. Gibson’s body of work takes place in a nearer future and deals with an incremental advance in technology that feels truer to life. There aren’t any alien races to be found in Gibson’s work either, so there is less requisite suspension of disbelief.
Fast-forward about 500 years from our own timeline and one will enter the chronological setting for the Halo franchise. The storyline of Halo deals with the augmentation of humans in order to produce super-soldiers. These super-soldiers (called “spartans”) are warring against a group of seven different alien races (including a zombie-virus element) intent on the destruction of the human race. While that part of the Halo scenario requires a lot of suspension of disbelief, its depiction of technology and artificial intelligence is more in line with what technology may become, based on what it
¹ Mythologist Joseph Campbell was highly influential in the formation of the Star Wars universe. It is this writer’s opinion that much of the popularity of Star Wars is due to the fact that it takes very base elements of human nature and primal storytelling (such as what is found in the mythologies the world over) and retells them in a cosmic, galaxy-wide scope.
is now. One of the main characters of the Halo series is an AI construct named “Cortana”. The Halo franchise is owned by Microsoft and in 2015, they released Cortana as their answer to Apple’s Siri as a personal digital assistant.
One can see, from these three sources of futurism, that a suspension of disbelief is required in order to see their scenarios as plausible. While Star Trek, and Halo take real elements from the present and push them out into the far future, Gibson’s writing is grounded in the technologies of the present as they might be extrapolated out into the near future. While one may not be inclined to look to the stars, as in astrology², or to certain other types of Science Fiction (well-written and entertaining as they may be), the works of William Gibson provide the reader with well-thought out and intelligent speculation as to what might happen based on what is happening now. As one reads through the oeuvre of William Gibson, they will see that the future that he writes about is getting closer, if not already upon us. He is quoted in The Economist periodical as saying “The future is already here—it’s just not very evenly distributed.”
The most prescient piece that Gibson has produced comes from his collection of short stories entitled Burning Chrome. It is simply one word. In the title story, published in 1982, the
²The Barnum Effect says that people will take something like a fortune from a fortune cookie or a horoscope and believe what they read simply because it contains an element about themselves that is more ambiguous than true with reference to their own life. Historian Will Durant says of Nostradamus: “At his own death (1566) he left a book of prophecies so wisely ambiguous that some one or another could be applied to almost any event in later history (Durant, 1957).”
word “Cyberspace” appears for the first time. He says in the introduction to the British edition of Burning Chrome that he wrote the word using a felt-tip pen on a yellow legal pad. The rest is history. He says that he’d “gotten to a point in [his] early fiction…where [he] needed a buzz word. It needed to replace the “rocketship" and the “holodeck” with something else that would be a signifier of technological change (Neale, 2000).” He says that he wanted an “evocative and essentially meaningless” word to further, not just the story, but also the style of fiction he was trying to write. The word “cyberspace” ended up becoming another label for what is known as “the World Wide Web.” For this reason alone, it is worth reading and listening to what he has to say about technology, the world, and the future.
The Wachowski siblings’ Matrix franchise looks a lot like Gibson’s first trilogy. In contrast to Gibson’s setting, the characters in the Matrix series of films are “jacking in” to another reality while their bodies lay prone and comatose in outside dimension. The characters in Gibson’s series, however, maintain the use of their body while their minds “surf” the data in the matrix (a word that appeared in the series, without a capital “m”). When one reads the Sprawl Trilogy, it’s as if they are reading an alternate timeline to what has actually happened in the real world thus far—far more revealing and prescient than The Matrix. It’s one way that things could have turned out—and may yet. We should be reading his books and learning from what he has to say.
A main theme of the Sprawl Trilogy is something known as “conurbation.” This means that many cities have coalesced into one mega-city. Much of the story (when not in Cyberspace) takes place in a locale that stretches the length of the Eastern Seaboard, from New Jersey to Florida. While the trilogy doesn’t talk about space or time travel, some of the plot extends out into a space station orbiting earth.
A fictional celebrity named Tally Isham figures throughout the trilogy. She has a perfect body and even mechanical eyes to replace the ones with which she was born. The main character of Mona Lisa Overdrive is able, through a projected tabloid experience, to virtually inhabit Isham’s body and live the A-list lifestyle. This is not too far a cry from the phone-app games that feature the Kardashians or Selena Gomez in all their glory. Nor is it that different from reality television where the viewer can live in the world of the rich and famous—if only for an hour a week, as in the case of the ever-recycling crop of reality programs.
Midway through Mona Lisa Overdrive, Angie asks Continuity (the name of the AI in the house in which she’s staying) about “When It Changed”. The term “When It Changed” is the name for the worldwide event that predates the Sprawl Trilogy and encompasses all the activity that gives rise to the fictional setting Gibson presents for his readers. Angie asks “How recent?” did things change and Continuity answers: “Approximately fifteen years.” If the trilogy is set in the 2030s, that places the time for “When It Changed” around 2016.
Gibson was writing about these things in the 1980s. He said in 2000, regarding his earlier work, that he “struggle[d] to recognize and accept that the heart is the master and the head is the servant. And that that [sic] is always the case except when it isn’t the case we’re in deep, deep trouble (Neale, 2000).” His earlier work, while uncannily prescient for the way that urban and technological life on earth ended up turning out, has an edge to it that softened over the years. During that time, many attempts have been made to translate Neuromancer to film, all unsuccessful.
His second trilogy is called The Bridge Trilogy. In the mid-2000s, a giant earthquake (dubbed “Godzilla”) has leveled Tokyo. He talks about what are known as “nano-assemblers” that, little by little, incrementally rebuild the infrastructure of the city. Nanomechanical engineering is presently well-established in medicine and in some manufacturing (Moore, 2014). However, the scale at which Gibson employs the technology has not yet happened.
In America, another earthquake has broken off the San Francisco Bay Bridge from its approaches and on-land anchors. Transients have turned this scaffolding into an off-the-grid, favela-style community with apartments and shops and other nooks. One of the main characters is a bike messenger with an ultra-light cycle frame made from paper. The first cardboard bicycle was manufactured in 2012, merely a few years from Gibson’s prediction (Wilson, 2012). This is another element to one of his stories that has come true, further proving that he somehow knows the future. We should be reading and listening to this man.
Colin Laney is one of the main protagonists of Idoru, the second title in the Bridge Trilogy. He has the ability to ingest massive amounts of raw data and filter out what he calls “nodal points”, that is, the pieces of information that foreshadow forthcoming events. He says, regarding his talent that “It’s not crazy. It’s something to do with how I process low-level, broad-spectrum input. Something to do with pattern-recognition (Idoru, 1996).” Gibson said a similar thing in an interview regarding his own process for prediction: “Laney’s node-spotter function [from Idoru] is some sort of metaphor for whatever it is that I actually do. There are bits of the literal future right here, right now, if you know how to look for them. Although I can’t tell you how; it’s a non-rational process (Johnson, 1999).” Here, Gibson sheds a little light on how he does what he does, how he is able to show a possible future with startling accuracy.
Another plot point to the trilogy is mega-stardom. Supporting character Rez of the Japanese Pop-Punk band Lo/Rez is globally famous on the order of Michael Jackson’s American stardom during the eighties. In an effort to incline his trajectory, so to speak, and become something beyond famous, he looks to marry a digitally-created woman. Her name is Rei Toei, and she is known as the Idoru (a Japanese transliteration of the English “idol”). While the nanotechnology in the book would allow for her to be realized in a manufactured body, she doesn’t actually end up marrying Rez—virtually or otherwise. Interestingly enough, in 2009, a Japanese man (in the real world) did marry a character from a video game (Lah, 2009). The man was not a celebrity and the situation was somewhat different than depicted in the book. It does go to show, however, that Gibson’s perception was keyed into what would happen in the future. This is yet another reason to read and listen to what he has to say.
Author Martine Rothblatt published Virtually Human in 2014. In this book she talks about how she created a “mindfile” of her late wife. Rothblatt explains in detail what it takes to “make a mind”, garnering every piece of digital information collected and collated and that is digitally augmented to produce a semblance or likeness of Bina, her late spouse. Rothblatt is an adherent to the Terasem Movement, which is at the forefront of studying what it takes to upload the mind into a virtual space. The thrust of the Terasem Movement is a desire to escape the limitations of the human body. In the case of Rei Toei, “she” is projected into the room through a cylindrical device (much like the character Cortana from the Halo series). As the third book begins, the reader learns that Rei, the Idoru, has been apprehending more and more what it’s like to be human, specifically a human in the early 21st century. She is no less interactive nor intelligent than her human counterparts, however. Siri and Cortana—the digital assistants found in our smartphones today—don’t quite match the intelligence and realism as did Rei. However, they are on the way to becoming more and more human-like. Martine Rothblatt and others are actively looking to do what Gibson was talking about in the character of Rei Toei from the Bridge Trilogy.
Another plot point in the trilogy is the fictional Lucky Dragon convenience store chain. In a small, inconspicuous chapter buried in the body of the book, a white van pulls up to each one of the international Lucky Dragon stores. The front of each store boasts a wall of screens showing video feed from random Lucky Dragons around the world. A technician steps out of the van and then installs a 3D printer in each of the stores. Toward the end of the book, Rei (a main character in her own right at this point in the trilogy) replicates herself, using the newly-installed 3D printer at each one of the Lucky Dragon stores. In one of the final chapters of the book, she steps out of the printer at the Lucky Dragon nearest the Bay Bridge. The latter part of the chapter also depicts each of her copies simultaneously stepping out of each of the Lucky Dragon stores internationally. If Rothblatt succeeds in digitally recreating the mind of her late wife, going forward and actually re-humanizing her would happen in a similar manner to Rei Toei’s emergence into the world.
Visionary author and computer scientist Ray Kurzweil, in his 2012 book entitled How to Create a Mind, puts forth his “Pattern Recognition Theory of Mind”. In the early chapters of the book, he begins at Einstein with physics and works up from there to chemistry and biology (citing Darwin). The apex of this evolutionary process, he says, is the human brain. The brain, he goes on to describe throughout the book, may be near-infinitely complex, but it runs on a simple pattern-recognition algorithm. Kurzweil further elaborates on his theory in his book. In another example of seemingly-effortless prescience, Gibson titled his first-ever contemporary novel (released in 2003) Pattern Recognition. Furthermore, Kurzweil is responsible for popularizing the term “The Singularity” which simply means that biology and technology will become one.
While there is no futurism to be found in Gibson’s third trilogy, it is probably his most important series of books. The reason this is true is because they help lay a thoughtful, incisive groundwork for looking at things society encounters today. Things like branding and logos and design (as in Pattern Recognition), to war profiteering and the religiously-fanatical mindset (Spook Country) to fashion and paranoia (Zero History). Furthermore, Gibson’s writing is supremely polished and terse-yet-descriptive by this point. Another reason to read the Blue Ant Trilogy (the official name for this one) is for pure pleasure.
The well-known phrase “Those who do not learn from the mistakes of the past are doomed to repeat them” is true. However, in reading Gibson, if one hasn’t learned the lessons of the future, they are bound to. Just reading his stories and processing all the information the he funnels into his plots will make someone smarter. Kurzweil says that humans have upwards of 300 million pattern recognizers in their neocortex (Kurzweil, 2012). He says that’s all the human neocortex is: a bunch of pattern recognizers doing their thing. Very simply put, we are looking at things and discerning to the best of our ability how to respond to what is coming. Kurzweil says “Envisaging the future is one of the primary reasons we have a neocortex” (How to Create a Mind, 52).
Published in 2014, Gibson’s latest book is called The Peripheral. It deals in two timelines, both futuristic. The main character’s brother is a Marine and has enhancements in his skin that enable him to be a better soldier. Many times throughout the book, the main character transfers her consciousness from the earlier timeline (around 2020) to the further timeline (early 22nd century). Those two things—bodily enhancements and consciousness-transfer—seem like the stuff of fantasy right now. However, if Rothblatt and Kurzweil turn out to be accurate in the things they discuss in their respective books, Gibson will have already been writing about it. If one doesn’t understand the lessons of the future, they are bound to—by reading William Gibson.
About Youtube (2005, May). In YouTube. Retrieved March 6, 2016, from https://www.youtube.com/yt/about/
Durant, W., & Durant, A. (1957). The story of civilization VI the Reformation (p. 851). New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.
Gibson, W. (1999). All tomorrow's parties. New York, NY: G. P. Putnam's Sons.
On page 53, Gibson offhandedly refers to Detroit as a haven for wild animals (“They made a lot of nature shows there.”). That Detroit became essentially a farming community after the collapse of the auto industry further shows his prescience. For more on the fall of Detroit, see Detroit, An American Autopsy by Charlie LeDuff.
Gibson, W. (1987). Burning chrome (pp. 168-191). New York, NY: Ace Books.
Gibson, W. (1986). Count zero. New York, NY: Ace Books.
Several times throughout the book, reference is made to “print books” as a relic from the near past. While paper books have taken a serious back seat to e-books and e-readers, the January 25 issue of Publisher’s Weekly shows sales of hardcovers up 11% year to date.
Gibson, W. (2012). Distrust that particular flavor (pp. 22-45). N.p.: Berkley.
Gibson, W. (1996). Idoru. New York, NY: G. P. Putnam's Sons.
Gibson, W. (1988). Mona Lisa overdrive. N.p.: Voyager.
Gibson, W. (1984). Neuromancer. New York, NY: Ace Books.
Gibson, W. (2003). Pattern recognition. New York, NY: G. P. Putnam's Sons.
In the 12th chapter, protagonist Cayce Pollard recalls her father’s mention of aphophenia, “the spontaneous perception of connections and meaningfulness in unrelated things.” (p. 115) This is a sort-of inverse to pattern recognition, where the things that an individual notices mean nothing.
Gibson, W. (2014). The peripheral. N.p.: Penguin Books.
Gibson, W. (2007). Spook country. New York, NY: G. P. Putnam's Sons.
Gibson, W. (1993). Virtual light. N.p.: Bantam Books.
Gibson, W. (2010). Zero history. New York, NY: G. P. Putnam's Sons.
Johnson, A. (1999, August 1). William Gibson : all tomorrow's parties : waiting for the man. In Spike Magazine. Retrieved from http://www.spikemagazine.com/0899williamgibson.php
Kurzweil, R. (2012). How to create a mind. N.p.: Viking Penguin.
Kurzweil says on page 87 that “Being able to detect pattern in the world is absolutely crucial for survival. Pattern detection is required for classification, for understanding causal effects, for learning how to act in particular situations.” This, as well as trusting our intuitions and anything our religions (peacefully, of course) instruct us in is pretty much all we can do when looking to the future.
Lah, K. (2009, December 17). Tokyo man marries video game character. In CNN. Retrieved from http://www.cnn.com/2009/WORLD/asiapcf/12/16/japan.virtual.wedding/
Moore, N. C. (2014, October 10). U-M's $46M nanomechanical engineering labs open. In Michigan Engineering. Retrieved from http://www.engin.umich.edu/college/about/news/stories/2014/october/u-michigan2019s-46m-nanomechanical-engineering-labs-open
Neale, M. (Director). Gibson, W. (Actor). (2000). No maps for these territories [Online video]. Retrieved March 14, 2016, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pSnPa1mWgK0
Rothblatt, M. (2014). Virtually human. New York, NY: St. Martin’s.
Wilson, M. (2012, September 11). This $9 cardboard bike can support riders up to 485 lbs. In Fast Company Design. Retrieved from http://www.fastcodesign.com/1670753/this-9-cardboard-bike-can-support-riders-up-to-485lbs