Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Meeting William Gibson

Not many novelists bring out the fanboy in me, but Gibson is one of them. Neuromancer was, literally, the book that changed my life. It's why I decided to become a computer programmer.

In the summer of 1986 I was a disillusioned History student about to become a disillusioned History graduate. I had finished my finals, I had no job lined up and I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life. It was in this state of aimlessness that - inspired by an article by William Leith in the NME - I purchased Neuromancer. It was the first pure SF novel I had read in years and it was completely gripping. I can still recall the adrenal rush of the last few chapters, racing through them just to discover how the story ended.

I had read SF as an adolescent but discovering JG Ballard had derailed me: nothing else in the genre could quite match the intensity of his prose. At university I had read mainly non-fiction: there was so much reality to discover, it seemed pointless to read to stuff people had made up. When I was studying European heresy my tutor John Critchley advised me to read Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose (I was chuffed to explain to him that the blind librarian Jorge of Burgos was a reference to Jorge Luis Borges, because that joke had passed him by). I also read Mishima because I did courses on both medieval and modern Japan, and he seemed appropriate. For light relief I read Italo Calvino's short stories and the Blandings novels of P.G.Wodehouse.

I realise that list probably makes me sound like an insufferable prick. But then I probably was an insufferable prick at university, so that's fair.

I'm not going to do a review here. I presume everybody who reads blogs has read Neuromancer. If that's not the case stop reading this right now and go read it. Like most SF it has dated but not as badly as some. Few SF authors have changed the world. My quasi-namesake Arthur C Clarke did, with his invention of the geosynchronous satellite, but largely his vision has not been realised. No lunar explorers have disinterred mysterious black slabs because there are no bases on the moon. Heck, nobody's even been to the moon for over thirty years. Whereas it's a measure of the impact Gibson's writing has had on the world that he has stopped writing SF and moved into regular fiction without any meaningful change of tone or subject matter. (I guess Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Michael Dell, Larry Ellison and others have also had something to do with it).

Gibson's insight was to take the glamour which traditionally attached to spaceships and astronauts and transfer it to computers and programmers, who were - it's fair to say - not glamourous. At Exeter the Comp Sci students were pimply-faced youths in brown and beige, as boring as accountants. In fact, more boring: at least there were some girls amongst the accountancy students. Neuromancer changed that image by making computers cool, sexy and edgy. Which is why it has had such a profound effect on modern life. All over the world, pimply-faced youths in brown and beige set about immanentising a world in which computers - and by extension the people who worked with them - were cool sexy and edgy.

Neuromancer was Gibson's first novel. In 1986 it was a bit frustrating to discover that there wasn't anything else to read by him. I just had to wait until Count Zero came out. On the other hand it does mean that every few years there is a new novel to look forward to.

So today I joined the line of people to buy a signed copy of Gibson's new novel, Spook Country, at Forbidden Planet. I told him I was grateful to him for writing Neuromancer because it had directed me into a career in software development. His face crinkled with recognition. "Oh you're one of those guys," he said. Yep, I'm one of those guys.

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Blogger William Robertson said...

Damn, wish I'd known he was signing copies today. (Or rather, I wish my wife had known, as Spook Country is on my birthday wishlist.) Nobody tells me anything.

29 August 2007 at 10:59:00 GMT-7  
Blogger Joel Garry said...

I met Ray Bradbury when he did a reading in a local library (Oceanside, CA). He claims not to be a science fiction writer, except for Fahrenheit Four Five One.

I had already been one of those guys for half-a-dozen years when Neuromancer came out. Great book. Recently noticed I still have it.

word: tthns
word: hiditbox

29 August 2007 at 16:27:00 GMT-7  
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