At the very start of our discussion of Gibson’s stories, we touched on the difficulty of the stories (perhaps especially “Burning Chrome”). This opacity is, among other things, a mark of Gibson’s affinity both for science fiction’s “New Wave.” Stylistic difficulty or technical sophistication of any kind signals an affinity for the more self-consciously literary, “advanced” currents in SF, the elements that seek to place the best SF alongside experiments in consecrated Literary genres; in the 1980s, these experimental currents, visible across the arts, could plausibly be called “postmodernism.” Mark McGurl’s The Program Era renames the body of writing that includes Thomas Pynchon, John Barth, and latterly David Foster Wallace and Richard Powers “technomodernism,” a label which already hints at a potential affinity with science fiction, which however is always limited by the forces that maintain the boundary getween “genre fiction” and the Literary.
Compare Sterling’s preface:
Gibson’s extrapolative techniques are those of classic hard SF, but his demonstration of them is pure New Wave. (xiii)
This comment attempts to split the difference, crediting Gibson with affinities for both “classic” and advanced SF. Actually, Gibson’s writing (unlike Sterling’s) bears very little resemblance to “hard” SF, which is rather his complement or rival on the field of 1980s SF. Gibson’s own view of the “extrapolation” idea of SF is plain in “Time Machine Cuba”—or, for that matter, in “The Gernsback Continuum.”
But to return to style: Gibson’s distinctive texture at the level of the sentence as well as his flamboyantly tangled plots mark him out in the field of SF. These are just as much his signature as the “cyberpunk” thematics of computer hackers, machine-human fusion, the grimy but not post-apocalyptic near-future setting, etc. And in fact, as his career goes on, Gibson gradually abandons many of these thematics, writing novels set nearer and nearer to our present, while keeping his stylistic signature. (After nine novels Gibson reboots and goes for a more emphatically SF setting in the time-travel novel The Peripheral ). On the style, I think we caught many of the important effects but didn’t say enough about the significance of the proper name: Ono-Sendai, Zeiss Ikon, Cyberspace Seven…or the first sentence of “Johnny Mnemonic”:
I put the shotgun in an Adidas bag and padded it out with four pairs of tennis socks, not my style at all, but that was what I was aiming for. (1)
The appearance of “Adidas” here is a Gibson trademark (ha ha): brands, actual and imaginary, are absolutely central to the way he conjures a world. Branding, too, can create forms of cultural capital, and no one is more self-conscious than Gibson about the way a literary style can also be a brand. Or a genre. Remember that on the first handout I gave you, I included this line of Gibson’s:
I am, by trade, a science-fiction writer. That is, the fiction I’ve written so far has arrived at the point of consumption via a marketing mechanism called “science fiction.” (“Rocket Radio,” Rolling Stone, June 15, 1989: 87.)
Gibson is highly self-conscious about marketing labels and his own imbrication in the system of production and consumption of cultural goods, and he endows his coolest protagonists with the same self-consciousness. This self-consciousness is among other things a mode of consumption: “not my style at all, but that was what I was aiming for.” Indeed, coolness in Gibson is never separable from an ironic self-awareness of the limitations of irony as a way of freeing oneself from a cultural and economic system. (This argument is a riff on Lee Konstantinou’s reading of later Gibson in Cool Characters: Irony and America Fiction [Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2017]).
I think many of you were responding to these attitudes in our discussion of Gibson’s way of representing the capitalist system—that is, as a system which appears to have no “outside,” since it is capable of absorbing and repurposing any form of subversion, whether individual resistance or global-scale organized crime, as just another variety of production, trade, and (especially) consumption. I sensed that our seminar was making an individious comparison to Le Guin’s explicit representation of a whole non-capitalist world.
It’s certainly true that Gibson begins publishing in an era where capitalist global dominance seems much more assured than it had fifteen years before, and where the radical hopes of the counterculture seemed of the have come to nothing. Gibson’s biography is relevant, inasmuch as he literally did go to California after leaving high school in Virginia in 1968, joining in the mind-alteration phase of the counterculture, before ending up in Canada and out of the reach of the Vietnam draft. Biographically, if you are looking for what lies outside of Reaganite capitalist imperialism in William Gibson, it is: Vancouver. (That’s only a joke, of course; cf. Gibson’s Spook Country . But I think Gibson’s novels, starting with Neuromancer, would surprise many of you with their tendency to imagine world-altering change as already in progress.)
It seems to me our discussions all semester have been bedeviled by questions about the outsides of institutions and systems. Science fiction as an “outside” to consecrated literature. Fandom as an “outside” to credentialed literary evaluation. A New Wave as an “outside” to conventional, putatively repressive SF. And then, in imagination: an “outside” to capitalism itself: the Venus of The Space Merchants, the Anarres of The Dispossessed. This metaphor has the tendency to cement a belief that resistance, change, or even just difference can only be found in the outside. It underestimates the degree to which any complex social system is constituted by opposing forces and elaborate internal differentiations. It also overestimates the significance of “outsides” with respect to what goes on “inside.” Le Guin’s Dispossessed, in a remarkably cold and pessimistic way, affirms the radical limitations of the capacity of even a fully constituted non-capitalist “outside” to act on a capitalist inside, and postpones to an unnarrateable future any process of systemic change.
All that suggests to me we will need to think harder about alternatives to mental maps that only have an inside and outside. Pierre Bourdieu’s theory provides one possibility, by allowing us to think about overlapping and nesting social fields, each constituted by struggles over specific forms of capital. But I’ll just leave you with a pointer to Erik Olin Wright’s typology of four “strategic logics of anticapitalism,” summarized in How to Be an Anticapitalist Today, Jacobin, December 2015. Onwards to Butler, who will not provide an escape from a single one of these problems.