Going Back to Gibson - the Sprawl trilogy

Toby Frost

Well-Known Member
Jan 22, 2008
Ah, cyberpunk. A sub-genre so cool that the characters don’t just wear sunglasses at night – they have them surgically implanted. I first read William Gibson's Neuromancer when I was about 12, back in the days when science fiction characters didn’t swear or have workable genitals, and remembered little about it except the rude words and the difficulty in understanding what it was actually about. Count Zero followed, when I was 16 or so, and Mona Lisa Overdrive in my early twenties. Since then I’ve read all of them at least once again, and recently been through the whole Sprawl trilogy.

The remarkable thing about the Sprawl books is how fresh they still feel. A lot of the SF ideas in them are now old hat, pinched by novels, films and games to the point where most people who don’t know the term “cyberpunk” would know its look. But they don’t feel dated, even when they’re incorrect. The characters have a quirky, tough quality that owes more to noir crime novels than older science fiction. The technology avoids clichés – humanoid robots, starships, laser guns – to create new types of monster, like Hideo or 3Jane in Neuromancer or Virek in Count Zero. The little mistakes don’t matter. The frequency of faxes, and the complete lack of mobile phones, are telling. But the characters don’t suffer for it, and the stories don’t either.

Gibson makes a couple of larger errors, as well. He subscribes to the rather quaint notion that Japan would end up owning absolutely everything, and that somehow the Yakuza would control most of the world – presumably an extrapolation of Japan’s post-war boom and its technological edge in the 70s and 80s (it’s always an error to extrapolate that the most dynamic powers of a time will continue unchecked, as proven by the fact that I’m not writing in German Gothic script, Russian Cyrillic or Japanese Kanji). He also fails to predict the corporate ownership of so much of cyberspace: companies like Google and Facebook have practical monopolies in their areas, if not literal ones. Perhaps this will change by 2070, or the increasing skill of hackers and programmers will turn it into a Wild West again – or maybe they’ll just end up working for Apple.

The prose is stark, to put it mildly: a friend of mine described Neuromancer as a brilliant novel from which a fifth of the words had been deleted at random. Gibson’s description of cyberspace is rather odd – a highly glamorised version of a primitive virtual reality game, really – and at points it reads like the sleeve notes on one of Captain Beefheart’s wackier albums. But all the way through, there’s a sense that Gibson just doesn’t pause for breath. One idea comes after another, quick and punchy, until suddenly the novel’s over, a fair chunk of the cast are dead, and the characters go their separate and seedy ways. Sometimes the ideas aren’t depicted fully enough, but when they do work, they’re very powerful. Perhaps it is because of this compacted, abbreviated style that you seem to notice something new each time you read the books, whether it’s Case running out of fake tan, or the Finn quoting the blues singer Doctor John.

And sometimes Gibson does write very good prose. The famous description of the sky as being the colour of a television tuned to no channel sticks in my mind. The opening paragraphs of Count Zero are fantastic, full of unfamiliar terms but still capable of creating a powerful mental image. There’s a real feeling of grimy detail: I can imagine the grotty, unconvincing plastic of Ratz’s mechanical arm, or the nasty colour of Leon’s fake eyes. When Gibson is on the mark, which he often is, he writes sentences that Raymond Chandler could have produced.

Which brings me onto the fact that Gibson doesn’t condemn. His world is pretty awful: if you’re in the gutter, like Mona in Mona Lisa Overdrive, it’s absolutely foul. Corruption is endemic; the rich are as merciless as Renaissance princes without the culture, and in some cases literally not quite human. The only way to survive is to sell yourself as an indentured minion of a zaibatsu super-corporation, effectively a serf in a suit, or to become skilled and lethal enough to cut it as a freelancer – until you lose your edge. In other words, it’s a caricature of our own world, perhaps with slightly less surveillance. It’s a rotten dystopia, but Gibson’s characters are just part of it, able to keep themselves and their friends alive, but not to change the system.

To my mind, what actually keeps these books fresh and good is the quality of the characterisation. Many of the characters are just sketches, and some are outright freaks, but they are all natural products of their setting, like the inhabitants of Gormenghast. Like the Groan family, the best of Gibson’s characters would be interesting to watch just going about their daily lives – which is fortunate, since the plotting is, to put it very kindly, dense. With the exception of two slightly dull mercenaries, his leads are all fascinating people.

There’s a mention in Neuromancer of life in Chiba City being like an experiment in social Darwinism conducted by a bored researcher with one finger jammed on the fast-forward button. That sums up the Sprawl trilogy for me: high-speed, populated with bizarre but credible places and people, at times almost too rapid to comprehend.
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I think you are absolutely on the mark with this mini-blog about Gibson, and I've also just reread Neuromancer for probably the third time.

I think what strikes me is that as you say he gets some bits wrong but because he was first in the genre he could get away with it, and people accepted his vision as 'the reality' - a bit like Bladerunner's future LA has become THE future LA.

His view of the corporate world being the bad, uncaring, faceless driver of all things bad does ring true though; and his later books continue the theme throughout.

His prose can be electric - in one passage in Spook Country one of the characters describes a VW Phaeton as a 'Cadillac tank' which I thought was a brilliant use of two words instead of a sentence.

In my opinion there are few others who have been able to attempt cyberpunk with any real success - maybe only Jon Courtney Grimwood, or Bruce Sterling have managed it. Most others are just a pale imitation.
Yes, I agree. I think it's difficult to write cyberpunk (or a lot of sub-genres) without seeming to copy or parody what's already been done. Maybe it's necessary to introduce some other aspect, the way Bladerunner introduces noir. After all, Neuromancer is a crime caper when you take out the SF elements. One thing I really like about Gibson - and I suppose cyberpunk in general - is that it takes technology, and in a way the future itself*, out of the hands of technicians, officials and elite soldiers and shows you people not just operating it, but adapting it for their own purposes.

*That sounds really pretentious.
Just glancing through Count Zero, my favourite of the Sprawl trilogy, I was struck by a strange kind of optimism in Gibson's future that seems very much in contrast to our present. Although I stick by my comment that the world of the Sprawl is pretty awful, there is a sense in all three books that a person with the right balance of skills, independence, ruthlessness and integrity can survive and prosper. It's a world that has to be grappled with, but if you can grapple with it, it's open for the taking. Contrast this with our own world, where most people have no idea how the technology they use works, are locked into contracts, loans and mortgages and will be lucky to do anything except make their bosses richer and then die in moderate comfort. Perhaps the zaibatsu employees feel the same level of helplessness as modern citizens. There's a sense in cyberpunk of "Do what you like" which seems deeply in opposition to our present society, whose slogan might as well be "You can't do that".

There's even something optimistic about the villains - not progressive, as such, but at least forward-thinking. Josef Virek wants to be more than human, to advance through technology. The main villains of the real world - Islamic extremists and their fellow travellers - want the exact opposite: to reset the world to a mixture of the 1930s and the dark ages (and to be the one with the whip and the droit de seignor, of course). In the modern era, you may be murdered because a vapid sadist wanted to kill someone vaguely like you to please his god. In the Sprawl, you have some kind of control over your destiny. The odds of being murdered might actually be higher, but at least it's personal and has some sort of meaning.

Overall, I would prefer to be in this dystopia instead of Gibson's dystopia, but I wonder how appealing the Sprawl will look in 50 years' time.

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