Revisionist William Gibson

When I made yesterday’s entry, I intended to talk a bit about William Gibson‘s appearance at the Boulder Book Store last week. The reading took place in the large upstairs room of the store, which Gibson referred to as a “ballroom,” and the crowd had standing room only. I was fortunate enough to get there early since I work in Boulder, and I was rewarded with not only a good seat, but a low number for the book signing line.

Gibson read a chapter from his latest book, Pattern Recognition. Well, initially, I thought he was going to cough a chapter of it; something got hold of his throat and the water he drank to soothe it seemed to make the problem worse. Despite this, Gibson croaked on, and eventually he seemed to find his voice again. It was a bit surreal for a moment, more than a hundred of us sitting there silently listening to his amplified coughs reverberating through the store. I expected people to involuntarily clear their throats, but if anyone did, I didn’t hear it. There wasn’t much we could do, but it was an awkward moment in which I wanted to do something to help him, and didn’t.

The chapter was short, a bit shorter than the Q & A session afterward. I did manage to pose a question to him. The exchange went something like this (paraphrased, since I didn’t take notes):

SJ: You seem to have a talent for putting words together in unusual ways.  Are there any exercises you do to cultivate that talent?

WG:  Revision.  It’s all revision.  I write the drafts, then rework it until it’s right.  

That makes sense. Although I’m a big believer in revision, for some reason I continue to have the notion that Great Writers spew complete paragraphs forth, Zeus-like, from their heads. This personal myth is probably fueled by reports of Isaac Asimov and Ray Bradbury writing without revision, and surely, the more one writes, the easier it becomes to pre-form great sentences. But that’s no reason to expect that all successful writers write without revision; I’m glad Gibson reminded me that it’s not the case in his life. That makes me feel a little better about the level of his writing, too. It’s a bit more attainable now.

I haven’t read all of Pattern Recognition yet, but what I did read grabbed me. It’s Gibson’s first novel set in the present day, and it’s interesting how it still feels very much like a Gibson novel, despite the fact that no one has an input jack in his head and there are no major characters that are AIs. The evil international mega corporation backdrop is still there, but this time it takes the form of corporate branding á la Tommy Hilfiger. Heavy fragment use in writing, much like this sentence.

One notable difference is that September 11, 2001 plays a direct role in the development of the main character, Cayce Pollard. At his appearance, Gibson spoke at length about how he had completed 100 manuscript pages of the book before the attacks, and how the real world events utterly destroyed those pages of fiction. To be believable, Cayce Pollard had to be completely re-imagined as a result of the attacks, and the first 100 pages had to be re-written. He did so, and I think the revision contributed to the dark feel of the book. Reading this, I get the feeling it’s not such a big jump from Pattern Recognition to the shatterglass worlds of Neuromancer or Virtual Light.

I don’t know if that’s a good thing or not.



By: William Gibson

Type: Novel

Setting: Tokyo, when not in cyberspace


Idoru follows the actions of an intuitive ‘net surfer who is hired to investigate claims that one of the world’s fading rock stars is courting a Japanese virtual entertainer – the Idoru. The Idoru is an AI construct, and this gets some members of the rock star’s fan club in an uproar. 


Soft, soft, soft. The idea presented here has incredible potential, but Gibson treats it as if he were writing for Tiger Beat magazine. Instead of exploring the nuances of a romance between a human being and an AI construct, we see the story from the viewpoint of a disinterested ‘net mercenary and a teeny-bopper fan of Lo/Rez, the fading international rock duo. It is interesting how the two main characters don’t meet until almost the end of the book, but instead of creating an all encompassing dual storyline, it feels like Gibson had two separate storylines and couldn’t decide which one to run with.

The book, like much of Gibson’s recent work, doesn’t carry the trademark acid rain style he made famous in Neuromancer and other innovative cyberpunk works. It seems like he is pulling back from that genre of science fiction and concentrating on lighter stories. Also, it could be that he has spawned so many cyberpunk clones (like Neal Stephenson) that his work just doesn’t seem as edgy as it used to.

To his credit, Gibson still does not make concessions to technophobes; if you do not have at least some familiarity with the internet and especially virtual worlds, parts of this book may not make much sense. 


If you were turned off by Gibson’s early, darker work, you might consider giving him another chance with Idoru. If you read Gibson for the dark futures, the striking chiarscuro metaphors, the visionary insights, you may be disappointed.