American Collections blog

06 July 2011

'There is no there, there': William Gibson

Our intern, Maro, writes:

In light of the Out of this World exhibition, I would like to spend some time thinking through William Gibson’s literary achievement as regards his radical reconfiguration of the notion of space. His Sprawl trilogy – Neuromancer (1984), Mona Lisa Overdrive (1988) and Count Zero (1986) – now considered a classic that does not go out-of-date, has come to typify the cyberpunk literary production of the 1980s, the decade when cutting-edge technologies and products started appearing in the American market.  During this decade a huge array of gadgets became widely available to the US market, with the personal computer constituting the icon of an era dubbed by theoreticians as ‘postmodernity.’

With the computer screen functioning as the window to a new world, Science Fiction became more radical in its vision and more experimental in its aesthetics, and it is particularly the notion of cyberspace, a word that Gibson himself coined, that best captures this computer-generated alternative and parallel world. The initiation of the readers into the world of cybernetics, virtual reality and Internet culture, signaled a monumental change in the human mindset and in particular, in the way the contemporary person perceived the concept of space within the context of the emerging Computer Age. As a matter of fact, Gibson’s concept of cyberspace has come to connote a computerized world of virtual reality in which somebody can enter simply by 'jacking in.' With the movement from physical environments to digital ones with or without the intervention of a cyberspace deck, Gibson introduces his readers to the simulated reality of computerized world, where human essence and software meet and interact; Gibson’s cyberspace is the vast and complex web of data into which we are inserted through the screen of our computers, a virtual place where we can project our visions, desires and wishful thinkings. In other words, the digital landscape is just something that we ‘see’ through our heads, a mind-generated space that constitutes another realm of existence in which the bulk of the novel’s action takes place. In another instance, Gibson uses the slightly paranoic phrase, 'There is no there, there,' in an attempt to define and explain cyberspace’s status and quality that defies the traditional notion of lived space as we experience it every day.

Upon their publication, the novels triggered discussion and debate, since the futuristic dystopian visions introduced were not only highly innovative and groundbreaking, but also disturbing, unsettling and difficult to grasp. In fact, I had a hard time reading the Sprawl trilogy, an experience that I would describe as frustrating. Often, I had to struggle with the text to make sense, as I found it hard to follow the complex narrative line, get used to the cybernetic ‘jargon’ and the radical shifts from one realm of reality to another; the process of reading was so frustrating for me that sometimes I would even wonder whether the pages have been scrambled or not. It was only after I had finished the first novel that I realized that this frustrating effect was intentional on the part of Gibson, who wanted to engage the reader in the riddle-like quality of his novel. Indeed, a challenging piece of writing, the Sprawl trilogy is a puzzle, a jigsaw that the reader is not invited to put together but rather to ‘experience.’

Gibson’s literary genius and the prophetic quality of his work can be best evaluated if we consider the fact that for the past two decades we have been experiencing the transition from science fiction to science fact. The science-fictionalized and Gibsonian character of our everyday life can be traced to the wide array of activities that take place on-line; my generation ‘likes’ and ‘pokes’ on Facebook all the time, we can ‘travel’ all over the world with Google Earth and we conduct all our financial transactions without bothering going to the bank. In a sense the contemporary individual is moving between the virtual reality of cyberspace that Gibson could have only imagined and the tangible world of lived experience, blending the boundaries between the ‘real’ reality and the fabricated. We are already part of Baudrillard’s famous argument about ‘the desert of the real.’

For a further elaboration on Gibson’s literary experiments and more specifically his unprecedented perception of space, I can recommend for further reading: 
Rapatzikou, Tatiani. Gothic motifs in the Fiction of William Gibson (2004)
Cavallaro, Dani. Cyberpunk and Cyberculture: Science Fiction and the Work of William Gibson (2000).


MJS adds: and he's out there, on @greatdismal





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