Thursday, 13 November 2014

The Wisdom of the Noir Prophet

My affection for sci-fi has infected nearly every aspect of my life. In the space of a few days, maybe weeks, of conversations with my regular customers at work, they will discover how obsessed I am. Some share my affinity, others are bemused by it, and others share my kinship with the genre in certain mediums. One such case is one of my die-hard regulars, who I’ve been serving for as long as I’ve been working at Boston Tea Party Bath. He’s a recently retired English teacher. Naturally, we’ve bonded over a shared love of books.

The other day, he came in and presented me with an article from The Guardian – a short piece about William Gibson’s seminal work of sci-fi literature, Neuromancer. That was published thirty years. To my shame, I had failed to remember that it was thirty years since. Ask me what great things happened in 1984, I can say that Ghostbusters was released and Neuromancer was published. I’ll rave about Ghostbusters being an awesome movie, then I will go on about how much of a game-changer Neuromancer was.

Four years ago, the halcyon days of 2010, I was in my final year of my creative writing degree. My final deadline was an essay for a module called “Reading as a Writer”. In this module we picked a writer we loved, someone who inspired us, then using academic sources and their own text, argue for why they are significant and should be included in the literary canon. Naturally, I chose William Gibson. I re-read all his books, piling through the Sprawl and Bridge trilogies in a matter of weeks. I had my core argument ready and waiting to go – William Gibson created cyberpunk and gave voice to a generation of science-fiction authors, television shows and movies.

I was around fifteen when I truly found my calling, settled into a genre and wrote with confidence and bravado that only a fifteen year old boy can muster when he has decided his life’s dream. I was a cyberpunk, though I would not realise it until years later. My defining piece of writing was a fifteen page short story about an assassin who was double-crossed and sought revenge on her employers. Hardly an original tale, one that has been examined in many forms from many angles. My angle – the story was set on a terraformed Mars in 2207.

In 2007, prior to escaping my home in Wales to live in Bath, I realised that I needed to expand my reading and most importantly, read some frakkin’ sci-fi! I settled on I, Robot by Isaac Asimov (I had watched the Will Smith movie and loved it. Yes, yes, I know, book is INFINITELY different and I love and respect that about it) and this curious novel Neuromancer. I had heard that it and its author were quite important in sci-fi circles. Upon reading this book, being mesmerised and disorientated by the world cannibalised by war and cybernetic augmentation, I realised that the sci-fi I truly loved and that felt most at home writing was this. Cyberpunk. To coin a theological analogy, I was a pilgrim who had just discovered his god.

Tracking back to 2010 and tying in the title of this blog. The essay I wrote was entitled “The Wisdom of the Noir Prophet: Arguing for the Inclusion of William Gibson in the Literary Canon”. I am damn proud of this essay. My last piece of academic work and it netted me a mark of 72. Sure, it didn’t push my overall grade from a 2:1 to a First, but by gods I was mighty happy with that. My last official piece of coursework and one of my favourite authors helped me to get a First for it.

Now, I should probably tell you all why Neuromancer is so important and how it changed the landscape. I’ve skirted the idea briefly earlier, but here’s some big red letters on the side of Mount Everest exposition. In 1984, Neuromancer introduced the world to the very concept of cyberpunk. It had been slowly building, fragments of the code drifting together and forming the ghost in the machine (to borrow and paraphrase from James Cromwell’s portrayal of Doctor Alfred Lanning in the aforementioned Will Smith movie), in the form of short stories written by Gibson and his cohorts Bruce Sterling and Tom Maddox (to name but a few).

But it was Neuromancer that came crashing through sci-fi’s bubble, trashing the place, then piling it all up into a corner of the genre and saying “This is our spot. We’re here to stay.” From the early movie example of RoboCop (a defining piece of cyberpunk cinema in my opinion) and the later TV example of James Cameron’s short-lived Dark Angel, cyberpunk’s mark was made, it stayed and people have taken up its mantle. It has even become a sub-culture, characterised by lots of shiny metal (be it implanted or just studded upon one’s clothing) and bright neon tubes in your hair, just to name the most obvious traits.

One of the most important aspects of Neuromancer and its wider cultural impact is the cultural imagery Gibson helped to define. Tron, admittedly pre-dating Neuromancer by two years in 1982, can be seen as one of the progenitors of this too – the perception of the Internet as this ethereal plane, vast flows of neon data pulsing up and down grid-lines, huge blocks of colour, geometric shapes, representing locations, websites, the targets of the hacker. While you can argue Tron created the visual, it was Neuromancer that gave it the name that has infiltrated its way into our common vernacular – cyberspace.

There is further significance to my raving about the brilliance of William Gibson. In honour of the publication of his new book, The Peripheral, he’s doing that funny odd thing that authors do – a book tour. And on November 25th, 2014, he is going to be in Bath. I am going to get to meet one of my literary heroes. I must struggle to contain the urge to squeal like a giddy little fan-boy.

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