How to shatter reality like William Gibson

Damien Walter, Writer for The Guardian, BBC, Wired.

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    • The shattered realities of William Gibson

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About This Class

“The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.”

Through the most famous opening line in science fiction history, a generation of readers have entered the imagined reality of the Sprawl. Conceived in a series of short stories (later collected as Burning Chrome) and introduced to a mass audience in the 1984 novel Neuromancer, William Gibson’s dark future dystopia remains, almost 40 years later, one of the most convincing science fiction visions ever created.

“…the real strength of Gibson’s writing is not in the fantasy it conjures, but the reality it constructs, and then shatters.”

Today’s most famous scifi worlds are created on the cinema screen, or in the virtual realities of video games. There’s a genuine irony that, while Gibson partly created our ideas of cyberspace and virtual reality, the world of the Sprawl has remained a stubbornly linguistic universe. A place we enter through printed words on the page, thanks only to the visionary inventiveness - and technical mastery - of Gibson’s writing.

Count Zero, the second novel in the Sprawl trilogy, opens with a virtuoso display of fiction writing skills, that in just 2700 words, combine all Gibson’s key strengths as a writer. In that space Gibson kills and then resurrects his central character, and summons on the page the intoxicating cyberpunk vision for which he is famed. But the real strength of Gibson’s writing is not in the fantasy it conjures, but the reality it constructs, and then shatters.

Turner is a corporate mercenary, blown to pieces, quite literally, on an unspecified mission in Istanbul. Because he has a good contract, Turner is painstakingly rebuilt, with body parts bought on the open market. It’s the contrast of such elements that makes Gibson’s writing so haunting - his poetic genius of conjuring the unreal imagery of a man remade from purchased body parts, but only after the detail of a contract negotiation has established mundane reality.

Turner’s death is narrated in three terse sentences, opening with the stark pronoun “they”, that condense the mercenary’s mission into a set of snatched images. His resurrection is explicated in three paragraphs, an idealised, hyperreal mid-West American childhood of “coffee and Wheaties” that Turner awakes from into “tropical green and sunlight that hurt his eyes” and a surgeon we know only as the Dutchman.

The narrative continues to telescope inward, from sentence, to paragraph, to page length descriptions that immerse the reader ever deeper into the reality Gibson’s words weave. We follow the resurrected Turner into a Buddhist “bardo” state, held between life and death in symbolic environment of international airports, until “a vast chunk of memory detached itself from a blank bowl of airport sky” and sends Turner to Mexico.

Gibson cements his reality with “eyeball kicks”, ultra closeup, intensely described details that hold the reader fascinated. A Mexican bus journey is narrated around the glass knob of a transmission lever, “cast around a crouching spider blown from clear glass, hollow, half filled with quicksilver. Mercury jumped and slid when the driver slapped the bus through switchback curves, swayed and shivered in the straightaways.”

Half of the chapter is dedicated to a betrayal. Turner awakes in bed with a woman and, in the decaying splendour of a Mexican beach town, the two develop something close to a true relationship.

“Something Midwestern in the bone of the jaw, archaic and American. The blue sheets were rucked across her hips, sunlight angling in through hardwood louvres to stripe her long thighs with diagonals of gold. The faces he woke with in the world’s hotels were like God’s own hood ornaments. Women’s sleeping faces, identical and alone, naked, aimed straight out to the void.”

Gibson carries the slowing pace of the chapter along on the beauty of such well crafted sentences. Paragraphs that build from a simple sentence, through a cumulative sentence clustering multiple descriptive phrases together. The kind of craftsmanship invisible to most readers, but holding their attention, until a final periodic sentence structure, keeping the paragraphs meaning until the very final word. “But this one was different. Already, somehow, there was meaning attached to it. Meaning and a name.”

Her name, we learn, is Alison. We also learn she is a psychologist, sent to assess Turner’s mental state, and fitness for the next mission demanded by his corporate paymasters.

“…we know we are seeing the world through the eyes of a man whose eyes are not his own.”

It’s the experience of lived reality created through Gibson’s words, that allows him to create the effect that readers find so compelling - shattering his reality with fragments of the unreal.

Turners death comes in the form of a “slamhound”, that we’re beckoned to imagine as it comes “scrabbling through a forest of bare brown legs”. The mercenary does not recuperate in a hospital but is regrown on “slabs of collagen and shark-cartilage polysaccharides”. The eyes Turner is given are green. Whatever color his eyes were before, we know we are seeing the world through the eyes of a man whose eyes are not his own.

The fragments of unreal embedded in the real continue. A hologram postcard. A black metal credit chip. A dozen odd microsofts, that embed in socket behind the ear. A security guard carries a Steiner Optic laser, we are told, before the mundane realist detail of his trousers, creased like knives. Even Turner’s suntan is made unreal, as it fades from an angular patchwork created by skin grafts.

If Count Zero never quite reaches again the fever pitch of its opening pages, it may only be because those pages attain an intensity of imagery rarely achieved in prose fiction. They embody the power of the science fiction genre, at its very best, to both create and shatter realities for its readers. And of the written word, in the hands of a master like William Gibson, to invoke the power of human imagination, perhaps more powerfully than any other storytelling medium.

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Damien Walter

Writer for The Guardian, BBC, Wired.

Damien Walter ( BA / MA / PGCHE / HEA) teaches good writers how to be great. His research and critical writing have been published in The Guardian, Wired, BBC, The Independent, Aeon and with Oxford University Press. He is a former director of creative writing at the University of Leicester, a member of the Higher Education Academy, and a graduate of the Clarion writers workshop taught by Neil Gaiman. He consults widely for businesses in technology, healthcare, and man...

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