William Ford Gibson was born on March 17, 1948, in Conway, South Carolina, to William Ford Gibson and Otey Williams. That he was born around the same time as the publication of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) is auspicious, given Gibson’s contributions to utopic and dystopic literature. Gibson’s father was a civilian contractor who helped build the Oak Ridge atomic bomb facility during World War II. After his father died in Gibson’s early childhood, Gibson and his mother moved to Virginia, where he spent his youth until he attended boarding school in Arizona as a teenager. To avoid the draft for the Vietnam War, Gibson dropped out of high school in 1967 and left the United States at the age of nineteen. In 1972, he moved to Vancouver, British Columbia, and joined the bohemian post-1960’s culture thriving there. Gibson attended the University of British Columbia, from which he received a bachelor’s degree in English literature in 1977. He married Deborah Thompson, a language instructor, and they had two children together. His work as a founder of the cyberpunk movement in the 1980’s and early 1990’s has left a legacy of seminal novels that are essential reading for science-fiction fans and critics and those interested in so-called cyberculture.
An almost overnight success as a science-fiction novelist, Gibson is best known to the general public as having coined the term “cyberspace” and having envisioned virtual reality long before its technological applications were possible. His first novel, Neuromancer, won the 1984 Hugo, Nebula, and Philip K. Dick Awards–the three highest honors for a science-fiction writer–in a first-ever sweep. Neuromancer’s descriptions of dystopic urban decay, combined with utopic virtual possibilities, presented the dominant metaphor for cyberspace. The Sprawl series–Neuromancer, Count Zero, and Mona Lisa Overdrive–merged technology, multinational corporate capitalism, and vast urban landscapes in a mélange that revolutionized and reinvigorated the genre of science fiction in the 1980’s. The result was cyberpunk: a gritty, urban-based picture of future technology combined with gothic styles of architecture, clothing, and manners.
Not content with having spawned cyberpunk as a social and literary movement, Gibson, along with fellow cyberpunk writer Bruce Sterling, produced a reexamination of Victorian technological advancement in the novel The Difference Engine. Revisiting past innovators and their inventions produced a second social movement, steampunk, which combined Victorian society’s machines and mores with late-twentieth century punk attitudes.
Continuing with the idea of tracing origins, Gibson’s subsequent novels move back in time from the era of the Sprawl series to a point where virtual technologies are just beginning to come into use. The novels of Gibson’s Bridge trilogy–Virtual Light, Idoru, and All Tomorrow’s Parties–explore the impact of virtual technologies on the Pacific Rim, particularly the cities of San Francisco and Tokyo. Focusing less on technology’s impact upon the environment, these books examine the effects on the common people and the celebrities living in these areas. Everyday but often overlooked or underanalyzed areas of modern, cosmopolitan society are shown in these books, among them law enforcement practices and procedures, homelessness amid technological splendor, television shows and their ever-expanding need for ratings, the use of experimental drugs on unsuspecting populations, and three-dimensional facsimile machines that produce perfect copies. By focusing on the beginnings of the world portrayed in the Sprawl series novels, Gibson brings into sharp relief what it would be like to live with technologies that allow for the separation of people from their material bodies and physical environments. Idoru, in particular, focuses on the problem of love between a flesh-and-blood person and a virtual personality. Pattern Recognition continues this line of inquiry on the other side of the physical world in the United Kingdom and the countries of the former Soviet Union.
Throughout his years in the public light, Gibson has spoken and written about the fast-paced change of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. He has contributed dozens of pieces to a variety of periodicals, among them Rolling Stone, Wired, and The New York Times Magazine. In some sense, Gibson has remained an outsider to the various locales about which he has written fiction or nonfiction, but he has also sought to find new ways of presenting his descriptions, to better encapsulate what he is considering. Agrippa is just such an attempt. Written with Dennis Ashbaugh, it is a poem and performance piece about memory and its intangibility, designed to self-destruct after one viewing. This is in marked contrast to his previous efforts inasmuch as the viewers become part of the observations themselves.
While always a witness to the technology-infused world, Gibson himself has tried to abstain from participation in that world. Sometimes described as the first postmodern science-fiction writer and other times as the first cyberpunk, Gibson remains resolute in his status as bystander to the world around him and the possible implications of the innovations, good and bad, in that world. Despite the many generic, formulaic copies his novels and stories have engendered, Gibson’s work stands as testament to the power and impact of one person’s vision and words.