William Gibson never set out to predict the future. “I think I actually probably think less about the real future, in terms of where the world’s going and what it’s going through to get there, than most people do,” he says.
Nonetheless, his debut novel, Neuromancer (1984), earned him a reputation as the herald of the internet age. The novel is considered one of the founding texts of cyberpunk, so called for the combination of anti-establishment attitude with advanced technology.
Gibson isn’t a fan of the term, though, at least applied to his work. “I was at this science-fiction convention in Austin, Texas,” he says, “and there was this journalist there, and he said, ‘Well, I’m going to call what you guys do cyberpunk,’ and my first reaction was, ‘Don’t. Please, give us a break.’ ” To Gibson, cyberpunk is an aesthetic rather than a literary movement. Specifically, it’s the aesthetic of Blade Runner.
The film came out when he was still working on Neuromancer, and watching it immediately sent him into a panic. “It looked like the inside of my head,” he says. He was convinced the book he’d been working on was doomed to be dismissed as derivative. Then, rather fortuitously, no one actually went to see Blade Runner: It was a huge flop, both critically and commercially.
And yet, “I don’t think we really appreciate how crazily influential [Blade Runner] was,” Gibson says. Its distinct style reached well beyond the world of film, inspiring fashion designers and architects and shaping the very way we envision the future. Of course, Neuromancer has been equally as important in its own way—the traits that made the novel’s vision of the future so revolutionary when it came out, from its multiculturalism to its corporatocracy, have since become standard tropes of science fiction.
Certainly, science fiction was a very different genre when Gibson started writing. “I’m totally a native of science fiction. In the early to mid-1960s, I had a total sci-fi teenage fan hyper-intense experience. Science fiction really is my native literary culture,” he says. As he got into his late teens, however, he left those books behind for the excitement of the growing counterculture and “the capital S Sixties.”
Gibson only went back to science fiction after finishing up his English degree. Unfortunately, he found that newer books lacked the immediacy of the stories he grew up with. “It was like growing up with really vibrant, hard-ass country music and going back to it and just discovering it’s turned into Nashville,” Gibson says. So he set out to bring social commentary back to sci-fi.
Since then, the genre has grown and diversified even as changes to technology have reshaped our perspective on the future. “Next century is going out of fashion,” Gibson points out. “We don’t talk about that anymore. It’s next week or next news cycle.” In the 1920s, sci-fi magazines were filled with references to the 21st century; today even the most dedicated readers would struggle to find a mention of the 22nd.
That shift may have something to do with the increasing surreality of the present moment. What used to be science fiction is now just everyday life. “The tool kit of science fiction that I inherited from writers in the 1940s and 1950s and 1960s, that toolkit, which they designed to envision a future, what I find it really is good for is getting a handle on a present that is new and weird every day,” Gibson says.
Alex Heimbach is a writer and editor in California.