Gerald Alva Miller, Jr., Understanding William Gibson (University of South Carolina Press, 2016, 168pp, $39.99 [import only)
Reviewed by Esko Suoranta (University of Helsinki)
Understanding William Gibson has a daunting task at hand - how to deal with a living author who is actively publishing, and predominantly known for his early novels? Miller’s volume joins books by Dani Cavallero, Tom Henthorne, Lance Olsen and Gary Westfahl as a career-spanning overview of Gibson’s literary output. Such accounts are always, in a sense, dated, as Gibson has written steadily for over forty years and has not stuck with the cyberpunk genre that made him famous in the 1980s. Because of this, Olsen could not have anticipated the near-present setting of the Bridge trilogy, Cavallero could not have predicted Gibson’s switch into Le Carré-styled techno-thrillers, and neither could Henthorne and Westfahl have known that Gibson would return to writing sf and venture into comics with Archangel (2016).
As a consequence, one might have expected that Miller would have focused more on these later novels and produce an overview that would have done justice to Gibson’s ongoing evolution as an author. In a very traditional manner, however, roughly two thirds of his book deal with Gibson’s cyberpunk fiction, whilst the remaining third addresses Gibson’s two later trilogies, his screenwriting, and one-offs like The Difference Engine (1990) and the experimental Agrippa: A Book of the Dead (1992). The Peripheral (2014), by contrast, receives less than half a page. This lack might be due to the arduous pace of academic publishing, but what now reads as an off-hand remark could have used an explicit disclaimer about its brevity.
This structural imbalance is especially frustrating when considered from the perspective of the likely target audience. Books such as these can be highly useful, especially for undergraduates, as they are widely available, provide broad enough insight into authors and their works, and come with accessible lists of references for further study. But the question remains, why would a reader pick up Miller’s account in place of Westfahl’s when, in the three years between them, no further attention is given to Gibson’s later oeuvre? If they did, their ‘understanding’ of Gibson’s work would remain limited.
Miller does state that his goal is not to achieve an encyclopaedic result with regards to Gibson’s career, but rather show that his major works engage in a form of bricolage that synthesises and transcends his influences, and that his works open a ‘radically critical’ view into contemporary reality. While this is a commendable goal as such (and an argument I generally agree with), when combined with the skewed structure of the book, Miller implicitly emphasises Gibson’s early fiction as capturing the essence of his bricoleur project. Where the Sprawl stories and novels gain much of their impetus from the Reagan years, Gibson’s later works are deeply embedded in their respective contemporary moments. Pattern Recognition (2003) received its form and much of its resonance due to the events of 9/11, while Gibson had to heavily revise his upcoming novel, Agency (2018), to include an alternate present where Hillary Clinton won the 2016 election. Such examples show that accounts like Miller’s need to pay closer attention and dedicate a larger percentage of their word count to the whole of Gibson’s bibliography to achieve their literary-historical or critical goals.
Nevertheless, Miller treads his chosen path with rigour, charting out influences on Gibson and other cyberpunks and referring to the central philosophies and critical discourses that recur in analytical discussions around his fiction (think Foucault, Hardt and Negri, posthumanism). The way in which Miller combines plot explication and his own readings is fluent throughout the book, especially with Gibson’s fiction of the 1990s. At times, his attention to detail is also laudable, for example, the discovery that Gibson’s ‘Burning Chrome’ (1982) not only contains the first use of ‘cyberspace’, but also the first instance of ‘the surfing metaphor’ for online existence. Delightfully, Miller also sidesteps both the postmodern-or-modern and science-fiction-or-not debates that haunt Gibson’s fiction, thus providing some needed criticism of Gibson criticism.
Miller also goes through Gibson’s biographical history, but again the emphasis seems a little misplaced. While it remains relevant that Gibson has read his share of William Burroughs and Thomas Pynchon, and hails from rural South Carolina and Virginia, it seems short-sighted to reduce an author’s influences to those of his youth. This is especially true of Gibson whose online corpus of blogs, tweets and more would be a very rich soil from which to glean biographical insight. Reading Gibson today, the Drive-By Truckers and Father John Misty seem as central as U2, Chappie as relevant as Escape from New York, and fashion as consequential as video games did for the younger Gibson.
There are also a few unfortunate lapses. First, a more thorough copy-edit would have weaned out some of the repetitive sentence and argument structures as well as some omissions from the bibliography (for example, entries for Olson’s and Westfahl’s books are missing even when they are listed as frequently cited works). Second, the otherwise mindful discussion on Gibson’s Bridge trilogy as an analysis of heterotopic spaces and agency in late capitalism suffers from Miller referring to the wrong bridge in San Francisco, that is, Golden Gate instead of the Oakland Bay Bridge. Gibson’s choice of the Bay Bridge as the heterotopic counter-culture society carries thematic importance that is lost due to this mistake: it is not the iconic and thoroughly commodified that is re-appropriated from capitalist society, but the utilitarian and commonplace.
Despite its merits, Understanding William Gibson does not really fill a gap in Gibson research. Rather, it contributes to the imbalance already present in the corpus of Gibson criticism. For an author of eleven novels (not counting collaborations or the upcoming Agency), Gibson has long surpassed his moniker as the godfather of cyberpunk, and his continued development as a writer means that he is acutely aware of present-day events. A truly rigorous account of his work and influence would take this into account and show rather than imply. Hopefully, Miller has a sequel in mind, as the readings and contextualisations he includes show a nuanced critical understanding of contemporary science fiction and its potential for critically re-evaluating the world as we know it.