The Peripheral (2014) by William Gibson

How to read William Gibson: From Someone Who Has Read Three of His Books

theperipheral1How to read William Gibson:
1. Take a deep breath.
2. Read.
3. Keep taking deep breaths.
4. Keep reading.
5. Don’t freak out if you don’t comprehend everything. It’s going to be okay.
6. Repeat the mantra: “Surrender to the words and it will all make sense later. Surrender to the words and it will all make sense later. Surrender to the words…”
7. Finish the book.
8. Sigh in smug satisfaction.
9. Maybe make tea. You deserve it.

Reading a book by William Gibson is a bit like being dropped into another culture, another time period, another universe, Continue reading

Virtual Light (1993) by William Gibson

Virtual_light_uk_coverWhen I opened Virtual Light and, within the first five pages, read references to no less than five types of guns and two non-fatal weapons, I groaned. Will this be another Neuromancer? Heavy on weaponry and jargon, light on character development, circuitous on plot, but brimming with a striking narrative style that leaves me conflicted and incapable of rendering an articulate opinion?

Fortunately, Gibson improved in the decade after his seminal piece.

In Virtual Light, Gibson keeps his flair for flowy prose, but adds depth to his characters, reigns in the plot, and tones down the jargony pretense I remember from Neuromancer. Virtual Light is an apt name, as there is little of anything “virtual” or “cyber” going on here. It’s a straightforward tale of two underdogs whose paths cross in near-future California during a crime investigation. The near-future is near enough to be recognizable, so Gibson’s trademarked style of withholding information until it’s absolutely necessary does not hinder the reader’s ability to imagine the setting. Continue reading

WWW: Wake (2009) by Robert J. Sawyer

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

When Robert Sawyer winks at this opening line from William Gibson’s Neuromancer, it’s a reminder of how drastically technology has changed over the past 30 years. When Gibson wrote that line in 1984, it was intended to evoke the gray fuzziness of a disconnected screen. Two and a half decades later, Sawyer uses the same line to describe a bright blue sky. For me, five years and an awesome Sony app box later, a dead channel is as black as the night of a new moon (with an HDMI input notification in the top corner).

But that line also illustrates how drastically the cyber SF sub-genre has also changed over the past 30 years. Neuromancer is the seminal piece: dark, edgy, and weird, while Wake is safe, comfortable, and sweet. Neuromancer‘s main character is a suicidal adult male with a drug addiction. Wake‘s main character is an optimistic teen girl with good grades and high self-esteem. Both explore similar themes of emerging technology, primarily human interaction with artificial intelligence, but they go about it in completely different ways. If Neuromancer is cyberpunk, then Wake is cyberpop. Continue reading

Month in Review: October Reads and Recommendations


October sent me all over the SF/F genre with my random Hugo reads. I was introduced to an anarchist alien physicist, subjugated deities, steampunk zombies, and cyberpunk druggies. So now, as I sit around waiting for trick-or-treaters (and eating their candy), I present to you my mini-reviews of what I read this month and what I recommend to anyone seeking a good SF/F book.

(Okay, creepy moment just now: I just heard a very loud train whistle behind my house. The nearest railroad track is at least 20 miles away. In the other direction. Spooooky.)

The Dispossessed by Ursula Le Guin (Hugo winner, 1975) This novel about an alien physicist from an anarchist planet is by far my pick for the best SF I read this month. It’s beautifully written, with golden nuggets on the human condition located on nearly every page. For you fantasy lovers who steer clear of outer space SF due to its often cold and distant style, this is a great novel to experience the heart and soul of humanity beyond Earth, through the eyes of a brilliant physicist on the cusp of a major breakthrough, who must navigate the constraints of society and intellectual freedom (both anarchist and fascist). The protagonist is warm, introspective, and genuine, and the philosophical scope of the story is huge.

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N. K. Jemison (Hugo nominee, 2011) Yeine is a teenage clan leader who digs dark, brooding deities. That’s all you need to know. I mean, she might risk her life to become the next ruler of the most powerful kingdom in her world, but… OMG, the Darklord is so hot! And complicated! And lonely! This was my least favorite book of the month, due to the poor writing, weak characters, and untapped potential of many more intriguing story nooks. It could have been way better. Hey, NaNoWriMo folks– somebody needs to take this premise and try again! They reboot movies all the time, so why not novels?

Boneshaker (The Clockwork Century) by Cherie Priest (Hugo nominee, 2010) Civil War-era Seattle is polluted by a zombie-causing gas, but Ezekiel Wilkes breaches the walls anyway, and his mama follows after him. They ride airships, fight zombies, and meet a colorful cast of steampunky characters who guide them back together. All the action and adventure still had me bored, mainly because I could not understand why, when you have zombies walled up with flammable gas, did no one think to just ignite the city for one night and move on?

Neuromancer by William Gibson (Hugo winner, 1985) You know it’s going to be trippy when Rastafarian space tugboat drivers are involved, but that’s not even tip of the Intrusion Countermeasures Electronics (ICE)-berg. (Lots of Halloween candy = terrible SF puns.) Computer hacker Henry Case is tasked to upload a virus to breach the ICE of the most powerful dynasty in the universe… but who is really giving the orders? The plot is unwieldy, and the characters are as stale as last year’s candy corn, but Gibson’s 1985 vision for the future of human interaction with computers is pretty uncanny. Read history as it is foretold and, possibly, sculpted, as Gibson coins terms like “cyberspace” and “matrix.”

My recommendations: Read Le Guin, because she’s beautiful. Read Gibson for the novelty. Avoid Jemison and Priest, unless you think poor writing and plot holes are worth the gimmicky premises.

Upcoming November reads: November will be heavy on outer space. I’m finishing Arthur C. Clarke’s Rendezvous with Rama this week, then I’m declaring November as Kim Stanley Robinson month! I loved this year’s nominee 2312, and I have been eager to experience his Mars trilogy, all of which appeared on the Hugo list throughout the nineties. I also hope to cap off the month with either C.J. Cherryh or Octavia Butler, as I am close to completing the “Women of Genre Fiction” challenge over at WorldsWithoutEnd.

Happy Reading! I need to go investigate this phantom train…

Neuromancer by William Gibson

ImageGood writers follow the adage, “Show, don’t tell.” William Gibson prefers “just don’t tell.”

In other words, this book needs pictures.

At the risk of sounding like a dummy, I won’t pretend I understood everything that happens in Neuromancer. At least, not all by myself. This is the kind of book that would benefit from an abridged version for its less computer-literate readers. In my case, an occasional Googling of terminology* and, upon my completion of the story, a cursory read of an online summary, aided in my comprehension of this complex and trippy novel. I would recommend this approach for any future readers who do not subscribe to Wired magazine.

It’s not that the plot is particularly genius– there are other things going on that are genius, but the plot is not one of them– it’s just that so many elements are only alluded to, with the expectation that the reader make some pretty wild assumptions, and there were a few leaps I completely missed. I appreciate that level of trust in a relationship between author and reader, but Mr. Gibson did baffle me at times.

Here is my summary of the introduction. The words in parentheses are my translations of common references in the story.

Henry Case, former console cowboy (computer hacker that actually implants himself into cyberspace) and current drug addict, lives in Japan in a cheap coffin (hotel rooms that are plastic capsules primarily used for sleeping). He is recruited by a stranger named Armitage and a Razorgirl (female bodyguard with surgical enhancements, like retractable blades underneath fingernails, and martial arts training) named Molly. The trio attempt to pull off a heist involving a ROM module construct (a dead console cowboy whose consciousness has been uploaded into cyberspace for posterity) and an unknown black market computer virus designed to break the ice (security software) of a corporate techno-conglomerate owned by a wealthy family who alternate states of cloning and cryogenics, but reside in an ornate (late 20th century junk pile) mansion (concrete maze) on the tip of a space island (spindle-shaped space station at L5, a location within the moon’s orbit of Earth– thank you, Wikipedia).

Oh, and there are Rastafarian space tugboat drivers (Rastafarian space tugboat drivers).

Normally, context can help a reader make inferences about the meaning of most of these things, but the context in this book is pretty trippy and vague. I was especially lost whenever Gibson took the scenic route with his allusions to the design of the elements of his world, whether it be a spindle-shaped space island or a labyrinth-like mansion in zero-gravity. I needed pictures to grasp it all.

Why it’s amazing:

1. It’s prophetic. Neuromancer was written in 1984. William Gibson was one of the first writers to coin the term cyberspace, but his description is probably the most accurate foretelling of what would eventually become the Internet: “A consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators…” It’s old news now, but imagine reading about something like that back in the days when MTV played music videos.

2. It’s creative. There are a whole lot of things going on here. I was expecting a cut-and-dry heist story that takes place within cyberspace. I was not expecting humans with holographic capabilities or trips to outer space.

3. It’s well-written. Gibson’s prose is lovely, even when you don’t know what the hell is going on.

4. It’s nightmarish. Imagine an all-powerful, cybernetic artificial intelligence stalking you. The scene with the payphones creeped me out. (Granted, Gibson’s foresight did not extend to the future’s reliance on cell phones.)

What was not-so-amazing:

1. Boring, jaded characters lacking plausible, if any, motivation. The artificial constructs are the only things with personality in this book. And, maybe the Rastafarian space tugboat guys, and that’s only because they are blatant, 2-dimensional stereotypes. And, Case is the only character who actually has a legitimate, albeit forced, stake in the operation. Everyone else is just there for funnsies (there is a promised pay-off, but do you think a riotous AI keeps promises?) Even the antagonists seem to have no real purpose or interest in the outcome.

2. Lots of “WTF, I better Google that” moments, which is fine, when I’m dealing with esoteric techno-verbage, but not when the story fails to explain fundamental character traits or plot points. Am I to assume that when a slimy, octopus-like creature bursts out of a guy’s chest and runs off, it’s only a hologram that the man is capable of producing as a distraction? And, how did I miss that the purpose of the fake terrorism plot was to steal the consciousness of a dead, former console cowboy? I thought they were just doing it for practice.

My guess is that Neuromancer gets better with multiple readings, and some prior knowledge. Even my re-readings of passages for this review have resulted in a better understanding, while deepening my appreciation of Gibson’s writing style. Still, this is not a story to charm or warm its readers. The characters are self-destructive lowlifes who commit crimes for personal gain, and they won’t change or grow by the conclusion. I advise readers to approach this story with the desire to explore groundbreaking ideas concerning artificial intelligence, human interaction with cyberspace, and space tourism. Neuromancer won the sci-fi triple crown for its ideas and its landscapes, although the actual story and its characters leave much to be desired.

*Where Google failed me: I still don’t know what a Braun is (a small, computerized butler/pet?). Or a fletcher (an arrow-gun?).

Next read: Rendevous with Rama by sci-fi grandmaster Arthur C. Clarke