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gibson and inevitability
can we create, or just latch on?
(heavy spoilers for all William Gibson novels)
I really enjoy William Gibson's stories, but over time I have noticed that they all end the same way. There’s a consistent inevitability to the back half of his books, and even though it detracts from the narrative tension and makes his books less compelling, I personally find it very resonant with my own worldview.
It’s like this: the protagonist alters the course of the novel to some extent, but most of the heavy lifting is always actually done by some larger unknowable force. For example, in Neuromancer, once Case and Molly free the Wintermute AI it immediately fixes the rest of our heroes' problems: modifies the police database to pull them off the most-wanted list, pays for their societal reintegration, even hooks into Case's endocrine system and induces it to generate a cure for a biological bomb that had been implanted into his body. Different entities fill this role in different books: a faceless yakuza countercoup in Mona Lisa Overdrive, ex-governmental groups and a media empire in Spook Country, an AI assistant from an alternate future in (the ironically named) Agency. These behemoths are sometimes composed of humans and often act through them, but are not really directed by them, with the exception of occasional super-rich CEOs who appear to comprise an entirely distinct species.
Consistent throughout Gibson’s worldview is this sense that the world is primarily shaped by these superscale behemoths moving all around us. The role of normal humans is just to catch onto these behemoths and surf them, like a Fremen hooking a sandworm or like YT harpooning a bimbo box. His human protagonists act intuitively and without foresight, longterm planning being a behemoth-level ability only, and human intuition is usually successful to the extent that it’s subconsciously responsive to some larger pattern in the superscale (eg Case seeing the patterns of movements in Night City, Pollard’s coolhunting ability, Milgram’s algorithm to predict order flow). In Thielian terms, the behemoths are the only “definite thinkers”, the engineers, architects, and agents of the world, while normal humans are “indefinite thinkers” who can only speculate and hitch a ride on the true movers. Because of this, all of his novels have a certain dreamlike inevitability to them — even if things hadn’t ended this exact way, they would always have trended in a similar direction, given the momentum of the behemoths’ predetermined, ineffable motivations.
(I’m not the first to observe that this worldview makes cash-incinerating startups like MoviePass into something like folk heroes, robbing fatcat VCs to give to the moviegoing public. You can’t stop the insane ZIRP cash spews, but you can redirect them towards worthier goals, not to mention skim some off the top for you and yours.)
I suppose I enjoy Gibson because I find this to be very resonant with my own outlook. It’s always been so much easier to react to someone else’s ideas, choose among other people’s trends. Although I’m reasonably creative, it’s easier for me to produce variations on a theme instead of creating something from scratch. I’ve always favored “keyhole” solutions based on insight over “elbow grease” grinds based on consistent hard work. This makes sense given my primary instinct to hook into some existing pattern instead of trying to create a new one.
I don’t endorse this way of being. I'd prefer to be more of a creator and less of a ride-hitcher. I’m an engineer by training and I think it’s a nobler profession than being a speculator. Still, I think it’s just the way I’m wired (a fatalistic point of view I also picked up from Neuromancer, Molly employing this excuse repeatedly throughout). I’ve been this way for as long as I can remember. I’ve been tired for as long as I remember too, another trait i have in common with most of Gibson’s protagonists. One of the earliest fantasies I remember entertaining is a dream of waking up on a marble slab high up on a forest island, disconnected from the world, with nothing to do and nothing to be done. Just wait and see how it all plays out.
This really came into focus for me as I was writing a graphic novel with a friend of mine about a decade ago. Nominally it was about an oracular treasure hunter, and it could have been a swashbuckling adventure story in the vein of Indiana Jones. But instead I just kept thinking about why her world was the way it was, an empire crumbling and continuously reclaimed by desert, shadows leaking through the cracks in the world and deepening. Inevitable. The protagonist became less a heroine and more a trickster nearing the end of her rope. A depressing vision, flowing naturally from my depressed outlook at that time.
Maybe it’s only a matter of framing. You could say: the vision I had for that project was bleak, but there was a project, and we labored over it together, and we did finally complete it. It was beautiful in the end. None of that was actually predetermined or inevitable, far from it. It was an act of unpredictable and spontaneous creation, good work that we did because we both wanted to. It was more or less disconnected from any behemoth’s system of rewards, though again it was only made possible by the shipping containers and offset printing presses created by those behemoths for their own original purposes.
Of course this is all a million times more true then of Gibson himself, the cyberpunk genre he spawned now full-grown into a behemoth of its own, spinning off countless imitators, crossing into games and music and any other medium you can imagine and now fully disconnected from any steering mechanism he might ever have attempted, the author now just one of many tiny human specks hooked onto its mighty hull.
I wonder what he thinks of that, and whether it matters at all.
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