Suppose you’ve been asked to write a science-fiction story. You might start by contemplating the future. You could research anticipated developments in science, technology, and society and ask how they will play out. Telepresence, mind-uploading, an aging population: an elderly couple live far from their daughter and grandchildren; one day, the pair knock on her door as robots. They’ve uploaded their minds to a cloud-based data bank and can now visit telepresently, forever. A philosophical question arises: What is a family when it never ends? A story flowers where prospective trends meet.

This method is quite common in science fiction. It’s not the one employed by William Gibson, the writer who, for four decades, has imagined the near future more convincingly than anyone else. Gibson doesn’t have a name for his method; he knows only that it isn’t about prediction. It proceeds, instead, from a deep engagement with the present. When Gibson was starting to write, in the late nineteen-seventies, he watched kids playing games in video arcades and noticed how they ducked and twisted, as though they were on the other side of the screen. The Sony Walkman had just been introduced, so he bought one; he lived in Vancouver, and when he explored the city at night, listening to Joy Division, he felt as though the music were being transmitted directly into his brain, where it could merge with his perceptions of skyscrapers and slums. His wife, Deborah, was a graduate student in linguistics who taught E.S.L. He listened to her young Japanese students talk about Vancouver as though it were a backwater; Tokyo must really be something, he thought. He remembered a weeping ambulance driver in a bar, saying, “She flatlined.” On a legal pad, Gibson tried inventing words to describe the space behind the screen; he crossed out “infospace” and “dataspace” before coming up with “cyberspace.” He didn’t know what it might be, but it sounded cool, like something a person might explore even though it was dangerous.

Gibson first used the word “cyberspace” in 1981, in a short story called “Burning Chrome.” He worked out the idea more fully in his first novel, “Neuromancer,” published in 1984, when he was thirty-six. Set in the mid-twenty-first century, “Neuromancer” follows a heist that unfolds partly in physical space and partly in “the matrix”—an online realm. “The matrix has its roots in primitive arcade games,” the novel explains, “in early graphics programs and military experimentation with cranial jacks.” By “jacking in” to the matrix, a “console cowboy” can use his “deck” to enter a new world:

Cyberspace. A consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators, in every nation. . . . A graphic representation of data abstracted from the banks of every computer in the human system. Unthinkable complexity. Lines of light ranged in the nonspace of the mind, clusters and constellations of data. Like city lights, receding.

Gibson was far from the first sci-fi writer to explore computers and their consequences; a movement, soon to be known as cyberpunk, was already under way. But “Neuromancer” changed science fiction by imagining a computer-saturated world that felt materially and aesthetically real. Gibson’s hardboiled prose was fanatically attentive to design and texture. A hacker’s loft contains a Braun coffeemaker, an Ono-Sendai cyberspace deck, and “the abstract white forms of the foam packing units, with crumpled plastic film and hundreds of tiny foam beads.” A spaceship is “walled in imitation ebony veneer and floored with gray tiles”—a Mercedes crossed with a “rich man’s private spa.” Gibson’s future seemed already to have aged: the counterfeit young are “marked by a certain telltale corrugation at the knuckles, something the surgeons were unable to erase.” The science-fiction writer Samuel R. Delany marvelled at the novel’s “wonderful, almost hypnotic, surface hardness.” Describing a hacker about to deploy a virus, Gibson invented his own language, toughened with use: “He slotted some ice, connected the construct, and jacked in.

Joshua Rothman
How William Gibson Keeps His Science Fiction Real

From high in the Tower of Flints the owls inviolate in their stone galleries cried inhumanly, or falling into the windy darkness set sail on muffled courses for their hunting grounds.

Mervyn Peake
Titus Groan