Theorizing Uneven Distributions: Review of William Gibson and the Futures of Contemporary Culture, edited by Mitch R. Murray and Mathias Nilges

Theorizing Uneven Distributions: Review of William Gibson and the Futures of Contemporary Culture, edited by Mitch R. Murray and Mathias Nilges

Jake Casella Brookins

Under Review:

William Gibson and the Futures of Contemporary Culture. Edited by Mitch R. Murray and Mathias Nilges . University of Iowa Press, March 15, 2021.

William Gibson and the Futures of Contemporary Culture was created to address the “long-standing and in many ways baffling problem” that William Gibson’s work, despite its influence and occasional prominence, remain “underexamined and its reach and significance underappreciated.” This collection is a step towards correcting that. It brings together a broad range of essays that examine Gibson—or use his work to examine broader issues—along quite a number of axes. It’s a rich selection, but rather scattered: with a somewhat diffuse thematic program, and diving quickly into fairly deep theoretical waters, William Gibson and the Future of Contemporary Culture may not be of much interest to the non-academic reader, or to those not conversant with at least a few of his works. Its essays do seem weighted, usefully, towards further work on Gibson, with most of the entries providing cultural and theoretical context with abundant scholarly reference.

The collection is arranged in three sections, considering Gibson in terms of literary history, medium, and the “problem of the present”; as the editors note, many of the collection’s entries could comfortably fit under two or even all three of these headings. Roger Whitson’s “Time Critique and the Textures of Alternate History” is an excellent example, at once digging into the mediality of The Difference Engine and The Peripheral and using a “time critique” approach informed by Matthew Kirschenbaum, Wolfgang Ernst, and other scholars.

Philip E. Wegner’s chapter, “When It Changed”, situates the publication of Neuromancer alongside a huge range of media that appeared in 1984, contextualizing the novel as representative (or perhaps a distillation or acceleration) of several broad literary trends. Most usefully, Wegner reads Neuromancer alongside Samuel Delany’s Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand, as novels representing both an overlap of eras and a distinctive break or turning point; Wegner also draws heavily on Fredric Jameson, whose commentary on Gibson recurs throughout the collection. Similarly, Takayuki Tatsumi’s chapter considers the timing of The Difference Engine, both narrowly in its 1990 media landscape, and, more broadly, in its engagement with Enlightenment narratives—with, it bears mentioning, a rather strange amount of space given to establishing Benjamin Franklin as a kind of early cyberpunk figure.

Kylie Kornsnack and Mathias Nilges both examine temporality in ways that seem useful for future scholarship. Korsnack’s investigation of the “sustained reflection on the relationship between art, temporality, and human experience in contemporary culture” reads as a fairly good précis of the collection as a whole; her chapter explores the collapsing relationship between present, past, and especially future across and within Gibson’s work. Nilges’ insightful and highly readable chapter uses “The Gernsback Continuum” to think through our current “crisis of temporality and futurity”; in foregrounding the story’s awareness of the potentiality and menace of futuristic visions, Nilges’ analysis made me look at “Gernsback” as a paradigmatic cyberpunk story, despite lacking many of the usual trappings.

Malka Older’s superb introduction draws attention to Gibson’s keen sense of dislocation as the modern condition, a concept that Andrew M. Butler delves into a bit in his chapter on “nonplaces” in Gibson’s screenplays—an area of his writing that has received little attention. Displacement or at least migration to the digital also underpins Maria Alberto and Elizabeth Swanstom’s chapter, which frames the union of physical and virtual entities in Gibson as resonant with the field of digital humanities. It should be noted that two of the texts Alberto and Swanstom consider, Gibson’s “The Winter Market” and Anne McCaffrey’s The Ship Who Sang, are minefields of disability representation.

William Gibson and the Future of Contemporary Culture, perhaps predictably, feels strongest in its final section “Gibson and the Problem of the Present”; all of these chapters focus heavily on Gibson’s latest works, and what his shifting interests as a writer reveal about global culture. Aaron Pease’s “Cyberspace after Cyberpunk” considers the “eversion” of the internet from rarefied techno-spectacle to quotidian, in the process neatly capturing why Gibson’s “Blue Ant” trilogy still fits within the cyberpunk lineage, while Christian P. Haynes’ chapter looks at the gaming of finance and the financialization of gaming within Gibson’s work. Sheryl Vint and Amy J. Elias’s entries are particularly excellent, exploring Blue Ant’s “productized” vision and using The Peripheral (and other Gibson works) as an introduction to realist ontology, respectively. In considering Gibson’s work in terms of ontology, Elias very usefully highlights how Gibson has tuned into deep and shifting cultural conceptions of reality, and how an ethical stance is implicit, if perhaps not centered, in his novels.

Vint’s chapter is almost unique in the collection in offering a bit of critique of Gibson’s vision: that his nostalgic vision of genuine artistry as offering a refuge against capitalism does not go far enough. It’s probably not fair to critique a collection like this for what it’s not doing—especially given the extent of work on Gibson elsewhere—but a few different absences stood out to me (and, pedantically, I was derailed by a few minor plot misreadings, like attributing action to the wrong character). There’s little to no criticism of issues within Gibson’s work, and, despite a lot of very interesting cultural context, little effort made to place him within a specific science fictional context—especially glaring, I thought, given both the early cyberpunks’ level of collaboration and their break from or dismissal of feminist SF of the 1970s. It sometimes strikes me that Gibson is one of those writers who is oddly bracketed off from the rest of the SF field somehow—a feeling these essays didn’t alleviate. Also, an absence that the editors themselves allude to: critical work on the “Bridge” trilogy, for whatever reason, remains scarce (although the character Colin Laney, practically a patron saint for the underpaid scholar, does show up in a few sections).

Charles Yu’s laudatory afterword notes that “as good as [Gibson] is at writing novels, he is even better at writing sentences”—not the level of analysis any of these essays, unfortunately, pursue. However, the overall feeling of the collection is still celebratory, just more on the level of theory than of prose. Practically every entry feels like an introduction to ideas that would take at least a book to work out fully, and, perhaps most usefully, demonstrate how Gibson’s complexity and relevance can provide intriguing reading frameworks even beyond his own work.

Originally from the Pennsylvania Appalachians, Jake Casella Brookins (he/him) now lives in Chicago. He is an SF reviewer and independent scholar, and runs the Positron site for speculative fiction book clubs and other literary events in the Chicagoland area. When not making coffee (professionally), he is probably riding his bike (amateurishly). Book ramblings and occasional bread experiments can be found on his blog.

Transparency Statement

Sabrina Mittermeier commissioned this review from an in internal ARB pitch in February 2021. Jake Casella Brookins is an Ancillary editor, and is lightly acquainted with some of the contributors to this collection through academic connections. A review copy was arranged by ARB from the University of Iowa Press.

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