Epistemic status: A hasty first draft.
Gibson insisted over and over in interviews, back when he was the hot new thing, that he wasn’t interested in details of technology as such, but rather the nature of human relationships to/within what we might call the technocapitalist machine: his ever-nearer-future world is one of routine surveillance, always-on reality TV, gated corporate computer networks, nation-states superseded by transnational corporations — all compelling in themselves — but Gibson never seems to’ve cared much about the way those technologies work in any terms but the social, the psychological. Which is why the retrospectively dippy cyber-voodoo magical metaphors(?) of Count Zero and Mona Lisa Overdrive perfectly fit the rest of the series: ‘magic’ in its many forms is another enabling/distorting neurosociocultural technology, viral-memetic biosoft, and what matters is what new modes of being-in-the-world it enables.
There’s a constant sense, in the ‘cyberspace’ books — Neuromancer and its two direct sequels — of vast terrible copresence, whether it’s the matrix or the ruthlessly violent megacorps or the AIs attaining sentience and looking to the stars. The end of the trilogy is a journey undertaken by a handful of dead ‘people’ to a faraway planet. You can’t have Gibson, in other words, without Lovecraft, who wasn’t what you’d call a ‘social novelist’ like Gibson, but who first crystallized the language of thermodynamic horror, rational inquiry as maddening vastation, which forms the backbone of 20C science fiction. Gibson’s matrix is a site of ecstasy for the deck-jockey Case, but he and everyone else ends up encountering it as an ocean of potentially fatal information, where looking the wrong way at the wrong ice (correlating the contents of the matrix?) can fry even the most prepared mind.
Lovecraft’s bleak ‘cosmicism’ has something of the convert’s didacticism — he was as touchy about his pedantically miserable atheism as he was about squid — but the more socially attuned Gibson seems to have been aiming at present-time cultural commentary. Both, I think, would claim to have been speaking to the modern condition in some sense, but Lovecraft’s cosmisicm is opt-in, a kind of recreational moping for lapsed Christians, where Gibson spoke more pointedly to post-60s (hyper)urban dislocation. You can’t keep living a normal life once you gain knowledge of the Cthulhu Mythos, after all, but you can go on to live a normal (shitty) life in the shadow of the matrix, Maas Biotek, the invisible war amongst the yakuza. The triumphant final act of Mona Lisa Overdrive‘s digital deceased is to leave earth altogether, after all, and something new awaits them out there. Entropy is the extent of Lovecraft’s everywhere, though: the original vast, cool, unsympathetic intelligence is F=ma (or the senseless system it falls out of). Gibson, not even really an enthusiast of new technology, closes all three volumes with a nod to twisted romance, which Lovecraft had neither time nor feel for.
In the Sprawl, unlike Arkham, sentiment is permitted. You might say it’s mandatory, since real movement is impossible. The cyberspace books are stories about transgressors, after all, criminals and (at times banally familiar) noir antiheroes; only at the margins is even the illusion of freedom possible.
Which is why it’s not too big a strike against Gibson’s early books that their characters are weak, particularly the women. Think of each volume as a handful of storylines from The Wire, glimpses of an autonomous order (Gibson’s world remade by the matrix, David Simon’s ‘postmodern institutions as Greek gods’), and Gibson’s characters as sentimental stock figures caught up in social transformation — the at times literally cosmic feeling which Gibson and his work can’t escape. His characters wear neoplastic carapaces or safety-pin piercings, but these serve the same characterological functions as the proverbial grey flannel suit, showing the constraints under which even his protean transhumans operate; the constraints are the interest, I think, so cliché is is a perfectly fine narrative strategy. Gibson’s well-meaning but clumsy deployment of Black Characters points up both the value and the limits of this approach, while his throwaway streetside visions suggest its power, the vividness of his dreamt-world…
In other words, don’t look to Gibson’s matrix for technological prognosis, rather for cultural diagnosis. (The idea of a fully rendered Internet, for instance, would never have occurred to a guy who didn’t write his novels on a manual typewriter.) Neuromancer and its sequels, like The X-Files, are a visionary encounter which How We Live Now, or rather how a man who identified himself as in some sense disappointed by the 60s lived in the early/mid-80s, and their central insight — ‘The future is already here, it’s just unevenly distributed’ — is one of the smartest things anyone’s thought or said about our world right now, the post-financial-apocalypse landscape of Obama/Trump and whatever loose affiliation they define between them. Gibson’s books remain essential guides to the human condition in a world defined by transnational flows of production and consumption, fluid information and identity, media supersaturation and the toxic fallout which precipitates from it as the heat rises. Like Gibson’s beloved Dhalgren, the cyberspace books see clearly a shared (im)possibility, an unwanted inheritance, and choose to speak of it science-fictional terms; their subject is the cost and weight and ruined ecstasy of interpersonhood in what’s left of the world.
Whether they’re dystopian or utopian novels — whether any honest accounting of How We Live Now can help but be both — I leave as an exercise to the reader. To us.