Jeffrey Wasserstrom: On William Gibson's "Distrust that Particular Flavor"

Roundup: Talking About History

Jeffrey Wasserstrom is Chair of the History Department at the University of California, Irvine, and the author, most recently, of China in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know (Oxford University Press, 2010).

I NEED TO BEGIN with a confession: I was a late arrival to the cyberpunk party. I wish I could say that, as an avid fan of Nineteen-Eighty-Four (1949), I was keeping my eye out in that year that Orwell made famous to see if some important new dystopian novel would appear. But I really wasn't doing anything of the kind. Deeply enmeshed in graduate work on Chinese history, I did not even notice the publication of William Gibson's now world-famous first novel Neuromancer. In fact, I don't think I read a single word by Gibson during that whole decade. And I have to admit further that, when I finally did first encounter his prose in the early 1990s, it was not by reading a novel or essay, but rather a book cover blurb, the one he wrote praising Mike Davis's City of Quartz as "more cyberpunk than any work of fiction could ever be."

Several years later, I read Gibson's Wired essay on Singapore, a piece that shows, as indeed did his comments on City of Quartz, that urban centers of the Pacific Rim have always offered him a vision — half-alluring, half-cautionary — of our high-tech future. A few years after reading that Wired essay, with its wonderful reference to Singapore as "Disneyland with the death penalty," I finally read one of his novels. That novel was The Difference Engine, a fascinating steampunk extravaganza that Gibson co-wrote with Bruce Sterling in 1990. The action of that novel is set in Victorian London, back when it was widely regarded as among the most futuristic places on earth. The Difference Engine made me a fan of Gibson as well as of Sterling, and my enjoyment of their writing, plus a recommendation from my computer-savvy son, led me also to Neal Stephenson, whose novels Snow Crash (1992) and The Diamond Age (1995) are, not coincidentally I think, both set in futuristic cites perched on the edge of the Pacific — Los Angeles and Shanghai, respectively.

Still, it was not until I read Distrust that Particular Flavor, Gibson's first collection of nonfiction writing, that I finally picked up Neuromancer, the book often credited with launching cyberpunk as a distinctive genre. I continue to kick myself for deferring its pleasures so long. And yet, in a way, I'm glad that I ended up reading it when it did. For placing Distrust and Neuromancer side-by-side has helped bring into focus my thinking on three subjects: the ties between travel writing and futuristic fiction, a shift over time from an Atlantic to a Pacific orientation in ruminations on utopian and dystopian urban possibilities, and the links between the writings of Jules Verne and those of some of the leading lights of cyberpunk....

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