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Agrippa (A Book of the Dead)

Is it the actor or the drama
Playing to the gallery?
Or is it but the character
Of any single member of the audience
That forms the plot
of each and every play?

“Hanging in the Gallery” by Dave Cousins

I was introduced to the contrast between art as artifact and art as experience by an episode of Northern Exposure, a television show which meant a great deal to my younger self. In “Burning Down the House,” Chris in the Morning, the town of Cicely, Alaska’s deejay, has decided to fling a living cow through the air using a trebuchet. Why? To create a “pure moment.”

“I didn’t know what you are doing was art,” says Shelley, the town’s good-hearted bimbo. “I thought it had to be in a frame, or like Jesus and Mary and the saints in church.”

“You know, Shell,” answers Chris in his insufferable hipster way, “the human soul chooses to express itself in a profound profusion of ways, not just the plastic arts.”

“Plastic hearts?”

“Arts! Plastic arts! Like sculpture, painting, charcoal. Then there’s music and poetry and dance. Lots of people, Susan Sontag notwithstanding, include photography.”

“Slam dancing?”

“Insofar as it reflects the slam dancer’s inner conflict with society through the beat… yeah, sure, why not? You see, Shelley, what I’m dealing with is the aesthetics of the transitory. I’m creating tomorrow’s memories, and, as memories, my images are as immortal as art which is concrete.”

Certain established art forms — those we generally refer to as the performing arts — have this quality baked into them in an obvious way. Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones once made the seemingly arrogant pronouncement that his band was “the greatest rock-and-roll band in the world” — but later modified his statement by noting that “on any given night, it’s a different band that’s the greatest rock-and-roll band in the world.” It might be the Rolling Stones playing before an arena full of 20,000 fans one night, and a few sweaty teenagers playing for a cellar full of twelve the next. It has nothing to do with the technical skill of the musicians; music is not a skills competition. A band rather becomes the greatest rock-and-roll band in the world the moment when the music goes someplace that transcends notes and measures. This is what the ancient Greeks called the kairos moment: the moment when past and future and thought itself fall away and there are just the band, the audience, and the music.

But what of what Chris in the Morning calls the “plastic arts,” those oriented toward producing some physical (or at least digital) artifact that will remain in the world long after the artist has died? At first glance, the kairos moment might seem to have little relevance here. Look again, though. Art must always be an experience, in the sense that there is a viewer, a reader, or a player who must experience it. And the meaning it takes on for that person — or lack thereof — will always be profoundly colored by where she was, who she was, when she was at the time. You can, in other words, find your own transitory transcendence inside the pages of a book just as easily as you can in a concert hall.

The problem with the plastic arts is that it’s too easy to destroy the fragile beauty of that initial impression. It’s too easy to return to the text trying to recapture the transcendent moment, too easy to analyze it and obsess over it and thereby to trample it into oblivion.

But what if we could jettison the plastic permanence from one of the plastic arts, creating something that must live or die — like a rock band in full flight or Chris in the Morning’s flying cow — only as a transitory transcendence? What if we could write a poem which the reader couldn’t return to and fuss over and pin down like a butterfly in a display case? What if we could write a poem that the reader could literally only read one time, that would flow over her once and leave behind… what? As it happens, an unlikely trio of collaborators tried to do just that in 1992.

Very early that year, a rather strange project prospectus made the rounds of the publishing world. Its source was Kevin Begos, Jr., who was known, to whatever extent he was known at all, as a publisher of limited-edition art books for the New York City gallery set. This new project, however, was something else entirely, and not just because it involved the bestselling science-fiction author William Gibson, who was already ascending to a position in the mainstream literary pantheon as “the prophet of cyberspace.”

Kevin Begos Jr., publisher of museum-quality, limited edition books, has brought together artist Dennis Ashbaugh (known for his large paintings of computer viruses and his DNA “portraits”) and writer William Gibson (who coined the term cyberspace, then explored the concept in his award-winning books Neuromancer, Count Zero, and Mona Lisa Overdrive) to produce a collaborative Artist’s Book.

In an age of artificial intelligence, recombinant genetics, and radical, technologically-driven cultural change, this “Book” will be as much a challenge as a possession, as much an enigma as a “story”.

The Text, encrypted on a computer disc along with a Virus Program written especially for the project, will mutate and destroy itself in the course of a single “reading”. The Collector/Reader may either choose to access the Text, thus setting in motion a process in which the Text becomes merely a Memory, or preserve the Text unread, in its “pure” state — an artifact existing exclusively in cyberspace.

Ashbaugh’s etchings, which allude to the potent allure and taboo of Genetic Manipulation, are both counterpoint and companion-piece to the Text. Printed on beautiful rag paper, their texture, odor, form, weight, and color are qualities unavailable to the Text in cyberspace. (The etchings themselves will undergo certain irreparable changes following their initial viewing.)

This Artist’s Book (which is not exactly a “book” at all) is cased in a wrought metal box, the Mechanism, which in itself becomes a crucial, integral element of the Text. This book-as-object raises unique questions about Art, Time, Memory, Possession—and the Politics of Information Control. It will be the first Digital Myth.

William Gibson had been friends with Dennis Ashbaugh for some time, ever since the latter had written him an admiring letter a few years after his landmark novel Neuromancer was published. The two men worked in different mediums, but they shared an interest in the transformations that digital technology and computer networking were having on society. They corresponded regularly, although they met only once in person.

Yet it was neither Gibson the literary nor Ashbaugh the visual artist who conceived their joint project’s central conceit; it was instead none other than the author of the prospectus above, publisher Kevin Begos, Jr., another friend of Ashbaugh. Ashbaugh, who like Begos was based in New York City, had been looking for a way to collaborate with Gibson, and came to his publisher friend looking for ideas that might be compelling enough to interest such a high-profile science-fiction writer, who lived all the way over in Vancouver, Canada, just about as far away as it was possible to get from New York City and still be in North America. “The idea kind of came out of the blue,” says Begos: “to do a book on a computer disk that destroys itself after you read it.” Gibson, Begos, thought, would be the perfect writer to which to pitch such a project, for he innately understood the kairos moment in art; his writing was thoroughly informed by the underground rhythms of the punk and new-wave music scenes. And, being an acknowledged fan of experimental literature like that written by his hero William S. Burroughs, he wasn’t any stranger to conceptual literary art of the sort which this idea of a self-destroying text constituted.

Even so, Begos says that it took him and Ashbaugh a good six to nine months to convince Gibson to join the project. Even after agreeing to participate, Gibson proved to be the most passive of the trio by far, providing the poem that was to destroy itself early on but then doing essentially nothing else after that. It’s thus ironic and perhaps a little unfair that the finished piece remains today associated almost exclusively with the name of William Gibson. If one person can be said to be the mastermind of the project as a whole, that person must be Kevin Begos, Jr., not William Gibson.

Begos, Ashbaugh, and Gibson decided to call their art project Agrippa (A Book of the Dead), adopting the name Gibson gave to his poem for the project as a whole. Still, there was, as the prospectus above describes, much more to it than the single self-immolating disk which contained the poem. We can think of the whole artwork as being split into two parts: a physical component, provided by Ashbaugh, and a digital component, provided by Gibson, with Begos left to tie them together. Both components were intended to be transitory in their own ways. (Their transcendence, of course, must be in the eye of the beholder.)

Begos said that he would make and sell just 455 copies of the complete work, ranging in price from $450 for the basic edition to $7500 for a “deluxe copy in a bronze case.” The name of William Gibson lent what would otherwise have been just a wacky avant-garde art project a great deal of credibility with the mainstream press. It was discussed far and wide in the spring and summer of 1992, finding its way into publications like People, Entertainment WeeklyEsquire, and USA Today long before it existed as anything but a set of ideas inside the minds of its creators. A reporter for Details magazine repeated the description of a Platonic ideal of Agrippa that Begos relayed to him from his fond imagination:

‘Agrippa’ comes in a rough-hewn black box adorned with a blinking green light and an LCD readout that flickers with an endless stream of decoded DNA. The top opens like a laptop computer, revealing a hologram of a circuit board. Inside is a battered volume, the pages of which are antique rag-paper, bound and singed by hand.

Like a frame of unprocessed film, ‘Agrippa’ begins to mutate the minute it hits the light. Ashbaugh has printed etchings of DNA nucleotides, but then covered them with two separate sets of drawings: One, in ultraviolet ink, disappears when exposed to light for an hour; the other, in infrared ink, only becomes visible after an hour in the light. A paper cavity in the center of the book hides the diskette that contains Gibson’s fiction, digitally encoded for the Macintosh or the IBM.


The disk contained Gibson’s poem Agrippa: “The story scrolls on the screen at a preset pace. There is no way to slow it down, speed it up, copy it, or remove the encryption that ultimately causes it to disappear.” Once the text scrolled away, the disk got wiped, and that was that. All that would be left of Agrippa was the reader’s memory of it.

The three tricksters delighted over the many paradoxes of their self-destroying creation with punk-rock glee. Ashbaugh laughed about having to send two copies of it to the copyright office — because to register it for a copyright, you had to read it, but when you read it you destroyed it. Gibson imagined some musty academic of the future trying to pry the last copy out of the hands of a collector so he could read it — and thereby destroy it definitively for posterity. He described it as “a cruel joke on book collectors.”

As I’ve already noted, Ashbaugh’s physical side of the Agrippa project was destined to be overshadowed by Gibson’s digital side, to the extent that the former is barely remembered at all today. Part of the problem was the realities of working with physical materials, which conspired to undo much of the original vision for the physical book. The LCD readout and the circuit-board hologram fell by the wayside, as did Ashbaugh’s materializing and de-materializing pictures. (One collector has claimed that the illustrations “fade a bit” over time, but one does have to wonder whether even that is wishful thinking.)

But the biggest reason that one aspect of Agrippa so completely overshadowed the other was ironically the very thing that got the project noticed at all in so many mainstream publications: William Gibson’s fame in comparison to his unknown collaborators. People magazine didn’t even bother to mention that there was anything to Agrippa at all beyond the disk; “I know Ashbaugh was offended by that,” says Begos. Unfortunately obscured by this selective reporting was an intended juxtaposition of old and new forms of print, a commentary on evolving methods of information transmission. Begos was as old-school as publishers got, working with a manual printing press not very dissimilar from the one invented by Gutenberg; each physical edition of Agrippa was a handmade objet d’art. Yet all most people cared about was the little disk hidden inside it.

So, even as the media buzzed with talk about the idea of a digital poem that could only be read once, Begos had a hell of a time selling actual, physical copies of the book. As of December of 1992, a few months after it went to press, Begos said he still had about 350 copies of it sitting around waiting for buyers. It seems unlikely that most of these were ever sold; they were quite likely destroyed in the end, simply because the demand wasn’t there. Begos relates a typical anecdote:

There was a writer from a newspaper in the New York area who was writing something on Agrippa. He was based out on Long Island and I was based in Manhattan. He sent a photographer to photograph the book one afternoon. And he’d done a phone interview with me, though I don’t remember if he called Gibson or not. He checked in with me after the photographer had come to make sure that it had gone alright, and I said yes. I said, “Well aren’t you coming by; don’t you want to see the book?” He said “No; you know, the traffic’s really bad; you know, I just don’t have time.” He published his story the next day, and there was nothing wrong with it, but I found that very odd. It probably would have taken him an hour to drive in, or he could have waited a few days. But some people, they almost seemed resistant to seeing the whole package.

It’s inevitable, given the focus of this site, that our interest too will largely be captured by the digital aspect of the work. Yet the physical artwork — especially the full-fledged $7500 edition — certainly is an interesting creation in its own right. Rather than looking sleek and modern, as one might expect from the package framing a digital text from the prophet of cyberpunk, it looks old — mysteriously, eerily old. “There’s a little bit of a dark side to the Gibson story and the whole mystery about it and the whole notion of a book that destroys itself, a text that destroys itself after you read it,” notes Begos. “So I thought that was fitting.” It smacks of ancient tomes full of forbidden knowledge, like H.P. Lovecraft’s Necronomicon, or the Egyptian Book of the Dead to which its parenthetical title seems to pay homage. Inside was to be found abstract imagery and, in lieu of conventional text, long strings of numbers and characters representing the gene sequence of the fruit fly. And then of course there was the disk, nestled into its little pocket at the back.

The deluxe edition of Agrippa is housed in this box, made out of fiberglass and paper and “distressed” by hand.

The book is inside a shroud and another case. Its title has been burned into it by hand.

The book’s 64 hand-cut pages combine long chunks of the fruit-fly genome alongside Daniel Ashbaugh’s images evocative of genetics — and occasional images, such as the pistol above, drawn from Gibson’s poem of “Agrippa.”

The last 20 pages have been glued together — as usual, by hand — and a pocket cut out of them to hold the disk.

But it was, as noted, the contents of the disk that really captured the public’s imagination, and that’s where we’ll turn our attention now.

William Gibson’s contribution to the project is an autobiographical poem of approximately 300 lines and 2000 words. The poem called “Agrippa” is named after something far more commonplace than its foreboding packaging might imply. “Agrippa” was actually the brand name of a type of photo album which was sold by Kodak in the early- and mid-twentieth century. Gibson’s poem begins as he has apparently just discovered such an artifact — “a Kodak album of time-burned black construction paper” — in some old attic or junk room. What follows is a meditation on family and memory, on the roots of things that made William Gibson the man he is now. There’s a snapshot of his grandfather’s Appalachian sawmill; there’s a pistol from some semi-forgotten war; there’s a picture of downtown Wheeling, West Virginia, 1917; there’s a magazine advertisement for a Rocket 88; there’s the all-night bus station in Wytheville, Virginia, where a young William Gibson used to go to buy cigarettes for his mother, and from which a slightly older one left for Canada to avoid the Vietnam draft and take up the life of an itinerant hippie.

Gibson is a fine writer, and “Agrippa” is a lovely, elegiac piece of work which stands on its own just fine as plain old text on the page when it’s divorced from all of its elaborate packaging and the work of conceptual art that was its original means of transmission. (Really, it does: go read it.) It was also the least science-fictional thing he had written to date — quite an irony in light of all of the discussion that swirled around it about publication in the age of cyberspace. But then, the ironies truly pile up in layers when it comes to this artistic project. It was ironically appropriate that William Gibson, a famously private person, should write something so deeply personal only in the form of a poem designed to disappear as soon as it had been read. And perhaps the supreme irony was this disappearing poem’s interest in the memories encoded by permanent artifacts like an old photo album, an old camera, or an old pistol. This interest in the way that everyday objects come to embody our collective memory would go on to become a recurring theme in Gibson’s later, more mature, less overtly cyberpunky novels. See, for example, the collector of early Sinclair microcomputers who plays a prominent role in 2003’s Pattern Recognition, in my opinion Gibson’s best single novel to date.

But of course it wasn’t as if the public’s interest in Agrippa was grounded in literary appreciation of Gibson’s poem, any more than it was in artistic appreciation of the physical artwork that surrounded it. All of that was rather beside the point of the mainstream narrative — and thus we still haven’t really engaged with the reason that Agrippa was getting write-ups in the likes of People magazine. Beyond the star value lent the project by William Gibson, all of the interest in Agrippa was spawned by this idea of a text — it could been have any text packaged in any old way, if we’re being brutally honest — that consumed itself as it was being read. This aspect of it seemed to have a deep resonance with things that were currently happening in society writ large, even if few could clarify precisely what those things were in a world perched on the precipice of the Internet Age. And, for all that the poem itself belied his reputation as a writer of science fiction, this aspect of Agrippa also resonated with the previous work of William Gibson, the mainstream media’s go-to spokesman for the (post)modern condition.

Enter, then, the fourth important contributor to Agrippa, a shadowy character who has chosen to remain anonymous to this day and whom we shall therefore call simply the Hacker. He apparently worked at Bolt, Beranek, and Newman, a Boston consulting firm with a rich hacking heritage (Will Crowther of Adventure fame had worked there), and was a friend of Dennis Ashbaugh. Kevin Begos, Jr., contracted with him to write the code for Gibson’s magical disappearing poem. “Dealing with the hacker who did the program has been like dealing with a character from one of your books,” wrote Begos to Gibson in a letter.

The Hacker spent most of his time not coding the actual display of the text — a trivial exercise — but rather devising an encryption scheme to make it impenetrable to the inevitable army of hex-editor-wielding compatriots who would try to extract the text from the code surrounding it. “The encryption,” he wrote to Begos, “has a very interesting feature in that it is context-sensitive. The value, both character and numerical, of any given character is determined by the characters next to it, which from a crypto-analysis or code-breaking point of view is an utter nightmare.”

The Hacker also had to devise a protection scheme to prevent people from simply copying the disk, then running the program from the copy. He tried to add digitized images of some of Ashbaugh’s art to the display, which would have had a welcome unifying effect on an artistic statement that too often seemed to reflect the individual preoccupations of Begos, Ashbaugh, and Gibson rather than a coherent single vision. In the end, however, he gave that scheme up as technically unfeasible. Instead he settled for a few digitized sound effects and a single image of a Kodak Agrippa photo album, displayed as the title screen before the text of the poem began to scroll. Below you can see what he ended up creating, exactly as someone would have who was foolhardy enough to put the disk into her Macintosh back in 1992.

The denizens of cyberspace, many of whom regarded William Gibson more as a god than a prophet, were naturally intrigued by Agrippa from the start, not least thanks to the implicit challenge it presented to crack the protection and thus turn this artistic monument to impermanence into its opposite. The Hacker sent Begos samples of the debates raging on the pre-World Wide Web Internet already in April of 1992, months before the book’s publication.

“I just read about William Gibson’s new book Agrippa (The Book of the Dead),” wrote one netizen. “I understand it’s going to be published on disk, with a virus that prevents it from being printed out. What do people think of this idea?”

“I seem to recall reading that this stuff about the virus-loaded book was an April Fools joke started here on the Internet,” replied another. “But nobody’s stopped talk about it, and even Tom Maddox, who knows Gibson, seemed to confirm its existence. Will the person who posted the original message please confirm or confess? Was this an April Fools joke or not?”

The Tom Maddox in question, who was indeed personally acquainted with Gibson, replied that the disappearing text “was part of a limited-edition, expensive artwork that Gibson believes was totally subscribed before ‘publication.’ Someone will publish it in more accessible form, I believe (and it will be interesting to see what the cyberpunk audience makes of it — it’s an autobiographical poem, about ten pages long).”

“What a strange world we live in,” concluded another netizen. Indeed.

The others making Agrippa didn’t need the Hacker to tell them with what enthusiasm the denizens of cyberspace would attack his code, vying for the cred that would come with being the first to break it. John Perry Barlow, a technology activist and co-founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, told Begos that unidentified “friends of his vow to buy and then run Agrippa through a Cray supercomputer to capture the code and crack the program.”

And yet for the first few months after the physical book’s release it remained uncracked. The thing was just so darn expensive, and the few museum curators and rare-books collectors who bought copies neither ran in the same circles as the hacking community nor were likely to entrust their precious disks to one of them.

Interest in the digital component of Agrippa remained high in the press, however, and, just as Tom Maddox had suspected all along, the collaborators eventually decided to give people unwilling to spend hundreds or thousands of dollars on the physical edition a chance to read — and to hear — William Gibson’s poem through another ephemeral electronic medium. On December 9, 1992, the Americas Society of New York City hosted an event called “The Transmission,” in which the magician and comedian Penn Jillette read the text of the poem as it scrolled across a big screen, bookended by question-and-answer sessions with Kevin Begos, Jr., the only member of the artistic trio behind Agrippa to appear at the event. The proceedings were broadcast via a closed-circuit satellite hookup to, as the press release claimed, “a street-corner shopfront on the Lower East Side, the Michael Carlos Museum in Atlanta, the Kitchen in New York City, a sheep farm in the Australian Outback, and others.” Continuing with the juxtaposition of old and new that had always been such a big thematic part of the Agrippa project — if a largely unremarked one — the press release pitched the event as a return to the days when catching a live transmission of one form or another had been the only way to hear a story, an era that had been consigned to the past by the audio- and videocassette.

When did you last hear Hopalong Cassidy on his NBC radio program? When did you last read to your children around a campfire? Have you been sorry that your busy schedule prevented a visit to the elders’ mud hut in New Guinea, where legends of times past are recounted? Have you ever looked closely at your telephone cable to determine exactly how voices and images can come out of the tiny fibers?

Naturally, recording devices were strictly prohibited at the event. Agrippa was still intended to be an ephemeral kairos moment, just like the radio broadcasts of yore.

Of course, it had always been silly to imagine that all traces of the poem could truly be blotted from existence after it had been viewed and/or heard by a privileged few. After all, people reading it on their monitor screens at home could buy video cameras too. Far from denying this reality, Begos imagined an eventual underground trade in fuzzy Agrippa videotapes, much like the bootleg concert tapes traded among fans of Bob Dylan and the Grateful Dead. Continuing with the example set by those artists, he imagined the bootleg trade being more likely to help than to hurt Agrippa‘s cultural cachet. But it would never come to that — for, despite Begos’s halfhearted precautions, the Transmission itself was captured as it happened.

Begos had hired a trio of student entrepreneurs from New York University’s Interactive Television Program to run the technical means of transmission of the Transmission. They went by the fanciful names of “Templar, Rosehammer, and Pseudophred” — names that could have been found in the pages of a William Gibson novel, and that should therefore have set off warning bells in the head of one Kevin Begos, Jr. Sure enough, the trio slipped a videotape into the camera broadcasting the proceedings. The very next morning, the text of the poem appeared on an underground computer bulletin board called MindVox, preceded by the following introduction:

Hacked & Cracked by
Rosehammer & Pseudophred
Introduction by Templar

When I first heard about an electronic book by William Gibson… sealed in an ominous tome of genetic code which smudges to the touch… which is encrypted and automatically self-destructs after one reading… priced at $1,500… I knew that it was a challenge, or dare, that would not go unnoticed. As recent buzzing on the Internet shows, as well as many overt attempts to hack the file… and the transmission lines… it’s the latest golden fleece, if you will, of the hacking community.

I now present to you, with apologies to William Gibson, the full text of AGRIPPA. It, of course, does not include the wonderful etchings, and I highly recommend purchasing the original book (a cheaper version is now available for $500). Enjoy.

And I’m not telling you how I did it. Nyah.

As Matthew Kirschenbaum, the foremost scholar of Agrippa, points out, there’s a delicious parallel to be made with the opening lines of Gibson’s 1981 short story “Johnny Mnemonic,” the first fully realized piece of cyberpunk literature he or anyone else ever penned: “I put the shotgun in an Adidas bag and padded it out with four pairs of tennis socks, not my style at all, but that was what I was aiming for: If they think you’re crude, go technical; if they think you’re technical, go crude. I’m a very technical boy. So I decided to get as crude as possible.” Templar was happy to let people believe he had reverse-engineered the Hacker’s ingenious encryption, but in reality his “hack” had consisted only of a fortuitous job contract and a furtively loaded videotape. Whatever works, right? “A hacker always takes the path of least resistance,” said Templar years later. “And it is a lot easier to ‘hack’ a person than a machine.”

Here, then, is one more irony to add to the collection. Rather than John Parry Barlow’s Cray supercomputer, rather than some genius hacker Gibson would later imagine had “cracked the supposedly uncrackable code,” rather than the “international legion of computer hackers” which the journal Cyberreader later claimed had done the job, Agrippa was “cracked” by a cameraman who caught a lucky break. Within days, it was everywhere in cyberspace. Within a month, it was old news online.

Before Kirschenbaum uncovered the real story, it had indeed been assumed for years, even by the makers of Agrippa, that the Hacker’s encryption had been cracked, and that this had led to its widespread distribution on the Internet — led to this supposedly ephemeral text becoming as permanent as anything in our digital age. In reality, though, it appears that the Hacker’s protection wasn’t cracked at all until long after it mattered. In 2012, the University of Toronto sponsored a contest to crack the protection, which was won in fairly short order by one Robert Xiao. Without taking anything away from his achievement, it should be noted that he had access to resources — including emulators, disk images, and exponentially more sheer computing power — of which someone trying to crack the program on a real Macintosh in 1992 could hardly even have conceived. No protection is unbreakable, but the Hacker’s was certainly unbreakable enough for its purpose.

And so, with Xiao’s exhaustive analysis of the Hacker’s protection (“a very straightforward in-house ‘encryption’ algorithm that encodes data in 3-byte blocks”), the last bit of mystery surrounding Agrippa has been peeled away. How, we might ask at this juncture, does it hold up as a piece of art?

My own opinion is that, when divorced from its cultural reception and judged strictly as a self-standing artwork of the sort we might view in a museum, it doesn’t hold up all that well. This was a project pursued largely through correspondence by three artists who were all chasing somewhat different thematic goals, and it shows in the end result. It’s very hard to construct a coherent narrative of why all of these different elements are put together in this way. What do Ashbaugh’s DNA texts and paintings really have to do with Gibson’s meditation on family memory? (Begos made a noble attempt to answer that question at the Transmission, claiming that recordings of DNA strands would somehow become the future’s version of family snapshots — but if you’re buying that, I have some choice swampland to sell you.) And then, why is the whole thing packaged to look like H.P. Lovecraft’s Necronomicon? Rather than a unified artistic statement, Agrippa is a hodgepodge of ideas that too often pull against one another.

But is it really fair to divorce Agrippa so completely from its cultural reception all those years ago? Or, to put it another way, is it fair to judge Agrippa the artwork based solely upon Agrippa the slightly underwhelming material object? Matthew Kirschenbaum says that “the practical failure to realize much of what was initially planned for Agrippa allowed the project to succeed by leaving in its place the purest form of virtual work — a meme rather than an artifact.” He goes on to note that Agrippa is “as much conceptual art as anything else.” I agree with him on both points, as I do with the online commenter from back in the day who called it “a piece of emergent performance art.” If art truly lives in our memory and our consciousness, then perhaps our opinion of Agrippa really should encompass the whole experience, including its transmission and its reception. Certainly this is the theory that underlies the whole notion of conceptual art —  whether the artwork in question involves flying cows or disappearing poems.

It’s ironic — yes, there’s that word again — to note that Agrippa was once seen as an ominous harbinger of the digital future in the way that it showed information, divorced from physical media, simply disappearing into the ether, when the reality of the digital age has led to exactly the opposite problem, with every action we take and every word we write online being compiled into a permanent record of who we supposedly are — a slate which we can never wipe clean. And this digital permanence has come to apply to the poem of “Agrippa” as well, which today is never more than a search query away. Gibson:

The whole thing really was an experiment to see just what would happen. That whole Agrippa project was completely based on “let’s do this. What will happen?” Something happens. “What’s going to happen next?”

It’s only a couple thousand words long, and dangerously like poetry. Another cool thing was getting a bunch of net-heads to sit around and read poetry. I sort of liked that.

Having it wind up in permanent form, sort of like a Chinese Wall in cyberspace… anybody who wants to can go and read it, if they take the trouble. Free copies to everyone. So that it became, really, at the last minute, the opposite of the really weird, elitist thing many people thought it was.

So, Agrippa really was as uncontrollable and unpredictable for its creators as it was for anyone else. Notably, nobody made any money whatsoever off it, despite all the publicity and excitement it generated. In fact, Begos calls it a “financial disaster” for his company; the fallout soon forced him to abandon publishing altogether.

“Gibson thinks of it [Agrippa] as becoming a memory, which he believes is more real than anything you can actually see,” said Begos in a contemporary interview. Agrippa did indeed become a collective kairos moment for an emerging digital culture, a memory that will remain with us for a long, long time to come. Chris in the Morning would be proud.

(Sources: the book Mechanisms: New Media and the Forensic Imagination by Matthew G. Kirschenbaum; Starlog of September 1994; Details of June 1992; New York Times of November 18 1992. Most of all, The Agrippa Files of The University of California Santa Barbara, a huge archive of primary and secondary sources dealing with Agrippa, including the video of the original program in action on a vintage Macintosh.)


Posted by on September 7, 2018 in Digital Antiquaria, Interactive Fiction


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Turning on, Booting up, and Jacking into Neuromancer

When a novel becomes notably successful, Hollywood generally comes calling to secure the film rights. Many an author naïvely assumes that the acquisition of film rights means an actual film will get made, and in fairly short order at that. And thus is many an author sorely disappointed. Almost every popular novelist who’s been around for a while has stories to tell about Hollywood’s unique form of development purgatory. The sad fact is that the cost of acquiring the rights to even the biggest bestseller is a drop in the bucket in comparison to the cost of making a film out of them. Indeed, the cost is so trivial in terms of Hollywood budgets that many studios are willing to splash out for rights to books they never seriously envision doing anything productive with at all, simply to keep them out of the hands of rivals and protect their own properties in similar genres.

One could well imagine the much-discussed but never-made movie of William Gibson’s landmark cyberpunk novel Neuromancer falling into this standard pattern. Instead, though, its story is far, far more bizarre than the norm — and in its weird way far more entertaining.

Our story begins not with the power brokers of Hollywood, but rather with two young men at the very bottom of the Tinseltown social hierarchy. Ashley Tyler and Jeffrey Kinart were a pair of surfer dudes and cabana boys who worked the swimming pool of the exclusive Beverly Hills Hotel. Serving moguls and stars every day, they noticed that the things they observed their charges doing really didn’t seem all that difficult at all. With a little luck and a little drive, even a couple of service workers like them could probably become players. Despite having no money, no education in filmmaking, and no real inroads with the people who tipped them to deliver poolside drinks, they hatched a plan in early 1985 to make a sequel to their favorite film of all time, the previous year’s strange postmodern action comedy The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension.

The idea was highly problematic, not only for all of the reasons I’ve just listed but also because Buckaroo Banzai, while regarded as something of a cult classic today, had been a notorious flop in its own day, recouping barely a third of its production budget — hardly, in other words, likely sequel fodder. Nevertheless, Tyler and Kinart were able to recruit Earl Mac Rauch, the creator of the Buckaroo Banzai character and writer of the film’s screenplay, to join their little company-in-name-only, which they appropriately titled Cabana Boy Productions. As they made the rounds of the studios, the all-too-plainly clueless Tyler and Kinart didn’t manage to drum up much interest for their Buckaroo Banzai sequel, but the Hollywood establishment found their delusions of grandeur and surfer-boy personalities so intriguing that there was reportedly some talk of signing them to a deal — not to make a Buckaroo Banzai movie, but as the fodder for a television comedy, a sort of Beverly Hillbillies for the 1980s.

After some months, the cabana boys finally recognized that Buckaroo Banzai had little chance of getting resurrected, and moved on to wanting to make a movie out of the hottest novel in science fiction: William Gibson’s Neuromancer. Rauch’s own career wasn’t exactly going gangbusters; in addition to Buckaroo Banzai, he also had on his résumé New York, New York, mob-movie maestro Martin Scorsese’s misbegotten attempt to make a classic Hollywood musical. Thus he agreed to stick with the pair, promising to write the screenplay if they could secure the rights to Neuromancer. In the meantime, they continued to schmooze the guests at the Beverly Hills Hotel, making their revised pitch to any of them who would listen. Against the odds, they stumbled upon one guest who took them very seriously indeed.

As was all too easy to tell from her rictus smile, Deborah Rosenberg was the wife of a plastic surgeon. Her husband, Victor Rosenberg, had been in private practice in New York City since 1970, serving the rich, the famous, and the would-be rich and famous. He also enjoyed a profitable sideline as a writer and commentator on his field for the supermarket tabloids, the glossy beauty magazines, and the bored-housewife talk-show circuit, where he was a regular on programs like Live with Regis and Kathie Lee, The Oprah Winfrey Show, and Donahue. When business took him and his wife to Beverly Hills in late 1985, Deborah was left to loiter by the pool while her husband attended a medical convention. It was there that she made the acquaintance of Tyler and Kinart.

Smelling money, the cabana boys talked up their plans to her with their usual gusto despite her having nothing to do with the film industry. Unaccountably, Deborah Rosenberg thought the idea of making Neuromancer with them a smashing one, and convinced her husband to put up seed capital for the endeavor. Ashley Tyler actually followed the Rosenbergs back to New York and moved into their mansion as a permanent house guest while he and Deborah continued to work on their plans. There would be much speculation around both Hollywood and New York in the months to come about exactly what sort of relationship Deborah and Ashley had, and whether her husband a) was aware of Deborah’s possible extramarital shenanigans and b) cared if he was.

While the irony of Gibson’s book full of cosmetic surgeries and body modifications of all descriptions being adapted by a plastic surgeon would have been particularly rich, Victor took little active role in the project, seeming to regard it (and possibly Ashley?) primarily as a way to keep his high-maintenance wife occupied. He did, however, help her to incorporate Cabana Boy Productions properly in January of 1986, and a few weeks later, having confirmed that Neuromancer rather surprisingly remained un-optioned, offered William Gibson $100,000 for all non-print-media rights to the novel. Gibson was almost as naïve as Deborah and her cabana boys; he had never earned more than the most menial of wages before finishing the science-fiction novel of the decade eighteen months before. He jumped at the offer with no further negotiation whatsoever, mumbling something about using the unexpected windfall to remodel his kitchen. The film rights to the hottest science-fiction novel in recent memory were now in the hands of two California surfer dudes and a plastic surgeon’s trophy wife. And then, just to make the situation that much more surreal, Timothy Leary showed up.

I should briefly introduce Leary for those of you who may not be that familiar with the psychologist whom President Nixon once called “the most dangerous man in America.” At the age of 42 in 1963, the heretofore respectable Leary was fired from his professorship at Harvard, allegedly for skipping lectures but really for administering psychedelic drugs to students without proper authorization. Ousted by the establishment, he joined the nascent counterculture as an elder statesman and cool hippie uncle. Whilst battling unsuccessfully to keep LSD and similar drugs legal — by 1968, they would be outlawed nationwide despite his best efforts — Leary traveled the country delivering “lectures” that came complete with a live backing band, light shows, and more pseudo-mystical mumbo jumbo than could be found anywhere this side of a Scientology convention. In his encounters with the straight mainstream press, he strained to be as outrageous and confrontational as possible. His favorite saying became one of the most enduring of the entire Age of Aquarius: “Turn on, tune in, drop out.” Persecuted relentlessly by the establishment as the Judas who had betrayed their trust, Leary was repeatedly arrested for drug possession. This, of course, only endeared him that much more to the counterculture, who regarded each successive bust as another instance of his personal martyrdom for their cause. The Moody Blues wrote an oh-so-sixties anthem about him called “Legend of a Mind” and made it the centerpiece of their 1968 album In Search of the Lost Chord; the Beatles song “Come Together” was begun as a campaign anthem for Leary’s farcical candidacy for governor of California.

In January of 1970, Leary, the last person in the world on whom any judge was inclined to be lenient, was sentenced to ten years imprisonment by the state of California for the possession of two marijuana cigarettes. With the aid of the terrorist group the Weather Underground, he escaped from prison that September and fled overseas, first to Algeria, then to Switzerland, where, now totally out of his depth in the criminal underworld, he wound up being kept under house arrest as a sort of prize pet by a high-living international arms dealer. When he was recaptured by Swiss authorities and extradited back to the United States in 1972, it thus came as something of a relief for him. He continued to write books in prison, but otherwise kept a lower profile as the last embers of the counterculture burned themselves out. His sentence was commuted by California Governor Jerry Brown in 1976, and he was released.

Free at last, he was slightly at loose ends, being widely regarded as a creaky anachronism of a decade that already felt very long ago and far away; in the age of disco, cocaine was the wonderdrug rather than LSD. But in 1983, when he played Infocom’s Suspended, he discovered a new passion that would come to dominate the last thirteen years of his life. He wrote to Mike Berlyn, the author of the game, to tell him that Suspended had “changed his life,” that he had been “completely overwhelmed by the way the characters split reality into six pieces.” He had, he said, “not thought much of computers before then,” but Suspended “had made computers a reality” for him. Later that year, he visited Infocom with an idea for, as one employee of the company remembers it, “a personality that would sit on top of the operating system, observe what you did, and modify what the computer would do and how it would present information based on your personal history, what you’d done on the computer.” If such an idea seems insanely ambitious in the context of early 1980s technology, it perhaps points to some of the issues that would tend to keep Leary, who wasn’t a programmer and had no real technical understanding of how computers worked, at the margins of the industry. His flamboyance and tendency to talk in superlatives made him an uneasy fit with the more low-key personality of Infocom. Another employee remembers Leary as being “too self-centered to make a good partner. He wanted his name and his ideas on something, but he didn’t want us to tell him how to do it.”

Mind Mirror

His overtures to Infocom having come to naught, Leary moved on, but he didn’t forget about computers. Far from it. As the waves of hype about home computers rolled across the nation, Leary saw in them much the same revolutionary potential he had once seen in peace, love, and LSD — and he also saw in them, one suspects, a new vehicle to bring himself, an inveterate lover of the spotlight, back to a certain cultural relevance. Computers, he declared, were better than drugs: “the language of computers [gives] me the metaphor I was searching for twenty years ago.” He helpfully provided the media with a new go-to slogan to apply to his latest ideas, albeit one that would never quite catch on like the earlier had: “Turn on, boot up, jack in.” “Who controls the pictures on the screen controls the future,” he said, “and computers let people control their own screen.”

In that spirit, he formed a small software developer of his own, which he dubbed Futique. Futique’s one tangible product was Mind Mirror, published by Electronic Arts in 1986. It stands to this day as the single strangest piece of software Electronic Arts has ever released. Billed as “part tool, part game, and part philosopher on a disk,” Mind Mirror was mostly incomprehensible — a vastly less intuitive Alter Ego with all the campy fun of that game’s terrible writing and dubious psychological insights leached out in favor of charts, graphs, and rambling manifestos. Electronic Arts found that Leary’s cultural cachet with the average computer user wasn’t as great as they might have hoped; despite their plastering his name and picture all over the box, Mind Mirror resoundingly flopped.

It was in the midst of all this activity that Leary encountered William Gibson’s novel Neuromancer. Perhaps unsurprisingly given the oft-cited link between Gibson’s vision of an ecstatic virtual reality called the Matrix and his earlier drug experiences, Leary became an instant cyberpunk convert, embracing the new sub-genre with all of his characteristic enthusiasm. Gibson, he said, had written “the New Testament of the 21st century.” Having evidently decided that the surest route to profundity lay in placing the prefix “cyber-” in front of every possible word, he went on to describe Neuromancer as “an encyclopedic epic for the cyber-screen culture of the immediate future, and an inspiring cyber-theology for the Information Age.” He reached out to the man he had anointed as the cyber-prophet behind this new cyber-theology, sparking up an acquaintance if never quite a real friendship. It was probably through Gibson — the chain of events isn’t entirely clear — that Leary became acquainted with the management of Cabana Boy Productions and their plans for a Neuromancer film. He promptly jumped in with them.

Through happenstance and sheer determination, the cabana boys now had a real corporation with at least a modicum of real funding, the rights to a real bestselling novel, and a real professional screenwriter — and the real Timothy Leary, for whatever that was worth. They were almost starting to look like a credible operation — until, that is, they started to talk.

Cabana Boy’s attempts to sell their proposed $20 million film to Hollywood were, according to one journalist, “a comedy of errors and naïveté — but what they lack in experience they are making up for in showmanship.” Although they were still not taken all that seriously by anyone, their back story and their personalities were enough to secure brief write-ups in People and Us, and David Letterman, always on the lookout for endearing eccentrics to interview and/or make fun of on his late-night talk show, seriously considered having them on. “My bet,” concluded the journalist, “is that they’ll make a movie about Cabana Boy before Neuromancer ever gets off the ground.”

Around the middle of 1986, Cabana Boy made a sizzle reel to shop around the Hollywood studios. William Gibson and his agent  and his publicist with Berkley Books were even convinced to show up and offer a few pleasantries. Almost everyone comes across as hopelessly vacuous in this, the only actual film footage Cabana Boy would ever manage to produce.

Shortly after the sizzle reel was made, Earl Mac Rauch split when he was offered the chance to work on a biopic about comedian John Belushi. No problem, said Deborah Rosenberg and Ashley Tyler, we’ll just write the Neuromancer script ourselves — this despite neither of them having ever written anything before, much less the screenplay to a proverbial “major motion picture.” At about the same time, Jeffrey Kinart had a falling-out with his old poolside partner — his absence from the promo video may be a sign of the troubles to come — and left as well. Tyler himself left at the end of 1987, marking the exit of the last actual cabana boy from Cabana Boy, even as Deborah Rosenberg remained no closer to signing the necessary contracts to make the film than she had been at the beginning of the endeavor. On the other hand, she had acquired two entertainment lawyers, a producer, a production designer, a bevy of “financial consultants,” offices in three cities for indeterminate purposes, and millions of dollars in debt. Still undaunted, on August 4, 1988, she registered her completed script, a document it would be fascinating but probably kind of horrifying to read, with the United States Copyright Office.

While all this was going on, Timothy Leary was obsessing over what may very well have been his real motivation for associating himself with Cabana Boy in the first place: turning Neuromancer into a computer game, or, as he preferred to call it, a “mind play” or “performance book.” Cabana Boy had, you’ll remember, picked up all electronic-media rights to the novel in addition to the film rights. Envisioning a Neuromancer game developed for the revolutionary new Commodore Amiga by his own company Futique, the fabulously well-connected Leary assembled a typically star-studded cast of characters to help him make it. It included David Byrne, lead singer of the rock band Talking Heads; Keith Haring, a trendy up-and-coming visual artist; Helmut Newton, a world-famous fashion photographer; Devo, the New Wave rock group; and none other than William Gibson’s personal literary hero William S. Burroughs to adapt the work to the computer.

This image created for Timothy Leary's "mind play" of Neuromancer features the artist Keith Haring, who was to play the role of Case. Haring died of AIDS in 1990 at the age of just 31, but nevertheless left behind him a surprisingly rich legacy.

This image created for Timothy Leary’s “mind play” of Neuromancer features David Byrne of the band Talking Heads.

Leary sub-contracted the rights for a Neuromancer game from Cabana Boy, and was able to secure a tentative deal with Electronic Arts. But that fell through when Mind Mirror hit the market and bombed. Another tentative agreement, this time with Jim Levy’s artistically ambitious Activision, collapsed when the much more practical-minded Bruce Davis took over control of that publisher in January of 1987. Neuromancer was a property that should have had huge draw with the computer-game demographic, but everyone, it seemed, was more than a little leery of Leary and his avant-garde aspirations. For some time, the game project didn’t make much more headway than the movie.

Neuromancer the game was saved by a very unusual friendship. While Leary was still associated with Electronic Arts, an unnamed someone at the publisher had introduced him to the head of one of their best development studios, Brian Fargo of Interplay, saying that he thought the two of them “will get along well.” “Timothy and his wife Barbara came down to my office, and sure enough we all hit it off great,” remembers Fargo. “Tim was fascinated by technology; he thought about it and talked about it all the time. So I was his go-to guy for questions about it.”

Being friends with the erstwhile most dangerous man in America was quite an eye-opening experience for the clean-cut former track star. Leary relished his stardom, somewhat faded though its luster may have been by the 1980s, and gloried in the access it gave him to the trendy jet-setting elite. Fargo remembers that Leary “would take me to all the hottest clubs in L.A. I got to go to the Playboy Mansion when I was 24 years old; I met O.J. and Nicole Simpson at his house, and Devo, and David Byrne from Talking Heads. It was a good time.”

His deals with Electronic Arts and Activision having fallen through, it was only natural for Leary to turn at last to his friend Brian Fargo to get his Neuromancer game made. Accepting the project, hot property though Neuromancer was among science-fiction fans, wasn’t without risk for Fargo. Interplay was a commercially-focused developer whose reputation rested largely on their Bard’s Tale series of traditional dungeon-crawling CRPGs; “mind plays” hadn’t exactly been in their bailiwick. Nor did they have a great deal of financial breathing room for artistic experimentation. Interplay, despite the huge success of the first Bard’s Tale game in particular, remained a small, fragile company that could ill-afford an expensive flop. In fact, they were about to embark on a major transition that would only amplify these concerns. Fargo, convinced that the main reason his company wasn’t making more money from The Bard’s Tale and their other games was the lousy 15 percent royalty they were getting from Electronic Arts — a deal which the latter company flatly refused to renegotiate — was moving inexorably toward severing those ties and trying to go it alone as a publisher as well as a developer. Doing so would mean giving up the possibility of making more Bard’s Tale games; that trademark would remain with Electronic Arts. Without that crutch to lean on, an independent Interplay would need to make all-new hits right out of the gate. And, judging from the performance of Mind Mirror, a Timothy Leary mind play didn’t seem all that likely to become one.

Fargo must therefore have breathed a sigh of relief when Leary, perhaps growing tired of this project he’d been flogging for quite some time, perhaps made more willing to trust Fargo’s instincts by the fact that he considered him a friend, said he would be happy to step back into a mere “consulting” role. He did, however, arrange for William Gibson to join Fargo at his house one day to throw out ideas. Gibson was amiable enough, but ultimately just not all that interested, as he tacitly admitted: “I was offered a lot more opportunity for input than I felt capable of acting on. One thing that quickly became apparent to me was that I hadn’t the foggiest notion of the way an interactive computer game had to be constructed, the various levels of architecture involved. It was fascinating, but I felt I’d best keep my nose out of it and let talented professionals go about the actual business of making the game.” So, Fargo and his team, which would come to include programmer Troy A. Miles, artist Charles H.H. Weidman III, and writers and designers Bruce Balfour and Mike Stackpole, were left alone to make their game. While none of them was a William Gibson, much less a William S. Burroughs, they did have a much better idea of what made for a fun, commercially viable computer game than did anyone on the dream team Leary had assembled.

Three fifths of the team that wound up making the completed Neuromancer: Troy Miles, Charles H.H. Weidman III, and Bruce Balfour.

Three fifths of the team that wound up making Interplay’s Neuromancer: Troy Miles, Charles H.H. Weidman III, and Bruce Balfour.

One member of Leary’s old team did agree to stay with the project. Brian Fargo:

My phone rang one night at close to one o’clock in the morning. It was Timothy, and he was all excited that he had gotten Devo to do the soundtrack. I said, “That’s great.” But however I said it, he didn’t think I sounded enthused enough, so he started yelling at me that he had worked so hard on this, and he should get more excitement out of me. Of course, I literally had just woken up.

So, next time I saw him, I said, “Tim, you can’t do that. It’s not fair. You can’t wake me up out of a dead sleep and tell me I’m not excited enough.” He said, “Brian, this is why we’re friends. I really appreciate the fact that you can tell me that. And you’re right.”

But in the end, Devo didn’t provide a full soundtrack, only a chiptunes version of “Some Things Never Change,” a track taken from their latest album Total Devo which plays over Neuromancer‘s splash screen.

The opening of the game. Case, now recast as a hapless loser, not much better than a space janitor, wakes up face-down in a plate of "synth-spaghetti."

The opening of the game. Case, now recast as a hapless loser, not much better than a space janitor, wakes up face-down in a plate of “synth-spaghetti.”

As an adaptation of the novel, Neuromancer the game can only be considered a dismal failure. Like that of the book, the game’s story begins in a sprawling Japanese metropolis of the future called Chiba City, stars a down-on-his-luck console cowboy named Case, and comes to revolve around a rogue artificial intelligence named Neuromancer. Otherwise, though, the plot of the game has very little resemblance to that of the novel. Considered in any other light than the commercial, the license is completely pointless; this could easily have been a generic cyberpunk adventure.

The game’s tone departs if anything even further from its source material than does its plot. Out of a sense of obligation, it occasionally shoehorns in a few lines of Gibson’s prose, but, rather than even trying to capture the noirish moodiness of the novel, the game aims for considerably lower-hanging fruit. In what was becoming a sort of default setting for adventure-game protagonists by the late 1980s, Case is now a semi-incompetent loser whom the game can feel free to make fun of, inhabiting a science-fiction-comedy universe which has much more to do with Douglas Adams — or, to move the fruit just that much lower, Planetfall or Space Quest — than William Gibson. This approach tended to show up so much in adventure games for very practical reasons: it removed most of the burden from the designers of trying to craft really coherent, believable narratives out of the very limited suite of puzzle and gameplay mechanics at their disposal. Being able to play everything for laughs just made design so much easier. Cop-out though it kind of was, it must be admitted that some of the most beloved classics of the adventure-game genre use exactly this approach. Still, it does have the effect of making Neuromancer the game read almost like a satire of Neuromancer the novel, which can hardly be ideal, at least from the standpoint of the licenser.

And yet, when divorced of its source material and considered strictly as a computer game Neuromancer succeeds rather brilliantly. It plays on three levels, only the first of which is open to you in the beginning. Those earliest stages confine you to “meat space,”  where you walk around, talk with other characters, and solve simple puzzles. Once you find a way to get your console back from the man to whom you pawned it, you’ll be able to enter the second level. Essentially a simulation of the online bulletin-board scene of the game’s own time, it has you logging onto various “databases,” where you can download new programs to run on your console, piece together clues and passwords, read forums and email, and hack banks and other entities. Only around the midway point of the game will you reach the Matrix proper, a true virtual-reality environment. Here you’ll have to engage in graphical combat with ever more potent forms of ICE (“Intrusion Countermeasures Electronics”) to penetrate ever more important databases.

Particularly at this stage, the game has a strong CRPG component; not only do you need to earn money to buy ever better consoles, software, and “skill chips” that conveniently slot right into Case’s brain, but as Case fights ICE on the Matrix his core skills improve with experience. It’s a heady brew, wonderfully varied and entertaining. Despite the limitations of the Commodore 64, the platform on which it made its debut, Neuromancer is one of the most content-rich games of its era, with none of the endless random combats and assorted busywork that stretches the contemporaneous CRPGs of Interplay and others to such interminable lengths. Neuromancer ends just about when you feel it ought to end, having provided the addictive rush of building up a character from a weakling to a powerhouse without ever having bored you in the process.

Reading messages from The Scene... err, from Neuromancer's hacker underground.

Reading messages from the Scene… err, from Neuromancer‘s version of the hacker underground.

One of the more eyebrow-raising aspects of Neuromancer is the obvious influence that the real underground world of the Scene had on its. The lingo, the attitudes… all of it is drawn from pirate BBS culture, circa 1988. Ironically, the game evokes the spirit of the Scene far better than it does anything from Gibson’s novel, serving in this respect as a time capsule par excellence. At least some people at Interplay, it seems, were far more familiar with that illegal world than any upstanding citizen ought to have been. Neuromancer is merely one more chapter in the long shared history of legitimate software developers and pirates, who were always more interconnected and even mutually dependent than the strident rhetoric of the Software Publishers Association might lead one to suspect. Richard Garriott’s Akalabeth was first discovered by his eventual publisher California Pacific via a pirated version someone brought into the office; Sid Meier ran one of the most prolific piracy rings in Baltimore before he became one of the most famous game designers in history… the anecdotes are endless. Just to blur the lines that much more, soon after Neuromancer some cracking groups would begin to go legitimate, becoming game makers in their own rights.

Like other Interplay games from this period, Neuromancer is also notable for how far it’s willing to push the barriers of acceptability in what was still the games industry’s equivalent of pre-Hayes Code Hollywood. There’s an online sex board you can visit, a happy-ending massage parlor, a whore wandering the streets. Still, and for all that it’s not exactly a comedic revelation, I find the writing in Neuromancer makes it a more likable game than, say, Wasteland with its somewhat juvenile transgression for transgression’s sake. Neuromancer walks right up to that line on one or two occasions, but never quite crosses it in this critic’s opinion.

Of course, it’s not without some niggles. The interface, especially in the meat-space portions, is a little clunky; it looks like a typical point-and-click adventure game, but its control scheme is less intuitive than it appears, which can lead to some cognitive dissonance when you first start to play. But that sorts itself out once you get into the swing of things. Neuromancer is by far my favorite Interplay game of the 1980s, boldly original but also thoroughly playable — and, it should be noted, rigorously fair. Take careful notes and do your due diligence, and you can feel confident of being able to solve this one.

About to do battle with an artificial intelligence, the most fearsome of the foes you'll encounter in the Matrix.

About to do battle with an artificial intelligence, the most fearsome of the foes you’ll encounter in the Matrix.

Neuromancer was released on the Commodore 64 and the Apple II in late 1988 as one of Interplay’s first two self-published games. The other, fortunately for Interplay but perhaps unfortunately for Neuromancer‘s commercial prospects, was an Amiga game called Battle Chess. Far less conceptually ambitious than Neuromancer, Battle Chess was an everyday chess engine, no better or worse than dozens of other ones that could be found in the public domain, onto which Interplay had grafted “4 MB of animation” and “400 K of digitized sound” (yes, those figures were considered very impressive at the time). When you moved a piece on the board, you got to watch it walk over to its new position, possibly killing other pieces in the process. And that was it, the entire gimmick. But, in those days when games were so frequently purchased as showpieces for one’s graphics and sound hardware, it was more than enough. Battle Chess became just the major hit Interplay needed to establish themselves as a publisher, but in the process it sucked all of Neuromancer‘s oxygen right out of the room. Despite the strength of the license, the latter game went comparatively neglected by Interplay, still a very small company with very limited resources, in the rush to capitalize on the Battle Chess sensation. Neuromancer was ported to MS-DOS and the Apple IIGS in 1989 and to the Amiga in 1990 — in my opinion this last is the definitive version — but was never a big promotional priority and never sold in more than middling numbers. Early talk of a sequel, to have been based on William Gibson’s second novel Count Zero, remained only that. Neuromancer is all but forgotten today, one of the lost gems of its era.

I always make it a special point to highlight games I consider to be genuine classics, the ones that still hold up very well today, and that goes double if they aren’t generally well-remembered. Neuromancer fits into both categories. So, please, feel free to download the Amiga version from right here, pick up an Amiga emulator if you don’t have one already, and have at it. This one really is worth it, folks.

I’ll of course have much more to say about the newly self-sufficient Interplay in future articles. But as for the other players in today’s little drama:

Timothy Leary remained committed to using computers to “express the panoramas of your own brain” right up until he died in 1996, although without ever managing to bring any of his various projects, which increasingly hewed to Matrix-like three-dimensional virtual realities drawn from William Gibson, into anything more than the most experimental of forms.

William Gibson himself… well, I covered him in my last article, didn’t I?

Deborah Rosenberg soldiered on for quite some time alone with the cabana-boy-less Cabana Boy; per contractual stipulation, the Neuromancer game box said that it was “soon to be a major motion picture from Cabana Boy Productions.” And, indeed, she at last managed to sign an actual contract with Tri-Star Pictures on June 2, 1989, to further develop her screenplay, at which point Tri-Star would, “at its discretion,” “produce the movie.” But apparently Tri-Star took discretion to be the better part of valor in the end; nothing else was ever heard of the deal. Cabana Boy was officially dissolved on March 24, 1993. There followed years of litigation between the Rosenbergs and the Internal Revenue Service; it seems the former had illegally deducted all of the money they’d poured into the venture from their tax returns. (It’s largely thanks to the paper trail left behind by the tax-court case, which wasn’t finally settled until 2000, that we know as much about the details of Cabana Boy as we do.) Deborah Rosenberg has presumably gone back to being simply the wife of a plastic surgeon to the stars, whatever that entails, her producing and screenwriting aspirations nipped in the bud and tucked back away wherever it was they came from.

Earl Mac Rauch wrote the screenplay for Wired, the biopic about John Belushi, only to see it greeted with jeers and walk-outs at the 1989 Cannes Film Festival. It went on to become a critical and financial disaster. Having collected three strikes in the form of New York, New York, Buckaroo Banzai, and now Wired, Rauch was out. He vanished into obscurity, although I understand he has resurfaced in recent years to write some Buckaroo Banzai graphic novels.

And as for our two cabana boys, Ashley Tyler and Jeffrey Kinart… who knows? Perhaps they’re patrolling some pool somewhere to this day, regaling the guests with glories that were or glories that may, with the right financial contribution, yet be.

(Sources: Computer Gaming World of September 1988; The Games Machine of October 1988; Aboriginal Science Fiction of October 1986; AmigaWorld of May 1988; Compute! of October 1991; The One of February 1989; Starlog of July 1984; Spin of April 1987. Online sources include the sordid details of the Cabana Boy tax case, from the United States Tax Court archive and an Alison Rhonemus’s blog post on some of the contents of Timothy Leary’s papers, which are now held at the New York Public Library. I also made use of the Get Lamp interview archives which Jason Scott so kindly shared with me. Finally, my huge thanks to Brian Fargo for taking time from his busy schedule to discuss his memories of Interplay’s early days with me.)


Posted by on November 11, 2016 in Digital Antiquaria, Interactive Fiction


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The Prophet of Cyberspace

William Gibson

William Gibson was born on March 17, 1948, on the coast of South Carolina. An only child, he was just six years old when his father, a middle manager for a construction company, choked on his food and died while away on one of his many business trips. Mother and son moved back to the former’s childhood home, a small town in Virginia.

Life there was trying for the young boy. His mother, whom he describes today as “chronically anxious and depressive,” never quite seemed to get over the death of her husband, and never quite knew how to relate to her son. Gibson grew up “introverted” and “hyper-bookish,” “the original can’t-hit-the-baseball kid,” feeling perpetually isolated from the world around him. He found refuge, like so many similar personalities, in the shinier, simpler worlds of science fiction. He dreamed of growing up to inhabit those worlds full-time by becoming a science-fiction writer in his own right.

At age 15, desperate for a new start, Gibson convinced his mother to ship him off to a private school for boys in Arizona. It was by his account as bizarre a place as any of the environments that would later show up in his fiction.

It was like a dumping ground for chronically damaged adolescent boys. There were just some weird stories there, from all over the country. They ranged from a 17-year-old, I think from Louisiana, who was like a total alcoholic, man, a terminal, end-of-the-stage guy who weighed about 300 pounds and could drink two quarts of vodka straight up and pretend he hadn’t drunk any to this incredibly great-looking, I mean, beautiful kid from San Francisco, who was crazy because from age 10 his parents had sent him to plastic surgeons because they didn’t like the way he looked.

Still, the clean desert air and the forced socialization of life at the school seemed to do him good. He began to come out his shell. Meanwhile the 1960s were starting to roll, and young William, again like so many of his peers, replaced science fiction with Beatles, Beats, and, most of all, William S. Burroughs, the writer who remains his personal literary hero to this day.

William Gibson on the road, 1967

William Gibson on the road, 1967

As his senior year at the boys’ school was just beginning, Gibson’s mother died as abruptly as had his father. Left all alone in the world, he went a little crazy. He was implicated in a drug ring at his school — he still insists today that he was innocent — and kicked out just weeks away from graduation. With no one left to go home to, he hit the road like Burroughs and his other Beat heroes, hoping to discover enlightenment through hedonism; when required like all 18-year-olds to register for the draft, he listed as his primary ambition in life the sampling of every drug ever invented. He apparently made a pretty good stab at realizing that ambition, whilst tramping around North America and, a little later, Europe for years on end, working odd jobs in communes and head shops and taking each day as it came. By necessity, he learned the unwritten rules and hierarchies of power that govern life on the street, a hard-won wisdom that would later set him apart as a writer.

In 1972, he wound up married to a girl he’d met on his travels and living in Vancouver, British Columbia, where he still makes his home to this day. As determined as ever to avoid a conventional workaday life, he realized that, thanks to Canada’s generous student-aid program, he could actually earn more money by attending university than he could working some menial job. He therefore enrolled at the University of British Columbia as an English major. Much to his own surprise, the classes he took there and the people he met in them reawakened his childhood love of science fiction and the written word in general, and with them his desire to write. Gibson’s first short story was published in 1977 in a short-lived, obscure little journal occupying some uncertain ground between fanzine and professional magazine; he earned all of $27 from the venture. Juvenilia though it may be, “Fragments of a Hologram Rose,” a moody, plot-less bit of atmospherics about a jilted lover of the near future who relies on virtual-reality “ASP cassettes” to sleep, already bears his unique stylistic stamp. But after writing it he published nothing else for a long while, occupying himself instead with raising his first child and living the life of a househusband while his wife, now a teacher with a Master’s Degree in linguistics, supported the family. It seemed a writer needed to know so much, and he hardly knew where to start learning it all.

It was punk rock and its child post-punk that finally got him going in earnest. Bands like Wire and Joy Division, who proved you didn’t need to know how to play like Emerson, Lake, and Palmer to make daring, inspiring music, convinced him to apply the same lesson to his writing — to just get on with it. When he did, things happened with stunning quickness. His second story, a delightful romp called “The Gernsback Continuum,” was purchased by Terry Carr, a legendary science-fiction editor and taste-maker, for the 1981 edition of his long-running Universe series of paperback short-story anthologies. With that feather in his cap, Gibson began regularly selling stories to Omni, one of the most respected of the contemporary science-fiction magazines. The first story of his that Omni published, “Johnny Mnemonic,” became the manifesto of a whole new science-fiction sub-genre that had Gibson as its leading light. The small network of writers, critics, and fellow travelers sometimes called themselves “The Movement,” sometimes “The Mirrorshades Group.” But in the end, the world would come to know them as the cyberpunks.

If forced to name one thing that made cyberpunk different from what had come before, I wouldn’t point to any of the exotic computer technology or the murky noirish aesthetics. I’d rather point to eight words found in Gibson’s 1982 story “Burning Chrome”: “the street finds its own use for things.” Those words signaled a shift away from past science fiction’s antiseptic idealized futures toward more organic futures extrapolated from the dirty chaos of the contemporary street. William Gibson, a man who out of necessity had learned to read the street, was the ideal writer to become the movement’s standard bearer. While traditional science-fiction writers were interested in technology for its own sake, Gibson was interested in the effect of technology on people and societies.

Cyberpunk, this first science fiction of the street, was responding to a fundamental shift in the focus of technological development in the real world. The cutting-edge technology of previous decades had been deployed as large-scale, outwardly focused projects, often funded with public money: projects like the Hoover Dam, the Manhattan Project, and that ultimate expression of macro-technology the Apollo moon landing. Even our computers were things filling entire floors, to be programmed and maintained by a small army of lab-coated drones. Golden-age science fiction was right on-board with this emphasis on ever greater scope and scale, extrapolating grand voyages to the stars alongside huge infrastructure projects back home.

Not long after macro-technology enjoyed its greatest hurrah in the communal adventure that was Apollo, however, technology began to get personal. In the mid-1970s, the first personal computers began to appear. In 1979, in an event of almost equal significance, Sony introduced the Walkman, a cassette player the size of your hand, the first piece of lifestyle technology that you could carry around with you. The PC and the Walkman begat our iPhones and Fitbits of today. And if we believe what Gibson and the other cyberpunks were already saying in the early 1980s, those gadgets will in turn beget chip implants, nerve splices, body modifications, and artificial organs. The public has become personal; the outward-facing has become inward-facing; the macro spaces have become micro spaces. We now focus on making ever smaller gadgets, even as we’ve turned our attention away from the outer space beyond our planet in favor of drilling down ever further into the infinitesimal inner spaces of genes and cells, into the tiniest particles that form our universe. All of these trends first showed up in science fiction in the form of cyberpunk.

In marked contrast to the boldness of his stories’ content, Gibson was peculiarly cautious, even hesitant, when it came to the process of writing and of making a proper career out of the act. The fact that Neuromancer, Gibson’s seminal first novel, came into being when it did was entirely down to the intervention of Terry Carr, the same man who had kick-started Gibson’s career as a writer of short stories by publishing “The Gernsback Continuum.” When in 1983 he was put in charge of a new “Ace Specials” line of science-fiction paperbacks reserved exclusively for the first novels of up-and-coming writers, Carr immediately thought again of William Gibson. A great believer in Gibson’s talent and potential importance, he cajoled him into taking an advance and agreeing to write a novel; Gibson had considered himself still “four or five years away” from being ready to tackle such a daunting task. “It wasn’t that vast forces were silently urging me to write,” he says. “It’s just that Terry Carr had given me this money and I had to make up some kind of story. I didn’t have a clue, so I said, ‘Well, I’ll plagiarize myself and see what comes of it.'” And indeed, there isn’t that much in 1984’s Neuromancer that would have felt really new to anyone who had read all of the stories Gibson had written in the few years before it. As a distillation of all the ideas with which he’d been experimenting in one 271-page novel, however, it was hard to beat.



The plot is never the most important aspect of a William Gibson novel, and this first one is no exception to that rule. Still, for the record…

Neuromancer takes place at some indeterminate time in the future, in a gritty society where the planet is polluted and capitalism has run amok, but the designer drugs and technological toys are great if you can pay for them. Our hero is Case, a former “console cowboy” who used to make his living inside the virtual reality, or “Matrix,” of a worldwide computer network, battling “ICE” (“Intrusion Countermeasures Electronics”) and pulling off heists for fun and profit. Unfortunately for him, an ex-employer with a grudge has recently fried those pieces of Case’s brain that interface with his console and let him inject himself into “cyberspace.” Left stuck permanently in “meat” space, as the novel opens he’s a borderline suicidal, down-and-out junkie. But soon he’s offered the chance to get his nervous system repaired and get back into the game by a mysterious fellow named Armitage, mastermind of a ragtag gang of outlaws who are investigating mysterious happenings on the Matrix. Eventually they’ll discover a rogue artificial intelligence behind it all — the titular Neuromancer.

Given that plot summary, we can no longer avoid addressing the thing for which William Gibson will always first and foremost be known, whatever his own wishes on the matter: he’s the man who invented the term “cyberspace,” as well as the verb “to surf” it and with them much of the attitudinal vector that accompanied the rise of the World Wide Web in the 1990s. It should be noted that both neologisms actually predate Neuromancer in Gibson’s work, dating back to 1982’s “Burning Chrome.” And it should most definitely be noted that he was hardly the first to stumble upon many of the ideas behind the attitude. We’ve already chronicled some of the developments in the realms of theory and practical experimentation that led to the World Wide Web. And in the realm of fiction, a mathematician and part-time science-fiction writer named Vernor Vinge had published True Names, a novella describing a worldwide networked virtual reality of its own, in 1981; its plot also bears some striking similarities to that of Gibson’s later Neuromancer. But Vinge was (and is) a much more prosaic writer than Gibson, hewing more to science fiction’s sturdy old school of Asimov, Clarke, and Heinlein. He could propose the idea of a worldwide network and then proceed to work it out with much more technical rigorousness than Gibson could ever dream of mustering, but he couldn’t hope to make it anywhere near as sexy.

For many the most inexplicable thing about Gibson’s work is that he should ever have come up with all this cyberspace stuff in the first place. As he took a certain perverse delight in explaining to his wide-eyed early interviewers, in his real-world life Gibson was something of a Luddite even by the standards of the 1980s. He had, for instance, never owned or used a computer at the time he wrote his early stories and Neuromancer; he wrote of his sleek high-tech futures on a clunky mechanical typewriter dating from 1927. (Gibson immortalized it within Neuromancer itself by placing it in disassembled form on the desk of Julius Deane, an underworld kingpin Case visits early in the novel.) And I’ve seen no evidence that Gibson was aware of True Names prior to writing “Burning Chrome” and Neuromancer, much less the body of esoteric and (at the time) obscure academic literature on computer networking and hypertext.

Typically, Gibson first conceived the idea of the Matrix not from reading tech magazines and academic journals, as Vinge did in conceiving his own so-called “Other Plane,” but on the street, while gazing through the window of an arcade. Seeing the rapt stares of the players made him think they believed in “some kind of actual space behind the screen, someplace you can’t see but you know is there.” In Neuromancer, he describes the Matrix as the rush of a drug high, a sensation with which his youthful adventures in the counterculture had doubtless left him intimately familiar.

He closed his eyes.

Found the ridged face of the power stud.

And in the bloodlit dark behind his eyes, silver phosphenes boiling in from the edge of space, hypnagogic images jerking past like film compiled from random frames. Symbols, figures, faces, a blurred, fragmented mandala of visual information.

Please, he prayed, _now –_

A gray disk, the color of Chiba sky.

_Now –_

Disk beginning to rotate, faster, becoming a sphere of paler gray. Expanding —

And flowed, flowered for him, fluid neon origami trick, the unfolding of his distanceless home, his country, transparent 3D chessboard extending to infinity. Inner eye opening to the stepped scarlet pyramid of the Eastern Seaboard Fission Authority burning beyond the green cubes of Mitsubishi Bank of America, and high and very far away he saw the spiral arms of military systems, forever beyond his reach.

And somewhere he was laughing, in a white-painted loft, distant fingers caressing the deck, tears of release streaking his face.

Much of the supposedly “futuristic” slang in Neuromancer is really “dope dealer’s slang” or “biker’s talk” Gibson had picked up on his travels. Aside from the pervasive role played by the street, he has always listed the most direct influences on Neuromancer as the cut-up novels of his literary hero William S. Burroughs, the noirish detective novels of Dashiell Hammett, and the deliciously dystopian nighttime neon metropolis of Ridley Scott’s film Blade Runner, which in its exploration of subjectivity, the nature of identity, and the influence of technology on same hit many of the same notes that became staples of Gibson’s work. That so much of the modern world seems to be shaped in Neuromancer‘s image says much about Gibson’s purely intuitive but nevertheless prescient genius — and also something about the way that science fiction can be not only a predictor but a shaper of the future, an idea I’ll return to shortly.

But before we move on to that subject and others we should take just a moment more to consider how unique Neuromancer, a bestseller that’s a triumph of style as much as anything else, really is in the annals of science fiction. In a genre still not overly known for striking or elegant prose, William Gibson is one of the few writers immediately recognizable after just a paragraph or two. If, on the other hand, you’re looking for air-tight world-building and careful plotting, Gibson is definitely not the place to find it. “You’ll notice in Neuromancer there’s obviously been a war,” he said in an interview, “but I don’t explain what caused it or even who was fighting it. I’ve never had the patience or the desire to work out the details of who’s doing what to whom, or exactly when something is taking place, or what’s become of the United States.”

I remember standing in a record store one day with a friend of mine who was quite a good guitar player when Jimi Hendrix’s famous Woodstock rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner” came over the sound system. “All he does is make a bunch of noise to cover it up every time he flubs a note,” said my friend — albeit, as even he had to agree, kind of a dazzling noise. I sometimes think of that conversation when I read Neuromancer and Gibson’s other early works. There’s an ostentatious, look-at-me! quality to his prose, fueled by, as Gibson admitted, his “blind animal panic” at the prospect of “losing the reader’s attention.” Or, as critic Andrew M. Butler puts it more dryly: “This novel demonstrates great linguistic density, Gibson’s style perhaps blinding the reader to any shortcomings of the novel, and at times distancing us from the characters and what Gibson the author may feel about them.” The actual action of the story, meanwhile, Butler sums up not entirely unfairly as, “Case, the hapless protagonist, stumbles between crises, barely knowing what’s going on, at risk from a femme fatale and being made offers he cannot refuse from mysterious Mr. Bigs.” Again, you don’t read William Gibson for the plot.

Which of course only makes Neuromancer‘s warm reception by the normally plot-focused readers of science fiction all the more striking. But make no mistake: it was a massive critical and commercial success, winning the Hugo and Nebula Awards for its year and, as soon as word spread following its very low-key release, selling like crazy. Unanimously recognized as the science-fiction novel of 1984, it was being labeled the novel of the decade well before the 1980s were actually over; it was just that hard to imagine another book coming out that could compete with its influence. Gibson found himself in a situation somewhat akin to that of Douglas Adams during the same period, lauded by the science-fiction community but never quite feeling a part of it. “Everyone’s been so nice,” he said in the first blush of his success, “but I still feel very much out of place in the company of most science-fiction writers. It’s as though I don’t know what to do when I’m around them, so I’m usually very polite and keep my tie on. Science-fiction authors are often strange, ill-socialized people who have good minds but are still kids.” Politeness or no, descriptions like that weren’t likely to win him many new friends among them. And, indeed, there was a considerable backlash against him by more traditionalist writers and readers, couched in much the same rhetoric that had been deployed against science fiction’s New Wave of writers of twenty years before.

But if we wish to find reasons that so much of science-fiction fandom did embrace Neuromancer so enthusiastically, we can certainly find some that were very practical if not self-serving, and that had little to do with the literary stylings of William S. Burroughs or extrapolations on the social import of technological development. Simply put, Neuromancer was cool, and cool was something that many of the kids who read it decidedly lacked in their own lives. It’s no great revelation to say that kids who like science fiction were and are drawn in disproportionate numbers to computers. Prior to Neuromancer, such kids had few media heroes to look up to; computer hackers were almost uniformly depicted as socially inept nerds in Coke-bottle glasses and pocket protectors. But now along came Case, and with him a new model of the hacker as rock star, dazzling with his Mad Skillz on the Matrix by day and getting hot and heavy with his girlfriend Molly Millions, who seemed to have walked into the book out of an MTV music video, by night. For the young pirates and phreakers who made up the Scene, Neuromancer was the feast they’d never realized they were hungry for. Cyberpunk ideas, iconography, and vocabulary were quickly woven into the Scene’s social fabric.

Like much about Neuromancer‘s success, this way of reading it, which reduced it down to a stylish exercise in escapism, bothered Gibson. His book was, he insisted, not about how cool it was to be “hard and glossy” like Case and Molly, but about “what being hard and glossy does to you.” “My publishers keep telling me the adolescent market is where it’s at,” he said, “and that makes me pretty uncomfortable because I remember what my tastes ran to at that age.”

While Gibson may have been uncomfortable with the huge appetite for comic-book-style cyberpunk that followed Neuromancer‘s success, plenty of others weren’t reluctant to forgo any deeper literary aspirations in favor of piling the casual violence and casual sex atop the casual tech. As the violence got ever more extreme and the sex ever more lurid, cyberpunk risked turning into the most insufferable of clichés.

Sensation though cyberpunk was in the rather insular world of written science fiction, William Gibson and the sub-genre he had pioneered filtered only gradually into the world outside of that ghetto. The first cyberpunk character to take to the screen arguably was, in what feels a very appropriate gesture, a character who allegedly lived within a television: Max Headroom, a curious computerized talking head who became an odd sort of cultural icon for a few years there during the mid- to late-1980s. Invented for a 1985 low-budget British television movie called Max Headroom: 20 Minutes into the Future, Max went on to host his own talk show on British television, to become an international spokesman for the ill-fated New Coke, and finally to star in an American dramatic series which managed to air 14 episodes on ABC during 1987 and 1988. While they lacked anything precisely equivalent to the Matrix, the movie and the dramatic series otherwise trafficked in themes, dystopic environments, and gritty technologies of the street not far removed at all from those of Neuromancer. The ambitions of Max’s creators were constantly curtailed by painfully obvious budgetary limitations as well as the pop-cultural baggage carried by the character himself; by the time of the 1987 television series he had become more associated with camp than serious science fiction. Nevertheless, the television series in particular makes for fascinating viewing for any student of cyberpunk history. (The series endeared itself to Commodore Amiga owners in another way: Amigas were used to create many of the visual effects used on the show, although not, as was occasionally reported, to render Max Headroom himself. He was actually played by an actor wearing a prosthetic mask, with various visual and auditory effects added in post-production to create the character’s trademark tics.)

There are other examples of cyberpunk’s slowly growing influence to be found in the film and television of the late 1980s and early 1990s, such as the street-savvy, darkly humorous low-budget action flick Robocop. But William Gibson’s elevation to the status of Prophet of Cyberspace in the eyes of the mainstream really began in earnest with a magazine called Wired, launched in 1993 by an eclectic mix of journalists, entrepreneurs, and academics. Envisioned as a glossy lifestyle magazine for the hip and tech-conscious — the initial pitch labeled it “the Rolling Stone of technology” — Wired‘s aesthetics were to a large degree modeled on William Gibson. When they convinced him to contribute a rare non-fiction article (on Singapore, which he described as “Disneyland with the death penalty”) to the fourth issue, the editors were so excited that they stuck the author rather than the subject of the article on their magazine’s cover.


Well-funded and editorially polished in all the ways that traditional technology journals weren’t, Wired was perfectly situated to become mainstream journalism’s go-to resource for understanding the World Wide Web and the technology bubble expanding around it. It was largely through Wired that “cyberspace” and “surfing” became indelible parts of the vocabulary of the age, even as both neologisms felt a long, long way in spirit from the actual experience of using the World Wide Web in those early days, involving as it did mostly text-only pages delivered to the screen at a glacial pace. No matter. The vocabulary surrounding technology has always tended to be grounded in aspiration rather than reality, and perhaps that’s as it should be. By the latter 1990s, Gibson was being acknowledged by even such dowdy organs as The New York Times as the man who had predicted it all five years before the World Wide Web was so much as a gleam in the eye of Tim Berners-Lee.

To ask whether William Gibson deserves his popular status as a prophet is, I would suggest, a little pointless. Yes, Vernor Vinge may have better claim to the title in the realm of fiction, and certainly people like Vannevar Bush, Douglas Engelbart, Ted Nelson, and even Bill Atkinson of Apple have huge claims on the raw ideas that turned into the World Wide Web. Even within the oeuvre of William Gibson himself, his predictions in other areas of personal technology and society — not least his anticipation of globalization and its discontents — strike me as actually more prescient than his rather vague vision of a global computerized Matrix.

Yet, whether we like it or not, journalism and popular history do tend to condense complexities down to single, easily graspable names, and in this case the beneficiary of that tendency is William Gibson. And it’s not as if he didn’t make a contribution. Whatever the rest did, Gibson was the guy who made the idea of a networked society — almost a networked consciousness — accessible, cool, and fun. In doing so, he turned the old idea of science fiction as prophecy on its head. Those kids who grew up reading Neuromancer became the adults who are building the technology of today. If, with the latest developments in virtual reality, we seem to be inching ever closer to a true worldwide Matrix, we can well ask ourselves who is the influenced and who is the influencer. Certainly Neuromancer‘s effect on our popular culture has been all but incalculable. The Matrix, the fifth highest-grossing film of 1999 and a mind-expanding pop-culture touchstone of its era, borrowed from Gibson to the extent of naming itself after his version of virtual reality. In our own time, it’s hard to imagine current too-cool-for-school television hits like Westworld, Mr. Robot, and Black Mirror existing without the example of Neuromancer (or, at least, without The Matrix and thus by extension Neuromancer). The old stereotype of the closeted computer nerd, if not quite banished to the closet from which it came, does now face strong competition indeed. Cyberpunk has largely faded away as a science-fiction sub-genre or even just a recognized point of view, not because the ideas behind it died but because they’ve become so darn commonplace.

You may have noticed that up to this point I’ve said nothing about the books William Gibson wrote after Neuromancer. That it’s been so easy to avoid doing so says much about his subsequent career, doomed as it is always to be overshadowed by his very first novel. For understandable reasons, the situation hasn’t always sat well with Gibson himself. Already in 1992, he could only wryly reply, “Yeah, and they’ll never let me forget it,” when introduced as the man who invented cyberspace — this well before his mainstream fame as the inventor of the word had really even begun to take off. Writing a first book with the impact of Neuromancer is not an unalloyed blessing.

That said, one must also acknowledge that Gibson didn’t do his later career any favors in getting out from under Neuromancer‘s shadow. Evincing that peculiar professional caution that always sat behind his bold prose, he mined the same territory for years, releasing a series of books whose titles — Count Zero, Mona Lisa Overdrive, Virtual Light — seem as of a piece as their dystopic settings and their vaguely realized plots. It’s not that these books have nothing to say; it’s rather that almost everything they do say is already said by Neuromancer. His one major pre-millennial departure from form, 1990’s The Difference Engine, is an influential exercise in Victorian steampunk, but also a book whose genesis owed much to his good friend and fellow cyberpunk icon Bruce Sterling, with whom he collaborated on it.

Here’s the thing, though: as he wrote all those somewhat interchangeable novels through the late 1980s and 1990s, William Gibson was becoming a better writer. His big breakthrough came with 2003’s Pattern Recognition, in my opinion the best pure novel he’s ever written. Perhaps not coincidentally, Pattern Recognition also marks the moment when Gibson, who had been steadily inching closer to the present ever since Neuromancer, finally decided to set a story in our own contemporary world. His prose is as wonderful as ever, full of sentence after sentence I can only wish I’d come up with, yet now free of the look-at-me! ostentation of his early work. One of the best ways to appreciate how much subtler a writer Gibson has become is to look at his handling of his female characters. Molly Millions from Neuromancer was every teenage boy’s wet dream come to life. Cayce, the protagonist of Pattern Recognition — her name is a sly nod back to Neuromancer‘s Case — is, well, just a person. Her sexuality is part of her identity, but it’s just a part. A strong, capable, intelligent character, she’s not celebrated by the author for any of these qualities. Instead she’s allowed just to be. This strikes me as a wonderful sign of progress — for William Gibson, and perhaps for all of us.

Which isn’t to say that Gibson’s dystopias have turned into utopias. While his actual plots remain as underwhelming as ever, no working writer of today that I’m aware of captures so adroitly the sense of dislocation and isolation that has become such a staple of post-millennial life — paradoxically so in this world that’s more interconnected than ever. If some person from the future or the past asked you how we live now, you could do a lot worse than to simply hand her one of William Gibson’s recent novels.

Whether Gibson is still a science-fiction writer is up for debate and, like so many exercises in labeling, ultimately inconsequential. There remains a coterie of old fans unhappy with the new direction, who complain about every new novel he writes because it isn’t another Neuromancer. By way of compensation, Gibson has come to be widely accepted as a writer of note outside of science-fiction fandom — a writer of note, that is, for something more than being the inventor of cyberspace. That of course doesn’t mean he will ever write another book with the impact of Neuromancer, but Gibson, who never envisioned himself as anything more than a cult writer in the first place, seems to have made his peace at last with the inevitability of the phrases “author of Neuromancer” and “coiner of the term ‘cyberspace'” appearing in the first line of his eventual obituary. Asked in 2007 by The New York Times whether he was “sick of being known as the writer who coined the word ‘cyberspace,'” he said he thought he’d “miss it if it went away.” In the meantime, he has more novels to write. We may not be able to escape our yesterdays, but we always have our today.

(Sources: True Names by Vernor Vinge; Conversations with William Gibson, edited by Patrick A. Smith; Bruce Sterling and William Gibson’s introductions to the William Gibson short-story collection Burning Chrome; Bruce Sterling’s preface to the cyberpunk short-story anthology Mirrorshades; “Science Fiction from 1980 to the Present” by John Clute and “Postmodernism and Science Fiction” by Andrew M. Butler, both found in The Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction; Spin of April 1987; Los Angeles Times of September 12 1993; The New York Times of August 19 2007; William Gibson’s autobiography from his website; “William Gibson and the Summer of Love” from the Toronto Dream Project; and of course the short stories and novels of William Gibson.)


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