Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Hi-Tech’s Philosopher

I just read William Gibson’s book ‘Idoru’ written in the 1990s and part of his ‘bridge’ trilogy. I am set to start reading his latest book ‘Zero History.’  Admittedly his works seems light and his sentences are brief, Zen-like, and similar to Japanese koans. Minimalism is the word that comes to mind when reading his works. Lately I seemed to have transferred my fondness for the spy novel to science fiction – particularly of the Gibson variety. Gibson is perhaps unlike the more established science fiction writers like Isaac Asimov or Frank Herbert, authors I have never read except watched film adaptations of their books. In fact, I never liked science fiction except to watch the genre in movies (‘Star Wars’) or television (‘Star Trek’) where the plots are better illustrated than read. But Gibson is different because his subjects seem to be more accessible and timely.

His works have different ‘down-to-earth’ themes such as pattern recognition, advertising, Internet, artificial intelligence and high technology. He does not write about aliens or space exploration or about strange viruses and so on.  In fact his novels seem tame and disciplined, without the extravagant imagination of a Jules Verne. His work seems to evoke a sleek well-designed gadget like the iPhone or the iPad. But his recent works also talk about spies and conspiracy and the nexus of technology, advertising, commercial spy work, Internet and rock bands. A strange mix that is very interesting. I used to have the same devotion to the spy novels of John le Carre and Ian Fleming but the fall of communism may have removed the romanticism of spies. Instead it’s all about technology today.

The inexorable march of technology and innovation has immediate consequences to one’s lifestyle or one’s future that everyone is a futurologist; enjoying the latest technology due to the falling prices of hardware and software. It’s now becoming a specialist world where every one could buy an Apple product and step into the future. In the meantime, the Internet is evolving in some sort of invisible parallel universe like a separate country growing organically like those buildings in ‘Idoru’, constructing itself via nanotechnology after a devastating earthquake. The new world is a world where science fiction is no longer fiction but every day reality. Perhaps not yet in the way things occur in Gibson’s books (except for his last 3 books which seem closer to today’s reality).

This is Gibson role - as a seer who helps people navigate the new technical world. John le Carre may have written about how countries really work in their spy battles but that age is now gone; replaced by technology. Indeed, spy craft is no longer the purview of people like George Smiley or James Bond but of super computers and satellites shifting through vast amounts of electronic data to discover patterns and, thereby, discern terrorist attacks or battle plans or foreign espionage or conspiracy. The spy world has moved into science fiction. Perhaps this is the meaning of Gibson’s latest trilogy, ‘Pattern Recognition’, ‘Spook Country’ and ‘Zero History.’  But his books are sparse and elegant as compared to le Carre’s dense Shakespearean like plotting. But his succinct sentences can contain deep ideas exposing only the tip of the iceberg like the deceptively simple Apple interface hiding an extremely sophisticated operating system underneath.

In today’s high technology society, the science fiction writer is its philosopher. Shakespeare writes in his day about kings and queens, or Le Carre, in the height of the cold war, about spies and espionage. Now in the convergence of communication, computers, television, music, film, Internet and everything else being digitized, there is a new magic and mystery given life by technology. So William Gibson is providing the same role that writers in the past have done. To write about present times, to educate, entertain and philosophize about reality. He is technology’s philosopher - trying to give meaning to today’s scientific enchantment and confusion. A new world where the forces of commerce, government and military are all trying to use the latest scientific equipment to further their goals. It’s no longer the stuff of science fiction but maybe literature in the tradition of George Orwell or Franz Kafka

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