Gary Westfahl's new book William Gibson, the second entry in the University of Illinois Press's Modern Masters of Science Fiction series, is a beautifully designed book and an impressive piece of research. The bibliography, which comprises the last twenty-eight pages of the book (excepting the index and end matters), is unarguably the most comprehensive available for one of the most widely-debated figures in science fiction in the latter half of the twentieth (and early twenty-first) century. Westfahl has also graciously made it available on his personal website. Which is fantastic, since it's the only bit of this book worth reading.
Westfahl's website is endearing; it looks very Web 1.0 with hardly any of the inane clutter that aesthetic proliferated. It appears to be updated frequently, and the man clearly has an enviable work ethic, contributing regular reviews to Locus Online and having his byline on well over twenty books. It manages by itself to suggest that, as the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction's entry on Westfahl concludes, "he is a central figure in sf criticism." One might even be forgiven for failing to note that one of the two coauthors of that entry is Westfahl himself, modest as his internet presence appears to be.
This apparent modesty is hyper-present throughout William Gibson, modulated through Westfahl's conversational, borderline folksy tone as he offers readings of Gibson's work, from early fanzine articles and cartoons to his short stories, film scripts, poetry, nonfiction, and novels. These readings aim, as Westfahl clearly states up front, to convince the reader that Gibson is essentially a contemporary Heinlein, and that he is phenomenally savvy of markets while remaining, deep down, "an essentially conservative and traditional writer" (p. 7), "still committed to values and beliefs being abandoned by his contemporaries" (p. 165).
This largely takes the form of Westfahl painting Gibson as a good old boy who never misses an opportunity to skewer pompous critics, and who is a marvelous talent surrounded by clowns and fools. Sterling, Gibson's closest collaborator, is described as someone who "surely developed [their collaborative 1990 novel The Difference Engine] to boost his income, and reputation" (p. 86), which, given that half of Westfahl's argument revolves around praising Gibson's ability to manipulate markets, seems a dubious criticism at best; all of Gibson's other collaborations (excepting one X-Files script, reluctantly) are framed as unworthy of Gibson's brilliance, and rightfully so as he, according to Westfahl's suppositions, had almost nothing to do with any of them. Of The Difference Engine, Westfahl goes on to say that "[Gibson] would never gravitate to a story envisioning nineteenth century Britain where Charles Babbage's 'difference engine' had actually been constructed, prematurely providing the world with cumbersome but effective computers that transform society" (p. 87).
As part of a larger whole, this might be nothing but an awkward blemish, possibly even a signal of an endearing enthusiasm taken a bit far; in this book, unfortunately, it basically amounts to the whole of the critical stance taken. At every opportunity Westfahl refuses to go beyond an argument from authority; whole stories and novels are written off as not according with Gibson's actual interest, while collaborations are regularly described in terms of what a "true Gibson protagonist" (p. 48, 88), or "a genuine Gibson protagonist" (p. 39), would do—in contradistinction, of course, to what the protagonist in this story that regrettably happens to have Gibson's name on the byline actually does. As when, again attempting to distance Gibson from The Difference Engine, a novel Westfahl seems keenly disapproving of, he writes that "a true Gibson protagonist would be part of that 'rabble,' primarily looking out for number one while contributing in small ways to efforts to undermine the social order. Thus, the novel reflects the values of Sterling" (p. 88, emphasis mine)
The problem with this isn't that Westfahl is wrong. It's that his points are useless. And they are insistently, aggressively useless, to the point of actively denigrating Gibson's work; the main character of Count Zero (1986), the second novel in the Sprawl trilogy, is, according to Westfahl, "probably embodying Gibson's own sense that he was now capable of writing successful novels" (pp. 70-1). That's it. Interpretation complete. You can go home now, safe in your knowledge that Gibson is a genius.
The fact that Westfahl's methodology is hilariously retrograde isn't some abstract, theoretical quibble. This is a book about how to read Gibson, with the sort of institutional support that lends it the prestige to influence the canonization process. Westfahl's folksy, conservative Gibson isn't some pleasant fanzine speculation, no matter how much the tone is designed to trick the reader into believing just that; it is an attempt to determine the course of the future of the genre. William Gibson is a political act.
To see this, one only needs to be aware of how Westfahl reads "The Gernsback Continuum," an early story by Gibson which was taken as a clarion call by The Movement, who would later be referred to as cyberpunk writers. In it, a photographer on assignment takes pictures of various buildings across America that have a particular 1930s science fictional aesthetic. Outside of Tucson and high on speed, he sees the "semiotic ghosts" of this aesthetic come to life, in the form of massive crystalline towers and flying cars. As the hallucinations become more prevalent, he ultimately ends up in a cheap motel in Los Angeles, performing an exorcism with cheesy Nazi-themed pornography and depressing world news. In what is easily the story's most memorable line, the protagonist describes this apparition of an alternate Tucson as possessing "all the sinister fruitiness of Hitler Youth propaganda."
According to Westfahl, "the story actually pays fond tribute to the now-quaint prophecies of science fiction writers and futurists of the 1920s and 1930s, and ponders how their visions still influence residents of a future they failed to predict" (p. 37, emphasis mine). He goes on to suggest that, despite his own dismissal of Bruce Sterling's influential reading of the story as "driven by an ideological agenda unrelated to Gibson's concerns" (p. 37), Gibson himself "is not entirely uncritical of these outdated predictions" (p. 37; emphasis mine) citing passages where Gibson describes the inhabitants of this alternate Tucson as smug and unaware of the unpleasant realities of technological progress. Westfahl concludes that "there is no anger in these descriptions . . . like his protagonist, Gibson both observes and is part of the Gernsback Continuum" (p. 38).
"The Gernsback Continuum" is a short story; it clocks in at about 4000 words. "Hitler Youth propaganda" might only be three of them, but they are a loaded three. The story is constructed to acknowledge this; they end a sentence which is isolated as its own paragraph. They are a punchline that does double duty as the climax of the piece. Everything after is in direct relation to that realization; it is the final straw that leads the protagonist to get the hell out and chase the semiotic ghosts away. And Westfahl conspicuously ignores it and grants that, at best, Gibson is "not entirely uncritical."
This is symptomatic of a total avoidance of any political analysis (including basic contextualization) of Gibson's work by Westfahl; even as he includes dozens of feminist and post-colonial articles in his bibliography, his actual readings treat Gibson as though he operates in a void. The only time other names come up are in lists of references a particular novel makes; otherwise, it would seem that Gibson is a lone hero, fighting one abstraction (critics, the bad guys) while observing a sort of tender manipulation towards another (fans, the damsel).
By the time that Westfahl reaches his readings of the Bigend trilogy—Gibson's most recent novels and his first not set in the future—the logical leaps he makes to portray Gibson as consciously antagonizing his critics have moved past infuriating and hilarious into what can only be described as depressing. Even on the rare occasions that his arguments bear fruit, as when he discusses how the structural points of view of Zero History (2010) play uniquely to Gibson's strengths, it is swept away in a flood of claims about how another character's "dismissive comments about the 'Downside of having obsessive friends who like computers' decisively indicates that Gibson does not consider himself part of that circle" (pp. 156-7). Again and again Westfahl claims that all of the statements made by characters in Gibson's fiction are either direct reflections of himself or parodies of academics, with the only exception being his occasional argument that Gibson probably did something because the fans liked it—and this, of course, is always a good thing. As when, for instance, regarding a leaked copy of Gibson's unproduced Alien 3 script, Westfahl speculates, barely a full page after quoting Gibson as claiming that "[he doesn't] regard un-produced contract screenplays as part of [his] body of work" (p. 91) that Gibson "must have been pleased to have this extensive piece of work find an audience, though he could not have obtained permission for official publication" (p. 92).
As a scholarly text, William Gibson is a combination of impeccable research and wretched interpretation. But the title of the series and its publisher positions it such that this very well might not matter. The very fact of its publication is enough for the genre's old guard of fans, and an academy removed from the ground-level battles, to see it, as the back of the book declares, as "the definitive book on William Gibson's career." If that is the case, then we can only hope that this book serves as Gibson's gravestone. If, however, Gibson's work is better than Westfahl's readings suggest, as I suspect it is, then we can hope that William Gibson takes its proper place in history: as the punchline to a joke in a footnote of a future fan history, and nothing more.
Ben Gabriel blogs at Uninterpretative.