William Gibson, famously, has a way with words; sometimes, his words have a way with him. In William Gibson: No Maps For These Territories, they issue forth, often in disassociated or irrupted strings, as if he’s not sure how to say them.
Still, his dense and allusive language lends weight to his opinions, as documentary director Mark Neale asks about everything from religion and catastrophe to technoculture and accelerated neural networking. It’s heady philosophical monologue, a series of fascinating spiels by a mild-mannered dude from Vancouver who is, he says, interested in “being there… present in the moment,” rather than unendingly enduring theoretical and hypothetical visions of the future.
All of which is another way of saying that, if you appreciate William Gibson’s ingenious talkie documentaries, then No Maps For These Territories, made in 2000 and recently released on DVD, is right up your alley. If the terms “Ballardian,” “Chandlerian,” and “posthuman” have no place in your lexicon, then you might just end up, like my wife, asleep on the couch when the show is over.
With No Maps, Neale becomes cyberpunk’s Errol Morris, a documentary filmmaker who likes his subjects to do the talking while he, armed with a low budget and high aspirations, attempts to make the concepts visual. Like Morris, he’s not afraid to tackle Big Ideas, although Gibson’s opinions on his own work and its serious impact are a far cry from Stephen Hawking’s theorizations of wormholes and the shape of the known universe. And Neale is not afraid to get creative with his cinema; in a clever technocultural conceit, almost all of the film restricts Gibson to the backseat of a car bound from Los Angeles to Vancouver, his only means of communication with the outside world a cell phone or laptop computer, while Neale rewinds, jump-cuts, superimposes, and slices and dices his frames like an expert DJ.
The technique works well with Gibson’s stream-of-consciousness monologues, often, like his books, an amalgam of hardboiled narrative and scientific treatise. The documentary’s introduction offers a lightning-quick mélange of cities, cars, computers, and phone lines in reshuffling shots set to Tomandandy’s frenetic techno soundtrack, under Gibson’s observation that technological society is spinning wildly “out of control.”
U2′ s Bono and The Edge show up in televised form — true to Gibson’s vision, Neale’s “real” environments have been supplanted by virtual ones — to lend a sort of contemporary legitimization to the proceedings. It is an interesting move, considering that although U2 are old-school Gibsonites, their Zoo TV nonsense (captured on DVD by Mark Pellington, one of No Maps‘ executive producers) and legal clashes with notorious culture jammers Negativeland (who grokked Gibson way ahead of the Irish rock legends) put them squarely on the cyberpunk shit list in the early ’90s.
But if memories are short, technological progress is not; it accelerates faster than the human heart rate when viewing Internet porn (a subject that perks up Gibson and the proceedings around No Maps‘ middle). In fact, the cyberpunk hardliners that can spot every single Gibsonian rip-off, uh — I mean riff — in the Wachowski Brothers’ now-canonical Matrix might blanch when Neale introduces the seminal Neuromancer with the oddly unhelpful description: “It’s “Gibson’s first book.”
In fact, that book changed the world, his career, conventional fiction, and technological innovation in one fell swoop. But Gibson himself has no problems with the explanation, because he views Neuromancer as his “garage rock” novel, written by an “angry” and “confused” young man thrown mercilessly into an unforgiving and alien city. Indeed, Gibson goes so far to eschew the cyberpunk label, even though it anticipated — and some would argue helped conceptualize — the Internet that Gibson believes is as monumental a cultural moment as the “creation of cities.”
But Gibson, Neale’s documentary points out, is so much more than the father of the concept of “cyberspace.” He’s a visionary in his own right, and painting him into the reductive sci-fi corner is akin to missing the point of his work. Even though Neale brings writers Jack Womack and Bruce Sterling on board Gibson’s virtual vehicle (whose windows function as television screens) to explain how the discovery of Neuromancer was an epoch-changing moment, Gibson admits that his conceptions of the future we now call the present was, like Orwell’s equally canonical 1984, merely his way of parsing the trends and events happening around him. Whether it was growing up under the 1950s’ shadow of atomic holocaust, video games so compelling that kids tried to break through the screens to crawl into the Tron-like space beyond, or the supreme invention of the Sony Walkman, the world, not Gibson alone, has watched cyberspace brilliantly unfold. That is, like most revered science fiction authors thought to have a Bat Phone to the future, Gibson was only, by his estimation, attuned to the cultural shifts of his period and extrapolated outward as far as he could go.
No Maps For These Territories might be a postmodernist wank fest that name-drops J.G. Ballard, Fredric Jameson, William Burroughs (who had a much greater impact on the cyberpunks than he did on the Beats), Raymond Chandler, extended nervous systems, posthuman environments, and virtual reality, but that’s only because the rest of the world still hasn’t, amazingly, caught up to Gibson. Even though his terminology has infected everything from technological invention to popular culture (where do you think the term, “The Matrix,” came from?), he’s still a relative unknown to kids who bump sound collage cats like DJ Shadow and DJ Spooky on their iPods, punch IMs into their picture phones, and ogle Paris Hilton porns on the Internet. Their reality is closer to Gibson’s fiction that they’ll ever know. And if the refreshingly humble Gibson has a say in it, they won’t bother calling him and thanking him. As he says near the end of No Maps, “I was just doing my job.”