You may have heard of cyberpunk, a new breed of science fiction that focuses on high-tech lowlifes. If you haven’t, don’t worry about it.

In this case there really is no movement, only a single writer: William Gibson, whose 1984 novel Neuromancer spawned a host of imitators but no equals. None of the so-called cyberpunks aside from Gibson has what it takes to escape the science-fiction ghetto.

In fact, Gibson is less like most science-fiction writers than he is like novelists Raymond Chandler and John le Carre. Like those writers, he exploits the conventions of his genre to get under the skin of the world in a way that nongenre fiction, with its more mainstream characters, cannot. Gibson uses the computer hacker as Chandler uses the detective and le Carre uses the spy–outsiders all who can penetrate through appearance to the heart of their societies.

Gibson acknowledges that he borrows heavily from Chandler, but where others have mimicked the tough-guy attitudes and cynical wisecracks, Gibson has continued Chandler’s exploration of the struggle between individuals and the powers that be. That Chandler carried out that exploration on the streets of Los Angeles, and Gibson in the midst of a cybernetic information network, is simply a function of their respective eras.

“I’m writing about the present,” Gibson told one interviewer. But the assumption, however untrue, that science fiction is about the future–that 1984 is about 1984, not 1948–privileges the genre: it allows it an unparalleled honesty about the present. Too many writers choose to squander this privilege, searching other planets for monsters from the id, but in his fiction Gibson never needs to go beyond the space shuttle’s orbit: he tackles our planet’s most sensitive problems here.

The same vividly imagined, amazingly detailed late-21st-century culture has been featured in almost all of Gibson’s work to date: in Neuromancer, in its sequels Count Zero and Mona Lisa Overdrive, and in several of the stories in the anthology Burning Chrome. Gibson’s universe for the most part lacks the aliens, star ships, and robots that populate conventional fictional futures. He does chronicle major advances in science, of course–most notably in computer technology–but Gibson is more interested in how technology is used and who controls it than in the hardware.

The 21st-century economy trades primarily in information, not goods, and to cope with the massive flow of such information the system known as cyberspace has been developed. It’s a visual representation of all the data in the world, sort of a 3-D video game. Computer operators plugged into cyberspace decks have the illusion of moving through this cybernetic landscape. The concept seems to have been lifted from the 1982 Disney film Tron, about people who enter a computer, but in Gibson’s hands cyberspace becomes a lonely, surreal landscape of glittering corporate data bases protected by walls of electronic ice. The renegades, the “cowboys,” who roam the spaces between the data, looking for corporate and government complexes to invade with the descendants of today’s virus programs, are like computer nerds crossed with outlaw bikers–two groups that in fact are said to make up a good part of Gibson’s audience.

In Gibson’s world, what he calls the “dominant form of intelligence” is the huge corporation; these engage in constant espionage and warfare. Gibson calls these corporations zaibatsus, after the Japanese word for “cartel,” because in this world Japanese corporations dominate the economy. And not only the economy: Gibson makes the Japanese impact on language and fashion pervasive, giving us a taste of what current U.S. cultural imperialism might be in reverse. It’s even trendy to have plastic surgery to get an epicanthic fold.

Meanwhile, government has atrophied. “Power . . . meant corporate power,” Gibson writes in Neuromancer. “The zaibatsus, the multinationals that shaped the course of human history, had transcended old barriers. Viewed as organisms, they had attained a kind of immortality . . . hives with cybernetic memories, vast single organisms, their DNA coded in silicon.”

Again and again Gibson returns to the theme of corporate wealth creating its own autonomy, escaping from human control and moving according to its own purposes. The superplot that runs through the three novels–artificial-intelligence computers have overcome built-in restraints and attained almost godlike power–seems in part an allegory for this corporate transcendence of the human will.

At the same time, individuals are undergoing what Gibson calls “a gradual and willing accommodation to the machine,” a loss of autonomy and identity as they become appendages of the corporate organisms. Some are literally assimilated by the machine: bioengineering makes mechanical implants common, and every serious computer hacker has a cluster of software plugged into a jack behind one ear. The software interfaces directly with the person’s brain so, for example, he might be able to speak a foreign language by plugging in a French “spike.” Others, just before death, translate themselves into ultracomplicated programs that give them a sort of cybernetic immortality. These programs, which project individual human behavior just as sophisticated polling can predict behavior on the societal level, revive the theological dilemma: Can man have free will if God is omniscient? Can there be free will if we are so predictable that we can be encoded onto a computer chip?

Gibson presents society as increasingly divided. High-priced corporate technicians spend their interchangeable lives in corporate enclaves, sated on designer drugs and getting a new face each year through the wonders of plastic surgery. Meanwhile the throwaway underclass languishes in environmental wastelands at the edge of the supercities. The only thing that unites the two groups is simstim, an entertainment medium that gives the illusion of reality in all five senses–an escape device that only exaggerates, of course, the way ordinary people now trade in their lives for the imagined lives of superstars.

Gibson’s ideas and his settings, divorced from his prose, may sound like the work of a preachy polemicist. But subtlety is one of the cardinal virtues of his writing: we first learn about World War III, for example, from a character playing a hologram arcade game called Tank War Europa. His writing moves on several levels simultaneously, weaving character development, social critique, and a new romantic appreciation for the beauty of the machine: “A gray disk, the color of Chiba sky . . . flowered for him, fluid neon origami trick, the unfolding of his distanceless home, his country, transparent 3-D 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.”

Some have criticized Gibson for not being more polemical, for ignoring politics, although he makes a strong political statement by omitting what he thinks of as the trappings of democracy. For all the good they do us, he seems to say, we might as well get rid of the once-every-four-years circuses–instead we can get whatever group identity we need pumped directly into our brains through electrodes. (Gibson may have better reason than most, of course, to think that government is meaningless and everything is run by foreign corporations–he lives in Canada.)

But Neuromancer and Gibson’s later works defy expectations by avoiding the dystopian approach that science fiction generally adopts to give us the bad news. Gibson assumes instead that we are already familiar with how dehumanized things have become; he devotes the bulk of his stories to people who struggle–mostly in vain–against that dehumanization.

Gibson’s heroes share what he calls the Edge, an “essential fragment of sheer human talent” that makes them the best at what they do. Whether it’s infiltrating corporate data bases or managing security for simstim productions, their work provides them with an identity. “Anybody any good at what they do,” one of them says, “that’s what they are.” It is this Edge, they hope, that sets them apart from the machine–after all, you “can’t punch Edge into a diskette.”

When Gibson finds meaning, it’s usually at the edge of something. Most of his heroes are semicriminals in the style of film noir, living on the margins of the information economy. When they work for the zaibatsus, they’re free-lancers, but more often they can be found operating independently, in the pockets of anarchy that pepper the brave new world. It’s there, on the street, that creativity is still possible–“the street finds its own uses for things” is a favorite saying of Gibson’s. But there’s a suggestion that even the most marginal black marketers are still used by the system, that “burgeoning technologies require outlaw zones, a deliberately unsupervised playground for technology itself.”

Similarly, Gibson is fascinated by subcultures, especially those at the margins of mainstream society. New groups, each with its own intricate styles and customs, are constantly popping up in his fiction, from low-rent street-gang poseurs like the Kasuals to the Panther Moderns, high-tech, terrorism-for-art’s-sake saboteurs. The subcultures provide identities for those who don’t belong to a zaibatsu, but most such groups have no depth: “Entire subcultures could rise overnight, thrive for a dozen weeks, and then vanish utterly.”

The only permanent subcultures in Gibson’s fiction are black: Rastafarianism and Haitian voodoo. And these religions occupy crucial positions in his novels’ plots, functioning as alternatives to corporate hyperrationality. The Rastafarians have escaped what they call Babylon altogether, in a self-contained independent space station called Zion that’s the locus for a computer insurrection. Voodoo plays a more integrated, if somewhat surreal, role–the self-sufficient, self-aware programs that begin to haunt cyberspace eventually take on the personas of voodoo gods, finding them the most appropriate metaphor for the relationship these programs have to humanity. Those on the fringes of the system, like the voodooists, seem to have a better understanding of how the system works than those who supposedly run it.

But the right to a traditional identity has been forfeited by members of a modern, secular culture. With every ideology appearing as an equally authentic alternative, the choice of any one becomes a sterile consumer decision–an example is the mother in Count Zero who tries to give her son religion by sticking up religious holograms in his room: “Maybe Jesus, maybe Hubbard, maybe Virgin Mary, it didn’t much matter to her when the mood was on her.”

Some look for redemption in sensual pleasure. “The flesh the cowboys mocked,” one character decides, “was a vast thing, beyond knowing, a sea of information coded in spiral and pheromone, infinite intricacy that only the body, in its strong blind way, could ever read.” That this epiphany is reached after making love to a computer simulation of a human being, however, lends a shade of irony to the conclusion.

In the final analysis, despite the adrenaline rush of action that drives the plots, Gibson’s books can be profoundly pessimistic–not in the shallow way of some science fiction (“the greenhouse effect will fry us all”), but pessimistic about the core of human nature. His favorite characters are melancholy, self-destructive loners, and although they’re good at what they do, they’re never good enough: they seem always on the verge of a catastrophic fuckup. (The bar that the cowboys hang out in is called, appropriately, the Gentleman Loser.) It’s as if the only edge one can count on in a seamless world is the edge of disaster–as if the possibility of self-destruction were something to be treasured, one of the things that makes us human.

Of the many strange types that populate Gibson’s works, one of the strangest but most evocative is the collage artist–the person who makes art from the leftover scraps of modern society, like Joseph Cornell’s boxes filled with the detritus of our society, or Survival Research Laboratory’s junkyard robots, which destroy each other, or dub reggae, made by sampling earlier records. Gibson obviously identifies with these artists, who find meaning in the gomi, the garbage “that grows like humus at the bases of the towers of glass.” In the fragments left over from industrialization, colonization, and automation–there, if anywhere, does the best science-fiction writer of his generation find hope for the future.

Neuromancer by William Gibson, Ace Books, $3.95.

Count Zero, by William Gibson, Ace Books, $2.95.

Mona Lisa Overdrive by William Gibson, Bantam Books, $17.95.

Burning Chrome by William Gibson, Ace Books, $2.95.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/David K. Nelson.