The Winter Market by William Gibson

I first read this one this famous collection back when it first came out.

I first read this one this famous collection back when it first came out.

This story reminded me a lot of the last story in this collection. Like Snow, it’s about preserving a person’s spirit using technology. While Snow had them as preserved memories, in this story we have the old cyberpunk idea of somehow recreating your actual mind on a computer.

It starts with dreams: the protagonist of this story – though not its narrator – is Lise, an artist who records her dreams which are sold like pop records. The Narrator, Casey, is the editor of these dream recordings, doing some kind of production work to make them into a commercial product.

I made a deal with Barry, the senior editor, got twenty minutes at five on a cold September morning. Lise came in and hit me with that same shot, but this time I was ready, with my baffles and brain maps, and I didn’t have to feel it. It took me two weeks, piecing out the minutes in the editing room, to cut what she’d done down into something I could play for Max Bell, who owns Pilot.

There’s a band involved as well, and it’s all high fashion, famous artists and hip futurism that just reeks of cool 80s style, all post-hippy neon, California desert highways and pastel shades.

Science fiction has always favoured the elites. Cyberpunk was the second breaking of the New Wave and so here this fascination with with the top levels of society translates into rock stars and related trades rather than the military types or super scientists that tended to dominate classic SF. As with Snow, this is a story of what we now might call 1 per centers enjoying an elegantly wasted life style.

Also like Snow, there’s not much effort here to build a world that’s radically changed by the new technology. People still fly around the world in Lear jets, drink in seedy bars at midnight and eat ‘Pakastani takeout food in a narrow shop on Fourth’. The ability to communicate dreams and thoughts doesn’t seem to have had a mjor effect on anything much outside of pop culture. Even there the main differences are in production rather than any other aspect: we’re never actually shown the audience for these recordings, or given an insight into the market place that might support them and how this might reflect the experience and technology.

Instead, the story focuses on Casey and Lise’s ambiguous relationship: she’s a tortured artist and he’s the devoted follower, both loyal retainer and parasite on her burning, self-destructive talent. Lise’s move from flesh and blood to being a personality recreated on a computer has already begun when Casey meets her – she’s disabled and supported by an exo-skeleton (that doubles as a kind of self-mortification). This already makes her unreachable to him, and the technology seems to be driven by this kind of symbolic logic rather than a more materialistic futurism.

Gibson doesn’t play much with the philosophical ideas of the artificial consciousness. There’s a gesture near the end where Casey wonder of the transformed Lise ‘but if she calls me will it be her?’ but that’s it. Instead, it abandons traditional science fiction speculative world building and turns its gaze inward.

It’s a good story, of course, because William Gibson is a fine and subtle writer. But it doesn’t really address the future, not even the nascent future expressed in the present. Technology is instead used as imagery to express other ideas about personal love, devotion and the nature of creativity.

On this last point, we might compare it to The Country of the Kind, which also looked into the troubled creative spirit. But this earlier story used a rationally considered society enabled by technology (albeit, lightly sketched in due to the length of the story) and the ideas about creativity seem to grow organically from that. Here – I speculate – Gibson wants to say something about creativity and has constructed a technology around it that he finds evocative and that will sell to a science fiction audience.

This is science fiction as mode – a symbolic arsenal to deploy against themes – rather than science fiction as a way of thinking. At it’s best, science fiction does both but science fictional thinking is the source of the sense of wonder (or horror) that lies at the heart of real science fiction, the revelation of some potential truth about the outside world that unlocks our spirit. The Winter Market and it’s like are a kind of techno magical realism that can never evoke that, however skilfully it’s written.

Posted in reading log, science fiction is dead, SF, short stories, The Best of the Best

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