I just read Idoru, and that’s sent me on a cyberpunk binge. Re-read Neuromancer and re-cyber-read parts of Snow Crash. Intermittently jacking into cyberrealms, keeping my eyes out for ninjas in meatspace.
Before comparing Stephenson and Gibson, I have to reference Stephenson’s own awe-inspiring account of their rivalry.
After that, my own insight is paltry: Gibson is Dashiell Hammett, and Stephenson is Raymond Chandler. Only with the respective output level reversed: there’s lots of Gibson to read, and lots of Chandler, but only two real Stephenson cyberpunk books, and one Sam Spade novel.
I read somewhere that genre fiction invariably passes through three stages: serious, baroque, and parodic. Gibson more or less invented cyberpunk, and he himself spans the range from serious to baroque. What struck me in these two books is the seriousness: the situations are outrageous, but the heroes face them with utter graveness.
Stephenson goes from baroque to parodic. If anything, he’s more realistic than Gibson– YT doesn’t sport surgically implanted sunglasses, Hiro doesn’t want to marry an AI, the Metaverse makes sense to a developer. Yet he seems to realize the ridiculousness of his situations, sharing the joke with the reader and perhaps even the characters, who never have the sense of being in over their heads that oppresses Gibson’s main characters.
I prefer Stephenson– for that sense of realism, and his sense of fun. Gibson’s books are tenser, but the plots have the impenetrability of noir. Neuromancer is a heist caper which depends on every eccentric character doing the right thing, which is always a disaster; this makes for a great story, but in real life someone sensible would look for a better plan. Idoru has a plethora of intersecting obsessives whose motivations never quite make sense. A rock star wants to marry an AI… no one quite knows what that means, and by the end of the book I don’t know either.
All these books hold up pretty well after twenty years, though of course they all got significant parts of cyberspace wrong. The main error is of course that they underestimated what can be done online. In Snow Crash normal citizens just go to the Metaverse to party; in Neuromancer the characters go to a software store… software is apparently only sold in little crystal shards in the equivalent of Radio Shack. Neither author could foresee that almost all retail, to say nothing of entertainment, news, and education, would simply move online.
The other error is the perpetual one of the sf writer: when he’s writing, and we’re reading, we need to find this stuff fascinating. In the actual future, we’ll find it banal. There will be new things to be excited about, sure, but marrying an AI? You can buy a RealDoll now, and the Japanese will surely have the software ready for it in a few years, and all it’ll be will be a rather pathetic lifestyle choice for otakus. Or you can log into Second Life and go have sex with a furry.
Gibson imagined cybercowboys carefully piercing their way through massive defense of important corporate data… here the irony is that the massive corporations haven’t actually bothered with ice at all. They figure if they require your mother’s maiden name, they’ve provided more than enough security. Oops, hackers got in and stole ten million credit card numbers anyway.
Edit: One more thing that bugs me about Gibson: the fact that hacking is done entirely visually. It’s like he’s anticipating the movie version. I know it’s a trope in every cyberspace movie ever, but this is a book. I can just buy that all the corporate data has a nice geometric graphical interface; but hackers won’t look at the pretty graphics, they’ll dive down into boring-looking files and code. (Stephenson understands this.) And who the hell provides pretty graphics for hacked data structures? “Johnson, you’re in charge of visualizing the database. And while you’re at it, make sure you provide alternate, very complex graphics for when hackers invade the system.”