Being There: William Gibson, No Maps For These Territories

Everyone who reads fiction probably already knows that William Gibson has a way with words; they might not, however, know that sometimes his words have a way with him.

They issue out of his mouth in a stream, often in disassociated or irrupted strings, as if he’s not ready or sure how to say them. But Gibson’s nevertheless compelled to lend the gravity of dense and allusive language to his opinions, because documentary director Mark Neale asks the revered author to comment on everything from religion and catastrophe to technoculture and accelerated neural networking. It’s heady philosophical monologue (often disguised or offered by Neale as dialogue), but it’s still a series of fascinating spiels, especially considering it comes from a mild-mannered dude from Vancouver who is simply interested in “being there” 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 genius, talkie documentaries, and concepts deeper than the baring of Janet Jackson’s titty during a Super Bowl halftime show, then Mark Neale’s ambitious No Maps for These Territories, made in 2000 but 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 more or less 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 visually literalize their speech. Like Morris, he’s not afraid to tackle Big Ideas, although Gibson’s opinions on his own work and its serious impact is a far cry from Stephen Hawking’s theorizations of wormholes and the shape and fate 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 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, which like his books are often an amalgam of hardboiled narrative and scientific treatise. The film’s extended introduction offers a lightning-quick mélange of cities, cars, computers, network, phone lines, and more in rapidly reshuffling shots set to Tomandandy’s frenetic techno soundtrack and Gibson’s own rambling conclusion 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 contemporary legitimization of sorts 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 memories are short, and 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 ripoff — uh, riff — in the Wachowski Brothers’ now canonical Matrix might blanch when Neale clarifies his segment on Neuromancer by explaining that it’s “Gibson’s first book.” After all, Gibson has lived and died by that book; it 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 the seminal 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 as 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, as Neale’s documentary is happy to point out, is so much more than the father of the concept of “cyberspace”; he’s a visionary thinker in his own right, and painting him into the reductive sci-fi corner is entirely missing the point of his work. Even though Neale brings writers Jack Womack and Bruce Sterling on board Gibson’s virtual vehicle — with its windows and windshields that 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 in 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 together. Just because Apple’s early desktop computers were boring and unimaginative doesn’t mean the culture was; sharper thinkers used those crappy (by comparison) computers as a launching pad for their imaginations.

And, especially in the world of sci-fi, everyone knows that yesterday’s imagination is today’s innovation.

No Maps for These Territories might be a postmodernist wankfest that name-drops J. G. Ballard, Frederic Jameson, William Burroughs (who had a much greater impact on the cybepunks 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 hasn’t, amazingly, yet 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 anyway?), 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 porn 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.”

The review originally appeared here on Morphizm, as well as Bright Lights Film Journal and Popmatters.