Red and white

William Gibson, archaeologist

Earlier this year, in cold January morning commutes, I finally read William Gibson’s masterpiece trilogy. If you know me personally, this may sound ironic, because I dig geek culture quite a bit. Still, I’m a slow reader and I never had a chance to read the three books before. Which was good, actually, because I could enjoy them deeply, without the kind of teenage infatuation that is quickly gone ‒ and most importantly because I could read the original books, instead of a translation: I don’t think 15-year old myself could read English prose, not Gibson’s prose at least, that easily.

I couldn’t help several moments of excitement for the frequent glimpses of archaeology along the chapters. This could be a very naive observation, and maybe there are countless critical studies that I don’t know of, dealing with the role of archaeology in the Sprawl trilogy and Gibson’s work in general. Perhaps it’s touching for me because I deal with Late Antiquity, that is the closest thing to a dystopian future that ever happened in the ancient world, at least as we see it with abundance of useless objects and places from the past centuries of grandeur. Living among ruins of once beautiful buildings, living at the edge of society in abandoned places, reusing what was discarded in piles, black markets, spirituality: it’s all so late antique. Of course the plot of the Sprawl trilogy is a contemporary canon, and the characters are post-contemporary projections of a (very correctly) imagined future, but the setting is, to me, evoking of a world narrative that I could embrace easily if I had to write fiction about the periods I study.

Count Zero is filled with archaeology, of course especially the Marly chapters. Towards the end it gets more explicit, but it’s there in almost all chapters and it has something to do with the abundance of adjectives, the care for details in little objects. Mona Lisa overdrive is totally transparent about it, since the first pages of Angie Mitchell on the beach:

The house crouched, like its neighbors, on fragments of ruined foundations, and her walks along the beach sometimes involved attempts at archaeological fantasy. She tried to imagine a past for the place, other houses, other voices.

– William Gibson. Mona Lisa Overdrive, p. 35.

But really, you just have to follow Molly along the maze of the Straylight Villa in Neuromancer to realize it’s a powerful theme of all the Sprawl trilogy.

The Japanese concept of gomi, that pervades Kumiko’s view of Britain and the art of Rubin in the Winter Market, is another powerful tool for material culture studies, at least if we have to find a pop dimension where our studies survive beyond the inevitable end of academia.

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Stefano Costa

Archaeologist, I study the Late Antique and Early Medieval/Byzantine period on the northern side of the Mediterranean, focusing on pottery usage patterns. I'm also involved in open source and open knowledge communities, like OSGeo, the IOSA project and the Open Knowledge Foundation.

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