June 10, 1991 12:00 PM

WHEN HE TURNED 30 IN 1978, BILL GIBSON cheerfully recalls, “I had kind of zero career potential.” A transplanted American in Vancouver, B.C., he was taking university courses—largely because they made him eligible for Canadian government education grants. He’d had a job once—for three weeks—in a boat factory, but he hadn’t liked it. He also had experience browsing through junk shops for semivaluable chrome-plated ashtrays and lamps he could resell to antiques dealers.

His one professional accomplishment was that he had written a science-fiction short story and sold it for $23. Yet he wasn’t sure he wanted to write anymore. The problem was, science fiction was not hip. Gibson had devoured the stuff as a kid but then had moved on to a classic late-’60s growing-up—immersion in hippie street culture and the novels of William Burroughs and Thomas Pynchon. It seemed to him that science fiction had remained firmly rooted in the attitudes of the ’50s, with its depictions of the wonders of robots and intergalactic space travel. Gibson found the literature “stodgy and geeked out.”

Then he met a science-fiction writer who moonlighted as a singer in a punk-rock band. Gibson decided there might be a place in the field for him after all. “Maybe one can write science fiction and not have to feel that one is joining the Rotary Club,” he said to himself.

So he sat down at his kitchen table and transformed the face of the genre.

Between 1981 and 1988, Gibson published half a dozen stories and a trio of novels—Neuromancer, Count Zero and Mona Lisa Overdrive—that present a dark, hip version of a credible 21st century. Instead of steely-eyed rocketship pilots, Gibson portrays computer hackers and hookers, high tech and low life. His heroes are hot-dog computer jockeys, living by their wits as they rustle data from the mainframes of governments and multinational corporations.

Neuromancer, his breakthrough book, is the story of an outlaw “computer cowboy” and a sexy female soldier of fortune who are recruited to break into the computer of a corporation owned by a family whose members take turns emerging from cryogenic preservation to run the business. The couple are aided by a dead man whose personality, skills and voice have been preserved as software in a mainframe computer, and by members of a Rastafarian space colony.

“Every so often, someone takes the hard science-fiction story, dealing with how technology will affect the future, and rewrites it,” says Gardner Dozois, editor of Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine. “Gibson is one of the major talents that come along once or twice in a generation.”

Fast paced, literate and funny, Gibson’s work relates to the technology of communications systems, or cybernetics, much as punk-rock relates to music; hence the term that is applied to his fiction and that of a small school of like-styled writers: “cyberpunk.” Gibson has also influenced artists and musicians; his admirers range from painter Robert Longo to Laurie Anderson. His concept of “cyberspace”—a hallucinatory realm that his hacker heroes enter by plugging their minds directly into their computer terminals—has inspired scientists developing the new field known as “virtual reality,” which employs computerized goggles and earphones to give individuals the illusion that they are moving through another sensory world.

Gibson has become a hero to computer visionaries everywhere. And to computer outlaws too. A German hacker known as Pengo, who admitted stealing data from U.S. computers and selling them to the KGB, told a judge last year that his actions had been inspired by Neuromancer.

Dramatically tall (6’6″) and thin (150 lbs.), with a gentlemanly southern air and a slight tall-man’s stoop, Gibson, 43, disclaims any connection to illegal activities. Moreover, in what may come as a shock to his fans, he claims to know very little about computer technology. He didn’t even own a computer until he had completed his first two novels, which he wrote on a manual portable typewriter, and he is barely computer-literate to this day. As background, he says, “I listened to what hackers said, not trying to understand it but trying to groove on the poetry of it.” Gibson captured the hackers’ idealized love for their machines. The rest, he says, was “a con game…like writing a term paper about a book you haven’t read.”

But computers are, in any case, only the set-dressing of Gibson’s fiction, not its core. It is a truism that all science fiction is about the present. By showing us where we may be heading, the science-fiction writer illuminates where we are. “People ask me, ‘How can you imagine this dark, creepy world?’ ” Gibson says. “I don’t think it’s that much creepier than the world we live in. When I go to Los Angeles, one of the richest cities in the world, I see a swarm of beggars—lice-ridden, leprous creatures—wandering the same sidewalks as the richest, most beautiful people in the world.”

And so, in Gibson’s fiction, wealthy children ride in armored taxis through urban wastelands. The rich buy replacements for their eyes from a precision optics manufacturer, while the poor rummage through toxic dumps for salvage. Politics and the economy are dominated by organized crime and multinational corporations; the multinationals monitor the behavior of key employees by implanting microprocessors in their blood vessels. It’s all fantastic, and the roots of every bit of it are visible around us today.

“Most science-fiction writers are insular and glassy eyed,” says Bruce Sterling, with whom Gibson collaborated on his latest novel, The Difference Engine, published by Bantam in March. “Gibson is extremely alert. He notices the color of someone’s shoelaces. And he sees the essences of things, the skull beneath the skin.”

Gibson first looked critically at the world around him in Wytheville, Va., a small (pop. 7,135) town in the southwestern corner of the state. It was his parents’ hometown, and his mother took her only child there from Norfolk, Va., when he was 6, after the death of his father, a construction company executive. The boy did not flourish in Wytheville. “I had the classic childhood of an American science-fiction writer,” Gibson says. “Intense, geeky isolation in a rather dull environment.”

In his early teens, Gibson urged his mother to send him to boarding school “as far away as possible from Virginia.” He landed at the Southern Arizona School for boys in Tucson, where, with other misfits for friends, he was happier. Then, midway through his senior year, his mother suddenly died of a stroke. Gibson, traumatized, returned to school after her funeral, but he was soon expelled for sneaking off to coffeehouses and folk-music clubs. He returned briefly to Wytheville, then drifted up to Toronto, which somebody had told him was “a happening scene.”

Gibson floated through Toronto’s counterculture, picking antiques out of junk stores, working briefly painting a Day-Glo paisley mural on a disco wall. He was sharing a house with a radical artist when he carried coffee one morning into the artist’s bedroom and met the artist’s girlfriend, Deborah Thompson. “I said, ‘Hi,’ ” Gibson recalls. The artist and Deborah broke up soon after, and she and Gibson became friends. “Bill was the only person I met in Toronto who read the same things I did,” Deborah says. “We could sit down and have a good natter.”

The young couple fell in love. They traveled in Europe for a while, living on a couple of hundred dollars a month that Bill drew from his mother’s estate. Then they returned to Toronto and were married at City Hall. “Before that I was on hold,” Gibson says. “Only when I got together with Deb did I get a life.”

Deb was interested, rather unfashionably, in developing a career. So, new husband in tow, she returned to her hometown of Vancouver to finish her college education. That accomplished, she started teaching linguistics and English as a second language. Bill got his B.A. in English and noodled around as a teaching assistant. “He never worked,” Deborah recalls, apparently with no hard feelings whatsoever.

In 1977, the year Bill published his $23 story, “Fragments of a Hologram Rose,” their son, Graeme, was born. “I was just kind of putzing around,” Bill says. “Then I segued into being the househusband, which got me off the hook for a while. And that was when I started writing, because it was the only thing I could do alone at the kitchen table that had any chance of getting me anywhere.”

Critical acclaim came more readily than cash. It was not until 1987, five years after the birth of their second child, Claire, that Bill’s writing income, augmented by several Hollywood screenwriting assignments, permitted Deborah to quit teaching. Today her job is managing the family finances.

The Gibsons live in a handsome, cedar-shingled house in an old family neighborhood of Vancouver. On a clear day, from the master bedroom, Bill and Deborah can see the spectacular snowy mountains across Vancouver Harbor.

Still the househusband, Gibson gives the children breakfast, packs their lunches and walks them to school before returning home and descending to work in his basement office. Unlike the rest of the house, which is light and airy, the office is a cluttered, dark space with exposed wiring and a tiny window. “I’m not terribly into my environment when I’m writing,” Gibson explains. “Having a great view would be like writing in a nightclub.” Wherever he is, whether standing in his living room or in a Salvation Army thrift shop, he is likely at any moment to fall, transfixed and oblivious, into silent contemplation of a plot point.

A favorite pastime, still, is browsing in flea markets and secondhand book and record shops. If he hadn’t become a writer, Gibson figures, he’d probably be working in a secondhand book or record store himself. “That’s the career I thought I was going to have,” he says. “When I go into certain stores, I get a very strong sense of treading a fine line of alternate reality. Like if I’m not careful, I’ll be behind that counter. It could all just switch.”

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