The Evolution of Cool in the Work of William Gibson

Diana Hodge |


Necromancer Pattern recognition Spook country zero history

What is Cool?

As a young adult I didn’t care about being pretty or sexy, I wanted to be cool. How was my cool metre calibrated? Neal Cassady and Jack Kerouac were cool, Patti Smith, Debbie Harry and Chrissy Hynde are cool; then I found William Gibson and the Sprawl trilogy; very cool. But what exactly does cool mean? What did I think it meant?

Pountain and Robins, in their analysis of cool describe it as being “in love with cigarettes, booze and drugs…[cool] loves the night, and flirts with living on the edge” (2000, p. 13). I agree with this.  I’d add that those that I deemed cool were not conventional, not mainstream, part of a hip subculture. They had their own lingo that only other cool people could understand. The phrase ‘effortlessly cool’ is a tautology; cool is always and only effortless, cool people don’t try, they don’t care what anyone else thinks. They are self-sufficient and do not look for approval from others.


Like my Beat Generation heroes (my benchmark for cool) Gibson’s characters fulfilled the criteria above. In my young adulthood my cronies and I were fascinated by the idea that the ecstatic altered state induced by drugs and music, alone or combined, could lead to revelations and insight into the self and humanity; those enlightened individuals who took this path were elevated above the mundanity of the workaday world. We knew something others didn’t; we saw into the depths, we felt more keenly, we lived more intensely than those who stuck to the straight and narrow. Like Kerouac I thought “drugs and alcohol were to be used not just for kicks but to discover new weird states of consciousness” (Honan 1987, p. xv).

The idea of the artist using intoxicants this way isn’t new but it was new to me in my twenties. The Beat Generation characters that I admired took this to extremes with their ingestion of drugs and alcohol and like so many other cool characters, Kerouac and Cassady died young, both in their forties. William Gibson updated the concept of cool and gave it a different spin; Case, the hero of the Sprawl Trilogy, uses drugs to improve his performance as a console cowboy, jacked into the matrix. Case’s drug use is not the controlled performance enhancing, scientific practise we know today from the sporting world; it induces Dean and Sal’s ecstatic, beatific state of “exalted exhaustion” (Charters 1992, p.viii). Like Kerouac’s search for “new weird states of consciousness” Case lives for the “bodiless exultation of cyberspace” where his “disembodied consciousness” can be absorbed into the “consensual hallucination that was the matrix” (Gibson 1984, p.12). Drugs are an essential element in inducing this state which been likened to a an LSD induced acid trip (Bredehoft, cited in Elhefnawy 2015, p. 90).

Case’s dark world of crime and drugs “with its heady atmosphere of adrenaline and amphetamines” (Marsh 2015, p.12) reads like a manual to cool. Neuromancer (Gibson 1984) opens with Case moving through the underworld in an old and crumbling yet futuristic Japan, in a place called Night City. Case’s milieu is the embodiment of Pountain and Robins’ description of cool above. Case’s drug use is habitual; he takes speed to enhance his perception and ability already heightened by the adrenaline buzz of the matrix. Like a sweating, crazed Dean Moriarty losing himself in the high of drugs and jazz music, Case yearns for the release he finds in drug fuelled journeys in cyberspace: “… the dreams came on in the Japanese night like livewire voodoo, and he’d cry for it, cry in his sleep, and wake alone in the dark, curled in his capsule in some coffin hotel, his hands clawed into the bedslab, temperfoam bunched between his fingers, trying to reach the console that wasn’t there” (p.11). Case’s speed fuelled rampage through the night streets of Chiba, longing for escape from the “meat” (p.12) or body, trying to find the “highspeed drift and skid, totally engaged but set apart from it all” (p. 26) brings to mind the opening lines of Allen Ginsberg’s iconic ode to the beat generation, Howl (Ginsberg 1956, p.1). Case’s Night City exploits create the same feeling of loss, madness and yearning; his desire for oblivion in the matrix has the same ‘burning’ for connection that Ginsberg describes. The mechanical terms in the last line, “dynamo” and “machinery” echo the man-made machine world Gibson envisages as our future:

I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness,

starving hysterical naked,
dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking

for an angry fix,

Angel-headed hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection
to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night

(Ginsberg 1956, p. 1)


An essential element of cool is separation from the mainstream: a language that isn’t readily understood by the uninitiated is key. The Beats had a lingo all their own; Gibson’s characters likewise talk in their own patois. Kerouac coined the terms “Beat” and “Beat Generation”; Gibson also coined a series of words that have become standard in English: cyberspace and matrix (in relation to the web) are frequently cited. However it is in the conversation between characters that Gibson’s gift for creating a new vernacular is most apparent. The Dixie Flatline is a computer simulation or recreation of a computer hacker named McCoy Pauley, “Flatline” in his nickname refers to the fact that he died three times during a hack on an artificial intelligence. Dixie helps Case in the ultimate hack they perform in Neuromancer: “… that ice is generated by their two friendly AIs. On par with anything in the military sector, looks to me. That’s king hell ice, Case, black as the grave and slick as glass. Fry your brain as soon as look at you. We get any closer now, it’ll have tracers up our ass and out both ears, be tellin’ the boys in the T-A boardroom the size of your shoes and how long your dick is” (p. 199); a first time reader may well appreciate the humour but if that is all you understand then you are not part of the “in” crowd.

The integration of the real and the virtual, of genuine experience and simulation is so thorough in Gibson’s work that it requires new words and concepts to explicate it. Gibson’s characters spend so much time in states of being unlike the conventional ones we know that existing words to describe living/dead, real/unreal become inadequate and new words are required. Constructs, peripherals, simstim connections, dissociative states that allow a person to be unconscious in one dimension but operating in an android body in another dimension are the norm in Gibson’s world. This simple sentence ‘Case put the trodes on and jacked in’ (1984, p. 199) is for a first time reader a new language and is a recurrent motif through Gibson’s early and later works.

New Cool

A separate language and an association with the underbelly of life have been linked to a cool aesthetic and personae since the emergence of the concept, however, there are also culturally and temporally specific indicators of cool that are apparent in Gibson’s more recent work. Gibson appears to have an instinctive understanding for what is cool that allows him to transform his work to keep up with the zeitgeist.

When Gibson’s first full length novel, Neuromancer, was published in 1984, personal computing as we know it today did not exist. Interacting with computers was not a quotidian experience; it was cool because it was unknown and a mystery to most ordinary people. Like other frontiers it created an environment in which cowboys and outlaws could flourish. Now that everyone from toddlers to my 90-year-old mother can access and use a computer it is cool no longer. Nothing could be further from the slick world of Apple than the world portrayed in Gibson’s early work; interacting with computer technology is a visceral, total mind and body experience. It is not a chic, designer or commodified experience for the masses as computing is today.

Gibson’s work is still rich with high tech gadgets and concepts, some familiar and some emerging or niche such as locative art, drones, 3D printing. In Pattern Recognition (2003) Spook Country (2007) and Zero History (2010) the idea of cult status fashion and art are explored. Gibson still has his finger on the pulse of cool; he has retained the fantastical technology but lost some of his hardcore street vibe (Marsh 2015). Cool needs to be on the edge, it can’t exist in the mainstream. Apple devices are so ubiquitous that, while they might be symbols of status, they are no longer symbols of cool. In the high tech world of Pattern Recognition Gibson must look to the past to find something esoteric in the world of computing – the Curta calculator created in 1930s Vienna. Needless to say one of the characters in Pattern Recognition and Zero History, Voytek, an expert in early computers, hates anything Apple. The old computers Voytek deals in are authentic, “real ones” (2010 p.207), the “root code” (2010, p. 207). Is that what cool is really all about? Trying to burn away the style and find the substance underneath?

In these latter works in becomes apparent that cool in Gibson’s stories is not an accident, Gibson is well aware of cool. Cayce Pollard, a character in Pattern Recognition and Zero History is in fact a professional cool hunter. Cayce is allergic to fashion, phobic of logos and branding and trademarks. Tommy Hifliger clothing is referred to by Cayce as a “simulacra of a simulacra” (2003, p. 17), many steps removed from the authentic or original design ethos of the London tailors in Savile Row and Jermyn Street. Logoed fashion items are the ultimate in approval seeking, the only reason to have visible logos is to let other people know who designed your garments and accessories so that they can be impressed; the very opposite of the independent cowboys of Kerouac’s version of cool. Disposal fashion is the antithesis of the authentic and cool. In Zero History Gibson attempts to create an anti-fashion phenomenon; an underground denim brand, Gabriel Hounds. But a successful secret brand can only stay secret for so long; everything popular and successful will eventually be commodified. The designer of Gabriel Hounds wants to ‘avoid the bullshit’ (2010, p. 337) but success undermines cult and cool, entities that can only thrive on the margins.


If cool is so fragile is it sustainable? Evidently the lifestyle that Kerouac and Cassady led that in part earned them cool status was doomed. Gibson doesn’t avoid the downside of the drug fuelled lifestyle Case leads. Waking crapulous and abased, the “grinding comedown” (1984, p. 190) and the “arc of his self-destruction” (1984, p. 15) are there in Neuromancer, however in Gibson’s future, physical damage to the body can always be repaired for a price in Japan.

As a style aesthetic cool requires constant reinvention as what is cool today sinks under the weight of commercialism and popularity by tomorrow. Leather, denim and dark glasses being exceptions to this; although their specific manifestations may require updating for them to retain their edge. Molly, a lethal mercenary, is described in Neuromancer: “she wore mirrored glasses. Her clothes were black, the heels of black boots deep in the temperfoam … dark hair cut in a rough shag…she wore tight black gloveleather jeans and a bulky black jacket cut from some fabric that seemed to absorb light” (1984, pp. 36-37). Cayce Pollard with her logo phobia can only wear white, black or grey clothing from which she has removed the labels; a typical outfit is t shirt, leggings, a stretchy tube skirt and school girl shoes and her Buzz Rickson (a real Japanese clothing brand) jacket – her one concession to branding (2003). The limited colour palette is still apparent as is the practical minimalist design but gone is the overtly sexy and aggressive nature of Molly’s outfit.

Is this Gibson contemporizing his characters outfits or is this just Gibson growing older? Characters in Gibson’s recent work aren’t wowsers but gone is that burning need for the next fix that characterises his early work. No surprise here really, for those of us lucky enough not to die before we got old the dangerous edge of cool loses its appeal. As style aesthetic it still matters to me but as the vegetarian, teetotalling, yoga loving librarian I have become I cannot admire or desire life close to edge with the cool kids. I am younger than Gibson but I can follow with great empathy the trajectory of his successful transformation of cool from its dangerous and dazzling manifestation at the start of his oeuvre to its mature form in his most recent work.


Works Cited:

Charters, Ann. 1991. Introduction to On the Road. Penguin Books, London.

Elhefnawy, Nader. 2015. Cyberpunk, Steampunk and Wizardry: Science Fiction Since 1980. CreateSpace.

Gibson, William. 1984. Neuromancer. Voyager, London.

Gibson, William. 2003. Pattern Recognition. Penguin Books, London.

Gibson, William. 2007. Spook Country. Penguin Books, London.

Gibson, William. 2010. Zero History. Penguin Books, London.

Ginsberg, Allen. 1956. Howl, Kaddish and Other Poems. Penguin Books, Melbourne.

Honan, Park. (ed) 1987. The Beats, An Anthology of “Beat” Writing. J.M. Dent and Sons, Great Britain.

Kerouac, Jack. 1955. On the Road. Penguin Books, London.

Marsh, Erik S. 2015. The Many Paths of Cyberspace: William Gibson’s The Sprawl as Prototype for Structural, Thematic, and Narrative Multilinearity in New Media. Masters thesis, Liberty University, Lynchburg

Pountain, Dick. & Robins, David. 2000. Cool Rules, Anatomy of an Attitude. Reaktion Books, London.



Diana Hodge is a manager in the library at the University of South Australia and teaches in the Library and Information Management Program.


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