Post-modernism in Gibson’s Science Fiction

Topic: In a close and systematic reading of William Gibson’s “Marly and the Boxmaker,” a long selection from his 1986 novel Count Zero, analyze how Gibson’s linguistic style creates a specific and sustained tone in the narrative—both in the reading experience and the level of ideas and themes. Furthermore, discuss how this tone, this emotional and intellectual accent of the narrative, works by a process of description, metaphor, and irony. Description is that linguistic mode of sentences whereby a reader is shown the world in cascades of intricate detail. Metaphor is that process where by figures of speech (terms, phrases, even whole sentences) create vivid comparisons between known and unknown things in order to extend the reader’s understanding of deep and complex processes, contexts, and roles. And irony is that strategy of saying the apparent opposite of what one intends, which creates an instant of contradictory variation in a reader’s understanding, all in order to suggest a strong and sustained critique of some state of affairs contrary to one’s desires, expectations, beliefs, and requirements. Reveal how Gibson’s style, as he unfolds and interrogates his subject matter, offers the careful reader a specific critique of late twentieth century high-technology societies, as well as the forms and roles which individual identities take and the way those identities are battered or soothed by a society comprised of weak governments, rapacious and unstoppable global corporations, and fragmented social networks.

In your core analysis, it will be important to address the following questions as you unfold and trace Gibson’s style through his lush and intricate text:

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1) What kind of a social, cultural world does he give us to contemplate?

2) How does it relate to our world? Where does it match and where vary?

3) What kind of human being is Marly? What universals does she represent? What particularities?

4) What kind of person is Virek? What roles and patterns does he symbolize? Who in our world is he meant to evoke?

5) What is Marly’s central dilemma? What is her crisis? What imbalance shadows her effort to live on her own terms?

6) What is the nature of her central choice? What aspect(s) of herself does she

transform through that choice?

7) How is Marly defined by the choices she makes? What is the cost to her of such decision-making? What is the treasure of those choices?

8) What, exactly, the ‘boxmaker’? What is the purpose of the Boxmaker? What version of ‘artist’ does it exemplify? How is this version postmodern in nature, texture, and effect?

9) What do the Cornell boxes symbolize? What values, what aesthetics?

10) How can these boxes be read as both general and particular models for society, for culture, even for individual psyches?

11) What argument(s) does Gibson maintain with the world in his fiction?

12) What cultural patterns and social connections does Gibson’s style reveal?

In your placing of Gibson’s work within the post-modern debate about the qualities of life in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, you should address the following concerns:

13) How has Gibson’s career as a writer unfolded in the last thirty-five years?

14) What cultural effects has his work produced, evoked?

15) According to knowledgeable critics, how accurate a picture of the world we inhabit has his work captured?

16) What other writers is he ‘kin’ to and what vision of our world do they share?

17) What is the ultimate critique of our world such a ‘school’ of writers makes?

Format: Please format your essay in MLA-2016 guidelines (see the Playbook “Document Presentation Guidelines” document and the “Student Sample Essay” for direct models). The essay should be accomplished in 5 to 8 full pages, plus end-notes and works cited/consulted listings. That is, the primary analysis is 5 to 6 pages long (figure about 300 words per page, for a word range of 1500 to 1800 words).


Sample Answer


Post-modernism in Gibson’s Science Fiction

Tone is often used in language as clarification and conveyer of meaning when speaking to another verbally or non-verbally. However, in literature, the author uses the tone to express his feelings about a particular subject (s) through diction. Certain words will tell the author’s position on a particular subject, which enables the reader to pay attention to the presented argument. An author often includes Connotations and denotations when creating a story where the former allows the readers to feel the story. In contrast, the latter allows understanding of the story. The story “Marly and the Boxmaker” by William Gibson utilizes tone to create and leave an impact on the readers about a future dominated by technology and corporations. The story involves Marly, a defamed woman hired by Virek, a wealthy man, to find an artist who made mysterious boxes.  The theme presented across the story depicts the gap between the rich and the poor and how technology and corporations have impacted society in the future. William Gibson utilizes the dystopian tone in the story through descriptions, metaphors, and irony.

Descriptions are prevalent across the story, with the author trying to draw the readers to the social and cultural world that the author wants to portray. Descriptive linguistic style illuminates how people interact with one another in a postmodern world. Marsh claims that “, Gibson’s work acts as a guide to the transition of the world from a linear approach to text to one that is fragmented and multilinear” (8). Marly’s entrance to the simulated reality, the author offers a vivid description when he writes, “Below her lay the unmistakable panorama of Barcelona, smoke hazing the strange spires of the Church of Sagrada Familia…To her left, a giant lizard of crazy-quilt ceramic was frozen in midslide down a ramp of rough stone” (Gibson 113). The description offers a reader of the social and cultural realities through the use of the dystopian tone, which is illustrated through the technological control and loss of individualism. The linguistic style introduces the reader to the most realistic that has become a possibility through “cyberspace,” which was a word invented to explain the advancement of technology by Gibson (Punday 195). The type of the world described by Gibson correlates with the modern world because cyberspace has increasingly been used to describe various online platforms that people can interact virtually. For instance, the entrance of Marly in a simulated reality describes a modern world of virtual video games where “Individuals moving through such spaces not only see rooms and objects, however; they also see other “players” who happen to be moving through these rooms” (Punday 196). Therefore, the vivid description of Marly and Virek meeting through a simulated reality depict how players in online video games meet and play together, each with a different character and name. However, the virtual relationship between the two characters is embedded in their social class, which is not the case in the contemporary world. Gibson’s description of Virek varies with the current understanding of technology and interaction with others because he describes Virek as a projection or a special effect (Gibson 121). In the modern world, communicating with someone in cyberspace is not a special effect or a projection but a virtually mediated communication. Gibson’s description of Marly illustrates that she was an art-gallery curator who fell into misfortunes of selling a fake art piece to a wealthy man named Gnass who made it a scandal, and this is why she is described as a “disgraced former operator of a tiny Paris gallery” (Gibson 111). Therefore, Gibson uses the character of Marly to depict the inequality gap that exists in the futuristic society because she is homeless and has to share a room with her friend. At the same time, Virek and Gnass are wealthy men. Therefore, Marly belongs to poor universals because she has no job or a place to stay. Her vulnerability is what Virek used to lure her to with the unlimited line of credit in accomplishing his egotistical, nefarious ways.

The author has used metaphors to challenge the reader to think deeply about the impact of technology and corporations on society. Gibson uses metaphorical boxes to illustrate the character of Virek and his intentions of using it for his selfish desires. The dystopian tone has been blended with metaphor to help unravel the impact of technology and how much it has affected art. Cavallaro claims that a “Metaphor is a structure of thought and signification that exposes the ambiguities of both theory and praxis by pursuing or appearing to pursue, contradictory aims” (68). Gibson uses metaphor to shed light on his reader in terms of how technology control is affecting or is likely to affect art and society in the future. Virek hires Marly to find the Boxmaker of the metaphorical boxes for his selfish gain. This illustrates his role in manipulating technology and art for his benefit. In the current world, Virek evokes how wealthy people and large corporations are using technology as a tool for their benefit. According to Lu, many large tech companies have studied human psychology and modeled their platform in a manner that is almost impossible to resist, which involves developing algorithms that would continuously make them more profits. Therefore, Gibson uses metaphor to draw the reader’s attention to Marly’s dilemma because the character is an artist who discovers that art has been manipulated and created and put inboxes. Marly is in a dilemma because when she sees Boxmaker in his work, she uses metaphor to refer to Cornel boxes as a song. Marly says, “Now I am only one…But I have my song, and you have heard it…They send me new things, but I prefer the old things” (Gibson 167). Therefore, Marly is in a crisis because technology has taken over the artist worker and combined them in boxes full of memory. However, she still believes that art supersedes technology. The use of metaphor proves that “Marly is the Boxmaker’s perfect audience, enchanted by art rather than by technology itself” (Larsen 35). The fact that she has been sent to find the person who forges the art she has much respect for puts her in an imbalance of living her life as an artist. The reaction by crying after seeing Boxmaker forge art without remorse depicts her artistic nature, which is why she chooses. Marly understand that her choice to be part of a mission to destroy art and this leads to the transformation of her belief in the artist as the maker who “This is quite fitting for Marly because she has been locked in Virek’s metaphorical box for the entirety of the narrative” (Letteney 45). Therefore, Gibson successfully maintains the dystopian tone through the story by depicting Marly as something that still doubts using technology in making art. Therefore, when she decides not to hand in the boxes to Virek, it shows her choices define her as someone who values the true sense of art and views technology as a tool used to destroy artistic creations. The cost of her decision led to the destruction of technology that would have been used to bring a human body back to life. However, metaphorically, Marly’s choices act as a treasure to true art and artist survival. Gibson continues to use metaphor to sustain the dystopic tone of the story, which is depicted in how he describes the Boxmaker. Marly confides her dilemma and sadness through the use of dance and songs, and in response, Boxmaker replies, “My songs are of time and distance. The sadness is in you. Watch my arms. There is only the dance” (p. 227). The statement proves that Boxmaker is the premodern technology that has forged all art and placed it in inboxes. Therefore, the Boxmaker’s primary purpose is acquiring and forging outside artists’ works without any connection. Gibson uses a metaphor when Marly says, “You are someone else’s collage…Your maker is the true artist” (168). The linguistic style that the author uses shows that Boxmaker is a type of artist who does not come up with his ideas and creations but depends on other artists to make his art.  The version of Boxmaker as metaphorically depicted by the author is postmodern because most art is not original but forged from the works of traditional artists.

The author has incorporated irony to help the reader understand the linguistic style that uses language that normally signifies the opposite. Gibson uses irony to offer symbolism to the Cornell boxes that Marly continually compares to Boxmaker boxes. Gibson uses irony to show how “Cornell’s work stands as a crystalline refuge from a world of frustrated hopes and increasing complexity, from an impersonal world that has forgotten mystery and the magic of poetry” (Csicsery-Ronay 85). Therefore, Gibson uses Corbel boxes ironically to illustrate how they are different from the forged Boxmaker boxes because they offer more surrealism and a sense of reality, representing the true nature of the world and artists’ creativity. Gibson’s use of irony as Linguistic style enables the Cornel boxes to be modeled for society, culture, and the individual psyche because “Both of Gibson’s models are ostensibly romantic-natural obstacles to Virek’s project because of their closeness to deep, instinctive relational emotions” (Csicsery-Ronay 72). Therefore, the model represents Gibson’s view of the world in fiction. He maintains his dystopian tone, which reflects his argument against the domination of corporations and technology control of society. Gibson maintains his argument that future society is a great danger of being controlled by technology, illustrated in Neuromancer’s fictional story, which “is not celebration of technology, it is a warning aimed at artists and society as a whole” (Letteney 10). The use of irony has been incorporated to maintain Gibson’s arguments about technology in the postmodern world. The linguistic style shows people’s cultural pattern and social connectedness with the traditional form of arts with the modern illustration of art through technology. Cornell boxes illustrate how cultural patterns have been impacted by technology and how social connection is no longer intrinsic.

William Gibson has evolved as a writer since he came up with the “cyberspace” term in his first novel “Burning Chrome” in 1981. Since his first debut as a fictional sci-fi writer, he has authored other popular stories such as Neuromancer and many more, all inclined towards the war between art and technology. The fiction works by Gibson have amassed a considerable amount of fans, leading to the development of cultural effects across the world. According to Rothman, the writing by Gibson has found a global stage across the world with some people using his argument against technology and its impact on war to shoot down drones or other technological gadgets. Burrows claim that, “…many of Gibson’s fictional perspectives on cultural, economic and social phenomena have begun to find their way into social and cultural analyses as viable characterizations of our contemporary world” (238). Therefore, his depiction of a world that people are obsessed with and controlled by technology and large corporations has become a reality today. Several other authors are a “kin” to his linguistic style and dystopian tone, such as Philip K. Dick. He wrote multiple mysterious and weird science fiction books that reflected his own life (Sutin). All other writers who have written science fiction books, such as Howard Besser and Iain Boal, critique our world “…by warning us against the perils of digital technology” (Cavallaro 30). Technology has emerged as a tool that has destroyed society due to the overdependence of machines, which has led to the destruction of the art that reflects the core humanity.



Works Cited

Burrows, Roger. “Cyberpunk as Social Theory 1: William Gibson and the sociological imagination.” Imagining Cities. Routledge, 2018. 233-248.

Cavallaro, Dani. Cyberpunk & Cyberculture: Science Fiction and the Work of William Gibson. A&C Black, 2000.

Csicsery-Ronay Jr, Istvan. “Antimancer: Cybernetics and Art in Gibson’s” Count Zero”.” Science Fiction Studies (1995): 63-86.

Gibson, William. “Marly and the Boxmaker.” Count Zero, Penguin, 2003, pp. 109-171.

Larsen, Kristine. “ALICE and the Apocalypse: Particle Accelerators as Death Machines in Science Fiction.” MOSF Journal of Science Fiction 2.1 (2017).

Letteney, Timothy R. Transhuman Artists and Their Art in William Gibson’s Sprawl Trilogy. Diss. Harvard University, 2018.

Lu, Donna. “The Social Dilemma Review: How Big Tech Companies Use Us for Profit.” New Scientist, 5 2020,

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

Punday, Daniel. “The narrative construction of cyberspace: Reading Neuromancer, reading cyberspace debates.” College English 63.2 (2000): 194-213.

Rothman, Joshua. “How William Gibson Keeps His Science Fiction Real.” The New Yorker, 6 Dec. 2019,

Sutin, Lawrence. Divine invasions: A life of Philip K. Dick. London: Paladin, 1991.

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