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Gibson's brilliance animates first essay collection

William Gibson is the smartest man in the room. Any room, anywhere, except perhaps Stephen Hawking's study.

That carries with it a heavy burden, I'd imagine. After all, as the dust jacket breathlessly tells us, "William Gibson was writing fiction when he predicted the Internet. And as his stories bled into reality, he became one of the first to report on the real-world consequences of cyberspace's growth and development."

But as the author of the brilliant, endlessly influential cyberpunk classic "Neuromancer" explains in "Distrust That Particular Flavor," the first collection of his nonfiction work, writing did not start as easily as one might expect:

"When I started to try to write fiction, I knew that I had no idea how to write fiction . I sat at the typewriter, the one on which I'd written undergraduate essays, trying to figure out how to try."

These initial attempts were "in the manner" of heroes Samuel Delaney and J.G. Ballard. He dipped his toe in the world of science fiction, a genre which, Gibson writes, "had long been surrounded by a generations-deep compost of fanzines, a sort of paper Internet." (A brilliant metaphor, that, one that cuts right to the heart of the ultra-odd, dearly departed world of fanzines.)

He gained experience, and a certain creative traction. But he "became uncharacteristically strict about writing only fiction. Which is why I have never felt entirely comfortable with the pieces collected here."

He needn't worry. While these do sometimes feel like second or third cousins to his fiction, the essays and articles in "Distrust That Particular Flavor" have an inquisitive charm all their own.

Take "Rocket Radio," a piece that first appeared in the June 1989 Rolling Stone. It's an autobiographical mix of nostalgia, memory and prophecy, of the world that was on the verge of embracing what Gibson called "the Net -- the mass culture and the mechanisms of Information."

But even then, the author felt a certain level of "techno-angst." (Imagine -- techno-angst in 1989.) He tells of splurging on a "decent" audio system, yet finding that he's "not sure I really enjoy the music any more than I did before, on certifiably Lo-fi junk."

Even so, Gibson astutely analyzes the role the delivery module can play in shaping one's reaction to culture:

"I first heard Joy Division on a Walkman, and I remain unable to separate the experience of the music's bleak majesty from the first heady discovery of the pleasures of musically encapsulated fast-forward urban motion."

There are endless treats to discover here, and all serve to highlight Gibson's complexity: book reviews, a study of Japanese gangster-movie star Takeshi "Beat" Kitano, talks given to a book expo and to the Directors Guild of America (opening sentence: "The story of film began around a fire, in darkness"), even a piece written just two weeks after 9/1 1.

Film is omnipresent here, which is perhaps ironic, since Hollywood has knocked at the "noir prophet's" door for years, only to ring the bell and leave a flaming bag of excrement behind. He scripted Robert Longo's disastrous "Johnny Mnemonic" (based on one of his own short stories) and "Bad Lieutenant" in which instigator Abel Ferrara brought his story "New Rose Hotel" to the big screen, quietly.

Sadly, the world still waits for the film version of "Neuromancer," a project that has been discussed, scripted and abandoned several times over. (Canada's Vincenzo Natali, director of "Splice," one of the worst films of this young century, is next in line.)

While technology is, of course, a hallmark of Gibson's nonfiction work, it never overwhelms the human. The reader feels a flesh-and-blood William Gibson here, and that's a treat.

This is great writing, from first essay to last. Yet what stays with me most is a picture of the author as a younger man sitting on a sofa with a lounging unidentified female (wife? girlfriend?) He looks dorky, unassuming, contented. This nondescript chap was -- is -- one of the world's brightest minds.

Genius comes in many forms, even in this sheepish model. As Gibson humbly states, "I am, by trade, a science-fiction writer." True, but he is also one of our most prescient thinkers. The proof is in this brilliant collection.

Christopher Schobert is associate editor of Buffalo Spree and a frequent News book and film critic.

> NONFICTION

Distrust That Particular Flavor

By William Gibson

Putnam

259 pages, $26.95