“Hardly the Center of the World”: Vancouver in William Gibson’s “The Winter Market”

From Paul Delany, ed., Vancouver: Representing the Postmodern City. Vancouver: Arsenal Pulp Press, 1994. Pp. 179-192.

Copyright 1994 by Paul Delany

William Gibson is unquestionably the leading Vancouver author on the international literary scene. His books have sold over a million copies, and his “cyberpunk” mode of science fiction has been called, by Fredric Jameson, “for many of us, the supreme literary expression if not of postmodernism, then of late capitalism itself.”(n. 1) Yet Gibson is a Vancouver author almost solely by residence. His fictional world comprises the three world capitals of some thirty years hence: Tokyo, London, and the Boston-to-Washington conglomeration he calls “the Sprawl.” Gibson’s choice of locations supports the cliché that Vancouver is a good place to live, but not a place where anything important happens. The real action, when it comes to city life, will always be somewhere else.

Only one of Gibson’s works has a Vancouver setting, the short story “The Winter Market.” Its theme, appropriately enough, is the feeling of marginality that people suffer in living here, at the end of the road and the edge of the sea.(n. 2) The story is about the difference in life value between center and periphery; and about the difference in economic value between commodities and garbage. In a characteristically postmodern move, the story also destabilizes the categories that make these oppositions possible. We are now likely to groan at the term “recycling;” but Gibson exploits it as a master-trope, present in everything from an art based on bricolage to the conversion of “personal” experience into a generic and marketable commodity. Late capitalism has reduced all of economic life - all of life, even - to the activity of the marketplace, the site of an entirely subjective process of exchange, transformation, and (re)valuation. Things are offered, priced, bought, delivered, without undergoing any material change; it follows that even garbage, if properly “marketed,” can be turned into wealth.

All great cities are also great marketplaces, in the most general sense; they have also contained literal markets - Covent Garden, les Halles - that represent, metonymically, the function of the whole urban community. Under postmodernism, such places are typically both transformed and integrated into the “theming” or stylizing of urban public spaces. Covent Garden was changed from a vegetable market into a kind of stage set where tourists were encouraged to gather around pubs, restaurants, and souvenir shops (Sudjic 275-6). Les Halles was demolished, but a new center for that part of Paris arose a few blocks away - the Pompidou Cultural Center, where the trade was in images and concepts rather than foodstuffs. (n. 3)

In Vancouver, which had never had a central food market, it was decided to invent one - but to integrate it, from the start, with the postmodern functions that had, at Covent Garden and les Halles, replaced the trade in food. Granville Market, which opened in 1978, is on an artificial island, made by dredging and dumping while Vancouver grew up around it. Gibson’s story connects it to “Dream Island,” which was created by dumping garbage into Tokyo Bay. Granville Island became a center of light industry before the Second World War, but by the seventies most of the traditional industries around False Creek were in decline. The Federal government, which owned the island, decided to make it into a shopping and cultural center for the redevelopment of False Creek. The architectural fashion of the moment was “High-Tech,” which favored unfinished textures and exposed structural or mechanical elements; so it was decided to recycle Granville Island’s industrial buildings, rather than replace them. Factories and warehouses were reborn as a food market, shops, studios, a brewery, and Emily Carr College of Art. The success of Granville Island has been based on its mixture of uses and its (post)modernization of existing buildings. Post-industrial society can afford to feel nostalgic about factories: abandoned machines and structures are not experienced as mere junk, but rather as relics of an heroic age when goods were hammered out, with toil and skill, from recalcitrant materials.

In “The Winter Market,” the year is about 2015, and Granville Island has slid into another cycle of decay. “Trash fires gutter in steel canisters around the Market” (128), and Fairview Slopes, presently an area of expensive condos above False Creek, has become a bohemian slum. The winter season corresponds to the market’s decline. It now trades in worn-out, discarded, and deathly things. But this decay is not organic, in the tonality of Keats’s “Ode to Autumn”; instead of the fall of the leaf, it is the social system that is decomposing, as higher forms of organization slide downwards to entropy and the junkpile. (n. 4) In the postmodern city, machines and the built environment take the place of nature; they are the element in which we are immersed, and it is their cycles that mark the passage of time. It is “natural” then, in such a world, for the boundaries between the organic human body and the technological works of civilization to be shifted or even erased. Consciousness can be given an electronic rather than a corporeal base, and the story’s heroine, Lise, becomes dependent on machines and synthetic drugs for her vital functions.

The theme of mechanical decay corresponds to another kind of disorganization, the invasion of the center by the periphery. Traditionally, value has been concentrated in the city center, with a downward gradient towards the periphery - where you find factories rather than offices, the poor rather than the rich, and so on. On the periphery you also find what has no value at all, the great dumps where the city’s waste accumulates. After World War II, this hierarchy was gradually inverted in the U.S., as the suburbs grew and downtown declined. Cyberpunk imagines a future where there is an almost complete loss of the center as a place of higher value or order. Now there is only “the Sprawl” - a huge and undifferentiated urban region - with occasional fortresses of corporate power rising out of the lower chaos like the towers of San Gimignano. A horizontal gradient of value is thus replaced by a vertical one: the same space can be occupied by executives in penthouses above, homeless people in subways below. Such is the view that the artist Rubin sees when he looks north from Granville Island:

the city beyond the Market a clean sculpture of light, a lie, where the broken and the lost burrow into the gomi [Japanese for “garbage”] that grows like humus at the bases of the towers of glass . . . (135)

Garbage properly belongs to, and defines, the periphery; but in Rubin’s vision it has invaded the center and threatens eventually to bury it. Yet Gibson does not present this invasion of the center as an entirely negative process. Postmodernism, to venture a generalization, is interested in waste. Waste is a dark counterpart to the surplus value created by material or cultural production; it is an ironic or parodic final twist to the process. At the same time, it is from the periphery, and from waste, that new vitality can arise and new values be created. Each side of the value/waste opposition defines the other, and life itself exists between the polarities of sterility and decay, what is gold and what is shit.

Garbage is an element in which people now have to live, and also a category of humanness: “the broken and the lost” are those who have been rejected from community - the young, the homeless, the unemployed and the sick, ever more numerous in the disintegrating city-core. The treatment of the lost people of the city in “The Winter Market” needs to be distinguished, however, from the rest of Gibson’s work that is set outside Canada. This work asks to be read as one long futurist allegory of Reaganism, projecting forwards the crumbling of America’s inner cities into an era where the cityscape presents only decadence, crime, drugs, and gangs at street level, and only luxury, conspiracy, and control in the corporate towers. In “The Winter Market,” “kids huddle over the flames [of their trash fires] like arthritic crows, hopping from foot to foot, wind whipping their dark coats” (128). They are dispirited and marginalized, scarcely the menacing underclass of American ghettos. There is no sense in the story of the city as a place of danger, a site for raids, riots, casual assassinations. Forces that in an American cityscape would be starkly opposed to each other are here more mediated and interdependent. (n. 5) Rubin’s occupation of bricolage makes this mediation literal: he patches up, mends, and rehabilitates objects (and people) from the realm of waste to that of value. Bricolage is also a subordinate calling, appropriate to Canadians and similar peoples who hover at the fringes of American productivity. (n. 6)

Rubin finds the materials of his art by cruising Vancouver’s alleys. A distinctive feature of the city, these are the reverse or “waste” counterparts of the street, as well as the literal repositories of the city’s garbage. Rubin sifts out what he needs, brings it back to his studio on the island, and makes it into mechanical constructions that are “worth a lot of money in galleries in Tokyo and Paris” (119). Gibson himself likes to frequent alleys and junk shops, seeking inspiration for his fiction; it seems fair to see in Rubin the positive side of Gibson’s vision - the cyberpunk artist as Laodicean, one who declines to pass any moral judgement on the dystopian future he describes. Rubin is a stoic, neither shocked nor grieved by the fall of his city. The story’s second hero, Casey, is more naieve, more vulnerable to the city’s tragic spectacles; though he too finds, in the end, that passivity is the only possible response to the sheer weight of the technological powers-that-be.

The plot of “The Winter Market” begins with Rubin finding a young woman in an alley off Granville Street and bringing her back to his studio. Her name is Lise (a pun on “lees,” the dregs of wine?) and she is dying from “One of those [contemporary] diseases. Either one of the old ones they’ve never quite figured out or one of the new ones - the all too obviously environmental kind - that they’ve barely even named yet” (122). Lise can only move with the help of an “exoskeleton,” an external, electrically powered frame that supports her wasted limbs. When Rubin comes upon her she has let her batteries run down and is lying in the alley, waiting for death. She is also addicted to a designer drug that will soon kill her if nothing else does the job first.

Lise is the human equivalent of any other waste object that Rubin might pick up and re-use. This time, however, it is not Rubin but Casey who discovers in Lise the potential for new and marketable values. Casey is an editor of “softs”: total sensory experiences that are captured in an electronic storage medium, and are then inserted directly into a consumer’s nervous system through a “jack,” or neuro-mechanical interface. (n. 7) Softs, as the successors to twentieth century pop records and videos, illustrate the rule that pop culture will exploit technology to continuously increase the sensation-effect of its messages. If one compares a Bing Crosby record to a Michael Jackson CD, or a film noir to Terminator 2, one can project, twenty or thirty years into the future, the soft. In “The Winter Market,” a soft can reproduce almost perfectly the “primary” experience on which it is based. But it can do more than this: fans are no longer limited to seeing and hearing the star - they can be the star, as what the star feels is transferred intact into the audience’s sensorium. Further, if the star’s total experience can be reproduced anywhere else at will, then the “origin” of the experience can be discarded: the death of the star is intrinsic to the medium.

Jacks can also be used to create an electronic mingling of experience between people. This is a fearful communion, transgressing all the usual boundaries of the self; but Casey, out of bravado, decides to jack “straight across” with Lise the first night he meets her. (n. 8) He enters into the horror of her condition - and realizes that her suffering is so intense that it has enormous commercial potential. The worst agonies are also the most valuable, in the marketplace of sensations, and Lise’s despair will strike a chord with the legions of lost youth on the street. All Casey has to do is edit her experience, electronically, to make it acceptable to a mass market, and she will become famous. Gibson constantly returns to the idea that the most advanced technology often serves the most irrational or atavistic impulses - in such areas as war, drug abuse, crime, or popular entertainment.

Scott Lash has suggested that modernization worked to differentiate secular from religious culture, and high culture from low (Lash 5-10). Postmodernism, he argues, reverses this movement, into a regime of de-differentiation, or the merging of spheres formerly held to be separate. Late Victorian rationalists had assumed that in another hundred years religion would be dead and reason would rule. Postmodernism assumes that superstition and irrationality are constitutive of human nature, and will find expression in collective mythologies. More than this, every increase in technological rationality stimulates the demand for its opposite: cults, tele-vangelism, new age superstitions, fundamentalisms of every stripe from Waco to Teheran (Guéhenno 123-25).

In “The Winter Market,” popular culture and traditional religions converge in the cult of gods who die and are reborn. Traditional churches have disappeared from Gibson’s futurescapes: popular culture is the religion of the people, combining the worship of cult figures with the worship of technology. Lise is thus singled out to become that central figure of our culture: the pop star who dies for her fans and because of her fans - a heroine both sacred and profane, redeemer and scapegoat.

The cult figures of pop music do not come from the metropolis but from the periphery - the ethnic, provincial, or working-class fringes of society. Emerging suddenly from this obscurity, they are first glorified, then destroyed, then re-born as objects of veneration and myth. Their destruction cannot be merely casual: it must be premature and dramatic, proof that destiny is at work. Death may come from God’s hand, wielding the sacred artifacts of American democracy: the car, the plane, and the gun. Such was the fate of Bessie Smith, Robert Johnson, Buddy Holly, Richie Valens, Patsy Cline, Otis Redding, Eddie Cochrane, James Dean, John Lennon, Ricky Nelson. Then there are those who kill themselves, with substances at once magical and demonic: Billie Holiday, Charley Parker, Hank Williams, Elvis Presley, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Keith Moon, Gram Parsons, Jim Morrison, Sid Vicious, Kurt Cobain. They may in fact have died for their own sins rather than ours; but it is for their sufferings that they are adored. Bent on self-destruction, they implicitly accepted the sacrificial role demanded of them by their fans.

Gibson places these ideas of suffering and redemption in a Vancouver setting. He borrows from the story of Dorothy Stratten: discovered behind the counter of an East Vancouver Dairy Queen by a scout from Playboy, Stratten became the mistress of Hollywood director Peter Bogdanovich and played a leading role in his movie They All Laughed (1981). But before the movie was released Stratten was murdered, by a jilted lover who had followed her from Vancouver. Los Angeles first killed an ordinary Vancouver girl, then made her into a star (and then made a film about her becoming a star, Bob Fosse’s Star 90).

Another of Gibson’s Vancouver sources is the “punk rock” scene of the late 70s and early 80s, which provides an intermediate term between “The Winter Market’s” two themes of pop culture and postmodern waste. Punks used a garbage-based semiotic system to define themselves as “human waste,” making adornments from objects conventionally designated as worthless or a nuisance: garbage bags, clothing so ragged as to be barely functional, flip-tops, safety pins, broken toys. Punk gear parodied consumer society by displaying, as if they were valuable, commodities that belonged to the category of waste, and by reaffirming the reality of class, even in an affluent society. Just as garbage sits at the bottom of the hierarchy of objects, silently asking “How are you going to get rid of me?”, so did punks pose the question of a class of youth who were simultaneously a product of the culture, and unwanted by it.

The Vancouver punk scene did not produce any international star like Lise in “The Winter Market.” North American popular culture was perhaps still too open and upbeat for a nihilistic British subculture to root itself on this side of the Atlantic. But in its own way, Gibson’s story projects a vision nearly as menacing as the punk slogan of “No Future.” This vision derives from two concepts - Calvinism and commodification - that reinforce the master-concept of recycling, the renewal of value from its own destruction.

The Calvinist strain in Gibson reflects the pervasive influence in his work of Thomas Pynchon (Millard). Calvinism divides mankind into the Elect, those favoured with God’s grace, and the Preterite, those who are rejected or “passed over.” Pynchon finds in modern America a kind of secular Calvinism, where the preterite - those excluded from consumer society - are cut off from grace. He imagines “election” working in reverse, making the Preterite the inheritors of the Whitmanesque ideal of inclusive democracy and the bearers of true grace. In an American millennium, the humbled and despised Preterite would finally be exalted.

Gibson shares Pynchon’s interest in the Preterite, but shows them in a darker and more cynical light. The “broken and the lost” of Gibson’s city will never rebel against the social order that oppresses them. Rather, they are integrated into a larger system that defines value and waste, inclusion and exclusion, the marketable and the broken. American popular culture both stigmatizes the outsider, and recuperates him into a consumption-oriented individualism. The Preterite hero - the young Elvis Presley, James Dean, Marlon Brando in “The Wild Ones” - ends up as an icon of rugged Americanness.

To keep the consumption cycle going, that which is outside the system must be re-processed and then returned to the marketplace of goods and images. North American youth culture after 1945 made teenagers into a distinct caste, with their own style, tribal gods, and contempt for older “squares.” But teenagers also became an economic class of producers and a market for particular kinds of goods. They acted out their rebelliousness by purchasing commodities, like jeans and pop records, that were targeted to teenage preferences by adult designers and producers. This commodification of youth culture required that teenage pop heroes be compatible with the requirements of the youth market: hence the notorious denial of the black roots of rock and roll, and the appropriation of black popular music by more marketable white performers. In this way, things that began as crude, marginal, trashy, racially suspect or of “no commercial value” were re-packaged and recycled into the functioning of consumer society.

“The Winter Market” is about this process as applied to Lise’s career. In its opening state her talent is worthless, because it expresses only nihilism and despair. But with the right kind of editing, packaging, and selling, a best-selling “soft” can be made out of her, one that will “go platinum.” This is the alchemy of commodification, from garbage at the beginning to platinum at the end. When Casey first met her, he “could see the [exoskeleton’s] ribs when she stood like that, make them out across her back through the scuffed black leather of her jacket” (122). But when he sees her in the recording studio, she has been literally re-packaged: “The wardrobe people had replaced her thrift-shop jacket with a butter-tanned matte black blouson that did a better job of hiding the polycarbon ribs” (132-133). A black leather jacket signifies rebellion and marginality; but these qualities can be either authentic or mere representations, just as the jacket itself can be either scuffed or smooth.

Lise’s career in the story reflects Vancouver’s current niche in the pop culture industry, as a secondary production center for more powerful cities, like Los Angeles. (n. 9) Her demonstration “soft” goes to LA, and agents then come to Vancouver expecting to take her down South to produce the commercial version. (n. 10) But Lise insists that Casey edit her soft at the Autonomic Pilot, the studio where he works. (n. 11) Still, specialists come in from LA to package her artistic image; from Tokyo to do the soft’s electronics; and from London to do the back-up music. Significantly, these international partners are identified with cities rather than countries, and there is no direct mention in the story of Vancouver’s being a Canadian city. Particular styles or skills belong to particular cities, and the global marketplace is presented as an urban rather than a national system. It is characteristic of postmodern urbanism that cities seem to command more loyalty and interest from their inhabitants, and nations less. At the same time, more power accrues to transnational powers like multinational corporations, the pop culture industry, and the European Community. Cities are also less integrated with their hinterlands. Formerly, a city’s influence tended to radiate outwards on a continuous gradient from center to periphery; now, with modern air travel and telecommunications, connections jump over the hinterlands and pass along a network linking each global center to the others. This network supports “virtual cities” in communicative space, uncoupled from any homeland.

In “The Winter Market” Casey remains rooted in the local, and his refusal to travel to Frankfurt or Los Angeles is symptomatic of his conservatism and sentimentality. Rubin and Lise adapt more readily to outside influence, accepting the globalization and commodification of Vancouver’s commerce. Casey thus stands for a residual organicism in the city; his consciousness is not easily displaced, whether from its originary urban habitat or from the unmodified natural body that it occupies. Rubin and Lise are more labile, more attuned to a cybernetic condition under which the boundaries between the human and the mechanical are routinely transgressed. Casey’s naievety and vulnerability align him with an “innocent” Vancouver of the past, rather than the “experienced” postmodern city that is at once more sophisticated and further advanced in decay.


1. Jameson 419. Gibson’s notion of “cyberspace” is also a reference point for much work in computer networks and information systems, though I will not be pursuing that aspect of his work here. See Benedikt.

2. First published in the collection Burning Chrome, and written about 1984-85.

3. The practical functions of Covent Garden and les Halles - to feed their cities - were relocated at more modern and efficient peripheral sites, such as the new Rungis market near Orly airport.

4. Gibson was probably influenced by Thomas Pynchon’s treatment of similar themes in “Low-lands.”

5. Frances Bonner (191) speaks of cyberpunk as defined by the “four C’s”: computers, corporations, crime, and corporeality (i.e. the merging of organic and mechanical elements in the human body). “The Winter Market” lacks only crime; but the entertainment corporation from Los Angeles that buys the rights to Lise’s softs is not as ruthless and paranoid as it would be in most cyberpunk fiction set in the U.S. In general, “The Winter Market” handles in a relatively mild way the cyberpunk themes of “inverted millenarianism” and of waste. “The convention used to convey [the cyberpunk future] is remarkably similar in literature, film, and TV programming - the run-down inner-city slum-cum-tent settlement, overcrowded, trashed, and graffiti-ridden . . . More simply, the feeling is carried by the increasingly ubiquitous garbage - a sign in non-SF films of gritty realism (a clean street is Yuppie fantasy or world of Disney), and in SF of a more realistic view of the future (again, cleanliness is Disney, e.g., Tron).” (Bonner 194).

6. At about the same time as Gibson was writing “The Winter Market,” his collaborator Bruce Sterling wrote “Green Days in Brunei.” The hero of this story, Turner Choi, is an engineer from Vancouver who re-activates Western technology in a somnolent Asian state that has tried to cut itself off from industrialism‹like the state of “Pala” in Aldous Huxley’s Island. Bricolage is the specific skill of those who are technically backward‹making a virtue of necessity (136-137). See also Lévi-Strauss’s distinction between the bricoleur and the engineer, and Derrida’s commentary on it (88).

7. The analogy is with an amplifier jack through which headphones can be connected; but a cybernetic jack, in Gibson, is a socket implanted into the spinal cord to allow for the direct input of a sensory stimulus.

8. Gibson imagines that “jacking across” to another person’s consciousness would normally be done only with an intermediate processor to filter out disturbing material.

9. See Stephen Miller’s essay on “Hollywood North” in this collection.

10. This is current practice in the pop record business: for example, a Vancouver band spotted by a scout for Geffen records would be signed and moved down to Los Angeles to refine their material and make an album in a studio there.

11. The Pilot corresponds to Little Mountain Sound and other second-tier studios established in Vancouver from the 70s onward.

Link to Conclusion of this essay.