The Origin of Wintermute in William Gibson's Writing

I like the Wintermute name because I think that it's cool and there are lots of people who use the name Wintermute on the Web. This makes it easy to hide in the forest. As I've noted on the page Who is Case Wintermute, I based the name Wintermute (and Case) on William Gibson's science fiction novel Neuromancer. There are other Wintermutes of note. There is a Republican (yech!) congresswoman in Illinois whose last name is Wintermute, a woman whose maiden name was Anne Wintermute who published a book of her husbands letters in 1922 and a woman named Susan Wintermute who was convicted fraud in 2003.

Given the large number of people who use the nom de plume Wintermute, it's remarkable that someone's Google search on Wintermute came up with my erotica pages, but it did happen. I got an outraged email from someone whose family names is Wintermute. He was upset that I was sullying his proud family name with my writings on deviant sex. I guess that he missed Susan Wintermute's fraud conviction. In memory of this individual I thought that I'd reproduce here the following internet post.

For those interested in tracing the origin of such things, I have recently learned that William Gibson named the AI in Neuromancer Wintermute after the following unusual story.

Wintermute was the name of a knight in one of the early Crusades. He was severely retarded, but came from a wealthy family who were underwriting that particular Crusade. His knighthood, of course, was hereditary. His family saw this as an opportunity to rid themselves of an embarassment while doing God's Work. They assigned him twenty squires and servants to make sure he presented himself correctly on the journey. During the long march, the other knights and associated personnel became aware that Wintermute was an idiot savant. He could glance at the stars and instantly state their latitude with a remarkable degree of accuracy. The others, awed, assumed he was touched by God -- a sign that proved the worthiness of their endeavor -- and they trusted him to lead the way without reservation.

Unfortunately, Wintermute was unable to assess longitude and so led the group far to the east. They ultimately arrived at the shores of the Caspian Sea, which they mistook for the Sea of Galillee. Finding no holy sites at all, much less any infidels, the confused crusaders settled there and formed a small community. Every Sunday night, after Mass, they would ceremonially ask Wintermute to tell them their location, which he would do. The colony eventually died out and this tragic story was almost lost to history.

William Gibson ran across this story at the home of a book collector friend. It was found in a privately printed collection of essays published in 1928 under the imprimaur of the Order of the Golden Dawn. The collector told Gibson that he had acquired the volume in Ibiza, in 1971, from an elderly, rather fussy gentleman who said that the author of that particular essay was known to W.B. Yeats.

Gibson decided to use the name Wintermute for his AI as an ironic commentary on the dangers of mistaking a mere caculative ability, however subtle and accomplished, for one of genuine transcendence.

From a post on rec.arts.sf.written, Feb. 19, 1996

July 2007

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