I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend Neuromancer to any serious reader, whether he was a science fiction fan or not.
Neuromancer, William Gibson’s first full-length novel, written in 1983, rightly occupies an important place in Science Fiction.
It forms a loose trilogy with Count Zero and Mona Lisa Overdrive, and the three books are often called “The Sprawl Trilogy”. It is the work which started the so-called Cyberpunk movement, though Gibson himself never uses the expression, and has moved on to more conventional writing. Many writers have mimicked Gibson’s style without the same success. Rather than attempting to define Cyberpunk, let me enumerate the main components of Neuromancer:
- The main protagonist, Case, is what we would now call a hacker. He is also a criminal, having stolen from his employers and killed a number of fellow criminals. He is no stranger to drugs.
- Case’s partner, Molly, is a professional strong-arm woman with artificial implants to enhance her deadly capabilities.
- Cyberspace (Gibson’s invention) is a sort of virtual reality version of the worldwide web. Gibson anticipates the web by about a decade. It is the medium in which Case’s work is performed.
- Body implants are commonplace in the world of Neuromancer. Implants range from organs to hardware, computing devices and weapons.
- Inhabited satellites circle the Earth.
- Computers with considerable Artificial Intelligence exist, kept under control by the “Turing Police”.
- EEG-type devices permit emotions and experiences to be recorded, mass-reproduced and sold as recordings.
- Exotic weapons abound.
- An expert system, based on an actual person, living or dead, can be encapsulated on a ROM and used as though the person were actually present.
- The action takes place in Japan, in Istanbul and in orbit.
Neuromancer is set in a worn and grubby future like the movies Bladerunner and Alien. The themes and atmosphere of the Matrix movies are sometimes said to be inspired by Neuromancer, but I don’t see it myself. However, I do often spot two-dimensional shadows of Neuromancer’s influence leaking into other science fiction, especially cyberpunk. Violence is also an important feature of Neuromancer, a feature that becomes less prominent in Gibson’s subsequent work. The plot is played out as a single third person account from the point of view of Case. Most of Gibson’s later books, including the other two novels in the trilogy, are told from multiple points of view. The plot is nevertheless complex. There are a number of memorable characters in it, notably Dixie Flatline, who is not actually present, and Finn – the ultimate gomi collector and professional nerd.
Of course, science fiction often flourishes only by virtue of cool ideas, and Neuromancer is not short of these. But that is not the whole story. The language is also spell-binding. For example:
He’d found her, one rainy night, in an arcade.
Under bright ghosts burning through a blue haze of cigarette smoke,
holograms of Wizard’s Castle, Tank War Europa, the New York skyline….
And now he remembered her that way, her face bathed in restless laser
light, features reduced to a code: her cheekbones flaring scarlet as
Wizard’s Castle burned, forehead drenched with azure when Munich fell
to the Tank War, mouth touched with hot gold as a gliding cursor struck
sparks from the wall of a skyscraper canyon. He was riding high that
night, with a brick of Wage’s ketamine on its way to Yokohama and the
money already in his pocket. He’d come in out of the warm rain that
sizzled across the Ninsei pavement and somehow she’d been singled out
for him, one face out of the dozens who stood at the consoles, lost in
the game she played. The expression on her face, then, had been the one
he’d seen, hours later, on her sleeping face in a port side [hotel room], her
upper lip like the line children draw to represent a bird in flight.
Gibson’s style has been called ‘verb-light’, but that may be because he is ‘description-heavy’. There are characteristic rhythms and repetitions in his descriptions which render his prose so very recognisable.
The antique arm whined as he reached for another mug. It
was a Russian military prosthesis, a seven-function force-feedback
manipulator, cased in grubby pink plastic.
a flat lozenge of vat grown flesh that lay on a carved pedestal of imitation jade.
she lit it for him with a thin slab of German steel that looked as
though it belonged on an operating table.
Neuromancer did not appear from nowhere. Gibson’s early short stories, for example: Johnny Mnemonic, Fragments of a Hologram Rose and Burning Chrome, foreshadowed the background.
However, back in the 1980s, Gibson professed no particular expertise with the cyberspace technology about which he wrote so fluently, and the tale that he wrote his early books on a battered portable typewriter is at least partially true. This unfamiliarity with computer technology actually freed him to invent concepts that still feel fresh and original even to a life-long software engineer like me. Case’s interface with cyberspace more resembles spaceflight than it does the Web of today.
The same lack of detailed knowledge has the additional advantage that Neuromancer is not filled with technical explanation. The technology is presented as a fait accompli and the reader just has to accept the ‘what’ without knowing the ‘how’.
Having said that, Gibson is an accomplished observer of society, and has a knack of knowing how people at large – ‘the street’ as he calls it – will find a use for new developments.
What of the future for Neuromancer’s reputation? Hollywood keeps threatening to produce Neuromancer – the Movie. I shudder at the thought. Everything but the fight scenes would be ditched, and so much gratuitous gung-ho would be added as to render it unpalatable.
I re-read Neuromancer again recently. For me, it has lost none of its quality over the quarter century since it was written. Let’s keep it in book form, set it as a school reader, respect it for the classic it undoubtedly is.