Cover of Neuromancer

William Gibson
271 pages
published in 1984

"The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel." The first time I read that sentence was a year or two after Neuromancer had been published; it immediately made all the science fiction I had read before seem oldfashioned and dull. Only other cyberpunk still seemed relevant, though none as relevant as Neuromancer. Gibson had seen the future and pinned it down for us to enjoy. Fast forward ten years and what seemed so radical then now looked dated and silly. It was clear Gibson knew nothing of computers, that his vision was a fraud and Neuromancer an overrated piece of hackwork. Fast forward another ten years and neither view seems true. Enough time has now passed to see Neuromancer for what it really is, a novel that sits comfortably within the science fiction continuum, one part in a thread that runs from Heinlein's juveniles through Brunner's late sixties disaster novels like Stand on Zanzibar to modern works like Stephenson's Cryptonomicon or Stross' Halting State.

It had been over a decade since I last read this; I'd convinced myself that Neuromancer was actually a bad book and Gibson a hack writer for a few years so I'd buried his novels in the back of my book collection and forgot about them. But having read both Snowcrash and The Diamond Age this year I felt the urge to reread Neuromancer as well and rediscovered that this is actually quite a good novel, if you can take it on its own terms.

What I had forgotten was that Gibson could write; just that opening sentence is better than you'll find in ninety percent of all science fiction novels. His writing style is sparse, to the point but stylish, of which that opening sentence is a good example. It sets the tone for the rest of the novel, by its understated use of mundane comparisons to create an immediately understandable yet poetic image. That sentence also shows the ways in which Neuromancer has dated since publication. For people grown up on cable and digital television, "the color of television, tuned to a dead channel" does not mean a snowy, overcast grey sky, it means a lightblue sky. Which is not quite the image Gibson tried to evoke here.

Because that cool, muted language Gibson employs in Neuromancer hides a deeply romanticism, even an at times adolescent story. Look at the characters for instance. There's the protagonist, Case, once a hotshot hacker until his bosses caught him stealing from them and they burned out his hacking abilities through an experimental mycotoxin and who's now involved in a complicated game of self destruction. Then there's Molly, a "street samurai", who has had her eyelids sealed with mirror lensens, who has ten inch long knives hidden in ducts underneath her nails, reading to spring forth at a moment's notice. Then there's their boss, Armitage, an ex-special forces involved with a failed virus attack run against a Russian communications complex during World War 3. These are all highly romantic characters, slightly hidden by the understated, clinical language Gibson uses to describe them, as well as the sophisticated veneer with which Gibson drops various brand names when describing scenes; it's never a coffemaker in the corner, but a Krupps or Braun coffeemaker. And they're always European or Japanese brandnames, never American, one way in which Gibson sketches his future for us.

That future is of course incredibly eighties, overtaken by events within five years of publication. There are space colonies at L5, some sort of third world war, limited in scope but with nuclear weapons, is in the story's background and you have this eighties idea of multinational zaibatsus ruling the world and the nation state withering away, ala Alvin Toffler's The Third Wave. Stylistic it's is sort of a mixture of Blade Runner for the real world look and Tron for Gibson's idea of cyberspace. And yes, that idea is incredibly wrong, bearing no resemblance whatsoever to how computers and the internet were developing in the real world, created by somebody who famously had no experience with computers when he wrote Neuromancer. Nevertheless, it's a seductive, stylish vision of what computers could be like and it must have influenced quite a few protogeeks to get a career in IT; it certainly helped me.

The plot starts when Case, trying to selfdestruct in Chiba City, becomes aware somebody is looking for him. This turns out to be Molly, who is sent to recruit him for Armitage's big project which he is, but not before his more or less girlfriend is killed in the process. His ability to hack is restored through a complicated nerve operation using techniques donated by Armitage's sponsor, which will makes the black market clinic used marketleader for a long time. Then it's off back to Case's old stomping grounds, the Sprawl, the huge urban corridor running from Boston to Atlanta in America, to steal a flatline construct (a computer simulation) of one of Case's hacker guru's, and on to Istanbul to recruit the last member of the group, Peter Riviera, who has implants that allow him to create detailed holographic illusions.

Once the whole team is assembled, they go on to their target, an artificial intelligence located in an L5 colony owned by a secretive Swiss family firm called Tessier-Ashpool. The idea is that Molly and Rivera will infiltrate the family fortress physically, while Case, together with the Dixie flatline will attack the computer controlled security systems. To help keep tabs on Molly's progress, she has a Sense/Net implant that Case can access to see throug her eyes. Of course, things start to unravel, especially once Case is contacted by some entity during a switch between cyberspace and Molly's implants, ending up in a constructed reality inhabited by his dead girlfriend...

At heart the plot is nothing but a caper story, where a group of disparate criminals come together to undertake the robbery of the century, only to realise they have been manipulated by outside forces into doing something else entirely. It's what Gibson hangs on this plot that makes Neuromancer interesting and the flair with which he tells the story. Yes, it has now dated horribly, but this does not diminish its quality or importance.

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Webpage created 09-11-2007, last updated 21-11-2007.