Friday, December 26, 2008

Neuromancer by William Gibson (1984)

Dirty, gritty, dark, futuristic and dated. These are just a few words which come to mind in describing William Gibson’s novel Neuromancer. Published in 1984, this is the foundational work of the movement known as cyberpunk, a genre mixing noir, doom, gloom, underworld activities, and extreme technological advances. In other words, great fun!

Neuromancer starts off following Case, a burned out (literally) cyber-deck cowboy, as he commits slow suicide via drug use and bad black market dealings in Chiba City outside of future Tokyo. Case used to be an up and comer entering cyberspace and stealing data for the highest bidder, but was caught stealing a little extra on the side for his last employer, who then fried his synapses to keep him from ever cowboying-up again. It’s that kind of world Gibson creates; harsh, filled with easy drugs and easy death. Into this slow motion self-destruction steps Armitage and Molly, boss man and razor-girl respectively, offering Case a new lease on life in exchange for making a mystery run through cyber-space for them. What can a boy do but accept.

The ensuing action leads from Chiba to “The Sprawl”, also known as the Boston-Atlanta metroplex, to Straylight in outer space. Through it all, Gibson drives the action with staccato rhythm and razor sharp description. The world he builds feels not just real, but unavoidable, even 25 years on from its first publishing. This part caper, part mystery, part thriller will envelope the reader with the sights and sounds of a possible future and leave them wanting more.

This reading of Neuromancer was my second. I first read it around 1986 and was confounded by the technology Gibson invented. I feel the 25 years of technological advances in the real world has served to make this novel more coherent and understandable. Some details have not aged well, others have actually come to pass out in the world, but the bulk of the story is still as relevant and entertaining as ever. And of course Gibson’s prose is that of a master. He places the reader squarely on Case’s shoulder and lets the world play out to perfection. His sense of where technology was headed is spot on. The corporate culture Gibson describes has as much poignancy today as ever, and the juxtaposition of the new world powers represented in Chiba vs. the old European powers represented in Straylight still give one pause for thought.

If there is a criticism I have of the novel now as it enters its middle age, it is of its pessimistic views of the world and the lack of compassion. The most compassionate character is an A/I, but then perhaps Gibson was trying to tell us something. In a future which promises overpopulation, easy (but not cheap) human modifications, and rampant crime, Gibson shows us a humanity making itself more machine-like and machines struggling to become more human, creating a tension which cannot go unresolved. Thankfully, Gibson continues his exploration of this topic in the next 2 (or five depending on how you wish to look at it) novels.

All in all, if you know what The Singularity is, or are a fan of directly hooking your brain into a computer, then this is a book for you. Go now and read it. You won’t be disappointed. If you think a hot-wired female bodyguard with mirrored lenses surgically implanted into her cheeks and chemically enhanced reflexes sounds dumb, run away and run away quickly, you will not enjoy this. But I sure did. I can’t wait for another 25 years to go by so I can read it again and see if it is still holding up as well as it is now.

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