NEUROMANCER (Sprawl Trilogy, book 1) by William Gibson
Ace, 1986, 276 pages, 978-0-441-00746-2, Paperback, $15.00
Being a fan of all things science fiction, with a particular taste for the digital realm, I decided to begin my first foray into cyberpunk literature with the book that began it all. The story that has inspired everything from The Matrix to Ghost in the Shell: William Gibson’s Neuromancer.
In his premiere novel, considered by most to be the seminal work in cyberpunk, Gibson envisioned a dark, grim future. Multinational corporations like Tessier-Ashpool S.A. and the Ono-Sendai Computer Co. have replaced any semblance of government and control the social, political, and, especially, military spheres. Meanwhile, in cities like Night Town, with seedy streets rife with neon holograms, tourist looking for black market clinics, and drugs lords, technology has grown so immense that it has exceeded the bounds of the law. It’s a land of genetic mutation and cybernetic enhancement, of cloned assassins and “subliminals,” where the divide between man and machine has been all but obliterated. But that’s just one side of the coin, the physical realm. The other side is born of the digital realm, what Gibson coined “cyberspace.” It’s an infinite vastness of the computer ether, where entire worlds of corporate data are condensed into brightly lit neon geometries, and where ghosts in the machine whisper to those who listen. It is an engrossing world that’s immersive and addictive. Every chapter introduces you to some new, bizarre piece of technology that pulls you further and further in.
As we begin the story we’re introduced to the novel’s protagonist, Henry Dorsett Case. Case is a former “cyber cowboy,” a cyberspace hacker hired by corporations to steal confidential data from other companies. But when Case’s curiosity leads him to steal data from the company that hired him, their vengeance leaves him “trapped in the meat world,” separated from the digital world and no longer able to plug back into the matrix. We find him living in the crime-ridden streets of Night City in Chiba, Japan. Suicidal and addicted to drugs, longing for cyberspace, Case runs fast-and-loose deals hoping that one will eventually go south, leaving him dead and forgotten. He is the classic archetype of the cyberpunk anti-hero, a man ready to call it quits–until he’s approached with a deal.
A military higher-up known only as Armitage needs Case’s cowboy skills to run a series of hacking errands, and, in exchanged, Case gains re-entry. Longing for the “home” of the matrix, and with nothing to lose, Case takes the offer, and we’re thrust into a story akin to a detective novel.
Neuromancer’s best aspect is that it enables the reader to continue asking questions. We constantly learn along with the characters, trying to figure out what, exactly, it is that they’ve been hired for and what the end-game is. Who is Armitage? Where do his loyalties lie? What, exactly, is Case trying to steal? And, most importantly, who or what is Wintermute? Like a Sherlock Holmes story, it’s not until the last few chapters of the novel that all the pieces becomes clear, and Gibson’s fantastic storytelling keeps us wondering at every turn.
A personal gripe that I have with certain novels is poorly paced narratives that drag on endlessly and are constantly stopping to disturb the momentum. Thankfully, this is a fault that Neuromancer lacks. Gibson uses relatively brief chapters, propelled by a constant flow of action and incredibly vivid, kinetic imagery to tell his tale. The story never lulls, and it never drags for long exposition, even to explain some of its science fiction elements. Admittedly, the speed of the prose can lead to some confusion, especially when the characters speak in futuristic slang to describe certain technology. Words like “derm,” “Ice,” and “microsofts” can be a bit puzzling, and his description of “the spindle Freeside,” a massive space-station, can leave the reader lost if they don’t follow along carefully. But while, at times, it can be difficult to wade your way through, the challenge of Gibson’s prose creates the illusion that you’re a part of this world, one that demands you move fast, learn quickly and adapt, or simply fall prey to it.
A seemingly weaker element of the novel is Gibson’s characterization. While some seem shallow, and other are never developed beyond brief encounters, Neuromancer’s cast is one filled with extremely fun and engaging characters. From the Finn’s techno-hoarding and slight agoraphobia to the soft humor of “Dixie,” a computer personality construct, each character is unique. More importantly though, having the characters, especially Case, remain relatively under-developed is a poetic element of Gibson’s storytelling. Their shallow emptiness, and Case’s destructive self-loathing in particular, is a product of the soul-destroying consumerist world that created them. They don’t develop because there is nothing more for the to grow into. They’re tools of the system, trying to finish the job and move on to the next one, and we’re along for the incredibly enjoyable ride.
As a staple of the science fiction genre, and the foundation of a movement that gave birth to cultural treasures like Blade Runner and Deus Ex, Neuromancer is definitely worth reading. For die-hard cyberpunk fans, you’re jumping head first into the source of it all, and for newcomers who can keep up without getting lost, it’s as addictive as cyerspace itself.