Neuromancer by William Gibson

Neuromancer first HBRe-reading Neuromancer, I still feel the excitement of the first time I read it — the whole surprising, new-thing-ness of it — though it always makes me wonder if someone coming to it for the first time might wonder what the fuss is about. Its major impact comes from ideas that have been so subsumed into the culture, they’re almost invisible as ideas — much in the way the artificial intelligence Wintermute ends the novel breaking free of its bonds as an AI to expand and in some way become one with the whole matrix of cyberspace itself, “the sum total of the works, the whole show.” Gibson’s conception of cyberspace came just in time both to prepare us, imaginatively and conceptually, for the rise into daily life of computers and (some time after) the internet, and to give us a constant reminder of how naff what we actually ended up with is, compared to what he imagined (by combining the way kids got totally immersed in the low-res graphics of arcade video games, and the way the then-new Sony Walkman provided an immersive, portable otherworld you could plug yourself into): the “consensual hallucination” and “graphic representation of data abstracted from banks of every computer in the human system” (full quote here), data and software you could experience sensually, directly. The strange thing is how much of Neuromancer is so rooted in old culture: how it’s basically a hard-boiled noir take on SF (just as is Blade Runner — seeing which while writing Neuromancer almost made Gibson give up on the novel), and a re-imagining of Faerie/the land of the dead as a TRON-like world of bright, primary-coloured geometric shapes: “Lines of light ranged in the nonspace of the mind, clusters and constellations of data. Like city lights, receding…” But then again, this seems to be true of all the great, game-changing works of imaginative fiction — the way they can be seen, on the one hand, as incredibly new, but on the other as “why didn’t I think of that?” recombinations of what went before.

Cyberspace, from 1995's Johnny Mnemonic

Cyberspace, from 1995’s Johnny Mnemonic

What always feels so life-affirming, to me, about Gibson’s works, even though (particularly with the Sprawl trilogy of Neuromancer, Count Zero and Mona Lisa Overdrive) they’re so mired in the relentlessly downbeat, rusted-with-cynicism worldview of noir, is how his human beings are always finding ways of asserting their individuality not just in the face of a highly technologised world, but thanks to it. Case, Neuromancer‘s protagonist, would arguably be a nobody at any date prior to the invention of the technologies that allow him to jack into cyberspace and manipulate what he finds there with a seat-of-the-pants, intuitive skill; and where would Molly Millions be without her surgically implanted mirror shades and razorgirl claws? New technology, in Gibson’s world, becomes one more way of expressing essential human individuality. He’s interested in how people take up a new thing and use it not for its intended purpose. (From Count Zero: “The street tries to find its own uses for things, Mr Turner.”) But his is also a very dark, very 1980s world with a huge divide between those who have and those who don’t — and in this case the “have” refers not so much to money as power, and a specific type of power at that: “Power, in Case’s world, meant corporate power.” It is power, not technology, that is the chief dehumanising factor in this world:

“Case had always taken it for granted that the real bosses, the kingpins in a given industry, would be both more and less than people… He’d always imagined it as a gradual and willing accommodation of the machine, the system, the parent organism…”

Or, from the followup novel, Count Zero:

“…she stared directly into those soft blue eyes and knew, with an instinctive mammalian certainty, that the exceedingly rich were no longer even remotely human.”

So here’s a theory. In the 1970s, technology was perceived as part of the structure of power. They had the cabinet-sized mainframes with their whirling, eye-like pairs of tape reels, just as they had the nuclear weapons. Look at all those wonderful seventies dystopias and you’ll find that, if technology isn’t implicitly inimical to humankind (as in Westworld and Futureworld and 1980’s Saturn 3), then it is certainly inseparable from the oppressive, controlling state (Logan’s Run, THX1138, Rollerball). In the 1980s, though, technology — the computer part of it, not the nuclear weapons — became cheaper, and suddenly everyone could have a home video recorder, an electronic calculator, a digital watch, even their very own computer. And so technology, available to everyone, became part of popular culture, where it was thoroughly explored for its use in entertainment and self-expression, and no longer seen as a symbol of oppression. (You could even say that 1983’s WarGames, which is for me the archetypal home-computer revolution movie, is the point at which everything turns, as we see our hero teach a computer not to start a nuclear war.) Neuromancer was part of the reclamation of technology for the masses. And to me, this aspect of the novel — that humankind can endlessly take on board new technologies and make them (sometimes literally) part of itself while expanding, not narrowing, the bounds of what it means to be human — still feels new.

Neuromancer PBThis isn’t to say Neuromancer denies the dangers of technological dehumanisation. Rather, it acknowledges dehumanisation as an ever-present threat — just one of those things people do to themselves — with technology merely one of its means. As the novel opens, Case is deadened to his own feelings, to the extent that he’s goading the lowlifes of Chiba City into completing his unconscious suicide. When he finally manages to feel, it’s at the crucial halfway point of the novel, and even the unpleasant feeling of rage is like a “new thing”, a “treasure” compared to the emotional paralysis that went before:

“He’d been numb a long time, years… But now he’d found this warm thing, this chip of murder. Meat, some part of him said. It’s the meat talking, ignore it.”

“Meat” is the cyber-cowboy’s disparaging term for the body, and technology is certainly one of the ways that the divorce of mind and body can occur. But so are, in the novel, drug addiction and cynicism. And this is exactly the thing that feels so old-school in Neuromancer — it’s the same atmosphere that pervades Raymond Chandler‘s fiction. (Though Gibson, apparently, dislikes Chandler, preferring Dashiell Hammett — see this excellent Paris Review interview, for instance.) The hero, whether Philip Marlowe or Henry Dorsett Case, is battered to numbness by an unfeeling, dehumanised world, but makes the breakthrough back to feeling, back to an ideal or a recovered morality. The return to full humanity is the first, vital step to becoming a hero.

In the end, it’s power that dehumanises the most. And the powerful can be dehumanised by power alone, without any need for technology. (Though it does, of course, help. I particularly like Gibson’s description of the Tessier-Ashpool clan’s approximation to immortality through cryogenics as “a series of warm blinks strung along a chain of winter.” Plus, they can afford their very own vat-grown ninja…)

Neuromancer PB2Gibson’s protagonists use tech with such style. This — so much more than its current use with “steam” — justifies the “punk” in cyberpunk. These really are people with the hi-tech equivalent of a safety pin stuck through their nose; crude conglomerations of tech and flesh, welded together with hi-end surgery and micopore tape, brushing up against the massive data structures of zaibatsu megacorporations then bedding down in a cheap, run-down coffin hotel.

Reading Neuromancer is all about dipping into a writer’s sensibility and pool of ideas, his way of looking at the world and thinking about how it might become. Our world still might become like this. And though I’m not sure I’d elect to live in Gibson’s world, I’d certainly be happy to do so if I could take Neuromancer with me, and use it as a how-to guide.

Comments (8)

  1. Aonghus Fallon says:

    I feel exactly the same way as you do ‘Neuromancer’. It seemed so innovative when I first read it and like you, I often wonder how it would strike a young reader today. The ubiquity of the net has bluntened a lot of its novelty maybe, but I think the book has a strong philisophical core that keeps it relevant, as well as a seductive prose style. And the fact that it’s also in a recognisable tradition – noir, as you say – can’t be any harm.

    Oddly enough another, much less popular SF book that came out around the same time (or a few years later) – ‘Islands in the Net’ by Bruce Sterling – while lacking Gibson’s flair, shows a lot more foresight in its depiction of how the internet would end up taking over every aspect of our lives.

  2. Murray Ewing says:

    I never read much cyberpunk apart from Gibson, so maybe I’ll check out that Sterling book.

  3. Murray Ewing says:

    I’ve just read Sterling’s Islands in the Net, and you’re right, it is quite accurate in the way it predicts how ‘the Net’ would become, and the cultural/political impact it might have. Packed full of ideas, but with not so much sheer style as Gibson’s book, which is perhaps why it was less popular. Still, very good. Thanks for recommending it!

  4. Aonghus Fallon says:

    Even more curiously, Murray – I’m re-reading your article because I’ve just re-read the first two books of the Neuromancer trilogy!

  5. Aonghus Fallon says:

    What’s also interesting is how many other SF authors subsequently appropriated the Neuromancer books as a template (in terms of structure and style) even though their versions of the future are quite different – I’m thinking of Beukes and Bacigalupi.

  6. Murray Ewing says:

    I’m woefully under-read in modern SF. (I wish I had more time to read!) Bacigalupi is one I’ve been tempted to read, though haven’t got round to yet.

  7. Aonghus Fallon says:

    I only started reading SF & Fantasy around five years ago, after an hiatus of fifteen years, mostly books I’d read before. I wonder how much this has to do with my age? Maybe everybody does it – reappraises works that had a formative influence on them from a more mature perspective? I think it’s also about revisiting an increasingly distant past. I never finished ‘The Wind-up Girl’ and am currently reading Beuekes'”Zoo City’*. Both books are well written, but stick almost too closely to the Gibson template, and both are undermined by a premise that requires a fairly hefty suspension of belief on the reader’s part.

    * Beukes has appropriated a key trope of Pullman’s (animal avatars) in what I assume to be a deliberate and heavily ironic way; only murderers have them.

  8. Murray Ewing says:

    Interesting. I read a lot of F & SF (and horror) growing up, drifted away, then came back, but find it difficult to really get into any modern F & SF writers. I’m not sure what my resistance is. The trouble is, there are so many good, old, books to catch up on – and to re-read.

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