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.

Skallagrigg by William Horwood

Skallagrigg (hardback), cover by David Kearney

Skallagrigg (hardback), cover by David Kearney

I first read William Horwood’s Skallagrigg twelve years ago, on a word-of-mouth recommendation — actually, less than that, an overheard snippet of a recommendation to someone else — which is a particularly appropriate way to come to a novel that’s about a quest to find the source of a cycle of stories spread among the disabled residents of Britain’s hospitals, institutions and places of care, always by word of mouth, never written down. I’ve mentioned before on this blog, writing about Theodore Roszak’s Flicker, how much I like this sort of quest-for-the-artist kind of tale (I also included Ramsey Campbell’s The Grin of the Dark in the same category; his Ancient Images would be another, as would Paul Auster’s The Book of Illusions). Skallagrigg follows a similar labyrinthine path, and although it does so without straying into the supernatural or conspiracy territories of Campbell’s or Roszak’s, it provides a very satisfying and moving conclusion to the quest on all levels, and is, I’d say, one of the most powerful novels I’ve read — and a damned good read, too.

The “Skallagrigg” stories centre around Arthur, brought as a boy at the beginning of the 20th century to a “towering place of dirty yellow brick and sunless, barred windows”, because his cerebral palsy has branded him, in the all too ready-to-label eye of the era’s establishment, an idiot. Arthur is, in fact, highly intelligent, and through a fellow patient who can understand his difficult speech tells stories of a figure he calls “the Skallagrigg”, who will one day come and take him from the hell that is the ward ruled over by a violent, or at best indifferent, staff of supposed carers, and one particular demon with a hooked window-stick known as Dilke. Arthur’s stories spread among the disabled, never the able-bodied, and become a sort of myth, hinting at a promise of hope, of escape, of freedom, perhaps even of cure, until it’s difficult to tell if this “Skallagrigg” is an actual person or a saviour figure — for how else could he or she or it possibly live up to all that Arthur, and the others that hear the stories, hope for?

Skallagrigg (paperback)The novel’s main story follows Esther Marquand, who is, like Arthur, born with cerebral palsy, though into a far more enlightened age. This does not, however, make her journey through life at all easy. On the way there are difficulties to face, both physical and emotional — Esther’s condition, and the circumstances of her birth (born via Caesarian after her mother was killed in a car accident), have torn apart her family. But just as the “quest” strand of Skallagrigg is about bringing together disparate clues to find a lost truth, so Esther’s story is about reconciliation, about facing difficult emotional truths and overcoming them to heal what does not seem can be healed. Skallagrigg is a long book (572 pages in hardback, 736 in paperback), but necessarily long, to properly convey the considerable struggle Esther faces at every stage of both her life and her quest for the source of the “Skallagrigg” stories. As someone who generally doesn’t like long books, I have to say this is one that thoroughly justifies its length. (Which is why the 1994 TV adaptation of the novel by the BBC, though a good film in its own right, can only ever be a whistle-stop tour of the novel’s highlights, a compression of its very full story, and probably best watched after you’ve read the book, otherwise it might wrongfoot you on a few plot-strands. Still, highly recommended as a sort of dessert to the novel itself. Richard Briers never fails to surprise!)

One of the things I love about this book is that it’s also about the early days of home computers (it was published in 1987). Esther’s quest for the Skallagrigg informs her growing ability as a creator of computer games, leading her to make a game that takes the player through as much of an analogue of her own difficult journey as it can — both through life, and in search of the Skallagrigg:

“She must already have made the key decision for ‘Skallagrigg’ [the game she creates] that the journeyer — the player — would have to become successively more severely handicapped if he or she was to reach the end of the quest. The game was becoming a journey into nightmare, of terrible self-acceptance, and the options the successful player would have to make would be ones towards self-abasement, humiliation, weakness and physical destruction in order to gain a spiritual victory.”

Horwood tells of how he came to write Skallagrigg in a lecture given in the 1990s, “The novel and the safe journey of healing”, (later published in The Novel, Spirituality and Modern Culture):

“I picked up a pocket tape-recorder one day and posed myself a challenge. Was there anything, I asked myself, that I could not speak into it. Some secret perhaps. Some unadmitted truth, something, anything…”

By taking up such a challenging and essentially unanswerable subject as the blind injustice of being born so physically powerless as Esther or Arthur, Horwood plunges his reader into a confrontation with the limits we all face. Ultimately the Skallagrigg stories, like the truest stories and mythologies, are about finding a way to deal with the dark areas, the difficult and impossible areas, of life — not by “solving” them, not by having the difficulties magically taken away or made “normal”, but by finding meaning in the face of them, by accepting and then transcending them.

I recently re-read Skallagrigg and found it just as compelling as my first read. (I had in fact forgotten what the ultimate solution to Esther’s quest was, and when it came round again, found it just as spot-on, just as fulfilling of all its hints and puzzles, right down to origin of the word “Skallagrigg” itself.)

A wonderful book.

A novel is a sequence of words, one after the other — how do you improve on that?

I watched the video of Steve Jobs’ keynote speech demonstrating the new iPad when it came out and felt a bit underwhelmed. My main interest in the iPad was in the area of ebook readers — could the iPad do for books what the iPod did for music? By the looks of it, and despite the media buzz, I’d say the answer is no. But I wasn’t expecting that it would.

I’ve kept half an eye on ebook readers as the technology has developed, and have even a couple of times found myself on the verge of buying one. The main thing that stopped me each time is the fact that I just love books as physical objects too much. There are, nevertheless, things I like about the idea of having an ebook reader. The main one is that it would free me from having to have a physical copy of every book I read. I’d be quite happy to have most non-fiction books that I’ve read in digital form, for instance, so that, once I’ve read them, I can refer back to them, without their having to take up my rather limited shelf-space.

But the real issue for me is novels. Would I ever want to read a novel on an ebook reader? There are a few advantages I could see in it, but from Steve Jobs’ demo of the iPad, I can’t see that those advantages have been addressed. Jobs was obviously excited about the new iPad, and in particular about the ebook store aspect of it. But when it came to showing the results of buying an ebook, and addressing what you actually do with it once you’ve bought it, he seemed to hit something of blank, which was quickly passed over with a happy return to the ebook store, with its potential to sell oodles of a whole new form of digital product.

What about the most important thing (from the consumer’s, not the producer’s, point of view) — the reading experience? Books, for most people, are fundamentally different from music. The whole point about the iPod is that it lets you take your music with you and listen to it while you’re doing other stuff. Even audiobooks, Apple’s main brush with the literary world so far, are mainly of advantage in that you can listen to them while doing something else, like walking the dog, or doing the housework. Reading, however, is something you do as an entire activity all of itself. And I think there’s really very little in terms of bells & whistles you can add to it.

Then, today, I came across this video of Penguin’s ideas of how they’re going to transform their stock of books for use on the iPad. It all looks great, but the trouble is, these aren’t the sort of books I’m interested in. Yes, the iPad is great for reference books, because it can turn them into hyperlinked multimedia applications. But we know computers can do that, because they’re already doing it. On websites, and before that, on CD-ROMs. So there’s nothing really new there.

I have a few ideas — a set of minimum demands I’d like to be met before I’d buy an ebook reader.

First, and this I think is already in place anyway, is an ability to change the size and style of the text. But I’d also like to change the amount of whitespace, so you can have lines double-spaced, or line-and-a-half spaced (my favourite), and set your own margins, which makes things a lot easier to read. And you’d have to be able to save those as a style sheet and apply it to the text of any book you read. Perhaps have one for horror novels and one for classics, and so on.

Next, bookmarks. You’d have to have a bookmark for where you’re reading, obviously, but you’d also want to be able to place quick-flick bookmarks for places you want to refer back to. And I’m not just talking about reference books, here. If you’re reading something like War and Peace, with its vast cast of characters, you might want to create an index page of names, bookmark-linked to the places they first appear, just so you can keep track of who’s who (along with all their Russian diminutives). Also — and this is mostly for reference books — I’d want to be able to view the book split-screen, so I can have two sections open at once. For instance, to keep a diagram from one page up whilst it is being discussed, and so on.

Next, as an expansion of bookmarks, I’d want comments and annotations. I know things like the Kindle allow you to make comments, though I’ve never checked to see how easy that is. But what I like the sound of is opening up comments and annotations so they can be shared. So, you’d be able to put your own private annotations on the page (or as hidden pop-ups); but you should also be able to share your comments & annotations, for instance with other members of your book-club; and, you should be able to subscribe to (even pay for) annotations from third-parties — for instance, in the case of scholarly annotations to a classic book. So, you could buy S T Joshi’s annotations to Lovecraft, as an example. Or, you could (if you really wanted to go in-depth), buy both the Penguin and the Oxford Classics annotations for some classic novel you’re reading, and have them both appear linked to the one text. (I have to say here that I love annotations to books. I can’t resist a book with annotations.)

The thing is, though, when it comes down to it, the experience of reading a book is irreplaceable by any activity other than reading the book — following it on, word by word, and creating that thing in your head which is the result of having read a novel. The whole point of that experience is just how unadorned it is. A nice edition, a nice typeface, some informative annotations, perhaps some illustrations, are all essential, but when it comes down to it, the reading of a book is something that happens deep within your head. And I can’t think of anything that any technology could do to improve on, or even alter, that. It’s brainware, not software, not hardware — brainware alone.

And this may the point — reading is a creative act, with the book as the script and you, the reader, as the performer. What you do with the book as you read it is personal, perhaps a bit experimental, and probably incommunicable. And it may be the luddite-Romantic in me — though I love technology and what it can do well, just like I love my iMac — but I think it’s one the few areas no technology will ever improve. It’s a human thing, a truly human thing, like dreaming, like hoping, like wishing, and all those other (mostly useless) things we humans do which will never be digitised.

So, while I’d love for Apple to have success after success, there’s a part of me sort of hoping it won’t happen in this case, just so the march of digital progress might finally find the point where old-style entertainment digs in its trenches and holds the front-line. If it’s going to happen anywhere, it’s going to be in the most low-tech, do-it-yourself area. And I think that area may be reading novels.