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.

The Big Sleep

The Big Sleep, cover to 1976 Penguin editionI can’t believe I haven’t read any Raymond Chandler before this. I think I was put off because that hard-boiled style is so widely imitated — or attempted, anyway — that there seemed no point. But a few sentences into The Big Sleep, I was laughing out loud for the sheer wit of the writing, the comic conciseness of it, the way it revels in its own ultra-cynical view of a dark, dark world:

I sat down on the edge of a deep soft chair and looked at Mrs Regan. She was worth a stare. She was trouble…

She said negligently: ‘He didn’t know the right people. That’s all a police record means in this rotten crime-ridden country.’ …

At times, you’d be hard pressed to tell Chandler from the Marx Brothers, or S J Perelman:

‘Mr Cobb was my escort,’ she said. ‘Such a nice escort, Mr Cobb. So attentive. You should see him sober. I should see him sober. Somebody should see him sober. I mean, just for the record.’

…you have to hold your teeth clamped around Hollywood to keep from chewing on stray blondes…

‘Two coffees,’ I said. ‘Black, strong and made this year…’

She had long thighs and she walked with a certain something I hadn’t often seen in bookstores…

He sounded like a man who had slept well and didn’t owe too much money…

But at others he achieves a perfect sort of scintillant, shadowy beauty — only ever in brief snatches — that works because of the sheer surprise of finding any beauty at all amongst so much shade and squalor:

It got dark and the rain-clouded lights of the stores were soaked up by the black street…

Dead men are heavier than broken hearts…

She was smoking and a glass of amber fluid was tall and pale at her elbow…

And — rare for a literary style — it works just as well with brisk action:

A tall hatless figure in a leather jerkin was running diagonally across the street between the parked cars. The figure turned and flame spurted from it. Two heavy hammers hit the stucco wall beside me. The figure ran on, dodged between two cars, vanished.

The Big Sleep has been filmed twice, the first (the 1946 version directed by Howard Hawks, starring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall) being so perfect as to doom the second (from 1978), even if it hadn’t been directed by Michael Winner.

The screenplay for the 1946 version was co-authored by William Faulkner, Jules Furthman and Leigh Brackett (a hard-boiled writer herself, not to mention the author of Michael Moorcock’s favourite planetary romance, and a helping hand on the screenplay to The Empire Strikes Back), but its greatest asset has to be Bogart. I put off watching either film version till I’d finished the book, but still found it impossible not to hear Philip Marlowe’s narration in Bogart’s voice. His is the perfect hard-boiled detective tone — a lazy, drawly, world-weary whine, its every word bit back by a deeply ingrained sarcasm. Once you hear him delivering hard-boiled prose, it’s like a meme you can’t get rid of, and to which every other actor cannot help but fall short. If Raymond Chandler himself didn’t sound like Humphrey Bogart, I don’t want to hear him.

This is a point amply proven by Robert Mitchum in Michael Winner’s version. Faithful to so many details of the book in terms of dialogue and incident — to a degree the Bogart classic isn’t — Winner’s film nevertheless manages to miss almost every point in terms of the spirit of Chandler’s world. Mitchum simply can’t deliver a line with the bite and world-weariness of a truly hard-boiled PI. It sounds (fatally) like he means what he says, whereas a hard-boiled PI’s meaning is never in the words he speaks, only in their bitter aftertaste. And, gods, Winner has changed the setting to seventies England! Seventies England just isn’t, and can’t ever be, thirties LA. If nothing else, the sleazy photo-trade aspect of The Big Sleep‘s plot becomes rather quaint and old-fashioned in full-colour post-sixties England. And, although it may be too weird to say it, there’s just too much sun and fine weather in Winner’s UK. Chandler’s novel takes place mostly at night, or in those oppressively dark and super-heavy downpours LA can have. It’s almost black and white before the fact, never mind the year it was filmed in. (Which isn’t to say noir can’t be done in colour — Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner and David Lynch’s Lost Highway are modern noir. Plenty of black, still, but they bring in the sharp, dark reds of lipstick and blood, too.)

The 1946 version’s main departure from Chandler’s novel is to increase the interaction between Marlowe and the older of the two Sternwood girls, as played by Lauren Bacall, this apparently because an early showing didn’t go down so well, and seeing as Bogart and Bacall had recently had a screen-chemistry-fuelled hit with To Have and Have Not, additional scenes were inserted allowing the two to indulge in some playfully suggestive banter — including a weird scene that attaches such suggestiveness to an exchange about betting on horses, it sounds even more explicit than any upfront conversation ever could. Although this makes the film more acceptable and commercial in Hollywood terms, it does end up sacrificing one of the high-points of the novel. In the book, when Marlowe finally tracks down crime boss Eddie Mars’s wife, he finds something like an angel, a total contrast to the eternally cynical, selfish and calculating grifters who make up the rest of the book’s cast. Writing of her, Chandler’s prose switches to a level of sentiment you wouldn’t be able to take were it not so hemmed in by cynicism (“Her breath was as delicate as the eyes of a fawn.”), and it works, it really works, you feel you’re in the presence of something rare and delicate, something that all too soon leaves Marlowe’s shadowy, ever-disappointed world. But this is something not possible in the 1946 film, because Bacall’s character has to be the focus for Marlowe’s (and our) admiration, and Eddie Mars’s wife becomes just a bit part, yet another blonde. (As for the 1978 film, it can’t hope to approach anything like sentiment, let alone real feeling.)

A brunette, a blonde and Bogey

The fact that I’ve recently read the novel and watched two film versions of The Big Sleep yet still fail to remember whodunnit each time points to how little plot matters in this type of fiction. What matters is that, for the duration of the book or film, you’re dwelling in Hard Boiled Land, in Noirville — which is, really, more of an atmosphere (or, better, a shade) than a place, an effect caused by donning a pair of most definitely not rose-tinted glasses. But, as with the bleakest tragedies, there’s something about it that works — like a cold, hard slap works. Fitting, perhaps, as one of the iconic images of the hard-boiled world is of the detective slapping the hysterical blonde. This is a world, after all, where the only emotion ever expressed is one that bursts loose, out of control, something that’s closer to insanity than real feeling (at one point, near the end, Marlowe starts to laugh “like a loon”, making me wonder how much Chandler’s fiction was an attempt to address the same concerns as H P Lovecraft’s). Every other emotion has to be bitten back, or let loose in terse slugs of hard-boiled dialogue. It’s a world in which everything of any value has to be reduced, sullied, disenchanted. Women aren’t women; they’re blondes or brunettes. Men aren’t men; they’re cops or heavies. And everyone’s a grifter, and life is nothing but a series of no-hope games played for too-high stakes. The only surprises in this world are gunshots, corpses and the occasional troubled blonde. Till then, there’s always another drink, or a blackjack to the back of the head, or a sock to the jaw. Above all, there’s a feeling of a world steeped in a profound sense of injustice, something so fundamentally rotten the law cannot touch it — hence the need for the hard-boiled hero to be a freelance, a PI, half outside the law so he can stray across that grey line between right and wrong, and deliver his own sort of (leaden) retribution — something personal, before it gets to the (inevitably corrupt) impersonal courts.

Film noir – a guy, a girl, and a gun

The more I think about it, the more the hard-boiled world sounds like Lovecraft’s fictional world. I know hard-boiled Lovecraft has been done several times (Cast a Deadly Spell, and Kim Newman’s “The Big Fish”, to name a couple), but really, however fun, these are kind of superfluous. Chandler’s world was not quite as bleak as Lovecraft’s at its bleakest — I can’t imagine there’s a hard-boiled equivalent of “The Colour Out of Space” — and Lovecraft doesn’t really have an equivalent of the briefly-glimpsed angel of Eddie Mars’s wife — but they were certainly touching the same territory, each in their own oft-imitated but really inimitable way.