by William Gibson
At the beginning of May, I drew up a reading list from Nancy Pearl’s Book Lust and More Book Lust. Neuromancer comes highly recommended from Mrs. Pearl, as a science fiction classic.
Neuromancer is the sort of older sci-fi work that manages to remain fresh, due to its surprisingly prescient technology. In fact, the copy on the inside cover prattle on and on about its seminal nature, devoting absolutely nothing to the plot. This is not unmerited–Neuromancer is the one of the mothers of modern cyberpunk. It feels a great deal like Blade Runner, to be honest, which was released two years before Neuromancer. It’s very a pure example of cyberpunk.
Neuromancer is the story of Case, a ruined hacker living on the streets of Chiba, Japan. Case is addicted to drugs and crippled of his ability to use the matrix–imagine a graphical representation of the Internet that’s accessed with a computer and your brain. The ruined Case is suddenly proprositioned by Molly, a mercenary–she’ll give him back his abilities as a hacker if he lets her boss, Armitage, use his hacking skills for a particularly tough job. Case agrees, and the pair of them are soon swept up in a plot far more twisted than either of them would have dreamed of.
It’s very much a cyperpunk thriller, with the same pacing you can find in any decent thriller. Information is given a little at a time to Case, and subsequently, to us–there’s a few moments where Case has to finally demand information from Molly and Armitage. The second half of the book is more rewarding than the first, as we get deep into the heart of the main hacking job. Because of its thriller nature, I don’t want to say too much about the plot.
Molly feels like the heart of the novel. A technological marvel allows Case to “flip” into Molly’s consciousness at will, so he can check up on her, and we get to feel things from her perspective. While Case is the technical hero, he’s a ragged and drug addicted hacker. He has very few redeeming qualities. After his operation leaves his drugs of choice useless to him, he befriends a pair of young people so he can get a drug that will actually work. Molly is equally flawed–she’s sadistic, gruff, and a criminal, but she’s also got a good heart. Her back story is simple (almost cliché) but moving, and she’s also just awesome. Whereas Case has his hacking skills and a distaste for being “meat” (as opposed to being in the matrix), Molly gets all the cool toys–she’s a “razorgirl”, with small razors that come out of her nails, she sports lenses embedded over her eyes (she spits instead of cries), and she’s also physically superior.
Gibson’s worldbuilding is also magnificently done. The trends all over the world are equally obtuse as trends are today. Throwaway lines are full of rich territory, while the history we’re given is intriguing. Multinational corporations rule the Earth, extensive body modifications are the norm, and an American–Russian military incident affects a great deal of the plot. While we mostly stay in Case’s grimy underworld, we’re given glimpses of the rest of the world, such as the wealthy playground Freeside and the Rastarifarian settlement Zion.
It’s gritty with some inspired images–snapshots of the world Case cannot inhabit, and especially the forced antiquity of the Villa Straylight, where the last third of the novel occurs. But it sometimes feel like it’s going too quickly. I didn’t realize that Freeside and Zion were space stations at first, and I often rechecked previous pages. The pace is pitch perfect during the last third of the novel, when the hacking job takes place, but it is a bit hard for the more mundane tasks Case and Molly has to carry out beforehand.
The amount of strangely prescient technology here is amazing. Some of the novel’s devoted following theorize that Neuromancer may have inspired the Internet and some of the tech. Gibson himself is more humble about that in the introduction to the twentieth anniversary edition, noting that the stuff he managed to predict he hadn’t a clue about, and that he completely missed the boat on cell phones–in fact, one scene centers around a row of pay phones. It’s the prime reason Neuromancer remains fresh–it reasonably goes beyond the technology we have today, twenty odd years after it was published.
While I recognize Neuromancer‘s importance and its wonderful execution, it’s simply not my cup of tea. Cyberpunk is a very cynical genre, and I like my science fiction optimistic. I have the same deal with Blade Runner–I like the film technically, but it’s just not my kind of movie. For me, Neuromancer is too gritty and pessimistic, despite its fantastical technology and the wonderful Molly. But those who like cyberpunk will love Neuromancer.
Bottom line: Neuromancer is a quick paced cyberpunk thriller that remains fresh twenty some years later, due to Gibson’s prescient technology. While I personally just don’t like cyberpunk and its cynicism, you’ll enjoy this if you’re a fan of the genre.
I rented this book from the public library.