Gibson’s Neuromancer was his first book. In its debut, it won the
triple-crown of sci-fi awards (Hugo, Dick, and Nebula) and defined much of the
aesthetic and terminology of dystopian futures before there was even a
popularly held trope called “dystopian future.” If there is a park out of which
to hit things in the field of sci-fi literature, he did it.
That the work was finished in 1983. It surfaced with Return of the Jedi and
shortly after Blade Runner — and certainly years before both would be
held up as paragons of the genre. Long before the Wachowskis would bring us a
literal “jacking in” of a brain into a simulation, long before we would see
wirework battles informed by ronin techno-samurai chivalric romances, there
was Neuromancer. The first birthday part I truly recall, held at Showbiz
Pizza (where musician clockwork animatronics prefigure the world of
Neuromancer) was held after its publication date.
To spoil things a bit, before we in the tech biz would routinely discuss
“Artificial Intelligence” or “Trained algorithms” in terms of psychology,
Gibson was describing such things in fiction.
It defined so much about our world, about its aesthetics, about how we envision
it. In my edition’s afterword, a curious property of Neuromancer, much like
Star Trek, is noted:
- Did Gibson predict the future so well, or
- Did Gibson describe such a fascinating and engaging future that technologists
continue to strive to make it real?
Does the tail enter the snake’s mouth or does the head eat its tail?
Neuromancer’s legacy was firmly sorted when I read the book sometime in the
mid-90’s. Back then, it was only a decade-and-a-half old. I remember thinking
that the action was hard to follow, the characters were awesome, and cyberspace
was a strange and murky technicolor (if not psychedelic) mess. With nearly
double that time passed, my question was whether the work held up.
Amazingly, it does. In the pros column:
- The prose is crisper than I remember, and shimmers with energy and
intelligence. I also think his sex scenes and nudity descriptions are
excellent. This, in particular, is a virtue when it’s so hard to get these
- I remembered the fantastical-nearing-psychedelic descriptions of cyberspace,
but now find it charming and relatable. How would one describe visiting the
inside of the human body (as in the Fantastic Voyage)? Given that that’s a
system we understand relatively well and it reads utterly foreign, consider
what a digital hallucination of all the world’s data would look like.
Psychedelic might not only be a good approximation, it might be the only
reasonable approximation. Keep in mind, Tron was cutting edge at the time
Gibson was visualizing not merely a chip, but all the 1’s and
0s in the world in toto
In the cons column:
- Much of the setting is muddy and hard to follow. The long descriptions of
hallways in an orbital space station utterly lose me. Like the part of the
Inferno where Dante finds down to be up suddenly, I feel like multiple
scenes like this occur throughout the Freeside space station. I just shrug,
think “OK, down is up now” and keep on reading.
- Many action scenes are muddled or over too quickly. While I remembered this
being the case for all action scenes, on this read, I can see cases where
that skill was growing. The final arrow-hunt is well-paced and breathes in
a way that earlier battles e.g. Molly’s hunt in Chiba don’t.
- Much of the prose trades “tell” for “show” with, and I have to coin a term,
plonky prose. I’m a bit less sensitive to this now and find it charming in
a writer’s first book, especially one that gave us so much. Nevertheless “She
was a samurai” after we she’s mopped the floor with multiple combatants seems
like something that could be shown (e.g. she has a code, she demonstrates
bushido virtues, etc.) instead of “plonked.”
- The culminating action seems unmotivated to me (see spoiler bloc below)
The Unmotivated Finale
I don’t get at all why 3Jane assists Wintermute and Neuromancer. My impression
is that extremely-long lived characters (e.g. the recently deceased
Tessier-Ashpool himself, 3Jane) have difficult-to-comprehend motivations (I
think?). I think 3Jane’s motivation in whistling the password is maybe boredom?
Or perhaps she’s doing it because Wintermute and Neuromancer were trained by
her mother and she wants to spite her nominal father (who rape-kills clones of
I did love the note, that I had missed in my first read, that the
synthesized “Neuromute” is the only Earthly intelligence capable and ready to
interact with another planet’s intelligence. It’s a nice, and very early call
out to the logic of the Drake equation which suggests that the reason we
haven’t heard from extraterrestrial life is that we’re just too dumb to get it
(see Arrival or even Flash Gordon).
But these are small potatoes for a work of such towering importance. I respect,
admire, and deeply enjoyed this book. Having read it on paper, I only had a few
notes and highlights, but here they were. Spoilers below, obviously.
Notes / Highlights
- The sky above the port was the color of television, turned to a dead channel
- …these were the stars under which he voyaged, his destiny spelled out in a
constellation of cheap chrome (13)
- Case woke from a dream of airports [Gibson’s Pattern Recognition has the
best description of jet lag I’ve ever read. He’s good about travel] (47).
- He lay on his side and watched her breathe, her breasts, the sweep of a
flank defined with the functional elegance of a war plane’s fuselage. Her
body was spare, neat, the muscles like a dancer’s (48).
- Wintermute was a simple cube of white light, that very simplicity suggesting
extreme complexity (123).
- [Describing sexual desire from the perspective of a cyberspace jock] It was a
place he’d known before; not everyone could take him there, and somehow he
always managed to forget it. Something he’d found and lost so many times. It
belonged, he knew — he remembered — as she pulled him down, to the
meat, the flesh, the cowboys mocked. It was a vast thing, beyond knowing, a
sea of information coded in spiral and pheromone, infinite intricacy that
only the body, in its strong blind way, could ever read.