Neuromancer

by William Gibson

Cover image

Series: Sprawl #1
Publisher: Ace
Copyright: July 1984
ISBN: 0-441-56959-5
Format: Mass market
Pages: 271

Buy at Powell's Books

Neuromancer is not truly where it all began. Cyberpunk predates the publication of the novel by several years and was already a growing phenomenon. The film Blade Runner, loosely based on a 1968 novel by Philip K. Dick, was released in 1982, establishing a similar asethetic. But Neuromancer was the breakout hit. It won both the Hugo and the Nebula award (and the Philip K. Dick award, which does not, contrary to Wikipedia, have the same cachet). Gibson coined the word "cyberpunk" earlier, but Neuromancer is the novel that put it into the popular lexicon.

This is my second reading, but the first was long ago during my initial discovery of science fiction. I remember liking the ending but being unimpressed by the world, but Neuromancer has such a reputation and is so commonly used as a reference point that it had become hard to untangle my fading memories of the book with all the other material I'd read about it. The goal of this re-read was to look at it with fresh eyes, and to see how much of what I like, and dislike, about cyberpunk is really there.

The protagonist of Neuromancer is a former hacker named Henry Dorsett Case, whose nervous system has been destroyed with a toxin to prevent him from continuing to hack. As nearly everyone, even those who have never read the book, is probably aware, the only computer interface that matters in Neuromancer is through a brain implant, and Case's interface to his has been destroyed. The story opens with him being recruited from suicidal risk-taking in the slums of Chiba City and offered a deal: a cure in exchange for his services as a hacker. The goal of his employer is at first obscure, involving a series of capers to gather resources, but it appears to involve an AI called Wintermute, owned by the reclusive and incredibly wealthy Tessier-Ashpool family.

The plot is one of Neuromancer's strengths. It's a short and fast-moving book with a lot of tense action, dangerous characters, risky alliances, and well-handled hints of background. One of the things Gibson excels at is giving the reader hints and snippets of world-building and letting the reader imagine the substrate. Future wars, corporate power, and the nature of AIs and future computing are developed via sidelong glances and stray comments without slowing down the action. And Gibson writes a good caper, making full use of Case's ability to "ride" his partner and see through her eyes, jump back to computer intrusion, and trade comments with the recorded personality of another dead hacker. Case's perspective is an easy match for the reader's, since he's often passively observing along with the reader, which makes the sudden bursts of action he's pulled into all the more compelling.

Unfortunately, strength of plotting is offset by weakness of characterization. Despite the amount of closely-observed detail of Case's actions we get through the book, and despite some tight third-person discussion of his emotional state, I found him annoyingly motiveless. At the start of Neuromancer, he's given up on life and is going into a self-destructive spiral for understandable reasons, but almost none of the emotional turmoil of getting a second chance ends up on the page. He's relentlessly driven by external forces: a cure, the threatened withdrawal of the cure, physical danger, and the manipulation of other characters. Very little comes from inside. There's a burst of petulant addictive behavior here, some lust there, and a spurt of anger at the villains, but Case is fundamentally boring. And that hurts the book because it hurts my ability to immerse.

Neuromancer is famous for its descriptions, in large part because it shows a gritty, ugly, improvised, and dangerous future. I don't think this is quite as ground-breaking as it is sometimes built up to be, but it is true that Gibson does a great job of vividly describing slums and street life in a world with better technology but no more hope. But that sense of place does not carry through the whole book. Towards the end, the characters find themselves on an orbital and a type of palace fortress, neither of which I was ever able to satisfactorily visualize. Chiba City, and some of the late-book constructions, feel real, but Gibson's descriptive powers weaken when he shifts to more traditional SFnal stages.

I went into this re-read prepared to also complain about Gibson's handling of technology, but there my memory betrayed me. Computer technology in Neuromancer is actually much better than it has any right to be, and considerably better than many of it's successor novels about anthropomorphized computer viruses and free "movement" through a computer network. Gibson keeps things usefully vague, and while I could quibble a bit with the uniformity of visual metaphor among hackers (examine a collection of desktop layouts and tool choices from a random set of hackers in real life!) or other minor elements, the presentation isn't bad. The one big miss is the ubiquitous neural interface, which, like many other instances in later cyberpunk, appears to be built by incompetent engineers with no concept of safety measures or failsafes. There's no way this common of technology would not be built to filter out severe pain and to prevent input that would put the user in a coma, but both happen with blithe regularity. Given the year in which it was written, though, Neuromancer does an excellent job at remaining plausible.

The other thing that surprised me on this re-read is just how many of the themes of later SF were already present here, and not just the traditional tropes of cyberspace. Digitization of personalities and the drawbacks and limitations of that, the attraction of a virtual world, struggles with mutual understanding between humans and AIs, and even a hint of hard-takeoff singularity are all here. And Gibson mingles those well with the deservedly-famous technological punk: implants that combine aesthetics and functionality, ninjas inserted into the story for no good reason other than to be cool, the refocusing on the corporation as the interesting large-scale actor, the increasingly vicious and physically realized rich/poor divide, a woman with implanted claws, and a world shown from a marginal and antagonistic perspective. It's not a book about the future poor — all of Gibson's characters are still privileged actors in their own ways — but it is a book that provides some hints about what being poor in the future might be like, and that's a step up from a lot of SF.

If Gibson had put some personality and internal life into his lead character and had managed to sustain his descriptive vividness throughout, I'd be comfortable calling this a classic everyone should read. The technological ideas are there, and Neuromancer explores angles of society that were relatively uncommon in SF at the time. But his characters and some of his scenes don't support the weight of the story. It's a better book than I remembered it being, but it's also a book with serious flaws, and some of its ideas have since been handled better. For example, Gibson's AIs deserve considerable praise within historical context, but after reading a healthy dose of the next 28 years of genre development, I found them limited and a bit flat.

Neuromancer is a book worth reading if you've not already, particularly since it's so influential and tracking the influences adds a lot to the reading, but I wouldn't drop everything to go find a copy.

Followed by Count Zero, although it's not a direct sequel and has a different cast.

Rating: 7 out of 10

Reviewed: 2012-02-27

Last modified and spun 2015-07-06