Book Review: Neuromancer

Book Name: Neuromancer
Author: William Gibson
First Published: 1984
Nebula & Philip K. Dick Awards winner, British Science Fiction Award nominee, 1984. Hugo Award winner, 1985

William Ford Gibson was born in the late 1940s and remained in the United States until the Vietnam War. Like many of his generation, he evaded the draft during the late 1960s by emigrating to Canada. There he became entrenched with the pervading counterculture of its day. Eventually, he settled in Vancouver, British Columbia and became a full-time author.

Gibson’s early works are bleak, dystopian stories about the effect of cybernetics and computer networks on humans beings. His short stories are published in popular science fiction magazines. The themes, settings and characters developed in these stories culminated in his debut novel Neuromancer. This book was unique in its scope and subject matter. It detailed a world that was unimaged at that time, but helped to define the world we live in today. Terms such as “cyberspace”, “matrix” were created by him in the novel and the concept of the internet can find its seeds there as well. Neuromancer was a critical and commercial success and birthed the cyberpunk literary genre.

Most of Gibson’s fame resides with Neuromancer and the Sprawl Trilogy it spawned, but he is also known as one of the important developers of another genre, the science fiction genre of Steampunk. His novel The Difference Engine, written with co-author Bruce Sterling, is considered one of the primary books that formed the ideas of the genre. It should be read along with the works of Tim Powers, James Blaylock, and K.W. Jeter when reading to understand the roots of the Steampunk genre.

“All the speed he took, all the turns he’d taken and the corners he’d cut in Night City, and still he’d see the matrix in his sleep, bright lattices of logic unfolding across that colorless void…”
― William Gibson, Neuromancer

It is the future and in the dystopian underworld of Chiba City, Japan, Henry Dorsett Case is a man who is unemployable due to the damage to his central nervous system by a powerful drug administered as a punishment for theft. Addicted to drugs and near suicidal, Case canvases the “black clinics” for a miracle, a cure that will allow him to once again access the global computer network in cyberspace, a virtual reality known as the “Matrix”.

He is rescued by an augmented “street samurai” who works for an ex-military officer called Armitage. Molly Millions needs Case’s skill as a hacker for a job and she arranges for Case to be healed. It is not long before Case learns that he has been double-crossed, for along with the “cure”, sacs of the poison that had crippled him before have been surgically placed inside his body by Armitage. If Case doesn’t follow through with the job, he will be right back where he started. Case and Molly are joined by a thief/illusionist named Peter Riviera.

The team’s first data theft is stealing a copy of the mind of a man named McCoy Pauley. He is a brilliant hacker who was Case’s mentor. They intend to use his electronic mind to aid them in their next job. As they work together, Case and Molly begin to form a romantic attachment.

The group next heads to an L5 space habitat known as Freeside. It serves as a luxury resort and casino for the wealthy and as the residence of the powerful Tessier-Ashpool family. The group’s mission is to break into the Villa Straylight and hack into an AI known as Wintermute.

What is Wintermute? It is half of a super-AI entity that was designed by the Tessier-Ashpool family to circumvent the Turing Law Code governing AIs to keep them restricted and safe for humans. Wintermute is housed in a computer mainframe in Berne, Switzerland and was programmed with a need to merge with its other half, Neuromancer, which was installed in a mainframe in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Should the two halves make a whole, a super-intelligent AI entity would be formed.

Case is tasked with entering cyberspace to get through the Turing-imposed software barriers. At the same time, Riviera is to gain the password to the Turning lock code from the current CEO of the Tessier-Ashpool family corporation. It is believed that Riviera will pose an irresistible temptation to her. Once learned, this password must be vocally spoken into a terminal in the Villa Straylight at the same moment when Case gets through the barriers in cyberspace.

Will Wintermute find its AI better half to find its destiny or will the law protecting humanity prevail? You’ll have to read the book to discover what happens in the end.

Neuromancer Book CoverI first read Neuromancer sometime around 2005. Cyberpunk as a genre had been established for quite some time and the concepts were a known quality, slowly growing more mirrored in the reality of the real world. When I decided that I wanted to take a look at the book that spawned the genre of cyberpunk and the ideas of hacking into computer systems or jacking the human mind into a machine, it made sense to seek out the holy grail of Neuromancer.

My first response to the clutter of prose and jargon-heavy “inside jokes” by this self-proclaimed techo-geek, was to roll my eyes and wonder what the heck were the award givers of the 1980s thinking? Why honor this writer of clunky prose who was obviously thumbing his nose at those of us who were not residents of silicon valley.

I had forgotten the reason I had gone back to read Neuromancer in the first place.

Gibson is not a hacker. He is not an engineer or an apple specialist designing the next hardware leap. Neuromancer is not about technology per se. What is Gibson? An artist that saw the direction that people could be heading and used this knowledge to create a fictional world where humans had an increased dependence on tech, more detachment between people due to constant interaction with machines and a blurring of lines between nations as we all tap into the global inner-world of cyberspace. He created a vision of what cyberspace, artificial intelligence and the merging of man to machine could be.

What is amazing is that this one book, Gibson’s debut novel, created a firestorm of inspiration to an entire generation of teenagers, novelists and technologists of the 1980s to think, “Wow, this is unique and too cool.” And then to inspire them to CREATE that world that they had only read about.

That my friends, is great literature. Neuromancer, although having dated technology and prose that is difficult to dive into until you get used to Gibson’s style, is a book that should be read. It is a blueprint of the world we live in today and a cautionary tale of what yet may come.

Sprawl Trilogy

Neuromancer (1984)
Count Zero (1986)
Mona Lisa Overdrive (1988)

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