Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Neuromancer (1984) by William Gibson

Neuromancer (1984) by William Gibson

'Neuromancer' is to the genre of cyberpunk what 'The Lord of the Rings' is to fantasy. It is widely regarded as the seminal cyberpunk novel, the originator of ideas that have influenced myriad films, books and video games since its publication; it's also the popularizer of the word cyberspace (a word Gibson coined in an earlier work). Reading it in the year 2007, it's easy to fail to appreciate how original and inventive the book would have been back in 1984. With that era in mind, you can't help but be impressed by Gibson's vision. With those ideas now being ubiquitous, however, does the book hold up on its literary merits alone?

The protagonist of the tale is a young man named Case, who was a computer hacker (a 'cowboy') by profession until he betrayed his employer and was punished; his nervous system was damaged in a manner that prevented him from interfacing with the 'matrix' (or cyberspace), a neural graphical representation of the world's computer networks. Case attempts to find a fix for his problem in Japan, but fails to do so and winds up becoming a junkie and a criminal heading down a path of self destruction. He's saved by a mysterious man named Armitage, who has some connection to a military operation that went awry years ago. Armitage makes a deal with Case; he fixes Case's nervous system in exchange for his services in carrying out a mysterious 'job' that involves hacking a highly secure computer system. Armitage has in his employ a woman named Molly, a 'street samurai' who is part bodyguard and part one (wo)man army; she has enhanced physical strength, retractable claws in her arms, and enhanced vision. As Armitage embarks on his mission, dragging them to several places around the world and and into space colonies in Earth orbit, Case and Molly develop a relationship and work together to try and figure out who Armitage is and what their ultimate mission will be.

That just about covers the first 10% of the story. It's a dense narrative that is complex and far from predictable; it's a mystery (who's running the show and what do they really want?) that is revealed piece by piece and builds up to a thoroughly satisfying conclusion. The book is also teeming with ideas. Apart from global computer networks, hacking, and cybernetics, the story touches upon space travel and habitation, artificial intelligence, virtual reality (à la 'The Matrix'), technology dominated society, and corporate omnipotence. Given that these elements aren't particularly novel anymore, the impact of the book from a contemporary point of view lies solely in the quality of the story, the characters, and the storytelling. They are, I think, strong enough to make this a fine novel and not just a cornucopia of concepts. Gibson creates a compelling future world, a neon lit dystopia full of violence, crime, addiction, and seedy characters; it's dark and cynical sci-fi noir. The book hits the ground running, explaining the technologies tangentially as events progress; these explanations are sometimes frustratingly sketchy or incidental, but never to an extent that makes things incomprehensible. All of the technologies and futuristic elements are believably integrated into the story.

The book is broken up into several distinct segments, and it never really slows down for very long. Having said that, it's a book that requires quite a bit more concentration than the average page turner, given the density of ideas and incident; this makes it slow going at times. Also, I found that Gibson's descriptions of events weren't always clear. There is also a lack of suspense in the story, with events taking place with almost a sense of inevitability.

The characters, as is the nature of noir style stories, aren't exactly the most lovable or sympathetic but they are well sketched out with enough backstory and personality for them to feel like people who might inhabit this messed up world. The story is told entirely from the point of view of Case, who is a man in over his head, spending much of his time being dragged around from one situation to the next and only rarely able to assert himself. Case is more at home hooked into the Matrix and he eschews the flesh like some kind of Cyber junkie; when he's hooked in he's among the best 'cowboys' in the business. He's also accompanied for much of his time in the Matrix by a wise-cracking AI reconstruction of his former mentor who assists him with the mission. Interestingly, Case also gets to experience some of the real world action via a 'simstim' system that relays all of Molly's sensory input to him, essentially allowing him to experience everything she does (including the pain). This allows the story to incorporate quite a bit of physical action and excitement as well, in addition to the virtual adventures of Case. The character of Molly - who appears in several of Gibson's books - is enigmatic; she's cool and professional, but some insight is given into what makes her tick. Of the remaining characters only Armitage is significant, and his story is also one aspect of the mystery that case and Molly attempt to solve. There are also a large number or varied and interesting peripheral characters that have a significant impact on the story.

Ultimately, I wasn't blown away by 'Neuromancer', but I found it to be a very good book and an important one in the history of sci-fi and cyberpunk in particular. I have to confess that I wasn't in the best frame of mind for reading and didn't have much time to read the book in long stretches, which detracted from my enjoyment of it and may have coloured my perception somewhat. The story and the subject matter resonate, and I look forward to reading it again, preferably in a few long sittings instead of over the course of several weeks (which is not ideal for any kind of book to be honest, but particularly not for one like this). It's worth reading on its own merits, and definitely worth reading as a landmark novel.

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