Classic Review: Neuromancer by William Gibson

In my opinion, Neuromancer is the most influential science fiction novel published to date.  It’s been revolutionary, it predicted technologies and concepts better than some of the older classics (most notably Stand on Zanzibar, which is often praised for its predictive powers), and it influenced an entire slew of books and movies, as well as computer and Internet development.

Neuromancer is at heart a heist story.  A mysterious benefactor is putting together a team of highly skilled individuals, whose task is to break into a heavily defended estate and perform a somewhat mysterious task.  The team is headed by Armitrage, a burned-out war veteran, who is more than a little crazy.  Case, the hacker, is a washed-up scam artist, living in Japan.  He used to be one of the best hackers, until he cheated his employer and got his nerve endings burned off, preventing him from entering cyberspace.  He is hired by Molly, the muscle of the operations.  She is a street ninja: deadly and precise, with mirror shades surgically implanted over her eyes and retractable razor blades under her fingernails.  She quickly becomes Case’s lover.  Riviera is a strange fellow.  He has the ability to project lifelike holographic images, to fool or even harm people.

The first part of the book takes place on Earth.  In Japan, where Case is recruited.  In the Sprawl, a US East Coast megalopolis that spans from Boston to Atlanta, where the team steals a computerized personality of Case’s former mentor.  In Istanbul, where Riviera is abducted and coerced to join the team.  At roughly this time, Case figures out that their mysterious employer is an artificial intelligence named Wintermute.  It wants the team to retrieve and use a command on a console in the target estate, but even it doesn’t know what the command would achieve.  After that, it’s off to space.

The estate the team needs to break into is located on a space station that serves as a casino and leisure center for the rich.  Before arriving at the station, the team makes a detour to another station to recruit some additional muscle.  Once at their destination, Riviera gains the trust of the estate owner and sneaks in.  He then promptly betrays the team.  Things go from bad to worse from there as Armitrage’s personality breaks down completely, and he is killed off.  Molly is severely injured and captured by Riviera.  Case, spending much of his time in cyberspace, has to contend with the constant nagging of Wintermute, and soon is captured in a strange virtual world from which it’s nigh impossible to escape.  At the end, he manages to get back to the real world, rescue Molly and use the command to merge Wintermute with another A.I., Neuromancer.  Together they complete each other and take over the cyberspace.  Molly leaves Case, and he returns to Japan as a hacker for hire.

This is a very short synopsis of one of the densest books I have ever read.  Every word, every sentence are carefully crafted to build one of the most complex futuristic worlds I’ve experienced.  Many reviews and analyses of this book mention its opening line as an example: “The sky above the port was the color of television, turned to a dead channel.”  This simple sentence not only informs us of the location, but also the mood of the story: gray and gritty.  My favorite line, which illustrates Gibson’s efficiency, is different: “The train began to decelerate ten kilometers from the airport.”  To me, the information density in this simple sentence is incredible.  It not only tells me that trains are still a viable mode of transportation (they are mentioned elsewhere in the book as well), but also evokes the tremendous speed of those trains, which need to start braking a long distance from their destination.  The book is full of such sentences, and in a few paragraphs the reader gets fully immersed in a very realistic depiction of a strange world.

As I mentioned in the beginning, Neuromancer influenced other books, movies and technologies.  The most visible influence is in the Matrix movie series.  Gibson coined the term matrix for cyberspace (another of his inventions), he captured the protagonist in a lifelike simulation from which he had a difficult time to escape, and Molly was the original Trinity, shades included.  However, there are other major influences.

As much as Neuromancer is a cyberpunk novel, and is often associated with dark, gritty congested streets of the Sprawl, or with hackers flying through cyberspace, the largest part of the book takes place in space, primarily on two very different space stations.  The team has to contend with space sickness, changes in gravity and even the coriolis effect.  The space stations are described as part of an archipelago of stations, and there is lots of traffic between them.  While Gibson didn’t go into the technical details of maintaining the stations and ships, their depiction, especially the gritty atmosphere, is remarkably similar to the world in the Expanse series of books.  I contend that the authors of the Expanse were fans of Gibson as well.

The book’s influence doesn’t end there.  Gibson coined the term “cyberspace” and associated the term “matrix” with it.  He described his idea of cyberspace into great detail, and this depiction made its way to numerous other books, movies and video games.  He popularized a new breed or artificial intelligences: instead of murderous robots, you have a distributed consciousness that’s just as murderous, by controlling the Internet of Things (Gibson didn’t use the term, but had examples of autonomous tools, such as landscaping droids, controlled by Wintermute via an always on network connection).  What made all this so revolutionary is that the novel was published at a time when most popular science fiction consisted of space operas or apocalyptic worlds.  Neuromancer was both in style and substance light years away from mainstream.

What makes Gibson’s work even more impressive is another favorite element of mine in the novel.  The author describes a subculture of people with cybernetic implants.  He calls the implants “microsofts”.  I wouldn’t be surprised if he made up that word, without knowing of the company Microsoft.  As it turns out, the novel was published less than two years after Microsoft first trademarked its name, and it’s quite possible that Gibson wrote the first draft before Microsoft applied for its trademark.  So at a time when Microsoft was a fledgling company that just released MS-DOS 3.0, Neuromancer hit the shelves and was flying through cyberspace.  Eleven years after Neuromancer, Bill Gates published his book The Road Ahead, where he famously failed to predict the growing importance of the Internet.

Neuromancer is one of the most visionary and influential books in science fiction.  It is also extremely well written, offering a very rich and believable futuristic world.  The writing style sucks the reader right in.  And the book is simply fun.  The story is compelling, the characters well developed and there are no leaps in logic.  Neuromancer is, and possibly always will be, among my five favorite science fiction books.

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