Neuromancer book cover

Neuromancer by William Gibson 384 pgs

I believe Neuromancer is one of the most important books of the 20th century. This is reflected in part by its inclusion in Time magazine’s list of the 100 most important books of the 20th century. Although it has spawned some literary guides on the internet and seems to be noticed enough amongst literary scholars at least enough to warrant passing mention, I believe it is not as well respected as it should be. One reason for this may be that the book contains some “pulp” or “lurid” elements. For instance around the end of the third chapter there appears a sex scene where the sexy, street-wise “razer-girl” Molly Millions initiates sex with Case. Superficially speaking this scene appears to serve no purpose but to titillate millions of nerdy male readers – a type of exploitation that is usually shunned within literary circles. (Incidentally, I suspect a similar phenomena is why there is such confliction and dissent amongst literary scholars regarding the works of Vonnegut). In any case, perhaps Gibson wanted to be somewhat exploitative, but there is much more going on. In the same way that the movie Pulp Fiction deals with lurid elements, but is none the less considered a work of high art, a similar case can be made for Neuromancer. After all, what is so radical about Nueromancer is that it seriously deals with both “high tech” and “low life”. To adequately present this unique juxtaposition, we must simultaneously be subjected to both the abstract intellectual mindset and the lurid all-to-human within us. Neuromancer achieves this, mixing intellectual ideas such as Artificial Intelligence, the Matrix, personal identity and bodily modification with crime, drugs and sex. Take, for instance, this description of drug use interjected into the narrative:

“The drug hit him like an express train, a white-hot column of light mounting his spine from the region of his prostate, illuminating the sutures of his skull with x-rays of short-circuited sexual energy. His teeth sang in their individual sockets like tuning forks, each one pitch-perfect and clear as ethanol. His bones, beneath the hazy envelope of flesh, were chromed and polished, the joints lubricated with a film of silicone. Sandstorms raged across the scoured floor of his skull, generating waves of high thin static that broke behind his eyes, spheres of purest crystal, expanding…”

Neuromancer presents a stark outlook – not explicitly dystopian, but showing the ways ways technology can be exploited. These include illegal hacking, recreational and functional drug use, virtual prostitution and unusual forms of bodily modification. It shows the more chaotic possibilities of technology where it is exploited beyond its idealistic use. Again, let us hear a description from the master himself:

“Night City was like a deranged experiment in social Darwinism, designed by a bored researcher with one finger permanently on the fast-forward button. Stop hustling and you sank without a trace, but move a little too swiftly and you’d break the fragile surface tension of the black market; either way, you were gone, with nothing left of you but some vague memory in the mind of a fixture like Ratz, though heart or lungs or kidneys might survive in the service of some stranger with New Yen for the clinic tanks. Biz here was a constant subliminal hum, and death the accepted punishment for laziness, carelessness, lack of grace, the failure to heed the demands of an intricate protocol.”

It is hard to emphasize how radical this was when it first appeared in 1984. Up until then, science fiction had been dominated by the positive aspects of technology such as space travel and robots, with a few dystopian exceptions. More importantly, protagonists had usually been priveledged white males, usually well versed in science and technology. The notion of a low-life protagonist navigating a complex high-tech society was quite radical. In addition to this perversion of technology, other cultural norms that dominated science fiction were challenged. First, in Neuromancer there is a strong female protagonist. Such protagonists appeared in earlier sci-fi, but I believe Neuromancer presents a distinctly new type. Molly has few traits of traditional femininity. She is described as slim, flat-chested and having short black hair, very reminiscent of Trinity in The Matrix. She is dominant in sex with Case (the male protagonist) and also dominant intellectually and physically. Case is presented as an anti-hero, a down-trodden drug-addict on the path to his own demise. Molly is heroic, strong, commanding and independent. Her physical superiority is largely due to her dangerous razor implants and her night-vision implants as well as electronic implants that “jack up” her senses and motor response. She is lean, fast, and deadly. On the other hand, it is later revealed that Molly once worked as a “meat-puppet”, a type of prostitute who loans out their body while they are either knocked out or jacked into an alternative reality. The sexual aspects of Neuromancer (which in truth play a very minor role in the book) are discussed in various scholarly articles online.

Three other novel themes deserve mention. The first is that Asian culture will dominate American culture. This idea is found in most of Gibson’s works and may have been taken from the movie Blade Runner (1982). The second is the concept of multinational “megacorporations” controlling the world arena rather than governments. Gibson (correctly) predicts how multinational corporations will control the cultural zeitgeist on an international scale while government’s control over society is marginalized. Gibson believes people will associate themselves more with what corporations they buy from rather than what nation they live in. This concept is borrowed in the other pillar of cyberpunk, Snow Crash, which discusses an anarcho-capitalist future. Finally, and most famously, is the concept of “cyberspace” which is described in Neuromancer. He also refers to it as “the matrix” are there are some subtle references to Neuromancer in The Matrix movie even though both are very different. I wish I had noted them while I was reading…

Gibson’s prose is also unique. It consists of terse diction which is described as very “efficient”. It is not eloquent in the traditional sense but he has superb mastery of vocabulary. He has a knack for imagery which consists of quick vibrant brush strokes. We are told of concrete, glass, rust, “smashed moonscapes”, neon and all the details one might notice in an urban environment. During my first reading of Neuromancer I found this terse, slangy diction hard to follow and understand but found myself swept along by the pyrotechnics, fast-moving storyline and captivating imagery. On my second reading I understood more details and found it easier to understand the plot, which is quite complicated. Gibson’s narration is all in-world – he doesn’t explain terms to us and expects us to figure them out over time. This adds to the believability of the narrative.

The complex world Gibson created is cited as one of the greatest strengths of the book. We travel from the slums of Chiba City, Japan to the BAMA (Boston-Atlanta Metropolitan Axis) (AKA “The sprawl”), into outer space and into the non-space of the matrix. Throughout, we are presented with a world that is highly compelling and believable. Small, intriguing details are interspersed throughout (for instance, the extinction of horses, new religions, etc). In conclusion, we have a novel that blends intense sci-fi action with artistic detail with grand philosophical issues, such as the nature of AI, personal identity and the way we interact with technology.