We all know the text. We all know about William Gibson, the supposed Elvis of cyberpunk. But for those punkers who don’t, Neuromancer was an underground success, depicting the story of a burnt out hacker hired by a mysterious employer to pull off one last job. Debut novel for Gibson, and first part of his Sprawl series, it was also the first winner of the the Nebula Award, the Philip K. Dick Award, and the Hugo Award; and it is also infamous for coining the term cyberspace and popularising ICE (Intrusion Countermeasure Electronics) in the SF.
It was one of the first texts to explore technology from the street level; futuristic technology that has permeated all biological life, forming a sense of ennui amongst punks, urchins and bums, ever-searching for that high, or intense sensual experiences (Conway, S 1995, pp. 5-6). Influences are far and few between, The Matrix trilogy perhaps being the most obvious, to the role-playing games Shadowrun and Cyberpunk 2020, the manga and anime series Ghost in the Shell to Fantasy Flight’s ever popular living card game Android: Netrunner; and though written over thirty years ago, Neuromancer still remains an integral piece for the SF canon.
I read Neuromancer for the first time around three to four years ago, I was quite happy with the sullen writing layered in deep vats of chrome, blood and malaise. Characters were stunted psychologically, addicted to drugs and subversive technologies, stemming from the 80’s SF anxiety over the technological boom. I was not quite in love with the story, Neuromancer following a similar trajectory of the noirish/spy thriller; but at the same time, I was smitten.
At the time, I thought nothing much of it, but having reread the novel for a chapter in my thesis, I’ve come to understand Neuromancer as something far more evocative, and seductive than Gibson would even like to admit. There was a pent up admiration kept within my heart; the affect of the bleakness of a a sky tuned to a dead channel never truly left me. Like the cyberpunks that came after Gibson, I wanted to be like him. Write like him. He was, as Richard Morgan once wrote on his blog, the man who made us cool.
As I closed the book, the silvery title glinting under the sunlight; It clicked. Neuromancer wasn’t just an adolescent’s book (Neal, M 2000), but a far more intelligent novel that delved into prophecy. It is a novel that fetishises technology, technology that is not able to transform the world into utopia, but instead produces its own utopia; a timeless realm into which one can escape physical, temporal reality’ (Booker, K 1994, pp. 76). Though primarily in response to the protagonist, the technology in Neuromancer does not alleviate the world of its ills, nor does it allow for humans to traverse the solar system in tandem; it allows for a technocratic rule whereby the elite, or exclusive subcultures reign, design and update themselves to keep up, or forgot about ‘the age of destruction, in a world of corruption’ (Idol, B 1993).
The intriguing thing; Neuromancer does not wallow in this dystopic fact. It merely asks, so what? It is a bleak view that underlies the SF texts of the mid eighties to early nineties; a relationship between man and technology, a symbiotic, near all consuming model that is indicative of late capitalism. It’s, as Pam Rosenthal describes, ‘not really about an imagined future, it’s a way of trying to come to terms with the awe and terror inspired…by the world in which we live’ (Rosenthal, P 1991, pp. 85), and nothing can be more evocative of that description than the most infamous line of any cyberpunk text, ‘the sky above the port was the color [sic] of television, tuned to a dead channel’ (Gibson, W 1995 , pp. 4); the static of the sky but a preliminary examination of the dulled emotions, and ennui that the protagonist feels as he describes Chiba’s sky.
For us cyberpunks, Neuromancer will always be that special text that opened visionaries, creatives and engineers into a world full of possibility and technological marvel. For me, it was very much like Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner; an inspiring piece of writing that will haunt my work; a pleasant spectre always welcome, and always wanted.
Gibson has said on a number of occasions that he didn’t think of the sprawl trilogy as dystopian fiction. Remember that the book was written in the depths of the Cold War when most people felt that the future held only nuclear annihilation As for literary influences, it is easy to catch stylistic glimpses of William Burroughs, J G Ballard, and Thomas Pynchon. I’m convinced that John le Carre was also an influence, although I’ve never seen this argued. And then there are science fiction antecedants such as John Brunner (Shockwave Rider, Stand on Zanzibar, The Sheep Look Up), Phillip K Dick (for the pervasove sense of paranoia), etc.
Great comment! In lit theory academia, we classify Gibson’s work as dystopic even if his sentiments are different as it follows the dystopia trend that was fuelled by Cold War, Reaganomic anxieties, and of course, the fear of technopolis that is Japan. He, like every creative, was definitely inspired by the very texts you mention; especially Burroughs and Ballard!
Neuromancer really needs a little context. When I first read it in 1990 as a young computer science student (without having ever surfed the web yet, or having heard the word cyberspace), it was simply mind-shattering. It opened entire new horizons in my young mind. I re-read it a couple of years ago, and it didn’t have a big impact, simply because its groundbreaking ideas are now given for granted. But that doesn’t diminish its importance, at least to me.
Fair point, a friend of mine feels the same way, actually.
Tried to read it a year ago, but I just couldn’t get through it. The writing style, the story itself…it didn’t grab me or work for me. And one of the things that really put me off were the Zion rastafari in space, that was just too weird IMO. But I will try again soon…ish.
You’ll have to let us know what you think of it after a reread 🙂
Interesting your comment about leCarre. I just took for granted that he is an obvious influence for Gibson. Likewise Samuel Delaney’s “Nova.”
Neuromancer is a funny book. It was a revelation when it came out. It showed us a very real version of the future we’re living today, but didn’t hold anyone’s hand along the way. The rastafari were weird, sure, but so was the concept of cyberspace and jacking in and preserved personalities on ROM cubes. It was all weird and all possible so it all fit together.
Now that so much of what Gibson wrote has come true, the stuff that hasn’t really sticks out and makes the story feel dated. Like the rastafari in space. Or the dot matrix printer paper floating in zero-g. Or the bank of payphones ringing one at a time as Case walks by. Gibson got a lot right, but he completely whiffed on cell phones.
It’s an amazing snapshot of a future that is engaging as hell, but it’s power has diminished as so much of what made it special has become ingrained in reality.
Isaac L. Wheeler (Veritas)
That is all true, and that is why we will continue to write new cyberpunk from our reference frame!