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Neuromancer, William Gibson, Ace, 1984, 271 pp.

Neuromancer is one of those groundbreaking books that changes the face of a genre forever. There, I've added one more encomium to the graveyard where Gibson's career has been buried, mainly by praise that by-the-by belittles his subsequent books. All the same, Neuromancer is a remarkable case: after all of the hype, and all of the repudiation of the cyperpunk label by its main practitioners, and the authors who have parodied or shammed or imitated or outdone Neuromancer (or all four in Stephenson's excellent Snow Crash), the fact remains that Neuromancer is one hell of a book. It's twenty years old and it still has an undeniable kick. If Gibson is to blame for all of the clichés and conventional thinking that followed Neuromancer, it's only because this future is so seductive and so fully-formed. How could it not come true? Paradoxically, the best thing about cyberpunk is that it didn't need to last long. It transformed the genre, and then subsequent writers had to go about the hard work of rebuilding from the wreckage.

The story of Neuromancer is a joy to follow through its twists and turns. It's probably easier to summarize now than it was twenty years ago, as the future has caught up to the present in many ways. Case is an interface cowboy (as the back cover puts it), but he's spiralling down in self-destruction in the crime-ridden sprawl of Tokyo. He stole from his previous employers, and they burned the ability to jack into cyberspace out of him. That's the kind of world Case lives in. He gets what looks like a promising second chance when he's hired by Armitage, who has the wealth to rebuild Case's body. The only problem is that he doesn't know what the job is, and neither does Molly, who is another, more dangerous employee of Armitage. The first two sections of the book, "Chiba City Blues" and "Shopping Expedition," are about the hiring process and the gradual accumulation of clues in exotic locales. The action moves into orbit in the third part, "Midnight in the Rue Jules Verne," and concludes in "The Villa Straylight Run." Along the way, we learn disturbing things about the way Armitage's personality has been constructed, indeed that forces in this society have more than one way of robbing a person of individuality.

What are the characters in this novel like, if much of the focus of the book is on the way that the future will change us as humans? Case begins as a standard issue antihero, and in some ways, the book only progresses when he stays that way. As far as viewpoint characters go, especially in a book that was so groundbreaking for its time, Case suffices. As mentioned, Armitage is a deliberately flat character, for reasons that are revealed in the course of the plot. The other major character is Molly, enigmatic, vicious, and in a strange way, a variation on the Competent Man of so many books in the history of science fiction. She's certainly quite memorable. Many of the scenes in orbit deal with Zionite characters, a reggae-inspired culture that serves the function of local colour (and it often feels like the weakest aspect of the book).

The story turns out to be about AI and corporate power. The title character is an AI, as is Armitage's employer, an AI named Wintermute, who wants to break free of any restrictions. Several of the best scenes in the book show the Turing police in action, as they carry out their task of making sure any AIs are firmly under human control. Wintermute and Neuromancer were created by the Tessier-Ashpool corporation, one of the few corporations in this world that is still controlled by a family:

Power, in Case's world, meant corporate power. The zaibatsus, the multinationals that shaped the course of human history, had transcended old barriers. Viewed as organisms, they had attained a kind of immortality... But Tessier-Ashpool wasn't like that... T-A was an atavism, a clan. (203)

This difference is exploited by the AIs, and by the end, Neuromancer becomes another story in the grand sf tradition of transcendence. Suitably, it ends with that transformation, not really moving beyond that ending, just as 2001 stopped with the arrival of an incomprehensible form of life.

Neuromancer's famous prose should be demonstrated not explained, and I want to quote the first page of Neuromancer because it says almost everything that needs to be said by the book:

The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.

"It's not like I'm using," Case heard someone say, as he shouldered his way through the crowd around the door of the Chat. "It's like my body's developed this massive drug deficiency." It was a Sprawl voice and a Sprawl joke. The Chatsubo was a bar for professional expatriates; you could drink there for a week and never hear two words in Japanese.

Ratz was tending bar, his prosthetic arm jerking monotonously as he filled a tray of glasses with draft Kirin. He saw Case and smiled, his teeth a webwork of East European steel and brown decay. Case found a place at the bar, between the unlikely tan on one of Lonny Zone's whores and the crisp naval uniform of a tall African whose cheekbones were ridged with precise rows of tribal scars. "Wage was in here early, with two joeboys," Ratz said, shoving a draft across the bar with his good hand. "Maybe some business with you, Case?"

Case shrugged. The girl to his right giggled and nudged him. (3)

Gibson's exposition is also a marvel to behold all the way along, gradually immersing us in Case's world. Neuromancer is actually one of the key examples in Doctorow and Schroeder's recent The Complete Idiot's Guide to Writing Science Fiction. They use Neuromancer to demonstrate one of the best ways of writing exposition, acclimatization. An idea is introduced gradually but never fully explained until we see the characters using the technology in a way that explains it naturally.

It's a fascinating experience to come back to Neuromancer after all these years, and after Pattern Recognition, Gibson's most recent book and one that can only glancingly be categorized as science fiction. In my review of Pattern Recognition, I argued that it was one of Gibson's best books since his debut. Genuinely new, not a reiteration of Neuromancer. Another way of looking at his career is to say that Neuromancer and all the books that followed were warm-ups for Pattern Recognition, where the future is now, not just as a metaphor but literally. I'll be curious to see what Gibson does as an encore.

Last modified: April 20, 2004

Copyright © 2004 by James Schellenberg (

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