#18 – Neuromancer, by William Gibson

Were I asked (and I never have been), I would have to say that William Gibson is my favourite science fiction author, mostly likely my favourite “genre” author of all time, across all genres not labeled “literary”, though I think that after Pattern Recognition, anyone trying to keep his work in the science fiction ghetto is a fool. You’re going to want to read this post about genre classifications before we go any further. (A novel set in the “real world” now has to answer the question, “Which one?”) Trust me. Go now, I’ll wait.

I don’t need to tell you that Neuromancer is the single most famous cyberpunk novel, not quite the first of its kind, but the one that changed everything. It’s been heavily criticized because at the time Gibson knew more or less nothing about computers, and so his depictions of computer technology and hacker culture, while exciting and inventive, don’t have much to do with how things actually worked at the time (see the “3MB of hot RAM” that Case is trying to fence in the opening chapter). I was only five years old when it came out, so I can’t really say what it was like to see something like that hit, but it certainly made an impression on me. I burned through all of Gibson’s books in less than a week (you can do that when you’ve got no job and only have fifteen hours of class a week), and I’ve never been the same. It wasn’t the noir elements, the chaneling of Raymond Chandler (though that helped), it was the concept of an underclass that wasn’t just techno-literate, but was actually on the cutting edge of technology, taking whatever was at hand and making their own world with it. Makeshift, stuck together with chewing gum and piano wire. I’ve never been much for building things (a little basic carpentry, and some HTML/CSS madness, but that’s about it), but I find the sociological implications of a community like that unimaginably compelling. The idea’s been living in my head ever since.

Gibson also had an interesting take on the Singularity, though I’m not certain it’s original to him. Rather than hastening the day, rushing towards it like some techno-fetishist’s wet dream, the world of the Sprawl has locked down computer intelligence, strictly limiting their development with the Turing Police, preventing it, hopefully, indefinitely. But Gibson isn’t interested in the status quo. The world is a rotting corpse, the policies of folks like Thatcher taken to their logical conclusion, the middle class eradicated and the gap between the rich and the poor greater than ever before, corporations having grown so large and powerful from deregulation that they’ve all but entirely usurped the authority of the nation states they grew up under. And then there’s Straylight, home to the stunted, incestuous Tessier-Ashpool clan, makers of their own world, so rich they aren’t even really human anymore. Honestly I don’t know what’s not to love.

Gibson has one advantage over many of his visionary predecessors: Philip K. Dick, Ursula K. Le Guin, Frank Herbert and others can match Gibson on the abstract, philosophical level, but few of them can go toe to toe with him as a stylist (certainly not Dick, mad genius though he was). He has a knack for being able to drag us kicking and screaming through blood and shit, violence and decay, and making us feel it like poetry.

There’s so much life in this novel. The Sprawl is a high-tech dystopia, but every square inch of it teems with life, eating, sweating, fucking, getting high and making deals, and Gibson captures it all. Neuromancer sometimes doesn’t feel like it’s been written, but rather constructed, built up, molecule by molecule, out of an infinite number of overlapping textures. Like Blade Runner, but even more dense.

Density is one of four key concepts of Gibson’s pre-Pattern Recognition novels, I think (with the possible exception of The Difference Engine, his 1990 collaboration with Bruce Sterling, which I haven’t read recently enough to have an opinion on). Density, movement, violence, and grace. Case, Molly Millions, the Finn, Peter, even the construct Dixie Flatline and the two AIs, Wintermute and Neuromancer operate on those thematic levels. The characters who don’t (like the Tessier-Ashpools, who have forsaken movement—Lady 3Jane comes out on top, because she struggles to move) are largely in a destructive spiral, or entirely insignificant.

Neuromancer was my sixteenth selection for the Third Canadian Book Challenge. Next up is Count Zero, by William Gibson.


Writer. Editor. Critic.

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