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Neuromancer by William Gibson

January 13, 2011

Neuromancer wasn’t shoved into my hands or down my pants like other sci-fi landmarks Dhalgren and Dune were. However, I felt pressure to read it as I become steeped in the sci-fi world. I’ve heard so much about it being the first popular work of cyberpunk, I knew I had to read it. I don’t know much more than the basics about cyberpunk; however, I’ve got a Blade Runner tattoo and I’m a Billy Idol fan. (That was a joke. Cyberpunk was an ill-fated ’90s album Idol put out that no one bought—even me, and I was quite the fangirl in high school.) Given how much Neuromancer means to the genre, any sci-fi fan must read it.

Our protagonist, Case, is a console cowboy, wrangling past security to perform jobs in the digital frontier. If he didn’t do this to make money, we’d consider him a hacker. However, his being paid to break security and steal makes him a thief. So, yeah, that’s Case. He stole from an employer who took retribution to its ultimate lengths: they administered a drug that damaged Case’s central nervous system. He can still function like a normal human being, but he can no longer function as a hacker, as it is necessary to hook one’s brain—”jack in”—to the computer. Since then, he’s been hustling drugs. He’s got no future doing what he loves.

But in steps a mysterious guy, Armitage, who looks ex-Special Forces. He’s got quite a job for Case, and he’ll get his brain fixed in order to make it happen. Working with Case are the creepy Finn, who turns out to be more than just a workstation tech, and Molly, a badass gun-for-hire. They have to physically break into places (that’s what Molly is for) and jack into mainframes with the highest possible security. It’s a risky operation that goes deeper than they can imagine, with more conspiracies than an Art Bell fan. However, the payoff is quite handsome, so Case accepts the job, not fully understanding the risks—or that he’ll be dealing with some serious AI.

I read that William Gibson saw Blade Runner after writing part of this novel, and figured he was done for, as people would assume he lifted the aesthetics from the film. There are times when Gibson describes a city and you picture a supercyber dystopia replete with Replicants. However, that doesn’t feel lifted; it feels like any dystopian future sci-fi you might read or watch. It’s just what happens when you put them together. However, when I read Neuromancer my brain-pictures were more of Tron-variety. I suppose there are only so many ways to describe fusing mind and computer (maybe that’s something we need to work on?). Nevertheless, I was impressed. Gibson created or co-opted much of the cyberpunk lexicon. The book is startingly alive; the atmosphere rivals what Poe does for U.S. Gothic. For this reason alone I absolutely must recommend this book. Here’s a sample (116):

Case punched to within four grid points of the cube. Its blank face, towering above him  now, began to seethe with faint internal shadows, as though a thousand dancers whirled behind a vast sheet of frosted glass.

“Knows we’re here,” the Flatline observed.

Case punched again, once; they jumped forward by a single grid point.

A stippled gray circle formed on the face of the cube.


“Back off, fast.”

The gray area bulged smoothly, became a sphere, and detached itself from the cube.

Case felt the edge of the deck sting his palm as he slapped MAX REVERSE. The matrix blurred backward; they plunged down a twilit shaft of Swiss banks. He looked up. The sphere was darker now, gaining on him. Falling.

“Jack out,” the Flatline said.

The dark came down like a hammer.

So, yeah, awesome. Sure, it  may sound like The Matrix looks, but keep in mind this was 15 years prior. So cool. Speaking of The Matrix, we cared about those characters (at least in the first one). Would Keanu Reeves survive? (I always hope yes.) Are we in danger of being controlled by machines? (Too late. Remember all those Man vs. VCR battles of 1989?)

I’m by no means a Matrix fangirl, but in comparing the two I’m able to articulate what I don’t like about Neuromancer. The plot has some great tangents and twists. But I didn’t care for any of the characters. I didn’t want them to die, of course. But I felt no connection to any of them; not even any sympathy (or hell, even hatred). Thematically speaking, it makes me wonder about the possibility of an AI-dominated future and what it holds for mankind. But there’s little else it caused me to think about. Through a critical lens I could consider the role of Molly, and how she might be a feminist hero. But that’s tenuous.

It’s hard to enjoy a book for the sake of its atmosphere and plot. You’re taught to want more out of it…and when you can’t find it, you lose enthusiasm. Readers, I have lost enthusiasm for this review. I recommend Neuromancer because it is so damn important. Reading it, you can see how so much sci-fi, not merely cyberpunk, was influenced by it. The atmosphere is palpable; the images 3-D; Gibson’s voice alive. I just want more out of it.


Next up: Spook by Mary Roach. I’m a little over halfway, and it’s been a fun read thus far.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. tamaracorine permalink
    January 13, 2011 2:07 pm

    Neuromancer is a great book, but you’re right – you really don’t get attached to the characters. If I remember correctly, the last line haunted me for ages… “And he never saw Molly again.” or something of the sort.

    Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson is pretty amazing, too.

    • January 14, 2011 2:35 pm

      That Molly line was perfect, I think. It fits with Molly’s character to do her job and get out of there. Eff emotions.

      I’ll have to put Snow Crash on my “to read” list.

      • tamaracorine permalink
        January 14, 2011 3:09 pm

        She was the character I got the closest to being attached to simply because of how awesome I thought she was.

  2. January 18, 2011 11:23 am

    I agree with you there. I definitely felt the most for her. Without her, I don’t think we’d be seeing so many kick-ass women characters (such as Trinity in Matrix or Alice in Resident Evil) in sci-fi.

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