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Conceptual Fiction: Neuromancer by William Gibson

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Let’s face it, science fiction books are not famous for their memorable opening lines. You might hear the person next to you on the subway remark: “It was the best of times; it was the worst of times.” But how often do you run into someone muttering: “In the week before their departure to Arrakis, an old crone came to visit the mother of the boy, Paul”? And yes we know, by now, that “Happy families are all alike, but every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” But how many of us have memorized: “His name was Gaal Dornick and he was just a country boy who had never seen Trantor before”?

Ah, William Gibson broke the rule with his 1984 classic Neuromancer. The particular ambiance of the book was captured in its oft-quoted opening line: “The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.” Of course, this was an old-school vacuum tube television, where the dead channels were much more poetic than the prosaic blankness of my current big-screen, satellite contraption. No, the technology was not always futuristic in this book. Everybody has the raddest gear in Neuromancer, yet they still need to use pay phones because the cell phone is not part of the envisioned environment. Still, fans of this book — there are many, and I include myself in their ranks — will overlook such tiny oversights: by any reasonable standard of forecasting, Gibson’s novel stands out as one of the most prescient of its era.

When Neuromancer was published, only around 1% of Americans owned a computer, and the World Wide Web was just a glimmer in Al Gore’s eyes. Yet Gibson not only conceived of a plausible evolution of virtual reality, but had already envisioned the kind of hacker culture that would emerge as the dark side of the web. To grasp the future of the technology would have been a stunning achievement in its own right, but Gibson also had a hold on the attitudes and slang, the very anthropology of cyberspace. The formula was so distinctive and persuasive that Neuromancer was seen by many as more than a fine book. It heralded a new movement, a variant of sci-fi that came to be known as cyberpunk.

The key here was not Gibson’s dark vision of the future — many earlier sci-fi writers had used genre conventions to paint a bleak future. But for Orwell and Atwood, Huxley and Bradbury, the ugliness invariably came from the government and ruling social institutions, while the “common people” were viewed as victims, almost Rousseauian in their innocence. Gibson, in contrast, is more the Thomas Hobbes of sci-fi. The nastiness is not just institutionalized, but pervasive, in his world view, and separating the heroes from the villains is murky business at best.

The protagonist of Neuromancer, Henry Dorsett Case, makes this moral ambiguity clear from the start. A hustler, drug addict and master hacker, Case was caught stealing from a previous employer, who punished him with a toxin that seriously damaged his central nervous system and restricted his predatory computer activities. He is promised a cure by a mysterious figure named Armitage, who wants Case’s help in a dangerous hacking scheme. Yes, it’s hard to figure out who is the bad guy, when all the key players are manipulating and extorting each other.

Along the way, Case enlists the assistance of Molly, who has undergone more reconstructive surgery than Joan Rivers, but all in the interest of adding an arsenal of bionic weapons and cool spy tools to her flesh and blood. Another helper, McCoy Pauley — known as the Dixie Flatline — has no flesh and blood. He is a former hacker genius, a “console cowboy” in Gibson’s evocative terminology, now relegated to read-only memory. The Flatline, living up to his name, could easily be a flat character — after all, how much charisma can a download of a dead man possess? But Gibson realizes that the type of techno-anomie he is trying to convey requires characters with a large dose of sleazy panache, and he delivers the goods again and again in Neuromancer.

Today this book is acknowledged as a classic, and rightly so. Who can’t recognize the modern-day Internet world in passages such as the following: “Cyberspace. A consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators, in every nation, by children being taught mathematical concepts…A graphic representation of data abstracted from the banks of every computer in the human system. Unthinkable complexity.” But the literary world, circa 1984, was not ready to accept this book as a serious work of fiction.

Two decades later, Time magazine would pick Neuromancer as one of the 100 best English-language novels published since 1923. Yet Time, and almost everyone else, was late to the game. A decade would elapse after its publication before the New York Times would even bother to notice that Neuromancer existed — although it had won the Hugo, the Nebula and Philip K. Dick Award on its first appearance, sort of a sci-fi equivalent of the Triple Crown. The judges on the awards panels got this one right, even if the highbrows missed out for many years.

This book is now on its second and third generation of readers, and its reputation is secure. Yet I fear that too much of the buzz surrounding this novel still treats it as a sociological phenomenon. Gibson is given credit for making a prediction that proved to be uncannily accurate. His book is thus put on the shelf next to “Moore’s Law” and other formidable hypotheses that anticipated our current-day high tech lives. But this pigeonholing misses the main reasons to read Neuromancer today, now that cyberspace is as blasé as a transistor radio, at least from a conceptual standpoint. Neuromancer still earns its readership through the sweep of its prose, the intensity of its vision, and the provocative nature of its characters and plots. And those virtues run no risk of technological obsolescence.

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About Ted Gioia

  • In trying to convey a type of “techno-anomie,” the reviewer tells us, “Gibson envisioned the kind of hacker culture that would emerge as the dark side of the web.” To me, the dark side/light side metaphor is misleading because anomie rules globally on the web. Wikipedia describes anomie as normlessness arising from “a mismatch between personal or group standards and wider social standards. Though anomie is commonly associated with low regulation, Durkheim postulated that overly rigid (e.g., totalitarian) societies would also produce anomic individuals.”

    What we see nowadays, more than a century after Durkheim’s Suicide (1897) and a quarter century beyond Neuromancer, is unregulated cyberspace producing anomic individuals who are enabled by this medium to exercise what amounts to totalitarian control within their particular realms. Such small-scale tyranny makes the Internet’s seeming all-out freedom of expression illusory. If the sites we visit most differ only in degrees of rigidity, an unregulated collective restricts our perception of the world.

    That was brought home to me recently at this very site, detailed in my Comment #4 to “Jazz Is Like Communism.” Blogcritics, I charge, is less a sinister cabal of superior writers (as it bills itself) than a smug covey of inferior editors. Without rehashing that argument, I note here yet another example of how lazy and inept our editors are. More than 20 hours post-publication, they have still not bothered to fix the typo: “Ah, William Gibson broken [sic] the rule with his 1984 classic Neuromancer.”

    Look, anyone can make a mistake. God knows, I’ve committed more than my share. But to trumpet your incompetence as superiority is unconscionable. I can state from experience that writers and editors at Blogcritics are not a team; they are toilers and overseers working at odds. At their best, editors “correct” things that were not wrong in the first place and miss the stuff that needs repair. At their worst (see my abovementioned Comment #4), they stab writers in the back. This tawdry, localized venality suggests that “techno-anomie” is evolving in ways that will ultimately confirm George Orwell as more prescient than William Gibson. Dystopia has a thousand suburbs.

  • It looks like I rattled the right cage. Somebody finally got off his butt and fixed that typo. Great work!

  • When Neuromancer was published, only around 1% of Americans owned a computer, and the World Wide Web was just a glimmer in Al Gore’s eyes.

    I have to take exception to this. Al Gore’s “invention” of the internet took place in 1979. I was there.

    And while home computer ownership may have been low in 1979, those of us who were making serious use of computers were already on our second or third computer by that point. The user base may have been small, but usage was intense.

    Neuromancer was published the same year that FidoNet was launched as the first major private non-business, non-government, non-educational network, so Gibson was not looking terribly far into the future.

    You do have an interesting point on the absence of cell phones. Since wireless phones had already been commercially available for decades at the time the book was written it’s actually surprising that Gibson didn’t anticipate their widespread availability.