Book Review By: Mr. Roboto

Author: William Gibson

Year: 1984

Category: Cyberpunk Books


Neuromancer cover, 1st edition

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

Overview: 1984… The year of Big Brother… at least that’s what George Orwell has people believing. But when the total security-surveillance state failed to materialize, sci-fi fans were looking elsewhere for inspiration. June saw the third Star Trek film hit theaters. October had the shit blasted out of it by a small-budget called The Terminator. But in between… in July… a new book hit the sci-fi section of bookstores. It would be a book that would change sci-fi and the future… only nobody, not even the author, knew it yet. But for anyone who read that famous first sentence, all they thought they knew about science fiction was effectively shocked out of their system.

That book was Neuromancer, written by William Gibson. Gibson had been writing short stories with “Fragments of a Hologram Rose” first published in 1977. Even way back then, there were elements born that would mature into the now-familiar characters, setting, and themes of future cyberpunk tomes. Surprisingly, the release of a movie two years earlier nearly doomed the book. Even after a dozen rewrites, he pushed on and completed Neuromancer. And the rest is history…

 

The Story (in case you haven’t read it yet, slacker): Henry Dorsett Case was an expert hacker, a “console cowboy”, who can blaze through the virtual world of the Matrix with the best of them. He was caught stealing from his employer, but they let him keep his gains because they were going to “make sure he never worked again” and poisoned his nervous system with a mycotoxin leaving him unable to hack.

Now wandering the streets of Chiba’s Ninsei “Night City”, a drug-addicted Case looks for a cure, or at least a way to die. One night, he returns to his coffin hotel only to meet a leather-clad woman named Molly who was hired to recruit him for biggest hack of his career, complete with repairs to his nervous system and a cure for his drug addiction…

 

 

Wait a second… why am I giving away so much of the plot? This is book you need to be reading! WHY HAVEN’T YOU READ THIS BOOK YET??? You’ve only heard about it now? Oh, OK. I understand…

 

Discovering The Underground. Somehow, this book totally slipped under my radar in the 80s. Between school, good music on MTV (with real music videos), and video games I was probably too distracted. But thanks to Billy Idol’s album, I was introduced to words like “cyberspace”, “virtual reality”, “Neuromancer”, and even “cyberpunk”. The first three really didn’t connect until I got a book called Virtual Reality Playhouse, a book about VR with some demos, which explained that the term “cyberspace” came from Neuromancer. Thus began a quest to find the book…

Neuromancer digitaly painted cover (1985)

Neuromancer cover, digitaly painted by Rick Berry (1985). Also used for the 10th anniversary printing. Click pic for artist’s info on Wikipedia.

Found it in time for its 10th anniversary printing, and I haven’t been the same since. For someone who grew up on Star Trek and Star Wars (well, more ‘Trek’ than ‘Wars’) and playing Starmaster on my Atari 2600, Neuromancer presented a pleasant shock.

Does the book still give that same shock today? Somewhat, but not for the revolutionary themes contrasting against the cookie-cutter space operas. Instead, the book has become a prophecy for our digital world.

Neuromancer cover, edition unknown

“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. Lines of light ranged in the non space of the mind, clusters and constellations of data. Like city lights, receding . . .”

A (self-fulfilling?) Prophecy. Sci-fi has always been an influence on scientific progress, and some have even become reality. For today’s world, none has been more influential than Neuromancer. The concept of ‘cyberspace’ for example. Has it really become the “graphic representation of data abstracted from the banks of every computer in the human system”? Not exactly, though not for the lack of trying. Since the book’s release there have been several attempts to create a virtual reality system for the home. From Mattel’s Power Glove to the Occulus Rift head-mounted display, there have been several toys to try and recreate that VR experience. Take a look at your favorite first-person shooter or vehicle simulation game. They’re about as close to that cyberspace as Gibson envisioned. There’s even a Wiki dedicated to VR. As far as the “consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators, in every nation” part, it’s called the Internet.

Dactyl Nightmare Pods

Remember losing your VRginity at the arcade in the early 90’s playing Dactyl Nightmare?

Hackers? Case was one, before the mycotoxin poisoning. And since then… At least we now have ICE. Well, firewalls, anti-malware, and other tools to stop hackers from getting into our systems. Replacement organs can now be printed in 3D, and we now have a bionic pancreas! Look at your laptop or tablet computer. Possible Ono-Sendai decks? It seems Gibson’s magnum opus was quite prophetic, but some elements even he may not have foreseen. Cellphones, and sequentially smart phones, were noticeably missed.

Neuromancer’s effect on realtime aside, its effect on following works can clearly be felt. If Molly Millions didn’t exist, would Mokoto Kusanagi, Aeon Flux, Trinity, … a whole section on ass-kicking cyber-chicks? Would Case use today’s “smart drugs” with his new pancreas? Human personalities in RAM and/or ROM form? These and other now cyberpunk themes had existed even before Gibson was born, but he managed to bring them together in a way that continues to reverberate in media and society. Is Gibson a prophet, or did he just make some lucky guesses? Or did Jack Womack ask the right question in the 2000 printing: “[w]hat if the act of writing it down, in fact, brought it about?”

Neuromancer cover, graphic novel

“In the bars he’d [Case] frequented as a cowboy hotshot, the elite stance involved a certain relaxed contempt for the flesh. The body was meat.”

The train derails before it leaves the station. It seems that writing a book like Neuromancer would have come easy, but even Gibson faced some hurdles along the way. In particular, one movie almost caused Gibson to cancel the book completely.

Sometime in the early 80s, Gibson was commissioned to write Neuromancer for The Ace Science Fiction Special Third Series, a series showcasing the debut novels of sci-fi writers. He was given one year to work his magic, but felt it could take four to five years to write. In a “blind animal panic” he began writing and in 1982, he had one-third of the book done. Then he went to see a movie…

The movie was none other than Blade Runner. After watching the first 20 minutes Gibson had a sinking feeling about his book. He felt it was game over, that people would read his book and think it’s a Blade Runner rip-off. He wound up rewriting the first two-thirds a dozen times, feeling he was losing the readers. He finished but still felt his career would be ruined by the novel.

It wasn’t. The novel is hailed as the “archetypical cyberpunk work” and one of the most influential books in sic-fi history. And Gibson, he’s still writing…

Neuromancer cover, 30th anniverary edition

30th anniversary cover, focusing more on Molly.

Conclusion: Thirty years is a relatively short time for one book to cause so much damage. Then again your bibles, Korans, and torahs have been causing damage for thousands of years, and the good kind of damage either. Neuromancer, on the other hand, not only changed sci-fi as we knew it, but changed the future as well. Even now, its influence can be seen in our advancing technologies, felt in our lives, and even heard in our music. Yes, even music, from mainstream artists like Billy Idol and Warren Zevon, to “underground” and rising acts like Dope Stars, Inc., Atari Teenage Riot, and Fear Factory have rocked our ears off to some Gibsonian themes.

Many college courses in cyberpunk have Neuromancer on their reading lists, but that doesn’t mean you need to go all academic to read it. This is mandatory reading for all cyberpunk and sci-fi fans. Just hit your local bookstore or library, borrow/steal it from a friend, download and/or read it off the Internet, listen to it on your iPod if you need to… Get the book and commit it to your memory banks. And if you already read the book, read it through again and see if it gives you the same prophetic shock like it gave me.

Neuromancer, Brazil cover

“He never saw Molly again.” Maybe you should see her again… and again.

This post has been filed under Cyberpunk History, Cyberpunk Books by Mr. Roboto.

Today in Cyberpunk History (March 5, 1975): A group of tech-minded guys meet at a garage in Menlo Park, San Mateo County, California, USA for the first time. They gathered to discuss the first Micro Instrumentation and Telemetry Systems Altair microcomputer. MITS was founded in 1969 by Ed Roberts and Forrest Mims to make electronic telemetry for model rockets before switching to electronic calculators in 1971. When a pricing war left MITS near bankruptcy in 1974, Roberts developed the Altair 8800. When 1975 came around, the Altair 8800 became the popular computer, and many organizations began forming to debate, discuss, share, and trade ideas, schematics, and even programs for it.

In Menlo Park, Gordon French and Fred Moore wanted to get other techies from the area to join in a regular open forum to make computers like the Altair more accessible to everyone. The first meeting was held in French’s garage before moving to the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center for regular meetings, then to an El Camino Real bar and grill to “reconvene.”

 

The Power of The Press.

First issue of the Homebrew Computer Club Newsletter

10 days after its founding the HbCC gave its “Hello, World!” with this newsletter. Thanks to its members the newsletter became THEE document to influence Silicon Valley. To view the entire series @ DigiBarn.com, just click the image above

The Homebrew Computer Club was now set to be the main driving force behind computing for the rest of the 70’s and into the 80’s… and beyond. Even so, there were some notable detractors. Example: Microsoft founder Bill Gates who wrote an “Open Letter to Hobbyists” that described them in not-so-gentle terms:

(from the online version) As the majority of hobbyists must be aware, most of you steal your software. Hardware must be paid for, but software is something to share. Who cares if the people who worked on it get paid?

Is this fair? One thing you don’t do by stealing software is get back at MITS for some problem you may have had. MITS doesn’t make money selling software. The royalty paid to us, the manual, the tape and the overhead make it a break-even operation. One thing you do do is prevent good software from being written. Who can afford to do professional work for nothing? What hobbyist can put 3-man years into programming, finding all bugs, documenting his product and distribute for free? The fact is, no one besides us has invested a lot of money in hobby software. We have written 6800 BASIC, and are writing 8080 APL and 6800 APL, but there is very little incentive to make this software available to hobbyists. Most directly, the thing you do is theft.

Sound familiar? Probably because it’s the same reason the MPAA/RIAA/BSA use today to discourage such file sharing. Unlike today, the response didn’t involve hacking law enforcement systems or hitting them with distributed denial of service attacks. Instead, Apple computers used a different philosophy by bundling software with the hardware and promising “to provide software for our machines free or at minimal cost” (check this Oct-1976 advert for the Apple I). Maybe the best reaction came from Homebrew member Jim Warren:

There is a viable alternative to the problems raised by Bill Gates in his irate letter to computer hobbyists concerning “ripping off” software. When software is free, or so inexpensive that it’s easier to pay for it than to duplicate it, then it won’t be “stolen”.

 

Member’s List. Just who was involved with Homebrew? This may not be a complete list, but it should give you an idea of the people involved:

  • Fred Moore: Founder and political activist
  • George Morrow: Improved the Altair’s S-100 system bus
  • Adam Osbourne: Osbourne Computer Corporation
  • Lee Felsenstein: Designer of the Osboune 1 computer
  • John Draper: aka “Captain Crunch” (phone phreak)
  • Jerry Lawson: Designed the Fairchild Chanel F console (first ROM cartridge system)
  • Jim Warren: Dr. Dobb’s Journal, then on the Board of Directors of Autodesk, Inc.
  • Two guys named Steve (Jobs & Steve Wozniak): Founded some company that made computers, phones, music players…
  • You get the idea of the club’s brainpower.

     

    …And the rest is history. From that first meeting in the garage to today’s clubs around the world, Homebrew still continues to meet to exchange codes, schematics, and ideas of bringing computers to the masses, though today’s homebrew clubs have turned their attention to game consoles like the X-Box and Wii. The spirit is still there, still influencing the tech minded, still revolutionizing the computer world.

    This post has been filed under Cyberpunk History by Mr. Roboto.

    Today in Cyberpunk History (March 1, 1990): Early morning at Steve Jackson Games in Austin, Texas saw an invasion of US Secret Service agents seizing any system used for GURPS Cyberpunk RPG book. They were looking for “evidence” to convict one of SJ Games’s employees: One Loyd Blankenship, whose home was also raided. It wouldn’t be until October when SJ Games learned why they were raided as the warrant was sealed (You can view the warrant here).

     

    Guilt by Association. The primary target of the raid was Loyd Blankenship, who was known in hacker circles as +++The Mentor+++, member of Legion of Doom. He also ran a BBS that distributed the hacker journal Phrack, that published the contents of a text file from Bell South that dealt with the 911 emergency response system in 1989. The file contained no schematics, no codes, no technical anything… it was only an administrative book that Bell South would sell to the public for $13 US. Yet it was feared that the file would be used by hackers to disrupt the 911 system, and Bell South claimed the posting caused 80 thousand dollars in damage.

    Skeptical Hippo

    GURPS Cyberpunk was an unfortunate victim of circumstance. The agents saw it and thought it was a real book about hacking. And with the rest of Operation Sundevil going on nationwide, why not make Steve Jackson Games an example?

     

    The System Eats Itself. On the afternoon of January 15, 1990, AT&T’s long distance network began a downward spiral that lead to a near shutdown. The cause was a simple programming error what would cause a software crash when it got messages from switching stations coming back online. The crash required an automatic reboot of the switching station, which lead to the transmission of “back online” messages to its neighbors. But those messages would knock those switches offline, and generate more messages that would knock more switches offline…

    An investigation did show that it was a programming error that caused the crash. The problem was nobody wanted to believe it. For a company and computers to make such a FUBAR is unheard of, and everyone from the government to the media to the clueless sheeple on the street wanted to believe it was deliberate act by someone. Who could possibly have the ability to cause such calamity?

    Hackers. They’ve shown they could get into most any system and do… things. Why not crash a major infrastructure? In May 1990 Garry M. Jenkins, Assistant Director of the US Secret Service, made the following comment in a press release:

    Uplink LAN

    “The Secret Service is sending a clear message to those computer hackers who have decided to violate the laws of this nation in the mistaken belief that they can successfully avoid detection by hiding behind the relative anonymity of their computer terminals.”

    Thus began the shitstorm that was Sundevil.

     

    Revenge of The Geeks. Mid-1990 saw the founding of the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), the organization that fights for freedom of the Internet. Operation Sundevil itself was seen as just a publicity stunt since, as a “law-enforcement tool,” it failed to produce any convictions. The saga can be read about via Bruce Sterling’s book The Hacker Crackdown.

    As for SJ Games, they finally had their day in court in 1993. They were acquitted on two of the three counts against them. Their story can be read, along with the relevant documents, on their website.

    This post has been filed under Cyberpunk History by Mr. Roboto.

    February 17, 2010

    Today in cyberpunk history: First BBS goes online.

    Source: Wired, and elsewhere.

    textfiles.com login

    Those of you who never experienced the days of the “command line” or “DOS prompt” may not realize the impact that the bulletin board system, or BBS, has on today’s Internet. The archive site textfiles.com seeks to preserve those heady, monochrome, dial-up days for old-timers to relive and for the curious to see what the net was like before GUIs. Click the image to get there.

    Future calling. When Ward Christensen and Randy Suess first put their computerized bulletin board system, or CBBS, online for the first time they probably never realized how it would become a major part of the net as we know it today. The idea came to them as a result of being snowbound, they wanted to take the cork-and-tack based bulletin boards and make it electronic so others can post… well, just about anything:

    (Wired) It was several decades before the hardware or the network caught up to Christensen and Suess’ imaginations, but all the basic seeds of today’s online communities were in place when the two launched the first bulletin board, dubbed CBBS for computerized bulletin board system. The two developers announced their creation to the world in the November 1978 issue of Byte magazine.

    The article created a stir among hobbyists and hackers, and it wasn’t long before others begin building clones of CBBS. By the mid-1980s, BBSs supported an active community with no less than three magazines devoted to covering the latest in the proto-online world.

    Primitive, but consider some of the tools today’s netizen has for similar communications: Forums (like our Virtual Meatspace), blogs (akin to posting a newsletter on those cork boards), and instant messaging, including Twitter.

     

    The world was yours for a (modem) song. Since there was no broadband services back then, you had to program your modem (”baud,” anyone?) to dial a number to access a BBS. And when you finally were connected, you found mostly technical stuff posted there since many of the early adopters were the hacker types. But, you may have also found some ways to make free phone calls thanks to some friendly “phreakers” (phone system hackers) so you were able to call those out-of-area BBSs to find the latest news, warez, or porn (done in tasteful ASCII).

     

    More info to download… Wired’s news piece is only a small sample of what BBSs has become. To see what the past was like, click over to textfiles.com and peruse the files they have there (Try searching for “cyberpunk” on their site!). Also, there’s an in-depth look at the history of BBSs in a 3 DVD set called BBS: The Documentary. I’m going to try ordering it and see about a review for you.

    This post has been filed under Cyberpunk History by Mr. Roboto.

    Sources: Wired, Stanford University MouseSite

    Prototype Mouse - 40 years ago

    From this simple-looking wood block with a button and a cable began a 40 year trek that culminated in the modern computer as we know it. Yes!

    The (computer) mouse that roared. When Doctor Doug Engelbart first demonstrated his computer in 1968, he probably didn’t realize what impact his system would have on the world. After all, computers were not exactly “personal” back then. But Dr. Engelbart’s system, which he and 17 researchers had been working on since 1962, would indeed impact our world like a Jupiter-sized meteor. An impact that we still feel today. What exactly was his incredible system was about?

    From Wired:

    The presentation included the debut of the computer mouse, which Engelbart used to control an onscreen pointer in exactly the same way we do today. For a world used to thinking of computers as impersonal boxes that read punched cards, whir awhile, then spit out reams of teletype paper, this kind of real-time graphical control was amazing enough.

    But Engelbart went beyond merely demonstrating a new input device — way beyond. His demo that day in San Francisco’s Brooks Hall also premiered “what you see is what you get” editing, text and graphics displayed on a single screen, shared-screen videoconferencing, outlining, windows, version control, context-sensitive help and hyperlinks. Bam!

    Does all this sound familiar yet? One more thing: Dr. Engelbart used his super-system to demonstrate a new “network,” the NLS or “oNLine System” which was being used at Stanford. Videos of the “The Mother of All Demos” can be found on Stanford University MouseSite.

     

    Announcement of

    The Internet, Windows, OS X,… Today (December 9, 1968) is the 40th anniversary of the demo that influenced the world… and in a way, cyberpunk as well.

    This post has been filed under Cyberpunk History by Mr. Roboto.

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