Book Review By: Mr. Roboto
Author: William Gibson
Category: Cyberpunk Books
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…
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.
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.
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?”
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…
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.