Sunday, February 12, 2012

Review of "Neuromancer" by William Gibson

There are specific moments in literary history that define future generations.  Neuromancer is one. As The Lord of the Rings was a watershed event that shaped the decades of epic fantasy to come, so too has William Gibson’s novel of a console cowboy riding through cyberspace shaped and influenced a myriad of science fiction since the 80s.  Richard Morgan’s Takeshi Kovac's novels, Ian McDonald’s River of Gods, the Wachowski brothers’ The Matrix, Dan Simmons’ Hyperion Cantos, Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash, Masumune Shirow’s Ghost in the Shell, Iain Banks’ Culture novels – just to name a few - all owe varying degrees of recognition to the seminal influence that is Neuromancer.

An underground success when it was released in 1984, building to a huge readership in the years that followed, Neuromancer is no worse for the wear.  Gibson’s vision remains as penetrating into technology and society then as today.  In direct opposition to the squeaky clean laboratory visions of the future presented by Arthur C. Clarke, Isaac Asimov, and Gene Rodenberry, the novel is set in a bleak, grittier version of a future earth.  Corporations rule and the consumption of commodities – legal and illegal - have overtaken quotidian life.  A virtual world of data superimposes and permeates the fabric of society.  In fact, the saturation of technology and commercialism so replete, few hints of nature remain.  Life is instead channeled through electrodes, simulators, and designer drugs – existence carried on in rundown urban conglomerations and jacked into the matrix.  In true Philip K. Dick style, this line between reality and virtual reality blurs to the point the reader themselves at times does not trust their senses.

The novel’s plot centers on the cyber cowboy Case and his struggles in his chosen profession of data thief.  An outright drug addict, Case lives with one eye over his shoulder, the other looking to stay ahead of the dangers that trail his under-the-table, high risk dealings.  Encountering an offer to sweet to turn down, the uncertainties fade in the neon hope of achieving a long-dreamed of escape from life on the run.  But the deal isn’t what he expected.  Case’s advanced cyberspace skills take him places out of the atmosphere and deep into his dreams.  And his nightmares.  Bombarded with holograms, fake memories, and constant switches between realities – virtual, simulated, and otherwise - he begins losing touch.  But when AIs enter the picture, the game is taken to another plane.  Based on the psychological, sociological, and technological dimensions Gibson stretches the story across, literature has never had such equivocal view of life.  

Though the latter two books in the Sprawl series, Count Zero and Mona Lisa Overdrive, offer tighter, more polished prose, Neuromancer is no slouch.  Gibson’s first novel is a mature offering and better than the majority of sci-fi published by established writers today.  It offers a powerful, highly-unique style, lingual innovation the neon burning through the light.  A simple look at the terms coined - “jacked in”, “matrix”, “cyberpunk”, etc. – indicate the integral role the text has played not only amongst sci-fi geeks, but everyday society and the language it uses to describe techno reality.  Few today in the Western world are unaware of the term “cyberspace”, yet most probably do not know of its root in Neuromancer.  

In the end, nobody calling themselves a fan of science fiction in the 21st century can go without reading this novel.  A quick look at the titles it has influenced in the opening paragraph (no slouches, themselves) and the book’s significance becomes readily apparent.  Picking up the mantle PKD left with his untimely death in 1982, Gibson, though less prolific, has evolved the genre for a new generation - it’s stimuli possessing the same innovative bite but in higher literary form.  Beyond entertainment, Neuromancer is an artistic statement with vision into the reality of technology’s integration with humanity.  It is a book that will endure for generations.

(If you have read the whole Sprawl trilogy and are interested in reading more, you may like to read my essay entitled The Uncertainty of Reality: William Gibson's Sprawl Series.)

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