While I have read Snow Crash, a section of science fiction I’ve largely bypassed has been cyberpunk, and this year I’ve decided to remedy that. A major reason I stayed away from cyberpunk as a genre is I did not really care for the flashy aesthetics and the idea of hackers as heroes in cyberspace. Though the phrase “high technology, low life” is appealing to me, the genre, from the outside, seems to fetishize the techno aspects, but with the direction the tech entrepreneurs are trying to push the world, I figured it’s time I gave myself an education. What better place to start than the ur cyberpunk novel by William Gibson, Neuromancer.
Henry Case was one of the most prominent data thieves in the business. However, his last job left him without the ability to engage with cyberspace. So when a mysterious benefactor offers him the chance to dive back into his old life, as long as he performs one big job, Case has no problem taking the gamble. Molly, a street samurai, is tasked with making sure that Case doesn’t get killed before he completes his mission. However, the job goes deeper than he expected, and he’s pulled into a conspiracy bigger than any he’s dealt with before.
The first noticeable aspect of Neuromancer is Gibson’s writing. It is both detailed and slapdash. One of my friends explained it as “punk,” and really that sums it up. Its punchy, fast, and delivers exactly what Gibson wants you to know without sticking around for much flourish. It zigs and zags, forcing the reader to keep up. I can’t imagine what it would have been like to read this before these words had been ingratiated into the English lexicon but it must have felt like a fever dream. In some ways it still has that quality, as so many new combinations of words fly past. Gibson’s writing could have very easily fallen into meaningless technobabble, but instead is incredibly evocative and pulls the reader into the world. Dizzying and sprawling city scapes glowing with neon signs mix with the tight corridors of spaceships. Cyberspace exists in a liminal mental space that Case navigates with corporeal ease. I’m not much of a visual imagineer, but I found myself seeing the world through Case’s eyes, which I found pretty incredible.
The plot is fast paced and centers around the possible emergence of intelligent AI, and the suppression of such. Case gallavants across the world from Japan, to Boston and even to a space colony. He experiences the upper strata of society, and the scrabbling lower classes. Everyone and everything is an asset, and while it’s apparent that Case knows this about himself, it’s stunning to see how everyone he interacts with, with the exception of a small minority, recognizes the same about themselves. Even his mysterious benefactor is contracted by someone else. Personal relations are a luxury and can lead to treacherous terrain once someone realizes your vulnerability. People have bugs in their software and everyone is just looking for an exploit to open you up.
Neuromancer was surprisingly concerned with the proliferation of technology to the degree it has in Case’s world, and what it could mean for ours. I grew up through the age of increasing technological integration into the lives of everyday Americans as the surveillance state was revving its engines. My dad took annual trips to the Consumer Electronics Show, bringing back stories of magical new gadgets with a glow in his eyes. I wasn’t always a skeptic, or—gasp—a luddite, but to see what people consider to be THE cyberpunk novel dig so deeply into the consequences of a fully realized techno utopia was surprising. Don’t worry, it’s not like Gibson goes on clunky diatribes about the sprawl, or just how nice it would be to live without a computer in your head. Instead he shows the dirtiest, meanest parts of the world from top to bottom and shows just how isolating it can be. The novel doesn’t really end either, it just sort of trails off, with a small glimpse into Case’s future, and it’s heartbreaking especially surrounding his relationship with Molly. Cyberspace isn’t a world in Neuromancer, it’s just another way to interface with the real world.
Even if Neuromancer was just a portal to view a bygone era of science fiction, it would have been an enjoyable experience. But instead, it’s a fully fleshed out scream of a novel that can’t stop picking at a scab. It has an itch to explore the deep underbelly of its world, searching for a high it can’t find, and it pulls the reader along for the ride. It may not be my first ever cyberpunk novel, but it’s certainly the perfect springboard into reading more, and golly am I ready for it.
Rating: Neuromancer 8.5/10