RogerBW's Blog

Neuromancer, William Gibson 15 December 2017

1984 Hugo- and Nebula-award-winning science fiction. Case used to be a hacker, but stole from the wrong people, and they took hacking away from him; now he's a hustler on an arc towards suicide by street. But someone wants him for a very special job.

This book is the model T of cyberpunk fiction: not the first, arguably not the best, but very much the one that made it popular. It's written to appeal to hyperactive suburban teenagers who want to read about sex and drugs and being the coolest dude on the street. Maybe you can't throw a football or run fast, but those computer thingies, they'll be important one day, and then you can show them.

"Style over substance" was an unofficial motto of cyberpunk, and it's strangely appropriate here. Everything's daubed with brand names and nationalities that mean nothing but sound nifty. The core plot is the expert hauled out of retirement for one last job, but every part of that which can be folded into a different configuration has been: Case is involuntarily retired because he screwed up, the team's heavy is a woman and the team's seducer is a man, everything that happens is part of a plot from a super-smart mastermind, and – obviously – nothing is what it seems.

Except for Molly, the razorgirl with permanent mirrorshades and blades in her fingertips, who comes over as the epitome of cool but she's all vulnerable and emotional really. And she's happy to sleep with Case but doesn't hang around and get all clingy, so that's all right. (One can see the genesis of a thousand half-arsed Strong Female Characters right here.) And the other female characters are much worse.

But Gibson's problems with female characterisation aside, this is a fast-paced romp that works well. Sure, I'm not fifteen any more, and now I know that all the computer stuff was entirely invented by Gibson because he didn't have a clue about it himself and didn't want to get his story mired in reality. Like other influential books, it sometimes seems samey, but that's in part because it's been so widely imitated, often without any understanding of what actually made it work.

This is the sort of book that puts newcomers off science fiction: the world is a puzzle, and little is explicitly explained. You need to put together clues here and there to work out what's going on and even what some of the words mean; but there's nothing that will seriously challenge the experienced SF reader, or the obsessive. It's a descendent of the New Wave that hides its trippiness just enough to appeal to the mainstream fan. (Though if the whole thing turned out to have been an hallucination as Case was dying of spiked drugs in a Chiba back alley I wouldn't be surprised.)

Followed loosely by Count Zero, but there was no plan for a sequel, and to my mind this is the best writing Gibson ever did. Reread for Neil Bowers' Hugo-Nebula Joint Winners Reread, and this is one of the few books so far that comes close to the quality I remember from first reading.

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  1. Posted by Owen Smith at 07:01pm on 16 December 2017

    I remember being frustrated on reading Count Zero just how long Gibson spent explaining the name "Count Zero" how it is all about instructions for decrementing a loop counter and jumping if not zero. At the time my first thought was "so in this high tech cyber punk world, people still routinely write code in assembler do they?". Gibson would have been better sticking to knowing nothing about computers and not explaining them, because it was a jarring moment that broke my immersion in the story. My subsequent thoughts were "only some instruction sets do that, and only some loops are written that way round, you moron".

  2. Posted by RogerBW at 07:28pm on 16 December 2017

    It did give me the idea for a Shadowrun decker character's handle: LDIR. I think the point is not that you necessarily use assembler, but that you're old-school enough to know about it. Compare the opening lines of Johnny Mnemonic:

    I put the shotgun in an Adidas bag and padded it out with four pairs of tennis socks, not my style at all, but that was what I was aiming for: If they think you're crude, go technical; if they think you're technical, go crude. I'm a very technical boy. So I decided to get as crude as possible.

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