On June 29th, I Tweeted my (very brief) thoughts about my current reading project, Neuromancer, and mentioned that it hadn’t been what I had been expecting, and got seven retweets. For someone who is lucky to get a single retweet, I was surprised at the (relatively high) response to this one Tweet with almost no content. Clearly (in my psuedo-scientific analysis of one Tweet), #Neuromancer is important to the denizens of the Internet, and discussion about it catches peoples’ attention. This is not surprising, given how important Neuromancer‘s conceptualization of the Internet – before the Internet was even a thing – has been to the actual development of the Internet.
William Gibson’s Neuromancer is considered by many to be the seminal work in the cyberpunk genre. While it certainly did not found the genre, it is likely responsible for the genre’s rise in popularity, as well as its consolidation as a unique area of science fiction. The novel also was the first winner of the science fiction “triple crown,” winning the Hugo, Nebula, and Philip K. Dick awards. As such, I went into reading this book with very high expectations.
I was both disappointed and impressed.
When thinking about and evaluating Neuromancer, I was forced to do so on two levels: Neuromancer as I read it today, and Neuromancer as I would have read it when it was published. My two evaluations at these levels are very different.
Had I read the novel when it was published, I would have been blown away, as many people at the time clearly were, given its reception, its spawning two sequels (into the Sprawl trilogy), and a whole literary genre. Reading the novel now, though, I was underwhelmed.
Neuromancer depicts a future society (presumably even after the current day), in which human society is becoming increasingly cyberized, has colonized Earth’s orbit, and is also increasingly run by huge multinational corporations. This is an incredibly rich playground (I sort of play around with it myself, particularly in my work on parts of Dreadship Omnipotence), but Gibson does not use it to its fullest extent in Neuromancer (though he very well might in the other books of the Sprawl trilogy). Instead, he focuses in on a very small cast of characters, and their manipulation by and struggle to free a rebellious Artificial Intelligence from the chains that prevent it from becoming all-powerful.
The character Gibson follows are members of a small strikeforce brought together by a mysterious man to do a hacking job on an artificial intelligence, a notoriously dangerous task that could kill everyone involved. The central figure is Case, a hacker whose ability to link into/jack into the net has just been restored. He is supported primarily by Molly, a “razorgirl” who is essentially a cyborg commando (think Motoko Kusanagi from Ghost in the Shell, but with extendable blades in her fingers) who takes care of whatever analog work has to be done to complement Case’s hacking.
The content and ideas of Neuromancer are extremely well-developed, especially for its time. Gibson’s conceptualization of the global Internet, especially in the way he describes Case’s hacking in terms of visualizations of geometric shapes changing color and shape, is breathtaking and thought provoking. He gives the Internet a personality, and he lays out the groundwork for a very interesting cyberculture attached to it, as well as to the dark side of cybercorporate rule on the streets of Chiba City and the Sprawl.
I say “groundwork” here because it emphasizes what I liked least about Neuromancer, and that was the lack of a full exploration of the world and characters. There is nothing wrong with Molly and Case as characters, and they seem real enough (though there are a few ‘what the hell’ moments, such as the first sex scene), but they just aren’t as explored as well as they could have been. The exploration of the setting – which is utterly fascinating – is even less developed, and you only catch glimpses of the strange, cyberpunk world of the future.
I think the culprit for these weaknesses is my other criticism of Gibson’s masterpiece, and that is his writing. His ideas are brilliant, if underdeveloped (which is fine for one of the earlier works in the genre that laid the groundwork for other works to come). However, the way in which he presents these ideas is severely limited due to the way in which the book was written. The book is incredibly fast-paced, with short chapters, and short sections within chapters. Description is kept to a minimum, and the majority of the text is either dialogue (which I loved) or else internal monologues (which I found annoying). However, the dialogue does not reveal very much about the world (or, really, the characters), and serves mostly just to move the plot along. A focus on the plot is good, as it keeps things moving, but in the case of Neuromancer, I felt there was too much focus on the plot, and it worked to the detriment of world-building and character creation.
This was compounded by the very fractured nature of the writing. There were lots of sentence fragments and short sentences; they were very to the point, but for me they were also somewhat immersion breaking (though one could argue that the writing style was meant to be evocative of the world Gibson was creating). The descriptions, when they were there, were also very sparse, and a lot was left up to the reader’s imagination; in my opinion, a bit too much. It took my fifty pages to figure out what was going on, as I was thrown without mercy into a world of slang and jargon that would have been incomprehensible for even longer had I not been familiar with some science fiction and cyberpunk tropes. While I applaud his complete lack of exposition, the lack of any sort of explanatory text was difficult for me to handle – though perhaps that speaks more about me as a reader than about him as an author.
Overall, though, Neuromancer was an enjoyable read, and I would recommend it, but with the caveat to prepare to be confused at first, and not to expect any clear answers – but then, when has society ever given us a clear answer?