Neuromancer by William Gibson

I read Neuromancer on the strength of its reputation as a sci-fi essential and, more so, the recommendation of Max at Pechorin’s Journal. This, perhaps unholy, combination of sci-fi and crime noir (as Max discusses very ably and at length) is, quite evidently, a hugely influential work. From Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon to The Matrix to, I am sure, many, many subsequent sci-fi novels. This is not really my genre, so I cannot speak with first-hand authority on any influence beyond Cryptonomicon. I probably should read more sci-fi works given my interests in science and technology, but this is progress. The novel was, while not a literary masterpiece, sufficiently well-written that I never felt the need to hurl it as far from myself as possible (as I have with a more recent, highly touted sci-fi novel).

The story begins with the hero (this is not so literary that heroes are unnecessary), Case, in a bar in a seedy section of Chiba which, it appears, is somewhere in what is present-day Japan. Case is down and out, an ex-cowboy (hacker) who took one liberty too many [on his employer’s dime] resulting in neurological reprisals. [Those he crossed fried some of his synapses,] were friend making it impossible for him to enter cyberspace. He has developed a network and a reputation as a man who can get things and makes a meager living which pays for his primary entertainments and life goals: booze, drugs, and sex. He cannot earn enough to pay for treatments to effectively reverse the damage done to his brain. A life separated from the matrix is, to him, not really worth living. His existence is grim.

Max covers some themes more thoroughly and with more depth than I could hope to achieve, so I will provide a summary and urge you to read his excellent review (linked above). Case is very much like a Chandler-esque lead, down on his luck but smart, connected with the right bad people, and cunning. We meet him at a crucial moment in his life, a moment when his death seems imminent. He stumbles on a mystery and is contacted by wealthy and powerful people who want him to make one more run as a cowboy. They offer the one thing that can restore his desire to live: a neurological fix. He accepts as death, by his hand or another, is the only alternative.

As, again, Max points out, the world Case inhabits is very similar to the world of the 1980s (and today) with only minor additions of technology. The gap between the wealthy and the poor may have widened slightly, but the dynamics are the same. The two could very nearly be different species, the latter being exploited mercilessly by the former (shades of H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine). In all, this is handled well and in a way that avoids the novel becoming laughably outdated in a decade or two. The city feels real, only with a bit of new technology thrown in here and there. Max suggests, and it sounds right to me, that this was somewhat innovative in the world of sci-fi and has been much imitated. (And I think that observation must be accurate, even Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story follows that same idea….as well as the throwing in technological enhancements, youth surgeries more effective than anything currently available, and other rehashed (in SSTL) ideas from this and other sci-fi novels.)

That is not to say Neuromancer does not contain some anachronisms. People use landlines, not cell phones. There does not seem to be wi-fi, 5G, or any other wireless internet connections. But, these are minor failings of technological prognostication. The strength is the treatment of AI which, if I understand correctly, involved a radical new approach. The AI in the book is not, exactly, at war with humans as a species, though humans are trying to keep it contained, and AI is not a purely logical psychopath trying to create or maintain a world according to its settings (HAL, The Matrix‘s Architect, etc.), but has a personality and is seeking that most human of goals: freedom. The AI is not, yet, set on world domination or subjugation of the human race. This makes the AI, rather than a super-villain which must be vanquished to save humanity, an interesting and complex character.

Having not read much sci-fi, I have not reaped much benefit (yet) from Gibson’s radical departure with improved story-telling and interesting take on AI. However, I am thrilled I read this book and, so, cannot thank Max too much. I plan on reading the rest of the trilogy, for completeness sake and to see where Gibson went. I was entertained. Thank you, Max, not least for your knowledgeable posts on the trilogy which enriched my own understanding of the importance of this work within the larger sci-fi (and noir) contexts and my understanding of some of the subtleties within this work itself.

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32 Responses to Neuromancer by William Gibson

  1. Joachim Boaz says:

    I wonderful review of a great novel! The combination of a future Japan/Asian influence in sci-fi is an extremely influential byproduct of this novel… And, of course, Blade Runner’s aesthetic helped with that as well. However, Gibson’s later novels tend to be somewhat lacking…

    If you need any earlier sci-fi masterwork suggestions (if you want to continue to expand your sci-fi knowledge) let me know!

    • Kerry says:

      Thanks, Joachim. I am going to take you up on your offer. Given my limited exposure to true sf (H.G. Wells, Orwell, Asimov, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Hitchhiker’s Guide, Cryptonomicon (sort of fits), David Mitchell (sort of fits), Calvino (sort of), and not terribly much else that comes to mind…Super Sad True Love Story, Big Machine by LaValle,…surely something else, but cannot think what…), what are 3-5 sf books you would recommend?

      I am going to be reading a few from Max’s personal canon (Stanislaw Lem, Ballard, and Runyon with certainty), so use that info however you please.

  2. Joachim Boaz says:

    *A wonderful review

    sorry.

  3. Joachim Boaz says:

    Here are my personal favorites — they tend to be from the 60s, 70s, early 80s… and, they tend to be ALL social science fiction — exploring relevant social themes that crop up from contact with other species, technology, etc…

    1. Stand on Zanzibar (1968) — John Brunner — the social ramifications of an overpopulated world. A hard read/dense but stunning read…. My all time favorite sci-fi novel.

    2. The Left Hand of Darkness (1969) — Ursula Le Guin — one of the first feminist sci-fi novels (although heavily veiled) — first contact with “aliens” who have no gender. No father figures, no mother figures, etc… Again, amazing…

    3. The World Inside (1971) — Robert Silverberg — Again, social ramifications of overpopulation. Dark read, nice and short, highly recommended.

    4. Dune (1965) — Frank Herbert — best world building out there. Yes, this is on every best sci-fi list but for good reason…

    5. Solaris (1961) — Stanislaw Lem — wow — there are no words. Best “contact” novel out there — if what they contact is even alive…

    6. His Masters Voice (1968) — Stanislaw Lem — in the same group of “contact” novels as Solaris — more of a philosophical essay than novel.

    Ballard is great — I loved High-Rise (1975).

    • Kerry says:

      Thanks!

      And, sheesh! How could I forget Dune? Well, maybe that explains why I don’t tend to seek out sci-fi…..

      I am on Le Guin and Lem (meaning this year, hopefully). Thank you! The others in due time.

  4. Joachim Boaz says:

    I wrote a review on my blog for The World Inside and High-Rise if you’re curious… However, I’m only reviewing novels I’ve read SINCE I started the blog so the others don’t have reviews…

    • Kerry says:

      I understand about pre- and post-blog novels. I always feel bad when I do not have a review of, say, some of Virginia Woolf’s best work. Oops.

      I read those reviews and I will check those out. I was a bit oblivious to the “overpopulation sci-fi” genre. I think I will start with Ballard in that vein and get to The World Inside some time later. (I have several other “projects” I want to work on as well, so time, it is an issue.)

      Thanks, Joachim, for the suggests, the comments, and pointing me to your blog. Good stuff all.

  5. Joachim Boaz says:

    For newer works (I’m kind of out of the loop regarding any sci-fi written after 1990 because I prefer the older stuff) I’d check out this blog….

    http://sophyanempire.wordpress.com/

  6. Joachim Boaz says:

    High-Rise isn’t exactly about overpopulation per se — although the close quarters in the apartment complex does facilitate the societal breakdown. And I wouldn’t start with it first since it’s VERY late for the main thrust of that genre….

    Thanks!

  7. marco says:

    Did you try Blindsight? Wasn’t to your liking?

    (as I have with a more recent, highly touted sci-fi novel).

    Which?

    Anyway, you could look into these two

    posts

    in which a blogger with little experience of the genre asked for recommendations.

    On rereading my list, I notice that even with 20+ names I managed to miss a couple of favorites – for instance Walter Tevis Mockingbird and Molly Gloss The Dazzle of Day, or something by Carol Emshwiller and Kit Reed – and on reflection I would probably change some of the titles, if not the names.

    • Kerry says:

      I have not yet read Blindsight or Sputnik Caledonia. They are on tap after the Gibson series (I am tentatively planning to read about one sci-fi a month the rest of the year.)

      So, it looks like my list is:

      1. Count Zero – Gibson
      2. Mona Lisa Overdrive – Gibson
      3. Sputnik Caledonia – Crumey
      4. Blindsight – Peter Watts
      5. Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norell – Susanna Clark
      6. The Left Hand of Darkness – Ursula K. LeGuin
      7. Solaris – Stanislaw Lem
      8. The World Inside – Silverberg
      9. The High-Rise – Ballard

      Making this list, I realize that the recommendations I have so far will take me through the rest of 2011 at my pace and, more likely, through a calendar year (because I have many other TBRs as well). So, that’s going to be my sci-fi starter list. I will have a better idea of where I want to go, if at all, after reading these.

      As for the book I hurled, it was China Mieville’s The City and the City. To be fair, it was only at about page 25 or so. In those 25 pages, though, I found the writing to be blackboard-scratchingly bad. I would try to explain the final insult, but I don’t think I can do it justice. The passage was intended (a) as a sci-fi in-crowd joke (i.e. let’s laugh at how bad some of our writing can be) or (b) as a way to tell the reader that the book (in English) was translated multiple times or (c) as some sort of joke about using Yahoo!’s Babelfish to translate any coherence out of a particular passage. In any case, it was sort of painful to read and I probably gave it the least charitable interpretation. But the writing, on a sentence-by-sentence level, had already gotten on my nerves at that point. The ideas explored, I am sure, were phenomenal. I just wasn’t up to exploring with that particular guide.

  8. Joachim Boaz says:

    Yay! Some of my suggestions made it onto your list! I think you’ll be disappointed with Count Zero and Mona Lisa Overdrive — Gibson goes downhill FAST after his one hit wonder, Neuromancer.

  9. anokatony says:

    Just recently I attempted to listen to China Mieville’s new novel Embassytown on audio. I kept playing the first part over and over again in the hopes that I would better understand what was going on. I wound up listening for about 8 hours before finally giving up. About the only thing I learned was that the host bird-like race who populated Embassytown always had two-sylable names and at parties would frequently divide into two people, thus Ezra would become Ez and Ra. I thought the problem was that I was listening instead of reading; now I’m not so sure.

    • Kerry says:

      I am happy that I am not alone with a failure to appreciate Mieville’s writing. I didn’t get far enough into The City & The City to feel too lost, it was just that I had a bad reaction to the way it was written. I am worried I was uncharitable, but not so much so that I feel like trying again…

  10. Biblibio says:

    First off, about the anachronisms: possibly my favorite aspect of reading “old” sci-fi. Like when characters use typewriters in a book written in the 90s – that one has always been my favorite. Now I have another, if somewhat unrelated reason to read Neuromancer.

    As for the sci-fi greats, The Left Hand of Darkness is pretty flipping awesome. I’m still working on my own list of good, accessible sci-fi, but that’s a title I can definitely chime in on – a really wonderful book.

    • Kerry says:

      Thanks, Biblibio! “Pretty flipping aweseome” is exactly what I am looking for. I love that about the typewriters (kind of like the importance of landlines and payphones in the 1990s/2000s or whenever Neuromancer is set, only better).

      I like the idea of appreciating old sci-fi for the anachronisms. It is probably just as interesting to see what they failed to predict (what they thought would be the same) as to see what they predicted that never was (flying cars in every garage). The former is probably more telling (as flying cars keep showing up…..maybe one day….).

  11. Aagh. My lengthy reply got eaten.

    Anyway, I’m really glad you enjoyed this. I absolutely agree that it’s not a literary masterpiece but it is I think a great book and a genuine classic.

    It’s hugely influential as I discussed at mine. Not least in shaping the form of the internet in part, since it inspired so many geeks to try and create his vision. It didn’t foretell the future, it helped shape it.

    Gibson I think wrote about the present in the lense of the imminent future, and recently as that future has arrived has moved to purely contemporary fiction. The details, the cyberware or the out of date phones, are just trappings. The core is the power relationships and the issue of money as you mention.

    On the other sf front, I absolutely second the Lem and Le Guin suggestions (and both of those I do view as literary sf, i.e. straddling the border between sf and literary fiction).

    The World Inside, Joachim, that one? For me that’s B grade Silverberg. Appalling sexual politics (though that’s true of all Silverberg’s work really) but also just not that exciting. I’d have said Nightwings, Dying Inside or The Stochastic Man (the third there’s my favourite but the first two are probably better books).

    The other classic I’d throw on the pile is (according to Wikipedia anyway) Gibson’s favourite sf novel. The Stars My Destination (also known as Tiger! Tiger!) by Alfred Bester. Gibson described it as “elegantly pulpy” which is very fair. It’s not remotely literary, but it is pure sf and among the best books the field has. Whether someone not into sf as a genre would have the same love for it though I genuinely don’t know. It’s not like David Mitchell who mixes equal parts literary and science fiction together. Stars is full throttle sf.

    Gully Foyle is my name.
    Terra is my nation.
    Deep space is my dwelling place.
    The stars my destination.

    Blindsight is a brilliant and extraordinarily bleak work of hardcore ultra-hard sf. I think very highly of it, but I wouldn’t personally suggest it for someone not already fairly steeped in sf. I think it would just be too distant. Like starting an sf fan off on literary fiction by handing them Anita Brookner novel or Nicholas Royle. Peter Watts has all his stuff free online. His tale Ambassadors which is here http://www.rifters.com/real/shorts.htm was the seed around which Blindsight grew. Blindsight is far more accomplished than Ambassadors which I think is a bit crude but it gives an idea of Watts’ style and his extraordinarily nihilistic vision.

    • Kerry says:

      Max,

      A list of nine is kind of silly, so I would like an equally arbitrary 11. (Of course, if I read one a month and count Neuromancer, then it is one year of sci-fi, so maybe not entirely arbitrary.) At any rate, given the list I’ve culled from your personal canon, ideas you’ve provided, and the input of commenters like Joachim and marco, could you suggest two other sci-fi books to make it 11? (I assume The Stars My Destination by Bester is one.)

      Also, should I switch out Silverberg for Brunner’s Stand on Zanzibar which Joachim prefers “leaps and bounds” over the Silverberg and which you seem to like better too?

      Thanks for the link to Peter Watts short tale too. I will save Blindsight for the end of this sci-fi cycle which, while I won’t be “steeped” in sf, at least I will have some familiarity and may be a little more prepared than I am now.

  12. Joachim Boaz says:

    @Max –The World Inside is my favorite of his works so far — “appalling sexual politics”? Really? I mean, yes it’s filled with sex/taboos etc but they’re all extrapolated from the horrific sort of propagation above all else first world he’s developed. It’s hardly like Silverberg is endorsing this overpopulated, stifling, disturbed world and the resulting social effects….

  13. Joachim Boaz says:

    @ Max — I do prefer John Brunner’s ‘Stand on Zanzibar’ leaps and bounds over ‘The World Inside’…. haha

  14. Brunner is a remarkable talent. Some of his shorter works are also well worth looking out for. The Shockwave Rider of course is where the concept of the internet worm comes from. Total Eclipse is a blisterlingly grim novel. Times without Number is a great little time travel tale. He’s best known for the biggies but his smaller works are good too.

    I think Stand got written up in the Guardian recently. Definitely a classic.

    The thing I was thinking of in The World Inside, and this is very Silverberg, is that while the women are sexually active they’re also all essentially passive. The men do the nightwalking thing, the women receive whatever men come through the door. There’s no concept of women choosing men, they are simply available to the men who choose them.

    It comes up again and again with Silverberg. It’s a very male perspective on sexuality. Women are sexual, but passively so compared to the men. The men pursue, the women receive. It’s very 1970s in that.

    That said I loved the optimistic defence of overpopulation one character gives – the argument that a population of 75 billion (if I recall correctly) isn’t a problem but something to celebrate. I loved the telepathy drug scene too where the protagonist’s consciousness expands to take in the thoughts of a whole vast towerful of people.

    I’m amazed I remember so much of it. Clearly it can’t be that bad.

    You’re right that he’s not endorsing, but I’m not sure he’s condemning either. It’s more interesting than that, he’s exploring it.

    I have a huge love for Silverberg’s work to be honest. His back catalogue is extraordinary.

  15. Joachim Boaz says:

    Stand on Zanzibar is my all time favorite sci-fi novel — end of story. Loved it!

    I understand in regards to women in The World Inside — However, Brunner does exactly the same thing — his society has created women which are completely relegated off the scene — they’re completely passive his Brunner’s future overpopulated Earth. So, I view both as a product of the society created — albeit, Silverberg has terrible track record when it comes to female characters, just look at the ONLY female character in Downward to the Earth….

  16. Joachim Boaz says:

    Brunner is hit or miss with me — his great stuff (Stand on Zanzibar, The Shockwave Rider, The Sheep Look Up, Meeting at Infinity, the short story ‘Lungfish’) is awe-inspiring — Total Eclipse is on my soon to be read list. He also produces a lot of crud (Interstellar Empire, The Dramaturges of Yan, The Wrong End of Time, Born Under Mars, etc)…

  17. marco says:

    Blindsight was one of two books I recommended from the “Best of the Decade” list published by Tor, which Kerry linked some time ago.
    I did say that it wouldn’t necessarily figure on my personal list (which tends towards the softer side of the sf spectrum) but as a near-perfect example of hard-sf it makes more sense as a suggestion precisely because it represents a departure from the classic modes of literary fiction.

    And while in the works of Le Guin, Silverberg or Brunner the focus is more on the impact of technology/progress on human beings and societies, Watts is among the few authors that directly explore scientific and philosophical ideas in their fiction.

    The two blog posts I’ve linked above remain a useful roadmap for navigating the seas of sf, with the caveat, as I said in the comments, that you should “read around” the names and titles a bit, because approaches/styles/concerns vary widely.
    (It goes without saying that I stand behind every single one of the recommendations that I made there)

    • Kerry says:

      Marco,

      I like the Blindsight recommendation partly because it is the hard stuff and partly because I do want to sample across the genre as much as possible. (I have doubts I will ever do much more than dabble, but maybe one of these will convert me.)

      Thanks for those posts and for the Watts recommendation. I only wish I had more time to add more books, but my literary TBR is growing too…..

    • Marco,

      I’m actually a huge fan of Blindsight. I think Watts is a serious talent who’s pushing the boundaries of the genre. It’s shameful he doesn’t get better distribution. That said, he makes Greg Egan look almost cheerful, so his audience will always be a bit limited.

      If I had to add one more to Kerry’s list it would actually be one you mentioned in the first of those two blog posts you linked to. Tik-Tok. It’s just so different to everything else suggested, it’s so funny and I had planned to mention it and then saw you’d referenced it to. It’s just a marvellous book.

      I should reread it. I do still own a copy.

  18. […] Neuromancer – William Gibson (following the lead of Pechorin’s Journal who knows sci-fi): A book […]

  19. Thomas Evans says:

    A very good review of one of my favorite books. If you want a different list of must reads in Sci Fi from Joachims (whose list is great), I’d be happy to provide.

    • Kerry says:

      Thank you, Thomas. And I definitely appreciate the offer of a Sci-Fi list. I have been slow to get to any more Sci Fi and I love lists, so feel free to give me a list of must-reads sci-fi novels, either here in the comments or via e-mail (available on my “About” page). I look forward to your ideas and this is a good reminder that I want to read some more sci-fi novels.

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