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.