Neuromancer by William Gibson

May 31, 2011

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.

The Lights of Earth by Gina Berriault

August 4, 2010

For an excellent review of this work, I will send you to Kevin from Canada who recently read this book at my suggestion. I am just going to try to jot down some random thoughts about the book and, likely, will throw in some spoilers. Beware.

Last year, I had re-read two of Berriault’s novels (Afterwards and The Son) and commented on them. This year, I had planned to re-read this one too, but not quite so soon as I actually did. Reading Turn, Magic Wheel prompted me to take this down from the shelves to look for points of comparison, to remind myself of the story and the writing. Once I started, I did not want to stop.

The compulsion to finish was partly because I love Berriault’s writing and partly because I was astounded by the close parallels between this book and Powell’s. Both center on the women in a famous writer’s life. Powell borrows from the life of Hemingway, while Berriault’s famous writer (Martin) is more amorphous, just a place holder in many ways. Powell’s female lead is the ex-wife of the famous writer, while Berriault’s female lead is a soon-to-be ex-mistress. Powell’s book is broader in scope, rounding out a whole cast of characters, where Berriault focuses more intensely on the ex-mistress. The female leads’ male friends play central roles, particularly in the novels’ climaxes and denouements.

In a particularly poignant moment in Turn, Magic Wheel, Effie wishes she had had a child with Callingham, something that was hers alone. Effie watches a crippled boy from her window, imagining the sorrowful pride his mother must have when the teacher tells her the boy is slow. The mother doesn’t tell the teacher that her boy will shine one day, but because of the beautiful pictures he draws, his mother knows. The relationship between the mother and the boy is wrending, as is Effie’s yearning to have a child, even a crippled child.

Berriault gives her female lead, Ilona, a daughter to whom she does not seem close. Ilona also has a brother, Albert. Albert has some developmental disabilities and, thus, is confined to menial labor and a rather spartan existence. Ilona grew up watching out for him and, during the course of this novel, he sends Ilona a letter telling of a recent illness and a friend’s kind treatment:

Although he was happy to be tended by a friend out in the world, wasn’t it true that his sister ought to be the one tending him, just as she had protected him from what the world might do to him, the years when she had walked beside him and sat beside him on trolleys and buses, her small presence never enough to keep his fear from breaking out as a cold sweat over his face, never enough to convince him he was not at the world’s mercy.

Ilona’s longing for Martin is paralled by Albert’s brotherly longing for Ilona. She has gone out into the world and has not returned, will not return. Though he hopes so. Just as Ilona reminisces and fondles photographs of the man she loves but who has left her, Albert piteously misses his sister. When she later goes to Chicago, after he has died, she sees the room he rents, his keepsakes, and the prominent proof of his longing for her, a carboard sign posted above his cot which gives his address and a heartbreaking request that his sister be notified in an emergency. One senses it was always a bit of an emergency, that poor Albert was always in need of a sustaining phone call. He rarely received them, however.

The irony to this is that Ilona was Albert’s light and she left him. She was the distant star, the one traveling the world, the one who left him behind in the dark.

This sideline about Ilona’s brother is only one aspect of this novella. Every aspect of the work explores and amplifies the sense of longing, the feeling that one is being left while another streaks through life. Berriault has sympathy for those left behind and hopefulness too. Cynthia Ozick has written that “Berriault’s fictions never disappoint: they read like fact and leave the impress of wisdom.” The Lights of Earth certainly does not disappoint. It manages both a clenching sadness and an uplifting redemption without falling into sentimentality.

I loved it. I loved it again.