February 3, 2016

First Time Around: "Neuromancer," by William Gibson

First Time Around: An essay series by Chris Schahfer

Neuromancer, by William Gibson

By William Gibson, 1984
Reviewed by Chris Schahfer

I don't often get the chance to flex my sci-fi muscle around here. I'm not sure if that's because I'm just not that up on what's currently going on in sci-fi or because I'm not as familiar with it as I thought. Either way, for as many objections as I could throw at the worst sci-fi - which range from the prose to the political level - the best is fascinating stuff, and that carries us quite nicely to William Gibson's first effort. He gets a lot of credit for launching the cyberpunk movement, as well as breaking away from some of the genre's more staid conventions. Not a lot of spaceships around here, or a lot of space at all, which means none of Heinlein's visiting aliens, Bradbury's space colonies, or Herbert's galactic empires. Instead, Gibson decided the ideal space for a science fiction novel was the computer. This was not only Gibson's first novel but the first of his Sprawl trilogy (Count Zero and Mona Lisa Overdrive followed in short order), and the whole thing made for a shock to the sci-fi system.

A little background on cyberpunk seems necessary here, for fear that this review becomes too jargony. As I mentioned above, Gibson was all about shifting the final frontier into computers. His short story "Burning Chrome" contains, I believe, the first-ever use of the term "cyberspace." Alongside computers, the genre tends to have a weathered aesthetic that's closer to Star Wars than you might expect at first. Remember how the Millennium Falcon was a piece of junk? That sort of thing predominates cyberpunk. For other good points of comparison, think the "real world" of the Matrix, which takes quite a few cues from this novel, or the burned-out Los Angeles in Blade Runner, an early cyberpunk classic. While we're on Blade Runner, both that fine movie and this fine novel bring out the genre's noir edge. Indeed, Gibson's prose abandons the wide-eyed storytelling of Heinlein and Bradbury and goes right for a Chandleresque edge, which sometimes slips into slight self-parody (he dedicates a whole line to the word "archipelago" at one point), but always lends his writing buckets of style and leads to serious lyricism on a few occasions, as we'll get to later. People will sometimes criticize science fiction for being poorly written, but Gibson smashes that stereotype.

Plot-wise, Neuromancer is quite the ride. It centers on Case, a computer hacker who performed his crimes by projecting his consciousness into the internet, known in the novel as "jacking in." Case was big on the circuit for a while, but after he got busted stealing from his boss, he was locked out of cyberspace and hit the skids hard. On the novel's outset, he's a burned-out drug addict who can no longer work, at least until he meets Molly, who offers to cure him of his addiction and let him jack in again if he'll only work for her employer, the seriously shady Armitage. Without a lot of choice, Case accepts the deal, and what follows is a chain of breakneck events involving a Rastafarian pilot, the artificial intelligence of one of Armitage's comrades, a sadist with cybernetic implants (of which more to follow), ninjas, street gangs, terrorists, sex, drugs, and an ever-amusing fence known as the Finn. They end up all around the world and spend a lot of time in cyberspace as well.

Now, there are a few complaints you could logically raise about this book. Gibson's characters aren't as compelling as they'd grow to be in the subsequent Sprawl novels; Case in particular seems an early antecedent to the blasé mercenary that became such a '90s cliché. Really, some of the book's grimness comes off as a little bit forced in general, though much of it is painfully reflective of how human beings can operate. Going off that, Neuromancer is plot-driven as they come, which isn't an issue for me but may raise the "why is this literature?" question for some readers. Plus, in the wake of the Matrix and a number of computer-themed anime like .hack/SIGN and Serial Experiments Lain, Neuromancer might seem kind of quaint anymore, its innovations too far out to be absorbed. Even a franchise as old-school as James Bond used hacking as a plot point in Skyfall, so what hope does Gibson have of keeping his edge?

Well, hold up there. We might all be used to dark computer-driven sci-fi at this point, but the fact stands that Gibson can really write. He has a way with a clever and well-timed modifier - the first page alone offers up "affordable beauty" and "monotonously jerked" - and works up strong vivid flows like "But the dreams came out of the Japanese night like livewire voodoo, and he'd cry for it, cry in his sleep, and wake alone in the dark, curled in his capsule in some coffin hotel, his hands clawed into the bedslab" (5). If prose isn't your thing, his action sequences are still pretty thrilling as far as this reviewer's concerned. Part of this is because they complicate the genre-blend, allowing Neuromancer to be a sci-fi mystery with martial arts - a feat the Matrix can't boast - and part of it goes back to Gibson's vividness. Not only does he place you inside of his action, but also inside of the mystery - we work through it alongside Case, piecing a little together here and finding it all confounded there. In other words, Gibson's not so much a "genre writer" as a "genre master," a guy who knows the conventions and bends them to his will, twisting them into new and exciting forms while at the same point reminding us of why they're so popular in the first place. Which all might seem like a long-winded way of saying "do not fear plot-driven fiction," and that's something I find myself saying a little more often than I'm comfortable, but it also must be said that writing good action or good mystery is just as tough of a thing as writing, say, good naturalistic dialog or a series of events that end up with an epiphany. You're not going to get either of those things in Gibson - his dialog is super-stylized, and his epiphanies, if they're here, sure aren't Updike's - but I can't say I missed them.

Yet what I love about this series and what I really read it for is the universe itself. Gibson took his vision of both the "real world" and cyberspace into all sorts of new directions with the sequels, even bringing a group you might not expect to see in a sci-fi novel into Count Zero, and Neuromancer lays down the groundwork. With virtual space and its real-world implications a frequent factor in this novel, you might not be surprised to learn that the very definition of reality gets distended pretty hard in this world; if any famous sci-fi writer from the old guard can be called Gibson's ancestor, it's Ubik-era Philip K. Dick. These computers also end up permeating everything characters do, part of the reason why Gibson is hailed as a prophet of the modern age to rival Don DeLillo. Yet the real secret to this novel's greatness lies in those all-too-human cybernetics I talked about earlier. These are so common in the book's universe many characters are essentially cyborgs, but rather than use this technology to further their lives, people often apply them to vain or even vengeful ends. In that respect, you could probably call Gibson a sort of anti-sci-fi writer, somewhat fascinated but also somewhat terrified with the possibilities the future presents. Effortlessly cool as this book is, it's not exactly a romp, let's put it like that. Although bits of it are, and there's no way any human being with a functional sense of fun can't enjoy all the thievery and martial arts showdowns in this novel.

So even if you think mirrored shades and black leather jackets are among the most absurd articles of fashion in history, you still should give this a spin. The strong writing might challenge your perception of sci-fi if you have the idea in your head that no genre writers have any facility with language, and who knows, you might even find it a great combination of exciting and thought-provoking. If you're already sold on sci-fi and haven't read this book yet, I'd say you've got a hole in your collection that needs to be stoppered up as soon as possible, even if you're an old-school fan who was thrown for a loop by cyberpunk. I've never actually met anyone like this, but they have to exist, right? The slightly flat characters do make the going a little rough sometimes, and Count Zero is a stronger novel all around, but this didn't change the sci-fi and general pop culture landscape by sitting on its hands, you know. If you were put off from cyberpunk forever by those Matrix sequels, maybe you should give this a go and see if you still feel the same.

Filed by Chris Schahfer at 7:00 AM, February 3, 2016. Filed under: Chris Schahfer | Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews |