Book Review: Neuromancer

Neuromancer was one of those books that drew me in purely by virtue of the title. Neuromancer, I thought, what’s that? Like, Necromancer? But with the brain? Wow, I’m intrigued already. It was on a friend’s bookshelf and I picked it up almost without thought, without really knowing why. I’d heard the name William Gibson but had no idea he was such a fixture in the world of science-fiction literature. Neuromancer, it turns out, was one of the first generation of cyberpunk science fiction novels that took the world by storm, danced with glory in Snow Crash, and ultimately achieved popular-culture recognition in The Matrix, which, it turns out, stole a hell of a lot from Neuromancer.

Neuromancer‘s book blurb reads: “Case was the sharpest data thief in the Matrix, until an ex-employer crippled his nervous system. Now a new employer has recruited him for a last-chance run against an unthinkably powerful artificial intelligence. With a mirror-eyed girl street-samurai riding shotgun, he’s ready for the silicon-quick, bleakly prophetic adventure that upped the ante on an entire genre of fiction.” This could be a lesson in blurb-writing, for all you aspiring writers out there. In two and a half sentences, the blurb sums up the entire book, and then tells you why the book was (and still is) revolutionary.

Gibson’s language is perhaps best described as simply hard, not as in difficult but as in rocks that are hard. It feels sometimes like being hit in the head repeatedly by a rock. With short, curt sentences and brutal word choices, he paints a picture of a world where even the ritziest hotels and space-stations feel like part of some darker underbelly of the world at large. Even Freeside, the space station inhabited by the wealthiest corporate owners on earth feels more like a hooded slum than a luxury cruise in zero-G.

His characters are similarly hard. Very little emotional interaction takes place. When Case meets his partner-in-crime, Molly, a suave samurai with razors tucked into her nails like some big cat, the two immediately have sex – emotionless, blunt, satisfying sex. The rest of the time they’re ‘on the job’, they’re sleeping together, though the interactions Gibson shows us are purely professional. Molly takes Case shopping, and makes him breakfast. That’s as cozy as the would-be couple get. We never get to learn about much of Case’s history, other than that he used to be a member of the cyberworld’s elite, until he crossed one of his employers and was punished as a result. Other than that? We know nothing about him. The closest we come to an emotional connection with him is when the AI he’s pitted against taunts him with visions of the death of a girl he used to go with (I won’t say ‘date’ because that, to me, implies emotional connection) named Linda Lee. Linda is constantly an image used against Case, an ideal that represents comfort and familiarity, but never intimacy. There is no intimacy in this book.

This linguistic detachment is, in its own way, revolutionary. How can you root for a character you know nothing about and have no reason to sympathize with? It’s hard to get into Case’s head, but his cynicism and sarcasm helps endear him to the reader. Not to mention that shifting loyalties, characters disappearing and reappearing, and the shady employer behind Case’s recruitment constantly keeps you guessing who’s on which side – if there are any sides. The only thing ‘side’ I could identify was Case’s, as he keeps digging to try to uncover who it is really manipulating him, and why, and it’s never really clear where the lines of allegiance lie.

Amid the cyberwars and data theft, drugs, alcohol, and the depraved culture of the future are shown with equal hardness. Case, a drug addict, is given an organ replacement treatment that automatically filters his usual drugs of choice from his system, preventing him from getting high. On Freeside, though, he finds a way around that, and the buzz of the drugs inside his head and outside his body colors a large part of the second half of the narrative. Again, there’s no emotional dependency. It’s purely physical, Case’s desire to get high. There are some other characters, outside the central ring of Case’s partners, who flit in and out, whose desires are base sexuality and the quick thrill of a needle, who come from money and know nothing but money, or who come from poverty and know nothing but crime. Gibson’s world isn’t a pretty one.

But what really made this book mind-bending was cyberspace itself. Here’s a description, from close to the end of the book, of Case’s vision of cyberspace as he uses a virus to penetrate deep into the defenses (aka “ice”) of an incredibly complicated AI.

The Kuang program spurted from a tarnished cloud, Case’s consciousness divided like beads of mercury, arcing above an endless beach the color of the dark silver clouds. His vision was spherical, as though a single retina lined the inner surface of a globe that contained all things, if all things could be counted…He banked Kuang above the beach and swung the program in a wide circle, seeing the black shark thing through her eyes, a silent ghost hungry against the banks of lowering cloud.

Here’s another, from the first time Case is able to jack into the Matrix again (yes, Gibson does call it the Matrix. It’s obvious that the Wachowski brothers owe him a huge creative debt for the creation of their movie trilogy):

And in the bloodlit dark behind his eyes, silver phosphenes boiling in from the edge of space, hypnagogic images jerking past like film compiled from random frames. Symbols, figures, faces, a blurred, fragmented mandala of visual information…And flowed, flowered for him, fluid neon origami trick, the unfolding of his distanceless home, his country, transparent 3D chessboard extending to infinity.

Even this is hard, hard to understand, to appreciate, because it’s so foreign to us. The spatial non-spatial world of Case’s Matrix is as brutal and unfeeling as the rest of the book, incomprehensible, iced up solid and impenetrable.

I learned a lot from this book – I certainly sped through it – and I think it’s something all science fiction writers ought to read. It’s one of those canonical books you need to know to know the field. That said, I won’t be reading it again, soon. I won’t even go so far as to say it was an enjoyable read. It’s not very pleasant. Although it is engaging and entertaining, I don’t think I smiled or laughed more than once or twice throughout the whole thing. I still give it 4/5 stars, though, for teaching me about the world of cyberpunk, for showing me how to write without appealing to a reader’s emotional side, for showing me that there is, and always will be, room for innovation in the science fiction world.

4/5 stars. Recommended for fans of The Matrix, Snow Crash, hard science fiction, computer science, and crime thrillers.

If you enjoyed what you read here, I’d love it if you’d check out my debut novel, The Sowing, a science fiction dystopia about a girl named Remy trying to avenge her sister’s murder, and a boy named Vale trying to find out why the girl he loved disappeared three years ago. If that sounds interesting to you, click the link for more information: