Book Review: Neuromancer (and Cyberpunk)
Back in my article about books I needed to read in order to feel like a proper science fiction fan, I mentioned the book Neuromancer. Written by William Gibson in 1984, this book was supposed to be a science-fiction staple and one that I needed to get my hands on as soon as I could. My experience with the cyberpunk genre is basic at best, with Michael Crichton getting me to where I am now. I was excited to start reading the book and was hoping to be won over to a whole new subgenre, especially after having found out it had won the Nebula Award, the Philip K. Dick Award, and the Hugo Award back when it was first published.
The opening chapters of the book had my hopes high. The first line of the book was great at setting the mood, “The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.” It had me prepared to read a book that would give us little hope for the world, one that’s basically already dead inside. Throughout the first part of the book, Gibson gives us a high-speed tour of the world; full of hackers, drug addicts, gun rentals, and small rooms. I honestly wish Gibson had spent more time in the opening setting, the near future world of Japan. It really gave a sense of identity and atmosphere to the story and I had no trouble picturing the city.
The character, Case, isn’t likable at first and I was actually disappointed to see that we would be following him through the story. The more I stuck with him, however, the more I grew to like him and see the chances for character growth. He had been one of the best “cowboys” before he was damaged by gangsters and he had been more at home in cyberspace then the real world. The moment where he gets back in to the matrix is a good one; Gibson gives us a great description of Case’s reaction, full of tears and joy. Molly, the street samurai who recruits Case, is interesting and you can see how she went on to influence other characters in other media. She’s Trinity, The Major, and Faye Valentine. She was easy to like because she could get things done when others couldn’t, like a female Wolverine. Her character arc is pretty limited, though, and we know as much about her at the end of the books as we did in the beginning.
The problem is that I didn’t like the book. It was chore for me to read through and I had a hard time following everything. This might be my own fault, or the nature of hard science fiction, but I struggled to find anything to connect to in the book. I wanted to like it, there were moments that were cool and intriguing, but it was hard for me to applaud the characters in the book as they engaged in drugs and crime. Not that it would be a bad book because of that, necessarily, but the way Gibson writes leaves little to like in most of his protagonist. I can see why this book would have been such a moment in time when it was first published, and it still has a strong sense of future about it, but I couldn’t disappear in this book. It picks up at the end and I liked the confrontations between Case and Wintermute, as well as Neuromancer. Part of me wonders if this is such a visual story that it would be better to have a movie of it instead. In novel form, I just couldn’t like the story.
Reading Neuromancer has pointed out to me how little cyberpunk I’ve actually experienced. When I was younger and getting into anime in a big way, one of the first movies I watched was Ghost in the Shell . I remember watching the movie and not understanding a thing about it. When it ended, I almost cried because I thought I was too stupid to comprehend the movie. Almost instantly, I started the movie over, only this time I put the subtitles on and read along with the anime. The whole process helped me to understand the big ideas the movie was trying to explain and made me feel better about myself. Since then, I’ve had a soft spot for the film, as it really digs into the idea of conciseness and the reality of cyberspace. I’ve tried watching the series, but I’ve never been able to get into it.
I wonder if cyberpunk is something I like or just something I want to like. I have the same dilemma with steampunk. The concept is something I enjoy but I haven’t been able to find material that does what I expect it to do. I can think of things with cyberpunk elements that I love; The Matrix , Batman Beyond , Hyperion , Cowboy Bebop . But those examples tend to only bring cyberpunk in as a small piece. Full blown cyberpunk material, like Blade Runner , tends to leave me less excited, though I’ve never seen Total Recall . I have Shadowrun sitting on my gaming shelf but I haven’t played it yet, and I now wonder if I would. Dan Wells has stated that the problem with cyberpunk is that we keep catching up to it, but I’m not sure that’s my problem. I think the setting requires characters who are less than likable, who know how to enter a world I might not want to go into. It’s something I need to think about, but maybe something that I still need to find the right outlet for. Perhaps it’s time to give another shot. Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex