Book Review: "Neuromancer", by William Gibson
It's not often that you can point to a particular work as the point of origin for an entire genre - yet, that seems to be exactly what you get here. Something of an odd blend of Noir style story-telling, with a particularly bleak and dystopian science-fiction setting, Neuromancer (along with the film, Blade Runner) is one of the earliest examples of what would later become known as the cyberpunk sub-genre. For many life-long science fiction fans, it is still considered to be something of a classic of the genre—and, it also won its fair share of awards when it was first published.
Case is a cowboy, a hacker skilled at breaking through security systems and gaining entry to places he is not supposed to be. He is one of the best—or, at least, he was. On one particular job, Case got greedy and tried to steal from his current employer, breaking one of his long-held personal rules in the process. The result of this betrayal came in the form of the application of a potent toxin that severely damaged Case's nervous system—rendering him incapable of accessing the matrix, the world-spanning network of computer systems through which he makes his living. As a result, Case finds himself in Chiba, a particular run-down area of Japan, taking on any work he can find to finance his drug-fuelled downward spiral. It is commonly thought, by anyone that knows him, that his current behaviour is little more than a long and drawn out form of suicide.
He is given a reprieve in the form of Molly, one of a particularly dangerous breed of cybernetically enhanced mercenary commonly referred to as a 'street samurai', who informs him that her current employer has a need for a skilled hacker, and that he is willing and able to provide an experimental cure for Case's condition that will allow him to access the matrix once more. In return, Case simply needs to agree to work for him. However, what begins with a seemingly straightforward heist quickly escalates—and, both Case and Molly soon find themselves potentially in over their heads.
In a way quite similar to the relationship between Lord of the Rings and the fantasy fiction that followed in its footsteps, it is important to remember not to take Neuromancer out of its original context. If anything about Neuromancer begins to feel too formulaic, or cliche-ridden, to a modern reader, than that is quite possibly only because their impression has been shaped by their familiarity with everything that followed. Not only is Neuromancer held to be one of the earliest examples of cyberpunk (coming along before that particular sub-genre even had a name), but it is also widely considered to be the first time that the concepts of cyberspace and virtual reality were ever explored in fiction (well before these things became a part of our daily lives). It was also responsible for creating many of the standard elements of cyberpunk that later went on to become cliches of the genre.
Despite this, though, it would also be fair to say that there is something oddly juvenile about the novel—something which can't be entirely attributed to its being taken out of context by a modern audience. Its dystopian world of urban decay, where everyone you meet is a potentially dangerous killer and violence is treated as something casual, can occasionally begin to seem more like some sort of adolescent wish-fulfillment than the massively influential science-fiction novel it is so often held up as. Notably, Gibson himself has indicated that this is also how he has since come to feel about one of his earliest works—acknowledging that it was an influential work of fiction, but still considering that part of his writing career to be over.
It was the sheer creative imagination of Gibson's fictional world that drew so much attention to Neuromancer when it was first published in 1984. But now, with so much of what made it original becoming standard, or even outdated, all that is really left to hold a reader's attention is the story itself, and its cast of characters. And, unfortunately, neither quite hold up as well as a modern reader might hope. Characters often seem more defined by what they can do, rather than who they are, and seem primarily intended to push the plot forward. The plot, in turn, seems on occasion to exist as little more than a means of shuffling the characters about in order to more fully explore Gibson's fictional world.
It still makes for an entertaining, and often genuinely exciting, story, though. And, it still holds an important place in the history of the science fiction genre. It is really just a bit of a shame that much of what made Neuromancer so special when it was first published is likely to be lost on anyone who reads it for the first time today.
© 2020 Dallas Matier