Sunday, July 24, 2016

"Neuromancer" by William Gibson [Review]

Neuromancer (Sprawl, #1)Neuromancer by William Gibson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

"Neuromancer" is the classic novel that kickstarted the cyberpunk genre. It didn't invent cyberpunk, but it certainly set the tone for all the novels and movies that followed.

The novel is pretty much what we all thought computers would be like in 2016. Instead of clumsy keyboards and screens, users plug computers directly into their brains. "Neuromancer" tells the story of Case, a hacker who navigates cyberspace, a virtual reality representing all the computer networks of the world. After getting his hacking ability surgically removed by a double-cross, he jumps at the chance to recover his lost ability and pull off a new and dangerous job. But he soon discovers that the people he's working for have a hidden agenda, and he becomes embroiled in a conspiracy involving an ancient and powerful family and an evolving artificial intelligence.


The greatest achievement of "Neuromancer" is how Gibson makes the future feel real with what he calls "super-specificity." In our modern world, we don't just drive cars. We drive a Honda or a Ford, and the type of car can tell us a lot about a character in a story. In the same way, Gibson uses brand names for any products they use, even if he has to make one up. If Case sees a holographic projector, it's not just a projector. It's a Braun holographic projector. Case doesn't just use a cyberspace deck, he uses a high-end Ono-Sendai Cyberspace 7. He doesn't just put on a spacesuit, it's a Sanyo suit. Details like this help flesh out the story, and make it deeper.

Gibson also pioneered a style that moved against the typical portrayal of the future as sleek, clean, and miraculous. In Gibson's world, futuristic technology can be broken, grimy, cheap, and malfunctions, just like in our world. A character with a cybernetic arm has a "Russian military prosthesis, a seven-function force-feedback manipulator, cased in grubby pink plastic." Molly relishes a steak made from a living animal instead of "vat grown."

Gibson's prose is incredibly dense, poetic to the point of distraction. Sometimes, I have to read over his sentences a few times to translate his analogies and flowery text into real visuals. But I respect his love of words, and he often creates amazing sentences that bring the scene to life. Like: "Lifeless neon spelled out METRO HOLOGRAFIX in dusty capitals of glass tubing."

Unlike most science fiction, "Neuromancer's" future isn't just populated with white males. Case meets a variety of races from Japanese gangsters to space-bound Rastafarians. The beauty of the novel is how it takes us through a dizzying cross-section of the future. We travel from the seedy slums of Tokyo to the luxurious hotels of a space station. Istanbul, Japan, and other countries are all described so we can see an entire world with different cultures, not just the United States like most scifi novels.

Even Gibson himself mocked the outdated technology, like pay phones. But in a sense, we're living in the world Gibson imagined, where we can jump in and out of a digital reality at will, go anywhere virtually, and have any fact at our fingertips. The mistake Gibson made was imagining that accessing cyberspace would require brain implants and virtual reality. The cyberspace concept now feels dated and kind of cheesy. But even though the computer technology that caused such a stir in the eighties has faded in glamour, the rest of his world has become more vivid. Gibson described a world where things like weapons, genetic engineering, space travel, and body modification had reached new heights, and those still hold up. The overall conflict between security and those who would try to violate it still resonates.

Related: Why William Gibson Confuses Me

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