Monday, February 6, 2017

Neuromancer by William Gibson review

    Ah, here it is, the origins of the cyberpunk genre along with Blade Runner. I've read Neuromancer three times over the years and I can confirm I still have no idea what the hell this book is about. I mean, I can sort of tell you the plot and it hangs together but it is an experience rather than a story.

    Neuromancer has inspired many follow-ups and its influence can be felt in Ghost in the Shell, Deus Ex, Cyberpunk 2020, Shadowrun, System Shock, Inception, and The Matrix. It gave us a vision of the future where the internet is omnipresent, corporations are incredibly powerful, and China as well as Japan are the most powerful economic entities. So, pretty close but we don't have the A.I, cybernetics, or space stations. Oh and hot dark-haired razor girl ex-prostitutes with Lady Deathstrike claws. Wait, we have X-23 so nevermind. We can add her to the things inspired by this series.

    The thing is, as inspirational and fascinating as the story is, it's actually a very difficult work to read. William Gibson never met a perfectly good set of ten words he couldn't replace with an obscure one. He doesn't ease us into the world he's created but blasts us like a music video with constant new and weird things which highlight how the future has changed. As mentioned, some of the things he "predicted" have come to pass but it's really meant to be as far removed from reality as Star Wars.

    You could argue Neuromancer is basically one long trip through Mos Eisley and you wouldn't be far off. Some of the elements, like its immortal opening, "The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel" have aged badly since I don't think we're meant to see a brilliant shade of blue but others have survived simply because William Gibson didn't try to be accurate. He tried to be memorable and that's where he succeeded.

    To finally get to the premise, the book follows a hacker named Case who has lost his ability to jack-into the Matrix (*snicker*). In the future, that's a full-body experience and the nerve damage he's suffered from an angry client makes it impossible to enter the virtual-reality simulations where computer work is done. This book is notably the origin of cyberspace as a virtual reality simulation versus a bunch of keystrokes and programs. Case is soon approached by Molly Millions, a beautiful Wolverine-esque assassin who recruits him for a job working for a eccentric millionaire named Armitage. Armitage offers a cure for Case's condition as well as a hefty fee to be part of a collection of ragtag misfits out to hack a supercorporation's mainframe. Nothing is at it appears Armitage is just the catspaw for a much more powerful and elusive figure in the A.I. Wintermute.

    Described above, it makes a whole lot more sense than it does on the page as we follow Case's perspective which is noticeable for how absolutely few ****s he gives about the plot. Seriously, Case is never really described in the book but Keanu Reeves would be a good choice since he's a man with zero emotional investment in the plot. Case hates his bosses, he hates his opponents, and he'd rather be just about everyone else so he pays very little attention to what's going on until things become personally dangerous. It's an interesting perspective to have as your guide to the Sprawl as he ignores plenty of plot developments that only become clear to have been foreshadowing on a re-read.

    The characters of the book are strangely engrossing despite how underdeveloped they tend to be. Case is a man chasing a literal ghost in his ex-love Linda Lee, who is deliberately left completely undeveloped because it's clear she's not worth a fraction of the protagonist's devotion. Molly Millions is a broken anti-heroine who, appropriately, would make a better protagonist than Case and has gone on to inspire many cyberpunk heroines. Armitage appears to be a typical corporate big wig but is a false front for an insane traumatized veteran barely kept in check by his master.

    The Sprawl and other environments imagined by Gibson are the real stars of the book, though. It is a decadent criminal world where everything is for sale and humanity has mostly allowed itself to drain away into the sewers of history. The sense of film noir hyped up to the 11 with countless new technologies all being exploited to make life more miserable for the other guy to benefit you has captured the imagination of countless readers. It's far more alien than anything in Star Wars and feels all the more interesting because you can imagine how humanity might have ended up here in a century or so.

    The wealth of imagination which has gone into the book is undeniable and Gibson has a gift for concepts as well as character archetypes. The story is slightly marred by the fact it could have been twice or three times as long to ease into events as well as far more descriptive. We pass through each environment far too rapidly when you want to soak up the culture more. The portions are delicious and exotic but small, depriving the audience of a lengthier more satisfying meal.

    That still doesn't describe how fundamentally weird this novel is and how it goes from one bizarre event to another. I can't help but wonder what a David Lynch version would look like, especially if so much of the oddity hadn't been dialed down to make sense in offshoots. There's a Rastafarian space station of stoners, undead cryogenic corporate nobility, and multiple layers of reality which never quite add up. You should definitely read this book then read it again to try make sense of it.


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