It takes a special mind to imagine the future.
George Orwell had it. He gave us Big Brother, and an image of a totalitarian future: “a boot stamping on a human face – forever”.
Aldous Huxley envisaged a Brave New World, whose pleasure-seeking denizens were programmed to “love their servitude and … never dream of revolution”.
From Jules Verne to Robert Heinlen to Arthur C. Clarke and beyond, countless science fiction writers have created alternative realities that challenge, excite, and generally disturb us. They are, in the words of Rod Serling, “the improbable made possible”. While most of us have difficulty seeing further than next month’s paycheque, writers of science fiction visualize hundreds of years into the future. Their projections are often dystopian, darkly prophetic, and seldom reassuring. As a genre, cozy and comforting it ain’t.
In 1984 – appropriately, somehow – an American-Canadian writer emerged from relative obscurity with a novel about a data thief who goes up against an unthinkably powerful artificial intelligence. The author was William Gibson; the novel was Neuromancer. Its revolutionary plot and elaborate use of futuristic slang – somewhat akin to A Clockwork Orange and A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – made it an underground hit. Thirty years on the book is considered a kind of cyberpunk manifesto. It was the first novel to win three major science fiction awards – the Nebula, the Philip K. Dick and the Hugo – and appeared on Time magazine’s list of 100 best English-language novels written since 1923.
It is also, as you will know, included in the list of 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die. Which is why I read it.
Briefly – very briefly – the plot of the novel is this: Henry Dorsett Case, a.k.a Cutter, is a lowlife hustler whose skills at jacking into the pathways of the matrix have been crippled by a disgruntled former employer. In debt to a drug lord and reduced to fencing RAM on the black market, Case is living on the edge of Night City: “Biz here was a constant subliminal hum and death the accepted punishment for laziness, carelessness, lack of grace”.
Desperate to the point of considering suicide, Case is approached by a mysterious individual called Armitage who offers him a chance to recover his hacking skills in exchange for taking on an unspecified, but dangerous, mission. Armitage, whose real name is Colonel Willis Corto, is the only surviving solider from a botched military operation called Screaming Fist. Corto, in turn, is under the control of an AI called Wintermute who sometimes appears in the persona of Julius Deane, a Night City importer-exporter, or Lonny Zone, a pimp.
Are you with me so far? Good, because this is only the beginning. As any one of the millions of readers who have made this a global best-seller can tell you, there are plots and sub-plots and stories within stories. Every character has a story and there are almost too many characters to count. There’s Molly, a leatherclad street samurai who’s been surgically and chemically refined into a weapon of the deadliest kind. Peter Riviera, an actor and sociopath who ultimately betrays his comrades. And Lady 3Jane Marie-France Tessier-Ashpool who, besides having the longest double-barreled name outside of Tolstoy, is the third female clone of the family dynasty that created the Wintermute AI.
The most important character, however, is the matrix, which is a living, breathing thing, more alive in some ways than the “nihilistic technofestishists” in their polycarbon suits or the “meat puppet” prostitutes with neural cut-out chips implanted that allow their actions to be controlled by others. The matrix is unthinkable in its complexity – a “consensual hallucination” that is at times violent and beneficent, interactive and non-human, and, above all, amoral.
Gibson has been quoted as saying he never had any special affinity with computers. Yet he imagined a global communications network years before the World Wide Web became part of our everyday lives. And he single-handedly created the genre known as cyberpunk.
Considering when the book was written, there are bound to be anachronisms. Case relies on cassette tapes and video cameras, telephones are landlines and Wi-Fi doesn’t exist. The dialogue reads like bad Raymond Chandler: “I was expecting something maybe a little less gone, you know? I mean, these guys are all batshit in here, like they got luminous messages scrawled across the inside of their foreheads or something. I don’t like the way it looks, I don’t like the way it smells. . .”
But these are small things when you consider the brilliance of the concept, and the cutting-edge language of description. This is a man who can write, “The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.” And this: “His eyes were eggs of unstable crystal, vibrating with a frequency whose name was rain and the sound of trains, suddenly sprouting a humming forest of hair-fine glass spines.” And this: “Night City was like a deranged experiment in social Darwinism, designed by a bored researcher who kept one thumb permanently on the fast-forward button.”
So what or who is Neuromancer? We learn, in the end, that Neuromancer is the other half of Wintermute: “Wintermute was hive mind, decision maker, effecting change in the world outside. Neuromancer was personality. Neurmancer was immortality.” Which is another way of saying that Neuromancer is the land of the dead.
Would I have read Neuromancer if it wasn’t on the list? Probably not. It was a hard slog for someone like me, not given to reading science fiction and a rookie when it comes to cyberpunk. Having read it, though, I feel a little like I did after running my first and only marathon: I’m glad I did it, but I wouldn’t want to do it again.