In the early 1990s, I read Neuromancer. I read it enthusiastically, devoured every word , and fell in love not so much with the story, which was good, but with William Gibson’s razor-sharp acumen with the written word, with his style, and above all, with his ability to articulately describe sensations and scenes in ways no one had ever thought of, and yet made absolute and perfect sense and conveyed exactly certain feelings and visions that could not, it would seem, ever have been described any other way. At least not effectively. And yet, despite my unbridled passion for the book, when I started talking about it to someone a few months ago during one of those late-night sessions where conversation devolves into fuzzy reminiscence about setting motherboard jumpers and using VAX terminals, I discovered that all I had were vague impressions. Besides the names of a couple characters and a thing about spacefarin’ Rastafarians, I remembered absolutely nothing about the book.
This came as something of a shock to me, because normally I have a pretty acutely tuned memory. At some point, however, a huge chunk of it simply slid out the side of my head one night while I was asleep, leaving behind nothing but vague impressions regarding style, Rastas, and the opening sentence, “The sky was the color of a television tuned to dead space,” which for some reason struck me as the single most effective description of a dirty, silver, overcast sky ever written. But everything else was gone, and upon further examination of the holes in my mind, I realized as little as I remembered about one of my favorite books, I remembered absolutely nothing about the sequel, Count Zero, and only a single bit from Mona Lisa Overdrive, something about a guy living in some rustbelt warehouse building huge Survival Research Laboratories style robots.
With Gibson’s later books — Virtual Light forward — my memory was a little better, but still incredibly spotty, and I began to reflect on how much there was in my life that I’d read or watched but failed to remember, or simply let slip through the cracks in my mind to become lot somewhere amid the winding crevasses of twisted synaptic gaps. I came to realize that there was a whole body or work — consisting largely of Gibson, but also including Rudy Rucker, Bruce Sterling, and Robert Anton Wilson, among others — whose works were of great importance and value to me, whose books became huge influences on me both as a person and as a writer, and whose stories I could not remember in the slightest. There is a psychological research paper there, I suppose, but not one I’m qualified to write. I read each of these authors at what I reckon to be an extremely impressionable period in a person’s life — that first year of college, first year away from home, first year living on my own, and first year exposed to a vast wellspring of new concepts and ideas that I’d never heard of nor indeed even had the capacity to know they existed.
No matter who you are and where you’re from, no matter how savvy you think yourself, there is always a next step, another plane in which everything you thought you knew is stripped away and you see a sprawling new horizon unfold itself before you. This is the progression offered to us through life, the eternal process of building oneself up only to find yourself at the very beginning. If it doesn’t happen, then it’s only because we’ve stopped moving forward, lost our passion for personal growth and evolution and learning. At that moment, for a person like me, life ceases and mundane existence takes over. There is no point to that. Not for me, anyway, and I would never disparage a person who seeks the comfort and stability of attaining a certain position, physically and mentally, and decided they are happy there. But for me, contentment is in always taking the next step out into the darkness, even if it means I go through prolonged periods of self-destruction and rebirth.
Anyway, my point is that at times like this, one discovers a wealth of new ideas and resources, and I think that because of the state of flux one is in, with one identity being burned away while a new one is formed and grafted onto the remnants of the previous self that have remained, the things you experience become less a collection of detailed memories and recollections, and more a sort of gestalt movement. A collection of revelations and changes that meld into a single life-altering mass that continues to exert itself, but whose individual parts become blended and half-remembered at best. It becomes the overall experience, more than the individual bits; the sum rather than the parts, that forms the basis of our opinion and memory of these things.
So laboring under this revelation, which may be a bit sad and pathetic as far as revelations go, I decided at the beginning of this year to spend the bulk of it not reading new material, but going back and revisiting these books that consistently appear on my “best books I ever read” list, and about which I remember practically nothing beyond a sort of overarching sensation. Neuromancer, for example, became less a book for me and more a symbol of a particular time and moment. When I would think of the book, I wouldn’t think of the book itself. I would think, instead, of the moments that surrounded the time I read it. I would — and still do — think of beat-up 286 machines ripped open with their circuitry guts and ribbonlike connectors spraying out across a ratty carpet and tile floor like the innards of a man just sliced in two by a samurai sword. I think of the smell of ozone and fiddling with 300 baud modems used to access the EFF’s ftp archive of old issues of Phrack magazine. I think in green or amber letters on a blank black background. I think of long nights spent up with friends struggling to make the various components of a computer work in unison without triggering address conflicts. I think of sending e-mail over Fidonet, of packets that would go out at the end of a week rather than instantly. And I think of listening to Front 242, watching Akira, and jacking myself up mercilessly on caffeine and God knows what else, not sleeping for days on end, building pipe bombs and other weapons not because we wanted to harm anyone, but simply because we wanted to know how to make them and prove to ourselves that we could do it.
Somewhere lost in all that dangling, ripped-out circuitry and over-stimulated, jittery insanity was Neuromancer. I don’t know if it’s a forgotten book at this point, but I don’t think it is, at least not as long as people like me who came of age in that deafening sonic boom of computing in the late eighties, early nineties are still around to write articles and constantly conjure the specter of Neuromancer. I don’t now if “the kids these days” have read it, but even if people maybe don’t know the story, they certainly still know the name. It is, I suppose, one of those legendary, benchmark titles, like Akira was to anime, or Enter the Dragon was to the kungfu film. They were the pioneers, the door openers, the trend-starters. You can debate the merits of the individual works, but their influence on other works is not a question of opinion. Those are easily established and proven facts. Think whatever you will about Akira, but it’s the movie that opened the floodgate for anime in the United States beyond the occasional dubbed TV shows of the 1970s. It’s impact on the landscape of U.S. popular culture is undeniable, and damn near every modern anime fanclub, every blog about Japanese pop culture, every Japanese film or series on American shelves not prefaced by “An Akira Kurosawa Film,” can trace its birth back to the moment Akira was released to American theaters.
Likewise, Neuromancer occupies a throne alongside its anime contemporary as the birthplace of what would become known as the cyberpunk movement. Of course, that doesn’t mean it was “the first.” Debates about “the first” are sometimes fun but always futile, because definitions of what does or does not fall into a certain genre are so fluid based on a person’s personal interpretations. Cyberpunk literature could have started with Gibson; it could have started with J.G. Ballard or Phillip K. Dick. Or hell, it could have been pioneered by pulp writers whose names have been lost or were never known. But Neuromancer represents the moment the nascent movement — or style, if you prefer not to be so grandiose — gelled. It’s the moment that cyberpunk broke the surface and entered the public consciousness. It’s the book that gave us the term cyberspace, that channeled the rebel energy and insanity of the birth of the personal computer into a story that was both sweeping and epic yet intimate and confined. It was equal parts science fiction novel, action adventure, and 1970s yakuza movie. Famously written by an author who had never touched a computer and banged the whole thing out on a manual typewriter, it never the less predicted and itself became a self-fulfilling prophecy of the near future. Melodramatic space opera and pulp adventure were thrilling, but here was a book so firmly rooted in a layman’s impression of technology and the direction of the future that we could all earnestly believe that the future had a pretty decent chance of turning out this way.
Of course, in hindsight people have commented on how time and technology have passed Neuromancer behind, dated it somewhat and made it appear quaint in some respects. I was excited in rereading the novel not just to reacquaint myself with the story, but also to assess whether or not these claims were made based on the studied reality o the situation, or whether they simply had the ring of smart-sounding talking points issued by people who had gotten it all wrong. We’ll come to that in good time, but I’ll summarize here by saying that, despite some missteps here and there (mostly on technical aspects that have very little bearing on the overall vision of the future), Neuromancer has weathered the past twenty-plus years remarkably — perhaps frighteningly — well.
Since one of my goals was to remind myself exactly what the book’s plot was, it wouldn’t do for me to gloss over it entirely here, even though I do my best not to engage in overly verbose plot synopsis. If nothing else, it will serve as a basic set of Cliff Notes in case I forget everything all over again in my advanced age. Case is a young console cowboy, a hotshot computer cracker who has found himself down on his luck on the streets of Chiba prefecture, Japan, after crossing some gangsters during a job who, as a form of retribution, fried the parts of Case’s brain that made him exceptionally adept as a cowboy. Neuromancer is set in a world where computer interface, at least on an advanced level, takes place in a virtual reality construct — a tired and overused idea now, often applied gratuitously to situations where it makes no sense (think virtual Michael Douglas virtually flipping through virtual office file cabinets before virtual Demi Moore virtually attacks him), but a fairly new and intriguing idea at the time. Stripped of his ability to navigate this cybernetic ether, Case has taken to drugs and peddling bits of black market tech, managing to eek out an existence in a Japanese pod-hotel with his sometimes-girlfriend. All things seem to be directing him down the path of self-destruction, and he’s not much interested in altering the course.
The course is altered for him, however, when cybernetically-enhanced female assassin Molly approaches him with a job offer from mysterious businessman Armitage, who says that, among the form of payments Case will receive, will be the seemingly-impossible repair of his nervous system to once again allow him to “jack in” to the matrix and reclaim the impressive level of proficiency he once possessed. Seeing no better opportunity, but keen to have his head repaired, Case decides to take the job, even though he isn’t sure what the job actually is.
Things get weird pretty quickly. Their first step is to steal a construct — the downloaded skillset of the same man who trained Case to be a console cowboy, now dead but with parts of his relevant memory stored in a ROM module. With the construct to assist him, Case eventually begins to unwind the enigma surrounding the job, learning along the way that Molly doesn’t know any more than he does, and indeed that Armitage himself isn’t the man in charge and seems largely in the dark as to the actual point of the series of tasks they must complete. Case learns that an artificial intelligence system is actually calling the shots and pulling the strings. AIs are strictly governed by an organization called the Turing Police, but this particular AI — called Wintermute and ostensibly owned by a crackpot multi-billoinaire industrialist family named the Tessier-Ashpools — has decided that it no longer wants to operate within the oppressive confines of the Turing regulations, and so is seeking to interface with a second Tessier-Ashpool AI, about which everyone knows almost nothing. Even Wintermute doesn’t know exactly what will happen when the two separate AIs join together, and it needs Case, Molly, and a mutant con man named Riviera to help it pull off the scheme. Oh, and a couple Rastafarians who live in a clunky old space station dubbed Zion.
Gibson’s plot is serviceable, leaving a number of questions obliquely answered at best, or not answered at all, but the plot is really just a rack upon which Gibson can hang his wild (at the time) vision of the near-future and flex his astounding (especially for a first-time novelist) skill with prose. It’s not a triumph of style over substance — there is plenty of substance here that makes Neuromancer a classic example of speculative fiction, not just sci-fi — but rather, an example of style and substance being equally important, two halves that are seamlessly brought together to create what was, and remains, an entirely fresh way of telling a story. The Wintermute (tech, or plot) and Neuromancer (personality, or style) AIs coming together, if you will. Gibson’s gift for description remains unparalleled. Every smell, every sight, comes through crystal clear, describe din a way you never would have thought of, but once you hear it makes perfect sense. His ability to paint a picture of a world choked in a tangled mess of technologies is astounding. Old, archaic machines and chaotic systems intermingle with sleek, organized modern systems in a world where information technology has been integrated into nearly every aspect of life.
At points, it’s eerie just how much of Neuromancer is still applicable to the modern situation. Part of this would be because, aside from simply being a top notch science fiction novel, Neuromancer became a template for the future, adopted by the Silicon Valley and Silicon Alley geeks and visionaries who would use its vision of the future as a blueprint for the future they were building. As such, Neuromancer doesn’t exactly predict the future as much as it does shape it. Technical specs may be inaccurate, but RAM configurations and monitor types seem far less important against the greater backdrop, which remains highly relevant and, despite what some may say, not the least bit “left behind” by the advance of the real world. If some of the revolutionary ideas in Neuromancer seem commonplace, it’s only because people looked at Neuromancer as a way to do these things. We haven’t passed Neuromancer by; we’ve simply become it, more and more, with each passing day, because it is our guide.
The entire idea of the net wasn’t new; ARPANet had been around for years when Neuromancer was published. But the idea of a global computer network in which not dozens, but millions of people met, wasted time, and conducted business was fresh. And that these people were not just computer hackers, technicians, and businessmen, but normal everyday people doing normal, everyday things, is an idea that has helped shaped the online world from a series of remotely connected terminals at universities and government computing centers to the World Wide Web we know today. Much of the terminology — jacking in, matrix, cyberspace — used in Neuromancer was adopted by the real-world. It seems at first somewhat fantastical that an author who had never touched a computer could so accurately establish the philosophical blueprint under which so many people would operate. But first of all, Gibson may not have ever used a computer, but he was by no means writing in a void. The 70s and 80s created a monumental body of essays and books on computers and the role of technology — not just technical manuals, but philosophical musings, diatribes, treatises, manifestos, and so on, in which both tech-savvy programmers, wide-eyed visionaries, and curious laymen exchanged ideas and opinions. What Gibson was able to do, one assumes, is explore these many realms of thought and forge them into a cohesive, at least within the terms of a work of fiction, vision of the future.
Second, and perhaps more importantly, Gibson’s lack of hardwired computer knowledge is exactly why he was able to write so much of what he did. Someone who knows a lot about computers is going to be hamstrung, whether they realize it or not, by their knowledge, and more specifically, by their knowledge of what is and is not possible given the current limitations and realities of technology. In short, if given what you know, something can’t be done, then there’s a good chance you’re not gong to write it. What this doesn’t take into account is that advances in technology often yield startling results, and things that were once thought to be impossible become commonplace. A good science fiction writer, in my opinion, knows just enough to make him dangerous. He has the gist of things, more or less, but is unfettered by an intricate and detailed knowledge that would make him second-guess some of the wilder concepts that can make for a good story. Free from detailed computer experience, William Gibson is able to make up a whole host of crazy ideas. And once again, many of them became reality, even though they seemed far-fetched at the time. Now if we could just replace those Russians on board the ISS with a couple Rastafarians playing King Tubby CDs.
At the heart of Neuromancer is not just speculation on the eventual state of human-versus-technology affairs. The root theme is far more organic and basic: in short, it’s a book about freedom. Freedom finds several representations in the book, and many initial examples of freedom are soon subjugated and revealed to be nothing more than tethers in disguise. Case would seem to be living a free, devil-may-care existence when we meet him, self-destructive but free never the less. We quickly learn this is not the case. His strings are pulled by buyers, sellers, pretty much anyone that wants to use him. The businessman Armitage would also seem to be free, dreaming up some nefarious scheme that showcases a complete disregard for authority. But he, too, is simply a puppet. Even Wintermute, the AI behind it all, is a prisoner motivated primarily by a desire to be free. It doesn’t know what the consequences or responsibilities of that freedom will be, and it doesn’t matter. Freedom is worth enduring ambiguity and hardship. Above the AI is the Tessier-Ashpool industrial clan, and once again when we see them we see a group of people who, despite their wealth and despite their power, and no more free than the AI (and though it’s tangential and coincidental, I always like that “ai” was the Chinese word for love) they keep chained like an insane relative in a castle tower. They are victims of their own web, cocooned and so far gone that they have lost touch with reality.
If anyone in the story is remotely free, it’s the denizens of Zion, the orbiting Rastafarians who smoke pot, listen to dub, and don’t get overly concerned about anything around them. But Neuromancer isn’t a cautionary tale of how “we are all slaves to our technology.” Technology I window dressing, but it is never the reason any of the people in the story lack freedom. In each person, it is something organic, something biological, something within themselves, that keeps them locked up. And in the end, even if you want to force a “technology enslaves us” theme onto the book, which I think would be wrong, you’re still faced with the fact that there really isn’t such thing as “technology,” not as a sentient and separate entity. Technology is just an extension of humanity, and if it has enslaved us, it’s only because we made it that way. Technology can represent the physical presence of a prison, but we’re the ones who lock ourselves in. In the end, what freedom means for Wintermute/Neuromancer isn’t clear, but a crystalline resolution or explanation isn’t the point. It’s the fight for, not the attainment of, freedom that is the key to this story.
Revisiting Neuromancer was invigorating. It reminds me why I love to read, and perhaps more importantly, why I love to write. It’s still as exciting, thought-provoking, and engrossing as it did when it was first published, and it goes a long way to stoke creative fires that may have burned down to forgotten embers. I’m pleased to finally meld remembrance of the details with my earlier impressionistic emotional reaction to the content. Books this strong are rare, and often things that seemed important when I was nineteen don’t survive the test of time. For example, I considered Robert Anton Wilson’s Historic Illuminatus Trilogy to be ground-breaking when I read it in college. Philosophically it still is, but upon rereading the first volume, I was struck by how clumsy and unengaging the writing style was. It often ceases being a novel in order to work its way through pages and pages of historical exposition. These bits of history and reflections on secret societies are undeniably interesting, but the way in which their presented just doesn’t grab me, not like I thought it did fifteen or so years ago. Neuromancer, however, holds up to the test of time quite remarkably. Not only are the themes and ideas still relevant, but the style in which it is written remains vibrant and ensnaring. I’m sorely tempted to put Gibson up on that pedestal as one of the greatest, most poetic smiths of English language prose, right alongside Chandler, Faulkner, and Twain.
Neuromancer is a pretty phenomenal book, though it’s not may favorite Gibson (I seem to be in the minority in preferring his work from Dark Light on through the recent Pattern Recognition over his earlier works). And in the end, I’d have to say that guys like Neal Stephenson took the flag from Gibson and ran with it remarkably well. But there is, never the less, something seminal about Neuromancer, and something beautiful in watching all the disparate pieces of concept and style come together.