“To call up a demon you must learn its name.”
Though not as popular as it once was, cyberpunk is a legitimate subgenre of science fiction – but that wasn’t always the case. It made a few appearances in comics and manga in the late seventies and early eighties, but no one really knew what to call it (the word “Cyberpunk” wasn’t coined until 1983). Its hallmarks are familiar to any fan of science fiction; a hard-boiled attitude, rebellious criminal anti-heroes and hackers with god-like skills on a computer, there’s usually elements of modification of the human body (people implanted with technology to gain superhuman skills), and it’s often set in a nihilistic and oppressive society that’s become reliant on technology, not to mention the cyberspace world. Obviously, that’s not the same for every story, but you get the idea. And it was William Gibson’s Neuromancer which really laid out these themes and solidified cyberpunk as a proper genre.
Neuromancer follows Case, a ‘cowboy’ – or a hacker to you and me– who’s embroiled in a seedy world of crime, drugs, pimps, and violence. His world is ours, albeit a far-future dystopian version of it. The fine details of the world are only hinted at. We don’t know how far in the future it is set, but we know there was a war at some point, and that there may have been some kind of pandemic, and now real animals are rare (one passage about a Case’s surprise at seeing a taxidermy horse reminded me of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?). This future version of the world is heavily urbanised, with people packed into megacities and other huge sprawling metropolises. Some have even moved into space, orbiting the planet on space stations like the excessive Freeside – just imagine Las Vegas in space.
One thing that Gibson makes very clear about this world is the omnipresence of technology. It exists in every single area of life in the world of Neuromancer. People spend their days working for huge tech conglomerates, spending their free time playing virtual reality games in arcades, or perhaps dabbling in something darker like the ‘meat puppets’ – prostitutes with a neural chip that, with the magic of technology, have their memories wiped after serving clients. People also have the option to visit clinics and augment their bodies with all manner of crazy tech – robot arms are just the beginning. And all the crimes (except murder – which there’s still plenty of) exist in some form within cyberspace; the virtual space where all data exists (and a term coined by Gibson).
For me, it is the world and the characters that inhabit it that are the most interesting part of the novel. But Gibson seems to have loftier goals. The novel follows Case as he is recruited by a big shot criminal to undertake a daring job. Unbeknownst to him, they are working for a powerful AI who is trying to break free and ascend to an even more powerful level of awareness. But, for me, the job is just an excuse to see more of the world, to experience more of these characters as they explore and interact. They move through futuristic neon-drenched streets, to Istanbul where the old bleeds into the new, then into space and the worlds of Zion dub and excessive depravity and finishing with the madness of the Villa Straylight.
It can all be a bit confusing at first, especially as Gibson describes cyberspace. Personally, I really struggled at first to visualise that aspect of the story. I found myself re-reading passages, trying desperately to piece together what Gibson wanted me to see. But then I realised that that’s not the point. Throughout the novel, Gibson will describe something. He’ll refer to a piece of technology or a landmark and not describe what it looks like, leaving it to the reader to piece together. (I’ve noticed this technique in science fiction before, just stating something and allowing the reader to picture it however they want. I always think of this line from Phillip K. Dick’s short story ‘Sales Pitch’; “Sally gave his hat and coat to the closet.”) At first, it bothered me – what if I wasn’t imaging things exactly as he described? Would I miss something? But you won’t, so just go with it. Especially with the scenes in cyberspace, you just have to enjoy the feeling, the emotions it generates. As Case journeys deeper, it becomes like a rollercoaster ride. It’s an exhilarating experience, even if every reader will imagine the world differently.
The novel touches on some themes of the time that are still very relevant now. The first, and most obvious, is the rise of technology. Gibson wrote Neuromancer in the eighties, as lots of new technology was coming into the forefront of people’s daily lives. This is most obvious in the passages where he talks about the arcades – which read as a futuristic version of that 1980’s staple. Home computers weren’t quite there yet, but they were on the horizon. Neuromancer perhaps offers a cautionary look at a world that relies too much on technology – particularly through the way people alter and transform themselves. How much is left of a person when they’re mostly mechanical parts? What happens to their humanity? And AIs and computer programs. At what point do they become “human”? We see with the ROM of Case’s dead mentor The Dixie Flatline that having your personality uploaded into a computer is a poor man’s version of immortality – but Linda Lee seems to be doing fine in cyberspace, despite her apparent death in the real world. It’s an idea that’s been explored elsewhere since, The Matrix and Black Mirror being two examples, but Gibson seems oddly prescient with his observations here.
Another tried and tested theme the novel touches on is freedom. The world itself is confinement, from the ever-present corporations and government agencies to the crime and decay. Being in cyberspace allows Case to escape the “meat” of the real world – of his body and the violence. And when the novel begins, Case no longer has access to cyberspace thanks to a job gone wrong. So he feels trapped, living within between the rhythms of the megacities, taking risks and waiting for someone to kill him. It is the ability to jack into cyberspace that gives him any semblance of freedom. And Molly, the street samurai or “razorgirl” that Case works with and falls for (and the best character). She has enhanced herself with all sorts of augmentations – but the cost of those surgeries have left her with immense guilt. And in the coda, you realise that she can never be free. She’s stuck doing what she’s doing and there’s no chance of a free life for her.
“Something he’d found and lost so many times. It belonged, he knew – he remembered – as she pulled him down, to the meat, the flesh the cowboys mocked. It was a vast thing, beyond knowing, a sea of information coded in spiral and pheromone, infinite intricacy that only the body, in its strong blind way, could ever read.”
It’s a great novel, and I can see why it became a hit with people at the time. Even now, in our times of political instability and the rich getting richer, it’s messages of rebellion and punk values speak to me. Gibson’s short, punchy style reads like hardboiled fiction, making it accessible despite the often complicated ideas. And though the third act does go off the rails a little in my opinion, a third of the book is set within the bleak Villa Straylight – I want more of the world outside! – its ambition is evident, and the world Gibson conjures up is one of the best I’ve read. Mainly, it’s made me want to read more fiction in this grimy neon dystopia, so I’ll definitely be checking out more of Gibson’s work set in this universe – including Neuromancer’s two sequels.
And even though Gibson’s ideas about the internet and cyberspace weren’t entirely on the mark, when I’m online from now on, aimlessly browsing, or sat at my computer at work during a slow day, I’ll imagine I’m a cowboy, strapping the trodes to my forehead and jacking into the matrix. Just forget the Texas catheter.