William Gibson’s “Neuromancer”
I recently (okay, two months ago… I’ve been up to other stuff) finished reading William Gibson’s classic science fiction novel, “Neuromancer;” the 1984 novel which is widely credited with beginning the cyber-punk genre. My particular book is an anniversary edition that opens with a retrospective forward written by the author. He explains, upon retrospect, that the only aspect of the future he failed to capture was the rise in popularity of mobile phones. Upon reading this, I initially saw this as a bit of hubris, that is for him to think that he had envisioned everything else with such accuracy as to comment on the one thing he had missed. After reading the book, I’d say that it has nothing to do with predicting the future. This book helped to create the future. If Gibson had wrote this story including mobile phones, then they would have only caught on that much sooner.
Computer scientist Alan Kay famously said “The best way to predict the future is to invent it.” Many people love to quote him on that one, but I suppose most instances refer to physical tinkering; the physics and chemistry and nuts and bolts aspects of invention. However, much credit should be given to the science fiction authors who often first envision the future1. They seem to guide the scientists and engineers down their path, many of whom are fans of science fiction. Such would be the case with Gibson’s novel. It isn’t so much prophetic as it is directorial. Written near the dawn of the personal computing age, it was as if Gibson saw the first train tracks being laid westward and wrote about the train reaching some lovely mountains and beaches, causing the people laying the tracks to then say ‘that sounds great, let’s go looking for lovely mountains and beaches.’
There is a certain amount of lingo that never really caught on, but some phrases really stuck with the masses; such as the once ubiquitous “cyberspace” for referring to the online world. It’s not used as much anymore, much like the phrase Information Superhighway has fallen to its own wayside. I suspect their both causalities of the general populace becoming more familiar with traditionally geek terms like internet, world-wide-web, etc. Not as poetic, but more accurate. However, even if much of the lingo isn’t with us, you can see the impact of this novel elsewhere. The film “The Matrix” draws heavily upon this novel for ideas and terminology, as does the Anime classic, “Ghost In The Machine.” While not the first science fiction instance of an artificial intelligence (oops, belated spoiler alert…), surely none before captured Gibson’s accuracy of the notion that A.I. would indeed be software and not some shiny alloy humanoid with a unexplainable Austrian accent. It seems like an obvious statement now, but in 1984, how revolutionary was it to imprison the greatest threat to humanity by keeping it from connecting to a world wide computer network?
The novel centers around a relatively washed up hacker named Case, who is given a second chance to get back into the work he once loved (eleven years before Kevin Mitnick would be sentenced to a prison and a computer ban). He is recruited by a mysterious woman who acts as the muscle for a small and secretive operation which Case acts as the brains for, well at least jacked into cyberspace. We meet some other odd characters along the way, many of whom have had some black market DNA alteration or surgery to enhance or create abilities. The world, as Gibson describes it, isn’t as clean as the black print on white paper would first appear. His is a noir adventure bouncing from a fully immersible online world to a rough, gritty, and commercialized world; in either of which Max Headroom would feel right at home.
Something very common amongst science fiction writing, particularly that of the past 30 years, is the incorporation of corporations (either real or fictional ones). Sometimes they are the great evil, sometimes they are just dropped to lend a sense of authenticity to the story. Both are often done in a blatant and heavy way, sometimes so much so that I cannot determine whether the author got paid for the name drop or really hates large conglomerates so much as to make them a central villain. Gibson, however, does this about as perfectly as can be done. He creates a sense of continuity between 1984 (and 2005) and the dateless future. This reminds me of “Dune,” for which Frank Herbert incorporated Arabic words to invoke a sense of history as well as stir up imagery of desert life. (Of course, in my world, all science fiction reminds me of Frank Herbert).
“Neuromancer” would go on to win three major award for science fiction writing. Not bad for his first novel. I’d like to continue on reading the other two books in the “sprawl” trilogy (every good science fiction novel must be part of a trilogy, in which there are often four or more books). I’d recommend it as well, as there is a sense something near nostalgia for cyber-punk in it for my generation. Were it not for this book, we might not have this medium with which to communicate. At least, it might have taken longer to get here as Gibson’s fans wouldn’t have been there, trying to create the future he had written about.