“Neuromancer” by William Gibson


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.

1 The excep­tion here is Arthur C. Clark, who is cred­it­ed for the inven­tion of the use of geo­sta­tion­ary orbit­ing satel­lites could aid in telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions. He wrote about it in a short arti­cle for a sci­ence and engi­neer­ing mag­a­zine in 1945, rather than in a fic­tion nov­el. Had the lat­ter occurred, it is quite pos­si­ble no one would have been will­ing to give cred­it for the idea.

Ama­zon SIPs for this book: tox­in sacs, new pan­creas, shark thing, leather jeans

By Jason Coleman

Structural engineer and technical content manager Bentley Systems by day. Geeky father and husband all the rest of time.


  1. Nice review. I might try this book out again. I read Snow Crash and liked what he was get­ting at, but there was some­thing about it that remind­ed me of too sweet can­dy (not that it was a sweet and nice sto­ry, but it was not as enrich­ing as I had hoped)

    I start­ed the Neu­ro­mancer book once, but put it down because I did not get into it quick enough. I do that alot how­ev­er. Then I’ll go back and re-read it and real­ly enjoy it. 

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