I finally finished Neuromancer by William Gibson. I know that many people have already read the book, so writing a review for it – or including basic info about the book itself – seems almost pointless. In any case, this novel was published in 1984 and is Gibson’s first novel. It won the Nebula, Hugo, and Philip K. Dick awards.
Many people consider Neuromancer to be the first “cyberpunk” novel. However, I’ve found that it is difficult to get a good, consensus-approved definition for “cyberpunk.” There are a whole lot of things that came after Neuromancer that were derivative of the ideas/concepts it contains, but there are even somethings in Neuromancer that can be seen as developments from previous sparks of genius in other novels, movies, etc. So, the fluidity of defining “cyberpunk” and attempting to make a reasonable timeline is fun, but not entirely accurate. My experience with “cyberpunk” has come from watching Hackers, Blade Runner, and of course The Matrix. Frankly, after reading this, those movies tended to lose a little in terms of how coolly originally I thought they were (particularly The Matrix).
The main thing new readers need to understand about this novel is that it requires work. Those readers who skim or who are used to books which have lots of throw-away pages need to realize that that is not going to happen with this novel. The reader needs to read every word – no skimming, no skipping. I do not really know if this is because it was Gibson’s first novel or if he really planned it so that the reader has to work as hard as the main character – but either way, it’s no good to speed-read this novel.
Neuromancer is broken into four main chunks, with an epilogue.
- Part One: Chiba City Blues
- Part Two: The Shopping Expedition
- Part Three: Midnight in the Rue Jules Verne
- Part Four: The Straylight Run
Overall, I did not like the plot of the novel. It’s okay, but not really something I think came first. Somehow, to me, it seems like Gibson developed the plot after all of the other parts of the novel. The plot is that an insanely rich and old family has built a structure (with Victorian quirks) up in orbit where they cryogenically freeze and clone themselves. One of the members of the family devises a really intense A.I. system. The A.I. system wants to destroy itself or the family or something – and it’s divided into two parts (similar to lobes in a brain). The one part, Wintermute, arranges several “people” to break into the family’s structure and mainframe and complete this goal.
None of the characters are particularly likeable. Most are highly drugged or oddly machine-enhanced. The story is more or less told from Henry Dorsett Case’s viewpoint. On his little crew of bandits include Molly (perhaps the most likeable character), Dixie Flatline (a ROM saved-consciousness), and Armitage (a really screwed up human). Eventually, Case needs some muscle in his crew so we are introduced to the character Maelcum – who is very what-you-see-is-what-you-get. And if you look at these characters, you really get the mix of characters from The Matrix. In fact, it’s difficult to consider Molly as being other than Trinity. There are a bunch of other characters, including Peter Riviera (much like Cypher from The Matrix). I really think the Riviera character is skeevy and disturbing; Gibson really makes this character extremely yucky on purpose.
When you start reading the novel, the whole first part will leave you feeling like “what the heck?” and I feel this is precisely what Gibson wanted. It’s a weird futuristic world in which some placenames are familiar, but nothing about the landscape makes any sense – at least to me. Case spends time running and hustling, but it’s really difficult to figure out what the purpose is. Terms are thrown at the reader and everything just seems messy. It really helps to read this book in a book club or with a reading guide, I think. Anyway, there is definitely cyberpunk in this novel – and if you like the concept of “jacking-in” to the matrix and arguing with A.I.’s who can tap into your memories, you will probably like this book. However, it is not simply about computer jockeys. For example, the bulk of the story takes place in orbit above the earth. For example, L5 is a designation in the book that I actually looked up online:
Lagrange points, L-points are the five positions in an orbital configuration where a small object affected only by gravity can theoretically be stationary relative to two larger objects
Anyway, the L5 thing only occurs once or twice in passing – so unless you are reading every word carefully, you would miss this. And I think looking it up really helped my understanding of the setting. It’s difficult enough to hang out in the matrix or be shadowing a real human via implants. There are some parts of nice writing. For example in chapter two, Gibson describes a corridor as Case is “. . . . shuffling through a trampled mulch of ticket stubs and styrofoam cups” – and I really think this is a nice metaphor. It’s precisely what one experiences, say, at a stadium of an NFL game. Or a busy state fair. Or something like a major international soccer match. The trouble is, Gibson tried to use this metaphor a few other times in the novel, and it then seemed overused. There were a couple of places of esoteric purple prose – scenes that describe what Case is “seeing” while in the matrix or whatnot. These scenes talk about him wanting to taste the color blue and seeing weird stuff – I get the concept that the matrix really affects Case, but some of this was a little too “LSD” for me.
I can understand why this is such a significant book. I can also understand why it won the awards it did. However, there are points where I feel Gibson is making the reader do a little too much work. Also, the plot, overall, is not really all that great – or maybe I needed a little bit more depth to it. I finished the book and I still have no idea about this weird Tessier-Ashpool SA family. Also, I am disheartened Case never sees Molly again. Boo. She was fun.