Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Neuromancer by William Gibson

I first read William Gibson's Neuromancer sometime during the 1980s, a few years after its 1984 publication. This book is considered a science-fiction classic and is often cited as the first “cyberpunk” novel. Upon rereading it decades later, I found this book to be an extraordinary work of speculative fiction. 

Set in what seems to be the late twenty-first century, Gibson paints a picture of a highly technical and dark world. This book was prophetic as it predicted many of the aspects of the digital revolution. A key aspect to Gibson’s universe is “The Matrix” (The film called The Matrix, made after the publication of this book, explored some similar concepts as this book but is otherwise unrelated to this novel.) This fictional digital construct is a virtual reality, cyberspace world that represents all the world’s computers and the linkages between them. People can access the Matrix by connecting electrodes to their brains. The Matrix is similar to today’s Internet in many ways. It is different in that it is mostly used for high-level commerce and military applications. Various people navigate this virtual world. “Console Cowboys” are hackers who use the Matrix to break into computer systems and for other illicit purposes. There exists something called “Black Ice,” which are security systems that can cause real injury and death to console cowboys when they try to hack into computer systems. 


Gibson’s world is full of illicit activity both in cyberspace and in the real world. Various individuals, gangs, criminal organizations, corporations and other groups deal in contraband, drugs, pirated and illegal computer programs and data, etc. Many people have surgical modifications that allow them to directly connect their brains to the digital world, improve their fighting abilities, enhance attractiveness, etc. The author has created an entire “hip” culture that the book’s characters operate in. I find that Gibson correctly anticipated many present day online movements and groups, and technical related slang.


Case is the book’s main character. He is a console cowboy. He is recruited by a mysterious man named Armitage for some kind of big, undisclosed hacking job. Molly is a young woman who is also in Armitage’s employment. She is a soldier of fortune/mercenary type who has retractable knives in her fingernails as well as other enhancements to make her formidable and dangerous. Molly and Case quickly become romantically involved.

Gibson’s prose is dense and full of descriptions. He manages to describe technical objects and subjects in an almost poetic way. This is one of this novel’s great strengths. This is exemplified by the book’s somewhat famous opening line,

"THE SKY ABOVE the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel." (For my younger readers who might not know, before the modern “blue screen,” empty television channels had an odd, varying, gray look).

Later Case observes the debris of society rotting in a decrepit building,

They stood in a clearing, dense tangles of junk rising on either side…The junk looked like something that had grown there, a fungus of twisted metal and plastic. He could pick out individual objects, but then they seemed to blur back into the mass: the guts of a television so old it was studded with the glass stumps of vacuum tubes, a crumpled dish antenna, a brown fiber canister stuffed with corroded lengths of alloy tubing. An enormous pile of old magazines had cascaded into the open area, flesh of lost summers staring blindly up as he followed her back through a narrow canyon of impacted scrap. “


In Gibson’s world, high technology and decayed industrialism exist side by side. The above quotation also reminds me of some of the descriptions of industrial decay found in Charles Dickens’s novels. I wrote a little bit about those descriptions in David Copperfield here. The concept of technology and industrialism, leading and relating to decay, is not a new one. I am not contending that Gibson is as great of a  prose writer as Dickens was. However, I think that Dickens may have provided some of the intellectual and aesthetic roots for Gibson. 


Case and Molly are extremely flawed protagonists. Both have murdered people. They are not sociopaths as they do feel regret for the actions that they have committed that have hurt others. They are both fairly complex characters. 

Case’s and Molly’s questionable ethics add complexity to their depictions. Molly exudes a kind of cool and tough persona that still holds up over the years. Case’s surfing of the Matrix, including his effort to break into systems and his encounters with Black Ice, is both interesting and exciting to read about. Thus, Gibson’s work is dark, but it is also entertaining. 

There is a lot to the plot. Space travel, artificial intelligence, bioengineering and even a space colony of Rastafarians are all integrated into the story. Though some of this sounds far fetched, Gibson has created a believable world. The characters, plot and fictional environment fit together seamlessly. If many of the elements of this book seem familiar to readers and viewers of twenty-first century science fiction and young adult books, it should be remembered that this novel introduced many of these elements for the first time.

I should mention that there are sequels to this book as well as a fair number of short stories. Some of the short stories were published prior to this book. I have read the sequels as well as most or all of the short stories. I remember thinking that most of these works were very good.

This book manages to be dark and fun at the same time. I have highlighted Gibson’s prose style above. There is so much more to this work than I have mentioned here. There are interesting themes involving humans and technology, the search for identity and a lot more. The book also has a lot to say about humankind’s future, morality and other big issues. Thus, I am going to post at least one more entry on this work. This is tough and gritty science fiction that still resonates more then 30 years after its first publication.

42 comments:

Suko said...

Brian Joseph, this novel does sound fascinating, re technology, which is such a major part of modern life. PCs such as the Mac created and revolutionized the cyber world in the 1980s, and so it's fitting that this work would be called the first cyberpunk novel. Excellent commentary!

On a different note, I had to click on the general link (home page) in order to arrive at this terrific post.

Stephen said...

I obtained this book and Gibson's "Shockwave Rider", but haven't gotten far into either...the world they envisioned has some fascinating parallels, as you pointed out.

Mudpuddle said...

first class review... i read this after it first came out, defying the critical opinion of most that it was incomprehensible(i remember reading a description to that effect), and sort of liked it... i didn't understand a lot of it, but i thought he was a capable and talented writer... i bet i'd like it more today if i reread it, which maybe i will.... time will tell, like it or not...

JacquiWine said...

Interesting to hear how Gibson predicted (or speculated about) certain elements of the digital revolution through this book. I couldn't help but think of It Can't Happen Hear by Sinclair Lewis which now seems quite prescient in light of the current political climate in the US.

Fred said...

I remember reading it when it first came out. Bruce Serling quickly nominated himself as the spokesman for the cyberpunk movement which was going to take over SF and relegate everything to history's wastebasket. I was at an SF conference at which Serling spoke and claimed cyberpunk was brand new and introduced original ideas and themes to SF, etc.

He was followed on the platform by David Brin (I believe) who destroyed him. He pointed out that everyone of those new unique elements had been introduced already in SF. He argued that the cyberpunk writers hadn't created these elements but had put them together in a package. Therefore, they were well within the SF universe.

Brin brought up two writers who had done much of this before Gibson: Alfred Bester and Vernor Vinge in his novella? "True Names" which had been published several years before Neuromancer.

That being said, Gibson's Neuromancer was an important novel in that it brought together numerous elements and made them visible to readers and writers.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Suko - Gibson predicted so much. I will be talking about that in my next post. This was published at a time when the digital revolution began. In a way, from a cutiral point of view it helped usher in that revolution.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Stephan - Shockwave Rider looks good. I should give some of Gibson's other works a try.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Mudpuddle - I also had some trouble understanding when I read it the first time. I was a less versed and a less skilled reader however. I got a lot more out of it this time around

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Jacqui - Indeed, many science fiction writers foresaw so many things that came to be. While I never read It Can't Happen Here I have heard that is is refective of our current situation.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Fred - Many movements in literature and art began before "breakthrough" work that is often credited with the beginning of a movement. That conference that you refer to must have been such a great event to attend!

True Names sounds so good and I must give it a read. I may try to sneak it in soon.

Either way, as you note, this was an important and innovative book.

James said...

Gibson was fascinating to read. My major impression was how influential he became.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi James - I will be talking about how influential this book was in my next post.

Fred said...

Perhaps I'm wrong here, but I think John Brunner wrote Shockwave Rider. In any case, it is an important novel in the depiction of the digital universe.

Fred said...

Brian--yes, that debate, such as it was, provided the main topic for that conference for many of us. That focus on AI/brain/cyberspace union has produced a number of excellent novels and writers, many of whom, seem forgotten today. But, those themes and issues now permeate many novels which no one today would call cyberpunk.

Stephen said...

@Fred: Yes, I mentioned the wrong author there -- my brain's inner google is not very reliable some times!

Fred said...

Stephen--I know exactly what you mean.

Sharon Wilfong said...

I have not read this book but my husband liked it. You make it sound really good. If I ever get through my own pile I would like to read this book as well. Which may very well be when I'm in the nursing home.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Sharon - I feel the same way about my to read list!

CyberKitten said...

I read this in the late 80's (in my late 20's) and it totally blew me away. I have been a confirmed fan of Gibson and Cyberpunk ever since. I just *loved* that opening line. The world he created 'The Sprawl' or BoshWash was brilliantly realistic. I devoured the three novels and the collection of shorts in very quick order. His more modern outings are much less SF but at the same time both more weird (as they appear to be in a slightly 'off' present day) and more immediate. I just love his prose style.

Oddly one of my books called him 'The Raymond Chandler of SF' which started me reading Chandler and then other hard-boiled detectives from the 40's and 50's.

Thanks for the memories. I might just have to re-read these novels and see if they can still wow me after 30 years!

Oh, and BlackICE was a great idea. I understand that they're working on it.... ICE - Intruder Countermeasures Electronic.

thecuecard said...

Is this novel easy to follow for non-cyberpunks? It's sounds a bit familiar in that the Matrix sounds like the Internet and Case is a hacker, but the plot sounds like it entails quite a lot. I wonder if I'd get lost in Gibson's cyber-world? thanks. It does seem a bit exciting in its action.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi CyberKitten - This one really brought back memories for me too.

I would assume that the real Black Ice might only damage hardware.

I would like to try Gibson's later work.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Susan - One does not need to have a lot of technical knowledge to understand this book. It was written a long time ago. I also think that Gibson did not know a lot of technical information/

s for it being Cyberpunk, this was one of the first books written in that genre so it is not like one needs to be familiar with the genre,

With all that the book has a lot of twists and Gibson goes very fast so it can be hard to follow.

HKatz said...

Ok, wow, I want to read this :) I like the observation of "high technology and decayed industrialism" together - there's an alarming amount of that now in the US, deteriorating infrastructure and abandoned factories and automation squeezing people out of work.

Kathy's Corner said...

Hi Brian, I remenber when this book came out and I considered reading it. My problem though is that films like the Matrix and high tech science fiction I find hard to folliw. I know I am missing out though particularly when it comes to science fiction because there are so many great novels out there in in this genre and I loved Star Trek (the original). Maybe I need a beginner's guide when it comes to the great sci fi novels.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Hila - The dark side of industrialization is real. It is also reflected the source of some very worthy fiction.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Kathy - This book was at times a little hard to follow. I found that this was the case due to Gibson's writing style as opposed to technical issues. Though there are some exceptions, I find that most science fiction is written for everyone to understand. Even books by writers like Larry Niven and Arthur C. Clarke, that do sometimes include science and technical parts, can easily be read by skimming over those parts.

baili said...

I have seen the Matrix as my kids can see it repeatedly.
i too was fascinated by the world displayed in the movie and impressed by great job done by Keanu and samuel .


Gibson is unfamiliar to me though but through your wonderful smooth review i found him worth reading as creating poetic prose while writing science fiction sounds really terrific job!

story sounds very appealing .
and i love reading about characters who recognize their flaws and try to purify their lives
you have outstanding way to present your points about writer and their creations, and i am glad that i found your blog Brain!
thank you!

Deepika Ramesh said...

Thank you, Brian. I haven't read Gibson at all. This feels like a great start. Although I was born in late eighties, I vividly remember the gray screen of a dead channel. So much nostalgia.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks so much for your kind words Baili - If you like science fiction like The Matrix I think that you would like this book. I also loved The Matrix films.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Deepika - I was not sure if I needed to explain the grey television thing or not :) There was a lot of nostalgia in this book for me.

Maria Behar said...

EXCELLENT review as usual, Brian!! :) :)

You know, I used to read more SF when I was in my twenties than I do now. I really must get back to it! There's no other genre which stimulates one's thought processes and expands one's intellectual horizons like science fiction.

This novel is a case in point. The fact that Gibson has correctly predicted many of today's technological innovations is truly amazing! And the fact that the novel remains fresh and original, 30 years after its publication, definitely adds to its stature!

Reading through your review, I was reminded of the movie "Blade Runner", which I did not like. Although "Neuromancer" does have some dark elements, it also sounds very interesting, and I do want to read it, especially since you've brought in the point about the Dickens influence. That should make for some fascinating reading!

I like the quote you've included. Gibson certainly has a great prose style, although, as you say, it might not be as masterful as Dickens's. Still, I find it very compelling.

Thanks for your insightful thoughts! Hope you're having a GREAT Monday!! <3 :)

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Maria – I also used to read a lot more science fiction. I try to read it now occasionally. I seem to be mostly rereading things that I read when younger but I want to read more newer books.

The film Blade Runner also influenced this genre a lot (The book, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep was so different that I would not call it cyberpunk). This book was hard edged like that film.

Have a great week!

So many books, so little time said...

Brian you must look much younger than you are! I think this would make for interesting reading, especially when you consider how much we use & rely on technology and just how much manual work/jobs advanced tech has removed xxx

Lainy http://www.alwaysreading.net

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Lainy! My profile picture is about eight years old. I do need to update it. I am 50.

Gibson tried to look into these issues that relate to technology before the technology came about. He was in many ways successful.

The Bookworm said...

Neuromancer is not one I had heard of before. Molly's character sounds interesting. It's fascinating how some older works like these predicted much of the digital era we live in today.
Great posts as always. Enjoy your Sunday.

Literary Feline said...

My husband has recommended Necromancer to me as a classic to read. I always find it interesting to read some of these older science fiction novels, especially given the direction technology has taken today. I look forward to exploring this one for myself. Thank you for your insightful review, Brian.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Naida.

This was one book that is rightfully credited with predicting a lot.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Wendy - Reading older science fiction books is indeed fun to see what the author got right and what the author got wrong. I would love to know what you thought if you read this.

Stefanie said...

I didn't read the book until long after it had been published and I was surprised at how it didn't really feel dated and how prescient it seemed for so many things. I have not read any of the sequels I should probably get around to them one of these days!

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Stefanie - I agree. When I decided to reread this, I thought that it would seem dated. But it did not.

Caroline said...

A great review, Brian. This too is on my piles. I started it once but it wasn’t the right moment. It sounds like it’s a classic for a reason.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Caroline- The book is very different in a lot of ways. I can see not being prepared for it. That was actually true for me to some extent the first time that I read it.