Wednesday, October 25, 2017

William Gibson's Neuromancer: On Prescience and Cultural Impact

My General commentary in this book is here.

Neuromancer by William Gibson has proven to be both a prophetic and influential work. While Gibson inevitably got some things wrong, (he completely missed wireless technology) he got so much right. The depiction of the Matrix anticipated the Internet. This alone gives this book special distinction.  On the cultural end, this novel predicted that people involved with digital technology would earn social approval within popular culture, or in more common terms, it predicted that digital technology and those who were skilled at manipulating it could be considered “cool.”  In the mid 1980s, this seemed like such an unusual concept. I remember thinking this the first time that I read this book.  Today, so much technology is considered “trendy.” Video games and the people who play them are often seen as hip and cool. Other groups, such as hackers and online social groups, are often romanticized. Gibson’s prediction that tech culture would become socially popular may have turned out to be the most prescient aspect of this work.  The question arises: How much of this did Gibson predict versus how much did Gibson’s vision of the future actually shaped what is now a kind of “Techno –Cool?”  From its initial publication, this book has been popular with young people and people interested and involved with technology. By influencing these people, Gibson may have actually helped to create this new kind of “cool.”

This was one of the first, perhaps the very first, books of the “cyberpunk” genre. As such, it has had an enormous impact on science fiction that has come since. Gibson painted a picture of a dark world that was dominated by digital technology as well as powerful and malevolent corporations, and one that was full of hip and colorful characters. I have read few other cyberpunk books, and although I am sure that there are some that are some very good ones out there, the books that I have read seemed to be pale imitations of this novel.

The character of Molly seems to be a template for so many characters that came after. These days, science fiction and young adult books, as well as films, often depict assertive female characters who are physically attractive, technically competent and also exhibit fighting prowess These characters are often depicted as cool and trendy. Molly is all of these things. To some extent, these female characters have become something of a cliché.

These attributes are on display in Molly’s first meeting with Case. It involves her taking him by force.

“My name’s Molly. I’m collecting you for the man I work for. Just wants to talk, is all. Nobody wants to hurt you.” “That’s good.” “ ’Cept I do hurt people sometimes,. I guess it’s just the way I’m wired.” She wore tight black gloveleather jeans and a bulky black jacket cut from some matte fabric that seemed to absorb light. “If I put this dartgun away, will you be easy, Case? You look like you like to take stupid chances.” “Hey, I’m very easy. I’m a pushover, no problem.” “That’s fine, man…Because you try to fuck around with me, you’ll be taking one of the stupidest chances of your whole life.” She held out her hands, palms up, the white fingers slightly spread, and with a barely audible click, ten double-edged, four centimeter scalpel blades slid from their housings beneath the burgundy nails. She smiled. The blades slowly withdrew.”

Molly is not as sanitized or toned down as many of her imitations are.  She shows more than just physical prowess. She is a trained killer. Her violence is not always directed at malicious characters. Though she has a code of ethics, her morality is questionable at best. It seems few books dare to take their protagonist as far as Gibson went with Molly.

Later, Case observes Molly going on the attack,

“The right attitude; it was something he could sense, something he could have seen in the posture of another cowboy leaning into a deck, fingers flying across the board. She had it: the thing, the moves. And she’d pulled it all together for her entrance. Pulled it together around the pain in her leg and marched down 3Jane’s stairs like she owned the place, elbow of her gun arm at her hip, forearm up, wrist relaxed, swaying the muzzle of the fletcher with the studied nonchalance of a Regency duelist. It was a performance. It was like the culmination of a lifetime’s observation of martial arts tapes, cheap ones, the kind Case had grown up on. For a few seconds, he knew, she  was every bad-ass hero, Sony Mao in the old Shaw videos, Mickey Chiba, the whole lineage back to Lee and Eastwood. She was walking it the way she talked it. “

The above passages paint a picture of “cool and tough” action. Yet, the text seems to question from where these images and ideas originated. Are we just glorifying something we learned from television, films and fictional characters?  What impact do books and films have on our psyches? This passage highlights some of the complexities of this book and of Molly’s character.  It is not just a futuristic action story about “bad-ass” characters. Gibson questions the origin and the validity of these concepts.

As I noted in my original post, I first read this book shortly after it was first published. At the time, it seemed original but in some ways also unusual. Rereading it now, when many of its concepts have become commonplace in both fiction and in real life, it is an enlightening experience. This book has held up very well over the years. It is still very much worth the read.

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.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

The Mysteries of Udolpho by Ann Radcliffe

The Mysteries of Udolpho, by Ann Radcliffe, was written in 1794. However, the book is set in the late seventeenth century. This novel is often called the first gothic novel. I found it to be a fun and entertaining story.

Emily St. Aubert is a young French girl raised in the countryside. She is close to her father, Monsieur St. Aubert, who is philosophical, wise and kind. While on a trip they meet a young man, Sue Valancourt Brown. Valancourt is a kindred spirit to Emily and her father as he who appreciates beauty and virtue in the same ways that they do. Emily and he begin to fall in love. 

When Emily’s father dies, Emily is placed under the guardianship of her aunt Madame Cheron and her husband Montoni. Madame Cheron is self-centered and controlling, and she scorns nature and the ethical, virtue-based belief system that Emily values. Montoni is amoral, scheming and eventually shows himself to be a violent criminal. Much of the plot involves itself in Madame Cheron and Montoni trying to separate Emily from Valancourt and attempting to marry her off to vacuous noblemen, while at the same time scheming to steal Emily’s estate. Emily is dragged to Venice and eventually to Udolpho, a castle that Montoni owns in the Italian Mountains. 

There is more to the plot as Emily eventually escapes Udolpho and encounters new but related mysteries and drama in both France and Italy. My version of this book was over 700 pages long so there is a lot of plot contained in its pages. 

This book is full of grandiose descriptions. Sometimes these descriptions go on for pages and pages. Natural landscapes are described in detail and their beauty extolled. There is a connection between these descriptions and the book’s themes of spiritual fulfillment and natural beauty. The city of Venice is described as an almost magical place filled with palaces and gondoliers that fill the scene with lights and music. The segment of the book that takes place in the castle is full of passages that occur at night, describing the labyrinth of rooms, passages, stairways, etc. 

The descriptions of Castle Udolpho, as well as several other castle-like structures, are also well written and atmospheric. One gets the impression that the interiors of these buildings are enormous. Many words are devoted to describing passages, staircases, tombs, etc. These passages give the book a kind of atmospheric, spooky and fun feel. This work seems to have been very influential on centuries of gothic stories and films.

The characters are generally not complex. Emily and her father and are virtuous, kind and wise. Valancourt shows a few flaws that are, at the most, minor. Montoni, his cohorts and various other characters are villainous, self-centered and uncaring.

This book is far from perfect. The number of “mysteries” multiplies so much and is left to sit for so many hundreds of pages that I lost interest in finding the answers to some. Parts of the book are overdramatic and silly. Valancourt in particular, though virtuous, is wildly melodramatic. However, these over-the-top aspects are sometimes humorous and enjoyable. The story includes a fair number of tangential episodes that add little value, so the length of the book seems excessive. In the end, however, the fun and originality of the novel outweighed all of these negatives for me. 

The story sets up several contrasts. Emily’s father has “disengaged himself from the world” to live a rural and peaceful life. This is also true of several other sympathetic characters in the narrative. Folks who have separated themselves from worldly society are noble and calm. In contrast, those engaged with the world act malevolently. There is also an interesting contrast between art and the beauty of nature, 

At one point Emily compares an opera performance to an ocean scene that she recently viewed, 

“It was near midnight before they withdrew to the opera, where Emily was not so charmed but that, when she remembered the scene she had just quitted, she felt how infinitely inferior all the splendour of art is to the sublimity of nature. Her heart was not now affected, tears of admiration did not start to her eyes, as when she viewed the vast expanse of ocean, the grandeur of the heavens, and listened to the rolling waters, and to the faint music that, at intervals, mingled with their roar. Remembering these, the scene before her faded into insignificance. “

The book is also full of picturesque passages describing the grandeur of forests, mountains, rivers, oceans, etc. The narrative champions the natural world and couples nature with virtue.

One of the reasons that I read this book was that I have read that it is parodied in Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey, the last Austen novel that I have not yet read. I wanted to read this work first. 

Though not a brilliant work, this is certainly worth the read. This novel is fun and atmospheric. It was also very influential on centuries of literature and film that came after. Though not complex, the characters are enjoyable to read about. In the end, this work was a very pleasant reading experience. 

Sunday, October 1, 2017

Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton

Ethan Frome, a novella written by Edith Wharton, was first published in 1911. The title character of the story is a young farmer and lumber mill owner who lives in an isolated part of Vermont. As Frome’s story unfolds, the reader learns that the story’s protagonist is barely keeping his head above water. He is also stuck in a loveless marriage. His wife, Zeena, is cold, self - centered, and is a hypochondriac who uses her illness to manipulate others.  Zeena’s cousin Mattie, orphaned and destitute, has come to live with the Fromes. Though their relationship is unconsummated, Mattie and Ethan have fallen in love. When Zeena decides to send Mattie away, the pair are plunged into deep despair.

This is a curious story. As it takes place during a northern New England winter, it is filled with descriptions of a snowy and cold environment. It is also a dark tale.  Ethan is normally unhappy, and the events of the story drive him into desperation and gloom. The ending is odd and contains some surprising developments.

This book is filled with pathos. The passages during which Mattie and Ethan develop their attraction as well as those where they believe that they are going to be parted are tenderly and masterfully written.

At one point Ethan thinks about kissing Mattie,

"He knew that most young men made nothing at all of giving a pretty girl a kiss, and he remembered that the night before, when he had put his arm about Mattie, she had not resisted. But that had been out-of-doors, under the open irresponsible night. Now, in the warm lamplit room, with all its ancient implications of conformity and order, she seemed infinitely farther away from him and more unapproachable."

Though short, this novella is full of ideas and contains a fascinating plot and characters.  Much can be written about it. There is something that this tale has in common with other Wharton books that I have read, such as House of Mirth and The Age of Innocence, in that it is a brilliant examination of a person who is trapped due to social and economic bounds. Ethan is in a miserable position, and he has come to despise Zeena. The story recounts how he made a terrible mistake when he proposed to her. He did so mostly to avoid loneliness. His dream of becoming an engineer has disappeared. He has fallen in love with Mattie, who is not only going to be torn from him, but who is going to be sent into a dire situation.

As he considers every option open to him, he realizes that there is apparently no way out. Zeena has him boxed in at home. He contemplates running away with Mattie, but he is stymied by multiple financial as well as ethical constraints. At one point he thinks,

"The inexorable facts closed in on him like prison-warders handcuffing a convict. There was no way out—none. He was a prisoner for life, and now his one ray of light was to be extinguished."

The above quotation perfectly describes the situation that Ethan is in, it perfectly describes the plot of this book, and it perfectly illustrates what how skilled a writer Wharton is. The metaphors of the prison warden as well as the finality of Ethan’s situation are the expressions of a great writer.

There is so much to this short book that I have not touched on.  Many words have been written about its characters and story. Wharton had a knack for describing people caught in bad situations as well as the negative emotions that go along with them. Anyone who likes Wharton or stories about relationships is likely to get a lot out of this book.