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.


Fred said...

I think Gibson points out some of the antecedents of the cyberpunk subgenre. I also was impressed by Gibson's work and went on to read many of his novels and also a number of other cyberpunk writers: Bruce Sterling, KW Jeter, Pat Cadigan are some that I remember. While many soon moved away from the cyberpunk themes, they wrote a number of interesting and intriguing novels.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Fred - I should read some of the writers that you mention. I know that Gibson and Sterling cowrote The Differnce Engine so maybe I will start with that. I am not suprised that the better writers moved beyond cyberpunk. After a while any subgenre would likely become limiting.

Fred said...

Brian--I'll be interested in seeing what you think of _The Difference Engine_. Bruce Sterling has an interesting short novel titled _The Involution Ocean_ which is sort of a combination of _Moby Dick_ and _Dune_. My brief commentary is at the url below:

Suko said...

This is excellent commentary, Brian Joseph. The ideas in this book are fascinating, especially regarding technology, which plays such a large role in our daily lives today. I have not read many (any?) cyberpunk works, but this sounds very worthwhile.

Mudpuddle said...

apropos post... i could only add that "it's all about the money"... being employed in the computer/tech industries is lucrative compared to other fields; English teachers, for instance, have a greatly reduced impact on the economy compared to years past... and money lures, creating it's own culture, defining in essence the values of society as a whole... in this sense, Gibson is not only an innovator, but a veritable founding father of the latest generation... great post and acute perception... tx for sharing...

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Suko - I actually have not read much cyberpunk either. Many people consider this book the gold standard.

CyberKitten said...

All the Cyberpunk you ever needed to read:

William Gibson
• Neuromancer
• Count Zero
• Mona Lisa Overdrive
• Virtual Light
• Idoru
• All Tomorrow's Parties
• Pattern Recognition
• Spook Country
• Zero History
• The Peripheral
• Burning Chrome (short stories)
Neal Stephenson
• Snow Crash
• The Diamond Age
• Cryptonomicon
Bruce Sterling
• The Artificial Kid
• Schismatrix
• Islands in the Net
• Heavy Weather
• Holy Fire
• Distraction
• Zeitgeist
• The Zenith Angle
• The Caryatids
• Crystal Express (Short Stories)
• Globalhead (Short Stories)
• A Good Old Fashioned Future (Short Stories)
• Visionary in Residence (Short Stories)
• Gothic High Tech (Short Stories)
• Transreal Cyberpunk (Short Stories, written with Rudy Rucker)
Rudy Rucker
• Software
• Wetware
• Freeware
• Realware
• Complete Short Stories
• Transreal Cyberpunk (Short Stories, written with Bruce Sterling)
John Shirley
• Eclipse
• Eclipse Penumbra
• Eclipse Corona
• City Come A' Walkin'
• Heatseeker (short stories)
• Black Glass
Lewis Shiner
• Frontera
• Deserted Cities of the Heart
• Slam
Walter Jon Williams
• Hardwired
• Solip:System
• The Voice of the Whirlwind
• Angel Station
• Metropolitan
• City on Fire
• This is Not a Game
• Deep State
George Alec Effinger
• When Gravity Fails
• A Fire in the Sun
• The Exile Kiss
• Budayeen Nights (Short stories)
Richard Kadrey
• Metrophage
• Kamikaze L'Amour
• Angel Scene
Pat Cadigan
• Synners
• Fools
• Mindplayers
• Patterns (short stories)
• Tea from an Empty Cup
• Dervish is Digital
Jack Womack
• Random Acts of Senseless Violence
• Heathern
• Ambient
• Terraplane
• Elvissey
• Going, Going, Gone
• Let's Put the Future Behind Us
Steven Barnes
• Street Lethal
• Gorgon Child
• Firedance
Richard Paul Russo
• Destroying Angel
• Carlucci's Edge
• Carlucci's Heart
• Subterranean Gallery
Melissa Scott
• Trouble & Her Friends
• Night Sky Mine
• Dreaming Metal
• The Jazz

CyberKitten said...

Despite having so much new stuff to read you're really pushing my buttons to read Gibson's 'Sprawl' series again. It's been decades since they blew me away and you've got me thinking how all of those passing years will influence how I read them again... [muses].

Maybe over Christmas..... Maybe......

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Mudpuddle.

You raise such a good point. Economics and money surly play a part in digital "cool".

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Cyberkitten! That is some list. I did read Walter Jon Williams's Hardwired. I found this book to be very much worth the reread.

Kathy's Corner said...

Hi Brian,

Your commentary on William Gibson is excellent. And you pose a very interesting question. Did William Gibson predict the cool/hip cyber world we live in or were his novels instrumental in creating that world? My guess many people who now work with computers or produce computer videos games etc grew up reading Neuromance. As for Molly I haven't read the book but one can see qualities that are similar to Lisbeth Sanders in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and currently Jessica Jones the action hero currently on Netflix. Once again, great post.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Kathy - I suspect that Gibson "Digital Hip" would have happened regardless but its shape was influenced by this book.

It seems that characters that were influenced by Molly are everywhere.

Maria Behar said...

OUTSTANDING commentary as usual, Brian!

From your excellent observations in this post, I can see that I already have very mixed feelings about not only this novel, but the whole genre itself. No wonder I recalled "Blade Runner"! This genre is very dark. In fact, when I looked it up on Wikipedia, I read the following: "Much of the genre's atmosphere echoes film noir..." I have never liked film noir; I find it VERY depressing.

As for Molly, I find her quite hard to take, in spite of the fact that I do like reading about assertive women in fiction. As you know, I dislike coming across profanity in fiction, so I was immediately put off when I saw the infamous "F bomb" in one of your quotes from the book. However, I did like the descriptions of how much in control Molly was in these situations. I guess the profanity comes with the territory, right? Lol. It does seem that, in certain situations, people will respect you more if you use profanity. These are situations in which you're making sure others know that YOU are the one with the power, that NO ONE is going to mess with you, because you just won't tolerate it. These are usually very gritty situations, although I happen to know that they don't have to take place in a street environment. They can just as easily take place in an apparently "civilized" boardroom. I've been in such meetings, so that's how I know. And I HATED every minute of them!!

Having said all that, the focus on digital technology in these cyberpunk novels, and how characters proficient in such technology are portrayed as cool, is something I would certainly enjoy. It's so fascinating that Gibson was so prescient in this area. As you say, he may have actually influenced our current technological and social media environment.

I have just realized something here. I think I prefer the distant future, more utopian SF scenario. That's because I find a certain combination very jarring, and that is the combination of highly intelligent people with a command of technology who, at the same time, act like street-smart felons. I prefer my smart people to have some culture and manners. Perhaps I'm old-fashioned in this respect, which is paradoxical, considering the fact that I consider myself very politically progressive in some areas. But then, we humans are very complex creatures, as I'm sure many aliens would agree. Lol.

Another problem for me is the fact that Molly is a trained killer. I don't like to read books in which main characters are skilled assassins. UGH.

I might still give "Neuromancer" a read, just to read about all the cool technology. But I will borrow the book from my local library. I don't think I will ever want to own it.

Thanks for your insightful thoughts!! <3 :)

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Maria,

This indeed a dark book. The characters are in many ways immoral. They are rough people. It think that Gibson was not advocating this behavior but was trying to reflect the darkness in the world. I think that sometimes fiction need to do this. I can understand why you might not want to read this kind of book.

You make a good point, sometimes the horrible behavior is not just on the street. You also raise a good point about using profanity to project power, there is something to that. I also prefer to be around people who do not use a lot of profanity. I am conse3rvative in my personal behavior. But I think that sometimes it is necessary to portray a certain kind of character.

Have great weekend!

Gently Mad said...

Very interesting review Brian. Your assessment of Molly's character I'd astute. It seems one person develops a provocative persona and everyone jumps on the bandwagon. We are now inundated with female warrior heroines. The only one I have ever found convincing or sympathetic is the heroine who played opposite Tom Cruise in The Edge of Tomorrow.
I don't know if I'll read the book but I certainly enjoyed your review. Take care!

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Sharon. There is such a tendency to imitate in film and books these days. There are a few tough fictional women warriors that I think are well done, but just a few.

I have not seen The Edge of Tomorrow. I must catch it.

Autocorrect and spellcheck can be monstrous :)

James said...

I also read this quite a while ago and your commentary reminded me of why I enjoyed it. Yet it also suggested why I might want to read it again in light of some of my more recent SF reading. Thanks for a great review and a bit of inspiration.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi James - I got a lot out of this reread.

thecuecard said...

Molly definitely sounds cool, tough and dangerous to me, especially for 1984 standards. What an interesting character. I will have to read this cyberpunk classic at some point. Nice essay.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Susan - Molly was indeed ahead of her time. If you read this I would love to read your review.

HKatz said...

Whoa, that's a great list to look into posted upthread.

I enjoyed this post. Interesting to consider when a character like Molly becomes a genuinely interesting character vs. a stock figure. For instance, most action heroes (and heroines) are poorly developed characters. Finding ways to make them unique and three-dimensional is a challenge.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Hila - That is indeed an impressive list. There are really so many bad action characters. That tends to happen when something is imitated over and over again,

baili said...

World is changing quickly during these centuries and technology has taken the place everywhere it can be .
Topics of writer now tend to reveal the upcoming ventures of new and much advanced technology.

Battle of good and bad has become more interesting and more dangerous as well.

I believe that all that comes in gifted CREATIVE MINDS is prove to be prophecy of time about new ways of life to come.

Some day Man actually be dissolve into a light to travel withing galaxies and will re own his natural shape when he will want to.

Nothing is impossible ,whatever comes in our circle of thoughts come to be true one day .

I appreciate your you wonderful efforts to introduce such awesome works of beautiful minds Brain!!!

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Baili - We are indeed living in times of great change. Books like this help us try to come to terms with these changes. I also agree that these changes are very intertwined with morality and ethics.

Stefanie said...

Oh, interesting thought about how much tech culture might have been influenced by Gibson. And don't forget Gibson was the one who coined "cyberspace"

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Stefanie - He did indeed coin the term "cyberspace". This book was so influential.

Deepika Ramesh said...

This sounds like a fantastic read, and this is a brilliant post, Brian. Thank you. I am surely adding it to my TBR.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Deepika - This book, that I remember as a trendy new release, has indeed become a classic.

Caroline said...

Such interesting questions, Brian. I wonder too, was he so influential or just prescient. Molly really does sound familiar by now but in the 80s her character must have been revolutionary.
I just saw CyberKitten’s list. I had no idea there were so many Cyber Ounk novels out there.
Btw, do you also read Steampunk?

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Caroline- A lot of folks in the tech industry tell me that they think that this book influenced the industry.

There really is a lot of cyberpunk out there. I have only read a few books.

I never read any steampunk. Some of the books look very good though.