Review: Neuromancer by William Gibson

Case was the hottest computer cowboy cruising the information superhighway–jacking his consciousness into cyberspace, soaring through tactile lattices of data and logic, rustling encoded secrets for anyone with the money to buy his skills. Then he double-crossed the wrong people, who caught up with him in a big way–and burned the talent out of his brain, micron by micron. Banished from cyberspace, trapped in the meat of his physical body, Case courted death in the high-tech underworld. Until a shadowy conspiracy offered him a second chance–and a cure–for a price….

Review

Neuromancer. Neuromancer is a book that set many precedents. It is a book that was at the vanguard of a cultural movement, and a book that shaped psyches for generations; indeed it continues to guide us today even. It is a book that has had countless imitators, and very little worthy homage. It is a book that has touched all our lives, regardless of whether or not we have read it.

Neuromancer was a sign of the times, of things to come. Many of its fanciful predictions and careless dalliances in technology have come to fruition, or are close to being realised. It was the book which launched William Gibson’s career and spawned subcultures dedicated to it.

Neuromancer was all these things, but after nearly thirty years have elapsed since its initial publication is it still relevant? Does it still resonate as strongly, has it aged well or crumbled and decayed into meaningless rubble like the collapsed United States it depicts in parts? Has Gibson’s cyberspace – a term coined by Gibson and popularised in Neuromancer – become obsolete in the face of the relentless march of Web 2.0?

For those readers who have not yet read Neuromancer, its plot and characters may be more familiar than expected. The Wachowski brother’s most famous movie – The Matrix – plundered the vault of ideas that Neuromancer presented. There’s the down on his luck hacker pulled in to a world of intrigue and lies (Neo, Case), the dark and dangerous femme fatale who guides and supports the hacker (Trinity, Molly), the consensual hallucination millions participate in (the Matrix, the Matrix), the safe haven inhabited by allies of the protagonists (Zion, Zion) and the shadowy mechanical overlords manipulating events from behind a curtain of anonymity and deceit (the Machines, Neuromancer).

While the Wachowski’s storyline regurgitates Descartes’ cogito ergo sum in an admittedly eloquent manner, Neuromancer is simultaneously far more introverted and forward looking. It foretells of a time when governments have all but collapsed, giving way to the might, wealth and influence of massive international conglomerate corporations. The divide between the haves and the have-nots is massive. Those with corporate allegiance are given luxuries; food, clothing, shelter and payment – provided of course that they remain loyal and indentured to their chairmen and shareholders. Disloyalty is met with death. Meanwhile, in the sprawling metropolises that have merged fungus-like from their humble city beginnings, every day is a struggle, and livings are scraped doing whatever needs to be done.

Case was once a cowboy, a console jockey, a cyberspace pilot with a promising future running the grid for corporations and private contractors. Then, one day, he broke his code, and his clients broke him. Unable to jack in to the Matrix any longer, Case wanders the Night City doing the fastest, loosest deals on the streets, waiting for the one that goes sour and kills him. Along comes Molly, the Steppin’ Razor.  She has an offer for Case that he cannot and will not refuse. It is a chance to change his fortunes once more, and a chance to run the grid again at long last.

Soon, intrigue piles on top of intrigue and the most fearsome and potent law enforcement officers – the boys from Turing – are breathing down Case and Molly’s necks. With the help of the Rastafarian Navy, they breach Freeside, an orbital facility and perform… A truly bizarre act. None-the-less, an act that will alter the world forever.

So, returning to the original question posed, is Neuromancer still relevant in today’s world, or is it merely an anachronism of an era best relegated to memory? In terms of the context of the story, there are few elements that suggest the story is from a different technological age. There are several references to “data tapes”, and a lack of mobile phones. Both of these eccentricities can easily be written off however. “Data tapes” can be put down to lingo used by the residents of Chiba, the Sprawl and the various orbital colonies. The lack of mobile phones seems to fit, somehow. Society has decayed and with it, so has the infrastructure which once supported it. In place of the mobile phone network, there is now cyberspace, the Matrix.

The story is about computers, weapons and treachery – all of which are just as relevant to us today as they were twenty seven years ago – perhaps even more so, considering what has happened in the intervening years. Underneath that layer is another though. It is a layer of sentimentality and love for the past. In a thousand light touches and passing descriptions, Gibson pays homage to our society and the small, beautiful things it produced, sadly worn away with age and neglect or preserved carefully and guarded by a knowing few. The things that Gibson isolates and showcases still resonate sharply; books, records, pieces of fine clothing, hand worked wood and jewellery lost in the endless oceans of chrome, neon and silicon. Surely, that too is something that we can still relate to.

William Gibson was at the forefront of a movement that became known as cyberpunk. Many people interpreted that as being all about computers and laser guns and cyberspace. Gibson knew better, though. He realised that the glimmer of humanity, of things lost and things saved was just as important as the massive corporate wars and global scheming. That is why even thirty years later, Neuromancer is still relevant. Sure, the technology has held up well, but even more importantly, the people are still relevant, interesting and beautifully flawed.

Neuromancer is a stand out piece of modern literature, a cultural icon and a damn good read. If you have not yet read it, do so. If you have read it, read it again. Revisit Case and his friends. They are waiting for you in the Matrix with open arms.

  • Genre: Cyberpunk-Science Fiction-Speculative Fiction
  • Demographic: Adult
  • Rating Out of Five: 5
  • Format: Paperback
  • Find At: The Book Depository
  • Published: July 1984

9 thoughts on “Review: Neuromancer by William Gibson

    • Hi Patricia,

      Neuromancer was a book that absolutely blew my mind the first time that I read it. I don’t want to set unreasonable expectations or overhype the book by any means. At the same time, I do feel that I have to do it justice. Even now, on my umpteenth re-reading of it, it never fails to amaze me with its depth and breadth. There are so many incidental details and huge ideas that just leap from the page and paint a truly unique image. Once you have read Neuromancer, you will be able to understand how to spawned a whole cultural movement.

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  1. Nice synopsis – really captures the drive of the novel. I’ve just finished it, too. Started reading it as cyberpunk is a (slightly guilty) pleasure of mine, and was equally impressed by how well it held up, although I do wonder whether suffers now from comparison with later works in the genre precisely because it was so defining of it? (when visualising the Matrix, I couldn’t stop thinking about Tron…)

    Have you read the others in the series?

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  2. Thank you both for your comments. I am glad that you enjoyed this review. This is one of my all time favourite books, and something of a global cultural icon. I hope that I did it justice.

    Like

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