Monday, 10 September 2012

Books: Why Neuromancer is one of the most important novels from the past 30 years

There are few books that have been published in my lifetime that have had such a profound influence on not only literature, but on the world at large, as William Gibson’s 1984 novel, Neuromancer. In simple terms, Neuromancer, at its core, is a detective noir story set in a dystopian future. But this isn’t a novel that can be accounted for in simple terms.

Neuromancer is told from the perspective of our narrator, Henry Dorsett Case. Case is the novel’s reluctant anti-hero: a suicidal, drug-addled ex-hacker residing without work in Chiba City, Japan. Almost from the outset, we see Case as a world-weary cynic who bums around in bars trying not to let his past catch up with him. The last time he was caught, his captors destroyed his nervous system, making it impossible for Case to access Cyberspace, - a term coined by Gibson that has become part of our common lexicon:

“Cyberspace. A consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators, in every nation, by children being taught mathematical concepts... A graphic representation of data abstracted from the banks of every computer in the human system. Unthinkable complexity. Lines of light ranged in the nonspace of the mind, clusters and constellations of data. Like city lights, receding.”

Though Gibson saw this through dystopian eyes, the word and the concept of Cyberspace is now an inescapable part of modern life. I’m not sure how true this is, but author Jack Womack argued that Gibson’s conception of Cyberspace inspired the structure of the World Wide Web, asking “what if the act of writing it down, in fact, brought it about?" If there is even a shred of truth to this assertion, then this alone surely secures Gibson’s legacy as one of the most important creative imaginations of the last century, and I say this without exaggeration.

The drama of the story begins when Case is tracked down by Molly, a “street samurai” who works as a mercenary for an ex-army officer who goes by the name of Armitage. Through Case’s drug-fuelled paranoia, he convinces himself that Molly works for his ex-employer; he outruns her through the sprawl of neon lined streets, only to be accosted by her in his hotel room, which is barely larger than a coffin. Molly had modified her body with all manner of cybernetic enhancements: a tweaked nervous system; retractable four-centimetre long razors that are hidden beneath her fingernails; and lenses implanted into her eye sockets which give her enhanced sight and allow her to be fed information about what she is looking at. Prior to being a razor girl, Molly worked as a prostitute. Of course, this is the dystopian future, so she wasn’t your usual prostitute. Sex workers were given neural implants that turned off their memories and limited their ability to control and reason their actions. Thus prostitutes were nothing more than hired meat-puppets who acted upon the whims of their employers - no matter how dark or depraved. It was only when Molly began to experience and remember what she otherwise couldn’t that she was able to get out of prostitution by blackmailing a sadistic senator with a penchant for murdering women. The idea of women being turned into sex zombies I found very disturbing, mainly because it isn’t that far from the realms of possibility.

Molly takes Case to Armitage and a deal is struck: Case’s services in exchange for his neural problems to be fixed. Suffice to say, Case jumps at the opportunity. Armitage is an incredibly complex and ambiguous character: his identity, both physically and metaphorically, is merely of his own creation. Indeed, it seems as though the more Case gets to know Armitage, the more detached Armitage seems from, not only reality, but his own personality. It is never made clear whether Armitage is the main man running the operation, or whether he is acting as another middleman (there are subtle suggestions of both possibilities throughout the book, but they are always in the guise of speculation and conjecture).


Beyond the techno-fetishism and the cybernetic-dystopia of Neuromancer, there is also oodles of charm and humour. Neuromancer is not a funny book: it takes itself quite seriously, but with this seriousness, the wit and personality of some of its characters can’t help but add an extra dimension to the proceedings. For example, when Armitage arranges for the repair of Case’s nervous system he says, “You needed a new pancreas. The one we bought for you frees you from a dangerous dependency.” To which Case responds, “Thanks, but I was enjoying that dependency.”

Though the novel is set in the future, there are many points in the story that give a direct nod to popular culture of the early-1980s. Indeed, the concept of cyberspace is simply Gibson’s speculative extrapolation of early videogames. But it’s not just technology and science that Gibson draws on in his vision of the future. With the proliferation of Rastafarianism in the late-1970s, it is perhaps of little wonder that a band of Rastafarian outlaws are key to the development of Neuromancer’s narrative. Gibson draws on the imagery of the dreadlocked, dub-loving pot-smoker adorned with bright colours, and combines it with a space ship (called Zion, no less).

Case spends much of the latter part of the novel hooked up to the Matrix (sound familiar?). Sometimes he experiences the real-world, but from the perspective of Molly’s cybernetic lenses, at others, he’s interacting with Artificial Intelligence constructs, that end up forming a key part of the plot. One such construct is Wintermute, who spends much of the novel attempting to break its programme and develop a personality. It’s difficult to outline Wintermute without spoiling some key elements of the plot, but all I’ll say is that Wintermute adds a great sense of mystery and intrigue to the novel. Indeed, the inclusion of Wintermute (and other AI constructs) has a similar uncanny effect that Asimov and Dick capture, in that it raises questions about the nature of consciousness, intelligences, determinism and freewill – essentially, you empathise with Wintermute.

The novel is full of incredibly vivid descriptions that manage to capture a real sense of the world and its characters with a few well-chosen turns of phrase. “The sky above the port was the colour of television, tuned to a dead channel”, as an opening line couldn’t be more perfect in conveying a feeling of the world. Or the description of a speed-freak’s eyes as “eggs of unstable crystal, vibrating with a frequency whose name was rain and the sound of trains, suddenly sprouting a humming forest of hair-fine glass spines.”

The importance and influence of Neuromancer cannot be underestimated, even if we dismiss completely the idea that Gibson’s creative imagination was the catalyst for the invention of the World Wide Web. The term Cyberpunk was coined by a critic in reaction to this novel. The imagery, ideas and concepts associated with Cyberpunk have become a frequently visited well for creative people from fashion designers to TV writers, from game designers to musicians. I am in absolute awe that the residue of one creative mind has left such indelible marks on our world. It is a humble man, indeed, who can create such an important work of literature, and resist the urge to shout arrogantly from the rooftops: “I created this!”




This article wa published with the title 'Neuromancer: The Most Important Novel Of The Past 30 Years' on Sabotage Times.

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