Neuromancer! When I set out to read this book, I feared that maybe I would be too late to the party–that the elements once thought prophetic would now seem quaint, that William Gibson’s groundbreaking vision would fail to land an impact after so many decades of imitation and iteration. I’ve consumed a lot of cyberpunk in my time, and this book predates pretty much all of it, save for Blade Runner. And as much as I still like (one specific version of) Blade Runner, the book which was its basis, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?–did strike me as both quaint and low-impact when I got around to reading it in 2015. I mean, electric sheep? Please come on.
To my surprise, this was not my experience reading Neuromancer. Rather, much of it was still well over my head here in 2017, some thirty-four years after it was written. I can’t think of a book that has so thoroughly confounded me so frequently. I would go paragraphs without understanding a single noun, verb, or fundamental syntax. Proper names introduced in the first forty pages were still mysteries to me in the final forty. I felt like a child again, in a bad way. But I don’t mean that I felt bad. Just out of my depth. Or should I say, out of Neuromancer’s.
It’s a testament to Gibson’s vision. In fewer than three-hundred pages, he invents an entire era, populated with technology and culture and people with motivations. He imagines a parallel virtual world the likes of which we are just now approaching. In great detail he illustrates biomedical technology not at all unlike the latest advancements in the field in 2017. Midway through the book he invents a new form of performance art combining spoken word and holograms generated in real time. He does all this deftly, vividly, as though he had a wealth of reference material to guide him, but also plainly, as though tapping into some mundane shared experience like high school or summer camp. In actuality, he invented everything out of thin air at a time when talkin’ teddy bear Teddy Ruxpin was still a future technology.
It’s hard to keep up with Neuromancer. Hell. I’ve seen Ouija boards that coddle the reader more than this book. Gibson so fully embraces the future he’s crafted that he denies any concession to those stuck in 1983. Or 2017. So reading this book feels a lot like plopping yourself into a distant future via time machine. The narration is an impressionistic haze of vocabulary that offers flashes and blobs of truth but little certainty. Consider this passage from the start of Chapter 8:
The islands. Torus, spindle, cluster. Human DNA spreading out from gravity’s steep well like an oilslick.
Call up a graphics display that grossly simplifies the exchange of data in the L-5 archipelago. One segment clicks in as red solid, a massive rectangle dominating your screen.
Meanwhile I’m over here like:
It reminds me, though, that the average Twitter feed today–certainly my own–would be just as confounding to someone of just a decade or two past.
It also gives me a new respect for Julia Stiles’ character in that one episode of Ghost Writer. I mean, she’s like twelve and she obviously got a lot out of this book.
Not that I didn’t get a lot out of it. It’s really a marvel of sci-fi. It avoids so much of the hokeyness which plagues most works in the cyberpunk genre, and even makes relatively un-hokey imitators look hokey by comparison (The Matrix, I’m lookin’ at you). That’s quite a feat considering it’s a book that calls hackers “console cowboys” and contains a real live ninja.
And of course it’s still prophetic as hell. Possibly more relevant now than ever before, considering the prevalence of hacker stories in the news. One line in particular strikes me as disturbingly, um, true right precisely now:
“For thousands of years men dreamed of pacts with demons. Only now are such things possible.”