William Gibson – Neuromancer (1984) review


William Gibson’s Neuromancer (1984) is nowadays known as the novel that started or invented cyberpunk. That’s only partially true. Gibson started using the word ‘cyberspace’ in Neuromancer, but the subgenre of cyberpunk has roots that go back much farther, to the books of Philip K. Dick and Samuel R. Delaney and comics like 2000 AD and the films Blade Runner (1982) and TRON (1982). Still, Gibson’s novel made a huge impact on science fiction. And why? It’s not that the cyberpunk genre was totally new at the time but that Gibson’s style and the themes he selected play such a crucial role in hammering home a mood for the genre. 

What was new since the days of Philip K. Dick was the concept of virtual reality. In Neuromancer, cyberspace is a place to visit while you are connected. For our main character Case, it pulls at him like a drug. His life is seen through a drug haze, including the type of drugs that Dick was talking about; Gibson just added cyberspace as a new one. “All the speed he took, all the turns he’d taken and the corners he’d cut in Night City, and still he’d see the matrix in his sleep, bright lattices of logic unfolding across that colorless void…” Yes, The Matrix. In 1999, 15 years after Neuromancer, many viewers still had trouble understanding the concept of virtual reality, but Gibson was there much earlier. Gibson didn’t even have a computer when he wrote this. He simply extrapolated what he knew towards something magical, and in doing so approached something not far off from what the future would actually hold.

Case and the other characters are flawed, on edge. Alleyway survivors in some dystopian in-between world that is a playground for cyber- and biotech. A seedy underworld defined by odd characters with cybernetic or neurological fixes. A place of both freedom and danger, a place of console cowboys. Case’s anxiety translates to a fast-paced story that jerks the reader this way and that. Mentally, we have to run to keep up with Case and the crazy world he lives in.

Gibson’s conception of cyberpunk is a place full of traps. The traps of addiction I mentioned. Cyberspace is a trap. It makes people feel dismissive of the real world and their bodies. Of meatspace. Gibson leans heavily into that aesthetic of neon-lit cities at night. I believe Blade Runner took that up before him, but in Neuromancer it works as a metaphor for cyberspace, and datastreams in cyberspace resemble skyscraper canyons. And so cyberspace and the real world start to blend into one another and both become the same trap. “He looked back as the plastic door swung shut behind him, saw her eyes reflected in a cage of red neon.” A cage.

Gibson’s writing style still feels fresh, controlled and exhilarating. So full of details, so evocative of more. Enjoy the flow and structure of the sentences. Let it sink in. His blitzkrieg of neologisms induces a future shock in the reader. Which is typical for the genre in that SF often goes for that puzzle-like cognitive estrangement, but Gibson pushed it farther than anyone else had back then. And with his matter-of-fact narration he creates an effect of absurdity about this dystopian vision of the future. I did not expect this density of wild ideas. Reading it took time. Every page has some new wild thing happening, and together with the high pace of storytelling the effect is like a caffeine rush. 

The novel is also a bit one-note on riding that high of future shock. Look at this future! Isn’t it wild? It’s the overriding aim of the narrative. Other elements like character are not developed much and the plot, a heist story, is in service of that fast paced shock doctrine. I often had to reiterate to myself what the actual plot was. The heist story with multiple AIs who mess around with Case’s perception becomes a bit convoluted and the stakes aren’t clear, except that we care a bit for the fate of the characters.

It makes Neuromancer very different from slow Blade Runner. It also ultimately made the novel more of interest academically than emotionally. It’s slick, fast, like chrome paint, set in world that Gibson filled in with buckets of imagination, but also a bit flat emotionally. Those moments of human connection that Blade Runner had, like Deckard and Rachael, like Roy Batty’s speech before dying, such moments are missing here. Twenty years later, M. John Harrison would write a similar environment in Light (2002) but manages to add more comedy and melancholy to his washed-up characters. There is an effort to create something more emotional with Case and his on/off girlfriend, but the character Case never got developed enough to have his story say something more meaningful about this weird future world or about humanity’s place in it.

I still enjoyed this novel immensely and am very impressed with Gibson’s writing. I’m looking forward to reading more of his work. 

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9 Responses to William Gibson – Neuromancer (1984) review

  1. bormgans says:

    Very fair review. I’m glad you enjoyed it.

    Next time I read it, I’m going to search for some kind of guide so I make sure I don’t miss a thing, and just try to enjoy it on a sentence by sentence level.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thanks! It was not an easy book to follow for me, and I’m used to some crazy stuff. But I’ve heard good things about the sequels and especially the short story collection, Burning Chrome. I think I am going to read that one next.

      Liked by 1 person

      • bormgans says:

        I absolutely loved Burning Chrome. Haven’t read the Neuromancer sequels. My next Gibson will be a Neuromancer reread I think.

        Liked by 2 people

      • Paul Connelly says:

        Gibson’s cyberspace was almost a mythic realm, and the sequels go progressively further in that direction (AIs as voodoo loas, etc.). When the company I worked for got hacked a few years after Neuromancer was published, our security folks talked as if the hackers had supernatural powers. But the reality was that the initial breaches were pure social engineering (call the lowly nightshift computer operator claiming to be a top executive needing to get logged in right NOW) and a combination of bad network product design (inadequately secured plain text files with admin level account passwords) and bad IT administration of the network services (same passwords in those files on multiple systems). Not exactly the techniques of a Case or a Dixie Flatline required to hack that network. But the magical hacker image was already in everyone’s head by that point.

        Liked by 2 people

  2. Ola G says:

    Great review, Jeroen. Yes, controlled is a good word to describe Gibson’s prose. Slick and controlled, but not much filled with empathy 😉

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Pingback: William Gibson – Burning Chrome (1986) Review | A Sky of Books and Movies

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