by Kyt Dotson
With any genre, it always generates a sense of classical zeal to be able to point to the seminal work that started it all—with cyberpunk, Neuromancer by William Gibson is exactly that book. With the publication of this work, an entirely new exploration of how technology and humanity interact was launched and entire generation of writers would pioneer the concepts that now adhere and limn the edges of our imagination involving cyberspace and the ever-evolving relationship between computation and psychology.
Gibson’s terse and sometimes meandering prose turns off many readers quite quickly. His descriptive style is both gritty and metaphoric at the same time, compelling a strange sense of here-and-now reality blended with the alcoholic sting of high technology. Reading Neuromancer for the first time almost felt like an acid trip trying to fly a helicopter—everything was sound and color and exhilaration with the imminent expectation of a fiery crash at the end.
Of course, some readers also come away from this book barely recalling what they read or how they got there. Due to the groundbreaking strides that Gibson made with his work, the novel has found itself the recipient of numerous accolades such as the Nebula Award, the Philip K. Dick Award, and the Hugo Award. As a classical piece of cyberpunk work, Neuromancer does not sit still in its cradle.
The protagonist, Henry Dorsett Case, is painted as a computer cowboy—the cyberpunk existential hacker, as I’ve described them before—who rode high on his talents and used his skill to upgrade himself. In the world of Neuromancer humans are more than simply meat machines with brains, but have become capable of encoding new skills and talents into themselves with specialized implants and high technology. However, by the beginning of the book he’s been smacked down to mere mortal status after his skills (and the technology that suits them) have been stripped from him by some very bad people he got mixed up with.
Hackers in the novel manage their talents by jacking into cyberspace—essentially projecting their psyche into the world of the computer and running around there as disembodied entities of willpower and l33t skills. After being struck down, Case suffered essentially the effects of a severe stroke which rendered him unable to jack into cyberspace, forever barring him from his preferred domain. However terrible, the effects don’t seem to be entirely irreversible; although that little trick would cost someone a great deal of money and resources to restore.
This cost spurs the plot as the cure to Case’s condition is offered to him by a corporation of questionable morality—but he’s in no condition to turn down a deal he can’t refuse.
Gibson’s novels portray a dystopian future where corporations run everything and cities have extended to cover almost all the arable land of their regions. These “urban sprawls” as they’re called make up the totality of human experience from the deep destitute squalor of the working poor, to the isolated arcologies and penthouse luxury of the profoundly rich. Outside of the human condition, these corporations fight constant wars of espionage and politics against one another—while mostly fought in the digital rez of cyberspace, sometimes their aggressions spill out into the streets.
In the novel there’s a recurring character who appears in several of Gibson’s works, Molly Millions, who acts as Case’s confidant and handler for the shadowy corporation who hired him. Amid her superhuman talents, she has cyberized eyes covered by mirror-shielded lenses directly affixed to her ocular cavities and anchored in her skull—as a result she looks like she’s always wearing mirrored shades. She’s depicted on the Brazilian cover of Neuromancer. Molly’s character introduces body-mod technologies such as her eyes and retractable razors that extend from her fingertips.
The novel has had significant effect on later books referencing back to it from the use of the word cyberspace to ICE (Intrusion Countermeasures Electronics.) While Gibson coined the term “cyberspace” in his novelette Burning Chrome, it took Neuromancer’s popularity to give it enough traction to enter it into the linguistic underground that it became part of our everyday speech. In fact, we have a United States Cyber Command and the term cyberspace isn’t an uncommon word for the media to use when describing the Internet and its strange technological progeny.
Anyone who enjoys the cyberpunk authors of today and where they have taken the worlds imagined by William Gibson would do themselves a great favor by picking up a copy of Neuromancer and giving it a read at least once.
He’s not considered the father of cyberpunk for nothing and it’s always good to have a solid literary foundation in the classics even as a reader.