Neuromancer is the foundation stone of cyberpunk. William Gibson’s novel came out in 1984 before the genre even had a name, and won a lot of awards. The judges could tell this neo-noir about hackers in cyberspace was something special.
Gibson had been working in this direction for a while, finally perfecting the prototype with his 1982 story Burning Chrome. Contracted for a novel, he lashed his cyberpunk world to a heist plot. Neuromancer’s protagonist is the burnt out hacker Case, hustling through the nightlife of Japan in a suicidal spiral until a girl called Molly with mirror shades and blades in her fingers scoops him up for her ex-military boss.
They want him to take on some top level defences in cyberspace. The rest of the team is assembled, the heist set up, and then everything goes wrong when the team breaks into a rambling family mansion up in an orbital Las Vegas and the real mastermind behind it all is revealed.
The novel’s cyberspace is the internet before it existed. Jack into this semi-imaginary world and fly your mind around a neon information cityscape. Gibson based his clairvoyant look into the broadband future on the gaming arcades in his neighbourhood.
‘These kids clearly believed in the space games projected,’ said Gibson. ‘Everyone I know who works with computers seem to develop a belief that there’s some kind of actual space behind the screen, some place you can’t see but you know is there.’
Neuromancer is pacey, well-written, and still reads fresh today. Gibson had been impressed by a throwaway line about a future war in the 1981 film ‘Escape from New York’, and saw the possibilities for world building through casual reference. The visual sense came from the dirty future vision of movies like 1979’s ‘Alien’’, 1981’s ‘Outlander’, and 1982’s ‘Bladerunner’, which hit screens when Gibson was already working on the novel. He later told the NME he wanted to the book to read like a Lou Reed song set in the world of Bladerunner.
One of the few complaints about Gibson’s style is that brand names and nationalities are forced to do the heavy lifting. A gun is a ‘fifty-year-old Vietnamese imitation of a South American copy of a Walther PPK’; a lighter ‘a thin slab of German steel that looked as though it belonged on an operating table’; an artificial intelligence has ‘limited Swiss citizenship under their equivalent of the Act of ‘53’.
It’s still great. Neuromancer was one of the last sci-fi novels I read as a teenager and the only one I kept. That paperback is in a self-storage locker somewhere outside Warszawa and I don’t plan on getting rid of it anytime soon.
NEUROMANCER/ William Gibson/ Ace/ 1984
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