Over the past couple days I’ve been rereading William Gibson’s Neuromancer. I say ‘rereading’ because obviously I’d read it before, some time in the early 1990s, maybe – but once I got past the second chapter I found I remembered nothing about the book at all. I suspect I tried to read it when I was too young – my mid teens, perhaps. (It was released in 1984), couldn’t penetrate it beyond the first few pages, and then it became such a pivotal text over the next decade I just sort of convinced myself I’d read the whole thing. There should be a word for this.
Anyway, for a novel about high technology in the near future there are some charming anachronisms. The main character hopes to get rich selling ‘megs’ of RAM on the black market. Wireless technology doesn’t seem to exist – the ‘matrix’ can only be accessed through physical connections (‘jacking in’). And the sinister AI Wintermute contacts the hero through a ‘pay-phone’. (Obviously the orbital resorts, ubiquitous biotech implants and famous cyberspace virtual reality environments are slightly more robust than current levels of technology.)
The most famous passage in the book – other than the opening line – is probably:
The matrix has its roots in primitive arcade games. … 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 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.
The cliched – unfalsifiable – claim people make about that passage is that by imagining the internet Gibson called it into being. TCP/IP had been around for a few years before the novel was published so there was a certain amout of inevitability about the commercialisation of network technology – but you gotta give him huge points for vision.
Neuromancer is a sci-fi novel – arguably the most famous and influential sci-fi book of all time – but in genre terms it’s a fusion of a 1940’s style crime caper and a 1970s style drug novel. I’ve enjoyed Gibson’s recent books, but Neuromancer is a class above them. I remember Count Zero as being pretty good (or at least I think I do) and I think about it almost every time I write ‘count = 0’ in a line of code, so I plan to chase that up next.