The Dim-Post

September 28, 2012

Neuromancer revisited (?)

Filed under: books — danylmc @ 8:17 am

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.


  1. The virtual light/idoru/all tomorrows parties set is on a similar level to the neuromancer/count zero/mona lisa overdive set. re/read them all.

    Comment by Ben — September 28, 2012 @ 8:22 am

  2. I reckon that William Gibson is a one shot author who has never done anything as good as Neuromancer. Which is kind of sad.

    Comment by Thomas Beagle — September 28, 2012 @ 8:28 am

  3. Gibson doesn’t even come close to being the first to imagine an Internet. Murray Leinster wrote a story featuring a solid model of the Internet (computers in every home interconnected through servers) in 1946.

    Gibson just wrote a hip story that caught peoples imagination at a time it was suited for, Vernor Vinges ‘True Names’ predates Gibsons fame from Neuromancer and is much more interesting, formative and predictive without being as stylishly cool.

    Comment by Fentex — September 28, 2012 @ 8:52 am

  4. I read “stars my destination” again the other week and it astounded me how a book written in the 50’s has no real smell of its age whatsoever.

    Comment by King Kong — September 28, 2012 @ 9:12 am

  5. We had to read this in first year English (a looong time ago). I got to the scene where the main character is recovering from surgery and some random woman has sex with him, and gave up. I’ll take your word for it that it improves.

    I do like the opening line, though.

    Comment by helenalex — September 28, 2012 @ 9:22 am

  6. i believe the recent gibsons (cayce bigend etc) are actually better than the older ones. not as flashy or bangy or violent, but more nuanced, credible, thoughtful, actually engaging with the ideas that preoccupy today’s world.

    Comment by antoine — September 28, 2012 @ 9:44 am

  7. Gotta agree that “the old stuff is better than the new stuff.” I didn’t like Spook Country at all… Too dense and slow; it was like Gibson was cherry-picking a small amount of the ‘future imperfect’ stuff and shoehorning it – clumsily and weakly – into an ill-fitting genre.

    Comment by author-ity — September 28, 2012 @ 9:55 am

  8. I got to the scene where the main character is recovering from surgery and some random woman has sex with him, and gave up

    I think you mean Count Zero (or maybe this scene is in every Gibson novel?) – coincidentally, I grabbed it off my bookshelf this morning as my bus read.

    All Tomorrow’s Parties is a real cracker.

    Comment by Gregor W — September 28, 2012 @ 9:57 am

  9. I’m not a science fiction fan, but I did read this one.

    The really important thing Gibson did was imagine computers and computing as a place. Until then we always used the metaphor of computers being electronic versions of the human brain.

    That was a huge conceptual leap that redefined our relationship with technology for almost a generation. Interestingly, we’ve now moved on from the “place” metaphor, but no-one has come along and articulated where we are today.

    Comment by billbennettnz — September 28, 2012 @ 10:16 am

  10. I remember Count Zero as being pretty good
    It struck me as shishkebab storytelling… Gibson had three separate stories, not really related, none of them capable of expanding into the second novel that his publisher was asking for, so he ran them together with a slice of A, slice of B, slice of C, slice of A…
    But the book introduced me to Cornell’s artwork, for which I shall always be grateful.

    At that stage Gibson hadn’t learned the knack of writing plots where characters *act*. In both Neuromancer and Count Zero, the characters are *acted upon*, and sent around the solar system by the actions of others like a ball in a pinball game, merely experiencing things.

    Comment by herr doktor bimler — September 28, 2012 @ 10:19 am

  11. I read it a couple of months ago because you keep referencing it. Not sure it has dated that well because of some of the anachronisms you mention. I can imagine it was bleeding edge when it came out. I thought the best bit was the space rastas.

    Comment by insider — September 28, 2012 @ 10:20 am

  12. ‘jacking in’ => when finished, does one ‘jack off’ ?

    Comment by richdrich — September 28, 2012 @ 10:36 am

  13. That was one of my favourite books as a teenager. That is all. I should read it again and find out how good my own memory of it is.

    Comment by kim — September 28, 2012 @ 11:38 am

  14. …But as others have alluded to, if you want some really impressive futurism / predictions, 50s/60s pulp sci fi short story collections are the way to go🙂

    Comment by kim — September 28, 2012 @ 11:43 am

  15. It is whispering its way toward me now from Amazon. I somehow managed to not get round to reading this during my scifi period. Did they have ereaders in the book’s future?

    Comment by Clunking Fist — September 28, 2012 @ 12:38 pm

  16. Fentex:Gibson doesn’t even come close to being the first to imagine an Internet. Murray Leinster wrote a story featuring a solid model of the Internet (computers in every home interconnected through servers) in 1946

    And before that there was … drum roll .. E.M. Forster. Better known for A passage to India etc, he wrote a short story in 1909 called The Machine Stops.

    Comment by chiz — September 28, 2012 @ 3:55 pm

  17. And before that there was … drum roll .. E.M. Forster.

    I raise your Forster by Mohammed:

    “Prophet Muhammad peace be upon him mentioned several signs that humans will see before the Day of Judgment, one of them was when he predicted the coming of the TV and the Internet by saying: “One of the signs of the Day of Judgment is when WICKEDNESS enters every house from the Far East to the Far West.” The wickness of Pornography and other things on TV and the Internet come to us right in our homes from all over the world.”

    Comment by Gregor W — September 28, 2012 @ 4:31 pm

  18. Danyl, could I suggest you track down Hardwired by Walter Jon Williams. And Heavy Weather by Bruce. Sterling. The former is akin to, but better than Gibson. The latter is better than both.

    Comment by Guy Nermie — September 28, 2012 @ 4:46 pm

  19. Been following Gibson on twitter. Not long ago he was remarking it was exactly the sci-fi business to have the first line you sweated over rendered meaningless by technological advancements.

    Comment by lyndon — September 28, 2012 @ 5:08 pm

  20. Hardwired better than Gibson?? Hardwired was good, because I love the genre, and the imagining of cybernetically controlled vehicles was great, but it was stylistically derivative. In particular, I got tired of all the rather inelegant attempts to reword Gibson’s opening line.

    Comment by Hamish — September 29, 2012 @ 2:44 pm

  21. I think you mean Count Zero

    Nope, I’d never even heard of Count Zero until today (sounds like the younger brother of the Count from Sesame St).

    If there is more than one book with this scene in it, it really doesn’t make me want to reconsider Gibson.

    Comment by helenalex — October 1, 2012 @ 8:24 am

  22. No, you’re right, helenalex. The scene is with Case and Molly; definitely Neuromancer.

    Comment by Hamish — October 1, 2012 @ 3:33 pm

  23. Tempted to read it, but “the most famous and influential sci-fi book of all time” is a pretty big call. I’d be willing to bet that more people have heard of War of the Worlds and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Neuromancer hasn’t even had a shitty Hollywood attempt yet. Which is probably a good thing.

    Comment by Ben Wilson — October 1, 2012 @ 5:56 pm

  24. There’s been a lot of talk about a Neuromancer movie recently (one link among many). It’s been optioned since the 80s, as I understand it.

    Comment by Hamish — October 2, 2012 @ 2:53 am

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