So as I was sitting around brainstorming (procrastinating… by checking out the latest Intertops casino bonus) about what I should write for my next article, it suddenly came to me that I had finished reading William Gibson’s “Neuromancer” just a couple of days ago. This was a fact that I had completely forgotten until about two minutes ago, which I guess sums up how much the book impressed me nice and concisely.
Still, for your sake (and my conscience), let’s break it down a bit better than that. So, was “Neuromancer” a stroke of genius ahead of its time, or is it an overvalued piece of mediocrity?
The Tale Told
Our protagonist is Case. By the time we meet him, he’s had an entire character arc of becoming a professional VR Hackerman, career criminal, then double-crossing his employers, who took their revenge on him by permanently damaging his VR Spinal wires or something. He wanders the world for a while, traveling from Clinic to Clinic, looking for a doctor that can fix him. Tragically, each doctor returns the same prognosis: Case can’t be fixed.
So Case gets fixed when a gazillionaire man in a suit named Armitage recruits Case out of his drunk and drug-fueled life in the slums, on the condition that Case does a special job for him. Also, the gazillionaire implants special poison sacs in Cases body that will undo the surgery that fixed Case if he doesn’t get the special antibody that only the suit-man knows. Basically, if Case doesn’t do the job, Case goes back to square one regarding his injury.
Joining Case on this mission is Molly, a cybernetic hired muscle with retractable knives under her fingertips. Case and Molly must work together to get the job done, by breaking into the home of one of the most unnerving but influential families around, while at the same time working just who exactly they’re working for in the first place…
What I Liked
I think my favorite part about “Neuromancer” has to be William Gibson’s description. His ideas and flavor are drizzled across the pages in a way that really sets the tone and puts the reader into the grim, cyberpunk mood. My favorite example has to be the opening line of the book, “The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.”
That’s such a good description. It makes my inner writer squeal. William Gibson could have just described the sky as cloudy and gray, but he didn’t. His descriptive prose is incredibly immersive and really sets the scene in a way that very few writers manage to do.
You can also tell this book’s age because of how William Gibson describes certain technology too. He describes certain technology that almost has become mainstream nowadays, but it’s clear that the words we use to describe them today didn’t exist in the ye olde times of 1984 when he wrote the book.
The best example is Virtual Reality. In order to do his special hacking technique, Case has to put on a special helmet with screens that loads him into a virtual world that’s more like an acid trip than a video game. The closest thing that existed at the time would have been Nintendo’s “Virtual Boy”, which wouldn’t release until the mid-nineties, and was a complete failure. So the fact that Willian Gibson, a decade earlier, manages to accurately describe the technology and only be marginally off from the real deal is incredible. Real-life VR no doubt owes its inspiration to William Gibson and other science fiction authors who dreamt of the technology that is now our reality.
Now, William Gibson didn’t actually invent the cyberpunk genre. That credit actually belongs to Bruce Bethke, who invented the term in his 1983 short story titled “Cyberpunk”, which was published in Amazing Science-Fiction Stories. The term was thus coined and was then applied to stories like “Neuromancer”. Still, William Gibson is perhaps one of the most important writers that popularized the genre, and many of the tropes that have stuck to the genre originated from this story.
People with robot arms? Check. Neon signs everything? Check. A generally depressing outlook of the future from the perspective of an alcoholic and miserable protagonist? Double-check.
There are also several very horrifying elements of the worldbuilding that are really cool and extremely dark. The darkest one is probably the brothels with women who use brain chips to turn off their consciousness. Basically, a client can rent a woman for a night with whatever personality he wants, and the prostitute doesn’t have to experience any of it because her mind is overridden for during the “session”. The client leaves, the prostitute “wakes up”, and she gets paid. It’s dark, grim, and definitively cyberpunk. I think it’s the lack of details like these that make more recent cyberpunk stories, like the new video game “Cyberpunk: 2077,” feel very bland and generic in comparison.
Last, but certainly not least, are the characters. I’ve read a number of books recently with pretty bland characters that kind of all blend into one another. It’s an unfortunate trend in the genre of “random books I bought in bookstores because I liked the cover”.
That is not the Case with Neuromancer. Case, Molly, (boss), and all the other characters feel properly distinct from one another, with fleshed-out personalities. For instance, there’s even a funny moment where a bunch of characters is crammed together in an elevator, and the villain femme-fatal just starts grinding on Case to annoy him. It’s all very in-character, and you get a good feel for what each one is like.
What I Didn’t Like
As I sort of hinted at somewhere above, there are chunks of this story that are like a bad acid trip (or at least, what I imagine an acid trip would be like). There are parts of the story where I stared at the page and asked, “Wait… why is this happening?”
For while the prose is generally quite descriptive and evocative, it can be kind of hard to follow the who and why of the plot. For example, there is this whole subplot with Case’s girlfriend (?), who is a junkie and dies early. Case almost on page one denies being in a relationship with her, then is shown to be cold towards her, then has a friends with benefits kind of thing going on, then she dies, and he has this whole mental breakdown about it, and it’s weird.
What makes it even weirder is that Case and Molly basically start their relationship almost immediately after meeting, without any kind of build-up or chemistry or preamble. In fact, it starts while Case is recovering from his surgery. I mean, considering the sheer amount of drugs and alcohol Case intakes in the story, Case obviously isn’t the kind of the guy who makes the best decisions about his own well-being- but he was recovering from spinal surgery. Maybe I’m blowing this out of proportion, but I felt that Case’s whole relationship (with either woman) is kind of out of nowhere but super relevant throughout the entire plot.
Another thing that was strange looking back on it was a whole piece of foreshadowing where Case grows to hate his secret boss (who’s been revealed at this point in the story). Case eventually has a talk with the boss, who tells him that it’s okay, and Case has gotta hate somebody by the end of the story as part of the super-special-secret plan. The need for that hatred never really materializes, though, from what I remember, because the climax of the book comes down to a simple damsel in distress sequence, followed by a dream sequence, followed by a line that says Case never gets the girl in the end.
So either the ending is really tragic and poetic in a way that I’m missing, or it’s all just miserable nonsense.
A final nitpick I have is how William Gibson describes Case. Or more accurately, it doesn’t. Case’s personality is on full display, as the entire story takes place from Case’s perspective, and we get to see inside his head throughout. However, Case’s actual physical description is left more or less vague, and when it is described, the only trait that seems to get attributed to Case is “average”. Basically, he’s an “average” looking white guy that otherwise looks like a malnourished drug addict. Is he tall? Is he short? Brown hair? Strong jaw? Scars? Earrings? No idea.
So the bottom line is, is Neuromancer worth reading? And the answer is… kind of. Neuromancer is a very strange book with a lot of genre-defining stuff in it and some very descriptive prose. It is definitively cyberpunk.
On the other hand, the book never really grabbed me in the way my favorite stories do. Maybe it’s because of the age of the book. Maybe it’s because I’m a bit of a book snob who’s privileged enough to live in the modern world with any book I want at my fingertips. I don’t know.
Neuromancer’s strength lies first in its worldbuilding, then its characters, and then its plot. In that order. While I did like the characters, and the characters were far from being the worst I’ve ever read, there was still something that didn’t click with me about them.
At the same time, there are enough cool elements in Neuromancer that aren’t in a lot of recent cyberpunk that makes it stand on its own. I suppose at the end of the day if you’re the kind of reader that likes older sci-fi and horror, like Issac Asimov’s or H.P. Lovecraft’s stories, it’s worth a read.
7 / 10 A bit niche, a bit dark, a bit weird. Cyberpunk through and through.