NEUROMANCER. Probably not the first cyberpunk novel (if it’s even possible to identify such a thing) but arguably the one that had the most influence on the development of the genre and, from a personal perspective, the first one I ever read. There’s so much juicy cyberpunk goodness to dig into here, from cyberspace-faring console cowboys to nihilistic terrorist subcultures, from vat-grown Yakuza assassins to rogue artificial intelligences taking on the ever vigilant Turing Police, this book is pure cyberpunk.
It’s the story of a down-on-his-luck hacker called Case, once the best data-thief in the business who made the mistake of trying to steal from his employer. Now neurologically crippled by his vengeful former boss, he’s no longer capable of jacking in to ‘the matrix’. That is until he’s offered a cutting edge cure by a new, enigmatic employer in return for taking on one last heist. Working alongside a ‘razorgirl’ street samurai and the reconstructed consciousness of his dead mentor, Case must unravel the puzzle of his mysterious employer while pulling off the most daring job of his life.
I love this book. I’ve read it several times now and every time that opening chapter hooks me right in. Straight away we’re drawn into the seedy underbelly of Night City in all its infamy and ill-repute. The dive bars frequented by drug dealers and pimps, the street vendors hawking illegal software and black market weapons beneath the counter, the hustlers and the smugglers and the black market clinics dealing in experimental biotechnology and gene-editing techniques. Gibson sums up the dystopia of his setting and the complete domination of multinational corporations in this world of monopoly capitalism in this opening chapter when he describes Night City as ‘a deranged experiment in social Darwinism, designed by a bored researcher who kept one thumb permanently on the fast forward button’. That description highlights the lack of control the powerless underclass of the book have to affect any change in the world around them and is really what Case is rebelling against throughout the story.
The weird thing about Neuromancer for me is that it isn’t hyper focussed on character, which is usually a big deal for me. And by that I don’t mean the characters aren’t interesting, they’re very interesting people, I mean this is less a story about diving deep into the inner workings and relationships between individual characters than it is about people fighting systems of power in whatever limited ways they’re able. I realise those things aren’t mutually exclusive, and maybe it could have been a better book if there was more focus on character, but for me it didn’t matter. The star of this show is the setting and the way people interact with technology, and that’s coming from someone who usually thinks character is paramount.
One thing I will say though is don’t necessarily expect to feel comfortable immediately because Gibson does not over-explain anything. You get dropped into this familiar-yet-jarring world and you’re expected to roll with it and do your best to keep up. It’s actually one of the things I love about this book, that the world has its own vernacular that can be quite rattling and unsettling to start with, but which does become second nature after a while. I think its a very clever narrative technique where the fragmented dialogue and disjointed jumps from scene to scene mirror the kind of uncontrolled disintegration of the hyper-globalised, postmodern setting. I’d liken the sensation of reading Neuromancer to somehow being able to watch unstable atoms undergo radioactive decay in real time at an alarming rate.
If you’re new to cyberpunk this is honestly a fantastic place to start and somewhere you quickly become acquainted with all the hallmark trappings of the genre. A fantastic book that changed the direction of science fiction for a generation.
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