(e-book, originally published 1984)
Gibson’s first novel was written, so the author has said, in a state of “blind animal terror.” It doesn’t show. It’s an accomplished piece of work, conveying a dystopian future of mega-corporations and polluted cities with ease and clarity, and without much info-dumping. It was certainly a change from the Sookie Stackhouse books I’d been reading immediately before I started Neuromancer!
Case is the novel’s protagonist, a former hacker who has spent the last few years in the city of Chiba hustling to make money and desperately searching for a cure to the brain damage which has left him unable to hack into cyberspace. The brain damage was artificially induced by his former employers, from whom he had stolen money,. but not even the skilled Japanese neurosurgeons can rectify the damage and allow Case to return to hacking.
It’s while he’s down to his lowest resources, his girlfriend Linda stealing his last megabyte of data (effectively currency), that he’s recruited by a surgically-augmented mercenary called Molly to join a team headed by the enigmatic and seemingly wealthy Armitage. While Armitage doesn’t reveal what his ultimate aim is, Case’s neurological damage is cured (though he’s also given a new pancreas engineered so that he can no longer metabolize drugs), and he and Molly first attack Sense/Net to retrieve the stored personality of Case’s former mentor, Pauley. Case also investigates Armitage, finding out that his real name is Corto, and that he was the lone survivor of a US mission into the Soviet Union.
While travelling the world, and then a space station which acts as a luxurious resort, the team acquires another member, Peter Riviera, who is able to project hallucinations. While Armitage suffers a breakdown, Case and Molly discover what it is that they’re really doing, and why they’ve got the Turing police on their trail.
There is a lot to digest in this book. Gibson paints an astonishingly full and detailed picture of this future Earth, full of augmented and neurologically-enhanced people, from the lowest criminal underclass to the wealthiest of industrial combines. Self-interest is rife, violence and murder common. Drugs of every sort proliferate. It’s not a future I’d want to live in, certainly, though the wealthy (of course) probably see a different world.
Case is not entirely sympathetic, but he makes a good protagonist, through whose eyes we see the action – Gibson cleverly lets us see what’s going in scenes where Case is not physically present through the use of projection – he is able to access Molly’s senses through his and her own neurological enhancements. I really liked Molly, though. She’s a tough sort of girl, who later reveals a surprising history (surprising because it’s so different to how she is in the time period of the novel, not because it’s unbelievable), and is competent and strong. She takes an odd liking to Case, I think, but it works in the context of the novel.
The ideas of ‘cyberspace’ and artificial intelligences limited by the Turing statutes were first popularised by this book – it’s even been suggested that the Internet has grown up as it is by being influenced by Gibson’s descriptions of it. Gibson certainly illuminates all this, and gives pictures of what is essentially not real and only figurative: I can definitely see why this novel was so influential, given the countless imitations it has spawned in the quarter-century since its publication – not to mention informing media depictions of technology and hacking.
There is quite a lot of violence – both physical and mental – and nearly every character is selfish and often unpleasant (the Zionist – Rastafarian – community who help Case and the team are notable exceptions), but the book holds the attention and is very compelling. I imagine this future world as being uniformly grey and overcast lit by bright lights and turning every face lurid colours. I haven’t read a lot of dystopian sci-fi, and so am unsure whether Neuromancer is even typical – it’s certainly different to most books I’ve read. I’ll certainly look out for more of Gibson’s work.