Bert Olivier
Bert Olivier

A sci-fi novel that shaped a generation

When William Gibson’s science-fiction, “cyberpunk” novel Neuromancer, was published in 1984, ultimately winning the three most sought-after awards in the science-fiction world (The Nebula Award, The Philip K Dick Award and the Hugo Award) few people could prognosticate that it represented an imaginative projection of such magnitude that it would shape the way an entire new generation thinks. I am not exaggerating.

There is a strong case to be made that Bill Gates picked up the term “microsoft” from Neuromancer, changing it to “Microsoft”, that the Wachowski brothers and others borrowed the word and the idea of the “matrix” from there, that our conception of “cyberspace” and the by now utterly pervasive metaphorics of webs and networks have their roots in Gibson’s imagined future world of the “Sprawl”, Chiba, the space-floating resort of Freeside and, parasitically integrated with it, the domain of the Tessier-Ashpool clan, the Villa Straylight. Some of the imaginings of the elasticity of dream-time in David Fincher’s Inception, too, seem to draw on Gibson’s inventiveness regarding temporary flatline-time.

Neuromancer, Gibson’s first full-length novel, features a character, Molly Millions, a redoubtable, neurally enhanced “razorgirl” from a previous short story, Johnny Mnemonic, which was made into an entirely forgettable film, and if Neuromancer has, to the best of my knowledge, not been filmed, it is probably because its narrative complexity is such that most potential directors find it too daunting a prospect.

The central character is Case, a formerly talented hacker (a “cowboy” in Neuromancer parlance), who was neurally impaired by erstwhile employers when he stole from them. For this is a world where cloning, organ replacement and/or enhancement, as well as neural “souping up” (or, in Case’s case, neural injury) is commonplace in medical clinics (legit and illegit) which vie with one another for clients.

A skeletal account of the plot will do, lest I spoil it for those dubiously lucky souls who can go out and discover Neuromancer for the first time. Case is down, but not quite out when we meet him, barely making a living as a hustler in Chiba, Japan, his prodigious computer skills having been destroyed, but he is recruited for the ultimate hacking job by Molly on behalf of a mysterious character, Armitage, who happens to “know” of a clinic where Case can be neurally repaired.

Condensing brutally, the job also entails recruiting Peter Riviera, an impossibly beautiful, but perverse projectioneer-illusionist, and the assistance of two colourful Rastafarian “Zionist” characters, who relish combating “Babylon” in every guise — something that becomes somewhat ambiguous when one discovers that the motley team is actually in the “employ” of an AI — yes, Artificial Intelligence — named Wintermute, which (or who?) vastly surpasses anything of mere PC stature.

Case also has a hacker assistant, who died some time earlier in an encounter with a hostile AI in cyberspace, after building an enviable reputation for himself — Dixie, also referred to as “the flatline”, or “the construct” — whose electronically transformed consciousness is stolen by Molly from a heavily guarded archive. The flatline (Dixie) proves to be invaluable at the culminating moment, together with a Chinese supervirus, which has to be positioned by Case and Dixie with the use of an advanced computer called a Hosaka.

But this does not happen before a lot of action has taken place — in Chiba, in the “Sprawl” on the eastern seaboard of America, and, crucially, at a space resort called Freeside, owned and run by the almost mythical Tessier-Ashpool clan, whose patriarch is more than 200 years old, what with genetic rejuvenation and cryogenic spells in deep freeze. The “team” — in particular Case and the flatline — faces the task of getting into the Tessier-Ashpool’s lair, known as Straylight, to coax (or force) a secret code out of Lady 3Jane T-S (a clone of the original T-S daughter, as indicated by the 3).

This code, or word, will effect the merging of two AIs — Wintermute and Neuromancer — the latter, unlike Wintermute, having been in the background most of the time, and only announcing itself through a puzzling spell in the matrix on Case’s part, where he encounters his deceased former girlfriend, Linda Lee. The fusion of these two super artificial intelligences, if it can be pulled off, will elevate them in quasi-Hegelian fashion to a synthesis of unimaginable, sublime proportions of complexity.

To illustrate what I mean by claiming that the imaginative, metaphor-rich dimension in Neuromancer lifts it above “ordinary” science-fiction into the realm of “world literature”, here is a passage from the culminating sequence of events (p303) in the matrix’s cyberspace (after all manner of adversity had to be overcome, and some still lingers, even in the event of success):

“His eyes were eggs of unstable crystal, vibrating with a frequency whose name was rain and the sound of trains, suddenly sprouting a humming forest of hair-fine glass spines. The spines split, bisected, split again, exponential growth under the dome of Tessier-Ashpool ice … darkness fell in from every side, a sphere of singing black, pressure on the extended crystal nerves of the universe of data he had nearly become … ”

There are several themes in Neuromancer (and its “Sprawl” sequels, Count Zero and Mona Lisa Overdrive) that are significant for understanding our own time, as well as that towards which we seem to be moving. Most people are aware of smartphones and some of the other “smart” stuff related to it, like smart cars. Well, Gibson imagined all that way back in the 1980s — cars, aeroplanes and houses that talk to you and respond to your requests or instructions, or ghostly companions that come to virtual appearance when you summon them by touching a “remote”, like genies from a bottle.

But most central to the novel is the endless non-landscape of the “matrix” — of which it is said that “there is no there, there” — in which one can get lost when you’re “jacked in”, and the virtual fascination of which is such that it is addictive. Sound familiar? Today it is part of the cultural environment, but these qualitatively distinct features of a future world seemingly, almost, within reach today, were conjured up by Gibson at the time, and transformed into a novel so novel that commentators penned remarks such as “nobody can out-Gibson Gibson”.

One of the scariest themes developed in Neuromancer and its sequels is surely that of “biolab industries” and their endless supply of organs — new livers, new eyes, new hearts — to anyone who can pay. Why scary, one may ask — surely it would be great if one could just replace your worn-out ticker and prolong your life at will? At first blush this seems reasonable, but think of the context — so persuasively described by Gibson — within which this operates: this futuristic practice not only enables the replacement of a pancreas about to collapse under the impact of years of getting high on drugs; it positively encourages one to become addicted, because any dire consequences for your body can be bio-medically addressed. Moreover, if one considers the planet to be overpopulated today, think of a time when — given the funds — life can be prolonged indefinitely through all manner of genetic interventions. Nevertheless, Gibson’s hugely inventive extrapolation of the 1980s into the future is a plausible one.

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    • Maria

      Thanks, Bert; methinks Neuromancer will be re-read by yours truly. I’m teaching a course on technology and the future this term, and this reminder is very timely. You probably know that Hardt and Negri also – confirming what you say here – cite Neuromancer as the first novel that introduced the “project” of a world as web, as network. This means that Manuel Castells’ The Network Society is similarly indebted to Gibson. My favorite of the trilogy is Count Zero.

    • Lennon

      I hadn’t heard of Neuromancer until now, but it seems like something that I should get my hands on at some point.

      I have, however, read a bit of Asimov. In his book ‘The Caves of Steel’ he describes a data network called ‘the Ether’ which is very much like the modern Internet.

      He also had the idea of pay-per-view movies which were streamed over the Ether.

    • Bert

      Oops! A slip of memory there – it should read “…Christopher Nolan’s Inception…”, and not “…David Fincher’s Inception…” Don’t know why I have a tendency to confuse those two directors. Sigh…

    • Daniel Berti

      Didn’t read the whole article because I now intend to read the book.
      Just wanted to note that the Wachowskis are not brothers anymore.
      I found out this somewhat interesting fact a couple days ago so I thought it may interest others.

    • suntosh

      Great read, Bert. I’ve dabbled in Gibson in a Media undergrad course, but I am one of those “dubiously lucky souls who can go out and discover Neuromancer for the first time”.

      The last paragraph certainly opens up a debate on the practical and ethical implications of extending life.

    • A M Smith

      Thanks Bert – you have inspired me to re-reard the novel.

    • The Big Fig

      Thank you for an excellent article. It inspired me to immediately give my copy to my 14 year old daughter with an interest in technology, making William Gibson required reading I guess.

      If she gets into it, and I feel sure she will, then I will introduce her to Philip K. Dick next whose work, in my opinion, contains deeper philisophical ideas that may be too much for a 14 year old intellect to grasp just yet.

    • Bert

      Thanks for the comments, everyone – whether you read, for the first time, or re-read Neuromancer, you’re bound to enjoy it. It was after re-reading it recently that I decided I’d post a piece on it. Maria – I am teaching a course on philosophy and literature this coming term, and Neuromancer is on the reading list. Of course, if you’re going to read Neuromancer, you can’t neglect reading Count Zero and Mona Lisa Overdrive as well – they ‘complete’ the triangle beautifully. Daniel-Berti, yes, I did know that one of the Wachowskis has had a sex-change operation (post-Matrix), and is now Lana or something. Suntosh – isn’t it amazing how many really fundamental philosophical questions are raised by good science fiction – the ontological status of the matrix is elaborated on throughout these three novels in a fascinating manner.

    • The Creator

      It would be interesting if Bill Gates copied the term “microsoft” from a book written in 1983 when the firm was founded in 1975.

      The concept of artificially-grown organs had been around for decades before Gibson, and the concept of someone being stored as software had been around at least since the 1950s (see Cordwainer Smith/Paul Linebarger’s “The Dead Lady of Clown Town”).

      Gibson’s novels are entertaining, but there is almost nothing original about them except their style and their political significance, which is profound. (This is true of most science fiction, of course.)

    • Bert

      Thanks for that reminder, Creator – you may be right, that ‘microsof’ was perhaps borrowed by Gibson from Gates, although some of the Gibson short stories that preceded Neuromancer – those collected in the volume, Burning Chrome, for example – were published in the mid-1970s. About Gibson’s ‘originality’, perhaps one could say that what was to be found sporadically in other works before Neuromancer (or the short stories Burning Chrome, or Johnny Mnemonic), was brought together in an encompassing, thoroughly integrated vision in the Sprawl trilogy, most notably, and in the densest manner, in Neuromancer. In the same way, in social theory, Manuel Castells brought together all the interconnected concepts concerning networks and webs, in as far as they applied to society, in his work, The Network Society and its sequels. Besides, ‘originality’ seldom – if ever – means ‘complete’, out-of-thin-air creation of entirely novel entities – even Shakespeare’s highly ‘original’ plays have their roots in other works that he had read, and proceeded to transform into something vastly exceeding the quality of the ‘original’, which probably had its roots, too, in something else. This is why Gibson is often cited – to my mind justly so – as the sci-fi writer who gave us the fictional blueprint for understanding our own, rapidly evolving world.

    • The Creator

      Well, I admit Fredric Jameson liked him, which counts for something. But it should be remembered that science fiction is a palimpsest; scrape away at it at any point and you immediately find something else written underneath.

      Look, for instance, at China Mieville’s Perdido Street Station, which is filled with the spirit of the New Wave of the early 1970s (most specifically M John Harrison’s work) and yet is recognisably early twenty-first-century in its focus.

    • Richard

      I grew up reading Arthur Conan Doyle, C.S. Lewis, Arthur C. Clarke, Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein… I never really took to the “cyberpunk” school of sci-fi, much preferring the grand sweep and vision of the old school variety. I loved the possibilities offered by “Childhood’s End,” “2001: A Space Odyssey,” “Out of the Silent Planet,” “The Time Machine”, et al. However, I have had “Neuromancer” for a while and will dust it off. The older works were much more man in the universe, whereas I find the modern ones are much more socially orientated. In our disjointed and navel-gazing age, a bit more reflection on our place in nature and the universe wouldn’t go amiss!

    • Bert

      I might have added that, among the things probably influenced by Neuromancer, there are also the two films – excellent ones, at that – by Wim Wenders and Katherine Bigelow, To the End of the World and Strange Days, respectively, in both of which the notion of the addictiveness of virtual reality is thematized. Even the ‘squid’ technology used for mediating this in both films leans heavily on Gibson’s idea of ‘trodes’ attached to one’s head to be able to ‘jack into’ the matrix. And I should add that the way the ‘matrix’ is conceived of in Neoromancer and the other Sprawl stories is far more persuasive than in the Wachowskis’ The Matrix.

    • Lennon

      I haven’t read much in the way of sci-fi, but I’ve certainly watched quite a few movies and shows over the years.

      Star Trek has always appealed to be because of its examination of ethics and different cultures which vary from honour and glory in combat (the Klingons) to the literal worship of currency (the Ferengi). It also examines the human condition from an outsider’s perspective. For example, there’s an episode in which the Ferengi characters learn about the testing of atomic weapons during the 20th century which one of them described as “stupid”. It also appealed to what may be if we were to (pardon the obscenity) get our sh!t together instead of killing each other for a percentage.

      Other movies / shows which I enjoyed are:
      The Outer Limits (remake)
      The Twilight Zone (still busy with this one)
      Ghost in the Shell
      Invasion of the Body Snatchers (both the original and the 70’s remake)
      Forbidden Planet
      Logan’s Run (and its sort of remake The Island)
      Event Horizon
      Robotech / Macross
      The Mist
      Black Mirror (part two, specifically)

      There are more, but what stood out for me in these were the way in which they tackled ethics and mindsets. A lot of them also contain societal, technological and (sometimes) political elements which are slowly appearing in the world today.

    • Lennon

      @ Bert: Strange Days is still one of the most mind-blowing films I’ve ever seen.

      I see the film as a warning (just as Black Mirror is) to the potential for abuse of technology – taken to the extreme in the case of Strange Days. But when you consider the obscene things done by individuals in the past, it’s not difficult to imagine others with similar mindsets abusing technology for similar ends.

      Looking at how people can’t “function” without social networks (never mind just having a simple cell phone) I would say that the addiction is spreading quite rapidly. My friends can’t understand how I go without a Facebook or Twitter account. I remember an evening out where one friend was on Facebook while we were out at a club – a trend which, sadly, is also on the increase especially with

    • Bert

      Lennon – I agree with you about Bigelow’s Strange Days – it is no accident that it is also a film noir, i.e. a film that explores the depths of evil and degradation that humans can sink to, in this case with the dubious ‘aid’ of technology.
      Richard – I’m sure that, if you enjoy Robert Heinlein – one of my favourite sci-fi authors – you will enjoy Neuromancer and its sequels. In fact, Heinlein’s The Moon is a harsh Mistress has a similar ‘feel’ to it as Neuromancer. The only sci-fi that makes sense to me is the kind that does not degenerate into space fantasy, with aliens and all the rest, but extrapolates from the present into a credible future, which is rooted in our present.

    • Lennon

      I forgot to mention ‘Soylent Green’ and ‘Moon’.

    • Lennon

      @ Bert: Regarding your mention of space fantasy…

      There are quite a few things from some space shows that are creeping into 21st century life.

      Robots / androids are one example. Granted, what we have today aren’t quite on the same level as C-3P0, Data or Cylons where intelligence or personality are concerned, but from a mechanical point of view we are closing the gap fairly rapidly. Boston Dynamix has created a pack mule capable of negotiating failry rugged terrain unaided by human hands. This robot can even walk across a frozen lake and successfully fight to maintain its balance even after a kick which would knock most people over. The British MoD is finishing up on a prototype aerial drone which can pick targets at will (but cannot fire without confirmation from HQ).

      Cybernetic implants are another growing field: The US DARPA has successfully grafted limbs onto rats which integrate directly with their nervous systems – without being rejected. The US DoD is currently working on a new coms system which, using electrodes, will allow soldiers to communicate almost telepathically.

      The DoD has also started work on genetically enhanced soldiers. Their first project is to control the metabolism so that a soldier can go for several days without eating, but tweaking the way in which the body uses fat stores for nutrition. With our genome mapped its only a matter of time before we have our very own Khan Noonien Singh.

    • WH Greeff

      In a fictional future which has become increasingly more realistic and inevitable as society descends further into the hole which the dawn of the 21st century represents, we are only as good as the world allows us to be. The novel tells of a happy over-achiever, who through a series of events progressed to neither happy nor an over-achiever. The love of his life is gone. His talent, his only trait that had any measurable value to society, was taken from him. Driven to drugs and corrupted slowly by their effects, his morality and humanity slowly began to fade.
      The world that Case finds himself in, seems to be controlled by AI’s, particularly Wintermute. Technology has many similar traits and characteristics to that of its creator, humankind. Technology is, just as humans are, continuously developing and wanting to improve, always wanting more. The dawn of the 21st century represents the start of the technological revolution. The newly formed AI, the product of Wintermute and Neromancer joining to form one, instantly searches for similar living objects as itself. It is this trait of technology which is extremely similar to humankind, as we also long for our own kind immediately after we are introduced to the world. Once we become aware of ourselves, we become aware of others.
      Society fears anything that it doesn’t understand and can’t control. The computer force that is created by the joining of Wintermute and Neromancer represents what we can’t understand nor control. We…

    • WH Greeff

      We are no longer impressed by the limits space has set us, but by the unlimited level of ingenuity we have progressed to on earth.

    • robertoX

      I suggest you also read the even more remarkably prescient, The Forever War 1974, by Joe Haldeman