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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