“Neuromancer” by William Gibson
Is the cyberpunk genesis still relevant 32 years after its release?
William Gibson’s Neuromancer is considered to be the genesis, and by many people, the very definition of the cyberpunk genre. The 1984 novel takes the reader into a neon lit world, where man and machine has merged into one. Hackers fight drug induced wars against their own kind and powerful artificial intelligence in a virtual world called the Matrix1.
We meet Case, a burnt out hacker on the verge of putting a gun in his mouth, and pulling the trigger. Currently residing in the dystopian sprawl of Chiba City, in Tokyo, Japan, Case gets by doing low-level hustling jobs. Returning to the Matrix is out of the question: After steeling from an employer, he gets parts of his central nervous system fried with a mycotoxin. The damage permanently closes Case’ access to the Matrix. Or at least, so he thinks. On a job he stumbles across Molly Millions, a street-samurai, an augmented mercenary for a shadowy ex-military officer named Armitage. He offers to cure Case in exchange for his services as a hacker. The deal sounds almost too good to be true, and it quickly turns out that’s exactly the case.
Thus begins Case’ action-, drug- and sex-fueled adventure across the globe, inside the virtual world of the Matrix, and even up, up, and away in the sky to Freeside, a cylindrical space habitat, which is pretty much Las Vegas in space.
The world described by Gibson in Neuromancer is exactly what cyberpunk is to me: A dark and dystopian, yet plausible future filled to the brink with technology, mega corporations, action and artificial intelligence. At least in the parts of the book that takes place inside the Matrix, and down on Earth. A large chunk of the story is set on Freeside, and the place just feels off. Please, Mr. Gibson, take me back down to the sprawl, I love it there!
To be absolutely honest, I felt a bit bored through the whole ordeal. It’s relevant to point out that I reviewed2 in July 2001. Back then, I rated the novel 4 out of 5. This time, it’s 2 out of 5. So what has changed in 15 years?
I think what I really wanted to read was a book that takes place in my own idea of what a cyberpunk universe is. Neuromancer undoubtedly get a lot of it right, but it’s not on the money all the time. My idea of cyberpunk is vastly influence by one of my favorite teenage past times: Playing Shadowrun. I guess I should just read Shadowrun novels, there are plenty to chose from. But they can’t exactly be called fine art.
While Neuromancer in many ways defined the cyberpunk genre, calling it “fine art” might not be right either. For reasons unknown, Gibson is keenly spicing things up with very detailed and strictly unnecessary sex scenes when you least expect it. The 23-year-old me, who in July 2001 was only months away from getting his first, proper girlfriend, probably loved the idea of a nerdy antihero scoring with what is described in the book as a very well toned female. The 38-year-old me with a wife and a daughter? Not so much.
It could be that Gibson intended to use the sex scenes to make Case and Molly more human, and to make their love story an important part of the narrative. But I honestly think that he just went for a low hanging fruit: Sex sells. Sex between a nerd and a hottie in a book aimed at nerds sells even better.
Another reason for my disappointment with Neuromancer this time around might be that I knew the book is great. Or at least that I knew I had to think it is: I’m a nerd, and a nerd has to love the conception of cyberpunk, right? Of course. It’s like every fan of the fantasy genre have to love The Lord of the Rings. If you don’t, your friendly fantasy fans will leave you in the woods. Just like I now run the risk of being chased from the sprawl by keyboard wielding fellow nerds. But that’s OK, I’m pretty sure I can outrun most of them.
What I’m trying to convey is that Neuromancer isn’t a bad book. Far from it. I’m just not in the target audience anymore. The book never changed. I did.
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