Neuromancer by William Gibson

ImageGood writers follow the adage, “Show, don’t tell.” William Gibson prefers “just don’t tell.”

In other words, this book needs pictures.

At the risk of sounding like a dummy, I won’t pretend I understood everything that happens in Neuromancer. At least, not all by myself. This is the kind of book that would benefit from an abridged version for its less computer-literate readers. In my case, an occasional Googling of terminology* and, upon my completion of the story, a cursory read of an online summary, aided in my comprehension of this complex and trippy novel. I would recommend this approach for any future readers who do not subscribe to Wired magazine.

It’s not that the plot is particularly genius– there are other things going on that are genius, but the plot is not one of them– it’s just that so many elements are only alluded to, with the expectation that the reader make some pretty wild assumptions, and there were a few leaps I completely missed. I appreciate that level of trust in a relationship between author and reader, but Mr. Gibson did baffle me at times.

Here is my summary of the introduction. The words in parentheses are my translations of common references in the story.

Henry Case, former console cowboy (computer hacker that actually implants himself into cyberspace) and current drug addict, lives in Japan in a cheap coffin (hotel rooms that are plastic capsules primarily used for sleeping). He is recruited by a stranger named Armitage and a Razorgirl (female bodyguard with surgical enhancements, like retractable blades underneath fingernails, and martial arts training) named Molly. The trio attempt to pull off a heist involving a ROM module construct (a dead console cowboy whose consciousness has been uploaded into cyberspace for posterity) and an unknown black market computer virus designed to break the ice (security software) of a corporate techno-conglomerate owned by a wealthy family who alternate states of cloning and cryogenics, but reside in an ornate (late 20th century junk pile) mansion (concrete maze) on the tip of a space island (spindle-shaped space station at L5, a location within the moon’s orbit of Earth– thank you, Wikipedia).

Oh, and there are Rastafarian space tugboat drivers (Rastafarian space tugboat drivers).

Normally, context can help a reader make inferences about the meaning of most of these things, but the context in this book is pretty trippy and vague. I was especially lost whenever Gibson took the scenic route with his allusions to the design of the elements of his world, whether it be a spindle-shaped space island or a labyrinth-like mansion in zero-gravity. I needed pictures to grasp it all.

Why it’s amazing:

1. It’s prophetic. Neuromancer was written in 1984. William Gibson was one of the first writers to coin the term cyberspace, but his description is probably the most accurate foretelling of what would eventually become the Internet: “A consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators…” It’s old news now, but imagine reading about something like that back in the days when MTV played music videos.

2. It’s creative. There are a whole lot of things going on here. I was expecting a cut-and-dry heist story that takes place within cyberspace. I was not expecting humans with holographic capabilities or trips to outer space.

3. It’s well-written. Gibson’s prose is lovely, even when you don’t know what the hell is going on.

4. It’s nightmarish. Imagine an all-powerful, cybernetic artificial intelligence stalking you. The scene with the payphones creeped me out. (Granted, Gibson’s foresight did not extend to the future’s reliance on cell phones.)

What was not-so-amazing:

1. Boring, jaded characters lacking plausible, if any, motivation. The artificial constructs are the only things with personality in this book. And, maybe the Rastafarian space tugboat guys, and that’s only because they are blatant, 2-dimensional stereotypes. And, Case is the only character who actually has a legitimate, albeit forced, stake in the operation. Everyone else is just there for funnsies (there is a promised pay-off, but do you think a riotous AI keeps promises?) Even the antagonists seem to have no real purpose or interest in the outcome.

2. Lots of “WTF, I better Google that” moments, which is fine, when I’m dealing with esoteric techno-verbage, but not when the story fails to explain fundamental character traits or plot points. Am I to assume that when a slimy, octopus-like creature bursts out of a guy’s chest and runs off, it’s only a hologram that the man is capable of producing as a distraction? And, how did I miss that the purpose of the fake terrorism plot was to steal the consciousness of a dead, former console cowboy? I thought they were just doing it for practice.

My guess is that Neuromancer gets better with multiple readings, and some prior knowledge. Even my re-readings of passages for this review have resulted in a better understanding, while deepening my appreciation of Gibson’s writing style. Still, this is not a story to charm or warm its readers. The characters are self-destructive lowlifes who commit crimes for personal gain, and they won’t change or grow by the conclusion. I advise readers to approach this story with the desire to explore groundbreaking ideas concerning artificial intelligence, human interaction with cyberspace, and space tourism. Neuromancer won the sci-fi triple crown for its ideas and its landscapes, although the actual story and its characters leave much to be desired.

*Where Google failed me: I still don’t know what a Braun is (a small, computerized butler/pet?). Or a fletcher (an arrow-gun?).

Next read: Rendevous with Rama by sci-fi grandmaster Arthur C. Clarke

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26 thoughts on “Neuromancer by William Gibson

  1. Joachim Boaz says:

    A fletcher is a SF standard 😉 Shoots lots of tiny metal arrows…. Hmm, I don’t think understanding every bit of tech jargon is really necessary in appreciating a book. But yes, overload is frustrating — for sure. The worst of the bunch in this regard is Charles Stross….

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    • Joachim Boaz says:

      A fletcher is also called a flechette gun. I’ve seen the second term much more often than fletcher.

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        • fromcouchtomoon says:

          Thanks for the clarification, and for the warning about Stross! He’ll come up on my list eventually.

          I can usually look up the tech jargon, but I didn’t expect I would have to Google “why did that thing burst out of that guy’s chest in Neuromancer and nobody seems freaked out about it.” Not really, but I did have to look up the character profile and did a huge forehead slap for not assuming it was a holographic projection. To be fair, the text did clarify (indirectly, of course) the dude’s holographic potential later, but I wanted answers ASAP!

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          • Joachim Boaz says:

            Stross’ Singularity Sky (2002) is one of the key reasons I quit reading SF post 1980.

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          • fromcouchtomoon says:

            Haha, now I’m committed to reading this horrible book. My reading list is already decided through the end of the year, but this is going down for January, for sure.

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          • Joachim Boaz says:

            Well, it was nominated for a Hugo. People swear that it’s a classic. The pages and pages of empty technobabble annoyed the hell out of me. Stuff like this: “At nonrelativistic speeds, Lord Vanek maneuvered by dumping mass into the kernel; complex quantum tunneling interactions — jiggery-pokery within the ergosphere — transformed it into raw momentum.” Yeah, he used “jiggert-pokery” because he knew he was spewing nonsense shit.

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          • fromcouchtomoon says:

            Jiggery-pokery? Sounds like Dr. Seuss. Knowing that it’s full of empty nonsense, I can at least give my Google app a break.

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  2. It’s a tough trap, right? If an author dreams up a fantastic enough world, he or she has either to go into tons of detail or just drop the reader in. I felt the same disorientation for the first 50 pages or so of The Windup Girl.

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    • fromcouchtomoon says:

      Yeah, I probably would have been boggled with Windup Girl if I hadn’t seen so many travel shows about Thailand around that time. I just pictured what I’ve seen on TV, but added giant elephant-type creatures and some clockwork-style machinery. I think Neuromancer is intended to be read and re-read for the full experience, just because it’s such a rich and complex world. Windup Girl is the similar in that way.

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  3. Darth Gandalf says:

    I couldn’t agree more with this review. My friend recommended me this book about a decade ago. He loves Gibson so I thought I’d give it a shot. While there is no doubting that he is a visionary and started the cyberpunk wave the plot was painstaking at times, like you I didn’t understand all the techno babble, and to be quite frank it was boring at times. However, I will say that without Neuromancer the world probably wouldn’t have Jeff Sommers’ “The Electric Church” or Ernest Cline’s “Ready Player One” two books I absolutely adore.

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    • fromcouchtomoon says:

      So glad you agree! I’m always hesitant to criticize these landmark books for fear of blaspheming the SF gods, but Neuromancer was pretty clunky. I’m still glad I read it because, as you said, it inspired an entire subgenre. This was probably my first real cyberpunk book, and I usually avoid the movies, just because the empty void of cyberspace doesn’t appeal to my typically warmer tastes.

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  4. I’ve not read it since it came out, but remember how original it felt at the time. While films like the Matrix have dealt with a lot of it in more modern ways, I still remember the good ideas it had – I even played the video game which was pretty good. I’ll have to go back for a re-read.

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    • fromcouchtomoon says:

      I didn’t realize there was a video game, but I’m not surprised. I’m trying to imagine how bizarre each level would be. I bet it even had a level with Rastafarian space tugboat dudes.

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  5. hehe. There have also been rumours about for YEARS about a movie: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1037220/

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  6. […] if they go in expecting a cyber-mystery. Don’t let the synopsis fool you. This is no Neuromancer (it’s actually the year before Neuromancer changed the world). The cyber bait-and-switch […]

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  7. […] Science Neuromancer by William Gibson (1984) Weird, trippy, and kind of old-fashioned, Gibson’s groundbreaking novel about an AI with an […]

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  8. […] the murky techno-babble of Neuromancer can be off-putting to readers, Wake overcorrects by spoon-feeding general terms like Google and […]

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  9. […] to no less than five types of guns and two non-fatal weapons, I groaned. Will this be another Neuromancer? Heavy on weaponry and jargon, light on character development, circuitous on plot, but brimming […]

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  10. Justy says:

    For future reference: Braun is a brand (they make coffee makers; one of their alarm clocks is in the Museum of Modern Art in NYC), and Gibson extrapolates that they’ll make other stuff. I think the Brauns on Freeside or in Villa Straylight are basically Roombas / multipurpose service robots.

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    • fromcouchtomoon says:

      Ohhhhh! I did not make that connection to Braun the brand. Thanks for the clarification!

      It’s always interesting to see which companies scifi authors predict will dominate the world in the future. I saw Dole in a book recently, and I guess a modern author would use something like Amazon or Apple.

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  11. […] ten years after Gibson blew minds with Neuromancer, he polished his style and released this cyber-light crime drama. The characterization and […]

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  12. […] voters, we actually almost agree! Neuromancer is tops, now that I’m accustomed to the wacked out, cyber megatext, and Gibson’s […]

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