Good 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