Ace, 1984, 271 pages, C$5.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-441-56959-5
Twenty years after its publication, it’s hard to feel the impact that Neuromancer had on the SF field for one truly good reason: More than any other SF novel of 1984 (itself somewhat of a banner year, wouldn’t you say?), William Gibson’s first novel discarded the old clichés of Science Fiction, took a look at the future and forged its own way. In doing so, it predicted the future so well that it fit right into it. Yes, looking at Neuromancer in 2004 is a whole new experience. In a world saturated with wi-fi, linked by the Internet, gripped with Terrorism Madness, Neuromancer almost feels like home.
No, I can’t look at Neuromancer today the way they did when it was published in 1984. But I can compare it with my first read, eleven years ago. Back then, I was in High School, reading the book on the patio in my parents’ backyard, mesmerized (and occasionally confused) by this novel so often recommended on those newfangled BBS I was exploring. Fast-forwards to 2004, and I’m a seasoned SF reviewer, reading Neuromancer in my own backyard and posting my review on my own web site. I have changed, but what about the book?
The good news is that even in 2004, it’s easy to see why Neuromancer swept the SF field off its jaded tripods: The novel still has something special; a mixture of high-tech knowledge and streetwise sense, firmly embedded in a global context where branding is more important than nationality. Gibson’s single biggest flash of genius may have been to realize, years before anyone else, that the future was going to be complicated. No easy answers. No global government. No unified set of laws followed by everyone. The real future is all about personal information management; as it gets more complicated, everyone becomes an information analyst… if only to survive.
It helps, naturally, that the book moves at the speed of a broadband connection. Carefully written yet propelled by a natural rhythm, Neuromancer milks the structure of a thriller as the gateway to a different future. This pacing isn’t constant, mind you: I believe that when people talk about Neuromancer in such glowing terms, they usually refer to the initial Earth-bound portion of the book. At the plot acquires orbital velocity, it diverges and meanders, losing itself slightly in its own drug-fuelled excesses and gratuitous psycho-sexual dynamics. There is a point, three-quarter through, where protagonist Case is stuck in VR: that doesn’t seem so fresh after twenty years of cyberpunk both written and screened. (Not that this is Gibson’s fault, of course; no visionary is so cursed as he is endlessly ripped-off.)
But the rest holds up more than enough. As you may guess, it’s Gibson’s gift for language that carries the novel through the end even as it starts revolving around itself and the plot is revealed to be simpler than anyone thought. It reads like noir without the laconic simplicity of it; you want to slow down and capture every image before going on to the next part. Characters are iconic but hollow; Case is a curiously absent protagonist as Gibson’s fetishism of cool makes his protagonist so unemotional as to be unable to react to anything except major annoyances.
But no matter. No matter, because even twenty years later, Neuromancer still triumphs over SF both current and contemporary. It won the Hugo and the Nebula, but more importantly, it got the future. No matter if there are no cell phones in the novel (wouldn’t that pay-phone sequence be so much cooler in a chirping crowd of ringtones?); it still has the right stuff. The attitude. The slick writing. The cool images. The basic understanding of how the real world works.
Reading Neuromancer today is like seeing a trailer for a classic movie. Sure, it’s a bit bombastic and a bit misleading and only hints at the characters and the real story…. but we know how it turns out.