The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.So begins one of the seminal works of the second half of the twentieth century, William Gibson’s vision of a cyberpunk future, Neuromancer. Cyberpunk was always a grittier, clunkier vision than reality suggested, and it’s notable that by the time Pattern Recognition came along, Gibson was writing a future more recognisable from the present day, but what he wrote in Neuromancer was undoubtedly compelling and still feels like a kind of truth. His greatest “failure” of course, was to appreciate back then quite how quickly the size of information would mushroom – he was talking about millions of megabytes – which seemed a lot to those of us who’d just bought a machine with an impressive 48K, but laughable now, when a hard disk with a terabyte of memory is available for home use. (Out of curiosity I checked, and Amazon has one such for considerably less than the Speccy cost, a sleek black brick that would have made Gibson’s protagonist Case drool with desire. Um, I had trouble not pressing Buy Now With One-Click.)
If you don’t know Neuromancer, it’s not just a superbly dystopian vision, but also a great example of the modern gothic novel, a book of baroque descriptions where every detail counts. It’s as if he was writing in computer code, where a tiny missing element cripples the programme. It was with Gibson I developed my habit of reading three-quarters, then going back to the beginning, primarily because I wanted to make sure I hadn’t missed anything, but also because I love his writing, the descriptions which lead you into the matrix, the terse exchanges between characters which are laden with subtext.
One of Gibson’s strengths is in his female characters, who are memorable, but Neuromancer’s Molly is the best. Physically enhanced to hone her fighting skills, she is nonetheless human. At first she seems invincible, and by the time you discover that she’s not you are reading with your heart in your mouth. Your involvement with her is heightened by an interesting device: for much of the latter part of the book you are watching Case watching Molly’s actions through her eyes, as she virtually guides him through the Villa Straylight – Case can see what Molly can see, and can hear her voice, but is unable to communicate with her otherwise, he’s a silent passenger, unable to intervene when she encounters trouble. It lends a peculiar intensity to these chapters, as you are doubly conscious of Case’s concern for both Molly and their mission and, at the same time, you are following Molly, seeing the detail which isn’t available to Case.
The Villa Straylight is a gloriously Gormenghastly edifice, its denizens gothic grotesques, members of the ancient and inbred dynasty, Tessier-Ashpool. Well, they are clones, but they show all the genetic weaknesses of inbreeding, despite their longevity and personal modifications. They are a microcosm of the world they inhabit, where everything is multi-layered, convoluted, deceptive. In Case’s matrix, too, things may not be what they seem, or who they seem, and mistakes may be fatal. In both matrix and the real world, motives are opaque and both AIs and humans may be untrustworthy.
Although it can be read as a standalone novel, the events of Neuromancer continue, equally tortuously, in two sequels, Count Zero and Mona Lisa Overdrive, and thematically, throughout all Gibson’s books, though his settings are getting closer and closer to our own time. If you like Neuromancer, considerable pleasure awaits, but I have to admit that there are people who simply don’t get Gibson and his idiosyncratic writing style. Neil Gaiman says that if you grew up reading comic books their characters get into your head and become real to you; it’s the same with Gibson. I was at a reading, once, where he was asked whether he would continue to resist allowing a film to be made of Neuromancer. Well, he asked rhetorically, would you allow a scriptwriter to get their hands on Molly?