NEUROMANCER by William Gibson (1984)

neuromancerI have a difficult relationship with this novel.

I know that it is one of the most groundbreaking and significant SF works ever written but each time I pick  it up I always get lost in the dense prose and what hits me as an overwhelming rush of jargon.

As most will know, this was where the word ‘cyberspace’ was first popularized and for that alone Gibson is assured of immortality, at least until the wires of that feed the human race are permanently unplugged.

He brilliantly describes the then fledgling internet as a “consensual hallucination” and the lead character Case is paid to hack into “the infinite neuroelectric void of the matrix”.

It could be imagined that the story and atmosphere were inspired by the Ridley Scott’s futuristic visions in Bladerunner but the novel was well underway before that movie was released. Neuromancer has not yet  been made into a film but The Matrix trilogy and countless other movies owe much to the world Gibson imagined.

Paradoxically, the author admits that he has a fairly rudimentary knowledge of advanced technology and, at the time of writing the novel, only a vague inkling of how the world-wide web would come to dominate our lives and rewire our minds.

Cited as the definitive Cyberpunk novel, Neuromancer’s initial appeal was not among Punk Rockers (who were not great readers!). In the illuminating and, for me , nigh on indispensable web notes by Paul Brians of Washington State University, the English professor notes: “Gibson’s prose was too dense and tangled for casual readers, so it is not surprising that he gained more of a following among academics than among the sort of people it depicted”.

Brains is infinitely reassuring. He writes that Gibson’s plot and characterization are actually quite flimsy yet points out that “it is not the tale but the manner of its telling that stands out”.  This is apparently from one of the best ever opening lines: “The sky above the port was the color of television tuned to a dead channel”.

Raymond Chandler and Philip K.Dick are obvious influences, and Gibson’s masterstroke was to craft a kind of hi-tech remake of hard-boiled crime novels to create what Brains defines as “paranoid conspiratorial fiction”.

Gibson’s genius was, and is, his ability to recognize that conventional language does not do justice to the huge psychological impact technology has had on our lives.

In his vision, what he called “the meat” of humans is pitched against the vast machinery.  The fact that we are now all part of the digital grinder takes on a more and more sinister aspect with each passing year as global corporations and shadowy networks infiltrate and influence our mindsets.

William Gibson  could not have been known the scale of these developments but the fact that the novel was published in 1984 should have given a clue that this was meant as an Orwellian  warning not a celebration of human achievement.

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