Friday, 28 May 2004

William Gibson: Neuromancer (1984)

Neuromancer coverEdition: Voyager, 1995
Review number: 1239

Neuromancer is one of the few novels which revolutionised their genre. After twenty years, its influence has only become more obvious - it's hard to think of a serious science fiction novel of the last decade which doesn't owe a debt to Neuromancer, not to mention films like the Matrix.

The story is pretty typical of thrillers, a seemingly simple plot turning out to contain wheels within wheels. Case is a burnt out computer hacker, unable to "jack in" to "cyberspace" (phrases invented, recontextualised or popularised by Gibson fill the novel) because he has been contaminated with a neural toxin on top of drug addiction. He is plucked from what is almost a down and out's existence, fixed up by the finest surgeons using revolutionary procedures all to carry out what would be his grestest coup: to hack an artificial intelligence owned by a mysterious Swiss based family firm.

Computers of some sort had long been part of the science fiction stock of clich├ęs, of course, by 1984. Mechanical minds appeared in the genre before the Second World War, but it was only when real computers began to be developed that their depiction began to have any sensible relationship to what might be projected into the (then) future. It was authors like Isaac Asimov (with his robot and Multivac stories), Robert Heinlein (Mycroft Holmes, the computer running Luna City, in The Moon is a Harsh Mistress) and Arthur C. Clarke (HAL in 2001) who began to think about how computers might realistically interact with humans. The interesting thing is just how wrong they were; none of them really picked up on ideas like networking or virtual reality which are the staples of science fiction (and, in the first case, real world) computing today. These authors all had academic connections, and it is a measure of just how obscure the experimental networks of the late sixties which evolved into today's Internet actually were that none of them picked up on the idea at the time. Most technological changes are already the basis for at least one science fiction story; the role of world wide networking in modern life is probably the most important one that is not. Experiences related to virtual reality appear in writers like Philip K. Dick, but they tend to be more drug mediated than the products of computers and come out of the hippy movement of the sixties. In the real world, the early eighties was the period in which computers first began to appear in homes (early Macs and PCs alongside less pwerful machines like the Sinclair Spectrum and the BBC Micro). The Internet was still basically confined to the American academic world, with very basic interactive software - early (non-graphical) multi-user games. So the cyberspace portrayed by Gibson was a huge leap, both from contemporary reality and from the science fiction around him; it is not surprising that a new subgenre, called cyberpunk, was immediately spawned following the publication of Neuromancer. It is amazing that Gibson put together his vision of cyberspace before the invention of the Web; it would not be going too far to claim Gibson as one of its conceptual parents.

Clearly, Neuromancer is a science fiction novel of immense importance. But it is less easy to decide just how good it actually is. There is no denying that the plot becomes hard to follow, particularly towards the end, for example, or that the characters are not among fiction's most rounded. It is also obvious that, apart from the computing related ideas, Neuromancer owes large literary debts. Mostly these seem to be filtered through famous film versions - Philip K. Dick is the most obvious (via Bladerunner), but also the detective stories which became film noir and William S. Burroughs. These influences are the ones which, alongside the interest in computers, continued to define cyberpunk. It is really the innovative computing which makes the novel; combined with the atmospherically sleazy future in which the novel is set, it has an impact which makes these criticisms seem unimportant.

No comments: