Although I often love science fiction films, I’ve never been a huge reader of science fiction, so over the last several years, I’ve been trying to read some of the classics of science fiction that I’d never gotten around to. One of the books I particularly wanted to try was the original cyberpunk novel, Neuromancer by William Gibson, first published in 1984 and the winner of Hugo, Nebula, and Philip K. Dick awards.
The opening chapters of Neuromancer were entrancing. Set sometime in the future, the book opens onto a world of criminals and junkies, most notable among them being Case, the former hacker who made the mistake of cheating his gangster employers. They, in turn, injected him with a toxin that damaged his nervous system and made it impossible for him to jack into cyberspace.
For Case, who’d lived for the bodiless exultation of cyberspace, it was the Fall. In the bars he’d frequented as a cowboy hotshot, the elite stance involved a certain relaxed contempt for the flesh. The body was meat. Case fell into the prison of his own flesh.
Such magnificent potential in that brief paragraph! Right there we see the gnostic idea of the Fall as a fall into flesh. And this is just one tiny piece of the stunning descriptive writing that opens the book. I couldn’t wait to see where it went.
The story really gets going when Case is hired to do a job for the mysterious (and apparently wealthy) Armitage. As part of the deal, Armitage has Case’s nervous system repaired so he can resume his cyberspace hacking. He also teams Case up with Molly, a tough mercenary who can slice her enemies open with her implanted claws. The two start dashing around the planet and off the planet, gathering allies and enemies. And somewhere, in the midst of these wanderings, Gibson lost me.
After a while, I found that I couldn’t sort out who was good or who was bad, which intelligences were human and which were artificial, which locations were physical and which virtual, or even exactly what it was Case and Molly were supposed to be doing. There’s so much techno-babble, so many unfamiliar names, so much activity that may or may not be important. I felt a little like Gibson had this really exciting vision in his head that he could see perfectly clearly, so clearly perhaps that he didn’t realize that every detail of the vision would be new to his readers and would require explanation. I’m generally not a fan of overexplanation, but underexplanation is even worse.
Of course, whenever my problem with a book is my own lack of understanding, I must be willing to admit that I may be part of the problem. Frequently, when I was confused, I found that I could go back and find that I had missed some crucial information earlier. Perhaps if I’d been a little less distracted and not still getting over a cold, I would have followed the book better and enjoyed it more. It’s a classic, beloved by many, so it’s probably not impossible to figure out. For me, right now, it didn’t work. I needed a little more help than Gibson gave.
As for cyberpunk in general, I did enjoy Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson and recommend that if you’re looking to give the genre a try.
Other Bloggers’ Thoughts
Books I Done Read: “There’s all this RAM and ROM and shit, and you’re sure it all does something important, but you can’t for the life of you figure out what that is, and you’re not sure where all the dodabits link up.”
Caravana de recuerdos: “An entertaining read, to be sure—but hardly the ‘mindbender’ that sci-fi fans and those establishment wackos at Time and the Village Voice might have you believe.”
Geranium Cat’s Bookshelf: “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”