Neuromancer

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”

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24 Responses to Neuromancer

  1. Anastasia says:

    Man, I’ve been meaning to read Neuromancer for, like, five years now? I should get on it!

  2. Frances says:

    It feels good to read outside one’s comfort zone and even better when you are surprised at how much you enjoyed it. I had that experience with Snow Crash this year too. my husband is a big Gibson fan and picked up a signed copy of the new book at Politics and Prose this past weekend. The event was apparently a little bit of a … ahem, geek fest. :)

  3. Yeah, perhaps you’re just not in the right head space for it at the moment; but then again, it just might not be for you. And that’s totally fine. :)

  4. Jason Gignac says:

    I loved this book, reviewed it back in 2009, but read it when I was pretty young (probably too young :D). But loved-loved-loved it, it did a lot for shaping my technological philosophy. I honestly LOVED the lack of explanation in it, and the way the whole world is sort of painfully sharp and completely incomprehensible all at the same time – the wohle thing ABOUT technology to me, the thing that makes it so powerful is that, at the level it now exists, there is NOONE who understands it all. Every piece is understood by someone, but you’ll never completely fathom it. It’s like the tower of babel in lights. And so that feeling of being dragged through the story so quickly that you feel like you’ve been keel-hauled beneath the universe was part of what was so powerful to me – there are no geniuses anymore, no polymaths, just specialists. So a world of utter individuality is a world that slowly starts to tear itself apart into unresolvable splinters – where there IS no good guys and bad guys, or right and wrong, or future or past, or reality and virtuality, because there’s nowhere to draw a border between these things – who could be arrogant enoguh, after all, to say they know enough to draw that border? It’s terrifying and exciting all at the same time.

    Notably, he wrote two sequels as well. They are less good in parts, but what eventually happens to Wintermute is one of the most powerful literary images in my brain.

    • Teresa says:

      Jason, you do make a strong case, and I love what you say about the feeling of being keel-hauled. Ordinarily I love ambiguity in my books, and I don’t mind some disorientation if it serves the story. In this case, it kept me from understanding the story. But your explanation about specialization keeping everyone from seeing the big picture does give a good reason for the disorientation.

  5. Steph says:

    Oh dear. Elements of this really sound interesting, but I’m sure I’d be left extremely puzzled, and I hate books that bombard me a surfeit of info early on so that I can’t parse it all and wind up confused and overwhelmed. I had heard a few things about this prior to your review, but I admit that I’m unsure as to whether to give it a shot or not. On a completely superficial level, the term “cyberpunk” is very unappealing to me…

    • Teresa says:

      If you’re looking to try cyberppunk, maybe start with Snow Crash instead. I loved the way Stephenson introduced that world–one of the most memorable opening sequences I’ve encountered in recent years.

  6. Trish says:

    Techno-babble. I think that’s where I was lost in this one, too. I hadn’t read your review yesterday when I was asking about Snow Crash on twitter. I really loved Snow Crash (though it was a tough read!) and just liked this one. They’re both on my “would love to read again” list. I’m not familiar with any other cyberpunk novels.

    • Teresa says:

      I may give this another go someday, but it’s not going to be high on my priority list. I do wonder if I’d like it more know that I sort of know the gist of the story.

  7. Jenny says:

    I once had a friend scold me for recommending that he read Neuromancer, although I’ve never read it and certainly wouldn’t have recommended it to anyone. He was sure I had been the one to tell him to read it, and he went on and on about how totally confusing it was. I wasn’t the one who told him to read it, but his rant about how much he disliked it put me off ever reading it myself. :p

  8. gaskella says:

    I’m going to have to re-read this one – it was so long ago, that I can’t remember it – I was reading a lot of SF at that time, so the technobabble was probably more comprehensible, I’m sure I didn’t really appreciate the writing then though.

    • Teresa says:

      I can see how this would be easier to follow if you’re more immersed in science fiction. Gibson has been such a huge influence that his ideas are no doubt present all over the place.

  9. Amy says:

    I read this one so long ago I don’t really remember the story but I do remember liking it. It was confusing though; there were parts I had to re-read to understand what was going on and some of the tech stuff was lost on me. I enjoyed Pattern Recognition much more.

    • Teresa says:

      I was doing a lot of rereading, too. It got exasperating after a while, I must admit.

      Interesting to hear you liked Pattern Recognition more. I liked the descriptive writing so well at points that I wouldn’t mind trying something else of his someday. I’ll keep that in mind if I ever do.

  10. Stefanie says:

    I’ve had th is on my to-read list for ages and my husband keeps reminding me that I need to read it. I’ll get around to it eventually but good to know I need to pay attention and there might be some confusing parts.

    • Teresa says:

      Yes, it’s definitely one to read when you’re feeling focused. I also kind of wished I’d read the Wikipedia summary ahead of time. It’s spoilery, but I would have known what was happening when it was happening and been able to focus on the writing and characterization.

  11. Deb says:

    Like you, I’m not a big reader of science fiction and I don’t think NEUROMANCER is my cup of tea, but I did like Neal Stephenson’s IN THE BEGINNING WAS THE COMMAND LINE, a series of essays about technology (although in the accelerated pace of technological advances that we live in, a lot of what he wrote might seem somewhat quaint now).

    I just finished reading Mary Doria Russell’s THE SPARROW, which is about the first human contact with life-forms on another planet, but it also contains an enormous amount of theology and philosophy (several of the main characters are priests). I think this is more my sort of sci-fi, where the questions of “how” take a backseat to the questions of “why” and “what now?”

    • Teresa says:

      That essay collection does sound interesting. I found Stephenson’s vision in Snow Crash to be awfully compelling, although anything like that would get dated fact.
      And I LOVED The Sparrow. The science fiction elements almost took a back seat to all the other questions raised. The second of the Ender’s Game books (Speaker for the Dead) is strikingly similar to The Sparrow in some ways–although I preferred The Sparrow.

  12. chasing bawa says:

    I came to this late as well and it didn’t have the same impact on me as it might have done at the beginning of the cyberage when I think it was such an explosion of new ideas. I like science fiction though and have some of Neal Stephenson’s books on my shelf (but the Baroque Cycle and not Snow Crash).

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