Thursday, September 23, 2010

1985 Hugo, Philip K. Dick, 1984 Nebula - NEUROMANCER by William Gibson

I think it’s safe to say that William Gibson liked the movie Blade Runner. In the very influential Neuromancer, Gibson more-or-less single-handedly founds the genre of cyberpunk by merging the gritty world presented in that film with a sense of the coming importance of networked computers. The fact that the novel introduced the word "cyberspace" conveys some idea of its pervasive influence.

The novel begins in the dense, crime and technology-rich city of Chiba, Japan. It’s big, dark, and densely populated, like the LA of Blade Runner (we also get a dense megacity on the US east coast and orbital platforms as settings). The Cold War ended after a brief exchange that destroyed a chunk of Germany and led to heated technological warfare in the Soviet Union. Henry Case is a down-and-out drug addict and former hacker whose ability to connect to cyberspace was destroyed by a group of Russian mobsters. In a rapid fire series of events, he’s hired by a former special ops man named Armitage, a survivor of the war, his ability to connect to cyberspace is surgically restored, and his girlfriend is killed. Case grows closer to his fellow employee, a “street samurai” named Molly, as they steal an electronic reconstruction of a dead hacker called Flatline. Eventually the team relocates to space and attempts to accomplish their mission, which they discover involves the mega-corporation of Tessier-Ashpool and a sentient artificial intelligence called Wintermute.

The plot starts out as standard heist material, and then gets increasingly weird and byzantine. I started out enjoying the plot immensely, and I liked its conclusion, but for most of the novel it’s too obscure to really matter. The pacing is also less-than-perfect, as the novel is filled with frenetic action, but the actual story develops very slowly, then resolves itself in moments in the final chapters. But plot and pacing are almost beside the point here. As in Blade Running, the main attraction is the revolutionary setting – the mixture of dystopia, noir, and computers that we call cyberpunk. Gibson looks at the ecological dystopias of the ‘70s and basically asks, what if it’s that bad, but the world doesn’t end? People just go on living in a polluted, overcrowded, plutocratic world.

The other big attraction is Gibson’s prose. It’s lean and muscular, but full of evocative technological metaphors. The oft-cited first line is a great example: “the sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.”

I didn’t love Neuromancer – the characters felt-like noir cut-outs, and there are the aforementioned problems with the pacing – but I liked it quite a bit, and there’s no denying the strengths of Gibson’s craft, and I found the world absolutely compelling. It’s easy to see how this work launched a new subgenre.

Grade: A-

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