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Neuromancer

a book review

product linkNeuromancer
authorWilliam Gibson
date reviewed2021.06.21
genreSci-Fi
isbn9780441569595

What a rush. I re-read this book for the first time in many years - possibly the first time in this new Century. And I've found that as sharp and as fast and as nasty as it is, the nasty's a lot stronger than I remembered, and the sharp is a little brittle. This book came out at a time when science fiction was changing. Heroes and heroics were giving way to anti-heroes and quests made as difficult by imperfect knowledge as the challenges of the opposing forces. Le Guin was writing stories where men of great purpose and power could be stumped simply by not being able to figure something out. It wasn't a clash or wills, it was simply impossible to uncover.

Neuromancer is forever caught right in the midst of this transition. Our anti-hero Case is an emotionally inauthentic thief who's paid for crossing his bosses by being stripped of certain functions of his nervous system. He can no longer use the advanced computer decks that allow for things like electronic crime. The strong female lead Molly has a couple of touches that make her feel like the old cliches. She's got mirror sunglasses lenses grafted to her face, making her something of an object. Of course she takes a sexual interest in the rather unattractive, drug-addled scumbag Case, who they find on his final leg of a trek to fulfill a death wish.

But OK, it was 1983 and as I say, things were changing. Where this story broke ground - and lots of it - was in the surprisingly plausible representation of an Internet more than half a century ahead of the book's writing. We're now - almost forty years later - still only about halfway to the level of development that Gibson tells in a manner of fact way. How on Earth Gibson did this I don't know. And how he does it - he's the master of show, don't tell. There's only the barest possible exposition needed to move things along, and no hint of spare characters or props or events needed in pulling that off. All of the characters are authentic, vibrant, and memorable. The story arc with the dissolution of "Armitrage", a post-psychotic shell of a man with a new personality, is simply nerve-wracking.

The story moves from scene to scene in a taut way that's reminiscent of spy stories. Tokyo, New York, Atlanta, Istanbul, even an orbital habitat on Earth's L5 position. Gathering the tools, finding the information, having the secret conversations. On two occasions they don't so much recruit members of the team as steal them. And as fast as the first third of the book is in setting things up, it's when the actual crime starts that things hit a pitch that I suspect had been unprecedented at the time of this book's release. There's so much going on, on so many levels, that when it's finally done you're left with a feeling of vertigo. I will say that the end state, after the whole thing's reached its blood-splattered end, that the author certainly didn't spare any words for sentiment or exploration or ideas. It was just done. The job's done, go home. Never mind that what we've done will permanently change the world.

One of the tricks of writing an anti-hero is that there has to be something to the character you like. Gibson got this right with some of his later books, especially the lovable loser of the "Bridge" stories: Rydell. He doesn't attempt even this with Case, and here I think it serves the plot and its cherished plausibility well but it leaves you wishing for more. When he's victorious we're not sure we're satisfied. And while we get to know both Case and Molly rather well, and the story of their time together sticks to that feeling of truth, the lack of real warmth between two people who go to the ends of the Earth for one another is another of the nasties in this book.

On a personal note, I'll add that this was one of two books that made me determined to start writing my own fiction. This book will also always remind me of a close friend in high school. He was a troubled fellow and led a difficult life - working in computer security - and died when we were thirty-four. I was weeks away from leaving for Japan for the first time and while we'd become estranged this book certainly brought back some memories of the fellow. RIP Jeremy!

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