The new Penguin Galaxy series is a collection of six hardcover science fiction classics: T. H. White’s The Once and Future King, Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land, Frank Herbert’s Dune, Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness, & William Gibson’s Neuromancer. These beautifully-designed books with literally glittering titles are a good incentive to explore science fiction. I highly recommend Dune, an ecological classic (which I wrote about here) and The Left Hand of Darkness (which I wrote about here). Neil Gaiman’s introduction is reprinted in each volume.
I recently reread William Gibson’s Neuromancer, the 1984 cyberpunk classic that won the Nebula Award, the Philip K. Dick Award, and the Hugo Award.
We’re not quite where Gibson thought we’d be, and thank God for that. But before cell phones and the internet, he described a high-tech world of hackers, cyberaddiction, artificial intelligence, virtual reality, war games, and a dangerous divide between rich and poor. Gibson is a visionary, and his flamboyant language is like SF noir on acid.
This action-packed novel had a huge impact on “cyberpunk” science fiction. And, in a strange way, the bleak atmosphere and lost, desperate quality of the hero remind me of another 1984 novel, Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City. Could the two books be more different? No, and yet…
But of course this is SF, and Gibson’s hero is a hacker, not a fact-checker.
Neil Gaiman gives the background in the introduction:
Neuromancer is sui generis, while at the same time having a direct and solid science-fiction lineage: an unholy fusion of Samuel R. Delany’s prose and world-building and Alfred Bester’s narrative fireworks. Above all, Gibson heeds Raymond Chandler’s observation that when writing a pulp adventure, ‘the demand was for constant action: if you stopped to think, you were lost. When in doubt, have a man come through the door with a gun in his hand.’ In Neuromancer, men come through the door, and women too, and things not always human, all with weapons in their hands. We never stop to think. It’s safer that way.
The hero of Neuromancer, Henry Case, is a former hacker on a suicidal downward spiral in Chiba City, Japan. His career in the Sprawl is dead and he is down and out: he stole money via computer from his bosses, and as a punishment they destroyed his nervous system. Now he deals and takes drugs to survive and sleeps in a rented coffin. And he is doing so many drug deals that even the bartender with the antique artificial arm knows he has a death wish.
The language is impressionistic and often hallucinatory. The events are also dream-like. When Case hears from his ex-girlfriend, Linda, that his drug distributor boss, Wage, wants to kill him, he runs. There is an eerie chase scene in an arcade, though who is chasing him he doesn’t know. And he knows he’s crazy, because he is elated.
Because, in some weird and very approximate way, it was like a run in the matrix. Get just wasted enough, find yourself in some desperate but strangely arbitrary kind of trouble, and it was possible to see Ninsei as a field of data, the way the matrix had once reminded him of proteins linking to distinguish cell specialties. Then you could throw yourself into a high-speed drift
And then he is hired, i.e., forced to work, by Armitage, an ex-colonel with no affect who was traumatized by a mission in Russia. Case is bribed by the promise of neurosurgery so he can once again work as a hacker. All is well except for one thing: a poison sac is inserted to wreck his pancreas if he doesn’t finish the job in time. And he does not even know what the job is.
Case and his colleague, Molly, a samurai warrior with weird implants, save each other multiple times. Another colleague is a computer program copy of the brain of the dead best hacker he ever worked with, McCoy Paulie.
Sound complicated? Well, yes, it is. Do I know exactly what is happening all the time? No. Is it Gibson’s best book? It is great. My own favorite is Zero History, an SF thriller about postmodern marketing, fashion brands, and corrupt American military contractors.
I never realized that Neuromancer was the first of a trilogy. More great SF to read.