William Gibson’s Neuromancer

neuromancer-penguin-galaxy-556df0886068133afc3c967e7ee28c22The 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.

A very '80s William Gibson/

A very ’80s William Gibson.

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.

What I’m Reading Now: D. J. Taylor’s Kept, Sylvia Plath’s Letters Home, & William Gibson’s Zero History


On AOL in the ’90s, before the blog was invented, we posted our thoughts on book boards. AOL hosted dozens of book groups at a site called Book Central.   One year many of us attended The Southern Festival of Books in Nashville, and it was delightful to meet online friends.  Although there were frequent “break-ups” on AOL–a reader’s trashing Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake or Sebastian Faulks’s Birdsong could start a riot or a splinter group–I stayed in touch until AOL canceled Book Central and most of us changed internet servers.

The ’90s for me was the best time online, before the breakdown of groups into bloggers and Facebook users, and before the extensive distribution of review copies that occasionally compromise online integrity.

(Yes, I am part of this culture, too.  I have seen it, I have done it, and of course I love my blog.)

One thing I especially loved about the AOL groups was our “What I’m Reading Now” posts.

I usually wait to post about books after I’ve finished.  But why?

It’s time to revive the “What I’m Reading Now” feature.

Here goes:

kept-victorian-mystery-d-j-taylor-132x200D. J. Taylor’s Kept.  This is a prequel to his novel Derby Day, the 2011 novel which was nominated for the Man Booker Prize (I wrote about it here).  If you are mad about allusions to Victorian novels, as I am, you may like this even more than Derby Day. The vividly-drawn  character,  Isabel Ireland, is a Bronteish mad woman, based on Thackeray’s wife; Trollope’s Josiah Crawley and Mrs. Oliphant’s Miss Marjoribanks and her father the doctor make appearacnces;  and Taylor introduces us to Mr. Pardew, a fascinating con man, and Captain McTurk, a clever policeman, whom we meet again  in Derby Day.

I am amazed by the wealth of historical and descriptive detail, and his encyclopedic knowledge of literature.

He also includes historical characters, like Dr. John Connolly, who “advocated radical reform of the treatment of lunatics and a system of patient care…. ” (See Taylor’s endnotes.)

I am savoring the language.  I will write more about this novel later.

Letters_Home_ plathSylvia Plath’s Letters Home.  Inspired by Nancy at Silver Threads, who reviewed Janet Malcolm’s The Silent Woman:  Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, I got out my copy of Sylvia Plath’s letters.  She is mainly ecstatic during her first year at Smith in 1950. Even then, however, she has to be careful not to be overstimulated, and she has joked about suicide twice in the first 50 page. She writes to her mother, “By the way, do you suck those buffered penicillins or swallow with water?…  I don’t want to kill myself by taking them the wrong way!”

She is impressed by her teachers, and especially loves Miss Mensel, a charming woman who keeps in touch with all the scholarship students.  Sylvia writes, “I had to keep myself from getting tears in my eyes as I told her how happy I was….   I was afraid I would be stiff and nervous at first, but my enthusiasm washed that all away, and I just flooded over and told her how happy I was.”

Oh, Sylvia!

Zero-History-cover gibsonWilliam Gibson’s Zero History is a science fiction thriller, partly about fashion.  Hollis Henry, a former rock star, and Milgrim, a former drug addict, are hired to find out who makes “Hounds,” a beautifully-sewn line of denim jackets and jeans that turn up periodically at select fashion trade shows.  Their boss, Hubertus Bigend, is always looking for information, and wants a contract to design military wear in the U.S.

So fast, so fun, so clever!

And more later…

When I finish these, you’ll hear more.