Friday, 26 March 2010

Neuromancer by William Gibson

Now a quarter of a century old, Neuromancer is widely regarded as a classic of modern SF (if that isn't a tautology). It won just about every award going for its portrayal of a future in which skilled people could be "jacked in" to the information technology network, able to experience it as a virtual landscape and navigate around its programmes and data storage nodes, evading defensive systems and stealing data. Old hat now, but not at the time.

I read it when it first came out, and frankly had forgotten everything about it - even reading it again rang no bells at all. I find these inconsistencies from time to time; sometimes I can clearly remember stories even if they're not much good, at other times even a good tale slips through the gaps in my memory.

Anyway, what did I think of it this time? I was deeply impressed; I found it much better than I had expected. This is not mainly due to the virtual world concepts but simply because the tale of Case, a former cyberspace expert recruited to a dangerous mission, is a rattling good thriller, told with a blend of pace and style which would be equally successful in other genres. The language is often terrific:

"Gravity came down on him like a great soft hand with bones of ancient stone."

"Case's consciousness divided like beads of mercury, arcing above an endless beach the color of the dark silver clouds. His vision was spherical, as if a single retina lined the inner surface of a globe that contained all things…"

If I have any criticism it is that the plot is so densely packed, the writing so laconic, that you really have to stay on your mental toes to keep up with everything that's going on. This is not a book to fill an idle moment, you need to settle down and concentrate. In fact, I was tempted to read it again immediately, in order to savour it in a more leisurely fashion and pick up on the nuances that I suspect slipped by me the first time. Why it made so little impression on me on first reading I don't know; but this one is now added to my pantheon of the SF greats. If you've never read it, treat yourself.
Joy of joys, the third (and sadly final) series of Ashes to Ashes commences on UK TV next week. For those unfamiliar with this, check out my blog post of 25 June last year where I write about this series and its predecessor, Life on Mars. I'm looking forward to a lot more of those bizarre one-liners from Gene Hunt, like "…as nervous as a very small nun at a penguin shoot".


Fred said...

_Neoromancer_ is a favorite of mine. I remember first reading it--jacking in and the cyberspace--were almost new to me. Only Vernor Vinge's novella, "True Names," which had preceded it in 1981, had come close to depicting cyberspace.

_Neuromancer_ also figured in a rather surprising informal poll back in the 90s.

I had been fortunate enough to be given an SF course to teach at the local community college. (It did so well that it was given to a "real" teacher subsequently. Being an adjunct instructor, I wasn't a "real" teacher.)

It was a compressed course, so I set up a reading list with Le Guin's _Left Hand_, Miller's _A Canticle_, Heinlein's _Moon...Mistress_, and _Neuromancer_, and selected short stories from the Dozois series.

At the end of the course, I said that if I could use only one of the four in a subsequent course, which should I choose. It was unanimous--Le Guin's LHoD.

I then asked them that if I had to drop one novel in subsequent course, which should I drop. It was almost unanimous--_Neuromancer_. That shocked me.

Anthony G Williams said...

Yes Fred, that is interesting - and unexpected. I read LHoD a couple of times many decades ago and can remember being very impressed by it, but it didn't really grip me in the way Neuromancer did. Probably I just enjoy a good thriller. Still, it's one of the multitude of books on my 'to read again' list.

WCG said...

Tony, you make me want to read Neuromancer again. Like you, I've read it, but can't remember the first thing about it. For some reason, it didn't make much of an impression on me.

Of course, I've got all sorts of books I really want to read or re-read,... sometime. But your tastes in science fiction are usually pretty similar to my own, so maybe I'll actually get this one read. :)

Deryk said...

I seek out Science Fiction books for my children, to try to wean them off the fantasy and spy-thriller diet they've adopted, and so it was, as I browsed the boxes of books that sit in my spare room, between the shelved collection and the loft space, that I picked up my copy of Neuromancer.
I read this book shortly after it was first published, when, I would remind everyone, we all thought that xtree was a pretty neat way of browsing file systems.
You may be able to tell that I too had almost completely forgotten the story. I read to page 148 last night, which is, to avoid spoilers but give the initiated a clue, about where Case gets to talk to the puppet-master, his boss' boss. My children will have to wait. I had forgotten that the tale unfolds in a world of sex, death and drugs, of con-men and pimps.
What I had absorbed, from my first distant reading, were the ideas; that information could be viewed as an immersive environment, that firewalls (called ice in the book) could be reactive autonomous agents, that a degree of lawlessness and chaos was tolerated to help to drive technological advances.
The writing you describe well, it swings, setting the mood and the pace, from short-hand littered with Japanese words, with street words, to paragraphs of poetic description and metaphor.
Perhaps I was reading too fast, but I felt that the action scenes were not well described. The scenery is boldly painted, the technology, the neoropharmacology, the prostheses intricately explored, but who shot who, and how? There is a telling moment when, during a break in an otherwise seamless communication stream, three extras are killed or disabled and a character sustains a broken limb. I suspect that an action scene that didn't work was cut there, rather than be allowed to leave the reader in further confusion.
I must end on an encouraging note then. If you read any cyberpunk, then make it this. There is Neuromancer, and there is the rest. Silicon valley is still striving to make some of the technological dreams in this book come true, but I wonder if we can have the dreams without the nightmares.