Inverarity (inverarity) wrote,

Book Review: Neuromancer, by William Gibson

The book that invented cyberpunk.


Ace Books, 1984, 271 pages

Here is the novel that started it all, launching the cyberpunk generation, and the first novel to win the holy trinity of science fiction: the Hugo Award, the Nebula Award and the Philip K. Dick Award. With Neuromancer, William Gibson introduced the world to cyberspace--and science fiction has never been the same.

Case was the hottest computer cowboy cruising the information superhighway--jacking his consciousness into cyberspace, soaring through tactile lattices of data and logic, rustling encoded secrets for anyone with the money to buy his skills. Then he double-crossed the wrong people, who caught up with him in a big way--and burned the talent out of his brain, micron by micron. Banished from cyberspace, trapped in the meat of his physical body, Case courted death in the high-tech underworld. Until a shadowy conspiracy offered him a second chance--and a cure--for a price...

Stop me if you've heard this one: a decker, a street samurai, a Rastafarian space pilot, and a sociopathic ex-mercenary go on a run... something is up in the Matrix, they're facing some heavy ice, and their employer may not be what he seems.

Of course you've heard it. Neuromancer invented this shit.

Here are some other things you owe to William Gibson and his 1984 debut novel, Neuromancer:

The Matrix
Snow Crash

Of course Neuromancer was not completely original in itself. Tron predated Neuromancer by two years, and Gibson says in his 2004 foreword that he saw Blade Runner while he was still writing his book, and almost gave up because he thought everyone would think he was ripping off the movie.

Still, Gibson is pretty definitively the inventor of the cyberpunk genre.

Anyway, Neuromancer was his debut novel, and it won a Hugo, a Nebula, and the Philip K. Dick Award. It blew SF fanboys away back in 1984. I had friends telling me it was the best thing since Star Wars/Star Trek/Starship Troopers/Lord of the Rings.

Maybe because I was not generally inclined to read something just because everyone else was reading it, I didn't, until now. So how well does Neuromancer stand up, 28 years later?


Okay, it's unfair that it seems completely unfresh and unnew and unoriginal because I am more familiar with the genre it defined than the book itself. But there you go. Cyberspace cowboys and secret conspiracies involving advanced artificial intelligences and amoral ruthless megacorps have all been done, done, and done.

I will say that Gibson does them better than most, even in light of his successors. I wasn't really in love with Pattern Recognition or Spook Country either, but the writing in those books was eye-poppping at times, and while Neuromancer, as Gibson's first novel, is a little rougher, it has all the sharp, descriptive turns of phrase and conceptual gut-punches that Gibson would refine in his later books.

The basic plot of Neuromancer is that Case, a 'cyberspace cowboy' who used to plug into the matrix to go steal data, got burned by the employer he tried to double-cross. His nervous system got fried so he can no longer use a cyberdeck, which really sucks for him. Now he's living in the gritty underworld of Chiba City. He gets picked up by a 'street samurai' named Molly, with mirror-shade eyes and razor-blade implants beneath her fingernails. Her boss has a job for Case, and can fix him up so he can be a cyberjock again. Of course there's a twist or seven.

The plot hums along. Wheels within wheels, nobody is what they seem, everyone's motives turn out to be other than what they appeared. There are ninjas, L5 stations, killer AIs, cryogenic semi-immortals, and pay phones.

Yes, pay phones. In his foreword, Gibson also offers an unabashed apologetic for the things he got right and the things he didn't in 1984. He got rid of the United States, but kept the Soviet Union. He predicted the Internet (after a fashion), but not cell phones. He freely admits that he's not a computer scientist, was not going for "hard" SF at all, and just made shit up.

These anachronisms don't really diminish the novel, though. It's an alternate history, if you will. It's well-written and plotty. The characters, though, are the reason I didn't really get into it. Case is barely a character, Molly even less so. Everyone else is a collection of character traits and a plot purpose. Gibson's dialog is snappy and his plot intelligent, but the experience just didn't leave me in awe. Neuromancer is fun and probably deserved its accolades in 1984, but it's a "Whoa, dude, this shit is soooo cool!" kind of book, and that shit was soooo cool in 1984.

Poll #1884029 Neuromancer

Have you read Neuromancer?

Yes, and I liked it.
Yes, and I didn't like it.
No, but now I want to.
No, and I don't want to.

Have you read anything else by William Gibson?


Do you like the cyberpunk genre?

Yes, I love it.
It's okay.
Don't really care.
No, I dislike it.
Never read it.

Verdict: Neuromancer is the original "cyberpunk" novel. It defined cyberpunk. It's got a voice and an edge and you will recognize every single trope in the book because it was the trope definer. I found it entertaining but mostly unremarkable, the characters flat, the plot something that's been imitated into unoriginality. It was worth reading, but I've given Gibson several chances to impress me, and he doesn't that much. Count Zero and Mona Lisa Overdrive can just stay on the shelf. But I will remain thankful to Gibson for Shadowrun and Neal Stephenson.

Also by William Gibson: My review of Pattern Recognition.

My complete list of book reviews.
Tags: books, books1001, reviews, science fiction, william gibson

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