Neuromancer is the first, and arguably best, novel by William Gibson. Originally published in 1984, it is a work that helped reinvigorate the science fiction genre in part by bringing in many elements more conventionally found in noir. It also spawned a wave of imitators, few of which come close to the immediacy of the original.
Unfortunately, due to pressures of work I’m blogging this book a week after finishing it, and that’s a shame as what impressed me most on rereading it (I had read it before some years ago) was how fresh and intense it still was, and it’s hard to capture that freshness and intensity a week after the event.
The novel opens with its apparent protagonist, Case, living in the Japanese port of Chiba (adjoining Tokyo). Case is a 24 year old hacker, a trade known in his time as a cowboy, but after a deal gone bad has been neurologically altered so that he can no longer access cyberspace – the virtual environment in which hacking takes place in Gibson’s future. As such, Case is now just a small time hustler making a living as best he can, his money blown on unsuccessful medical treatments and his death an outcome he seems to be seeking as he takes increasing risks on the streets.
In other words, Case is a classic noir character. A man on the skids, a small timer looking back to glory days now gone. A man hooked on chemicals and left with no greater ideals than making it through the night.
The noir tone is established right on the first page. Apart from the opening sentence, quoted as the title to this blog entry and in fact a personal favourite of mine, we have the following description:
Ratz was tending bar, his prosthetic arm jerking monotonously as he filled a tray of glasses with draft Kirin. He saw Case and smiled, his teeth a webwork of East European steel and brown decay. Case found a place at the bar, between the unlikely tan on one of Lonny Zone’s whores and the crisp naval uniform of a tall African whose cheekbones were ridged with precise rows of African scars.
Here we have our first encounter with futuristic technology, but it is battered and faulty. Clearly the future is not going to be an improvement on the present. We have vice, sharp dressed sailors engaged in unstated (but perhaps obvious) business in a bar of prostitutes and hustlers. Case is living in a transitory shadow world, on the margins of wider society. This is not a dystopian future, it is today, depressingly unchanged save for a few of the details.
Which takes me to what I regard as a classic misreading of this novel. Neuromancer is often seen as dystopian fiction, the above paragraph itself gives that impression. However, in my view that is not really supported by the text itself. Rather, it is noir fiction in an sf context. Case inhabits a criminal underworld, he barely interacts with normal society, and as the novel progresses he spends the bulk of his time with a profoundly psychiatrically damaged special forces veteran, an alienated professional enforcer (referred to as a “street samurai”, a phrase that will later become badly cliched in large part due to Gibson’s imitators), a sadistic police informer and a virtual reconstruction of the personality of a dead hacker. The world Case inhabits seems dystopian, but the novel does not imply that most people in Gibson’s future live in Case’s world. Indeed, if anything it seems clear as one progresses that most people do not, that this is a novel about grifters and outsiders and it refers only in passing to the relatively normal lives most people appear to be living, working at fairly ordinary jobs, taking holidays, living much as we live today (but with somewhat higher technology).
Case’s Japan is brought vividly to life. I consider crime fiction to be in large part a literature of place, more precisely of evocation of place, and Neuromancer although a work of science fiction draws heavily on crime fiction in this regard. Case is a product of his environment, and when we first meet him, as he embraces the nearing end of his downward descent, that environment is alienating and inhuman:
Now he slept in the cheapest coffins, the ones nearest the port, beneath the quartz-halogen floods that lit the docks all night like vast stages; where you couldn’t see the lights of Tokyo for the glare of the television sky, not even the towering hologram logo of the Fuji Electric Company, and Tokyo Bay was a black expanse where gulls wheeled above drifting shoals of white styrofoam.
Coffins refers to Japanese capsule hotels, sometimes referred to as coffin hotels, some good pictures of one can be found here http://www.yesicanusechopsticks.com/capsule/. Having myself stayed in one, I can honestly say that they’re actually more comfortable than you’d expect, but they’re designed for the occasional night stuck in town, you wouldn’t want to stay in one on a regular basis.
As in the first passage quoted, Gibson combines a scene which could easily exist today, a disreputable bar, a heavily industrialised first world port, and adds to it small and fairly credible details of things we do not have today – functioning prosthetic arms, holographic logos. Nothing here is extreme, nothing terribly unlikely within my own lifetime, and by embedding these futuristic elements within scenes of essentially contemporary urban blight Gibson creates a sense of verisimilitude and a sense of a living world which much science fiction struggles to achieve. His world feels real because it is, at this point in any event, simply our world with a few minor changes none of which seem all that unlikely. By this method Gibson helps us buy into his creation, so that later on as things depart more radically from our own world he already has our trust and we are happy to go with him to see at its edges quite how much his new world has changed from our old one.
All that said, this is a work of science fiction, not simply of noir. As such, although Gibson is generally sure footed in his evocation of place, his future remains to a degree a product of its time, a 1980s future. In some ways this dates the novel to an extent, in a way straight noir fiction avoids by being written in a world that actually existed at the time of writing. Neuromancer plainly reflects some fears of its day, it contains huge and faceless Japanese corporations, cutting edge technology is increasingly a Japanese rather than Western competitive edge. Similarly, characters play video games very reminiscent of those I played myself as a child in the 80s, at least one of which is pretty clearly based on Dungeons & Dragons (a game arguably more influential today than then due to the rise of computer games based on it, but which I think unquestionably had a greater presence in the public consciousness back when this novel was written).
In many other senses however Neuromancer still holds up pretty well, and remains reasonably current. Gibson’s world of indifferent big money, obscure private money, unlicenced free ports and people so rich they belong practically to a different species is not only still relevant but would have been a world perfectly recognisable to Raymond Chandler. As science fiction, I still consider this a successful and relevant novel today.
Another area where I thought crime and noir elements influenced the novel was the role of violence. This is a violent novel, characters suffer broken limbs, are beaten, poisoned, shot. But the violence is in the main unpleasant, unglamorous. The female bodyguard Case acquires is beautiful and deadly, yes, but has her leg broken by a security guard all the same and spends much of the rest of the novel struggling (without great success) to recover from the injury. Case at one point buys a small and vicious sounding metallic bludgeon and then trades it in for a gun he acquires on a temporary hire basis, but uses neither. The characters in this novel live with violence, use violence, accept violence as part of their lives and in the main expect violent deaths, but violence itself remains a profoundly ugly affair leading in most cases to suffering and loss. Death, when it occurs, is squalid – bleeding out in an alleyway or killed among yakitori stalls and beer vendors with a sneaker thrown off and lying nearby. To read this as an almost video-game-esque celebration of stylistic aggression is I think quite wrong.
Stylistically, Gibson is often at his best when creating impressionistic scenes which appear fully detailed and described, but which in fact are fairly lightly sketched. Often passing comments imply detail which is not actually provided, creating a sense of a richer world than on analysis is actually present. That’s not a criticism, this is a novel, not a guidebook to an imaginary future, and I consider it a strength of the novel that Gibson uses this particular technique. An example:
The four of them were booked on a THY flight out of Yesilkoy airport. Transfer at Paris to the JAL shuttle. Case sat in the lobby of the Istanbul Hilton and watched Riviera browse bogus Byzantine fragments in the glass-walled gift shop. Armitage, his trenchcoat draped over his shoulders like a cape, stood in the shop’s entrance.
Riviera was slender, blond, soft-voiced, his English accentless and fluid. Molly said he was thirty, but it would have been difficult to guess his age. She also said he was legally stateless and travelled under a forged Dutch passport. He was a product of the rubble rings that fringe the radioactive core of old Bonn.
Here we have the establishment of the contemporary quotidian, waiting around browsing tourist tat at bland hotels while waiting to depart for flights. We have implied detail, at some point Bonn clearly has suffered nuclear attack but how or when is never explained, Gibson’s world gains apparent but not actual detail. We also get once again an impression of rootless internationalism, just like the bar filled with East-European prosthetics, expat prostitutes and African sailors here we have an English speaking stateless German who when first encountered lives and works in Istanbul. These characters are separated from society, in the next paragraph (unquoted) some Japanese tourists and an Italian woman enter the same shop and the main characters plainly struggle to engage with these more conventional people.
The passage above also flags one of Gibson’s less admirable traits, in that it contains a fair bit of exposition. In the main, Gibson’s expository passages worked for me, his talent for description compensating for the fact I was essentially being told by the author what characters were like and what was happening. Not all passages work so well though, and Neuromancer contains one of the most notorious infodumps in science fiction where Case briefly watches a children’s tv programme which explains how Cyberspace functions before turning it off on the basis he already knows everything it is speaking of. It’s a flaw, but not a fatal flaw, that said those who have a particular aversion to exposition may find parts of this novel a chore as a result.
Returning to noir themes in the novel, the other main theme I wish to draw out is that of dehumanisation. Many characters in this novel have become essentially tools, objects used to achieve the ends of those richer or more powerful than themselves. The virtual reconstruction of the dead hacker repeats himself in conversation, he wishes to be erased, having enough consciousness to be aware that he is lacking but not enough to have a full range of human responses. Molly, the enforcer, has a backstory involving work as a prostitute whose higher brain functions were shut down when she was with clients and replaced with software running preselected programs chosen by those clients – “renting the goods” as she calls it. An ex-boyfriend of hers had a shunt built into his brain so that information could be stored in his memories that he could not himself access, making him a highly secure courier. In each case, technology has led to dehumanisation, but it has done so because other humans have found it a convenient tool to that end. The poor are essentially disposable, tools to an end, the technology of Gibson’s future merely makes their exploitation more efficient and on a surface level more bearable for those exploited (the prostitutes remain such, and remain driven to it by abject poverty, but their knowledge of what they do is removed).
Against this exists the glamorous world the characters do not belong to, a world depicted as full of expensive hotels, luxury stores (“Gucci, Tsuyako, Hermes, Liberty”, each of them in a street literally named Desiderata, and note that the only one made up by Gibson is a Japanese label). The characters are players, not gentlemen, and the world they inhabit – the world of the professional criminal, could as well be an alien planet from the perspective of the worlds they penetrate in the course of the book, the worlds of the rich and privileged.
And this takes me to the last comparison I intend to make in this blog entry, and that is a comparison with The Big Sleep and with the works of Chandler more generally. The Observer, in its quoted reference to Gibson, calls him the “Raymond Chandler of SF” and although Gibson’s prose does not approach Chandler’s it is a fair comparison. As in Chandler, the real sins here are not those of the criminals and grifters we follow, they are the crimes of the rich so secluded by their money that they have turned in upon themselves and become from our perspective quite mad, or post-sane if you prefer. The rich are not like us, the Sternwood family and the Tessier-Ashpools (of Neuromancer) are cut from the same cloth, the Tessier-Ashpools so far removed from the bulk of human experience that they have literally moved into space.
All this and I haven’t mentioned the interesting thoughts on AI contained in the novel, thoughts picked up and developed in Ian McDonald’s recent and excellent River of Gods which depicts AIs in a very similar way in some regards. I haven’t, perhaps thankfully, talked about the Rastafarian space colony particularly, I haven’t discussed the more unlikely technological elements (most obviously, Cyberspace itself which reflects more than anything else Gibson’s admitted utter ignorance of computing), I haven’t discussed the technothriller-esque sections where the heist is actually carried out. But what I shall mention by way of close is that the protagonists of this novel are not really who they seem. We barely meet the real protagonists, the instigators of the novel’s plot, one we never meet at all, and we certainly do not understand them. Case and his companions are tools in the machinations of others, and to the extent they achieve protagonist status in this work it is only insofar as they sieze it for themselves by departing from the scripts others have written for them. This too is Chandlerian, like Marlowe they are tools chosen for a purpose but possessed of greater volition than those selecting them had given credit for, the rich have not only left the poor behind, they also have no understanding of them and that would be their undoing but that their money protects them no matter how grave their errors of judgement may be.