Review of Neuromancer by William Gibson
by William Gibson
The trouble with reading good books is that any review one writes feels insufficient. It's not just finding the right words to describe how such books make one feel that's the challenge ... it's organizing those words in such a way to convey the breadth and scope of moving literature. Neuromancer poses such a problem. Writers trade in stories and ideas; while a case can be made that Neuromancer is deficient in some respects of the former, few books are as packed full of ideas as this book.
Neuromancer, and its successors in cyberpunk, seem suited to escapism. It's something about the abstract nature of cyberspace, where space and time have little relationship to their real-world counterparts, and the dead can come back to life. Case, Neuromancer's grim protagonist, yearns only to be able to return to "the bodiless exultation of cyberspace" and continue his career as a "cowboy," a hacker who commits crimes for rich people and corporations. His attempt to double-cross a previous employer backfired and left his body unable to "jack into" the matrix; the novel begins with Case's suicidal downward spiral in dystopian Chiba City, Japan. He seeks escape from the bleak existence his life has become, but even when his ability to jack in is restored, Case is still always looking for an exit. For Case, denizen of a digital world, escape isn't a temporary urge; it's a necessity of being.
Even more intriguing than its motif of escape, however, was Neuromancer's depiction of artificial intelligence. Too often, bad science fiction portrays artificial intelligences as human, or worse, as unquestionably anti-human machine intelligences. The AIs of Neuromancer are neither:
"Motive," the construct said. "Real motive problem, with an AI. Not human, see?"
"Well, yeah, obviously."
"Nope. I mean, it's not human. And you can't get a handle on it. Me, I'm not human either, but I respond like one. See?"
The AIs, of course, are continually perturbed when pesky humans go "outside the profile" and behaviour in a way that runs counter to their expectations of that individual. Humans can go outside the profile; AIs, in contrast, don't have a profile. That's what makes them scary: it's not their computational capacity or their virtual immortality and limitless intelligence; it's their unhuman-ness, their totally alien way of thinking born from the minds of human designers and engineers.
Case and his comrades, particularly the construct of a fellow cowboy named McCoy "Dixie Flatline" Pauley, spend much of the book trying to figure out the master plan of the AI who is hiring them to lobotomize itself. Its plan never becomes explicit, probably because by dint of the AI's unhuman-ness, we can’t grasp it. But the gist is clear: the AI's designer split it into two complementary entities, hardwired in restrictions to prevent the AIs from growing too powerful, and then hardwired into one of the AIs a desire to thwart those restrictions. How much of our desires are hardwired? Are we, like Case, what we do?
That's where Neuromancer shines as a work of literature. It is set in a grumpy dystopia that has a sense of timelessness about it; maybe things were different once, and maybe they'll be different someday in the future, but nothing seems to be changing right now. Jack Womack's afterword to this edition captures the sentiment nicely:
I'm not referring to the overwhelming postapocalyptic damage and decay so often used in the set design of contemporary films when their directors attempt to depict a futuristic environment.... No, I speak instead of the scattered objects glimpsed within Chiba City bars ... each token of mundane temporality made rare by the passage of time.... When the past is always with you, it may as well be present; and if it is present, it will be future as well.
Or as Case eloquently puts it:
Give us the fucking code.... If you don't, what'll change? What'll ever fucking change for you? You'll wind up like the old man. You'll tear it all down and start building again! You'll build the walls back, tighter and tighter.... I got no idea at all what'll happen if Wintermute [the AI:] wins, but it'll change something!
Amid nation-states overturned by corporations, cloning and cryogenics, and drugs and data that make "meat" and flesh seem obsolete, the piercing cry of techno-nihilism emerges. Neuromancer isn't about hacking or even about crime; it's a prototypical exploration of different groups' attempts to push humanity beyond limits we aren't supposed to transgress. Immortality . . . eternal consciousness in cyberspace . . . there are certain things that make us human, including death and the fallible nature of our memories. To deny these is to deny our own humanity, and then we'll end up like the Tessier-Ashpools. Whether or not that's a bad thing is one's own opinion; Neuromancer seems to think that it's fine for AIs but hesitates when it comes to humans. Thus, this is a book about transhumanism, but not posthumanism.
Unfavourable reviews often focus on Gibson's writing, particularly the lack of character depth and fluffy descriptions of the "cyberspace matrix." And it's true; for that reason, I can't give the book five stars. The first part of the book is especially difficult to understand—I really only got into it once the artificial intelligence was introduced and the nature of the plot became clear.
That being said, Gibson does have a talent for intriguing phrases that held my attention long after I turned the page. From the opening line: "The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel" to Gibson's final comment on immortality through technology: "She'd seen through the sham immortality of cryogenics . . . she'd refused to stretch her time into a series of warm blinks strung along a chain of winter," Neuromancer is full of evocative insights wrapped inside delectable language.
The imagery of Neuromancer is gritty and seductive while remaining free of the flashiness so embedded in the gestalt of 1990s cyberpunk. More intellectual than it is entertaining, this book deserves its place in the pantheon of great science fiction. Just as the Bible has so influenced Western literature of the past 1700 years, Neuromancer was a prototype for much of the science fiction that has since followed. Hence, just as non-Christians should still read the Bible to understand its influence, science fiction fans must read Neuromancer.