William Gibson’s 1984 novel Neuromancer is by far the strangest book in the Well-Read Man project. In fact, it is so unusual that I am nearly at a loss as to what I can say about it. And yet, it is the type of book for which things must be said. To ease you into the story, I’ll start with a bit of trivia. Written a full decade before web browsers became a key access point to the Internet, this book popularized the term “cyberspace,” a word coined by Gibson himself.
Neuromancer takes place in a future where technological and medical advances allow mankind to command the resources of the earth and space, connect the brain at will into productivity and entertainment networks, modify the human body to the point of inhumanity, and extend life through cryogenics, cloning, and extreme organ transplants. Henry Case is a criminal hacker of sorts, or at least he was until he stole from a client who in turn destroyed his nervous system’s ability to interface with computer networks. Now he has to engage in crime the old fashioned way, buying and selling in black market transactions for commonplace money.
Molly, a mysterious woman with Wolverine-style knuckle blades, shows up one day, promising Case a revamped spinal cord in exchange for a little hacking help. How could he know that this one simple job would involve holographic killers, space travel to an orbiting Las Vegas-style entertainment village, interactions with Jamaican religious zealots, the murder of the only woman he loved, and the possible activation of a computer network so powerful that it can harbor the souls of the dead?
Yes, the story is that strange, but not when gauged against other dystopian future narratives. As in Huxley’s Brave New World and Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, Gibson extrapolates humanity’s potential future based on current trends. In the mid-1980s, medical advances such as Jarvik’s artificial heart were popular magazine article topics, space shuttles were flying into orbit with a regularity that rivaled Pan Am, and Bill Gates’ vision of a computer on every desk and in every home was turning the world into a more intricately connected place. Gibson’s future world, though strange, has it roots in the technology he saw invading life around him.
Neuromancer set the standard for “cyberpunk” writings and media. For non-cyberpunk types like me, the genre carries the straightforward warning that advances in technology can lead to a degeneration of humanity if we are not careful. I didn’t like the book all that much. (I also read Cory Doctorow’s Down and Out In the Magic Kingdom a few years ago, which exhibits a similar future vision, and I came away with the same negative feelings.) But because Neuromancer speaks to the essence of what humankind is and may become, it certainly deserves a place alongside more traditional classic writings.
(For more information on this book, visit its project page.)