Volume 23, Number 02, Winter 2005


By William Gibson

Ace Books, 2004: $25
Reviewed by Michael Grossberg
November, 2005

Science fiction doesn’t have to predict the future accurately to be visionary, but it helps.

In Neuromancer, first published in 1984, William Gibson wove a glitteringly dark web of words that seduced readers with a plausible vision of artificial intelligence and the emerging world wide Web—where the boundaries between body and machine have been irrevocably blurred.

The 20th anniversary edition, which includes an amusing afterword by sci-fi writer Jack Womack about Gibson’s explosive impact on the “cyberpunk” movement, confirms Neuromancer as one of the past generation’s most influential books.

More than any other author, Gibson became the godfather of the Internet, which his novel foreshadowed as a virtual-reality arena where hackers, joyriders, entrepreneurs and outlaws can prosper—or die.

His gritty dystopian adventure— cascading through a computerized virtual-reality network for crime, punishment, redemption, fun and profit— boasts one of the great opening lines in sci-fi history: “The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.” (Gibson second-guesses that line in his self-deprecating new introduction, which apologizes to readers too young to be familiar with the sight of 1950s-era TV static.)

So what if Gibson confesses in the introduction that he didn’t anticipate the ubiquity of cell phones or the collapse of the Soviet Union, which now arguably makes his novel seem more like an alternate-reality fiction.

Nobody’s perfect.

Gibson did foresee the pulsating-pixel shape of things to come in this landmark work, which blends adventure, romance, murder, mystery, conspiracy, sex, drugs, rock ‘n roll and dystopian fable.

With its pellmell pacing and surreal intensity, Neuromancer was the first book to win sci-fi’s triple crown: the Hugo, Nebula and Philip K. Dick awards.

A clue to its enduring appeal can be found within the title, which contains the word “romance.” Despite Gibson’s gritty tone and cautionary slant, Neuromancer revels in its romance with technology—especially the possibilities of blending between man and machine.

Gibson also brilliantly explores the complex interface between technology and psychology, politics and culture in his suspenseful story of Case, a “console cowboy” exiled from a virtual-reality Internet by a revengeful employer’s maiming surgery.

Surviving by his impaired wits in a drug-infested Asian ghetto, Case is tempted by the possibility of escaping the “prison of one’s flesh” and reinhabiting the Web when he meets Molly, a beautiful hired assassin whose caress is dangerous because of the scalpel blades that slide from beneath her burgundy nails. Talk about a femme fatale.

Beyond its cool characters and absorbing story, the novel has endured because of the “neon shudder” of Gibson’s language. Even as human an act as sexual climax assumes an almost alien glow, “flaring blue in a timeless space, a vastness like the matrix, where the faces were shredded and blown away down hurricane corridors.”

Gibson’s later novels—including Count Zero, Mona Lisa Overdrive, Burning Chrome, Virtual Light and most recently, Pattern Recognition—follow in the kaleidoscopic footsteps of Neuromancer but don’t approach its visceral impact.

The stream-of-consciousness style owes something to Prometheus Hall of Fame award-winner Alfred Bester (The Stars My Destination, The Demolished Man), while the vivid street slang approaches the gang argot of Anthony BurgessA Clockwork Orange, a Hall of Fame finalist in recent years.

Nor did Gibson invent the now-exhausted term of “cyberpunk,” a literary style and movement that perhaps generated more hype, debate and misinterpretation than any other sci-fi trend of the past generation.

Meanwhile, his distinctive vision was inverted and vulgarized by The Matrix film trilogy, which demonized the Web as something to escape from.

Much of Neuromancer’s visual and verbal vocabulary would be reflected and developed in the works of Bruce Sterling, John Shirley, Lewis Shiner, Victor Milán (a Prometheus Award winner for The Cybernetic Samurai) and Neal Stephenson (a Prometheus finalist in recent years for Cryptonomicon and up for consideration this year for the latest prequel novels in his Baroque Cycle), among others. (Vernor Vinge, another Prometheus winner, also deserves credit for predicting the Internet, for his novella “True Names” predates Neuromancer.)

Two decades later, though, the cyberpunk “movement” is all but dead. Nevertheless, long live Neuromancer.

(This is an expanded and revised review that appeared in The Columbus Dispatch.)

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