Neuromancer Turns Thirty

Neuromancer Turns Thirty

The Potomac Post — Shawn Doyle

The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel

    The opening salvo of William Gibson’s 1984 debut masterpiece definitively set the tone for what was, and perhaps remains, the single most influential science fiction novel in shaping the public consciousness.  Neuromancer created the very notion of cyberspace. It birthed a host of IT and cryptographic terms now taken for granted, the doomed genre of cyberpunk, and a cultural legacy almost wholly unappreciated by the cult of High Literature.

The first novel to win the ‘Triple Crown’ of science fiction literature awards- the Hugo, Nebula, and Philip K. Dick- Neuromancer struck like an amphetamine hit, coursing through the veins of a stagnant and decaying genre. Three decades in its wake, we should look back towards the book that so effectively captured the imagination of a world lying at the precipice of the information revolution, and perhaps helped nudge us ever closer towards the plunge.

Defining Neuromancer’s legacy as that of dystopia would be easy. Indeed, how ironic it is that the great work forecasting information age dystopia shares its year of birth, 1984, with the namesake of the great tale of industrialized dystopia. Parallel’s between Gibson’s world and the fears of our own are not hard to see. His world is a world of run-amok corporations, of intrusive and abusive governments, of cyborgization, globalization, and profitization. A world in which business “was a constant subliminal hum, and death the accepted punishment for laziness, carelessness, lack of grace, the failure to heed the demands of an intricate protocol”. A world in which the Boston-Atlanta Metro Area, and the other localities throughout the world like it, have re-engineered Earth’s geology into an endless sprawl of human progress. In which life, at least in some particularly unfortunate cities, is like “a deranged experiment in social Darwinism, designed by a bored researcher who kept one thumb permanently on the fast-forward button”.

In a world post-Snowden, of wage gaps and collapsing Bangladeshi factories, the parallels are ready for the drawing.  But characterizing Neuromancer as a mere work of dystopia is disingenuous to the novel and its reception. Cyberpunk, the genre that ever-so-briefly erupted in its wake fetishized dystopia. It died quickly, largely devoid of consequence. The same cannot be said of Neuromancer.  Case, the novel’s anti-hero, is no Icarus. Gibson is no crier of the dangers of a future imperfect. Instead, Neuromancer exhibits a relative apathy towards the problematic sides of its world. Here, things are not necessarily bad or good, they merely are. This sword has always had two edges.

    Predictive capabilities frequently serve as a metric for judging the worth of near-term science fiction. In many ways, Gibson’s prognosticative capabilities continue to impress thirty years later. Certainly, he misses the mark on some counts. He amusingly chooses the megabyte to represent units of big data. His world invokes powerful computer terminal fixtures and sleek cybernetic implants, but omits the intermediary stage of handheld technology like smartphones. His 80′s geopolitical assumptions feel particularly dated. A Chinese copycat-economy feels familiar, but the lurking Russians and an ascendent high-tech Japanese tiger no longer holds up. Perhaps most curiously, Gibson missses the isolation inducing capacities of the technology of 2014, evidenced by his pulsating arcades and nexus-like bars. However, the value of science fiction is not the degree to which an author can accurately predict the material possessions of the future.

In coining the term cyberspace, we can see the outlines of the future Gibson etched out -

Cyberspace. A consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions of legitimate operations, in every nation … A graphic representation of data abstracted from the banks of every computer in the human system. Unthinkable complexity. Lines of light ranged in the non-space of the mind, clusters and constellations of data. Like city lights, receding…

Neuromancer’s power does not lie in mere material predictions. Invoking a future of jacking into a neural matrix, of cyberspace, of bionic implant units and other things that are just so cool certainly plays a role. Like star trek communicators to cell phones, one could even speculate on the degree to which Gibson has shaped the present that, in many ways, mirrors his world.

In my opinion, Gibson’s magic does not just lie in the cool stuff. He has changed the world through the sheer power of his dream and vision. He chooses not to parrot the ecstatic rapture of Star Trek or 1950′s futurism. Even though Gibson imagines such a ferociously revolutionary world from the 1980′s – one of cyberspace, where geography is redrawn and the possibilities of communication and collaboration are limitless – he tempers this dream that could easily be that of ecstatic revelation with the knowledge that, as with all things, there will be some winners and some losers.

What enters Neuromancer into the realm of the sublime is not merely a masterful writing performance. It is not merely pondering about the possibilities of possessing cool things or warning about the dangers of that which is to come.  What rendered Neuromancer an absolute landmark was Gibson’s ability to not only to recognize the precipice for what it was, but to see with just enough clarity that which was to come; capturing its very essence, extracting it, and then blending it so perfectly with the American cultural psyche. It is the social, cultural and spiritual vision. What renders Neuromancer even more amazing, is that thirty years later, it rings as true as it ever has.

Shawn Doyle can be found on twitter, @ShawnMDoyle and can also be reached at sdoyle@thepotomacpost.com

note from the author – This article has undergone slight revision since original posting.

7 comments

  1. Regarding hand held devices, it might be argued that Gibson skipped that step and went with implants. One scene where Case muses if it wouldn’t be better to just carry a watch in your pocket, rather than display the time on the skin of your wrist, struck me as particularly poignant.

    Gibson, along with Greg Bear and Bruce Sterling, helped revive a stagnant genre IMO. Thanks for the article!

    • I’m glad you enjoyed it! I think there certainly was an inkling of the intermediary step of hand held devices, but if we consider how ubiquitous handheld devices are today, their absence is noticeable. But even so, I don’t think that it remotely breaks the book from a perspective looking back. I do think that it is interesting though, looking at how influential of a book Neuromancer was in maybe shaping how things are today, to see what it is that he missed in addition to what he got right. And good on you for catching that line, I missed the scene with the watch.

      I’m not sure if you’ll be notified by the response, but if you do manage to see this, I would recommend taking a second look at the article. The original post was a bit of an early edit, and I had to go and rush to put up my most recent changes to it. I don’t think it changes the article, but it is related to this aspect.

  2. matt

    Excellent post Shawn, one of my favorite authors. Question for you: Now that we’re thirty years out from 1984, who would you say is the “William Gibson” author of 2014?

    • Thanks for the kind words. That’s a good question, and I unfortunately have to admit that I’m not familiar enough with present day sci-fi to really say.

      However, I think this does answer your question in another sense. There very well could be another present day sci-fi author with a Gibsonesque vision. But as far as I’m aware, there are no present day sci-fi writers who seem to be hitting a ‘cultural nerve’ in the same way that Gibson managed to. I’m not aware of any groundswell around the imaginings of any one, or of any group, of authors.

      I also think its rather amusing that there is an i09 piece just recognizing now that 1984′s dystopia no longer applies. Isn’t that obvious? I mean, Alvin Toffler called this back in the 70′s. http://io9.com/so-instead-of-watching-everyone-the-government-will-ins-1529823558

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