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Classic SciFi 4: William Gibson Neuromancer

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ORT_Logo   Breadtag Sagas ©: Author Tony,  20 April 2016


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William Gibson, Neuromancer 1984

The local came booming in along the black induction strip, fine grit sifting from cracks in the tunnel’s ceiling. Case shuffled into the nearest door and watched the other passengers as he rode. A pair of predatory looking Christian Scientists were edging toward a trio of young office techs who wore idealized holographic vaginas on their wrists, wet pink glittering under the harsh lighting. The techs licked their perfect lips nervously and eyed the Christian Scientists from beneath lowered metallic lids. The girls looked like tall, exotic grazing animals, swaying gracefully and unconsciously with the movement of the train, their high heels like polished hooves against the gray metal of the car’s floor. Before they could stampede, take flight from the missionaries, the train reached Case’s station.

This is my favourite description in Neuromancer.


Introduction

You may have noticed I haven’t posted another Detective and Crime Fiction since 4 John Sandford (the others are 3 Michael Connolly, 2 Arnaldur Indridason and 1 An Introduction). The reason is that the next two I was thinking of were Stieg Larsson and Jo Nesbo. Both offer particular problems (see Further Information).

Neuromancer, my copy

Neuromancer, my copy

In contrast, in this series on Classic SciFi I had no intention of approaching William Gibson for some time, but here we are. To begin with, Gibson is a giant in any genre but not particularly mainstream in his approach to science fiction. Indeed, consciously so on Gibson’s part. Many have found him difficult, especially as teenagers and need to read Neuromancer two or three times before they get it!

When anyone talks about William Gibson they must talk about Neuromancer, but there is much more to Gibson. One must deal with the short stories (Burning Chrome collection) because they are pivotal and also the two other novels in the trilogy Count Zero and Mona Lisa Overdrive.

Some fans don’t like Gibson’s later novels after this much, perhaps they aren’t as new, or compelling or as prescient. Others as in the Guardian’s celebration of the 30th birthday of Neuromancer in 2014 oversell them. However, each of the later novels has elements that are wonderful and some of the things contained are truly novel, but they aren’t as mind-stoppingly new as Neuromancer once was.

This series of articles deals primarily with the early Trilogy, but perhaps at some other time I’ll write about the later novels, because they are to date part of a coherent oeuvre. I think it is important to discuss Neuromancer first (whilst trying not to spoil it) before getting into what I think is the most important part of William Gibson his prescience and unique way of looking at the world and the near future. It is the background, the ambience, the cultural environment that Gibson creates that is so important to where we were then (in the 1980s) and where we are now.

William Gibson doesn’t like being taken as a prophet but in some ways that is the task he set himself and why those who appreciate Gibson are so fond of him. Like Charles Dickens, Gibson sketches a powerful illusion and we take it on board and intermingle it with our own cultural insights and prejudices. Gibson doesn’t prophesy facts, his percipience is in attitudes, nuance and generalist understandings.


William Gibson a brief literary biography

William Ford Gibson, American-Canadian speculative fiction writer and essayist was born on 17 March 1948 in South Carolina, but lived his childhood in Wytheville, Virginia in the Appalachians, where his parents were born and raised. In 1967 he moved to Canada to avoid the draft and became involved in the counterculture there. He began writing the short stories that were collected in the Burning Chrome short story collection 1986 and over several years developed a bleak film noir but unique feel and background to his fiction. For example Johnny Mnemonic 1981 and Burning Chrome 1982.

Neuromancer, early edition

Neuromancer, early edition

Neuromancer was commissioned by Terry Carr for the second series of Ace Science Fiction Specials, which was intended to exclusively feature debut novels. Given a year to complete the work, Gibson undertook the actual writing out of “blind animal panic” at the obligation to write an entire novel—a feat which he felt he was “four or five years away from”. (Wikipedia)

Wikipedia says that: After viewing the first 20 minutes of landmark cyberpunk film Blade Runner (1982), which was released when Gibson had written a third of the novel, he “figured [Neuromancer] was sunk, done for. Everyone would assume I’d copped my visual texture from this astonishingly fine-looking film.” He was wrong, but the comparison with Blade Runner is interesting. Many movie buffs and film and visual media professionals treat Blade Runner with the same awe as Gibson afficionados treat Neuromancer.

Neuromancer in 1984 is credited as the archetypal cyberpunk novel, which legitimised cyberpunk as a genre. Although not greeted with fanfare, Neuromancer hit a cultural nerve and became the first scifi novel to win the triple crown: the Hugo and Nebula (for the year’s best novel) and the Philip K Dick Award (for a paperback original). By 2007 it had sold more than 6.5 million copies worldwide.

In 1999, The Guardian described Gibson as “probably the most important novelist of the past two decades,” while the Sydney Morning Herald called him the “noir prophet” of cyberpunk. (Wikipedia). Wikipedia gives a much more detailed biography that is worth consulting.


The story

Neuromancer is set in an unspecified near future. The novel begins: The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.

Case the viewpoint character is a low-level hustler in the dystopian night city of Chiba in Japan. He is spiralling out of control and will end up dead soon, when one or another deal inevitably goes wrong. Case is 24. He grew up in BAMA or The Sprawl in America. He once was a talented console jockey cowboy, but he stole from his employer. As punishment his central nervous system was damaged with a micotoxin poison making him incapable of operating in cyberspace anymore. He came to Chiba looking for a fix from a black clinic. But, they couldn’t fix him.

Neuromancer, early edition

Neuromancer, early edition

We meet some amazing characters in night city as Case tries to get the next deal together. Ratz the barman in the Chatsubo has a soft spot for Case.

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 web work of East European steel and brown decay. …

The bartender’s smile widened. His ugliness was the stuff of legend. In an age of affordable beauty, there was something heraldic about his lack of it. The antique arm whined as he reached for another mug. It was a Russian military prosthesis, a seven-function force-feedback manipulator, cased in grubby pink plastic. “You are too much the artiste, Herr Case.” Ratz grunted; the sound served him as laughter. He scratched his overhang of white-shirted belly with the pink claw. “You are the artiste of the slightly funny deal.” 

There’s Lonny Zone the pimp and his whores, Julius Deane a shady importer, Linda Lee Case’s sometime girlfriend. Wage who is looking for Case because Case owes him money. Case later thinks Wage may have taken out a contract on him.

Enter Molly and Armitage. It is Molly who is tracking Case. She is a samurai-style warrior trained to protect or to harm. Implanted augmented sunglasses cover her eyes. She has retractible steel blades under her finger nails. Armitage is a strange apparently incomplete personality.

They want Case as part of a team to undertake a raid. The offer is to get a black Clinic in Chiba to repair him, with beyond state-of-the-art software supplied by Armitage, to get his cyber hacker skills back.

The remainder of the story involves building the team and travelling into space to break into the villa of a rich family consortium to steal something…

The strength of the story is the rich characterisation and the rich backgrounds, the likeable and unlikable strong characters, the complex plot leading to a denouement that is more than just the story.

When I began reading Neuromancer again, in preparation for this article, I was initially disappointed. Ratz wasn’t as brilliantly drawn as I’d imagined him. The initial pages seemed cludgy and awkward, but this soon went away and I was sucked in. I think I was afraid that Neuromancer wouldn’t stand up. It does. Case and Molly are endearing. The Finn is as extraordinary as I remembered him, very Dickensian.


The key characters

Case — the console cowboy, cyberspace jockey (hacker)

Molly — the consumate but damaged warrior

Armitage — the unstable personality of Colonel Corto who suffered for his country in an impossible raid on Russia

Riviera — another damaged and horrible personality, who is a magician and with aids can conjure amazing illusions, an addict who can only get sexual gratification by betraying young women

The Finn — an amazingly drawn repulsive but endearing character, who is a fence for stolen goods and a very skilled hardware and software technologist

Lupus Yonderboy — a Panther Modern, an anti-societal gang, whose style or aesthetic are as important as the criminal outrages they perpetrate. Lupus has a chameleon suit that blends in with any background it comes against.

The Moderns were mercenaries, practical jokers, nihilistic technofetishists.

Dixie Flatline — nickname, a stored ROM of the downloaded personality of McCoy Pauley one of the great cowboy hackers from Case’s past. Dixie can’t remember anything once he is turned off, but he is aware enough to beg Case to erase him once his role is finished.

Maelcum — an inhabitant of Zion Colony built by Rastafarian space construction workers and pilot of the tug Marcus Garvey, which Case uses to access the Villa Straylight

Lady 3Jane — the third clone daughter and heir to the Tessier-Ashpool family empire who lives on Straylight, an artificial tourist world in space.

Hideo — Japanese Ninja, Lady 3Jane’s majordomo, bodyguard and immensely powerful and talented Ninja assassin

Neuromancer and Wintermute — the Tessier-Ashpool Artificial Intelligences (AIs)


Important concepts

Cyberspace — the matrix, a consensual hallucination

“The matrix has its roots in primitive arcade games,” said the voice-over, “in early graphics programs and military experimentation with cranial jacks.” On the Sony, a two-dimensional space war faded behind a forest of mathematically generated ferns, demonstrating the spatial possibilities of logarithmic spirals — cold blue military footage burned through, lab animals wired into test systems, helmets feeding into fire control circuits of tanks and war planes. “Cyberspace. A consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators, in every nation, by children being taught mathematical concepts… A graphic representation of data abstracted from the banks of every computer in the human system. Unthinkable complexity.

Case jacking into the matrix using derms or trodes, for the first time since his operation: And flowed, flowered for him, fluid neon origami trick, the unfolding of his distance less home, his country, transparent 3D chessboard extending to infinity. Inner eye opening to the stepped scarlet pyramid of the Eastern Seaboard Fission Authority burning beyond the green cubes of Mitsubishi Bank of America, and high and very far away he saw the spiral arms of military systems, forever beyond his reach. 

Console cowboys and cyber jockeys — skilled hackers. They have superb skills in manouvering through the matrix and using expensive civilian and military software to break through walls of ICE and into the corporate databases.

Case: He’d operated on an almost permanent adrenaline high, a byproduct of youth and proficiency, jacked into a custom cyberspace deck that projected his disembodied consciousness into the consensual hallucination that was the matrix. A thief he’d worked for other, wealthier thieves, employers who provided the exotic software required to penetrate the bright walls of corporate systems, opening windows into rich fields of data.

ICE — intrusion countermeasures electronics (often made by AI’s). ICE is the stuff used to protect corporate data cores from hackers. Black ICE is the stuff that will kill you if you make a mistake.

BAMA, the Sprawl

Home was BAMA, the Sprawl, the Boston-Atlanta Metropolitan Axis. Program a map to display frequency of data exchange, every thousand megabytes a single pixel on a very large screen. Manhattan and Atlanta burn solid white.

[Note: a thousand megabytes (a gigabyte) now seems trivial in today’s terms.]

AI — Artificial intelligences. [The idea of AI was big in 1984. It is today. They still don’t quite exist.]

Turing Cops — AIs are registered on the Turing Registry. The Turing cops police AIs under fixed rules to make sure they don’t get too intelligent.

Black Clinics — the converse of legal medical clinics, are often cutting edge using the latest software to perform unapproved medical procedures. Had Case been killed in an alley the chances are that his organs would have been harvested and disappeared into the organ vats of a black clinic.

Simstim — is the entertainment of the masses, like a cowboy’s deck you jack in but simstim is passive. Tally Isham is the current major simstim star and if you load a Tally Isham simstim recording you jack into her sensorium and feel as she does, even her body. The implications for porn are limitless (very like Internet porn today). Simstim also comes in the form of ‘soaps’. Imagine the Bold and the Beautiful, it would be fascinating to see whether they actually feel plastic inside — the transition to simstim would be a bit like the transition from silent movies, many wouldn’t make the cut.

Case: Cowboys didn’t get into Simstim, he thought, because it was basically a meat toy. He knew that the trodes he used and the little plastic tiara dangling from a Simstim deck were basically the same, and that the cyberspace matrix was actually a drastic simplification of the human sensorium, at least in terms of presentation, but Simstim itself struck him as a gratuitous multiplication of flesh input. The commercial stuff was edited, of course, so that if Tally Isham got a headache in the course of a segment, you didn’t feel it.

Case becomes a rider of Molly some of the time because of the job, they are already lovers, so that it isn’t so intrusive: The glasses didn’t seem to cut down the sunlight at all. He wondered if the built-in amps compensated automatically. Blue alphanumerics the time, low in her left peripheral field. Showing off, he thought. Her body language was disorienting, her style foreign. She seemed continually on the verge of colliding with someone, but people melted out of her way, stepped sideways, made room.

“How you doing, Case?” He heard the words and felt her form them. She slid a hand into her jacket, a fingertip circling a nipple under warm silk. The sensation made him catch his breath. She laughed. But the link was one-way. He had no way to reply.

Body augmentation — with black clinics and more legal clinical procedures one can enhance beauty try to become your favourite simstim star or conversely mould the body grotesquely like the Panther Moderns with collagen fibre grotesqueries and shark tooth implants. The comparison with our own era — plastic surgery, tattoos, body jewellery, the beginnings of more grotesque modifications and the obsession with celebrities — is unavoidable.


Comment

Neuromancer is as good today as when it was written. It is an amazing book and I think continually prophetic, but more as an attitude of mind or perhaps a portrait to compare one’s own perceptions of the world with. Gibson doesn’t want to be taken as a prophet (perhaps no science fiction writer does because it detracts from the fiction). He jokes that he didn’t even predict the mobile phone (though the smart phone is more relevant to his vision of the future).

However, the Apple iPhone 1 was only released on 29 June 2007. Although the smart phone seems ubiquitous now, it may disappear as quickly and morph into something else entirely. In a few years we may forget that mobile phones ever existed. They may become a hiccup of history.

We’ll deal with the prophetic aspects of Gibson’s vision in the next article.


Key words: William Gibson, Neuromancer, Count Zero, Mona Lisa Overdrive, Burning Chrome, Johnny Mnemonic, Terry Carr, noir prophet, cyberpumk, cyberspace, console cowboy, cyber jockey, BAMA, The Sprawl, ICE, Black Clinics, Simstim, body augmentation, Case, Molly, Ratz, Lupus Yonderboy, The Finn, Hideo, Stieg Larsson, Jo Nesbo


Further Information

Introduction

Regarding Stieg Larsson and Detective and Crime Fiction 5: (not yet written)

I read two books about Stieg Larsson so he is next, but everyone knows about the Millenium Trilogy and Mikael Blomkvist and Lisbeth Sealander (read them or at least seen the films) so I didn’t just want to rehash the story. I wanted to attempt more depth. I will get around to it.

Regarding Classic Sci Fi 4

I was planning to do Ursula Le Guin and the Word for World is Forest 1972. The plot of the movie Avatar depends heavily on this novella by Ursula Le Guin, but Le Guin is uncredited. I’ll get around to this.

Newspaper Review on Neuromancer’s 30th birthday

Ed Cumming William Gibson: the man who saw tomorrow The Guardian, 28 July 2014, celebrating Neuromancer being 30 years old.

Good enough! but not ground breaking. We’ll cover the Guardian piece article in detail in the next article.

The Guardian Article opens:

Prescience can be tedious for science-fiction writers. Being proven right about a piece of technology or a trend distracts from the main aim of the work: to show us how we live now.

It then goes on:

He has been right about a great deal, but mainly about the shape of the internet and how it filters down to the lowest strata of society.

I can’t see how Cumming comes to this conclusion. He also cites Cory Doctorow a novelist and blogger who has a much clearer insight, but more about these issues next article.

Cumming goes on to make a big call about Pattern Recognition versus Neuromancer. It is a long time since I read Pattern Recognition, so I can’t comment, other than saying I didn’t notice it at the time. However, I will certainly be looking at Pattern Recognition more critically when I get around to dealing with the later novels.

Neuromancer is Gibson’s most famous novel but not his most accomplished. Pattern Recognition was written in the wake of 9/11 and published in 2003. If Neuromancer looks at the future through a high-powered telescope, Pattern Recognition has its face pressed right up to the glass. Set partly in Camden Town, London, the book has as its protagonist Cayce Pollard, a marketing consultant who has a literal allergy to brands and logos. This makes her valuable to companies keen to seem cooler and less corporate.

The book is more than a decade old but, re-read today, it feels more astute than 99% of the novels written since.

SPOILER ALERTS below, tread warily if you haven’t read Neuromancer

Neuromancer

Weird rave reviews from Goodreads

1 Stephen Sullypython 5-stars

2 Loren 5-stars

Both had trouble reading it first time. I gave it to my nephew and also Denise’s nephew as teenagers and they didn’t finish it or didn’t like it until much later.

3 J.G. Keely 4-stars

The reviews are worth reading but they don’t quite get it. You should also avoid for spoilers, if you haven’t read Neuromancer.

Wikipedia’s take

Wikipedia’s general background and literary and cultural significance are used above.

Wikipedia also has a good description of all the characters, which is more comprehensive than I give and a more detailed story outline which is a comprehensive SPOILER if you haven’t read the book.

William Gibson

Wikipedia on Neuromancer 1984

The earlier short stories in the Burning Chrome collection

The short stories which helped to build the bleak film noir feel and background to Neuromancer and the rest of the trilogy. I believe these were the necessary formative stage in preparation for the trilogy. The links are to Wikipedia.

Burning Chrome short story collection

Burning Chrome 1982

Johnny Mnemonic 1981

Dogfight 1985 (with Michael Stanwick)

I’m not sure when the ideas in Dogfight were conceived but presumably the story is part of the formative background to Neuromancer.

Quotations from Neuromancer

The quotations were taken from a free down-loaded version of the book. The pages vary depending on what edition of the book you use. Given the change in technology and the Net it is easier to look these up than it ever was before. They are easy to find.

 

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