Cyberpunk Book Review: Neuromancer by William Gibson

Do you ever find weird gaps in your literary or pop culture knowledge?

You think you know what you’re talking about and then you get blindsided by some fact that is so obvious that people have stopped talking about it. But somehow you just didn’t know?

That was me this year.

I’ve loved cyberpunk books and movies for ages, but I never really dug into the genre until I decided I was going to start writing it and then… BAM!

Suddenly I’m looking into the gap… NAY! The wide, gaping chasm! of stuff I never knew I never knew.

Did you know that The Matrix movies are based on the classic cyberpunk Sprawl series by William Gibson? Probably. Everyone but me knew this, apparently.

Until a couple of months ago, I had never even read William Gibson, who is like the All Father of the cyberpunk genre.

My dad, who is THE LEAST cyberpunk person you could ever meet, has read Neuromancer.

This is just embarrassing.

So, uh… better late than never, I guess…

Here’s my review of William Gibson’s Sprawl #1 Neuromancer.

WOW!

That was my first impression as I started reading this classic cyberpunk novel. First the dry, gritty, cybernoir flavour of the writing. Then the intense complexity of the world Gibson imagined. Then the twisting turning plot.

This is a book I will read again, probably more than once. The first time was just to get acclimated. The second time will be to start piecing together all the bits I missed the first time around. There is a lot going on under the surface of this novel, and Gibson isn’t spoonfeeding any details. Modern audiences will be a bit adrift in this world, but all the answers are there. The reader just has to work for it.

I loved that.

But let’s talk a bit about the book.

Setting/Themes

Neuromancer came out in 1984.

It’s kind of interesting that Gibson wrote this book–which prophesizes many things that have come to pass, like the internet and virtual reality and advanced cybernetics–in the same year that George Orwell set his own classic dystopian science fiction novel in.

1984, which Orwell wrote in 1948, in turn had prophesized things like the large colour telescreens and facial recognition, speech to text software, and an all-observing government bodies.

And it’s the year I was born.

So we kinda nailed it. 1984 was a good year.

But it is strange to read books like 1984 and Neuromancer from the present day, or rather “the future that wasn’t, quite.” Many of the things that Gibson predicts with computer usage is eerily accurate. We use words like cyberspace because of Gibson, for example. The high-tech, low-life dichotomy imagined in Neuromancer is very much representative of the massive income/class divides we see between first world and developing nations, and even within our own societies. As Gibson has said, “The future is already here. It’s just not evenly distributed yet.”

But some things, like the way Gibson’s imagined “grid” (does he even use that word, or is that just how I imagined it? now I have to check) is more like being inside a 1980s video game than the high-def 3D virtual reality we have now. When reading, I was picturing Tron more than The Matrix.

This doesn’t detract from the book at all, of course. The vivid settings and characters and the complex heist-style plot more than make up for any of the retrospective anachronisms. Chiba and the Sprawl have become iconic of the cyberpunk aesthetic–rainy nights and neon lights–which were echoed in the 1984 Blade Runner movie, based on Philip K Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

I have read that when Gibson saw Blade Runner he was in a panic because he thought people would think his book, which he’d spent years writing, would be seen as a rip off of the movie. Fascinating that both Blade Runner and Neuromancer tapped into the same neon noir vibe at the same time.

But I’ve recently been reading Larry Niven’s Flatlander stories and I actually see a lot more of Niven in Blade Runner than Gibson, with the pyramidal cities and off-world colonization that shaped Ridley Scott’s interpretation of Dick’s fantastic novel.

The more I think about it, the more I realize all of my favourite books and movies have been circling the same themes for decades… I guess it’s no surprise that I started writing in this genre, too!

As far as themes go, the most prevalent in Neuromancer (and most cyberpunk) are: the struggle against a vast economic inequality, the way technology doesn’t make life better for everyone, and the inevitable corruption of governments and corporations that run the world.

Characters

Gibson’s character development, like that of PKD, is often subtle when it is there at all. Neuromancer is not a character driven novel. He writes fascinating, larger than life characters and throws them into intense situations, but don’t expect these characters to change.

I actually like this.

I love a good character arc, don’t get me wrong. But not all stories are about people growing and changing. Sometimes we just want some fast past action, intricately twisting plots, and mysteries to solve.

In this way, Neuromancer is very much like Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and Flatlander, as well as the hard-boiled noir writers who came before them, like Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett.

And there’s a kind of statement in writing a character like Case or Molly, that they can undergo something like this and come out unchanged. No everyone gets better. Not everyone breaks the cycles that keep them trapped in their own lives. I felt that way about Deckard at the end of DADOES, too. Was he changed in the end? I’m not convinced.

So, Case isn’t a very dynamic character. He’s more reactive than active. But that’s okay. It works.

Plot

I have to admit I lost the thread a few times while reading this book. It’s not the kind of novel you can pick up and read with half an ear on your kid’s latest tale of woe or excitement. Neuromancer demands your full attention. When I couldn’t give it that, I moved very slowly and had to go back and re-read.

Gibson leaves clues to what is going on throughout the book, but they are easy to miss if you aren’t paying attention! So I will definitely have to go back and reread this one now that I know the big picture plot. I’d love to go back and dig into the details.

Conclusion

I gave this book 4 stars, which is kind of cheeky of me, since it’s clearly a classic. But, I mean, once a writer hits the kind of fame and critical acclaim that William Gibson has, I feel I can be a little harder on him than I might be on an up and coming or indie writer.

I might change my tune once I’ve re-read the book. But part of me feels like I shouldn’t have to read a book twice in order to get it. It’s a great story, but it’s a bit obtuse.

It could be the fault of me as the reader, too, in that I wasn’t always 100% committed to the page as I was reading. I don’t often get to read in peace and quiet without interruption.

So I will re-read it when the kids are visiting their grandma sometime and I will come back to this review.

Have you read Neuromancer? What did you think?

Other Reviews

Read more of my classic SF reviews here:

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K Dick

Brave New World by Aldus Huxley

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