Friday, June 11, 2010

Book Review: Neuromancer

William Gibson
Awards: Nebula, Hugo, Philip K. Dick
Rating: ★ ★ ★ – –

I am of two minds about this book.

On the one hand, I very much appreciate it. It is the very best in cyberpunk writing. It was groundbreaking and radical when it came out in 1984, but it still reads like a fresh, contemporary story.

Gibson is great at taking abstract technical concepts – computer viruses, hacking, ROM constructs, artificial intelligence – and describing them so that you can picture them; so that they seem physically real. He does this for many things that were brand-new at the time.

He also coined the term “cyberspace” and used the word “matrix” to describe the virtual environment of the internet, even though the internet didn’t really exist yet.

Neuromancer is fast-paced and slick. People go swinging around the matrix at the speed of light and also zip around physical space very quickly as well; it’s no big deal to go from one end of the BAMA (Boston-Atlanta Metropolitan Axis) to the other, even just for dinner.

Its characters have talents and body modifications adapted to this new environment. The protagonist, Case, is a cyber cowboy with an enhanced nervous system whose trade involves jacking into the matrix and hacking around stealing information. Case meets up with a number of colorful people, including Molly, a sort of mercenary who has retractable razor blades implanted under her fingernails (like Wolverine, although Wolverine actually came first) and high-tech mirrored lenses embedded over her eyes that give her access to all kinds of real-time information.

On the other hand, I don’t really like this world. It’s hostile. Everyone seems high on something most of the time. No one can trust anyone else and no one is sure if they’re on the right side. You can't ever be sure if what you’re looking at is real or a hologram. No one has a home; Case just rents various “coffins” (cheap tiny hotel spaces) to spend the night.

I don’t like Case or Molly or any of the people they run into (with the possible exception of Wintermute, who is actually an artificial intelligence and not a person).

I also don’t understand anyone’s motivation for doing what they’re doing (with, again, the exception of Wintermute).

The premise of the story is that Case used to be one of the best cyber cowboys out there, but he made the mistake of stealing a piece of information from an employer, who then fried his nervous system so he couldn’t jack into the matrix anymore. When a mysterious new employer needs someone to do the most dangerous, complex hacking job ever, they hire him to do it and are willing to pay for the extremely expensive operations required to fix him. Yet I didn’t think that Case ever really proved why he was so good (like, for example, Ender Wiggin proved over and over).

Case develops a relationship with Molly, who has been hired by the same mysterious employer to be the muscle on the hack job. But they seem to get together just because they’re in the same place at the same time, not because they really are interested in each other.

Neil Stephenson’s novel Snow Crash, which came out in 1992, draws a lot from Neuromancer, both in its atmosphere and in its story line. But I liked the characters and the world of Snow Crash much more.


Lord John Whorfin said...

What? You don't like the Finn?

Eve's Apple said...

Really? Only three stars? I think William Gibson is either 1) sent from the future, or 2) an alien. Either way, he knows what's going to happen before anyone else, and I love him. Plus all of his recent works feature interesting female protagonists.

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