I just finished reading Neuromancer this evening. I’ve been a fan of William Gibson for years (my favorite novel of his is Pattern Recognition, though I remember quite enjoying Idoru and All Tomorrow’s Parties as well) but I’d never read his first and most famous novel. He has said that anyone writing about the future (or accurately about the present, for that matter) has work that develops a patina, very quickly. The technology that seems so advanced when scribbling the words in a notebook or clicking away on a computer quickly becomes outdated, surpassed by new technology, and as soon as it becomes outdated it also becomes antiquated.
“The sky over the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.”
What color is that anymore? At the time of his writing, it was a not quite black, vaguely purplish in hue. At another time, it might have been snow, black and white static. Now, that color is a flat blue, maybe with white letters saying something like “no signal”. Hell, even the nature of signal has changed. Analog airwaves have changed to a digital broadcast. Now everything is in a high definition that while making everything technically clearer has made everything seem all the more unreal in it’s hyperrealism.
Reading Neuromancer now, it has a patina. At it’s core, beneath all the hype around the origins of cyberspace
“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. Lines of light ranged in the nonspace of the mind, clusters and constellations of data. Like city lights, receding…”
is a heist novel. Case, the central character, is a washed up hacker, chemically handicapped and unable to do the one thing that makes him alive
“For Case, who’d lived for the bodiless exultation of cyberspace, it was the Fall. In the bars he’d frequented as a cowboy hotshot, the elite stance involved a certain relaxed contempt for the flesh. The body was meat. Case fell into the prison of his own flesh.”
Case is an operator, he’d be the guy you’d go to that has the experience to break into the bank or the casino or whatever. He is recruited by an enigmatic man named Armitage and is suddenly jet setting with the gorgeous and dangerous muscle for the gig, Molly Millions. Most importantly, he is given back the thing that was taken from him, his ability to jack in, interface with cyberspace. The ticking clock on the novel is put in place when it is revealed that Case’s cure is provisional and without a particular enzyme, the toxins that originally crippled him would be reintroduced into his system and he would be permanently handicapped. Of course, a gig that would require these particular characters would require a job that justifies their skills. The job, in this case is hacking into an A.I. on behalf of that A.I.
The interesting thing about Gibson’s work is that he seems to have his fingers on a particular pulse in our culture. Cyberspace is just one of the things that Gibson has given name and shape to before it came to be. In Pattern Recognition, Cayce (incidentally pronounced the same as the protagonist from Neuromancer) is a cool hunter, a particular type of consultant to companies of all sorts due to an allergy she has to brands. She can just tell when something will hit with popular culture, when a trend will take off and when something will be profitable. She is shattered by the disappearance of her father after September 11, 2001. She is also part of a group that communicates online in a forum about a series of enigmatic short videos that pop up randomly, suggesting perhaps a larger film and full of suggestive meaning. This sets her on a journey on behalf of the head of a marketing company to find the source of these videos. This predates (and anticipates) the birth of YouTube.
Most interesting in his visions for the future are the roles of corporations and governments. Since his early short stories he’s been talking about a future where corporations have assumed a controlling interest in the running of various world governments and people are sort of incidental. If you’re part of the corporations, essential cogs, then you’re fairly well off. Gibson’s characters are the cast offs of this culture, the people who live close to the streets. The street will find its use is a common refrain. Technology in these stories is a tool, a weapon and a lifestyle–although, that last one might not be entirely accurate, as lifestyle implies almost an affectation and in these stories (and now, to a degree, in our own culture) it is part of life itself. Like Case in Neuromancer, to be cut off from technology is to be cut off from life itself. Look at Facebook, at Twitter, etc. Look at how intertwined we are already with the internet, how essential it seems, and we don’t exist within it yet, not the way that they do in Gibson’s fictions.
Where does this leave me then? I’ve just talked around Gibson’s book. It’s good, but I’m not sure how I feel about it. I liked it, but it also makes me think about reading “important” books. Is there a point where they stop being important, at least in the way they originally were? I’ve seen several films that have elements that are a homage to films from the past with friends who, when I show them the original films, suggest that they are lesser than the newer films in some way, even though the admirable elements from the newer film were taken from the older films. Sometimes, the newer versions are better (viewing The Crazies in both of its iterations, shows how the remake took the concepts that were good in Romero’s original and improved upon them in the remake). So, Neuromancer came first, in many respects, and is quite good, but is also quite influential in so many other things in pop culture (so much of the DNA from Neuromancer can be found in films like The Matrix or Gamer). One wonders what might have happened if William Gibson’s script for Johnny Mnemonic had ended up with The Wachowskis instead of Robert Longo. Even in 1995, could they have done with Gibson’s actual world what they did with his ideas a few years later?
So, I enjoyed it. I think that it is very much worth reading. And I’m a little apprehensive about rereading Snowcrash, because what if I don’t like it as much now as I did when I first read it 12 years ago.
A few years back, there was a documentary made about Gibson called No Map For These Territories, which is, essentially, a conversation with the man during a long car trip. Here’s the first part:
Here’s the second part:
More later …