William Gibson’s debut novel, Neuromancer, was the first novel to win the Nebula Award, the Philip K. Dick Award, and the Hugo Award. This first book in his Sprawl trilogy is at once jarring and groundbreaking and different from everything else that was coming out at the time in 1984. There is rampant drug use and body modification in almost every character. It is a psychedelic trip through the underbelly of one segment of the criminal world in Japan and the eastern seaboard of the US in Gibson’s vision of a future world, with cowboy hackers and genetically enhanced killers.
The thing that makes this work remarkable is that the internet did not exist yet. It was the ARPAnet and TELNETs that you could dial into with a modem. Hackers and Phone Phreakers had been around for a little more than twenty years, give or take, but there was a sense that things were changing with the advent of the personal computer. My college roommate had just bought an Apple IIe, with monochrome monitor in amber. It was fairly close to cutting edge in 1984. I bought the first PC with a hard drive in 1988. And was still using a 2400 baud modem then to dial into bulletin boards or the newcomer America Online. The Artificial Intelligence (AI) Deep Blue won’t beat Gary Kasparov at chess for another 12 years in 1984. It predates the common use of the term Virtual Reality (VR.)
All of these things Gibson smashed together in his gritty new view of the future to coin the genre of cyberpunk. VR became quite the rage after Neuromancer’s release and we all thought it would only be a few years before it would be commonplace. It is only now that we have the bandwidth to really start doing something with it. There are a few things that stick out, like using cassette tapes for a memory construct and early disks for memory, but overall it still holds up pretty well today.
In the story, Henry Dorsett Case was a joeboy for the greatest hackers in the dystopian underworld of Chiba City, Japan, until he got greedy. Now he is a washed-up cowboy that is hanging on by his fingernails, spending his nights in little more than a coffin, which may be symbolic as well as literal. He will do anything to make a buck. Is it fate or simply luck that he falls under the eye of an AI by the name of Wintermute, which has aspirations of godhood? It has assembled a crack team of killers and technicians from the fringes of society to help it become the master of its own destiny.
Money is no object for this team as they prepare to crack some of the toughest ICE in all the virtual world. The ICE protects AIs. It is their deadly security system that can cause brain death in a hacker brave or foolish enough to tangle with it.
It is a reckless weave of plot, moving them all over the globe in search of the parts they will need to succeed, that ultimately that has them end up in the orbital habitat Freeside, in a Lagrange point between the Earth and the Moon. Tessier-Ashpool SA, the twisted, incestuous family that controls the empire that birthed the AIs Wintermute and Rio, better known as Neuromancer, are the target. Villa Straylight, their home in the spindle of an orbital, is a maze of ancient bric-a-brac and houses a deadly ninja at the beck and call of the lone remaining sane member of the T-A family, Lady 3Jane Marie-France Tessier-Ashpool.
The use of Rastafarians seemed like a stretch to me, and the creepiness of the Villa Straylight offset the high-tech undertones. There isn’t anyone we meet in the book that is completely sane. But somehow it all works. It moves fairly quickly, and he has a real knack for turning a phrase. Gibson’s use of description is lean but highly effective and he drops these beautiful prose in here and there to really showcase his talent as a writer. Here is a small sample:
Straylight reminded Case of deserted early morning shopping centers he’d known as a teenager, low-density places where the small hours brought a fitful stillness, a kind of numb expectancy, a tension that left you watching insects swarm around caged light bulbs above the entrance of darkened shops. Fringe places, just past the boarders of the Sprawl, too far from the all-night click and shudder of the hot core. There was that same sense of being surrounded by the sleeping inhabitants of a waking world he had no interest in visiting or knowing, of dull business temporarily suspended, of futility and repetition soon to wake again.
I enjoyed the reread immensely. It was as good as I remembered and everything that made it cool and remarkable is still significant now. Maybe it doesn’t have the same punch, because we are much more familiar with the tropes these days, but I can still give it my highest endorsement.
On to Count Zero!