Some books are timeless. Some books, it doesn’t matter how long ago they were written, you can pick up and relate to. There are some fantastic examples of science fiction and dystopian novels that were written decades ago if not centuries ago that are still readable today. Unfortunately, I just don’t think that William Gibson’s “Neuromancer” is one of them.
The Harper Voyager classic science fiction and fantasy hardcover edition that I found of “Neuromancer” is simply gorgeous. Just by looking at the cover you can tell that this novel was the origin of the term “The Matrix” and is a seminal work in the genre of cyberpunk. The plot starts out relatively simplely, although it is obsfucated somewhat by Gibson’s technique of hurling the reader bodily into the world he has constructed without any kind of context whatsoever. Case, a drug-addicted and despondant former computer hacker is working in a dystopian Japan as a low-level hustler. No longer able to “jack in” to The Matrix, a virtual reality cyberspace, after being punished for stealing from his previous employers, Case jumps at the opportunity to work for a mysterious man called Armitage and his attractive, bionic assistant Molly. Promising a cure, Armitage instead rigs Case’s body so that he can temporarily reaccess the Matrix for a certain amount of time before he is again disabled, and also so that he can no longer metabolise drugs.
What follows is a whirlwind; a confusing sequence of events that unfold all over (and, at points, outside of) the world. The longer Case works for Armitage, the more he starts to suspect that there are a number of conspiracies taking place concurrently in the real world as well as in cyberspace. I can’t really explain any further without giving too much away, but it reads a little like a crime thriller with a real cybernetic spin. Case is the quintessential anti-hero and is at once a likeable yet frustrating character.
This book is not an easy read. Although intended a fast-paced novel, it is actually rather slow going. Gibson has an incredible imagination and is able to conjure up all kinds of technologies and societies. Unfortunately, because the book is set out like a thriller, the reader doesn’t really have a lot of time to pause and visualise the world he has created. I found that I had to go back a reread passages again and again because I was missing things. While Gibson is no doubt extremely creative, I found that he wasn’t necessarily the most expressive writer. You get the sense that he can see clearly exactly what the world and the technologies are like, but he’s struggling a bit to find the words to convey exactly what’s going on. Every glimpse into a new thing is snatched and you barely have time to register what it is that you’re looking at before you’re whisked away to the next new thing. I found it really hard to visualise what was going on, which in turn made it hard to immerse myself into the book.
The other part that made it difficult is that this book was first published in 1984, and it shows. Although Gibson has envisioned some pretty spectacular forms of technology, he has appropriated the mediums for hosting information and programs that existed while he was writing to do so. The image of Case running around with a cassette player and “jacking in” to the Matrix by sticking nodes onto his head is at odds with how we understand, access and store data today. Reading it now, you feel a little lost and torn between two times: past and future. Technology has now far surpassed cassettes as a form of data storage, but while we have achieved cyberspace in the form of the internet, we are not quite at the level of being able to access it directly through our consciousnesses. For this book to make sense today, you really have to suspend your disbelief quite a lot. However I can appreciate that when it was written, it must’ve been right on the money.
“Neuromancer” is a super interesting, groundbreaking book that I think just hasn’t aged particularly well. If you’re into sci-fi and cyberpunk, give it a whirl, but do be prepared to be confused.