William Gibson
Ace Books, New York (USA), 1984 (1984)
271 pages

Shortly after reading Count Zero this Summer, I felt like coming back to this other novel, the first one in William Gibson's so-called Sprawl trilogy and the one to blame for the start of the cyberpunk movement back in the 1980s. So, what is cyberpunk then? It is the renewal of science fiction literature that took place in the US back in the 1980s, that mixed a high-tech environment with stories about the low life linked to the hardboiled crime fiction genre. Up until these stories came up, science fiction was more about wild fantasy than anything else (perhaps, one could say, more "fiction" than "science"), and the cyberpunk writers changed all that. Their books do happen in the future, of course, but it is a future that we can recognize, a future that is not aseptic, that it is not all perfection —let us face it, even a good part of the classic dystopias sound eerily perfect and wrinkle-free). Well, cyberpunk is anything but. It shows imperfections, the low life, crime, prostitution, plenty of social anomie and decadence. To sum up, cyberpunk portrays the conservative's worst nightmare of postmodern life: a complete lack of values and authority, a world where each and everyone is out to get you and where mega-corporations have the last say over any Government. It is a dark world indeed, quite similar to what Ridley Scott portrayed in Blade Runner:

The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel. [...] The Chatsubo was a bar for professional expatriates; you could drink there for a week and never hear two words in Japanese.


The Japanese had already forgotten more neurosurgery than the Chinese had ever known. The black clinics of Chiba were the cutting edge, whole bodies of tecnique supplanted monthly, and still they couldn't repair the damage he'd suffered in that Memphis hotel.

A year here and he still dreamed of cyberspace, hope fading nightly. All the speed he took, all the turns he'd taken and the corners he'd cut in Night City, and still he'd see the matrix in his sleep, bright lattices of logic unfolding across that colorless void... [...]


Case was twenty-four. At twenty-two, he'd been a cowboy, a rustler, one of the best in the Sprawl. He'd been trained by the best, by McCoy Pauley and Bobby Quine, legends in the biz. He'd operated on almost permanent adrenaline high, a byproduct of youth and proficiency, jacked into a custom cyberspace deck that projected his disembodied consciousness into the consensual hallucination that was the matrix. A thief, he'd worked for other, wealthier thieves, amployers who provided the exotic software required to penetrate the bright walls of corporate systems, opening windows into rich fields of data.

He'd made the classic mistake, the one he'd sworn he'd never make. He stole from his employers.[...]

(pp. 3-6)

A neoliberal paradise, perhaps? One way or another, not very different from any of today's already existing megalopolises:

Night City was like a deranged experiment in social Darwinism, designed by a bored researcher who kept one thumb permanently on the fast-forward button. Stop hustling and you sink without a trace, but move a little too swiftly and you'd break the f fragile surface tension of the black market.

(p. 7)

Yet, in spite of their fast-paced life, their constant change and buzzing, we all know that this new lifestyle is here to stay. The conservative-minded may dislike its fluidity, its lack of solid structures, the disappearance of religious and ideological dogmas, but this new reality is what we have to deal with. It is an intrinsic part of the rest of our social and economic system:

... he also saw a certain sense in the notion that burgeoning technologies require outlaw zones, that Night City wasn't there for its inhabitants, but was a deliberately unsupervised playground for technology itself.

(p. 11)

This is precisely, I think, the part that neither the neocons nor the old-styled socialists (i.e., the two types of conservatives on both sides of the political spectrum) fully understand: we are now dealing with a social reality that has significantly changed since the days of the industrial age. As it was the case then, there will be things to preserve and things to improve and change, but mulling over a return to an idealized past is simply not an option.

Neuromancer is the story of Case, an out of work computer hacker who committed the mistake of trying to steal from his employer before and was punished by having his central nervous system damaged so he could not jack into the "matrix" (something similar to today's Internet), which in the case of a hacker pretty much amounts to sentencing him to a slow and painful death, since that is about all he has to sell in this dystopian future. Now, hired by a mysterious figure, he is promised an operation that will cure him in exchange for a new job where he is supposed to steal some secrets from a competing mega corporation.

The novel is entertaining and intriguing, especially if the reader already has an interest in science-fiction and topics like artificial intgelligence, virtual reality, genetic engineering and technology in general. However, I found its language and style (like I said above somewhere, clearly taken from the tradition of hardboiled crime fiction) a bit off-putting at times, perhaps because I am not a native-speaker or perhaps just because I am more used to what some might consider highbrow literature (and, believe me, highbrow literature this is not). I do acknowledge all its achievements and its originality (most people consider this the first more or less accurate description of what less than a decade later we would call "cyberspace"), but cannot avoid feeling a weird taste in my mouth after finishing it (heck, even while I am reading it!). It is not easy to put my finger on it but the fact is that, in spite of it all, I just cannot consider Neuromancer one of the great works of all times that some people think it is. Let us be fair and discriminating: there are novels and novels, books and boks, and the fact that I may enjoy something does not necessarily make it one of the best. Literature (at least good literature) should be something more than entertainment.

Entertaiment factor: 6/10
Artistic factor: 8/10