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Neuromancer by William Gibson
(Voyager Classics, £7.99, 317 pages, paperback; first published 1984; this edition 20 August 2001.)

The world that Gibson creates in Neuromancer is a familiar one. Familiar because the book has influenced many cover scanbooks since, familiar because in some ways our world has perhaps become more like Gibson's, familiar because - in language at least - the book has made the world become more like it.

Neuromancer takes place in a globalised world of urban sprawl where corporations and the entertainment industry appear to have more power than governments, where the rise of bioengineering has extended the possibilities of what it is to be human.

The world is made even smaller by 'the matrix', cyberspace, 'a consensual hallucination' that some gifted individuals can access through neural connections, a world of data made physical, data that can be manipulated, that can be stolen. Entering this world brings with it physical risks: data is protected by 'ice', firewalls and anti-virus programs that can kill those who come too close to them. Case is a former 'cyberspace cowboy' who double-crossed a former employer, and as a punishment was infected with a toxin which removed his ability to interface with the matrix. Reduced to petty crimes and low-level drug dealing amid the neon streets of Ninsei, Case is falling apart in a self-destructive daze. Then his world is turned upside down. A 'street samurai' with razor extensions to her fingers and mirrorshade replacements for her eyes (a classic cyberpunk image) recruits Case to a mysterious project. The carrot is the restoration of his ability to enter cyberspace, the stick appears when he is informed that he has been implanted with a slow-acting poison that will again destroy his talents, unless he carries out the mission that is assigned to him, to penetrate the Artificial Intelligence system that belongs to an elite family that is as secretive as it is rich.

The street samurai, Molly, is working for a former Special Forces operative called Armitage. As Case is drawn into an intrigue that takes him off earth to a place stranger than any in the urban sprawl, he begins to realise that it is not Armitage who is pulling the strings of the operation, not a who at all, but a what.

There are a number of problems with revisiting the book. Because Gibson's approach in Neuromancer helped define the image of the nascent concept of cyberspace (including the creation of the term itself, and references to 'the matrix'), it is too easy to judge the book with retrospect, and to be amused by the (at the time doubtless thrillingly techno) references to trying to find a buyer for the 'three megabytes of hot RAM in the Hitachi.' In a world where 'cyberspace' has passed into the everyday language, and where you can buy a computer firewall called 'Black Ice Defender', it is hard to re-examine the novel free of this self-referential baggage.

This aside, there are some stylistic and thematic elements to the novel that are overdone. Gibson falls victim to the inexplicably common desire in near-future fiction to label everything. It's not enough for Gibson to describe the artificial sunlight on Farside, the orbital colony; instead the reader has to be informed in the space of just a few pages that Case 'knew that sunlight was pumped in with a Lado-Acheson system', that the 'narrow band of the Lado-Acheson system' smoulders, and that Case is dazzled by 'the Lado-Acheson' sun. This happens at various points throughout the novel, and is jarring because it is overdone - once or twice lends atmosphere, more often becomes an authorial intrusion beating the reader around the head with - ironically enough - the desire to build a convincing world: 'The Ono Sendai; next year's most expensive Hosaka computer; a Sony monitor; a dozen disks of corporate-grade ice; a Braun coffeemaker.' Yes, yes but what brand of coffee? Who made the filter papers? How could the author leave us hanging in such cruel suspense?

Gibson spawned so many imitators that ideas that were fresh in Neuromancer appeared tired now through overuse. There is an obsession with all things oriental that did not begin with Gibson, and has certainly been done to death after him. It is, of course, valid to explore the rise of Japan and other Eastern nations in a near-future world and to project a situation where their technologies lead the world. It does feel at times in the novel, however, that references are being thrown in because of a feeling that all things Japanese are somehow inscrutably cool, and that a quick throwaway line about zaibatsus, yakuza or the black clinics of Chiba is a short-cut to bestowing a cool and mysterious techno-chic. The culture as novelty theme is paralleled by what I feel is the weakest part of the novel, Gibson's Rastas in space, all righteous dub warriors and quasi-mystical philosophers wreathed in marijuana smoke and references to Babylon. It's a genuine attempt on Gibson's part to show a diverse future, I am sure - but it comes across as a clumsy and patronising near-parody.

Despite these weaknesses, it is easy to see why Neuromancer was such a success - and it's still an enjoyable read. The plot twists and turns in a series of betrayals in an atmosphere that owes as much to noir as they do to sf, and Gibson spins a series of creative images that keep the plot moving on past the weak points and which conceal the fact that none of the characters are drawn in any great depth. In many novels, this would be a weakness, but it actually works to Neuromancer's benefit: the superficiality merely amplifies the dehumanised atmosphere of an impersonal world, where those like Case despise the demands of the 'meat' world and where constructs of the personalities of the dead are as real in cyberspace as the living.

Review by Iain Rowan.

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© Iain Rowan 24 November 2001