With the new William Gibson book The Peripheral, the author’s first far-future story in two decades, arriving this month, it seems appropriate to take a look back at Neuromancer, his influential 1984 debut. Gibson, who coined the term “cyberspace” in 1981, is widely regarded as the progenitor of the cyberpunk movement, a gritty neo-noir genre exploring the pervasive integration of technology into our everyday lives (and bodies), and his work in many ways seemed to provide the blueprint for the then-forthcoming internet age.
The first book in the loosely connected Sprawl trilogy (Count Zero, Mona Lisa Overdrive), Neuromancer’s grim vision of a technologically transformed future holds up handsomely nearly three decades on. It’s definitely a different experience to read the book today, in the age of smartphones and wearable tech, but in some ways that only makes the prescient nature of the novel that much more stunning.
Neuromancer centers on one-time renegade hacker Case, a drug-addled Raymond Chandler-esque antihero tasked with the old trope: one last job, one final, monumental hack. Unfortunately, following a run-in with a previous employer, Case’s central nervous system has been outfitted with a deadly toxin making it impossible for him to “jack in” as a “console cowboy” and access the vast and dangerous VR computer network known as “the Matrix” (not that one, though you can see why they kept the name).
Case gets involved with Armitage, a shadowy benefactor who offers to reverse the effects of the toxin in exchange for Case’s unique hacker skills. What follows is an exponentially intricate set of adventures with a trippy cast of characters (human and otherwise), including a tough-but-sexy mercenary, a Rastafarian space tug pilot, the disembodied ROM construct of a long-dead but legendary hacker, some sentient AIs, and, for good measure, a ninja.
Blistering plot aside, what truly makes Neuromancer such a landmark novel is the Jules Verne-ian way Gibson constructs the tech of his future world, and the way characters use and interact with it. It would certainly be much less creatively taxing to write a sci-fi novel today dealing with the web, information, networks, databases, and human connectivity—you know, the stuff we live every day. Looking back on the book from 2014, it’s easy to overlook the goofier elements of Gibson’s debut, including a climax right out of Tron, in favor of the eerily accurate feel of his noir-meets-tech world.
Not every great novel will become a classic. There are countless rock solid stories—especially in science fiction—that are first-rate entertainment, but not necessarily more than that. Then there are the novels that transcend, that become the foundation for future authors to build upon, that shape the way we think about the future. Novels that reveal a writer with the ability to envision and create a believable-yet-fantastic future festooned with social, cultural, and technological evolution. William Gibson is one of those writers, and Neuromancer is one of those novels.
What’s your favorite sci-fi classic?