The debut novel of acclaimed science fiction author William Gibson, Neuromancer is one of the definitive works of the cyberpunk genre. It feels incredibly ahead of its time, so much so that I can’t even imagine what it would have been like to read this when it was released in 1984. Its ideas are so well-realised and presented with such confidence and authenticity that it stands alongside the best of Philip K. Dick or Isaac Asimov.
In the underbelly of a sprawling Japanese city, we meet Henry Case, a lowlife drug addict who was once an exceptional computer hacker. Computer hacking in Neuromancer is a little flashier than the version we’re used to. It requires the hacker to plug themselves into the global computer network, represented through virtual reality as a cyberspace called ‘the matrix’. Yes, you read that right. The Wachowski siblings, directors of The Matrix films, have cited Neuromancer as a major influence on their work. Given the ubiquity of those films, the idea of cyberspace is one we’ve grown accustomed to. However, when it comes to the novel’s vision of a tech-dominated future, this is just the tip of the iceberg.
As punishment for attempting to swindle an employer, Case was given a drug that wreaked havoc on his central nervous system. This rendered him unable to enter cyberspace, starting the downward spiral of unemployment and drug abuse in which we first meet him. A sliver of hope comes when he meets Molly. A mechanically augmented “street samurai”, she introduces him to her employer Armitage. This secretive ex-military man offers to repair Case’s nervous system and get him back into the hacking game. In exchange, he wants Case’s help in pulling off a high-stakes hack.
Bringing a retired pro back for one more job isn’t the most original premise in the world but it acts as a solid framework on which to hang the story’s inventive concepts. Take the simstim (short for simulation/stimulation) as an example. This is an implant that allows someone to experience another person’s sensations; everything they see, touch, taste. This allows Case to literally see through Molly’s eyes. Such wondrously advanced technology is often placed into the hands (or should I say, implanted into the heads) of drug addicts, degenerates and criminals. For all its advancement, this is no romanticised vision of the future.
Neuromancer didn’t set the world alight on initial release but spread via word of mouth. It was helped by a story that tapped right into its era’s zeitgeist. In the 80’s, video games and sci-fi were king. Neuromancer didn’t use these elements as a means of pander to audiences but rather elevated them and explored their potential. Gibson envisioned before most others the brave new world of computers, holograms and virtual reality.
This is a book bursting with ideas. The realisation of its technological landscape is jaw-dropping. Will it’s vision of the future ever come to pass? It doesn’t matter because as we read, we believe in this future, whether or not we’ll ever see it with our own eyes. A must-read for any serious sci-fi fan, Neuromancer is a testament to the transportive power of the novel.