Neuromancer

sprawl

Neuromancer‘ is a 1984 novel by William Gibson, a seminal work in the cyberpunk genre and winner of the science-fiction ‘triple crown’ — the Nebula Award, the Philip K. Dick Award, and the Hugo Award. It was Gibson’s first novel and the beginning of the ‘Sprawl’ trilogy (which takes place in a near-future world dominated by corporations and ubiquitous technology, after a limited World War III).

The novel tells the story of a washed-up computer hacker hired by a mysterious employer to work on a dangerous hack. ‘Neuromancer’ is considered the archetypal cyberpunk work. Gibson himself coined the term ‘cyberspace’ in his novelette ‘Burning Chrome,’ published in 1982 by ‘Omni’ magazine.

Before Neuromancer, Gibson had written several short stories for prominent science fiction periodicals – mostly noir countercultural narratives concerning low-life protagonists in near-future encounters with cyberspace. The themes he developed in this early short fiction, the Sprawl setting of ‘Burning Chrome’ (1982), and the character of Molly Millions from ‘Johnny Mnemonic’ (1981) laid the foundations for the novel. John Carpenter’s ‘Escape from New York’ (1981) also influenced the novel; Gibson was ‘intrigued by the exchange in one of the opening scenes where the Warden says to Snake ‘You flew the Gulfire over Leningrad, didn’t you?’ [sic] It turns out to be just a throwaway line, but for a moment it worked like the best SF, where a casual reference can imply a lot.’ The novel’s street and computer slang dialogue derives from the vocabulary of subcultures, particularly ‘1969 Toronto dope dealer’s slang, or biker talk.’ Gibson heard the term ‘flatlining’ in a bar around twenty years before writing ‘Neuromancer’ and it stuck with him. Author Robert Stone, a ‘master of a certain kind of paranoid fiction,’ was another primary influence on the novel. The term ‘Screaming Fist’ was taken from the song of the same name by legendary Toronto punk rock band The Viletones.

Neuromancer was commissioned by Terry Carr for the third series of ‘Ace Science Fiction Specials,’ which was intended to exclusively feature debut novels. Given a year to complete the work, Gibson undertook the actual writing out of ‘blind animal panic’ at the obligation to write an entire novel – a feat which he felt he was ‘four or five years away from.’ After viewing the first 20 minutes of landmark cyberpunk film ‘Blade Runner’ (1982), which was released when Gibson had written a third of the novel, he ‘figured [Neuromancer] was sunk, done for. Everyone would assume I’d copped my visual texture from this astonishingly fine-looking film.’ He re-wrote the first two-thirds of the book 12 times, feared losing the reader’s attention and was convinced that he would be ‘permanently shamed’ following its publication; yet what resulted was seen as a major imaginative leap forward for a first-time novelist. He added the final sentence of the novel, ‘He never saw Molly again,’ at the last minute in a deliberate attempt to prevent himself from ever writing a sequel, but ended up doing precisely that with ‘Count Zero’ (1986), a character-focused work set in the Sprawl alluded to in its predecessor.

The novel depicts Henry Dorsett Case a low-level hustler in the dystopian underworld of Chiba City, Japan. Once a talented computer hacker, Case was caught stealing from his employer. As punishment for his theft, his central nervous system was damaged with a mycotoxin, leaving him unable to use a keyboard to access the global computer network in cyberspace, a virtual reality dataspace called the ‘Matrix.’ Unemployable, addicted to drugs, and suicidal, Case desperately searches the Chiba ‘black clinics’ for a miracle cure. He is saved by Molly Millions, an augmented ‘street samurai’ and mercenary for a shadowy ex-military officer named Armitage, who offers to cure Case in exchange for his services as a hacker. Case jumps at the chance to regain his life as a ‘console cowboy,’ but neither Case nor Molly know what Armitage is really planning.

Neuromancer’s release was not greeted with fanfare, but it hit a cultural nerve, quickly becoming an underground word-of-mouth hit. It became the first novel to win the ‘triple crown’ of science fiction, legitimizing cyberpunk as a mainstream branch of science fiction literature. The novel has had significant linguistic influence, popularizing such terms as ‘cyberspace’ and ‘ICE’ (‘Intrusion Countermeasures Electronics’): ‘The matrix has its roots in primitive arcade games. … Cyberspace. A consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators, in every nation, by children being taught mathematical concepts. … A graphic representation of data abstracted from banks of every computer in the human system. Unthinkable complexity. Lines of light ranged in the nonspace of the mind, clusters and constellations of data. Like city lights, receding.’

In his afterword to the 2000 re-issue, fellow author Jack Womack goes as far as to suggest that Gibson’s vision of cyberspace may have inspired the way in which the Internet developed, (particularly the World Wide Web) after the publication of ‘Neuromancer’ in 1984. He asks ‘[w]hat if the act of writing it down, in fact, brought it about?’ Norman Spinrad, in his 1986 essay ‘The Neuromantics’ which appears in his non-fiction collection ‘Science Fiction in the Real World,’ saw the book’s title as a triple pun: ‘neuro’ referring to the nervous system; ‘necromancer’; and ‘new romancer.’ The cyberpunk genre, the authors of which he suggested be called ‘neuromantics,’ was ‘a fusion of the romantic impulse with science and technology,’ according to Spinrad.

Writing in ‘F&SF’ in 2005, Charles de Lint noted that while Gibson’s technological extrapolations had proved imperfect (in particular, his failure to anticipate the cellular telephone), ‘Imagining story, the inner workings of his characters’ minds, and the world in which it all takes place are all more important.’ Literary critic Larry McCaffery described the concept of the matrix in ‘Neuromancer’ as a place where ‘data dance with human consciousness… human memory is literalized and mechanized… multi-national information systems mutate and breed into startling new structures whose beauty and complexity are unimaginable, mystical, and above all nonhuman.’ Gibson later commented on himself as an author circa ‘Neuromancer’ that ‘I’d buy him a drink, but I don’t know if I’d loan him any money,’ and referred to the novel as ‘an adolescent’s book.’

In 1989, Epic Comics published a 48-page graphic novel version by Tom de Haven and Bruce Jensen. It only covers the first two chapters, ‘Chiba City Blues’ and ‘The Shopping Expedition,’ and was never continued.[26] In the 1990s a version of ‘Neuromancer’ was published as one of the Voyager Company’s ‘Expanded Books’ series of hypertext-annotated HyperCard stacks for the Apple Macintosh (specifically the PowerBook). A video game adaptation was published in 1988 by Interplay which had many of the same locations and themes as the novel, but a different protagonist and plot. It was available for a variety of platforms, including the Amiga, the Apple II, the Commodore 64, and for DOS-based computers. It featured, as a soundtrack, a computer adaptation of the Devo song ‘Some Things Never Change.’ The original plans for the game included a dynamic soundtrack composed by Devo and a real-time 3d rendered movie of the events the player went through. Psychologist and futurist Dr. Timothy Leary was involved, but very little documentation seems to exist about this proposed second game, which was perhaps too grand a vision for 1988 home computing.

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