Guest Post: Maybe Neuromancer Wasn’t So Bad After All?
Today’s post is the first guest post in the history of 101 Books. I probably won’t be putting up that many guest posts, but I thought Ross Lampert gave a nice counter-point to my view on Neuromancer. Ross is a contributor at Cochise Writers and a commenter here on 101 Books. (For a recap of how much I hated this book, here’s my review.) Now, for the other side of the story:
Neuromancer is disturbing, disorienting, decadent, drug- and crime-laced, über-noir, and dystopian. The novel has an unsympathetic, anti-hero protagonist. It’s easy to see how someone who doesn’t read science fiction regularly—or even someone who does—would have such a hard time with Neuromancer.
But this book is not representative of 1980s science fiction, so a little science fiction history is in order to understand how Gibson’s book ended up on Time’s top-100 list and won so many awards.
Until World War II, science fiction generally reflected the American view that technology promised a bright, shiny future full of wonders. WWII’s horrors —the V-1 buzz bomb, the V-2 ballistic missile, the atomic bomb, even the nearly-new technology of the news reel—caused a rethinking of that belief.
After the war, some science fiction took a darker turn, reflecting society’s fears about technology’s “new” uses. One of the earliest of these works was George Orwell’s 1984. While a warning of the dangers of a right-wing police state, the story’s critical technological element—what makes it science fiction—was Big Brother’s ultra-intrusive surveillance system.
Other stories followed, notably Phillip K. Dick’s 1968 novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, the inspiration for the 1982 movie Blade Runner. Neuromancer arrived the year after Blade Runner.
Whether or not you like Neuromancer, there’s a lot to respect in Gibson’s writing, especially given that it was his first novel. Here are just a few examples:
- Predicting the future: Gibson’s introduction of “cyberspace,” a term and concept now so widely adopted, and his anticipation of how deeply entrenched cyberspace would become in our lives and in the world economy, are remarkable. He even anticipated the impacts of the hacker (Case’s job), computer viruses, and the people who create them, things that were all still new in the 1980s. Today, they’re all too ubiquitous and dangerous, as is China’s growing role in cyber conflict.
- The depth and richness of his details: Gibson doesn’t just tell you how an environment looks and sounds, he tells you how it smells, feels, even tastes. He immerses you in the environment, even if you don’t want to be there. I had the sense he’d been to all the earth-bound places he described: I’ve drunk Turkish-brewed Tuborg beer, for example.
- The characters: Even though I didn’t like Case and Molly, I found myself pulling for them to at least survive, if not succeed. It would be easy to see Case as a pawn on the chess board of this story, but he’s not. He’s more like a (black) knight: imbued with unusual powers but also critical limitations. Case is Gibson’s Achilles, coated in a “protective” skin bronzing, except of one foot. Both are powerful warriors with fatal flaws, although Case’s is not his foot, nor is it permanently fatal. He perseveres and ultimately succeeds against long odds, powerful enemies, and his own flaws. In that respect, Neuromancer is a quintessential American story.
Neuromancer is a difficult, even unpleasant, read. Does it deserve to be in Time’s top-100 list? Yes. Not all of the books on the list are pleasant—that’s not a requirement—but unpleasant books demand some redeeming quality to justify their place, and the more difficult the work, the greater the redemption required. In the end, I believe Neuromancer passes that test.
So where do you stand on Neuromancer?
To read more from Ross, visit his blog!