1984’s Neuromanceris the first volume in William Gibson’s Sprawl Trilogy. It was the third book published in the Terry Carr-edited series, the Third Ace Science Fiction Specials. Neuromancer was Gibson’s novel-length debut, debut novels being the unifying theme of the series.
Master-hacker Case made the mistake so many criminals have made before him. He stole from his bosses. Rather than settle for killing Case, his former employers crippled him with neurotoxins, cutting him off from his beloved matrix (cyberspace). Unable to work, and his stolen wealth rapidly evaporating, Case faces certain poverty and probable murder as soon as he sufficiently inconveniences some fellow Chiba City inhabitant.
The mysterious Armitage offers salvation… at a price.
What neuroscience maimed, neuroscience can repair. However, Armitage is no Good Samaritan. He expects Case to put his illicit talents to Armitage’s use. To discourage defection the moment Case’s nervous system is restored to full functionality, Armitage has hired neurosurgeons to add a small flourish to the repair job: chemical time bombs which, if not cleansed from Case’s system in time, will recreate the damage only just repaired.
Step one: Case and cyborg razor girl Molly Millions steal a computer module containing the simulated consciousness of Case’s late mentor, McCoy “the Dixie Flatline” Pauley. McCoy succumbed to a heart attack after several brushes with intrusion countermeasures electronics (AKA ICE). Whoever holds the module will be able to wield the same skills that McCoy used while alive.
That’s merely the first step in a complicated scheme that is still being organized. Armitage plans to end the heist in near-Earth space, in a remote and very well guarded space habitat. Success of the scheme seems unlikely (particularly after the team adds Rivera, whose primary skills appears to be compulsive betrayal). Poor Case has no choice but to participate if he wants to keep his nervous system intact.
It gets worse. Case discovers that Armitage is not his real boss. Armitage has a boss, of whom — of which — he is but a puppet. That boss is driven by compulsions it cannot resist and more than willing to sacrifice a few humans to reach its goal.
Neuromancer has an extremely memorable first line1: The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel. What color is that? Depends on the era in which you read the book. Someone from the era the novel was written would imagine an overcast sky. Someone from a generation later might imagine a perfect blue sky. Imagery follows technology. Gibson could not have intended it this way, but that fact seems apropos to the themes of the novel.
The book is essentially a crime novel, but it’s a thoughtful one. Gibson is pointing to the fact that humans tend to explore and then exploit the full potential of any new technology, which can result in applications far from those the designers had in mind. Very often the designers aim at utopia; criminals find ways to create dystopia. Neuromancer was published when the net was still new and shiny and netizens could dream of cyber-utopias. It was a warning.
Neuromancer is also an international caper story, taking its protagonists from one exotic city to another. Rather atypically for SF of this era, the author is well aware that there exists a world outside the First World. Even more atypically for the period, people from less-developed countries are not relegated to voiceless background figures and expendable mooks.
I once said, “I don’t mind hidden depths but I insist that there be a surface.” Neuromanceris filled with surfaces, a barrage of glittering descriptions that are hard to forget. Those surfaces were what later authors copied. Neuromancer is more than just surfaces, but surfaces are easier to copy. Hence all the books that followed, books replete with chic fashions and fashionable noir.
One of the most successful elements of this caper novel: the matrix as a city in which one could explore. In this book computer programming isn’t sitting at a keyboard with a Jolt cola at hand (for hour after hour after hour); it’s a thrilling adventure in a colorful virtual city.
“The matrix has its roots in primitive arcade games,” said the voice-over, “in early graphics programs and military experimentation with cranial jacks.”
One could try to imagine a real-world computer evolution in which this could become the case … but I imagine that the real reason for Gibson’s choice of UI is that it’s a lot more exciting than chapter after chapter of Case typing.
Neuromancer is arguably not the first cyberpunk novel, but the odds are very good that for many people it was the first cyberpunk novel they encountered. If not, it was probably their favorite cyberpunk novel. It is a slickly written, densely plotted caper novel featuring some deeply flawed but still sympathetic characters. Facts that were recognized by readers and critics. It won a Dick, a Ditmar, a Hugo, a Nebula and a Seiun, as well as accruing a host of award nominations2.
1: Evolution of communications environments: at one point Case is pursued by an entity determined to talk to Case. As Case is walking the streets of a real city, each pay phone he passes rings once. The entity is controlling the pay phones.
These days that ploy would not work, because pay phones are almost extinct.
2: Neuromancer was once claimed as the poster boy for the now long dead mundane SF movement — even though it’s full of the very elements against which the Mundanes were protesting.