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Book review

Neuromancer

by William Gibson

I haven’t re-read this for a number of years, but something made me take down my battered 1986 edition of this classic (first published in 1984 in the UK) and read it again.

It’s still a jewel of a book. To be fair, the style isn’t what you’d expect today, but honestly, that’s a bit like saying the paint job on the Night Watch needs a good going over to bring it up to modern standards (or that you prefer the style of “Game of Thrones” to “Lord Of The Rings”). Even today, this is still an extraordinarily impressive book, with deeply textured writing. You can pretty much open it at random and be captured by the intricate style – here’s what caught my eye as I flipped to page 154, for example:

A burst of French from a nearby table caught his attention: the golden children he’d seen gliding above river mist the evening before. Now he saw that their tans were uneven, a stencil effect produced by selective melanin boosting, multiple shades overlapping in rectilinear patters, outlining and highlighting musculature

It’s all very beautiful stuff, and it has influenced so much of what we read and see today. Here is where the word “cyberspace” first appeared, and herein are the first references to that consensual world inside our computers as “the matrix”. The first twenty years of the world-wide web, especially all the 3D graphics, was a conscious attempt by thousands of programmers and hackers to build the cyberspace described in the book. Here’s what we get when Case, the hero, plugs in:

And flowed, flowered for him, fluid neon origami trick, the unfolding of his distanceless home, his country, transparent 3D chessboard extending to infinity. Inner eye opening to the stepped scarlet pyramid of the Eastern Seaboard Fission Authority burning beyond the green cubes of Mitsubishi Bank of America, and high and very far away he saw the spiral arms of military systems, forever beyond his reach.

The world outside cyberspace is similar in many ways to that of Bladerunner, a sort of noir Japanese/American underworld blend, dark and noir. Apparently William Gibson saw a clip from the film when he’d written the first third of the book, and was worried people would think him derivative. He isn’t, of course: he is rather that very rare bird, out in front of the flock, exploring and indeed creating the new frontiers (his earlier short story Burning Chrome predates Bladerunner and is set in the same world as Neuromancer).

The plot is as fractal as the writing, revolving around a hacker, an augmented mercenary, and an AI, in a world ruled by corporations, with genetic engineering, exotic drugs, and (of course) cyberspace, but I won’t try to summarise it, other than to say you need to keep your wits about you to follow it, but there is a plot there, saying something interesting – it’s worth it.

One thing I did notice with this re-read, is quite how short the book is, compared to much modern science fiction. It’s a little over 300 pages in my compact paperback, versus the 500-odd you might commonly find today. And I think it’s all the better for it. It was written on a typewriter – a Hermes 2000, apparently, described by Gibson in an interview for Playboy as “a very Ernest Hemingway sort of war-correspondent-for-the-Spanish-Civil-War machine, from my wife’s step-grandfather who was a journalist”. I think it’s all the better for that. The capability pretty much any author has now to write a hundred thousand words and hit publish does, I think, all too often lead to too much fat. This book is what you’d get after a full-on keto diet: lean, wiry, and so sharp you almost cut yourself reading it. It’s almost science fiction as poetry, in the old style of Samuel R. Delany’s Dhalgren, or Philip K. Dick (who of course wrote Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, which Bladerunner is based on, although the Japanese/American noir blend of the film isn’t in the book at all).

Thirty-plus years after my first read, I am still captivated. A brilliant five stars.

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