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Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Review: Neuromancer by William Gibson

Note: I originally read this book earlier in the year (see the date completed) but have chosen to share this review as part of my focus on Science Fiction this week.

Neuromancer – William Gibson (Published 1984)
Genre: Science Fiction
Sub-genre: Cyberpunk
Completed: March 24 2010

I chose to read Neuromancer because it’s a recognized classic of the Speculative genre, having won the rare Hugo/Nebula Award double. It had also been identified as one of those books with tremendous opening lines: "The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel." I certainly read on.

This is the first pure Science Fiction novel that I have read and reviewed this year… and sadly I didn’t enjoy it, no matter how much I wanted to. I had been racing along with my reading, averaging at least one novel per week. Neuromancer, by far the shortest book I have read this year, took me over three weeks to get through. I wasn’t motivated to keep picking it up.

My theory is that I don’t like Cyberpunk. The major elements of this novel that I struggled with or just plain didn’t like are all established Cyberpunk conventions. Grim anti-heroes from the fringe (or gutter) of a near-future dystopian society - it's seriously bleak. Neuromancer was the sub-genre defining novel, so I can recognize the value of Gibson’s contribution. Unfortunately the sheer amount of imitating media that I have been exposed to makes this original and provocative story feel clichéd and uninspiring to my mind.

Nearly thirty years from the writing of the book a lot of the technologies described, particularly ‘cyberspace’ and artificial intelligence, feel more familiar than Gibson would have intended. Nonetheless the way Gibson glibly describes most elements of his settings forces you to engage your imagination to fill in his deliberate blanks. It was particularly fun to read the setting of Chiba (the book’s most developed locale) onto places in Japan which I recently visited. I would describe the setting as under-developed (but I typically read Epic Fantasy which I'm sure feels painfully over-wrought to a sci-fi reader). It seems like the whole idea is to exclude the reader in a sense – it isn’t your world, and Gibson doesn’t want you to be comfortable in it.

You won’t feel comfortable with the characters either, especially the protagonist Case. He begins the novel with his hacking abilities crippled by a former employer (who he ripped off), marking time as a small-time crook until he can kill himself with enough drugs. He is more or less forced to accept the lifeline offered by a mysterious figure named Armitage, which of course kick-starts the plot. Case is the sole viewpoint character, and while the supporting cast is colourful and often engaging they didn’t impact me anywhere near as strongly as Case. And what I got from Case was unadulterated nihilism. So much so that I found it utterly artificial that the love interest Molly would be attracted to him. He really has nothing to offer.

I pitied Case, but I never cared for his success or failure. It will always be difficult to engage the reader with distinctly amoral characters, and I never felt that Gibson made Case interesting enough for me to at least be intrigued by what happens to him. I assume that Gibson sought to avoid the didactic moralizing of earlier Science Fiction, but it made the story feel empty for me.           

I don’t want to spoil any more, because with a setting and a protagonist that would feel clichéd to most of us the plot still packs some punch. It does contain hacking and interaction with A.I., but it's Cyberpunk and you knew that already. Neuromancer gets 2.5 stars from me, but I’m glad I read it. I can only imagine that reading it in 1984 would have been quite a different (and better) experience, but I was only two years old.

Read it – if you thought the first hour of The Matrix was more exciting than the second.
Don’t read it – if you enjoy likeable characters and happy endings.

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