You might not know the word “cyberpunk,” but its influence is so pervasive that you would have to live under a rock not to at least feel its tendrils. William Gibson’s Neuromancer is thought to be the father of the genre, and he would eventually give birth to both the short story (from the larger collection Burning Chrome) and derived screenplay Johnny Mnemonic. Keanu Reeves, who played the main character in said movie (which, it must be said, was awful) also went on to fame in The Matrix, a movie that, while somewhat estranged from its cyberpunk roots, nonetheless owes a debt to the fiction that started it all. Video gamers are also well-acquainted with the cyberpunk trope, as it gave birth to the popular Deus Ex (come to think of it, the plot of the first Deus Ex seems almost a blow-for-blow of Neuromancer…) and its less successful sequel1.
As influential as the book may be, it certainly doesn’t bowl you over with its charm. Cyberpunk tends to be gritty, and one may very well go into it with the notion that science fiction written for geeks by geeks would be straightforward, almost sterile in its style. Gibson’s prose, actually, flirts with turgidity, and often breaks up into incoherent stream-of-consciousness passages or just becomes badly fragmented. Considering that this book is often considered the first cyberpunk novel—and as such there is no canon to refer to—Gibson does a horrible job building the story’s setting. He seems more interested in characterization (actually, in his sloppy, telegraphed manipulations of archetypes), and so he simply drops these characters in a world moving so fast and so radically different that the reader has a difficult time figuring out what the hell is going on.
From there, the plot simply gets more convoluted: characters are built up only to drop out with little fanfare or purpose. In the cyberpunk world, giant technology conglomerates control what are inevitably self-sustaining communities carved out of Old World nation-states, running virtually unchecked, which means that the plot is bound to involve some sort of conspiracy or high-level corruption.
But what irritates me the most about Neuromancer (a trope that has been avoided with more or less success in future additions to the canon) is that way that Gibson approaches technology. Specifically, when the main character, Case, is “jacked into the matrix” (sound familiar?), he works his magic by means of what persists as an abstracted graphical metaphor. A virus isn’t a set of C code instructions that exploits a probed vulnerability. No, instead, it’s a heaving mass of color that “attacks” the differently-colored “ice,” or security code, of a system. Gibson’s descriptions of this borders on personification sometimes, and while I am not a coder, I know enough about how computers work to be insulted by the tired “hacker breaks into a sensitive system by manipulating colors and shapes in a conveniently-provided 3D GUI” trope that you’ve probably seen in other places2.
I wanted to like Neuromancer. If nothing else, I expected it to provide the sense fleeting sense of entertainment that the Deus Ex games brought me, but unfortunately the book just strikes me as having way too many imperfections. I laud Gibson for launching what would be a rich—if stilted—genre, but perhaps you’d be better off reading one of his many imitators instead.
- Also, the 16-bit Shadowrun, for the Genesis and SNES consoles, was an excellent cyberpunk game[↩]
- Specifically, I think here of 1993’s Jurassic Park, where the pugnacious young tomboy played by Ariana Richards says, “This is UNIX! I know this system and then proceeds to interface with some crude (you guessed it) 3D GUI more reminiscent of a flight simulator than the stripped-down CLI number that an important server of that type would have invariably been[↩]