Fearful Symmetries

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14 February, 2011

Neuromancer by William Gibson





I remember a bit of the hoopla surrounding William Gibson's Neuromancer when it was first published back in 1984 but didn't read it at the time. It's weird to think that it is now a classic of the sci-fi genre. As with a lot of books, I'm late to the game – 26 years late – but I have finally read it.

The story concerns a guy named Case who was once a great hacker but was busted stealing from his boss who didn't take kindly to the act. In retribution, Case was given a dose of toxin which left him unable to interface his brain with cyberspace and thusly his days of hacking were over. We find him in Chiba City, Japan at his nadir. He has a taste for drugs and occupies his time running the stuff as he looks for a cure at one of city's many "black clinics" which are on the leading edge of man-computer interfacing.

Case is befriended by one Molly Millions who is in the employ of a man named Armitage. Molly is outfitted with various bits of cybernetics including blades that extend out from underneath her fingernails. The mysterious Armitage wants to hire Case for an equally opaque mission. He gets Case into a clinic and, using bleeding edge technology, his nervous system is repaired. However, sacs of toxins have been placed in his blood vessels as insurance so that Case does what is expected of him.

Reading the opening chapters in Chiba City showcasing a future city reminded me of Blade Runner. The neon, the mix of cultures, and the sharp divide of the haves and have nots all conspired to the bring the film to mind. Indeed, in an article Gibson notes how the movie was released as he was writing the book and that he became discouraged that someone had come up with some of the same ideas and had been able to put out their story first. However, Gibson eventually resolved to finish his tale.

Case and Molly become lovers and discover a mutual skepticism about Armitage. He was not particularly forthcoming about his designs for them and both of our protagonists begin poking around for Armitage's past. They discover that he is really Colonel Willis Corto who was part of a secret operation against the Soviet computer systems. He was the lone survivor of the mission and was dragged into a cover-up. Armitage is an identity and personality superimposed upon Corto by his puppet master, an AI called Wintermute. Wintermute is but half of a massive AI which seeks to unite with its other half, Neuromancer. However, the authorities at the Turing Registry try to keep AIs from getting too big and too smart, hence the entity being riven in twain.

The Wintermute/Neuromancer AI was constructed by the Tessier-Ashpool family who are very much into cloning and cryogenic suspension. Very reminiscent of Tyrell from Blade Runner.

It's all a very clever storyline but credit is due to Gibson for giving clues out piecemeal and for simply weaving a fun tale. Case and Molly steal the consciousness of The Dixie Flatliner, Case's hacker mentor, which, upon his death, was stored digitally and the team make their way to Zion, a Rastafarian colony in orbit around Earth. Case is constantly plugging himself into a computer to converse with The Dixie Flatliner, tap into Molly's experiences in real-time via simstim, and the Matrix, a.k.a. - cyberspace.

I suppose Gibson's world would have been more amazing back in 1984 than today. We have the Internet, virtual reality technology, and so on. Plus many of the concepts from the book have been used in other artifacts of popular culture such as The Matrix trilogy. Still, Gibson does a great job of writing that despite all this, his world still seems fresh and vivid. He describes things well without going overboard like, say, Stephen R. Donaldson does. Take this, for example:

Opening his eyes, he saw Molly, naked and just out of reach across an expanse of very new pink temperfoam. Overhead, sunlight filtered through the soot-stained grid of a skylight.

It's very descriptive yet still concise. There's enough detail to form vivid images in your imagination yet not every detail is laid out for the reader. Plus Gibson's writing just has a good flow. It never gets bogged down in explanations of hacking or cyberspace and the characters are often on the move, whether it be carrying out a mission or heading to a new destination, so there's usually something new afoot.

In Case Gibson has a likeable protagonist. He's in need of redemption and is being manipulated by forces he does not understand, at first. Molly is a badass who takes no shit but she becomes involved with Case and she too is a pawn in someone's game. I found myself rooting for them the whole time. The hacking, the wondrous technology, and the mysteries never got in the way of the characters. Add in intrigue, a mystery that unfolds at just the right pace, and some tense cloak & dagger scenes and you've got a great book.
|| Palmer, 7:07 PM

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