Re-Reading the ’80s: NEUROMANCER by William Gibson

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This essay is part of a series called Re-Reading the Eighties that revisits popular novels from that decade to see if they still have something to say to modern readers.

William Gibson knows there are no cell phones in his iconic 1984 novel Neuromancer. In a 2011 interview, he said he just didn’t envision it. But there’s a scene early on in the book where the protagonist, a cyber-hacker for hire named Case, returns to his pod hotel, which he describes as sparse: “There was nothing in Number 92 but a standard Hitachi pocket computer and a small white styrofoam cooler chest.”

I don’t remember how I imagined the Hitachi when I first read Neuromancer, but when I read that sentence a few weeks ago, I imagined an iPad mini or Android tablet. It’s possible to make calls on some tablets, and it’s possible to Skype or Facetime on almost any device. So while William Gibson didn’t consciously put mobile phones in Neuromancer, technology caught up and pencilled it in for him. The “sci” in Gibson’s novel may almost be familiar to twenty-first-century readers, while the “fi” remains timeless.

The plot centers around Case, Neuromancer’s high-paid “cyberspace cowboy” whose unique skill is his ability to infiltrate the most secure corporate databases—in other words, he’s a top-tier hacker, but he’s caught stealing from an employer who poisons his nervous system with toxins that end his hacking career. He gets a second chance from a multinational corporation with shady and ominous plans. A mysterious ex-military man named Armitage recruits Case and a group of cyber-rogues to infiltrate an extremely powerful A.I. (artificial intelligence) called Wintermute. In exchange for Case’s services, his employer cures his damaged nervous system and ends his drug addiction as a sort of signing bonus.

The brilliance of the novel and what won it every literary award available—the Nebula, the Philip K. Dick and the Hugo—is its breakneck storytelling, which combines high technology, a classic tale of corporate greed, war, revenge, and politics with some dazzling writing. The book’s very first sentence reveals everything the reader can expect: “The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.”

Authors have been describing the sky for thousands of years. But how many of them compare a dim, polluted, and smog-filled Asian sky to the way a flat-screen looks in the moments just before Netflix loads the series you want to watch? The TV isn’t on, but it isn’t off, either. It’s just empty, waiting.

Speaking with Paul Holdengraber at the New York Public Library in 2013, Gibson talked about the pop culture images, sounds, and ideas that inspired the new cyber sci-fi world he conjured for the book.

Gibson said he needed “to find an arena in which I could set science fiction stories. The science fiction arena of my childhood was space travel, and the vehicle was the rocket ship, the space ship. And in the late ’70s, early ’80s, that wasn’t resonant to me. I knew I didn’t want to do that. I knew I didn’t want to to do the post-apocalyptic wasteland. I knew I wanted to try to write science fiction, but I didn’t have an arena. And I arrived at cyberspace . . .”

Among his modern influences were slick ads for Apple computers and high technology products; video arcades filled with gamers aching to be inside the machines, and the works of William Burroughs. Add some classic rock from Springsteen, Bowie and Lou Reed, and it’s easy to grasp why Neuromancer reads as modern and hyper as it does.

The early chapters zip by at what feels like warp speed, following Case through the dive bars and back alleys of Chiba City, Japan, a futuristic city that seems familiar and unfamiliar at the same time. He moves from one locale to another, and one event to the next, encountering a series of rogue characters. Explanations are few, but minute details are many, such as street samurai Molly Millions’s surgically implanted mirrored eyes and unique (and scary) fingernails: “She held out her hands, palms up, the white fingers slightly spread, and with a barely audible click, ten double-edged, four centimeter scalpel blades slid from their housings beneath the burgundy nails.”

Readers are often left on their own to sort out what the technology is and what it does, which gives the novel its future-world zing. The wiz-bang technology and the Japanese locale—the eternal epicenter of all things flash and future-worldy—provide the ideal background for a plot focused on high-tech mercenary cyber-crimes. The setting is somewhere in the future, but the characters inhabit the same criminal underworld that’s home to everyone from Moriarty to Michael Corleone and Dr. No.

Although Gibson is always called upon to talk about the fantastic new arena in which he placed his characters, the story of hackers for hire stealing corporate secrets and doing the bidding of faceless corporate entities is almost shockingly familiar. It’s easy to picture Armitage hiring Case to hack into the Diebold system and tilt the American election. And it’s just as easy to see him downloading piles of government documents and selling them to the highest bidder. In other words, Neuromancer, the novel Gibson imagined and wrote on a manual typewriter in 1984, could have been written yesterday and is still hip and compelling in 2017.