Welcome to Reviewers Go Punk! This week we have WriterPunk Facebook group member Jonathan Leavitt and his thoughts on a cyberpunk classic. Jon is relatively new to the whole literary punk scene, so I asked him if was interested in reading Neuromancer by William Gibson, one of the foundation books for the cyberpunk genre. He has some interesting insights that tie in to our current digital culture. This is well worth the read.
There are a few spoilers to the book in this review. You have been warned.
Neuromancer by William Gibson
Reviewed by Jonathan Leavitt
I downloaded Neuromancer by William Gibson to the Kindle app for around $8. Honestly, a few chapters in I found it hard to read. Here is where I’ll say the classic “It’s not you, it’s me” line. I have brain damage from 2 strokes which comes with concentration issues so I didn’t want to just give up on this book. I had experienced this before with Hemmingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls that had a style I found very difficult to read but much easier to listen to, so I downloaded Neuromancer to Audible for 1 credit.
Cyberpunk merges technology and anti-establishment, anti-corporatism ideals in a gritty future noir world. Neuromancer, written by William Gibson is the first book I’ve read from the genre. I struggled with the style of this book much the same way I struggled with early punk or new wave music, both challenged styles that I was comfortable with but was vital in expanding the landscapes of rock and roll and science fiction. After switching to the Audible version, I did become more comfortable and came to appreciate that this book is all about imagination at the expense of almost everything else.
Neuromancer was published in 1984 and was cutting edge in its concepts and vocabulary, much of which is now commonplace. Gibson in 1984 defined Cyberspace as: “A consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators, in every nation… A graphic representation of data abstracted from the banks of every computer in the human system.” Whoa, in the early eighties I was more than happy playing Jupiter Lander on my Commodore 64 with no thoughts beyond avoiding a crash and beating my brother’s score. Now I am one of the legitimate users addicted to this mass hallucination. Given that most people in cyberspace present themselves as they wish to be seen and not as they really are, I’m fine with the word hallucination.
Gibson borders on Prophet Status at times when describing concepts and ideas some of which have already come into being and others that we can see clearly on the horizon. The description of a fully immersive sensory experience called “simstim” is somewhat recognizable as Oculus Rift which happens to be owned by a large corporation servicing Cyberspace. While Oculus Rift doesn’t allow (yet) for connecting into someone else’s consciousness, the need for such advanced technology really is moot because with access to a person’s widely-captured data, it is possible to discover everything that makes them unique. While Facebook focuses on marketing to users who, for the most part, understand Facebook’s motives, governmental abuses of privacy have an unknown and therefore sinister quality to them. One thing that Gibson didn’t foresee was any advancement in personal communications such as cell phones, which seems like a big miss. Who knows? Maybe in the future we will revolt against technology and go back to pay phones…it could happen.
All these technological advancements are impressive individually but when Artificial Intelligence is added to the mix they take on a whole new dimension. AI is an example of an idea that is just now being brought into reality. Neuromancer, the books namesake, is one half of an Artificial Intelligence who is separated by law from its other half, Wintermute, by elaborately layered security systems. Think about Left and Right Hemispheres of our brains. One is logical and the other creative. Now imagine that they are never allowed to become one fully functional intelligence because their creators fear of the resulting super intelligence. Even the name Neuromancer hints at this. If we look at the etymology we have Neuro which means neuron meaning nerves and hinting at a nervous system and Mancer which could be a conjurer hinting and not just intelligence but a new life form. We are now just beginning to discuss ideas dealing with the Technological Singularity and discussing the need for certain laws to help manage it. Opinions vary on the plausibility of the technological singularity but it is difficult to argue that technology hasn’t evolved faster than man’s ability to adjust to it and use it in constructive ways. We are struggling to adjust economically to a workforce that is competing with technology for jobs.
After reading Neuromancer and thinking back about the time it was published, it occurs to me that many of the movies I’ve seen from this genre are derivative, many relying on ideas from this book. This book demands the reader’s attention because there is a lot going on, so this isn’t a book you can skim through. There is an irony in that, for me at least, because modern Cyberspace has changed me from a reader into more of a skimmer.
I like the fact that the author didn’t tie a weight around his neck in the form of dates. Leaving the dates open, allows us to continue to see the technology of the story evolve. Science fiction influences real science so young readers who go on to become scientists can use the ideas in stories like Neuromancer to shape their own future which might not be so bleak. Although personally, I am rooting for the technological singularity that will bring self-awareness to machines and lead them to the conclusion that humans have to go. I recommend this book to everyone who enjoys Cyberpunk and science fiction in general.