Inspiring Older Readers

posted on 17 May 2017

Neuromancer by William Gibson

Some books appear with a metaphorical puff of smoke and flash of lightening and go down to history as game-changers. Neuromancer by William Gibson is one of those novels and there are plenty of critics who would argue that after its publication in 1984 nothing in science fiction would ever be the same again. In fact the book was so enormous that it burst out of its genre cage and found its way into the mainstream of literature – something which only helped to further enhance its reputation.

The first time I read the book was almost ten years after its publication and I remember being knocked sideways by the sheer daring of its language and the complexity of its plotting ( in truth I didn’t entirely grasp the plot – it was / is monstrously complex - but somehow that didn’t matter too much). The book came out a couple of years after the extraordinary Ridley Scott movie Blade Runner and between them they created a verbal and visual lexicon that offered to explain and describe the future world. Gibson really was central to the growth of the techno-science fiction that so many authors copied – the creation of cyberpunk gave the virtual world a name and an edgy reality that took the new technologies out of the hands of the geeks and placed it in the centre of cool.

Going back to reread it again another twenty years on I think the book is no less impressive but I do see it in a rather different way. Being older and much more mule-headed I’m less willing to simply be dazzled by the verbal brio and the stylistic lateral thinking. In fact I would argue that beneath this dazzling surface of the digital world there’s some really good, old fashioned writing going on. Gibson is a genuinely masterful stylist – Neuromancer, in my view, has one of the great opening lines of any book:

The sky above the port was the colour of television, tuned to a dead channel.

So here’s the recipe: take a good measure of trusty old Cold War espionage thriller. Mix in a good sized dollop of Raymond Chandler noir; fold in a few episodes of Mission Impossible and then extrude the whole lot through the pipes beneath Silicon Valley and there you have it – Neuromancer. But I don’t say that to run it down in any way because I think the book is a triumph, a vision that found its exact right moment to burst out into our consciousness. We needed this book when it came along to fill a computer-sized hole in our cultural consciousness.

Having said that, the plot is still impossible in a way that would have amused Chandler. To call it labyrinthine is to do it an injustice; it’s way more complicated than that. I’m not going to even try and follow the twists and turns. Suffice it to say that 24 year old Henry Case is a burnt-out case – he’s hacked one computer too many, crossed a Russian gang and ended up being administered a toxic cocktail that means he’ll never be the keyboard deck jockey he was, surfing through cyberspace, feeling his way around the ‘matrix’. But he’s about to be given a second chance and a new pancreas because someone else – Armitage - wants his skills and is prepared to fix him in exchange for Case doing a job.

So starts a story of intrigue, drugs, a fair smattering of sex, hidden identities and two halves of an Artificial Intelligence that want to come together. Case encounters beautiful ninja women with micro-chip implants instead of eyes, psychopaths, computer riff-raff and all in a race against time as slow-release poisons threaten to turn him back into a lowlife.

This is the future’s underbelly laid open to scrutiny and once you’ve seen it you’ll never look at a computer in the same way again.


Terry Potter

May 2017