Welcome to the very first edition of The Fandomentals Classic Sci-Fi Book Club. We’re making our way through some of the works considered to be essential reading for anyone interested in this genre.
This time we looked at Neuromancer by William Gibson. First published in 1984, this novel helped pioneer the cyberpunk movement and is credited with popularizing many of the ideas that would eventually develop into the world wide web.
Plot Summary: Case is a washed-up hacker who can no longer work because a poisoned neural system doesn’t allow him to enter “cyberspace,” so he spends all his time trying to get high in Japan. Then a mysterious man, who has a technological augmented “street ninja” named Molly working for him, offers him a second chance and a job pulling off a heist that gets him involved with a mysterious business clan of clones, and the artificial intelligences that they created.
What do you think of the world building?
Julia: I suppose the defining feature of cyberpunk is high technology juxtaposed with squalor. But even the high technology feels like it’s probably a little squalid too.
Lisa: It definitely does! It feels dirty and invasive. Grungy, even. The tech Case uses to “flip” feels dangerous and scrappy. I highly doubt the rich of this world tap into the Internet the same way.
Barbara: It was very effective. I felt completely immersed, at times even overwhelmed by the world. It was an interesting contrast with the lack of immersion in the character. And as a small aside, I cannot help but mention that I completely hated the depiction of Istanbul as compared to the other places they visit.
Julia: Oh Barbara, is there any fictional portrayal of Istanbul you DO like? But your point his well taken. And I’ll add in another point about stereotyping with the Japanese Yakuza assassins and the perma-baked Rastafarians. It was almost funny how the black side-kick character just randomly came along on the deadly mission for the climax because… he bonded with Case so much?
I think Lisa is right about everything feeling “grungy.” In my mind’s eye, everything is just dirty and the technology is held together with duct tape. Whenever I think of the Sprawl I just picture used take-out containers and Red Bull cans littered everywhere. And I can almost smell the red, infected skin around half of these cybernetic implants.
This is, probably intentionally, in very sharp contrast with Freeside and Villa Straylight, which seem almost sterile. Like an isolation ward in a hospital. You know that people like 3Jane don’t have any weird mirrors grafted to their eyes, or any such nonsense. Though the weird cloney incest ways of the Tessier-Ashpools and those fake contour tanlines are as gross in their own way as the Sprawl.
Lisa: Totally. Those tan lines are synthetic grunge. Perfectly placed but grimy all the same.
Barbara: Ha, yes, trust me Julia, I remembered my beef with that adaptation of Orient Express when I read Neuromancer as well. I swear it’s not me, it’s every author who thinks Istanbul is the best place to live their Orientalist dreams. But you’re right about the other stereotypes as well, of course, I actually wanted to mention the Rastafarians and forgot about it. Like you, I almost laughed out loud at the absurdity of some of it.
I have to disagree about the tanlines though – I want that.
Caroline: To add to the conversation regarding the stereotyping, the word “gaijin” is thrown around a lot when they are in Japan. Gaijin is the Japanese word for foreigner. I studied Japanese in college and went to Japan as part of an exchange program and, from what the Japanese college students explained to me in 2012, gaijin is often used in an insulting way. I found it weird that the narrative used gaijin so often, seeing as it closely followed Case, and Case himself seems to be a foreigner (I don’t think he’s ever described as Japanese?). It stood out to me during the story. I don’t know how people felt about the word in 1984, or what contact Gibson had with Japan prior to writing this, but it felt sort of forced into the text.
Otherwise, I felt the world-building was thorough but confusing, and definitely reliant on stereotypes! I guess that begs the question: can/how do you build an entire world without using stereotypes as a base?
The political and social aspects of the world building were very vague. What impression did you get of what the world is like in those ways?
Lisa: Maybe it’s just the current climate, but the lack of politics was a bit unrealistic. Is this future society so apathetic that they generally don’t care about their piss-poor quality of life? Most of these people live in “coffins”…it’s hard to believe a whole populace would take that lying down.
The lack of economic structure was weird, too. Besides the random service employee here and there, what does most of the populace do for a living?
Taking all that into consideration, it would seem that this future world doesn’t exist within the confines of any political, social, and even economical parameters that we can really understand. It is a race of people that is nihilistic in nature. The only being in the book that seems to have an innate desire to improve and grow is Wintermute. Everyone (and everything) else is stagnant, simply treading water to stay alive.
Barbara: I felt like the social commentary there was more implicit, but it definitely was there. It worked for me, because I didn’t think Case was very political personally, nor any of the people directly around him. But you’re probably right that from the wider cast of characters, one would expect at least someone to mention something.
Julia: Yeah, I don’t think I got the impression that most people in this world live like Case does. I don’t think it’s usual for entire families to be shoved into “coffins” or anything like that. Though Molly’s rather vague descriptions of her childhood did make poverty seem… not unusual. There was some political content with the Panther Moderns, for instance, that gave the impression of political instability and endemic violence.
Oh, and the offhand mentions of nuclear war. Apparently most of Germany is a radioactive wasteland or something? And, of course, there was a war with Russia that featured prominently in Armitage’s backstory.
It seems to be an SF trope that technology will make us superficial and materialistic. Any human energy towards “self-improvement” seems to be directed towards things like upgrading your implants, or cloning a better granddaughter, rather than towards anything intellectual or spiritual, let alone towards improving social conditions.
I (Caroline!) felt very disjointed throughout the story – the short sections and jumps from scene to scene threw me off for a long time. I definitely struggled getting a grasp on the setting, even with some of the nice descriptions. Did anyone else feel this way? If so, do you think it was intentional? Does a disjointed/jumpy narrative style reflect on themes of the story?
Caroline: To answer myself, I think there might be a connection or meaning when comparing the narrative structure to the life Case is living. The narrative jumps from place to place in quick slices; Case, likewise, jumps from living in the real world to being in cyberspace, experiencing reality and artificial reality in segments. I think the disjointed structure gives us the best understanding of Case’s brain, even more so than Case or any character development (if there was any…). It seems that the structure reflects the story, or the story reflects the structure.
Julia: Gibson apparently has a reputation for never spoon feeding the word building. He just throws terms and concept out there for the reader to figure out. I suppose that can extend to the story itself as well. Case knows about the whole nuclear war thing, so why would be explain it. He knows what’s going on too, so why should his close third-person explain it?
I can’t say it makes for an enjoyable reading experience.
Did you find the protagonist in any way memorable or distinctive?
Barbara: The protagonist actually makes this really hard to read for me, since he’s a very distinct type of (anti)hero, and one I’m really tired of. It’s obviously unfair to the book, because it was in many ways first in this (though there are inspirations Gibson pulls from), but I couldn’t quite free myself from it…
Lisa: I couldn’t connect with Case at all. I still feel like I know nothing about him (except that he really likes to get high). I think all Gibson’s characters are a bit shallow, if i’m being honest.
Caroline: Agreed. I know almost nothing about Case. At best he is a struggling drug addict; at worst, he’s just a literary device to let us see Gibson’s neato sci-fi world. Neither is abhorrent, but neither is compelling.
Julia: Yes, exactly. I feel like I know nothing about him. There was an attempt, I think, to make us care about him, specifically with the sacs of neurotoxin and Linda Lee (who he’s… mourning?) but I don’t think I at any point actually cared if he succeeded or not. That moment when he was screaming and crying because he thought Armitage was going to take the secret with him as he died and Case would be poisoned again did nothing for me.
Lisa: Nope. No feelings for Case, at all. I felt worse for Armitage!
Molly. Let’s talk about the her role in this novel and her relationship with Case.
Barbara: I can’t get over that first sex scene. Like, what even was that?
Caroline: I know right!
Lisa: Conceptually, it kind of reminds me of Sleeper, a movie Woody Allen directed in 1974. In the movie, Allen and Diane Keaton use an “orgasmitron” to have sex. The couple doesn’t touch each other at all and instead relies on the orgasmitron to stimluate the body to orgasim.
I think it’s a play on the idea that technology makes us less-human. Gibson takes it a step further, in my opinion, by partnering Case and Molly. They way they copulate is strange, foreign, and seemingly robotic, inferring a lack of intimacy. However, even though these two people have been manipulated both intellectually and physically to reflect the hyper-tech world they live in, they still find the need to sleep in the same bed. They still desire companionship, a very basic human need.
Barbara: Well the whole book is intentionally rather low on introspection, you only rarely find out what the protagonists are thinking or feeling, so that’s part of it, I think (and also relates to what you said about not connecting to Case). But that first scene…on one hand I tend to read it as some kind of strange male fantasy – he is in the same space with a woman, so of course she would want to have sex with him – but on the other, it read like borderline rape, given the state Case is in and that the initiative is entirely hers…
Julia: I think I’m questioning the decision of the author to have them have a physical relationship at all. I’m not sure what it adds to anything. It’s like it happened out of some sense of obligation. I’m don’t know if it was Gibson’s sense of obligation, or the characters’.
Lisa: Agreed. I don’t think the sexual relationship is necessary. Neither character is ever driven by their undying love (or even lust) for one another. If anything, the relationship is simply commentary on loneliness.
But I think that’s giving Gibson too much credit. This was written in the early 1980s when sex-scenes in entertainment were rampant. Instead of a time-lapse montage, most movies in the 80s included some kind of sex-scene montage. I think that’s just what audiences wanted back then.
And good point about the entire book being incredibly not introspective, Barbara! Thematically, is that a play on the mysteries of the AI world? We can never know exactly what a machine/computer is thinking?
Barbara: 100% agreed on the sense of obligation. I think it was primarily Gibson’s, and he transferred it to the way the characters acted…
Caroline: Do y’all think Gibson actively thought, “I must have a sex scene,” or do you think it was his unconscious bias about how men and women must interact in a story that led to it? I wouldn’t be surprised if it was written because it was just assumed a male (anit)hero has a female love interest, and of course she wants him, too.
Julia: I’m not sure why she would want him. I guess he doesn’t actively creep on her like Peter Riviera does.
Molly’s description of sex work in this world seems particularly disturbing, with the workers not in control of their bodies at all and not aware of what they’re doing.
Barabara: It seems to stem from this idea that sexwork itself is a deeply unpleasant experience that no one really wants to be present for. Because the vibe I got, at least, wasn’t “they force sex workers into this”, but rather “sex workers prefer not being present”, which is very disturbing indeed.
Julia: It reminds me a little bit of the well observed phenomenon of people feeling more free to express opinions they know aren’t socially acceptable on the internet because of the anonymity it offers. In this case, the anonymity is extended to sex. No one has to know about your weird kink, not even the sex worker you’re doing it with.
Lisa: Which plays into the idea of sex, and sexual deviance, as taboo, right? Gibson is acknowledging sexual “deviance” and it’s overwhelming existence in everyday life. This is chillingly similar to “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”
Staying on Molly and Case, how do we feel about the uplink thing that lets Case see things through Molly’s eyes?
Julia: Not good? The Dolyist reason for this is rather obvious, the author wanted be able to see plot things that were happening to Molly without actually having her point of view. And that rubs me the wrong way, I’m not going to lie. Especially given the whole puppet sex worker thing she went through before.
Lisa: I think it’s cheap, too. It would have been much more interesting to write from Molly’s perspective. The uplink/flip could still happen, but from Molly’s perspective, we would have known what it felt like to have Case in her mind like that.
Caroline: If a plot device is only a plot device, does that make it a contrivance? I agree with all above – it’s obvious Case’s ability to see through Molly’s eyes was solely for the reader’s benefit to see what Molly sees. I can’t connect it to any themes, etc., at all. I think if a plot device serves no other discernable purpose than its single purpose, it may very well be a contrivance. This felt very contrived and, as pointed out, very cheap.
Barbara: I second all that. Or at the very least they could have had some discussion about it or something, some more in depth exploration of the experience…the degree to which it was waved aside effectively confirmed that it was a plot device. The only moment when it was an issue was when Case felt Molly’s pain. I don’t know if we were supposed to believe this was everyday stuff for Case and so he felt no need to mention it, but I really don’t see what in his personal history would make it so…
Julia: Now that I think about it,God is Molly ever repressed. She spends most of the time she’s uplinked to Case just kind of talking about all her past trauma’s in this oddly detached way. She seems even detached from her own emotional reactions to things. We, the reader, are aware that her trauma with growing up in poverty and being sexually exploited motivate her, especially with things like her hatred for Peter Riviera, but I don’t think she’s much aware of it.
So, I don’t think I want to call Molly a “shallow” character, because that depth is all there, but the narrative didn’t explore it much at all. Which is a little infuriating, because, yeah, Case is that shallow. He wants money for drugs, I think. He has some kind of feelings about wasp nests maybe.
This society seems very afraid of Artificial Intelligence. Do you think the narrative argues that this fear is justified? How do we see Wintermute and Neuromancer as characters?
Lisa: This is one area where I felt Gibson really did well. The fear of AI is very well-depicted and real. Maybe because our society has been afraid of AI for decades…who knows? My favorite scene in the entire book was when Wintermute annihilated the Turing officers that were chasing Case. The way the AI used the environment to decapitate one of them was everything I would expect of an all-powerful sentient being.
Wintermute and Neuromancer were my favorite characters in the entire book. They were incredibly interesting and complex. I found Wintermute to be intellectually stimulating, whereas I wanted to snuggle up in a blanket on the beach with Neuromancer. In a lot of ways, the two AI felt more human than the humans…
Julia: Wintermute is everything Case is not in a protagonist. He’s (?) got that introspective self-awareness that makes him very interesting and just the right amount of mysterious. And Neuromancer is everything thing the humans are not and really should be, as Lisa just said. They both seems to actually care to ask questions about their own natures and how they can be better and grow. They’re like flowers that grew out a of pot of dirt at this point.
Why is Case the protagonist and not Neuromancer?
Million Dollar Questions: Is this book “good”? Did you enjoy reading it? Does it age well?
Lisa: I can see why it turned heads in 1984…the language and the story is incredibly unique. But no, I did not enjoy reading it and I do not think it ages well.
The lack of diverse characters (and the stereotyping Julia mentioned) doesn’t reflect modern day readers. I also think the characters are pretty shallow and unrelatable. I didn’t really like this book at all…
I’ve recently re-watched the Matrix trilogy and in a lot of ways, it’s a Neuromancer rip-off. (The matrix, Zion, uplinking, etc.) But the Matrix has done much better in terms of scale because it’s simple and relatable. There are diverse characters and a clear enemy. (There’s also an unnecessary sex-scene in Matrix Reloaded.)
Julia: Maybe it is just because the concepts, which were groundbreaking in 1984, one assumes, are all so old hat by now, but I didn’t find anything about this book particularly compelling. I don’t think I would have finished it if I didn’t have to for this book club. I suppose it goes to show that even hard sci-fi needs to be character driven.
Barbara: I picked up this book for the first time when I was fourteen, and couldn’t get into it. When I opened it now, I was curious if it would be better…it wasn’t. It was worse, actually, because it hasn’t aged particularly well and I see problems now that I wouldn’t have seen at fourteen. I would say that I enjoyed moments of it (the actual action is done well, in my opinion), but then there were long passages that left me completely indifferent and also bits that were downright unpleasant.
Caroline: I started out liking it – I was impressed by the world building and the sheer number of words Gibson created. But it quickly dissolved into a realization that the book is not particularly well-written, and in many cases is impossible to follow. The fact that the main character is totally unrelatable doesn’t help. I agree that much of it was unpleasant. Perhaps worse, a lot of it was boring. Without solid characterization, I couldn’t care much about what happened. I felt like I was watching the season finale for a show I’d never watched before and didn’t care about.
Apparently this book predicted the internet. Discuss.
Lisa: I’m not sure it was Neuromancer itself that predicted the internet…Gibson first wrote Burning Chrome in 1982. That’s where the term “cyberspace” was born.
Via history.com, “ARPANET adopted TCP/IP on January 1, 1983, and from there researchers began to assemble the “network of networks” that became the modern Internet. The online world then took on a more recognizable form in 1990, when computer scientist Tim Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web.”
So while, yes, Gibson can certainly be partially credited for “predicting the internet” as we understand it today, but it was in the works before Neuromancer was written. (Maybe ARPANET got their hands on Burning Chrome? Who knows….)
It certainly is interesting that both Burning Chrome and Neuromancer were written while the Internet was being developed/established. It’s highly unlikely Gibson really knew anything about that, right? He certainly familiarized himself with computer components, hardware and software…but where did he come up with the idea of a “network”?? According to Wikipedia, Gibson was TERRIBLE at math…
One thing I personally made note of while reading was that the technical concepts were actually quite difficult for me to visualize. The only thing I can think of is that tech is much more refined now and understanding raw, rough, seemingly archaic tech, is confusing.
Anyone else have that issue? Or was it just me?
Barbara: I definitely agree that it was hard to visualize most of the things he’s describing. It didn’t really bother me, because I tend to skim over descriptions in any case when I read, even when they are descriptions of regular things…but usually I know I could actually imagine it if I wanted to. I think it’s made harder by the amount of made-up tech words he uses. It helps worldbuilding, but makes it more difficult to imagine a scene, paradoxically.
I wouldn’t dare to speculate on the internet genesis topic, but I do find it interesting to see – as I often do in sci-fi – what he did not imagine. Like how the way the protagonist searches for information is so much less efficient than, you know, Google. Partly because he just doesn’t imagine encyclopaedias being made specifically for that kind of medium. It probably goes with the atmosphere, too, that things must be, as Julia said, squalid. Wiki is too tidy for that.
Julia: I think that it was easy enough to predict the concept of a global network that one can access regardless of physical location, but no one was able to predict how we were going to use it. It integrated into our society, rather than taking it over. All these concepts had a network that was totally immersive, “a consensual hallucination,” as this novel famously says, a mode of existence rather than a tool. And one one predicted that there would still be this focus on the written, rather than the spoken, word that the internet still has. And I certainly don’t think that we could have predicted that I could be writing a collaborative piece like this, with three other people in two other countries, while I was making breakfast.
Caroline: I agree with the point about the difficulty of imagining the technology. The fact that Gibson uses his special sci-fi lingo from the jump doesn’t help much either – it took quite a while for me to figure out a lot of the terms. In a way it adds to the immersion, but without an idea of what those things are, it just leaves big gaps in the mental image of the story. This is a place where written science fiction may falter while a visual adaptation would succeed. For instance, the “transporter” in Star Trek is explainable by watching things step onto the pad and disappear, reappearing somewhere else. This is much harder to explain in a written format, since so much detail is needed to convey that idea. A lot of Case’s jumping around from Molly’s eyes to cyberspace elsewhere is confusing because of how much detail he’s really seeing, as opposed to what we’re presented on the page.
I can’t make a determination one way or the other about the internet thing. Looking at it now, I’d like to say it’s not hard to imagine a network like the internet – but then again, I can’t predict what new technology will come out next year. I think we’re able to imagine concepts in technology, things we want to have – transporters, food replicators, robots, cell phones – but of course we can’t get the specifics down because it’s all speculative. Case’s experience with cyberspace is very different from a modern experience, I think (I don’t think he watched any funny cat videos during the story…), but the base concept remains the same.
Next Time: The book that put the OG in “Oh god, what have I done!?” Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus by Mary Shelley. Who was an eighteen-year-old when she started writing it. No, really.
This should be awesome.