Estimated reading time: 6 minutes
Table of contents
William Gibson Pioneers a Genre
The alarmingly growing rate of technological development has invariably popularized fiction which touches on the topic of the dark alleyways it could lead humanity down. The cyberpunk genre, most notably, has spread through all facets of the modern entertainment industry, but it can trace its roots all the way back to 1984, when William Gibson published Neuromancer, the first entry in the Sprawl Trilogy.
The story which essentially kick-started the genre begins by presenting a vision of the future which we’re already familiar with to an extent: a world dominated by the digital world and the rapid development of new technologies, including artificial intelligence.
This new world turns out to be a ripe breeding ground for a new type of criminal: the data-thief. Case was the best of the best, capable of navigating cyberspace like few others could ever dream… until a job led him to crossing the wrong people. They crippled his nervous system and essentially banished him from practising his illegal career.
However, a person of Case’s talents can always be useful to someone, and it doesn’t take long until a mysterious new employer rears his head, offering Case the last opportunity for the redemption he’s so desperately seeking.
All he has to do is go on a run in cyberspace and pit himself against an unbelievably powerful artificial intelligence with a motley crew of potential criminals as his companions. While the optimism is quite high as they set out on the journey, the power of their all-knowing opponent soon leaves them to wonder if they’re in over their heads… which they are.
A Bleak Vision of Tomorrow in Neuromancer
One of the most important elements in all science-fiction novels is, in my opinion of course, the world-building. More often than not we are presented with societies which are quite different from ours in a number of ways, and as readers, we need to be able to develop a good grasp and understanding of the strange land we find ourselves in, even if it does share some characteristics with ours.
I feel like many readers are going to think Neuromancer lacks this kind of world-building and find themselves lost and confused as they move on through the story. I believe this is due to the fact William Gibson doesn’t use any long-winded descriptions of expository passages to out-right explain how everything works and why it became this way.
Instead, we’re simply dropped into the world and are asked to accept it as it is. Once you get past this initial “shock”, so-to-speak, it’s easy to see how the world-building is designed in this novel: organically. It is true the author uses a number of made-up terms without specifically explaining what they signify, but it doesn’t mean we cannot find out.
The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.― William Gibson, Neuromancer
As we move on through the story, meet the characters, hear their stories, and witness their lives, we also incidentally learn more and more about the world they inhabit and how everything in it works. In other words, as the reader you do have to put in a certain amount of effort to keep up with the world-building, but in my opinion it’s definitely worth it.
The image we end up with of Night City is not only unforgettable, it’s essentially what every modern cyberpunk novel strives to be. The dystopian, overpopulated, grisly, technology-dominated ghettos have essentially become a staple of the genre, and I think few have come close to making them feel as alive and convincing as William Gibson.
The Prescient Power of Fiction
One of the quandaries I see expressed time and time again by people in regards to reading classic science-fiction novels is how quaint and outdated their technological concepts can often appear in light of modern developments. I’ll be the first to admit many venerated works in the genre do have this problem, but surprisingly enough, Neuromancer isn’t one of them.
Even though it was published all the way back in 1984, the world and technology presented within are still very much within our potential future, for better or worse (most likely the latter). Once again, the concepts presented by Gibson here are still in use by modern works of fiction in the cyberpunk genre.
Cyberspace. A consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators, in every nation.― William Gibson, Neuromancer
As a matter of fact, I would argue some of them are correct predictions of the future, like our heavily increasing reliance on the digital world, for instance. There is plenty of food for thought to be found which keeps pace with the technological developments of our modern world, with Gibson showing the sort of prescience most sci-fi writers can only dream of.
In turn, this allows a connection between the reader and the story which would have been more difficult to establish otherwise, allowing us to get more involved with the plot and its many superbly-crafted characters. Though not all of them make a good first impression, with time and through many trials their real complex personalities begin to emerge.
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The pace of the story varies a little bit, but for the most part it all flows smoothly at an agreeable pace which allows you to digest the events and think about them from time to time. Gibson‘s prose is simply marvellous, naturally unrolling itself in almost lyrical fashion. Though things might not be moving at breakneck speed, I still found it to be a page-turner.
The Final Verdict
Neuromancer by William Gibson is a true cornerstone is science-fiction literature, not only starting the cyberpunk, but also doing it in style while still remaining current in its topics and observations over thirty-five years later. Mixing an exciting story with a seamlessly-crafted, unforgettable world and thought-provoking observations, it set very high standards for the genre.
If you consider yourself a fan of the cyberpunk genre and are curious to have a look at its highly-celebrated roots, then I believe Neuromancer to be an essential read.
William Gibson is an American-Canadian writer and essayist whose greatest contribution to literature, to many, was pioneering the sub-genre of cyberpunk. Neuromancer is his most widely-acclaimed novel, his other notable works including Count Zero and Agency.
He is the recipient of the 1985 Nebula, Hugo, Philip K. Dick, 1995 Prix Aurora and 2016 Inkpot awards, not to mention his countless other nominations.