“A middleman’s business is to make himself a necessary evil.”
It took me a truly abysmal 11 days to read this 300-page novel. I bought it in the mistaken thought that it would be like The Matrix (not an unreasonable expectation, since it implicitly name-checks that film on the blurb). It’s the story of a guy named Case, a sort-of computer hacker, except that instead of an internet he has the matrix (see?), a “visual representation of the databanks of every computer in the human system”. Why such a matrix is necessary and what it is used for is a mystery, but for the purposes of the plot it’s enough to understand that it’s possible mentally to enter the matrix to manipulate data and hack into software systems within it. Case is such a hacker, although his nervous system has been near-fatally damaged by a wronged employer, so he’s no longer able to “jack in” to the matrix. He’s picked off the streets of Chiba City, a Japanese technoslum (think Cloud Atlas‘ Neo Seoul) by a mysterious billionaire with a proposition for him: a repaired nervous system and a ton of cash for one hacking job, no questions asked.
From there on out it reads like your basic heist plot, except with the addition of murky-motived artificial intelligences, a futuristic city called Zion that appears to be having waaay too much fun actually to exist, and a certain cyberpunk aesthetic that makes everything rather greyly bleak and depressing (although this may be the effect of the front cover, which is, by the way, truly heinous). It’s fair to say that there are elements of The Matrix here; clearly the Wachowski Brothers read Neuromancer before embarking on their magnum opus.
Now, apart from a certain labyrinthine quality to the plot (there are many, many meandering scenes whose importance to the story is confused), and some truly awful Rastafarian patois, Neuromancer is technically not bad. Gibson’s writing is always competent, and quite frequently rises into the poetic:
she’d refused to stretch her time into a series of warm blinks strung along a chain of winter.
Character development is, surprisingly for such high-concept SF, very good; there’s even a strong female character who refuses to be defined by her relationships, although the ending unfortunately veers into damsel-in-distress territory.
Nevertheless, I kept feeling that the book was reaching for, and missing, a thematic exploration of something; what, I’m not quite sure. (It doesn’t help that every other person on the Internet apparently loves Neuromancer, which kind of makes me feel that I’m missing something vital.) The closest I can come is something like “the alienation of man in a world of data”? Certainly, it’s a bleak world, although this is a more concrete failing of Neuromancer (for me, anyway); I don’t feel that this is a particularly convincing society. It’s dystopian, but I couldn’t tell you why. I can’t tell you why…anything, in fact. What’s the advantage for all the people living in orbit? Why haven’t they colonised Mars, or the Moon or something? What’s the deal with Tessier-Ashpool? What’s the point of AI? Why is Neuromancer/Wintermute so obsessed with Linda Lee? What’s up with Molly? Who knows? I just felt there were a lot of missing links here, and that for me really messed with the thematic unity of the book. If there was one.
Personally? I didn’t get on with Neuromancer at all. I found it dull, unremittingly bleak, and irritatingly convoluted. That’s not to say someone else wouldn’t enjoy it, but I won’t be reading any more Gibson any time soon.