So I already knew it was known as the Grandaddy of Cyberpunk, but I don’t think I’d quite appreciated the extent to which Neuromancer defined a genre when I sat down to read it.
The hard-boiled story follows a burned out cyber-cowboy who can no longer ‘jack in’ to the matrix, and instead runs a series of street level hustles on the black market. When he is approached by Molly, a beautiful and deadly fixer with computer-enhanced vision and scalpel blades for nails, he finds himself recruited as a hacker for the mysterious Armitage. A dangerous mission that exposes him to military secrets, super-powerful corporations and a series of dangerous double-crosses, Case’s can’t help but be drawn into this, his last chance to return to cyberspace.
If this synopsis sounds like a mash-up of Bladerunner meets Matrix, then that’s because that’s how it sometimes ends up reading. It actually defined a concept that has gone on to be incredibly influential in the way we think about digital information and connectivity in fiction, and everyday life.
Cyberspace. A consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators, in every nation, by children being taught mathematical concepts… A graphic representation of data abstracted from the banks of every computer in the human system. Unthinkable complexity. Lines of light ranged in the non space of the mind, clusters and constellations of data. Like city lights, receding…
Impressively prescient, Neuromancer is also, to an extent, a victim of its own influence. This novel has so directly affected subsequent novels that without knowing it was the first of its kind, it can sound like a parody of the genre it went on to create.
This probably also comes down to how inescapably, brilliantly 80s some of it is. Russia is still the US’s villain du jour, data’s still kept on tapes, and you might be able to jack into somebody else’s consciousness, but you still need a length of cable and an adapter to do it. The experience of navigating cyberspace is likened to grid systems made of light, secured by programs or ‘ice’, and travelled through by a kind of vertiginous zooming. Does this remind you of anything?
At times, I felt I was reading Tron: The Book, and I speak as somebody who hasn’t even seen Tron: The Movie. This is the extent to which the ideas within it have become common currency now.
There is also something quite dated, if not specifically 80s, about the Tessier-Ashpool family – if you can have a sense of nostalgia about a clan of cryogenically-frozen clones – in the perception that power will always remain within a dynasty, in the style of James Clavell (Shogun), Wall Street or even good old Dynasty itself. Not that the family saga hasn’t been capturing the writerly imagination for centuries, and there’s no reason for it to stop once we started partying because it was 1999. In fact, this is one of the most compelling points about cyberpunk – that you can take us to a world where the human body is a mappable, hackable network, you can throw in some space shuttles and the sensation of anti-gravity motion sickness and cyberwarfare, and in the end it still boils down to crises of identity, bids for power, and love and betrayal between boys and girls.
There is plenty of fascinating fodder for anybody remotely interested in cyberpunk and sci-fi – the beauty of this is that it’s not particularly nerdy because it’s all still new. The way it portrays Molly – a fusion of femme fatale and cyber assassin that has gone on to inform heroines from Lara Croft to Lisbeth Salander – gave me plenty to mull over. I think her capacity for inflicting and, interestingly, enduring pain, raises some interesting questions about male fantasy in writing strong women, and the way that this has been expanded in SF. However, as a start-to-finish-read-for-the-story it can sometimes suffer from feeling dated, and is definitely a book for when you want food for thought, rather than a whistle-stop ride through cyberspace.