Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Review - Neuromancer

by William Gibson
1985 Hugo Winner for Best Novel
1984 Nebula Winner for Best Novel

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

I challenge you to find a better opening line to any science fiction novel. You'll be hard pressed to find better opening lines for any novel at all (though there I've got a tiny handful that I'd put past it). Besides being a great line it conveys in one sentence a lot about the novel, most importantly that it has a technology fetish that will drive it. It also says that the reader is in for something really special.

It is impossible to overstate the impact of Neuromancer. It's the atomic bomb on the unsuspecting city, the planet smashing comet wiping out the lumbering giants leaving the nimble mammals behind. Even disregarding cyberpunk which was birthed here, flared, and died Neuromancer infected just about everything that follows with its viewpoint and technology.

It's a popular refrain that some technology in the real world was first thought up by a science fiction author. Really the majority of those are tangential at best but that doesn't stop people from trying to inflate things. Neuromancer is a book where they don't have to make tenuous connections. It's not the technology predictions that matter, those were based on existing trends, it's that Gibson defined a view of computers and software that has become the basis for a lot of the common understanding of the Internet. His memes that start here are impacting you right now just by being online.

Case was a hacker at the top until he was betrayed by a client. They destroyed his nervous system, breaking his ability to surf cyberspace and killing a part of himself. He is offered a chance to fix it by a mysterious benefactor who will pay for a new procedure to fix his nerves in exchange for help in pulling of the heist of the greatest prize in the world.

Neuromancer's blend of noir and computer technology was distinctive when it was released and would have far too many imitators within a few years. It was defined by a certain technology fetish where the devices were as important as the human beings (mainly by being part of them) but Gibson didn't let the humans be overshadowed. It's a deft balancing act he used and I can't think of anyone who has been more successful at it.

My only problem is that Gibson's writing occasionally switches from florid to just plain dense. It makes the conclusion of the book particularly rough to follow. I don't think that it undermines the quality of the book as a whole but as the flowing narrative from the beginning breaks down it can be annoying.

Neuromancer is not one of my favorite books but I'd have to be blind not to see the impact that it had on science fiction. It is the most important science fiction novel of the last thirty years and any science fiction fan should read it just for that. Having a good book in there as well means that there is no excuse for not running out right now and reading it.