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Neuromancer

by William Gibson

Reviewed by Ted Gioia

Let’s face it, science fiction books are not famous for their
memorable opening lines. You might hear the person next to
you on the subway remark: "It was the best of times; it was the
worst of times." But how often do you run into someone
muttering: "In the week before their departure to Arrakis, an
old crone came to visit the mother of the boy, Paul"? And yes
we know, by now, that "Happy families are all alike, but every
unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." But how many of
us have memorized: "His name was Gaal Dornick and he was
just a country boy who had never seen Trantor before"?

Ah, William Gibson broke the rule with his 1984 classic
Neuromancer. The particular ambiance of the book was
captured in its oft-quoted opening line: "The sky above the
port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel." Of
course, this was an old-school tube television, where the dead
channels were much more poetic
than the prosaic blankness of my
current big-screen, satellite
contraption. No, the technology
was not always futuristic in this
book. Everybody has the raddest
gear in
Neuromancer, yet they
still need to use pay phones
because the cell phone is not
part of the envisioned environment. Still, fans of this book—
there are many, and I include myself in their ranks—will
overlook such tiny oversights: by any reasonable standard of
forecasting, Gibson’s novel stands out as one of the most
prescient of its era.

When
Neuromancer was published, only around 1% of
Americans owned a computer, and the World Wide Web was
just a glimmer in Al Gore’s eyes. Yet Gibson not only conceived
of a plausible evolution of virtual reality, but had already
envisioned the kind of hacker culture that
would emerge as the dark side of the web.
To grasp the future of the technology
would have been a stunning achievement
in its own right, but Gibson also had a hold
on the attitudes and slang, the very anthro-
pology of cyberspace. The formula was so
distinctive and persuasive that
Neuro-
mancer
was seen by many as more than a
fine book. It heralded a new movement, a
variant of sci-fi that came to be known as
cyberpunk.

The key here was not Gibson’s dark vision
of the future—many earlier sci-fi writers had used genre
conventions to paint a bleak future. But for Orwell and
Atwood, Huxley and Bradbury, the ugliness invariably came
from the government and ruling social institutions, while the
“common people” were viewed as victims, almost Rousseauian
in their innocence. Gibson, in contrast, is more the Thomas
Hobbes of sci-fi. The nastiness is not just institutionalized, but
pervasive, in his world view, and separating the heroes from
the villains is murky business at best.

The protagonist of
Neuromancer, Henry Dorsett Case, makes
this moral ambiguity clear from the start. A hustler, drug
addict and master hacker, Case was caught stealing from a
previous employer, who punished him with a toxin that
seriously damaged his central nervous system and restricted
his predatory computer activities. He is promised a cure by a
mysterious figure named Armitage, who wants Case’s help in a
dangerous hacking scheme. Yes, it’s hard to figure out who is
the bad guy, when all the key players are manipulating and
extorting each other.

Along the way, Case enlists the assistance of Molly, who has
undergone more reconstructive surgery than Joan Rivers, but
all in the interest of adding an arsenal of bionic weapons and
cool spy tools to her flesh and blood. Another helper, McCoy
Pauley—known as the Dixie Flatline—has
no flesh and blood.
He is a former hacker genius, a "console cowboy" in Gibson’s
evocative terminology, now relegated to read-only memory.
The Flatline, living up to his name, could easily be a flat
character—after all, how much charisma can a download of a
dead man possess? But Gibson realizes that the type of techno-
anomie he is trying to convey requires characters with a large
dose of sleazy panache, and he delivers the goods again and
again in
Neuromancer.

Today this book is acknowledged as a classic, and rightly so.
Who can’t recognize the modern-day Internet world in
passages such as the following: "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." But the literary world, circa
1984, was not ready to accept this book as a serious work of
fiction.

Two decades later, Time magazine would pick
Neuromancer as
one of the
100 best English-language novels published since
1923. Yet Time, and almost everyone else, was late to the
game. A decade would elapse after its publication before the
New York Times would even bother to notice that
Neuromancer existed—although it had won the Hugo, the
Nebula and Philip K. Dick Award on its first appearance, sort of
a sci-fi equivalent of the Triple Crown. The judges on the
awards panels got this one right, even if the highbrows missed
out for many years.

This book is now on its second and third generation of readers,
and its reputation is secure. Yet I fear that too much of the buzz
surrounding this novel still treats it as a sociological
phenomenon. Gibson is given credit for making a prediction
that proved to be uncannily accurate. His book is thus put on
the shelf next to “Moore’s Law” and other formidable
hypotheses that anticipated our current-day high tech lives.
But this pigeonholing misses the main reasons to read
Neuromancer today, now that cyberspace is as blasé as a
transistor radio, at least from a conceptual standpoint.
Neuromancer still earns its readership through the sweep of its
prose, the intensity of its vision, and the provocative nature of
its characters and plots. And those virtues run no risk of
technological obsolescence.
conceptual
fiction
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Conceptual Fiction:
A Reading List
(with links to essays on each work)

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Abbott, Edwin A.
Flatland

Adams, Douglas
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

Allende, Isabel
The House of the Spirits

Amado, Jorge
Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands

Amis, Martin
Time's Arrow

Apuleius
The Golden Ass

Asimov, Isaac
The Foundation Trilogy

Asimov, Isaac
I, Robot

Atwood, Margaret
The Handmaid's Tale

Banks, Iain M.
The State of the Art

Ballard, J.G.
The Atrocity Exhibition

Ballard, J.G.
Crash

Ballard, J.G.
The Crystal World

Ballard, J.G.
The Drowned World

Barth, John
Giles Goat-Boy

Bester, Alfred
The Demolished Man

Borges, Jorge Luis
Ficciones

Bradbury, Ray
Dandelion Wine

Bradbury, Ray
Fahrenheit 451

Bradbury, Ray
The Illustrated Man

Bradbury, Ray
The Martian Chronicles

Bradbury, Ray
Something Wicked This Way Comes

Brockmeier, Kevin
The View from the Seventh Layer

Bulgakov, Mikhail
The Master and Margarita

Burgess, Anthony
A Clockwork Orange

Card, Orson Scott
Ender's Game

Carpentier, Alejo
The Kingdom of This World

Carroll, Lewis
Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

Chabon, Michael
The Yiddish Policemen's Union

Chiang, Ted
Stories of Your Life and Others

Clarke, Arthur C.
Childhood's End

Clarke, Arthur C.
A Fall of Moondust

Clarke, Arthur C.
2001: A Space Odyssey

Clarke, Susanna
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

Crowley, John
Little, Big

Danielewski, Mark Z.
The Fifty Year Sword

Danielewski, Mark Z.
House of Leaves

Davies, Robertson
Fifth Business

Delany, Samuel R.
Babel-17

Delany, Samuel R.
Dhalgren

Delany, Samuel R.
The Einstein Intersection

Dick, Philip K.
Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said

Dick, Philip K.
The Man in the High Castle

Dick, Philip K.
Ubik

Dick, Philip K.
VALIS

Disch, Thomas M.
Camp Concentration

Disch, Thomas M.
The Genocides

Doctorow, Cory
Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom

Donoso, José
The Obscene Bird of Night

Ellison, Harlan (editor)
Dangerous Visions

Ellison, Harlan
I Have No Mouth & I Must Scream

Esquivel, Laura
Like Water for Chocolate

Fuentes, Carlos
Aura

Gaiman, Neil
American Gods

Gaiman, Neil
Neverwhere

Gibson, William
Burning Chrome

Gibson, William
Neuromancer

Grass, Günter
The Tin Drum

Greene, Graham
The End of the Affair

Grossman, Lev
The Magicians

Haldeman, Joe
The Forever War

Hall, Steven
The Raw Shark Texts

Harrison, M. John
The Centauri Device

Harrison, M. John
Light

Heinlein, Robert
The Moon is a Harsh Mistress

Heinlein, Robert:
Stranger in a Strange Land

Heinlein, Robert
Time Enough for Love

Helprin, Mark
Winter's Tale

Herbert, Frank
Dune

Hoffman, Alice
Practical Magic

Huxley, Aldous
Brave New World

Keret, Etgar
Suddenly, A Knock at the Door

Kundera, Milan
The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

Kunzru, Hari
Gods Without Men

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Dispossessed

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Lathe of Heaven

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Left Hand of Darkness

Leiber, Fritz
The Big Time

Leiber, Fritz
Conjure Wife

Leiber, Fritz
Swords & Deviltry

Leiber, Fritz
The Wanderer

Lem, Stanislaw
His Master's Voice

Lem, Stanislaw
Solaris

Lethem, Jonathan
The Fortress of Solitude

Lewis, C. S.
The Chronicles of Narnia

Link, Kelly
Magic for Beginners

Malzberg, Barry N.
Herovit's World

Mann, Thomas
Doctor Faustus

Márquez, Gabriel García
100 Years of Solitude

Markson, David
Wittgenstein's Mistress

Matheson, Richard
Hell House

Matheson, Richard
What Dreams May Come

McCarthy, Cormac
The Road

Miéville, China
Perdido Street Station

Miller, Jr., Walter M.
A Canticle for Leibowitz

Millhauser, Steven
Dangerous Laughter

Mitchell, David
Cloud Atlas

Morrison, Toni
Beloved

Murakami, Haruki
1Q84

Murakami, Haruki
Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the
End of the World

Nabokov, Vladimir
Ada, or Ardor

Niffenegger, Audrey
The Time Traveler's Wife

Niven, Larry
Ringworld

Noon, Jeff
Vurt

Obreht, Téa
The Tiger's Wife

O'Brien, Flann
At Swim-Two-Birds

Okri, Ben
The Famished Road

Pohl, Frederik
Gateway

Pratchett, Terry
The Color of Magic

Pynchon, Thomas
Gravity's Rainbow

Rabelais, François
Gargantua and Pantagruel

Robinson, Kim Stanley
Red Mars

Rowling, J.K.
Harry Potter & the Sorcerer's Stone

Rushdie, Salman
Midnight's Children

Russ, Joanna
The Female Man

Saramago, José
Blindness

Sheckley, Robert
Dimension of Miracles

Sheckley, Robert
Mindswap

Sheckley, Robert
Store of the Worlds

Shelley, Mary
Frankenstein

Silverberg, Robert
Dying  Inside

Silverberg, Robert
Nightwings

Simak, Clifford
City

Simak, Clifford
The Trouble with Tycho

Smith, Cordwainer
Norstrilia

Smith, Cordwainer
The Rediscovery of Man

Stephenson, Neal
Snow Crash

Spinrad, Norman
Bug Jack Barron

Stross, Charles
Glasshouse

Sturgeon, Theodore
More Than Human

Sturgeon, Theodore
Some of Your Blood

Swift, Jonathan
Gulliver's Travels

Thomas, D.M.
The White Hotel

Tiptree, Jr., James
Warm Worlds and Otherwise

Tolkien, J.R.R.
The Hobbit

Updike, John
The Witches of Eastwick

Van Vogt, A.E.
The Mixed Men

Van Vogt, A.E.
Slan

Van Vogt, A.E.
The Voyage of the Space Beagle

Van Vogt, A.E.
The World of Null A

Verne, Jules
Around the Moon

Verne, Jules
From the Earth to the Moon

Verne, Jules:
Journey to the Center of the Earth

Vonnegut, Kurt
Cat's Cradle

Vonnegut, Kurt
The Sirens of Titan

Vonnegut, Kurt
Slaughterhouse-Five

Wallace, David Foster
Infinite Jest

Walpole, Horace
Hieroglyphic Tales

Wells, H.G.
The First Men in the Moon

Wells, H.G.
The Island of Dr. Moreau

Wells, H.G.
The Time Machine

Wilson, Robert Anton & Robert Shea
The Illuminatus! Trilogy

Winton, Tim
Cloudstreet

Woolf, Virginia
Orlando

Zabor, Rafi
The Bear Comes Home

Zelazny, Roger
Lord of Light



Special Features
Notes on Conceptual Fiction
Ray Bradbury: A Tribute
The Year of Magical Reading
Remembering Fritz Leiber
A Tribute to Richard Matheson
Samuel Delany's 70th birthday
The Sci-Fi of Kurt Vonnegut
Curse You, Neil Armstrong!
Robert Heinlein at 100
A.E, van Vogt Tribute
The Puzzling Case of Robert Sheckley


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