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Neuromancer - William Gibson


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You raise some excellent points, K. This has been a good discussion, actually the fact we're even having this discussion over three decades after publication shows he definitely got something right. Maybe @JoeK is right, and it needs a second read. 

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Quite a while ago I had a bit of a mindset change with regards to older sci-fi. Things which can appear overtly dated, I just kind of worked on the basis of alternate futures and ‘what ifs’ all the way along. I love alternate realities anyway, so flipping the switch in my brain to figure this sort of thing works wonderfully in keeping the enjoyment levels nice and high!

 

And yes...read the book again in a year or so. It worked for me for sure!

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There’s a quote from Fred Pohl where he says something along the lines of ‘A good SF writer doesn’t predict the car, he predicts the traffic jam’, and that pretty much sums it up.

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The prose, style and themes are unarguably excellent. 

 

Its main flaw is the journey - or lack of - that Case experiences. The ending felt a little like the end of the weaker Black Mirrors in that it consists of a series of "a ha"s rather than a meaningful epiphany on any human's part. One reading is of course that Gibson himself is the Neuromancer, himself creating a new sci-fi of emotion rather than analysis. But it is not a deeply feeling book with its parade of overly sexualised female characters.

 

I fully agree it should not be judged as futurism. But then, after that, what is it? A series of powerful vignettes of time and (cyber)space, but not much more. Fiction as a whole had largely covered the ground that it covers by the time that sci-fi got round to it and from a wider perspective I can't help but feel it leaves Neuromancer as a great read but not a greet book.

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I question most of what you’ve written there, and agree with little but the first line.

 

I am interested in your assertion though that fiction had already covered its ground...which fiction do you mean?

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I don't wish to detract from this discussion, as I'm keen for @Ravern's answer too, but I must say that on reflection my "dated" criticism is daft. I'm a big fan of Blade Runner, and the Back to the Future films. Blade Runner and BTTF2 clearly show a "future" at odds with the realities of today, but I still enjoy them immensely, with Blade Runner definitely being a timeless classic. It's essentially Gibson's writing style that I didn't get on with.  Sometimes he'd do this:

 

Quote

Call up a graphics display that grossly simplifies the exchange of data in the L-5 archipelago. One segment clicks in as red solid, a massive rectangle dominating your screen.

 

I really hated it when he did that. I need context. Is a character doing this? If so, whom? Thing is, I know that little segment would work in a film, as you could see someone doing that. But to just write that with almost zero context ... I found it maddening. 

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10 hours ago, Ravern said:

Its main flaw is the journey - or lack of - that Case experiences. The ending felt a little like the end of the weaker Black Mirrors in that it consists of a series of "a ha"s rather than a meaningful epiphany on any human's part. One reading is of course that Gibson himself is the Neuromancer, himself creating a new sci-fi of emotion rather than analysis. But it is not a deeply feeling book with its parade of overly sexualised female characters.

 

I think that's a common thing with Gibson - his characters tend to be really passive, and often act as observers to the real story that's taking place elsewhere. When it works, I think that's a  valid technique in itself - Mona Lisa Overdrive would be a pretty conventional SF story if you  told it from Molly Millions' perspective, but given that it's told from the perspective of what would normally be four minor characters in Molly's story, you get a really unusual-feeling story that gives you a view of some high-grade action from ground level. When it doesn't work, you get stuff like Zero History, where none of the characters really do anything for 400 pages.

 

With Neuromancer - does Case have to have an epiphany for it to be a great book? He's a junkie who's manipulated into bringing about an ambiguously world-changing event, who then goes back to his old job and his old life, disturbed but not significantly changed. Character arcs are important, but they're a mainstay of genre fiction; the idea that people are selfish, stubborn, irrational and unable to change feels unusual for SF, and gives the book a lot of its unusual feel, with the big-budget SF fireworks in the background, and the gritty, ugly people in the foreground. 

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I don't think it needs an epiphany and what you say about the foregrounding of base humanity is a valid and well made point. I'm not sure that really applies to Neuromancer, where Case really gets at least a front row seat.  For me as a reader that is not enough to substitute for some actually emotional punch. This doesn't have to come through epiphany or arc on a character's part but I want to feel it as a reader!

 

I don't want to be down on it because I think it is great and I recommended it to multiple people immediately after reading it. But I was also left with a lingering feeling of slight emptiness that I'm not entirely convinced was by design.

 

It is worth noting as well that despite often being heralded for overall style - of portrayed society rather than prose - it did come out after Blade Runner. This is not an entirely trite point given that a big deal is often made out of that aspect.

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Ah, that hits on why I think I struggled with this book. Along with Gibson's writing style, I just didn't care about anyone, or anything in this novel. I certainly didn't care about Case, and I really didn't care about the AI's motivations. I couldn't connect to anything. :(

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Conversely, I think the emotional punches are there throughout the book, but particularly at the end. Corto’s manipulation by Wintermute especially, but Molly’s revelations, 3Jane and Riviera...it’s deliciously dark.

 

Out of interest @Thor, I take it you haven’t read any of Gibson’s short stories? Would definitely be worth your while reading Burning Chrome, Dogfight and New Rose Hotel before dismissing him. The whole Burning Chrome anthology is superb, but I think those three are the standouts, for me anyway.

 

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3 hours ago, K said:

 

I think that's a common thing with Gibson - his characters tend to be really passive, and often act as observers to the real story that's taking place elsewhere. When it works, I think that's a  valid technique in itself - Mona Lisa Overdrive would be a pretty conventional SF story if you  told it from Molly Millions' perspective, but given that it's told from the perspective of what would normally be four minor characters in Molly's story, you get a really unusual-feeling story that gives you a view of some high-grade action from ground level. 

 

I've just remembered I'm reading Mona Lisa Overdrive! I left it at my weekday place and completely forgot. This means I'm currently reading Sterling nested inside Gibson. High grade shit.

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1 hour ago, Ravern said:

I don't think it needs an epiphany and what you say about the foregrounding of base humanity is a valid and well made point. I'm not sure that really applies to Neuromancer, where Case really gets at least a front row seat.  For me as a reader that is not enough to substitute for some actually emotional punch. This doesn't have to come through epiphany or arc on a character's part but I want to feel it as a reader!

 

I don't want to be down on it because I think it is great and I recommended it to multiple people immediately after reading it. But I was also left with a lingering feeling of slight emptiness that I'm not entirely convinced was by design.

 

It is worth noting as well that despite often being heralded for overall style - of portrayed society rather than prose - it did come out after Blade Runner. This is not an entirely trite point given that a big deal is often made out of that aspect.

 

Gibson did see Blade Runner while he was writing Neuromancer, and he thought he was fucked as a result because somebody had gotten there first. There are more ideas in the book than just the look and feel of the cities its set in, although I'm not sure there's really anything in Neuromancer that's unequivocally new and untouched by any previous author. I think the success of the book is that it takes ideas like human-computer interfaces, viruses and information space, and it executes them in a way that sticks, that resonates, that makes people think that this feels like the right way of doing it. There were novels and stories that tackled what people would come to call cyberspace well before Gibson came along, but nobody portrayed it so vividly, or with such an eye for the social aspects of the idea. There were novels too that tried to put SF concepts in a street, counter-culture setting, like some of Philip K Dick's stuff; Dick often gets labelled as being a poor writer, which I think is unfair - by the standards of the genre he's pretty good, and books like A Scanner Darkly have some genuinely beautiful and moving passages in them. But he couldn't work out a synthesis of his own experiences with drugs, drug-users and drug dealers, and the SF ideas he wanted to work with - ASD is a great novel, but it reads like 1970s California drug culture awkwardly fused with near-future SF ideas, with the two not really forming a coherent whole. Neuromancer feels seamless, with the 1970s Canadian dope slang fitting perfectly with the 21st / 22nd century world and culture.

 

Building on that phrase from earlier, Gibson doesn't really predict either the car or the traffic jam, but he does predict the homeless dude who comes to try and clean your windows while you're stopped.

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1 hour ago, ZOK said:

Out of interest @Thor, I take it you haven’t read any of Gibson’s short stories? Would definitely be worth your while reading Burning Chrome, Dogfight and New Rose Hotel before dismissing him. The whole Burning Chrome anthology is superb, but I think those three are the standouts, for me anyway.

I'll check them out.  :hat:

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Indeed - and a good summation of A Scanner Darkly.

 

I think there is a great line in Burning Chrome which is really the key to much of Neuromancer - ‘the street finds its own uses for things’. Gibson’s so successful in fusing future and street, it’s almost irrelevant what else he does (which is an awful lot).

 

DH Lawrence (in the essay ‘Surgery for the novel - or a bomb?’ iirc) lays into the Russians for their overly involved (but actually peerless) way of over-examining the thing - whether that’s emotion, or action, environment, whatever.

 

I think Gibson is a lot like that. And you really either dig it, or you don’t.

 

EDIT: @K

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On 04/07/2018 at 11:51, Ravern said:

It is worth noting as well that despite often being heralded for overall style - of portrayed society rather than prose - it did come out after Blade Runner. This is not an entirely trite point given that a big deal is often made out of that aspect.

 

On 04/07/2018 at 13:58, K said:

Gibson did see Blade Runner while he was writing Neuromancer, and he thought he was fucked as a result because somebody had gotten there first.

 

IIRC Gibson talked about his first viewing of Blade Runner, and that reaction to it, in his Desert Island Discs appearance:

 

https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p00941v7

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  • 1 year later...
On 04/07/2018 at 09:55, K said:

With Neuromancer - does Case have to have an epiphany for it to be a great book? He's a junkie who's manipulated into bringing about an ambiguously world-changing event, who then goes back to his old job and his old life, disturbed but not significantly changed. Character arcs are important, but they're a mainstay of genre fiction; the idea that people are selfish, stubborn, irrational and unable to change feels unusual for SF, and gives the book a lot of its unusual feel, with the big-budget SF fireworks in the background, and the gritty, ugly people in the foreground. 

 

It's interesting reading these comments about Case's character. I know when I went back to re-read it a few years back the part near the beginning where he admits to murdering a young woman pretty much rendered him utterly unlikeable for the rest of the book, even as I enjoyed everything else going on around him. It's still one of my favourite books but that really hung over the rest of the story for me.

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  • 2 months later...

I can't find the actual tweet now, but someone quoted his line about 'the street finds its own use for things' to him in reference to protesters in Hong Kong using hand-held lasers en-masse to fend off the police, and he replied that this was a rare case of someone using the phrase in the EXACT sense that he originally meant it.

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The maddest part of that article for me is that Gibson seems to have been responsible for re-introducing NATO straps to the watch world.

 

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He learned of a warehouse in Egypt from which it was possible to procure extinct Omega components; he sourced, for the forum membership, a particular kind of watch strap, the G10, which had originally been manufactured in the nineteen-seventies and had since become obscure. (A version of it, known as the nato strap, is now wildly popular in menswear circles.)

 

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That Acronym stuff is a real rabbit-hole of "I can't really imagine ever having enough money to be able to justify buying any of this and I suspect I'd look like a complete dickhead if I actually did anyway" cool shit. 

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