Tuesday, 1 November 2011


Neuromancer - William Gibson

This book is credited with the birth of the cyberpunk genre and certainly it now seems very familiar from its many progeny. I never got around to reading this in the eighties so I cannot comment on whether or not I would have felt the shock of the new had I read it then.

The world in which it takes place is largely that of Burroughs meets Blade Runner but with added virtuality. In the afterword to my edition, Gibson credits reading Alfred Bester's The Stars My Destination, Burroughs' Interzone and hearing The Velvet Underground's 'Banana' album with the inspiration for Neuromancer.

Case, the main character, is a deck cowboy (hacker) who has been neurally damaged by a virus. This means that he can no longer visualise the matrix when he plugs into it via his deck and "'trodes". When he meets a strange man who says he can reverse the damage he jumps at the opportunity. Of course, there is a price to pay and Case must deploy his skills to ride his deck into dangerous places before his debt is paid. And although the matrix is virtual the jeopardy is real. It is possible to 'flatline' while negotiating the virtual world.

The book is written in such a way that we are immersed in the language and subjective worldview from the start. The history and logic of the book's world come together gradually. The world, although largely restricted to the Earth, is similar to that in The Centauri Device - a world where addiction seems to be the driving motivation of most human interaction, whether sex or drugs or surgical alterations and repairs, or surfing the 'matrix'. Some of the world has been destroyed in some sort of cataclysmic war - Bonn in particular seems to have suffered an awful fate. Nature has been engulfed by urban sprawl. 'Simstim' is a fully immersive virtual experience, and it is mostly commercially exploited by the porn industry. There are some clear parallels with the development of the web and plastic surgery in particular. The main theme centres on Artficial Intelligence, and what happens when it becomes sentient.

Gibson questions what the difference between a sentient artificial intelligence and a living creature is.  Both are the result of a code and subject to destruction by virus:
"'Hey, Christ,' the Finn said, taking Case's arm, 'looka that.' He pointed. 'It's a horse, man. You ever see a horse?'
Case glanced at the embalmed animal and shook his head. It was displayed on a sort of pedestal, near the entrance to a place that sold birds and monkeys. The thing's legs had been worn black and hairless by decades of passing hands. 'Saw one in Maryland once,' the Finn said, 'and that was a good three years after the pandemic. There's Arabs still trying to code them up from the DNA, but they always croak.'"

As well as the extinction of horses, it seems that most meat is now produced in factory rather than farm settings: "'Jesus,' Molly said, her own plate empty, 'gimme that. You know what this costs?' She took his plate. 'They gotta raise a whole animal for years and then they kill it. This isn't vat stuff.'"

Wintermute, one of the Artificial Intelligences we come across in the book, seems driven by an evolutionary process, always trying to bring about the circumstances in which it may achieve its potential. And in order to achieve this it can take on alternate personalities and create experiences in your mind that approximate reality, which of course asks the question as to what is reality.
"'And was it like real?' she asked, her mouth full of cheese croissant. 'Like simstim?'
He said it was. 'Real as this' he added, looking around. 'Maybe more.'"

Gibson imagines surgical enhancements which augment reality in more than a cosmetic way. Molly has blades where her fingernails were and her mirrored eyes have a digital readout of the time. Her reflexes have been speeded up so that she is a better warrior.  On a more mundane level it is normal to have organs replaced. The strangest is probably the ability to project holograms, which the character, Riviera, uses to enhance his drug taking experience: "The scorpion swayed its brownish claws and scurried up his arm its feet tracking the faint dark telltale of veins. When it reached the inner elbow, it halted and seemed to vibrate. Riviera made a soft hissing sound. The sting came up, quivered, and sank into the skin above a bulging vein." (Burroughs lite, anyone?)

The line between natural and artificial, between real and virtual is examined from many perspectives, bringing into focus many new ethical questions which are starting to pose real problems in a world where people spend an increasing amount of their time online. It is somewhat let down by the rather two dimensional nature of the characters and a sense that they are slaves to the story rather than the story arising from them. Gibson says almost as much himself "Much of the cyberspace technology so beloved of VR enthusiasts arose from my impatience with figuring out how to write physical transitions; I wanted to be able to channel-zap." However, this remains an interesting book, if not essential.

One element of the book is a Rastafarian space station which reverberates to the sound of Dub and vaguely biblical prophecies. They name Molly after the killer Peter Tosh song, Stepping Razor. Here's a dub version.

"Came a voice, out of the babel of tongues, speaking to us. It played us a mighty dub."

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