**Expository wordiness up top. Feel free to skip to the actual book-related stuff if you like.
A few things right up top: A few years ago, I flirted with playing a card game called Android: Netrunner. My partner was way more into it than I was, but occasionally I’d build a deck or two and spar with him, just to give him something to play against. I included a link to the Wikipedia article on the game there, because it’s a lot to explain if you’re not familiar with some basic concepts, but it’s more or less a card game where one of you is a runner and one of you is a corp, and the corp has servers and programs (ice) to protect the servers, and runner has a deck and programs (viruses) to try and penetrate those servers. Nasty things can happen on both sides, and whoever scores the most points wins (or the corp can kill the runner a couple different ways). I was a better corp than runner, building decoy servers and hiding little traps in them that he would spring and make explode in his quest for information, causing damage to himself and his setup. It was fun, but the meta changed all the time and it just got too much to keep up with for a casual player.
Also, I’ve never actually read anything in the cyberpunk genre before. I’ve tried to read Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep a couple of times but just couldn’t get into it. Obviously I’ve read a fair bit of sci-fi, and I’ve seen my share of sci-fi and cyberpunk films and video games, but I just haven’t ventured into the actual literature before. Add this to the fact that I’m 40, born in 1979. I was always a little bit of a computer nerd growing up — I taught myself BASIC on my first computer (a Commodore 64-128D), because there wasn’t much else to do on it. I coded webpages for fun in high school because it was still pretty easy back then. And the cyberpunk genre basically became a thing during my lifetime — Blade Runner in 1982 and this novel in 1984 were some of the first seminal works. And I’ve seen several of the films and a bit of the anime and played some of the games, but never until now read any of the books.
All that is to say that reading Neuromancer was in many ways a surreal experience, and not in the ways intended. A lot of the references I recognized immediately were things that actually didn’t exist when the book was published in 1984, but reading it in 2020 was definitely a bizarre experience. I already knew so many of the beats and mechanics of a run from just my limited exposure to Netrunner. So much of the setting felt like Blade Runner and Ghost in the Shell and even The Matrix, all of which I saw long before picking up this book. I looked up from reading at one point and remarked to my partner that I felt like I was reading fan fiction.
So those are maybe some things to keep in mind if you’ve been as steeped in the idea of cyberpunk like I have without actually having read any of the material. It’s going to be a bit of a strange trip. But none of this is about the book itself, so onward!
**Herein my thoughts about said actual book.
The narrator is Case, a drug dealer living in Chiba City, Japan. He was once a gifted hacker who was able to navigate cyberspace for corporate clients and breach servers, but he got caught stealing from an employer and in retaliation his nervous system was so severely damaged that he can never jack in again. He is tracked down by a “razor girl” named Molly, a cyborg mercenary working for a man who wants to hire Case, fix him up, and have him make one last run. The bones of the plot are your typical heist, just set half in cyberspace.
Obviously what makes Neuromancer a classic is its setting. Cyberspace is a word Gibson coined. The use of the term matrix to talk about cyberspace and the internet and virtual reality and basically all that stuff that happens in The Matrix happened here first. Neuromancer‘s influence on all the works of dystopian sci-fi that followed can’t really be overstated. If you’re looking forward to playing Cyberpunk 2077 when it comes out, you can thank this book for a lot of what’s going on in that game.
And I’m not here to argue about the cultural importance of this novel. The fact that I couldn’t shake the idea that I had heard it all before is proof enough that it has penetrated into the bedrock at this point. But looking at it simply as a reader, I did have quite a bit of trouble with the last bit, which was ostensibly the most exciting part. The final part of the book is where the ultimate heist happens — all the pieces are moving, snags inevitably occur, the proverbial shit hits the proverbial fan, time is running out, and you’re meant to be wondering if anyone is going to make it out. But I found myself struggling mightily with the parts happening in the matrix, which were quite a bit. The parts in the real world, with Molly, were easy enough to see and keep up with. But the parts in cyberspace with Case and his partner just got abstract in ways that I had trouble keeping track of. I couldn’t make any images come up except those dreadful effects they used in Lawnmower Man in 1992. There was nothing to hold on to, and as a result it was harder to stay there. Maybe that’s the point. Case likes it there, but Case is a weirdo, like all cowboys. But the plot just went a little haywire at the end and I felt like I was just plowing through to get finished and hoping eventually it would make sense.
So that was a bit of a letdown. I still liked the book well enough, and I’m glad I read it. I feel a little less like a fraud now in my own mind, and when I play Cyberpunk later this year, it will be the first bit of related work that I encounter since actually reading where it started. So this may have been more of a list checkmark than something I read for pure pleasure, but it still rates as a like. Thanks to Tim Rogers for the recommendation.