Neuromancer

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“Johnny Mnemonic” (1981),

By 1982 Neuromancer had been commissioned by Terry Carr as an Ace Special.”

“Neuromancer swept sf’s major awards. The rhetoric of its reception was highly charged, with hyperbole the chief vector within both camps. Proponents praised the dark new vision of human life under global capitalism and the energetic vigor it injected into what they perceived as a moribund genre. Detractors disparaged its cynicism, nihilism, diffidence, overwrought style, and romanticization of addiction, criminality, and depravity. A high-tech hard-boiled thriller, Neuromancer is less notable for its exciting plot than the rich texture of its prose, its foci of attention, its engagement with mass culture, and the way it crystallizes many separate threads that would subsequently transform sf. A partial list would include: an aggressive punk-rock aesthetic; hyperbolic imagery and tropes; frank endorsements of recreational drug use; petty thieves on mean streets shadowed by the insidious, nefarious operations of the multinationals that have filled the power vacuum left by the postindustrial disarticulation of the nation-state; the transnational superimposition of the global on the local, erasing or eliding cultural and geographic borders; decentralized personal agency, often aided by prosthetic or cybernetic alterations of the human body; and particular attention to the economic and technological influence of non-Western cultures, especially Japan. Gibson’s singular achievement was in synthesizing and combining such separate threads into one densely interwoven fabric.”

“Neuromancer’s tropes and ideas have so permeated sf that it is hard to replicate their initial, tactile impact. One index of that impact is the sheer amount of scholarship precipitated by the novel. In both sf studies and mainstream literary studies, more attention has centered on Neuromancer than on any other work of genre sf, certainly of books published since 1984.”

“…in Neuromancer Molly cannot cry – her eyes have been walled off by prosthetic implants (the famous cyberpunk emblem of mirrorshades), so her tears are converted to spit.”

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William Gibson

See also Science Fiction Authors, SciFi Bibliography, SciFi, Artificial Intelligence, AI Bibliography, Robotics

WILLIAM [FORD] GIBSON (1948–)

US-born, Canadian novelist, known especially for his first novel, Neuromancer (1984).

“Born in South Carolina and raised in Virginia, William Gibson moved to Toronto in 1968, a relocation inspired partially by the lively bohemian counterculture then developing in Toronto’s Yorkville neighborhood. Married in 1972 to Deborah Thompson, he graduated from the University of British Columbia in 1977, majoring in English literature, and settled in Vancouver. He maintains dual US–Canadian citizenship.”

“While Gibson read sf in his youth, he did not try writing it until the professor on a UBC sf course suggested a story rather than a term paper, resulting in “Fragments of a Hologram Rose,” which in 1977 was his first publication. Other stories followed: “The Gernsback Continuum” (1981) in a high-profile anthology, Universe 11, edited by Terry Carr; “Johnny Mnemonic” (1981), “Hinterlands” (1981), “Burning Chrome” (1982), and “New Rose Hotel” (1984) in the prestigious Omni magazine. These and other stories were collected as Burning Chrome (1986). By 1982 Neuromancer had been commissioned by Terry Carr as an Ace Special.”

“During the early 1980s Gibson befriended the writers John Shirley and Bruce Sterling, all then associated with the “punk sf” that soon became “cyberpunk,” an influential if never quite coherent movement. For better or worse, cyberpunk quickly found its fellow traveler in postmodernism, especially in academic circles and among glossy promotions in mass-market magazines. By the early 1990s cyberpunk had entered senescence, but both the term and the subgenre tropes have shown remarkable resilience. Adopting “cyber-punk” from a 1983 Bruce Bethke story in Amazing, Gardner Dozois “defined the movement” in a Washington Post article “by applying the term to works set in computer-driven, high-tech near future venues inhabited by a slumming streetwise citizenry for whom the real world is an environment, not a project. In terms of traditional US sf, this was heresy” (Clute 1993: 493). Although Gibson coined the term “cyberspace” and first envisioned computer hackers called “console cowboys” in “Burning Chrome,” Neuromancer, a book often thought to be the paradigmatic representation of cyberpunk, would be his breakthrough success.”

“Case, a self-destructive hacker, is recruited by the mercenary Molly to join a gang led by Armitage, who in turn is employed by the mysterious Wintermute. Others join the motley cast, which conducts two “runs”: the first a heist to steal the recorded personality of the great hacker McCoy Pauley (aka The Dixie Flatline), the second a plan to penetrate the databanks of the conglomerate Tessier–Ashpool so as to enable Wintermute to merge with Neuromancer, both of which are artificial intelligences. Although the Turing Police attempt to intervene, the central impediments are the characters’ own personality fragmentation, self-hatred, perversity, and despair. They do succeed, though the book ends without revealing what merged A.I.s means. Two partial sequels – Count Zero (magazine serial and book both 1986) and Mona Lisa Overdrive (1988) – explore some of the consequences. Collectively known as the Sprawl trilogy, since they all involve the metropolitan sprawl between Boston and Atlanta, the novels neither tell a single, sequential narrative nor offer a resolution of the plot. Count Zero also introduced a technique that Gibson has continued to use: multiple narrative strands in separate or alternating chapters which eventually converge or connect.”

“Neuromancer swept sf’s major awards. The rhetoric of its reception was highly charged, with hyperbole the chief vector within both camps. Proponents praised the dark new vision of human life under global capitalism and the energetic vigor it injected into what they perceived as a moribund genre. Detractors disparaged its cynicism, nihilism, diffidence, overwrought style, and romanticization of addiction, criminality, and depravity. A high-tech hard-boiled thriller, Neuromancer is less notable for its exciting plot than the rich texture of its prose, its foci of attention, its engagement with mass culture, and the way it crystallizes many separate threads that would subsequently transform sf. A partial list would include: an aggressive punk-rock aesthetic; hyperbolic imagery and tropes; frank endorsements of recreational drug use; petty thieves on mean streets shadowed by the insidious, nefarious operations of the multinationals that have filled the power vacuum left by the postindustrial disarticulation of the nation-state; the transnational superimposition of the global on the local, erasing or eliding cultural and geographic borders; decentralized personal agency, often aided by prosthetic or cybernetic alterations of the human body; and particular attention to the economic and technological influence of non-Western cultures, especially Japan. Gibson’s singular achievement was in synthesizing and combining such separate threads into one densely interwoven fabric.”

“Neuromancer represents both a radical break with sf and a profound revivification of its most cherished conventions. One example concerns body invasion and the mediation of human consciousness. The novel’s treatment of prosthetic or cybernetic modification suggests a step toward a coming posthuman or cyborg amalgam of human and machine, the confrontation and conflation of which have remained a central trope in sf since its beginnings. Another example can be found in the literary style. Take the novel’s justly famous first sentence: “The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.” Here the natural world becomes the failure to be a mass media technology; dead channels represent a disruptive static or cognitive dissonance, a core theme of the novel; the sentence also identifies the narrative’s preference for arresting visual imagery. That this single sentence does so many things simultaneously signals something of the novel’s lyric and thematic density; Gibson’s richly suggestive figures are conveyed by even the smallest detail. Neuromancer’s tropes and ideas have so permeated sf that it is hard to replicate their initial, tactile impact. One index of that impact is the sheer amount of scholarship precipitated by the novel. In both sf studies and mainstream literary studies, more attention has centered on Neuromancer than on any other work of genre sf, certainly of books published since 1984.”

“All three Sprawl novels address the exotic lure of innovative technology presaging the posthuman, a new and separate species; quite possibly this change will mean transcendence, but the series remains extremely ambivalent about potential results, which are disturbingly ambiguous. The two other Sprawl novels are less frenetic and increasingly more controlled, the characters have greater subtlety and depth, but the stories also become more melodramatic and clichéd. They are much sadder, too, and the pathetic despair of the abject characters is less seductive than in Neuromancer.”

“Gibson’s second series is usually called the Bridge trilogy, for two of the three titles feature characters who have transformed the San Francisco–Oakland Bay bridge into a neighborhood – tenements and businesses and bars serving the lost, the marginal, the exiled. While Virtual Light (1993), Idoru (1996), and All Tomorrow’s Parties (1999) tell a much more tightly knit tale than the Sprawl books, they also are best understood as panels of a triptych – interlocking or imbricated scenes rather than a single story arc. Also telling is the modification of style: by the time of Mona Lisa Overdrive, the hyperbole and excess of Neuromancer had collapsed into a plain, by comparison almost minimalist, prose; a preference for understated, deceptively uncluttered sentences has remained Gibson’s inclination. His accomplishment in these often neglected books has been undervalued; in some ways they constitute a retraction or reversal of the key motifs and representations of the Sprawl trilogy.”

“In between the Sprawl and Bridge series, Gibson co-wrote with Bruce Sterling a novel of steampunk alternate history, The Difference Engine (1991). Set in 1855 London amid spies and international conspiracies, it ponders what might have changed had the British mathematician Charles Babbage (with the help of Byron’s daughter, Ada Lovelace) developed his early computer, an “analytic” or “difference engine.” Like the two series, The Difference Engine is centrally interested in how burgeoning technologies reshape humanity.”

“The timeshifts in setting are telling, for while The Difference Engine occurs in our past, Gibson’s work has progressively moved from the near future to the almost present. Neuromancer’s world is perhaps 50 years into the future, the Bridge triptych’s not more than 20, and the most recent novels, Pattern Recognition (2003) and Spook Country (2007), are set in the nominal present. These last fictions are less overtly science-fictional than his earlier work, and Gibson has remarked that he no longer sees himself as writing sf. Nevertheless, both books still resonate within the genre, in much the same manner as new weird or steampunk writing by figures such as China Miéville and Neal Stephenson. Perhaps they may be best thought of as “slipstream” titles – mainstream books that deploy some of the tropes and topoi frequently found in sf. In Pattern Recognition, Cayce Pollard is a “coolhunter,” someone who anticipates trends in fashion and style and sells this prescience to marketing firms. Seeking something authentic, something that is only itself rather than a brand or an attempt to make a buck, she becomes obsessed with fragments of film footage that are circulating across the internet. Funded by a nefarious advertising executive, she searches for the maker of the footage, from London to Tokyo to Moscow. The openly comic Spook Country finds a similar character in similar conditions. Freelance journalist Hollis Henry is writing an article for a magazine called Node. But Node does not exist – it is just another device for the nefarious ad man to yoke Hollis to search out hidden secrets, so the book also involves a code-breaker, former and current federal spies, a conspiracy to defraud the feds by stealing public cash, and a counterplot to defeat the first plot.”

“From “Fragments of a Hologram Rose” to Spook Country, certain motifs have pervaded Gibson’s work. Many of the stories and all of his novels are “capers” or searches, structured around tropes of detection and interpretation. While his prose is no longer as manic or dense, the fiction’s rich texture still vibrates with nuance and irony. Thematically, Gibson’s work obsessively invokes a limited set of concerns. One is the cultural and economic reorganization caused by the speed and nature of the networked information technology that is transforming global culture. A second is the uneven distribution of access to and the dangerous secrecy of archived data – leading Gibson to make one of his most famous remarks, given often in interviews and widely cited: “The future is here. It’s just not evenly distributed yet.” A third, and perhaps the most important, is that his fiction continually returns to the liminal – the threshold moments of the collapse of one condition and the possibility of transformation, either cultural or personal.”

“But there has also been an acute arc that reveals significant modifications of style and attention, especially from cold, diffident surfaces toward warmer, human interiors. To use just one of many possible illustrations, in Neuromancer Molly cannot cry – her eyes have been walled off by prosthetic implants (the famous cyberpunk emblem of mirrorshades), so her tears are converted to spit. As a sharp contrast, Pattern Recognition concludes with Cayce’s tears: “she was weeping for her century, though whether the one past or the one present she doesn’t know” (Gibson 2003: 356). Gibson’s fiction has moved from solipsistic self-enclosure to the empathetic opening to individual change. A remarkable, influential innovator, Gibson is unquestionably one of the most important figures in sf’s last several decades, with one of the most distinctive voices and visions in the history of the genre.”

See also:

J.G. Ballard, Jean Baudrillard, Greg Bear, Alfred Bester, Octavia Butler, David Cronenberg, Samuel R. Delany, Philip K. Dick, Donna J. Haraway, China Miéville, Michael Moorcock, Kim Stanley Robinson, Joanna Russ, Mary Shelley, and Neal Stephenson

Bibliography

  • Clute, J. (1993) “William Gibson,” in J. Clute and P. Nicholls (eds.) The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, London: Orbit.
  • Csicsery-Ronay Jr, I. (1995) “Antimancer: cybernetics and art in Gibson’s Count Zero,” Science Fiction Studies, 22(1): 63–86.
  • Gibson, W. (2003) Pattern Recognition, New York: Putnam.
  • McCaffery, L. (ed.) (1991) Storming the Reality Studio: a casebook of postmodern science fiction, Durham, NC, and London: Duke University Press.
  • Myers, T. (2001) “The Postmodern Imaginary in William Gibson’s Neuromancer,” Modern Fiction Studies, 47(4): 887–909.
  • No Maps for These Territories (Mark Neale US 2001).
  • Rapatzikou, T.G. (2004) Gothic Motifs in the Fiction of William Gibson, New York: Rodopi.

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