If I said the word “cyberspace”, you’d immediately be able to envision it. Whether it be a kind of virtual-chatroom or an abstract, navigable constellation of lights and information. But without Neuromancer and the work of William Gibson, we wouldn’t even have the idea. Set in a dystopian near-future in which technology has progressed to a mind-boggling degree, Neuromancer birthed the ‘cyberpunk’ genre of sci-fi and rewrote the rules of what we expect from our speculative fictions.
The protagonist, Case, is an out-of-work hacker, bumming around the neon-and-rain spattered Night City, an industrial hellscape set between Chiba and Tokyo. Physically crippled so as to be unable to access his beloved cyberspace anymore, Case is on a suicide-trip: cutting rough drug deals and doing whatever smuggling gigs he can get his hands on, his life now devoid of meaning since he lost the ability to jack in. But mysterious figures step out of the darkness and offer Case salvation: do this one job for us and we’ll restore you to what you once were. Along the way, Case will brush up against cybernetic assassins, cloned-organ merchants, shadowy military figures and artificial intelligences which lead him to ponder the nature of sentience and the self.
Neuromancer is far more than a pulpy sci-fi novel; it spat in the face of the previous generation’s utopian ideas of how technology would save our society. The key element of cyberpunk is: high-tech, low-life. You may have a new set of Mitsubishi lungs and a scannable credit tattoo from a Japanese megacorporation, but you still have to grind for rent and your drug habit. Technology, Gibson wisely predicted, would not save us from ourselves but would only serve to further blur the lines of what constituted a human being’s worth.
Without Neuromancer, there would be no Blade Runner, no Akira, no The Matrix. All the sci-fi which places humanity in a maddened Neo-Tokyo of rampant consumer capitalism and an ever-descending quality-of-life. Gibson boasts an unparalleled ability to transport the reader to the places he describes: you’ll feel the patter of chemically-tainted rain against your plastic overcoat as you move through the neon nightmare of Night City, you’ll feel submerged in the sheer scale of The Sprawl, a future city which spans everything from New York to Atlanta. Neuromancer isn’t so much a novel as a terrifying prophecy about the direction in which we’re heading, which in retrospect now feels too late to pull back from.
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