Review by Ashley Chapman
Neuromancer, the book that introduces us to the concept of the Matrix was, according to its author William Gibson, inspired by watching kids playing video games in arcades.
‘Reading his prose feels like being inside a computer as an electron-spawned visitor travelling along the soldered pathways of circuit boards.’
It takes an affinity with addiction to understand the appeal of this cult novel, specifically, video game addiction, where nothing else resonates or matters; it is what its main character, Case, a console cowboy, is about. Case exists to live in the virtual matrix, plugged right into its electronic nervous system. But, after getting on the wrong side of the underworld, he’s forced, through a cruel inversion, to live outside virtual reality in the real world.
The characters in Neuromancer are now part of cyberspace folk-lore: Molly Millions, an augmented ‘steel’ samurai, who kills people in the way some teenagers zap on-screen pixels; Colonel Corto, rebuilt from after his near-death when he’s literally blown to pieces in a helicopter, a war-vet whose had his mind and body reassembled and as a result lives on the verge of meltdown; and then, the computers themselves, which as evolved AIs are complex and deep, and have something suspiciously empyrean like a soul. This book also has a sense of a future that is still tangible, or not so far off as to be unrecognisable. A future world where consumerism still reigns supreme: “Summer in the Sprawl, the mall crowds swaying like windblown grass, a field of flesh shot through with sudden eddies of need and greed” Turin’s law sets the context for this future in which sentient computers, ones that think, are illegal, hence, Neuromancer and Winterbourne, two halves of the same computer hardware trying like a divided self to come back together. To that end, the super AIs manipulate the story’s dissembling cast of characters.
It’s a startling vision with a writing style that is sly and elusive, drawing the reader in with its slick metaphors: ‘The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel,’ from its famous opening. Reading his prose feels like being inside a computer as an electron-spawned visitor travelling along the soldered pathways of circuit boards. It has an ambiguous off worldly tone. The language is at times obscure like ‘flatlining’, literally electronic death in cyberspace, a cult reference to the film Escape from New York (1981).
Concept-wise it also has some intrigueing ideas, so we get whole brain emulation (WBE) – mind uploading – a hypothetical process of scanning mental states and then copying them to computer devices. The notion explored in Neuromancer is to then run a simulation model and see what happens. The novel explores what super-computers with a conscious, running in perpetuity from inside virtual matrixis, might actually be like. Wonderful stuff, especially if you consider that some have already described the Higgs Boson as our very own matrix, the one that we exist in, but I’m off on a tangent. What makes Neuromancer so engaging is how it keeps positing age-old themes in alternate ways. So in this vision, super-consciousness, highly-evolved intelligence, seek each other out through ‘inter-spacial communities’. Presciently for 1984 you already have hackers, the Matrix (the World Wide Webb), ICE, Intrusion Countermeasure Electronics (cyber security), and, as Gibson didn’t come up with the concept of mobile phones, characters communicating through the inner-workings of their minds. This makes for a prose where the fine line between the virtual and the real are blurred: ‘They found their paradise, a ‘pirate’s paradise,’ on the jumbled border of the low-security academic grid. At first glance it resembled the kind of graffiti students operators sometimes left at the junctions of grid lines, faint glyphs of colored light that shimmered against the confused outlines of a dozen arts faculties.’ Are they surfing the internet or walking round a college block? It’s hard to work out, but this book is worth the trouble…
This book was very influential in its exploration of AI and has influenced later writers: see Hyperion Cantos review…