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Neuromancer () Top 100 Books of the Millenium

    Cyberpunk is the label under which some of of the younger science fiction writers of the 1980's
    have been marketing their wares, and as neologisms go it represents a fair description of their
    product. Cyberpunk sci-fi, in its ideal form, is compounded of two elements: a re-envisioning of the
    consensual future in terms not of space travel and other feats of mega-engineering but of a plastic
    (that is, wholly malleable) mental landscape that derives from the new possibilities of computer
    graphics; and punk style, in clothes, hair, sexuality and the abuse of controlled substances. Like
    punk rock, and like most traditional rocket-and-blaster science fiction, Cyberpunk caters to the
    wish-fulfillment requirements of male teen-agers, but this is a job that can be done with varying
    degrees of panache, and there is currently no more accomplished caterer than William Gibson. He is
    the undisputed champion of Cyberpunk.
           -Thomas M. Disch (NY Times review of Mona Lisa Overdrive)

When I first read this book, over a decade ago now, the basic concepts were thrilling enough to overcome the fairly weak characterizations and the annoyingly obscure narrative.  But approaching this material today, when the idea of human/computer interaction has become a reality, even a commonplace, many of the basic premises seem truly antihuman.  Gibson is no doubt the father of a sub genre of science fiction, but it is hard to see how this novel or any of its successors will have much staying power; the message they convey is simply antithetical to human aspirations.

Gibson imagined a future, and this vision has proven remarkably influential, wherein the "heroes" would be those who could function best within the realm of computer generated artificial reality.  This is a kind of souped up Revenge of the Nerds; there is an essential element here of escaping from the real world, a world where these folks are social failures, and fleeing to a completely personalized false realm where all the hot chicks dig the technogeeks.  In an important way this represents a retreat from the basic purpose of humankind.  Our history is one of continually bending reality to our will, of perceiving and learning to handle the laws which govern it, with the likely goal of one day mastering it and becoming like unto God ourselves.  Now there are some interesting philosophical questions you could raise in a novel like this about whether God isn't simply a really gifted programmer and our universe simply an especially deceptive computer program (some of these types of questions are raised in The Matrix [see Orrin's review]), but this book is largely devoid of such ponderings.  And, taken on its own terms, the portrayal of a future of heroic drug addled, body sculpted, computer obsessives just does not have much appeal.  This vision is reminiscent of the Dark Ages with monks cloistering themselves in dark abbeys to argue over arcane religious doctrine.  They may have mastered the self contained world of theological supposition and physical isolation which they created, but they withdrew from the real world and to that extent failed to contribute meaningfully to its continued development.

It occurs to me that we are approaching a time, may even have arrived, where a similar choice presents itself.  Humans interfacing with computers or with each other via computers can create artificial versions of themselves, use pseudonyms, adopt different online personalities, etc..  They can "fight" in simulated games, argue in "chat rooms" and so on.  But at the end of the day, when they shut off their computers, they will have done nothing to change the world or themselves for the better.

But an alternative paradigm is also available to us.  Computers offer a means for honest interaction between disparate and distant individuals.  The Web can be an enormous repository for human knowledge and a vector for sharing that knowledge.  In some fundamental sense, the cyberpunk option, though it is often depicted as offering a means of human liberation, seems in reality to offer an existence of unfreedom, bound by the restrictions of programming rules, simple laws of physics and human biological realities.  The fact that the punks willingly imprison themselves in this technological
gulag, does not make it any more free.  I believe that the power of the message of The Matrix lies in its canny discernment of this truth.  The folks inside the Matrix, though they perceive themselves as free, are prisoners of the machines.  It is only those folks who can think beyond the parameters of the program who are truly capable of experiencing liberty.

I do not mean to suggest that The Matrix is particularly profound.  Indeed, it succeeds by adhering to basic themes like freedom vs. security.  It is classic precisely because it is traditional in its message.  And, of course, it, like cyberpunk, presupposes a world of buff babes in spandex who are irresistibly attracted to computer hacking wimps.  But the fundamental difference between Neuromancer and The Matrix is that Case, the hero of Gibson's book, is motivated purely by selfish desires, while the heroes of the movie have already freed themselves from the delusion of the Matrix but are intent now on freeing the rest of mankind.  This difference is fundamental to the opposing metaphors: on the one hand is the world of cyberpunk--solitary, self-oriented, artificial, lifeless; on the other is the world of life beyond the computer program--communal, participatory, free, vibrant.  Mankind has been confronted with such choices many times in the past and despite several long periods of stagnation in the backwaters of artifice, man has always ultimately chosen freedom.  I am confident that we will do so again this time.


Grade: (C+)


William Gibson Links:

    -PROFILE: A Prince of Cyberpunk Fiction Moves Into the Mainstream: William Ford Gibson's novels and short stories are worshiped by hackers, argued over by philosophers in arcane journals and rhapsodized about by teenage garage bands. (BRENT STAPLES, 5/11/03, NY Times)
    -REVIEW: of Coolhunting by William Gibson (Tucson Weekly)

Book-related and General Links:
    -INTERVIEW: (Addicted to Noise)
    -PROFILE: ON LINE WITH William Gibson; Present at the Creation, Startled at the Reality (PETER H. LEWIS, NY Times)
    -William Gibson's Neuromancer and Post-Modern Science Fiction
    -William Gibson Info
    -William Gibson (1948-)
    -William Gibson Bibliography / Mediagraphy
    -Cognitive Dissidents
    -ESSAY:  Ideas & Trends; Art Invents A Jarring New World From Technology (JOHN MARKOFF, NY Times)
    -ESSAY: Confessions of an Ex-Cyberpunk (Lewis Shiner, NY Times)
    -Study Guide for William Gibson: Neuromancer (1984)
    -REVIEW: of MONA LISA OVERDRIVE By William Gibson (Thomas M. Disch, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of  THE DIFFERENCE ENGINE By William Gibson and Bruce Sterling (Thomas M. Disch, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of IDORU By William Gibson (Laura Miller, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of All Tomorrow's Parties By William Gibson (Tom LeClair, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of Pattern Recognition By William Gibson (Michael Berry, SF Chronicle)

    -The Cyberpunk Reading List
    -The Cyberpunk Project
    -REVIEW: of LIFE ON THE SCREEN Identity in the Age of the Internet By Sherry Turkle (Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, NY Times)
    -REVIEW: of VIRTUAL REALITY By Howard Rheingold (Thomas Bass, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: Robert M. Adams: Tripping Over the Future, NY Review of Books
        The Farther Shore: A Natural History of Perception, 1798-1984 by Don Gifford
        Disappearing Through the Skylight: Culture and Technology in the Twentieth Century by O.B. Hardison, Jr.