Well now. I’m into the book now, maybe 20%. The main character, Case, has just completed his first job. My first thoughts on reading this book hang on the idea that it’s a noir book. Philip Marlowe would be comfortable in this world.
Not that Marlowe would particularly like this world, but he doesn’t much like the one he lives in either. If you don’t get too caught up in the futuristic words, about which a little bit in a moment, you can see the story in terms of what’s going on and the tone of the descriptions. Case is our point of view character: he knows how the world works, but is caught up in a plot he doesn’t fully comprehend. He’s riding the parts he can’t control, and looking for ways to control what he can. Or, if not control, then influence with hopes of keeping himself around until things play out and he can walk away.
Which isn’t to say Case is an update on the Marlowe character. Case is the type of person who gets things done, working small jobs, and unhappy about it. But his code is narrower than Marlowe’s; Marlowe will do what he can to help out someone who accidentally got in over his or her head. Case is still out almost completely for #1. He used to be very good at navigating and manipulating computer networks and security systems. He did this for crooks, lifted a bit for himself, and as a result, the crooks messed him up bad. Marlowe would never lift a bit for himself. How, exactly, this worked gets to the core of the futuristic words I’m not ready to address just yet. Case gets brought into a team by a mysterious former Special Forces officer just before Case falls over the edge of oblivion because he’s sad and messed up in the head because he can no longer do what he’s good at doing. It’s not yet clear what the job really is, but the first phase has just ended, and we’ve met a few members of the team. Including Molly, some sort of ass-kicking body guard for Case. Part of the payment for working on the team is fixing what the crooks broke in Case, and the additional organ damage Case did to himself on his way to the edge, the better to speed his falling over.
So anyway. Case has a problem, someone nasty has offered to help out—FOR A PRICE—and the world he operates in is one where you can only trust the people in front of you for as long as they’re in front of you. It’s dark, gritty (literally, there’s grit, grime, used technology ready to topple over in just about every scene–and when there’s not it’s noticed), and death comes at unpredictable intervals and by incomprehensible methods. And that’s the plot and the tone.
Now for the words. Gibson’s language, and vision of a high-tech interconnected future, is rightly seen as spookily prescient. I read somewhere that William Gibson just made up stuff that sounded cool to him, that he didn’t have a real clear idea what he meant by that technobabble, and that he doesn’t really understand the things in the real world everyone says are just like what he described! Or maybe I didn’t read it because I made it up. But that stuff has been in my head for years now.
So anyway. I’m not going to belabor this point. If you look closely at Neuromancer, what you see is a bunch of high technology that probably wouldn’t work. I mean, seriously, sticking wires and other sorts of software chips into holes in your head to navigate computer networks through the power of your mind? He calls it cyberspace, and the matrix, and other things. It’s been nearly 30 years now since he wrote this stuff, so you’ve seen it in all sorts of movies (including Tron, which came out a couple of years earlier). The way the crooks messed up Case was to damage his nervous system so he couldn’t navigate cyberspace with his mind by sticking wires into his head.
On the other hand, if you squint a little, you see something a lot like what we have now. Gibson set the story at some indeterminate point in the future, possibly only somewhat more than one hundred years in the future, maybe as much as three hundred years. But it’s clearly a dystopian view of a massively urbanized culture with globalized components. The capitalism of the US, the cultural notions of Japan, the cheek-by-jowl of the Near East all sort of mushed together like the various colors of Pla-Doh into a big ball of humanity, but with enough geopolitical tension for wars and a military still powerful enough to mess people up. And above it all, humanity has launched cities in space. It’s where the elites live, and the high-end military, and people who find the near-lawlessness of life on the ground too constricting.
One more thought for now. At one point, Molly is talking with Case about some of the more outlandish capabilities of the technology of the world Gibson has created. Case, who works with this stuff all the time, isn’t too interested since he can’t actually use the stuff, and it’s not safe for him to even poke around the edges because the powers that control it would squash him dead before he even got near something interesting. Nevertheless, Molly’s amazed he’s not interested. I felt, and not in a bad way, that Gibson was talking there. I think he had a better idea, as he was writing, about the social implications of his ideas than he was letting on. And I think he let on a lot in the book. But I think that short exchange might have been his way of letting certain readers know that he couldn’t get into it without bogging down the story. And I think the way Gibson is thinking these things through, but not really explicating them, that elevates this book to the place it occupies in science-fiction and literary circles.