Well, dagnabbit, if Neuromancer didn’t pretty much fall apart at the end. Sticking with my noir framework for a moment, looking back on it, Neuromancer had been threatening to fall out of that frame for most of its length. The plot kept veering off toward a “team adventure, caper, super-secret-quintuple-cross.” And that actually is where the plot finally settled. Now, for me, as a reader, a good novel integrates plot and character in a way that it matters which characters do which things. The contingent nature of what events can happen next depends in large part on what the characters have done up to this point with the events they find themselves in. Certain past actions foreclose future possibilities.
In good noir, our point of view character cuts a line across several different stories happening in the background. Now, some of these stories intersect one another, and it is these points of intersection that our point of view character has to uncover in order to complete his or her own story line. Neuromancer did not do this. It looked like it might early on: Case was hired by Armitage (through Molly, who was Case’s minder for most of the novel). Along the way Case encountered several other characters. Some from his previous life, others part of Amitage’s team, still others were projections from the artificial intelligences at the center of the story. All of them had their own agendas, and Case had to put things together in order to obtain his own goal. Of course, his own goal was his own survival–Armitage put a time-release poison into Case, and would not give him the information to remove it until the job was finished.
But at the end of the day, Case’s problem was not that urgent, even after Armitage died without telling Case the solution to his time-delay poisoning. I half expected that we would find out the poison in Case’s system was a lie, that Armitage only told Case that to keep him on a short leash. And the noir aspects of the story were only there because I, as a reader, projected them onto the story. Actually, at the end of the day, the story was merely Wintermute and Neuromancer, a couple of highly sophisticated artificial intelligences, vying with one another to gain full sentience. If I read things right, they thought they were working at cross purposes, but they actually were working together to merge into a new form of super intelligence, because a couple of generations ago someone designed them to play a long game of sentience-building (this was against the law, so they had to be designed to be ignorant of what they were really doing, how they were actually doing it, and the task had to be split between the two of them so they would not attract attention from the cops). So these artificial intelligences were pulling the strings. The central conspiracy was less a noir conspiracy than a stage-managed string of events where the computers manipulated their selected human agents in order to obtain their own ends. Which is fine, but it’s not the book I started out reading. Which may be my failure as a reader.
But, I’m not so sure. And here’s why. Up until the very end, Case was doing things and figuring things out, and putting things together. Then, really close to the end, it stopped being about Case figuring things out, and became about the computers stepping up and overtly pushing Case’s buttons to wrap up their project. There were a couple of artificial time constraints (Case’s poison, Molly’s broken leg, something about Wintermute and Neuromancer and the way their antivirus routines were breached). For purposes of the plot, it didn’t matter if it was Case or some other person with skills to manipulate cyberspace. Frankly, to me it looks like Case (or any human operator) was ultimately unnecessary. There was that other cyberspace jockey, Dixon, whose skills and memories are stored on ROM who seemed plenty able to do what needed doing without having to be an actual living, breathing person. And at the very, very end we are told (told, mind you), that Case spent all his money, couldn’t pick up his old life, couldn’t go off with Molly, spent the rest of his days noodling around cyberspace, and one time met up with the Wintermute/Neuromancer entity where he found out what it was up to, and that there was an artificial him hanging out with an artificial construct of a dead ex-girlfriend. But why are we told any of this? Case railed against one of the family members Wintermute ostensibly served because there was no change even possible in her life, so he was going to help Wintermute have at least some change. The way plot and character (failed) to interact in the novel means there wasn’t really any possibility of actual change for any of the characters.
What I’m getting at is that the character’s actions didn’t really affect the plot, and the plot didn’t really affect the way the characters wound up. The fact that I kept wanting to read it as noir rather than caper is a separate matter from this criticism.
Of course, all of that is just one part of the novel. There’s the whole “William Gibson created cyberspace!” facet. I still don’t really have anything much to say about that. I don’t have the science fiction background to assess the factual validity of the claim, but he certainly did write a book which echoes down the last couple of decades in the way highly-visual representations of computer-generated environments are depicted in movies and TV shows and on the news, now that the internet is a Big Deal.
Another part of the novel, and the last part I think I’ll talk about, is the actual writing. And in this instance, I’m thinking particularly of the way synesthesia is used to depict Case’s experience of cyberspace. The taste of blue leaps out at me from the text, but much of the climactic battle (and, to loop back to the plot for just a moment, the finale was, alas, a climactic battle) was described in ways where one sense type was described as affecting another sense organ. Hence the taste of blue.
I sort of liked it. I sort of found it annoying. And in the final analysis, I appreciated it because what else was Gibson going to do?
Cyberspace is not normal space, so normal descriptions of normal perceptions are not going to work; on the other hand, Case enters cyberspace by–essentially–plugging his brain into a computer. So what he perceives in cyberspace is going to be interpreted by his ordinary senses as filtered by the way his brain processes sensory input. Some translation has to happen from the digital realm (itself the result of decisions and parameters set by human programmers) to the human realm of Case’s mind, and to keep it strange and exciting, a good way to go is to describe the experience through synesthesia.
I don’t know that I’ll need to read much more Gibson, though I understand that Neuromancer is part one of three, so I’ll probably eventually give the other books a try. But I might dig Phantom of the Opera out of a box and read that again before I do. And my non-fiction pile is threatening to topple over.