Saturday, January 10, 2009

Neuromancer, by William Gibson

Neuromancer is the sort of book (at least for me) that gets one thinking. And thinking means babbling. So, my apologies in advance, all.

Neuromancer is most famous, probably, for being he novel that invented the word 'cyberspace', and for doing so in 1984, when the internet was still pretty much a research project. 1984 is a really long time ago, and from a practical standpoint, Gibson was a visionary, in the way he pieced together a world, digitally, plausible enough that it now happens to, in many ways, exist. Good for William Gibson!

Now, let me tell you why I like Neuromancer.

There's three reasons. The first is it's sheer arrogance - I mean that in a good way. Larry Wall, the grandfather programmer of the Perl programming language, and one of the most famous computer programmers ever (I'm probably pretty geeky for knowing the names of famous computer programmers), once said that the most important virtues of the computer programmer are laziness, impatience and hubris. While he has a reputation for the humorous turn of phrase, there was some truth in what he says. The truly stunning stories of technology over the last 30 years have been tales of hubris: Linus Torvalds sitting in some dorm room in Scandinavia thinking 'you know what, I bet I could program Unix all over again', or Steve Jobs... well, pretty much every time the man ever talks. There's a certain blindness that the greatest programmers had, a blindness to their own humanity, a belief in the impossible, coupled with a stubborn resistance to being proven wrong. And what it creates are the vast vistas of technology: imperfect, irritating, idiosyncratic, but stunning. Gibson in this book, written at the age of 36, after living in a Vancouver draft-dodger community, making a living by scouring thrift stores for stuff he could resell, and going to college for an English degree because getting student aid was easier than working, and getting interested in Punk music, in 1977, with no career and having his first kid, his thought was 'you know what? I like sci-fi. I think I'll become a novelist.' And he was not content with just writing a novel with a big new idea, he decided he needed to make up his own new style of sci-fi, and write a novel that was all at the same time a film noir, a philosophical treatise, and the literary equivalent of 'Never Mind the Bollocks, Here's the Sex Pistols'. In his debut novel. So he did, actually wrote a few short stories, and wrote the novel in 12 months, and proceeded to become the first person to win a Nebula, Hugo, and Philip K Dick award for the same novel (sort of the sci-fi equivalent of winning the Pulitzer and the Nobel). Did it deserve it? Heck, I dunno, I don't know what else was written in 1984. It has scenes where that hubris comes out, where he writes some things that are very teenager (Gibson says the book was an adolescent book). But, at the same time, there's a something that shines out of the idiosyncracies, a total and complete vision that's not only very fun to read, but really powerful in ways, I imagine that the author didn't even expect.

But, the other thing, the thing that makes me love the book, rather than respect it, is the sheer accuracy of it, not in terms of the internet itself, and such (after all, we don't jack into the internet with electrodes on our forehead and what not. At least, not yet), but just the way it feels, in a way, to be a 'hacker'. Most computer characters in novels fall back on one of two ideas - either the hacker as preternaturally talented essence-of-cool, like the Matrix, for instance, or the Hhcker as socially inept slob who lives in a basement and stares at dirty pictures in the breaks. There is, I suppose, some of this in here at well. But what Mr. Gibson Groks effectively is what it MEANS to be a computer person, what the framework is. HAving been working on a big programming project for work this week, it's something that struck me afresh as I was reading. Technology fundamentally alters all creative pursuits, because it focuses on iteration and improvement. No computer program, for the most obvious example, is ever 'done' - there are release versions, but there are always patches, always improvements, always the next version. Creating a program is not creating a work of art, it's creating an ecosystem that has to continue when you're dead (or that just dies itself). This is leaching over, even, into other artwork, and will do so more as time goes on - the ease of editing, for instance, has fundamentally changed writing since the advent of the word processor - there is no impediment to changing a word or a sentence, no resistance to cutting a paragraph in an almost finished work and popping in a new one, because the creation is no longer a physical object - a manuscript - it's an abstraction. It's data. It's easy to change data, it's hard to change a sheaf of manuscript. Whether these changes have been good or bad is certainly debatable, but I think they're very real.

Neuromancer feels that way. The main character, Case, never really 'creates' anything, and the book is not about making something - it's about evolution, change, transformation. Nothing, in the end, belongs to Case (ironically, not even Case himself belongs to Case), because his Art (and the argument is definitely that he's an Artiste) is not a 'work of art', it's woven into the fabric of a world beyond his ability to control or understand : cyberspace as a great, endlessly iterative canvas, with a thousand thousand artists. In a new sense that I'm sure Whitman never thought of, the world is - and has become in our own existence - one where 'the powerful play goes on, and I may contribute a verse'. Case's world (and our own) is an ugly world, a terrible world, a violent and banal world, a world of drugs and pettiness and arrogance and hopeless anonymity, a world where people are really nothing but constructs, where we all voluntary devolve ourselves into bits of data, into statistics and predictable tools of commercial constructs, where we are cogs in a machine whose sentience threatens to make human life obsolete. But it's a beautiful, beautiful world, all the same.


Trish said...

I read this one a few years back for a postmodernism literature grad course, and it's one that I'd like to revisit again someday. I remember being absolutely blown away by Gibson's vision in this book--you're right, 1984 was a long time ago!

If you like this kind of book, I'd recommend Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson. Coincidentally, Stephenson is often credited for the modern definition of avatar--long before second city and other such online forums existed. Anywa--also a cyberpunk book that I liked better than Neuromancer.

Amanda said...

Maybe I missed it, but what's the third reason you like this book? I'm probably just not seeing because I had to breeze through this review in between book clubs...sorry about that.

hamilcar barca said...


that's what we could use here - some Heinlein reviews.