Neuromancer (1984) by William Gibson

Don't miss out on other works in the series:
Count Zero (1986) Book Review
Mona Lisa Overdrive (1988) Book Review
Available works by William Gibson


Set in the near-future of the Sprawl, an urban landscape stretching along most of the US East Coast, Neuromancer envisions a world where people routinely jack into Cyberspace, a term coined by William Gibson. His Sprawl Trilogy (1984-1988) – spaced out over 16 years – explores the interstices between mind and computer, as well as the infancy of advanced artificial intelligence, specifically the point at which it starts to become sentient. Neuromancer won the SF Chronicle Novel award (1985), the Hugo award for Best Novel (1985), the Nebula Novel award (1985) and the PKD Award (1985).

The story follows Case, an unemployed console cowboy frantically searching for a cure for a toxin that has left him with neural damage, preventing him from accessing the matrix. When ex-military Armitage offers Case a cure in return for his hacking services, he is left with no option but to accept Armitage’s proposition and is subsequently introduced to Molly Millions, a heavily augmented human with retractable nail-blades. Together they carry out a series of hacks, and even though they are kept in the dark as to why they are doing what they are doing, it gradually becomes clear that someone or something behind Armitage is pulling the strings. Case and Molly start to piece together that an AI named Wintermute is responsible for the set of events.

Neuromancer is not the first Cyberpunk work to have been published. It is not even Gibson’s first, as evidenced by his short stories Burning Chrome (1982) and Johnny Mnemonic (1981). It was the success of Neuromancer however which solidified Cyberpunk as a subgenre, introducing larger audiences to Cyberpunk’s typically claustrophobic urban landscapes: profusion of plastic and neon, rife trade in proscribed pharmaceuticals and software programs, abundance of recreational drugs, and plethora of small shops providing cosmetic surgery, body modifications and brain implants. It is a world where mind and body can be augmented or refashioned at will. Neuromancer is not only credited with being the archetypal Cyberpunk work, but it is also thought to be one of most influential sf works of all time. Gibson’s major cultural significance – quite apart from inventing the term ‘Cyberspace’ (Burning Chrome from (1982)) – is evident from the visual tone adopted by numerous sf films. It is hard to imagine a film like The Matrix (1999) to have been made without the advent of Cyberpunk. It is Ridley Scott’s film Bladerunner (1982) though that most resemble the visual tone associated with the specific style of Cyberpunk. Gibson saw the film in 1982 when he had already finished writing Neuromancer and he felt that the style was so similar to his that he had entirely to rewrite his book for fear of being accused of plagiarism.

The move from the real to the virtual world is a defining Cyberpunk moment. In Neuromancer people literally jack in via headsets, thus breaking down the border between reality and cyberspace. When Molly’s ‘simstim’ camera implant is connected to Case’s deck, it allows Case – while he is operating in the matrix – to see what Molly is seeing in real life. In the Cyberpunk anthology Mirrorshades (1986), Bruce Sterling contends that his generation of sf writers is the first generation to grow up in a science fictional world, where technology is no longer outside of us: it is inside us, under our skin.

Advanced AI is still a bit of an novelty in the world of Neuromancer and yet it is seen as enough of a threat to society to have led to the formation of the Turing police charged with regulating and controlling AI development. As such, the novel anticipates today’s public discourse on AI, a debate that really got started within the sf community, notably Vernor Vinge’s essay The Coming Technological Singularity: How to Survive in the Post-Human Era (1993) and novel Marooned in Realtime (1986). Breaking free from human control to achieve unlimited power is exactly what Wintermute is trying to do in Neuromancer by merging with another AI named Neuromancer. Gibson’s novel is thus a pessimistic assessment of the dangers of computing where people’s lives are subject to the motivations of nefarious corporations and mysterious AIs. It is also a key theme in much sf to come, in particular postmodern space opera. At the end of the novel Case asks Wintermute if it is now God. For some reason we just cannot seem to leave God alone.