It is amazing to think that William Gibson’s debut novel, Neuromancer, turns 30 years old this year. It was a landmark science fiction novel that helped spearhead the Cyberpunk sub-genre of science fiction. As the author has said in interviews, it came out at just the right time when people were receptive to such a stylish, dystopic vision of the future. Gibson’s novel went on to become the first winner of the science fiction “triple crown” – the Nebula Award, the Philip K. Dick Award, and the Hugo Award – and influenced countless other SF novels and films.
Neuromancer is the first of three novels (and three short stories) that comprise the Sprawl trilogy – all set in the same fictional world sharing the occasional character and referencing events that happened in another story. The first novel focuses on Case, a burnt-out cyberspace cowboy who used to be in-demand for his superior hacking skills that saw him infiltrate and raid corporate databases in the Matrix. However, when he ripped off one of his employers, Case’s nervous system was severely damaged by a nasty mycotoxin that prevented him from hacking. He is given another chance by a shady group that will fix his nervous system in order for his help infiltrate a massively powerful artificial intelligence known as Wintermute with the help of Molly, a beautiful and deadly mercenary.
Neuromancer presents disturbing visions of our glitzy urban culture that often reflect our feelings of despair, confusion and victimization. The world in this book is shaped by two major influences that have had a profound effect on content and style. He has been inspired by the use of the cut-up methods and quick-fire stream of dissociated images of William S. Burroughs, and the ability to blend prose with technology from Thomas Pynchon. In Neuromancer, Gibson creates a world from his own observations of popular culture at the time: a collage of twentieth-century images heightened to a nightmarish level whose flash and appeal overshadows humanity.
Gibson's style of prose in Neuromancer has often been described as "Chandleresque," but as he admits in interviews, his prose owes more to the influences of William S. Burroughs: “I don't write like Raymond Chandler. I've hardly even read Raymond Chandler. Any Chandler influences I have are by cultural osmosis; for instance I think there is a fair bit of Chandler in William S. Burroughs.” Gibson creates characters that are reminiscent of the ones in a Burroughs novel. For example, Case is very similar to Bill Lee, the main protagonist in Burroughs' Naked Lunch. Both characters are overwhelmed by a sense of paranoia of living in a dangerous big city. This is evident when Case is being followed by Molly at the beginning of Neuromancer:
”The cultivation of a certain tame paranoia was something Case took for granted. The trick lay in not letting it get out of control. But that could be quite a trick, behind a stack of octagons. He fought the adrenaline surge and composed his narrow features in a mask of bored vacancy, pretending to let the crowd carry him along.”
For Case, a certain level of paranoia is common in this dangerous world. However, the sense that he is being followed increases this feeling and he fights to control it. This sense of paranoia can also seen in the beginning of Naked Lunch:
“I can feel the heat closing in, feel them out there making their moves, setting up their devil doll stool pigeons, crooning over my spoon and dropper I throw away at Washington Square Station, vault a turnstile and two flights of down the iron stairs, catch an uptown A train ... And right on time this narcotics dick in a white trench coat (imagine tailing somebody in a white trench coat-trying to pass as a fag I guess) hit the platform ... But the subway is moving. ‘So long flatfoot!’ I yell, giving the fruit his B production.”
This passage conveys a feeling of fear and paranoia. The narrator can "feel the heat closing in," as Case in Neuromancer fights his "adrenaline surge," both experiencing a sensory overload by their surroundings. Case and Bill Lee are both being chased in these passages by not only a mysterious figure, but by their own fear of paranoia. There is so much going in the settings of both novels. Burroughs and Gibson accurately convey the fast paced lifestyle of contemporary urban life, where only the strong survive. Gibson sums up this lifestyle best when he writes, "Night City was like a deranged experiment in social Darwinism, designed by a bored researcher who kept one thumb permanently on the fast-forward button." This description also applies to the world that Burroughs creates in Naked Lunch, which was a conscious influence on Gibson.
Gibson, like Burroughs, also sees himself as an outsider in the world of science fiction. It is this view that sets Gibson apart from other science fiction writers:
“What Burroughs was doing with plot and language and the SF motifs I saw in other writers was literally mind expanding. I saw this crazy outlaw character who seemed to have picked up SF and gone after society with it, the way some old guy might grab a rusty beer opener and start waving it around. Once you've had that experience, you're not quite the same.”
Gibson is fascinated with how Burroughs reinvents the structure of the novel in his books. Naked Lunch uses the cut-up technique, a controlled use of collage where random pieces of prose are pasted together to simulate the feeling of fragmented thought. This influence is seen in Case's dreams:
“Each time the image of Deane's shattered head struck the rear wall of the office, Case was aware of another thought, something darker, hidden, that rolled away, diving like a fish, just beyond his reach. Linda. Deane. Blood on the wall of the importer's office. Linda. Smell of burnt flesh in the shadows of the Chiba dome. Molly holding out a bag of ginger, the plastic filmed with blood.”
This passage is very fragmented in nature to simulate the speed of Case's thoughts. Images race through his mind at a very fast rate. Case's thoughts shift from Julius Deane's death to Linda's death, back to Deane's death, then to Linda and finally to Molly. Gibson takes an image, like Deane's death, and looks for ways to relate this image to the rest of the novel via a controlled use of collage, which is what Burroughs does in his novels.
Gibson uses SF to comment on the current situation of society much in the same way that Burroughs does in his novels. Burroughs uses his novels to comment on how rapidly society is decaying:
”America is not a young land: it is old and dirty and evil before the settlers, before the Indians. The evil is there waiting. And always cops: smooth college-trained state cops, practiced, apologetic patter, electronic eyes weigh your car and luggage, clothes and face; snarling big city dicks, soft-spoken country sheriffs with something black and menacing in old eyes color of a faded grey flannel shirt.”
Burroughs sees under through the pretty facade that the media presents and shows what America is really like: "old and dirty and evil," filled with "snarling," and "menacing," people. Gibson also takes existing problems like drugs, pollution, and corporate monopolies and "keeps one thumb permanently on the fast-forward button." In other words, he takes these problems and heightens them to nightmarish levels much like Burroughs does in his novels, and shows how bad things could get if these problems are not solved.
Gibson's novels are very visual in style. His descriptions are so vivid and detailed that the novel flows like a film. This style is influenced by Thomas Pynchon's novels, in particular Gravity's Rainbow. Pynchon combines images and figures from popular culture with literature and technology to illustrate how overwhelmed we are by the media. He does not restrict himself to one medium. Gibson takes images from various media in the same fashion: “I know I don't have a sense of writing as being divided up into different compartments, and I don't separate literature from the other arts. Fiction, television, music, film – all provide material in the form of images and phrases and codes that creep into my writing in ways both deliberate and unconscious.”
From the opening lines of Neuromancer, this "sense of writing" is evident. Gibson mixes elements from film noir in his descriptions of Night City and its inhabitants with characters like Linda Lee, who is a character out of Lou Reed song. Gibson takes images and ideas from various art forms and makes them his own. This is evident when Case visits Julius Deane and Gibson describes Deane's office in great detail:
“Neo-Aztec bookcases gathered dust against one wall of the room where Case waited. A pair of bulbous Disney-styled table lamps perched awkwardly on a low Kadinsky-look coffee table in scarlet-lacquered steel. A Dali clock hung on the wall between the bookcases, its distorted face sagging to the bare concrete floor. Its hands were holograms that altered to match the convolutions of the face as they rotated, but it never told the correct time.”
This passage is an example of Gibson's "compulsive use of brand names." He is drawing attention to how much brand names and popular culture play a role in our daily lives. In this passage alone Gibson refers to "Neo-Aztec" architecture, "Disney" pop culture kitsch, "Kandinsky" fine art, and "Dali-clock" surrealism. Gibson is acting like a customer in a "supermarket of 20th-century works," taking what he wants to get his point across. This passage also conveys a feeling of sensory overload. The reader is being bombarded with so many popular culture references that it all begins to blur together. Gibson is blurring the distinctions between fantasy and reality and asking the question, where does fantasy end and reality begin in world where these lines are not concrete? Pynchon also asks this question and goes one step further than Gibson. He uses figures from real life with his own characters in Gravity's Rainbow:
“It was one of Groucho Marx's vulgar friends. The sound is low, buzzing, and guttural. Bette Davis freezes, tosses her head, flicks her cigarette. ‘What,’ she inquires, ‘is that?’ Margaret Dumont smiles, throws out her chest, looks down her nose. ‘Well it sounds,’ she replies, ‘like a kazoo.’ For all Slothrop knows, it was a kazoo.”
Pynchon creates a world where Groucho Marx, Bette Davis and Margaret Dumont all know each other and know Slothrop, a character created by the author. Pynchon no longer has any distinctions between fantasy and reality. Everything is mixed together. Gibson does this as well, but not on the radical level that is seen in Pynchon's novels.
The Cyberpunk genre was influenced by the New Wave of SF writers that started appearing after legends that came before them were established. Some of the New Wave writers that influenced them were Harlan Ellison, who presented a streetwise, hardened, grab-you-by-the-throat style. There was Norman Spinrad, who presented a fast, furious future filled with rock ‘n’ roll rebels. J.G. Ballard was a British SF writer who also presented a hard edge to his work, but focused on technoshock, the human reaction to technology. Philip K. Dick presented one of the best visions of the future – an ecologically ravaged Earth with all the “best” specimens traveling to the far reaches of space leaving behind everyone else.
According to Bruce Sterling, one of the self-proclaimed Cyberpunks, the name came from cyber – meaning cybernetic, a mating of flesh and chrome, and punk – the late 1970s movement of radical rock ‘n’ roll that questioned society and challenged authority. Five authors emerged as the first generation Cyberpunks: William Gibson, Rudy Rucker, Lewis Shiner, John Shirley, and Sterling. They shared common themes, ideas, outlooks and a common symbol – mirrorshades: a unique symbol that suggested rebellion, craziness and a dangerous nature behind those mirrored, chrome glasses. Chrome and matte black became the Cyberpunk colors.
These writers loved style, were fashion conscious and prized “garage band mentality,” as Sterling said in a defining essay on the genre. They joined the ideas of technology and culture together. The main characters in their novels were usually cybernetically enhanced in some way that would show how the character coped with the invasion of technology in his or her body. The character would have to overcome the sense of technoshock and realize their human side or be lost to machines forever, risking alienation of friends and family. The world is often an ecologically ravaged, corrupt place with endless cities of concrete and glass. Pollution covers the sky, blotting out the sun. The setting can often be broken down to three levels: the bottom or street level where most of the characters live and die, filled with poor and desperate people. Next, is above the street – the middle class in their apartments or condos who live life a little better, but still deal with the riff raff of the streets. Finally, there is the high-rise or corporate level populated by powerful businessmen. The main characters of Cyberpunk stories are usually hackers, musicians or mercenaries selling their skills to the highest bidder. A lot of characters are hooked on drugs that give them an edge. Artificial intelligence and the virtual reality known as cyberspace plays an important role in a lot of Cyberpunk fiction, particularly Gibson’s. He treated the Internet like another dimension, a sort of astral plane where characters can imagine themselves as whatever they want to be. They can travel to databases all over the world to steal information, which is the most important commodity.
The short stories “Johnny Mnemonic” and “Burning Chrome” were early forays into the world Gibson would expand in greater detail with Neuromancer. After writing “Burning Chrome,” Gibson felt that he was four or five years away from writing a novel, but as luck would have it, editor Terry Carr was looking for promising authors and asked Gibson if he wanted to write a book. He agreed without realizing what a monumental task it would be: “In fact I was terrified once I actually sat down and started to think about what I meant. I didn’t think I could fill up that many pages. I didn’t even know how many pages the manuscript of a novel was ‘supposed’ to have.” Gibson was motivated by “blind animal panic” to write the book and “fueled by my terrible fear of losing the reader’s attention.” He looked back at his short stories to see what made them work and took the character of Molly from “Johnny Mnemonic” and the world he created in “Burning Chrome,” and put them in Neuromancer.
While writing Neuromancer, Gibson was not influenced by Cyberpunk-ian films like Blade Runner (1982) and Tron (1982), but rather John Carpenter’s film Escape from New York (1981), which was a significant influence:
“I was intrigued by the exchange in one of the opening scenes where the Warden says to Snake: ‘You flew the wing-five over Leningrad, didn’t you?’ It turns out to be just a throwaway line, but for a moment it worked like the best SF, where a casual reference can imply a lot.”
Much of the techno-speak in the book came from Gibson overhearing a word or phrase and appropriating it for his own uses:
“I like accidents, when an offhand line breezes by and you think to yourself, Yes, that will do. So you put it in your text and start working with it, seeing how it relates to other things you’ve got going, and eventually it begins to evolve, to branch off in ways you hadn’t anticipated.”
A lot of the language in Gibson’s novel came from dope dealer’s slang or biker talk circa 1969 Toronto. For example, “flatlining” (ambulance driver slang for “death”) was a word he heard in a bar 20 years prior to writing Neuromancer and applied it to hackers getting killed in cyberspace and then dying in real life. Ironically, Gibson knew very little about computers prior to writing his book, which allowed him to romanticize them:
“It wasn’t until I could finally afford a computer of my own that I found out there’s a drive mechanism inside – this little thing that spins around. I’d been expecting an exotic crystalline thing, a cyberspace deck or something, and what I got was a little piece of a Victorian engine that made noises like a scratchy old record player.”
Gibson actually came up with the cyberspace concept in “Burning Chrome” and carried it over to Neuromancer. He was inspired by kids playing video games in downtown Vancouver arcades:
“I could see in the physical intensity of their postures how rapt the kids inside were. It was like one of those closed systems out of a Pynchon novel: a feedback loop with photons coming off the screens into the kids’ eyes, neurons moving through their bodies, and electrons moving through the video game. These kids clearly believed in the space games projected.”
Humans, like Case are dependent on technology, like junkies. Technology is overwhelming us as it becomes part of our daily lives. There is a definite lack of emotion or optimism in Neuromancer where at the end of the novel Case and Molly survive, but never see each other again. Gibson’s novel explores the relationship between humans and their environment and how we interact with it. The most important aspect of this book is that the author is commenting on current society, examining the difference between reality and fantasy and how paranoia and popular culture blur these lines until there seems to be no distinction between the two sides.
Not surprisingly, the popularity of Neuromancer inspired several offshoots, including graphic novel, a video game (featuring a song by Devo no less), a radio play and even an opera. There have been several attempts to adapt it into a film with screenplays written by the likes of music video director Chris Cunningham and film director Chuck Russell (The Blob). In recent years, Joseph Kahn (Torque) was lined up to direct an adaptation starring Milla Jovovich, but that also fizzled out and currently Vincenzo Natali (Splice) is working on directing the film from his own screenplay with assistance from Gibson. Whether this latest incarnation gets made remains to be seen, but it demonstrates the continued interest in Gibson’s novel and how well it has aged over the years.
Burroughs, William S. Naked Lunch. New York: Grove Press, 1992.
Dorsey, Candas J. "Beyond Cyberspace." Books in Canada. June-July 1988.
Gibson, William. Neuromancer. Ace Books, 1984.
McCaffery, Larry, ed. Storming the Reality Studio. Duke University Press, 1991.
Pynchon, Thomas. Gravity's Rainbow. Viking Press, 1973.
Sterling, Bruce. “Preface to Mirrorshades.” Mirrorshades: The Cyberpunk Anthology. Ed. Bruce Sterling. Ace Books. 1986.