Fiction Reviews


(1984 / 2016) William Gibson, Gollancz, £8.99, pbk, 297pp, ISBN 978-1-473-21738-6

(1984 / 2017) William Gibson, Gollancz, £12.99, hrdbk, v + 297pp, ISBN 978-1-473-21737-9


This first appeared in 1984 and the 2016 and 2017 Gollancz editions are very welcome reprints given that this novel instantly made a significant mark on the SF landscape and part of a movement that soon became known as 'cyberpunk'.  Movements are notoriously easier to spot in retrospect than they are at the time, though ‘cyberpunk’ was a little more obvious than some. The 1980s love affair with information technology, and the emerging Worldwide Web (internet), was bound to be reflected in the SF of the time – indeed, it had been predicted, cf. John Brunner's The Shockwave Rider (1975) – and, willingly or not, Gibson was certainly seen as a figurehead of the cyberpunk movement. The world of Neuromancer can be said to fairly represent all the elements that are common to cyberpunk works: the near-future time-frame; the Chandler-esque urban environment; the subversion of technology by criminal elements; and the heavy emphasis on IT.  But it is also a pretty basic antihero-driven story.

Case, an ‘interface cowboy’ who steals data from cyberspace, has had his physical bodily electronic connections burned out, having been caught by his criminal employers skimming part of a job for himself. Then someone wants to employ him for a specific job, and is willing to pay the large sums required to have his interfaces restored. Throughout the action (which involves Case’s acquisition of a minder, and travel from Earth to orbiting arcologies) he is unaware that the data he has been hired to steal is a very special piece of software and it is only halfway through that Case discovers who has hired him: Wintermute, an artificial intelligence, and towards the end why he was hired. (We also get a nice SFnal consequence at the book's closure.)

Neuromancer almost introduced the term 'the matrix' (later popularised by the film of the same name): though the first SF usage, according to the invaluable Brave New Words: The Oxford Dictionary of Science Fiction, was in the 1976 Dr Who adventure 'Deadly Assassin'.  Gibson's Neuromancer was one of the first novels originally to be published by Ace as part of their then ‘new’ Ace SF Specials series, edited by the late Terry Carr. They must have been very pleased when Gibson’s first novel won the Hugo, Nebula and Philip K. Dick awards for Best Novel in 1985.  Count Zero (1986), Mona Lisa Overdrive (1988), and the collection Burning Chrome (1986), all expand upon the Neuromancer universe, though are only loosely connected with each other. Neuromancer also came joint 9th in the SF²Concatenation All-time Best SF Novel poll, and it has been adapted into comics form, though sales of this were low and the title was cancelled before the story was completed.  The novel's opening line has become famous by genre aficionados: 'The sky above the port was the colour of television tuned to a dead channel.' However it also says a lot about SF, its writing and place in time: in the 1980s television signals were broadcast (not online, there being no internet) as analogue signals, so tune to a 'dead channel' and you pick up on a grey, foaming natural microwave background hiss. (Many youngsters reading this will not have a clue as to what I am talking about, let alone the value of the novel's opening line which nonetheless struck a chord with the book's original, 1980s, readership.)

The 2016 Gollancz edition comes with an extra: the first chapter of Count Zero. This extra boosts the page count beyond 297pp. In addition to Neuromancer Gollancz are reprinting Gibson's Burning Chrome and Mona Lisa Overdrive in addition to the aforementioned Count Zero. All these titles in this Gollancz run come with a similarly styled cover livery of urban building mosaics.

However to my mind the 2017 Gollancz edition is better. OK, it is 50% more expensive, but at £12.99 still incredibly good value especially as it is a hardback, and one of those with the colour cover as an integral hardback as opposed to a separate dust jacket: I like that. While it does not have an extra as the first chapter of Count Zero, it does have an introduction by James Gleick.

That Gollancz have produced two separate editions -- the 2016 one as part of a series of Gibson reprints and the 2017 one as part of SF Masterworks -- just a year apart is a testimony as to how important is this work. To my mind -- as with much SF -- its value not only lies in its predictive element as to the importance computing was to become in both social and economic terms over the subsequent decade to its original publication, but also its misses. Neuromancer depicts cyberspace as something the human mind can almost physically travel through just as in the film The Matrix but more like the 1982 film Tron. The reality (so far) is markedly more pedestrian even though the power of real cyberspace as manifested by say the worldwide web (www) has still transformed our global society and visually added new dimensions to video (from TV to cinema as well as opening up personal visual creations) let alone through data access and exchange revolutionised our lives both individually and at society levels.  Indeed parts of the novel even have become dated. An example of this comes with the novel's classic opening line: 'The sky above the port was the colour of television, tuned to a dead channel'. This was true back in the 1980s when the novel was written as television channels were all analogue and at frequencies close to the cosmic background radiation. So tune a TV away from a channel and you were tuning in to the cosmic echo of the Big Bang. Alas in the early 21st century this is no longer true as TV is now all digital (as well as often as not does not use aerial broadcasts but is delivered via the internet). And then technology has taken a different path: for instance unlike the novel we no longer use modems: wi-fi is the current way to connect to the internet a local hub. But this is all part of SF's blunderbuss approach to visualising the future; there are some hits as well as near and complete misses with much fun to be had reading old SF to discern which is which, not to mention in reading new SF guessing what might possibly be.

Neuromancer is very much a classic of modern SF and anyone who considers themselves something of a genre aficionado will want this in their collection.

Jonathan Cowie

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