Power, in Case’s world, meant corporate power. The zaibatsus, the multinationals that shaped the course of human history, had transcended old barriers. Viewed as organisms, they had attained a kind of immortality. You couldn’t kill a zaibatsu by assassinating a dozen key executives; there were others waiting to step up the ladder, assume the vacated position, access the vast banks of corporate memory.
In a world of bright, runaway urban sprawl, grungy alleys and runaway tech-implants, Case is a cowboy. That is, someone who jacks into computer mainframes and hacks into programs to steal things. Case was a cowboy. Two years ago he stole from his employers, was caught. Instead of killing him, they injected him with a toxin that fried his nervous system and burned out his ability to operate in cyberspace.
Broken and living with a bounty on his head in Chiba, Japan, Case is recruited by a mysterious man calling himself Armitage and his dangerous employee Molly, a tech-enhanced killer. Armitage pays for an experimental surgery to repair his broken nervous system, telling Case that he is on the hook for a job. If he refuses, the toxins will be released back into his blood.
What follows is a dizzyingly-psychedelic heist novel. Case comes to realize that Armitage is a front for a more powerful entity, a powerful artificial intelligence called Wintermute created by the enigmatic Tessier-Ashpool family against the Turing board regulations. But Wintermute is incomplete, and has assembled this crack team of broken individuals to unite it with its other half, Neuromancer.
Neuromancer does a few things really well. Its world is immersive and the consequences of this tech-dystopia are revealed. Anything is possible, for the right price. For instance, Molly sold her body for sex in order to pay for the enhancements. Not explicitly called prostitution, Molly became a puppet where she experienced it as a dream while her body fulfilled the desires of men.
The mandatory scenes of collecting the team were likewise effective. The individuals are all highly competent, but equally flawed. The result is that the tensions are ratcheted up because the team is simultaneously competing against the opposition and racing against the inevitability that their old flaws—drugs, trauma, physical limits—cause them to crack.
I appreciated Neuromancer, but I didn’t love it. For instance, where Molly’s sexual history was effectively horrifying, both highlighting the exploitation inherent in her objectification and coming back with narrative ramifications, she has another relationship with Case. It is clearly consensual, but it was comparatively unexplained and therefore felt gratuitous, as though one of her character’s primary purposes is as a sexual object.
More broadly, Gibson’s attention to the detail of this world was simultaneously effective and distracting, making this the rare book where I pulled up reviews to make sure that I read what I thought I had read.
Published in 1984, Neuromancer was ahead of its time and is one of the foundational texts in the genre of tech-dystopia. It is built out in the underbelly of a world dominated by corporations and wealthy families, where exploitation is rampant and there is a cult-like adherence to faith in technology as a panacea for all ills, and where our heroes are supposed to be the singularly special individuals who are out to save themselves at all costs from a world that has already torn them to shreds.
I have had less time to read recently than I would like, but that happens sometimes. I just picked up Elif Batuman’s The Idiot, a coming of age college novel. It is too soon to pass judgement, but so far, so good.