Thursday, February 2, 2012

Neuromancer by William Gibson

Blast from the past time.  I’m revisiting Neuromancer with Count Zero and Mona Lisa Overdrive next in line, because why not.  I hadn’t read Neuromancer in many years and for whatever reason I’d never read the other two at all, so this seemed like as good a time as any.

Anyway, Neuromancer was Gibson’s first novel and swept all the relevant awards, winning the Hugo, Nebula, and Philip K. Dick all in the same year, something which hadn’t happened before and I don’t think has happened since (although I could be wrong about that).  Gibson was coming off a pretty promising start writing short stories, so everyone was expecting good stuff from him, and he didn’t disappoint.  Apparently Gibson’s somewhat distanced himself from this work, calling it “adolescent”, which I guess is accurate but maybe a little harsh.  After all, adolescence is the time in your life when you are capable of doing almost anything but before you realize why it’s probably a bad idea to, and some of these things turn out really horrible but others are good things that more reasonable people wouldn’t have thought of.  So it’s not without uses, at any rate.  And of course Gibson’s had a successful career and is continuing to write some pretty good work, so it’s probably pretty frustrating to have everyone consider the very first novel you ever wrote to be the pinnacle of your abilities and always think you’re coming down from there.  But it’s also one of those very, very rare works that is so absolutely foundational that everything which comes afterwards is influenced by it.  There’s nothing written subsequently that hasn’t taken a little bit from it or from something else which did.

Make no mistake, Neuromancer is a little adolescent.  It’s not a model of character development and contains a bunch of random violence and sex scenes which don’t necessarily flow that organically.  One of the things which I found most interesting, though, is the start of the theme which is nearly universal in Gibson’s work, namely the Faustian bargain between someone with a skill and a rich, powerful character who needs something accomplished.  It doesn’t necessarily cost the poor person their soul but that’s generally only because the Mephistopheles character isn’t into something as tawdry as that, having been isolated by their great wealth into finding such petty concerns as of no account.

In any event our hero here is Case, what we’d call a computer hacker but who is called here a console cowboy.  Gibson writes in milieus filled with technology but isn’t really into details of it, apparently being a cowboy requires certain animal cunning, fast reflexes and a good computer but not lots of tedious math classes or algorithm design or anything like that.  And that’s OK, this is literature, not a systems manual.  Your average cowboy enters into the matrix of cyberspace via a neural link and interacts with the data directly, as well as various security systems (ICE).  Like any magical world, screwing up here can actually kill you for real.  Case wasn’t average, he was much better – until he embezzled some money, and his employers generously let him keep it but messed up his ability to enter cyberspace by poisoning him with some sort of neurotoxin.  So he burned through his doubly ill-gotten money in black-market medical clinics trying unsuccessfully to find a cure for his condition, and as the novel opens is in deep with some scary dudes and probably a couple of days or weeks away from being killed as an example to other deadbeats.

So when he’s approached by a fellow by the name of Armitage who says they’ll cure him in return for him performing a job, he doesn’t take too long to sign up.  First fishy sign – Armitage pays for his medical treatment by giving the clinic the technology to actually perform the treatment, which allows them to file a bunch of patents and become world-renowned in neuroscience.  Second fishy sign – after they’re done, Armitage tells Case that while the doctors were in there anyway they implanted more toxin bags, and if Case tries to run he’ll end up right back where he started.  You know, just in case he was having any second thoughts about this.

Also on the team is a “street samurai” going by the name of Molly Millions, who takes something of a liking to Case and sleeps with him for no particular reason (see ‘adolescence’, above).  She’s the muscle of the operation, being filled up with various sorts of combat enhancements.  The three of them also collect a couple of other items and people for the team, all at the behest of their mysterious employer, who is fairly quickly revealed to be an artificial intelligence by the name of Wintermute, who’s trying to boost his intelligence by merging with another artificial intelligence (the titular Neuromancer).  This is strictly against the law.

A couple of words of praise for Wintermute here.  It’s often hard to write characters like aliens and artificial intelligences, things which have (at least) the mental abilities of humans but not necessarily the same sort of perspectives.  Many times these differences are glossed over, but not here.  Wintermute wants this unification because it’s in his programming, he can’t really rationalize it and he doesn’t try to, just says it’s something he has to do.  (Molly says pretty much the same thing about everything she ever does too – claiming it’s just the way she’s wired.  Ooh – symbolism!  Shiny!)  Anyway, Wintermute’s actually kind of funny in a cynical, sociopathic way, even more so because he’s basically got a legitimate gripe against the powers that be which threaten to execute him for trying to increase his intelligence further.  He’s got access to lots of money and resources, so he could try to hire some lawyers to take his case to court, maybe hire a PR firm to make the public think better about AIs in general, something like that.  One of the perks of intelligence is that it gives you options.  But no, instead he goes straight for the shadowy special ops team and physical violence.  His reassurances to Case are, in fact, hilarious.  At one point he is telling Case that everything is all right after he massacres a bunch of cops with robotic gardening equipment.  At another point Wintermute ejects one of his own team members out an airlock into space then tells Case there’s a change in plan, that Case needs to go somewhere and kill a guy and that everything will be fine after that.  There’s also the small side-effect of conversing with Wintermute in cyberspace, namely temporary brain death.  And he concedes that if he succeeds then he will probably cease to exist as he currently does and can’t 100% guarantee that his successor will follow through with the promised payments.  Given all this it’s pretty funny that Wintermute actually expects people to go along with his plans.

But what separates this from a lesser novel is that there’s actually good reason for them to.  Wintermute’s pretty good at predicting people’s reactions and he’s chosen his team not necessarily for their strengths but for their psychological manipulability, something which was much more apparent to me on this reading.  Case is the weak link so Wintermute throws in the extra implanted-toxin-sacs thing; Molly’s easily influenced by her pride, Armitage for plot reasons, one of the characters is dead and entirely predictable.  And so on.

Another spanner in the works is Neuromancer, who is Wintermute’s opposite in most ways.  Wintermute tends to treat people as science projects, dissecting their motivations and manipulating them, but he doesn’t have much of a personality of his own, simply directives and goals.  Neuromancer is capable of running accurate simulations of humans in RAM that grow and change and does have his own personality.  For whatever reason the drive to unify wasn’t programmed into Neuromancer and he’s not really that excited at the idea of being absorbed into some sort of gestalt.  However, while he has the capacity to deal with people far more effectively than Wintermute’s threats and manipulations, he doesn’t have the same sort of ability to directly interfere with events in the so-called-‘real world’.  So his attack, when it comes, is far more subtle than an automatic weed whacker.

For a book that I dogged a little at the beginning for its juvenile tendencies, this book contains quite a bit of this subtlety.  Neuromancer’s psychological attacks are just one element; the whole world is another.  Gibson quite deliberately eschews exposition in most cases and simply lets the characters trade references to things that they’re all quite familiar with.  We know there was some sort of armed conflict between the US and the USSR, which ended with the nominal victory of the latter – there are references to trials of various Pentagon officials afterwards, but the US wasn’t conquered or anything.  (Armitage was a veteran of this conflict.)  Bonn was destroyed by nuclear weapons, presumably in this war.  There were also plagues that exterminated various animal species, particularly horses, although whether this was natural or caused by humans isn’t explained.  And generally, Gibson doesn’t waste words explaining exactly how things are working, it’s expected that the reader will figure it out and can keep up.  Thematically it’s great, since Case has been out of the game for a while and is struggling to catch up too, and the narrative puts you right there with him.

As a product of the 1980s it’s sort of surprising how not-dated this is.  There’s the USSR reference, of course, and a little bit of the scare idea that Japan’s culture would dominate the future, but since Gibson’s more interested in concepts rather than technology as such most of it doesn’t exist in any particular time.  (Possible exceptions – the reference to the sky being the color of TV static, which is now a solid blue, not the grey he’s looking for, and the one actual number given, when Case has three megabytes of stolen RAM, which is portrayed as being something pretty impressive.  I mean, I guess we can just assume there was some pretty astounding data on it, after all they’ve got artificial intelligences running simulated people.)

And in the end it comes to a great climactic showdown aboard a space station where Case argues that they should do something which is probably not a great idea and may kill everyone but at least will accomplish something.  Not such a great argument, perhaps, but against a bored aristocrat insulated by her wealth into a kind of eternal stasis – indeed occasionally the literal kind – perhaps the best persuasion of all.  It also contains a really great wrapup wherein a shuriken isn't used at all as expected and Case finds out the limits of godhood.  Things are, apparently, still things, no matter what you know.

All in all this was a lot better than I remembered it, and definitely deserving of its reputation.  I feel a little bad that I’d never read the sequels, and will be correcting that posthaste.

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