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Neuromancer – Andy jacks into the matrix – but not for the first time…

September 18, 2011

“Trillions of electro-chemical cells in a continuous matrix, a master-pattern … The Matrix is a huge communal brain. It monitors the life of the Capitol, and makes provision for the future. We use its accumulated wisdom and experience to predict future events and to plan how to deal with them.”

Um. OK, so maybe Doctor Who’s Matrix, in a ’70s story called The Deadly Assassin, doesn’t have that much in common with William Gibson’s Matrix after all. Although later the Doctor has “a variety of electrodes” applied “to his head and body”. And once he’s entered the Matrix,  “if he dies in there – he’ll die here too”.

My quotes, incidentally, come from Terrance Dicks’ novelisation of Robert Holmes’ script, and not the original. Terrance was a lazy bugger back then though, so my guess is that they have either been lifted directly from the script or bear a very strong resemblance to the original lines.

Neuromancer was published seven or eight years after that Doctor Who story and is, I suppose,  somewhat superior (although I’ve been a Doctor Who fan since before I can actually remember, and, like Collingwood even at the bottom of the ladder, it will always be better than anything, anywhere, ever). I mention my childhood obsession only to point out that while Gibson’s novel is indeed groundbreaking the concept of a Matrix – or the web, or the net, or whatever you want to call it – the concept of a computer-generated virtual world did exist, imaginatively if not in fact, before he wrote his first novel. I don’t know for sure but I’m guessing it existing before The Deadly Assassin, too.  Gibson’s matrix looks a hell of a lot more like today’s net than Doctor Who’s matrix, but interestingly – for me, anyway – Gibson’s matrix, in a lot of ways, looks a lot like Doctor Who’s matrix, as well. Gibson’s character’s can jack into virtual environments, as virtual people, just as the Doctor does. We can’t – yet.

I’ve only seen the first of the Keanu Reeves’ Matrix films, but from what I remember they follow the Gibson/Who template (although obviously they grew out of Gibson’s vision). An actual body, jacked into a virtual environment that mirrors the real world. And if you die in that virtual environment – you die in the real world.

So anyway, enough of my ’70s kiddies sci-fi TV fetishism. Neuromancer. Ahem.

Netty and I joked while we were reading the book that we didn’t really understand it. That’s bollocks. We did. Or at least I did. Mostly. The overall storyline I got, although (like all good thrillers) sometimes you don’t quite get what happened in that chapter back there til you’ve read this chapter here. Some of the “science” – and the quotes are used for a reason, because as far as I can tell this story happens at least a century after Gibson was writing, and he’s imagining how science and technology are going to evolve – is bamboozling. Plenty of people rant about how much he got right. Maybe, but at this exact point in time I cannot take a shuttle to a space-based spindle settlement in orbit around Earth, nor can I put electrodes on my forehead and suddenly find my (virtual) self in a virtual environment that could kill my real, non-virtual self. I’m still not quite sure what a stimsim is, or was it a simstim, although I guess it’s probably short for stimulated simulation, or maybe simulated stimulation, or maybe something else. Frankly, being a faggot, I thought it should’ve been kind of like the virtual equivalent of a dildo. But I don’t think it is.

So yes, I had some problems with this book. Only one or two, though. Some of the jargon – which Gibson must’ve made up, because the technology he’s talking about didn’t exist at the time – some of the jargon is confusing. And more than occasionally I didn’t really know what the fuck was going on, although ultimately I figured it out.

What I’d be interested to know is what your bogstandard sci-fi fan of 1984 – someone who like me, maybe, watched some Doctor Who, thought Return of the Jedi was pretty cool, dismissed the original Star Trek as the colossal steaming pile of shit it was and is and shall be ever more – what the fuck did they make of this book? Or did your bogstandard sci-fi fan of 1984 not read it? Was it only read by freako nerds who knew about the nascent system that was to become the internet? Hang on, was the internet even fucking nascent at this time? I think it was but I don’t know.

Gibson spins a damn fine yarn. He speculates about the future in the most uncanny fashion, he creates avatars without even using the word back when it still meant something to do with some Hindu shit. It’s his ability to swirl his thoughts about the future (and no doubt the thoughts of quite a few others) into something that looks like a sci-fi story, but often looks like ’50s noir, that I really appreciate. This is hard sci-fi, or at least it was back in ’84. I’m not a huge hard sci-fi fan – Alastair Reynolds I can cope with, Alastair Reynolds I can actually quite enjoy (although again, because he’s projecting into the future, and trying to make it scientifically plausible, there are the occasional WTF moments when I simply have no idea what he’s fucking talking about). Neuromancer isn’t the kind of sci-fi I enjoy. The elements of the book I enjoyed were its noirishness, its wry humour. Oh – the Rastas were pretty cool, too. And, while I’m not actually a junkie, the depiction of drug addiction a century or so from now was interesting. I particularly liked the fact that Case, his body bio-engineered to deny him the pleasure of the drugs he’d previously enjoyed, still manages – like all junkies – to find himself a substance that works. And goes back for it, even after it royally fucks him up.

Neuromancer won’t be among my favourite books of the year. I’m not sure that I’ll be champing at the bit to read more of Gibson’s work. But I’m glad that, finally, I got around to reading one of the seminal texts of my generation. And I’m also kind of glad to know that – one way or another – Doctor Who got there first.

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