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In which Netty meets Neuromancer …

September 25, 2011

A colleague spied the copy of Neuromancer sitting atop a pile of papers on my desk. “Oh, so you’re re-reading that,” he commented. It was a statement, not a question. “How does it stack up after all these years?”

Er …

As people who know me – and, indeed, regular readers of this blog (they’re out there, Andy! They are! They are!) also know – I am no sci-fi head. The number of books of this genre I’ve read – make that the number of books that I’ve actually finished – I can count on the fingers of one hand. Dr Who, Star Trek, that kind of thing never did it for me (although I quite liked Red Dwarf). Hell, I’ve never even seen Star Wars. I’ve read a bit of dystopian fiction, which both fascinates and scares the living shit out of me. But I guess at the end of the day I’ve just never really been that interested in trying to imagine what a future that doesn’t include me would be like. I have always very much lived in the present; I am interested in history, but the future? Well, I’ll know what it’s like when and if I get there.

Having said that, though, I have to admit that Neuromancer was one hell of a wild literary ride. I can only but imagine what sort of a splash this stuff must have made when it first came out in 1984. It was American author William Gibson’s debut novel, published when he was 34, following several forays in short-story writing for various sci-fi mags. It won the Hugo, the Nebula and the Philip K. Dick awards (which, in horse-racing parlance, is like winning the Caulfield Cup, the Cox Plate and the Melbourne Cup in the same year).

As I’ve said, I’ve read very little sci-fi, but I have read a helluva lot of books – and I know what constitutes good writing. Gibson is a beautiful writer, and it was this that kept me ploughing ahead through some of the more dense sci-fi-ish stuff, even when I wasn’t quite sure of what was going on. In fact, he had me at the opening sentence – “The sky above the port was the colour of television, tuned to a dead channel.” Wow. It’s just a superb start – it’s evocative and intriguing; it makes you want to keep reading. Andy hit the nail on the head when he noted that even if you don’t know what’s going on at the time, you manage to figure it out further down the track. The concepts are intricate, but not entirely inaccessible. They demand thought, reflection and patience. We’ve said it before about so many other ANRC books, but this – more than perhaps any other – is a tome that would definitely benefit from a re-reading; then, you could just relax and go along for the ride, not worrying about the outcome but not being handicapped by prior knowledge, being richer for it and being able to focus on forging a deeper understanding of the concepts within. And sure, it’s sci-fi, it’s speculative, it’s dystopian – but it’s also a cracker of a yarn, a noir-ish thriller that is well-crafted, with memorable, intrinsically flawed, characters.

As the action opens, Case, a low-life cyber hacker with a drug habit, is trying to eke out a living in Chiba City. Caught stealing from former employers, they wreak their revenge on him by poisoning his nervous system, rendering him unable to work. He is unwillingly recruited by a “razorgirl” called Molly for a job commissioned by the elusive Armitage, who arranges to have Case’s neural damage treated (and gives him a new liver and pancreas that are immune to the effect of his beloved class-A drugs) and puts him to work. The first job is to steal the ROM construct of McCoy Pauley (also known as the Dixie Flatline, and one of Case’s original mentors) from an organisation called Sense/Net that housed his consciousness.  Delving into Armitage’s past, Case and Molly uncover his military background as their operation moves to Istanbul, where holographic artist Peter Riviera, a nasty piece of work, is added to the team.

The true nature of the expedition is revealed when Case encounters an artificial intelligence called Wintermute, created by the late Marie-France Tessier, matriarch of the powerful, but increasingly unhinged Tessier-Ashpool family (most of whom spend their time in cryogenic stasis in Villa Straylight, a wing of the family-owned space station Freeside).  It transpires that Wintermute has hired Armitage to unite him with his twin AI Neuromancer, built separately in order to circumvent the Turing Law Code that places strict limitations on the construction of super AI entities. With the help of a pair of Zionites – the dope-smoking Rastafarian pilots Maelcum and Aerol – Case, Molly and Riviera enter Freeside and set about attempting to fulfil their mission. To do so, they need to enter cyberspace, using intrusion countermeasures electronics (ICE) programming to break through the Turing software barriers and obtain the password to the lock – known only to Tessier-Ashpool S.A. co-boss Lady 3Jane, a kindly eccentric who is simpatico to Molly and Case, if not necessarily towards their goal.

Although Gibson has stated he never intended to write a sequel to Neuromancer, the book is considered the first of the Sprawl (named for the Boston-Atlanta metropolitan axis, an urban sprawl comprising the east coast of the United States) trilogy. It was followed by Count Zero (1986) and Mona Lisa Overdrive (1988), which share the same setting and some characters (as do several of Gibson’s short stories, most notably his first, Burning Chrome, published in 1982). While Andy says he won’t be rushing out to read more Gibson, I am more than a little intrigued – especially by the rest of the Sprawl trilogy. But this neophyte is still only cautiously dipping her toes in the sci-fi pool. I haven’t even graduated to floaties yet, let alone having the courage to dive head-long into the water.

PS: Reading Neuromancer, I was struck by its cinematic possibilities and dumbstruck as to how a celluloid version has not yet been crafted. As it turns out, the movie version  – to be directed by Vince Natali (Cube, Splice, Nothing) – is in pre-production and will be filmed next year. I can’t wait to see what they do with it.

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