William Gibson is too damn smart for me. Not to bore you with my reading habits, but I picked up Neuromancer back in college (over 5 years ago now, ugh) and haven’t been able to get through it after several tries. I always got lost in the density of his writing and often had to reread sentences, paragraphs, and chapters just to make sense of what was happening. Nonetheless I decided awhile back, again, to finally trudge through it all, in the hopes that completing it would help me appreciate it. This endeavor was mostly a success, with a few helpings of failure mixed in.
Stylistically, the imagery and atmosphere of the book are quite iconic. Cyberpunk hero, shady megacorps, shadier money, what’s not to like there? I understand why it is a favorite on the Internet. But the constant barrage of obscure references often flew right by, leaving me confused and feeling utterly uncultured.
As far as what I think the book means, there are two major components that stick out. The first is the emphasis of Case, Molly, and just about everyone else as hustlers, which serves as an intentionally crude contrast to Gibson’s “advanced” and “futuristic” society. In light of the buzzy brands, silly startups, and the creepy notion of “influencers” that I often see in my filter bubble, this angle of the book really hit it home for me. Social media, and the Internet in general (cyberspace) have brought out the salesperson in each of us, although what we’re selling I can’t exactly say for sure. Subscribe to this blog, dammit!
Of course the other big piece is artificial intelligence. I’m ashamed to say that I still didn’t understand some of the key events in the story, and that I had to read through a synopsis to make sense of the thing. But AI is basically the backbone to the whole plot, and this role is seemingly behind the scenes until it promptly turns out not to be. As someone who works in the world of data analytics and thinks about the future a lot, I can certainly sympathize deeply with this idea (even though my understanding of the book is fragmented and fuzzy).
These two themes ultimately intertwine into a Schopenhauerian tale of inevitability and a pessimistic look at the ultimate loss of human freedom. TL;DR: the robots are coming and we’re screwed. But only our individuality, not our physical selves, per say. My recent surrender to LinkedIn and the “social internet” seem to validate this hypothesis. I didn’t want to, but I felt that I had to (a little dramatic, I know). Or is it really that bad? Case presumably makes it out ok, even if the end leaves me questioning a lot. Half spoiler: the book’s got a surreal Inception-esque ending.
This whole post might make you think I hated the book, but really I didn’t. Even though Gibson is way over my head, I am sold enough to want to learn more from him. Honestly, it would be nice if there was a Neuromancer-Lite edition out there, if someone would care to write it. But if you’re into science, hard-boiled noir, and, well, dense books, give this one a go.
The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel. (page 1)