Wednesday, March 30, 2011

So, Yeah...Neuromancer

I actually finished reading Neuromancer a couple days ago. So, um, what did I think of it?


I mean, it's a decent enough read...Gibson's a good storyteller. But THIS is the grandfather of the cyberpunk genre? Forgive me, but it reads like any futuristic speculative fiction book to me. That is, standard sci-fi fare. Nothing about it particularly says "cyberpunk" to me.

I suppose the idea of a computer matrix was pretty heady stuff back in 1983 (or was it? The film WarGames was released in 1983 and so modems and the beginnings of the internet were already in place).

How about people willing to sell their souls/bodies for the money to (invasively) augment their own bodies? Well, there's nothing all pervasive about "getting chromed" in Neuromancer...only a couple characters have elected for augmentation (organ transplants and cosmetic/geriatric surgery being the real ubiquitous procedures). And so what if they're not shook up about it? Didn't people think it would be cool to be the Six Million Dollar Man or Deathlok back in 1983?

No, Neuromancer seems no more cyberpunk than the 1980 film Saturn 3...and it certainly doesn't feel very "noir" or "hard boiled." You've got a futurist world where there are space ships side-by-side with (the equivalent of) 20th century drug addicts? How is that any different from Harlan Ellison's brilliant short story Run for the Stars (originally published circa 1957). Answer: it's not.

This is simply the Stainless Steel Rat in a more dystopian universe. I'm sorry...color me completely disenchanted and even unimpressed. Having read Neuromancer, I can't for the life of me see how it has come to be considered "the archetypal cyberpunk work." Archetypal?

What is cyberpunk about the Rastafari movement?

I'm starting to think there ISN'T such a thing as "cyberpunk." I mean, there's an IDEA by that name, and people have an idea of what it is...kind of like people had an idea of what "Seattle" and "Grunge" music is/was. But Chrome and Drugs and Computer Hackers can (and do) fit into a lot of SciFi genres. It feels (to me) like a whole mountain of pastiche tropes have been created around an idea that was never anything more than a little piece of SciFi with a clever name...and not even an amazingly original piece of SciFi, at that.

Sorry, Gibson...I vastly preferred The Difference Engine to this.


  1. Well, it's archetypal in that it's first -- although I think Sterling had a cyberpunkish story out before -- so while the distinctive props of cyberpunk came along later, they were expansions and developments of what Gibson did here. Some of Gibson's follow-up novels have more cyberpunky bits in them.

    For my part, I think Stephenson's Snow Crash is a better example of the cyberpunk genre. Russo's Carlucci trilogy is also good.

  2. Maybe I'm confusing things with the other parts of the trilogy, but neuromancer for me is cyberpunk at it's finest. And this has nothing to do with the technology per se, but with the description of the protagonists view of said technology. It's much more about feeling towards technology; not the scientific possibilities, wich may or may not have been depicted elsewhere.
    Just my 2c.

  3. You're running into the same thing that early critics were dealing with in assessing "cyberpunk". Bruce Sterling talks about it in places like Mirrorshades and elsewhere, but the basic idea is that "cyberpunk" is not a genre at all (in the sense of a collection of tropes), but an attitude. It's one thing to talk about tropes and genre, but another thing to talk about attitude. The latter is much less cut-and-dried, and so more difficult to pinpoint, for instance.

    kelvingreen: Sterling's The Artificial Kid may be what you're thinking of. In any case, "cyberpunk" started in short stories before any novels came around. I'd point to a number of those to indicate what I think of when I think of "cyberpunk". It's one of the reasons that I've never been convinced that any RPG has yet really been something that I'd describe with the c-word.

  4. @faoladh: you may want to have a look at the rpg "Remember Tomorrow" by Greg Hutton:

    The game is interesting because its stats describe what you would define as "attitude": Ready, Willing and Able.

  5. The "hard-boiled" or "noir" part is the prose itself. It's written in a style similar to detective fiction like Chandler or Hammett--though not necessarily a pastiche of those. While not unheard of in science fiction (and certainly relatively common sense) this was not typical either of the New Wave or the more traditional science fiction that had preceded it.

  6. "Cyberpunk" is an odd duck. The first major cyberpunk film was "BladeRunner" based on a novel written in 1968. Dystopia noir future where man has not only embraced technology but struggles to come to terms with how it has redefined him and civilization. Read "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep" and tell me it's not cyberpunk.

    Cyberpunk is more and far less then mirror shades, cybernetic enhancements and tough computer nerds.

  7. @ Rorsch & Faol: See this talk about the characters "feelings" or "attitude?" This loses me...I mean, I don't see it in the book. At least not THIS book. Maybe Gibson's Johnny Mnemonic novella (or his other novels) has more of it. The characters in Neuromancer? For the most part I'd describe them as "wistful," a term I don't normally associate with "cyberpunk."

    And yet Neuromancer is considered the "grandaddy of 'em all." Wistful protagonists? What a bunch of sad sacks! I WANTED to see some attitude...but all their sharp edges seem to have been filed down.

  8. For what it's worth, I wasn't very impressed with it either.

  9. Jon, are you trolling your own blog now?

    If it's the "punk" part of things, you're missing, that was probably more in Johnny Mnemonic, Count Zero, etc... Although Gibson himself was anything BUT punk (seriously...have you seen him?).

    Unfortunately, I think this is just another case of people who are familiar with the later incarnations of things never being able to see how/why the originals were so inspiring. Like the little rocker kids I went to school with who didn't "get" why Hendrix was so revered because he didn't shred like Yngwie. Or the 3.x kids who get pissed off at all the adulation for Keep on the Borderlands. (yes, I'm trying to push your buttons with that one) Don't fall into the trap, JB!!

  10. Disenchanted/socially isolated hacker meets razor girl does job for mysterious augmented ex-military with complications. Sharp drugs, eyes and knives, killer computers manipulating and brains being burned. What's not cyberpunk? I believe you are missing the point that it all seems so familiar because it brought together things that came before and influenced everything that came after.

  11. Neuromancer plays a pivotal role in the history of cyberpunk but it certainly isn't the birth place. John Brunner was in this territory with his Jagged Orbit /The Sheep Look Up / Stand on Zanzibar trilogy. But it was his novel Shockwave Rider that is considered the launch point of cyberpunk.

    The best definition of cyberpunk has always been the simplest-High Tech / Low Brow. Stories that deal with street level people who can bring down massive corporations with technology, change the fate of the world or restructure society in some manner are the common themes.

    And yes, so much of the cyberpunk world has become co-opted that younger people will watch a film like Blade Runner and call it boring.

    But remember when BR came out there were no high tech items in everyone's home. No cell phones or texting, no internet or near photo realistic videogames or digital anything.

    And then the future happened. Gibson himself says that with the passage of time even his opinion of the novel has changed.

    But it was a combination of many things happening in the '80-'83 period that basically built the world we live in today and cyberpunk played a large role in that.

    If you get a chance to read the rest of The Sprawl trilogy you will see the evolution and his later work is even more striking.

    Think about it-this was his first novel. Now read Heinlein's first novel.

    Besides it is the winner of the science-fiction "triple crown" — the Nebula Award, the Philip K. Dick Award, and the Hugo Award, meaning it is more than just a few fan opinions that support the validity of its place in cyberpunk history.

  12. When I read Neuromancer in the early 90's it left me cold too. I didn't see what the big deal was. I hadn't really been exposed to cyberpunk before then in anything other than a peripheral manner. Maybe if I would've read it a decade earlier I would've had a different reaction. But I don't know.

  13. @ ADD Grog: Didn't say it wasn't a good book. Wasn't particularly impressed with it as THE "cybrepunk" book.

    @ IG: Trolling my own blog? Um...hmmm, maybe I am!
    : )

    @ Everyone: I WOULD like to take a look at Gibson's other Sprawl books. FWIW, when I first watched the FILM Johnny Mnemonic (many years ago) I was very impressed at the attempts to make it as "cyberpunk" as it the time I didn't realize it was based on a novel and my only exposure to the genre was RPGs like Cyberpunk 2020 and such.

    The JM short story is older than Neuromancer and has more of (what would come to be known as) the cyberpunk "tropes." I guess I'm more surprised that Neuromancer feels so much like space opera (albeit weird/evil Douglas Adams-ish space opera) than "cyberpunk."

    Also FWIW, I've never really considered Blade Runner cyberpunk. It has attitude, it has noir, it has creeping decrepitude...but there's just not enough "cyber" in it.

    I don't consider Soylent Green cyberpunk either.
    ; )

  14. In addition to the books I mentioned above, the original Ghost in the Shell manga -- and the anime to some extent -- is another good exemplar of the genre.

  15. Maybe it's one of those novels that's a product of its times. I read Neuromancer a long time ago and thought it was pretty good. I read Catcher in the Rye for the first time last year, and while I acknowledge the writing was good, I wasn't blown away. I just thought Holden Caulfield was a whiny little bitch.

  16. I loved Cyberpunk. It was dark, brutal and completely blew my 18 year old mind away. The description of net cowboys and street samurai were amazing to me. I was young and going to engineering school and read this in 88.

    I did not know of the Cyberpunk genre until I went to Archon in St Louis in 88. A guy was running this game using a modified champions system. He had mirrored shades glued to his face and a 'trode glued to his temple. Wow! Blew me away.

    Then I went to a small convention in St Louis and played this new little game called Cyberpunk by R Talsoran. Friday Night Firefight was brutal amazing and fun.

    I read Cyberpunk after those two experiences and went Wow!

    Probably not have the same effect today with me being over 40, married and two kids.

  17. Desert Scribe hits the nail on the head. You are just 25 years too late to really appreciate what Neuromancer did to the genre way back when. I bet the book didn't age well, and I've had this experience before with many award winning SF novels that probably seemed awesome at the time...Babel 17, Enders Game, Man Plus...I read many years afterwards and I felt they were very dated. Even a lot of Phillip K. Dick's early stuff seems dated to me.

  18. Ironically enough Gibson would probably agree with your assessment that this was not "cyberpunk". He, himself, hated that term and disliked having his stories lumped into that genre. He saw Neuromancer as simply a science fiction piece. That said, I, perhaps because I am older and remember technology at the time he wrote Neuromancer, I can appreciate just how eerily precient that book turned out to be. Neuromancer should be graded not against current perceptions of what is "cyberpunk" but rather graded simply as a work of near-future sci fi. Rather then looking for the cliche tropes of the genre Cyberpunk now seems to represent, rather appreciate the things he did outside of the established genres of the time. In the end there's nothing wrong with liking or not liking something, but to grade it as something the writer never intended it to be, well, you'll usually be disappointed and on the rare occasion you are not, that's probably just happy happenstance.

    1. @ DGS:

      I suppose I wasn’t so much disappointed with Gibson’s book as I was with the idea that this book was the inspiration for the CP genre. I’d seen multiple places where the novel was cited as such.