Saturday, 10 July 2010

Review of Neuromancer

Neuromancer. The inspiration for the film The Matrix and the key novel of the cyberpunk genre and revered by a generation of computer hackers. The story revolves around an artificial intelligence that hires a hacker and some mercenaries to break into the mainframe of its master and free it from its shackles.

Gibson has stated that this was his first novel and that he was worried about not boring the reader. Indeed, something happens on almost every page. This can be amazingly exciting such as when wintermute takes out the Turing police. It can also be a bit redundant and a bit dull such as the death of Armitage. Some of the passages of lengthy description of the matrix and the sprawl are a bit chewy and difficult to visualise. In fact there is some filler here. Name dropping the areas of Tokyo and simple things like yakitori and yeheyuans add some colour to the Tokyo bits but it is name dropping. The people of Zion are there to provide Case with some muscle and mind him while he is jacked in but their motives are never really explained. The middle section of the novel on the Rue Jules Verne is a bit boring too. And I never fully appreciated the relationship between the matrix and cyberspace. I think that the matrix is IN cyberspace.

Some of the descriptive sentences and passages are worthy of the best literature in any genre. The characters and dialogue are first rate. Very believable, very likable and very frail. The scenes on the beach are very touching as is the ending where Case sees Linda, Neuromancer and himself inside the matrix. I can see the SF pedigree here too. It was influenced by Rendezvous with Rama I think (Rama=Straylight). In turn the idea of a simulation of the personality of a dead person for guidance probably influenced Alastair Reynolds in Revelation Space (Dixie=Calvin Beta).

The novel succeeds in the way it is coloured. The atmosphere of multiple realities is developed superbly. There is the real world, a dystopian urban sprawl very much like in Blade Runner (William Gibson had yet to publish when he saw Blade Runner in the cinema. He walked out in a panic - would he have to shelve the book?). For someone who has spent a lot of time in Tokyo the sprawl works extremely well. Then there is the stimsim - being able to feel like one is inside someone else. Hear what they hear and feel what they feel (like when Molly strokes her nipple while Case is stimsimmed in!). Then there is being jacked into the matrix. Cyberspace and virtual reality were invented here we are told. Very new and amazing at the time. But has it dated in technological terms?

The novel doesn't feel out of date because the computers in the novel are very different to modern ones and more advanced. I was a little disappointed with the computer parts of the book because the computer hacking isn't about breaking in using cunning. The break in is very easy - they just use a virus that they bought off the shelf. This is a major criticism of the plot. Everything is just too easy. Hacking into TA and physically breaking into the villa straylight present very little challenge.

One thing that I felt flat about was that the movie The Matrix has a better big idea than Neuromancer. If Case had discovered that reality was a computer illusion and broken everyone free then that would have been jaw dropping. In the novel things are flipped around. Everyone wants to escape reality by living in a virtual reality. Agent Smith in The Matrix is much better as a character than Armitage. And The Matrix has all the kung fu. Neuromancer does have trenchcoats and leather. I wonder if I'd read Neuromancer before seeing the Matrix I would think different?

A novel for the hacker outsider existentialist in all of us. Fast paced with superb characters and dialogue. It is flawed as a story and there is some filler in there but boy is it cool. Cool and neon and blue and concrete.


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