The Timelessness of Neuromancer



Neuromancer is a genre defining book, written at a time when computer technology was about to change the way people lived.  1982 saw the standardisation of the Internet Protocols, which gave the potential for world wide proliferation of computer networks.  1983 saw the introduction of Apple’s Lisa, the first commercial personal computer to use a “graphical user interface”, the now familiar visual way of interacting with a computer using icons, menus and windows. Then in 1984, Ace Books published William Gibson’s Neuromancer, imagining a future where computer users can enter a shared “matrix” of linked data, which opens up in a visual way.

This is a historic book capturing an important moment in the development of world changing technology.  It is written in a visual style, like a comic in words.  However, this comic is a tough read, densely written with sudden jumps between scenes, often over the course of a short sentence.  These scenes can be in the real world, in the matrix world, or in a combination of both. It is impossible to skim read.  By the same token you also have to just let the writing open out in front of you.  If you want to know exactly what is going on at all times, this will be a frustrating book.

So is it a good book?  While Neuromancer may have captured a moment in history, when people began to interact widely and visually with computers, it is inevitably less successful in viewing the future.  There are so many anachronisms – pay phones, floppy discs, space stations with magazine stands and libraries of books.  Imagine a space ship full of glossy magazines and books straining into orbit when you can just send up weightless data to a screen.  The story involves data thefts – an idea which has a modern feel – but this involves hackers shutting down security systems in a physical building, so that people can get in there and steal a CD.

Sill, in making a judgement we should bear in mind that science fiction does not so much reveal the future as use a futuristic scenario to tell us about ourselves in the here and now.  That is where the real quality of Neuromancer lies.  The story portrays people with vast ambitions to develop human potential in partnership with computer technology.  But there is some wonderful, subtle imagery suggesting a kind of Buddhist stillness in this bewildering, violent, flashy, fast moving future.  For example, the magazine stocked space station, the setting for the story’s second half, contains a city built on the vast, curving inner surface of a hollow sphere.  There are two main roads in this city, a ring road called Rue de Jules Verne, and a road running across the length, called Desiderata.  If you go far enough around the Rue de Jules Verne, you will only ever come to Desiderata from one side or the other.

Desiderata is of course a prose poem written by Max Ehrmann in 1927. The tone of the poem is revealed by its opening sentence:

“Go placidly amid the noise and the haste, and remember what peace there may be in silence. As far as possible, without surrender, be on good terms with all persons.”

Go far enough around the science fiction circle of Jules Verne and you will only ever come back to the peace and acceptance of Desiderata.  This is the vision I found interesting, the stillness combined with all the disorienting action.  For me this nuanced view of human development constitutes the lasting quality of Neuromancer, allowing us to overlook details about pay phones and magazine stands in space.

Science Fiction – Back to the Future


Some of the most successful science fiction has gone back to the past in imagining the future.  2001 a Space Odyssey starts in the earliest days of human history before catapulting out to a space station in Earth orbit.  Jurassic Park brings back dinosaurs. Then of course, there’s Back to the Future.

J.G Ballad’s story The Drowned World is an archetypal story of the future that includes a vision of the past.  The sun has become hotter, creating a flooded, tropical Earth.  The climate has returned to a state that prevailed during the Triassic period.  Human survivors of this watery apocalypse find themselves drifting back in dreams to an earlier incarnation of life on Earth.  Life has a buried memory of all that has gone before, and those buried memories begin to emerge during sleep.

This is a great premise for a story that can range from past to future.  I would also say that the idea has biological accuracy. I once read a book by the evolutionary theorist and writer Lynn Margullis tracing the echoes of ancient life in our own cells.  She points out, for example, that the salt balance of human tissue fluids mimics the salt balance of the ancient ocean from which life first emerged onto the land.  (See Microcosmos by Lynn Margullis for more.)

So this is a fascinating scenario for a book, which in many ways is poetically explored.  There are a few downsides, however. The dialogue between the characters can be that of “British schoolteachers hoisted out of the 1930s”, as Martin Amis puts it in an introduction.  The middle part of the story, centred on an evil looter, also becomes very conventional – the rescue of a damsel in distress trapped in the bad guy’s lair.  The damsel herself is vapid and lifeless, trying to hang on to the superficial cosmetics of her former self, even as she sinks into her Triassic dreams. All of the characters, for that matter, are somewhat two-dimensional.

Then again, Ballard is a clever writer who uses conventional structure while giving it a twist. The conventional part of the story coincides with people trying to hang onto a world that has gone – during a section when the evil looter drains part of flooded London.  In this way it’s as if the creaky old world emerges from the flood in hackneyed old plot devices. As for the characters, Will Self makes an interesting suggestion in an essay written for the reissue of The Drowned World in 2013.  Self writes that Ballard is not creating characters in the normal sense, with backstories designed to make us identify with them and read on. Instead, these are archetypes of people responding to change.  Some are vigorous in their resistance, wanting to hang onto what they know.  Others are accepting, waiting to see what the new situation will bring. The damsel in distress is a combination of these reactions. In that sense The Drowned World is more of a myth or a fairy story than a novel, despite aspects of the novel that are straight out of the Ian Fleming style of writing.

I don’t know if I buy this idea entirely, but I buy it enough to see that this is a fascinating book, interesting more for what lies beneath the water than for what floats on the top.


Voting for Boaty


Recently I read a book called The Populist Explosion which tried to explain to me why Europe and the United States have decided to vote in highly unusual ways.  Getting to the end, I wasn’t much the wiser.  Initially I thought it was all about the economically marginalised and the left-behind.  But then I learned that one of the most extreme populist movements in Europe can be found in Denmark, which has the world’s second most successful economy.  Similarly, the UK decided to leave the EU even though it had one of the strongest economies in Europe.

Then I read a BBC article called The Trump-Brexit Voter Revolt which told me that Trump was not particularly successful with voters on a low income.

So I have another theory.  This all started with TV shows where wannabe celebrities try to be pop stars, or where people who are already celebrities do horrible trials in the jungle, or learn to dance, ice skate or ski jump.  In all these shows, viewers vote to save the contestants they want to remain in the programme.  And in virtually all of these shows the audience has at one time or another decided it would be fun to vote for the most unlikely candidate, whether they are scared of spiders, have two left feet and no sense of rhythm, or can’t sing very well.   Two Scottish lads lasted long enough on the X Factor one year to get under the skin of the establishment, personified by Simon Cowell.  In 2008, John Sargent had to leave Strictly Come Dancing because he thought he might win.  John’s run of success dismayed the government of Strictly, led by PM Len Goodman.  This year the populist candidate on Strictly is none other than that former member of the establishment, Ed Balls.

The same populist pattern then crossed to the United States.  In the final of American Idol 2009, underdog Kris Allen beat the heavily favoured front runner Adam Lambert.  The writer Michael Prell tells me that over 50 million Americans voted for Kris.  Not many of them, however, went out and bought his record – only 0.16% of those 50 million decided they wanted his debut album.  It was the story of the underdog coming through that mattered, not how good that underdog was at singing.

This is where people realised how much fun it is to use votes to dismay the establishment.  It started with Pop Idol, veered off through votes to give crazy names to Antarctic research vessels, and ended up giving us Brexit, Corbyn and Trump.

It might not be so much fun now.