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.

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