Neuromancer: A brief review

I am not fond of this book. That should be stated up front. My standards for fiction even loosened between the time I began it and the time I finished it, but it did not make it more tolerable.

In effect, there are two characters in the whole of the book. The main protagonist is an ex-hacker, who is offered the chance to become a hacker again, in exchange for hacking. Between his last job and the time we meet him, we learn that he killed three people. He did it for the money. Additionally, he is suicidal, but too cowardly to kill himself. Therefore he hopes that by working as a middleman for drug pushers, someone else will do the job for him. In this context, the death of the three people becomes even more capricious.

The last half of the novel, in contradistinction to the first, has its own internal logic. This leads me to believe that when Gibson visualized the novel, he only visualized the events of the second half, and that the first half was only designed to get his characters there. In fact, the transition between the first and second half of the novels was so jarring that I wondered if perhaps it wasn’t intentional, designed to serve a point.

Near the very beginning of the book, we get such delightful reflections on human nature as “Anybody any good at what they do, that’s what they are“. When I first read this, I thought it was intended as a theme. Upon reconsideration, I supposed that perhaps it was simply inserted after the fact to make up for Gibson’s poor character development. Now I am not sure either way.

Gibson wastes the closest thing to an examination of his main protagonist, a troublesome dream about his past, in order to grind a political axe. At this point in the book, I was expecting the protagonist to experience some form of remorse. I thought that perhaps the flat affect of the characters in the first half of the novel was intended to set up a point about the dehumanizing effects of Gibson’s future society. It was also the first time in the book that a person was shown to care for another person. It seemed like a natural progression.

It didn’t happen. Instead, there were pontifications about the manner in which people are wired and the non-humanity of the rich. When I see sentiments like these, I am inclined to look for a punch line. I waited until the very end of the book for this to pan out, only to find out that it was being direct all along. The final paragraph has to rank among the worst endings I’ve ever read.

There is no unifying theme here. The characters aren’t strong enough to pull the disparate halves of the book together. Several different plot threads, both real and insinuated, are handled in a wholly perfunctory manner in the epilogue. The second half of the book is infinitely more readable than the first, but equally meaningless. It exists as spectacle, a series of curiosities existing in a definite relationship, independently of any reason to care.

This book is said to exemplify the ability of the cyberpunk genre to handle serious questions about technology and human nature. The fact that people suggest this shows what kind of audience the genre has. A digitized recording of a dead man’s personality is presented as lacking some essence which grants humanity to the living, yet the humanity of the living in Gibson’s universe is scarcely worth having in the first place.

When an AI fails to accurately model the decisions that the protagonists will make, this is taken as a result of the fundamentally statistical nature of the AI’s analysis. Yet in this case, statistical analysis is treated as a purely epistemological tool; the philosophical outlook of Neuromancer is reductionistic, and fundamentally nihilistic.  Nothing is retained by this approach in the way of humanity.  The difference between model and reality becomes merely one of ignorance.

When, towards the end of the book, a series of metaphors are used to describe the rich as inhuman parasites, I’m left wondering why this matters.  It has become immaterial within the larger context of the universe Gibson has created.  The reasoning is especially preposterous.  The rich operate by merit of a faculty which grasps at transcendent truths of the marketplace, and in their utilization of this faculty, their human essence atrophies.  Ok.  And what human essence is that, exactly?

It isn’t even good spectacle.  Hacking in the Gibson universe consists of navigating a particularly fanciful GUI.  I get the impression that the service which the main protagonist was hired for required him only to double-click on a pre-compiled program.  Following that, he was required to watch someone else work for 8 hours.  Of course, he also had to have frequent conversations, of the sort which I expect were supposed to seem poignant or interesting, but were effectively nothing at all.

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~ by Kilroy del Dancefighter Estallion the First on December 29, 2009.

One Response to “Neuromancer: A brief review”

  1. YES! I too have read this horrible scifi “staple.” Class requirement and all. It struck me as showing a rather perverse sense of spectacle and human nature, while neither realistic enough to forgive for having no centralized theme, or poignant enough to strain for some interpretation that would make it seem fitting. As a computer programmer, the ‘hacking’ was laughable and it was really just power trip fantasy disguising itself in a scifi scene. It didn’t offend me so much as leave me thinking, “Why is this considered a ganre creator?” Then I remembered than literary genres are subjective taxonomy often used for marketing as much as anything else. A forgettable waste of time in my opinion.

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