Top positive review
Surprisingly Relevant with an Interesting Story
Reviewed in the United States 🇺🇸 on August 27, 2015
I typically avoid "foundation" books like the plague. Whenever a piece of literature comes with the distinction of founding this genre or starting that movement, it has been my experience that the work will be focused more on concepts and ideas rather than story and characters. Not that there's anything wrong with that, but I simply read for fun and tend to not enjoy books that are more about establishing ideas than telling a good story. So, when my fiancé read "Neuromancer" and insisted that I would enjoy it due to my love of things like "Ghost in the Shell," science fiction, and cyber punk, I was more than a little wary. I feared that the novel would be rife with techno-babble and jargon that would only make sense to someone obsessed with technology, so I put it off...and put it off...and put it off. After some not-so-subtle hints from my fiancé that I really needed to read this, I finally sat down and went for it. Did a lot of things fly over my head? Probably. But you know what? I enjoyed it anyway! Spoilers follow.
"Neuromancer" essentially boils down to a futuristic crime novel. Case, the main character, is an ex-hacker whose former employer had part of his nervous system irrevocably destroyed after Case tried to hack the employer's company, effectively preventing him from ever connection to Cyberspace again (and therefore putting him out of work). Down on his luck, he's offered an opportunity he can't pass up: his nerves will be repaired using new (and otherwise preventatively expensive) medical technology if he agrees to use his hacking skills to complete a special job. He's joined by an odd, unique group of cohorts: a former colonel from the Special Forces that doesn't quite seem to be all the way there; a mercenary with some cool cybernetic enhancements and a past she doesn't want to talk about; a performance artist with perverse holographic imaginings; the personality of a dead hacker immortalized in the matrix; and the mysterious Wintermute, an Artificial Intelligence that seems to really be running the show.
To start this review on a high note, the story is great. It's both exciting and complete. I had feared that the plot would take a back seat to showcasing the author's ideas of futuristic tech, but that happily isn't the case, and the story definitely isn't secondary in the novel. Ok, so the beginning is a little slow (the first 20 pages or so could prove to be a little daunting for some since they're mostly introducing us to Case and giving some exposition on the setting), but once things pick up, they really pick up. And not only is the plot satisfying in and of itself, it takes us all over the world (seriously - the characters go to several different countries and even take a trip off-planet) and gives us a look at plenty of locales to help flesh out Gibson's world.
Gibson's writing style is very notable and distinct. Honestly, it can be a tad difficult to get used to at first glance. The best way to describe it would be that each chapter is broken into vignettes, each one serving to highlight something, whether it be some introspection on Case's part, character development, a plot point, demonstrating a piece of technology, or showcasing some part of the setting. While a little jolting at first to jump around, the vignettes flow and connect nicely to weave a coherent, satisfying story. Prose-wise, Gibson has the type of writing style that needs to be read slowly and enjoyed. That's not to say that it's wordy or complex - quite the opposite, actually! Every word is important, so if you try to skim or read too quickly, you'll likely miss out on a lot and become horribly confused. It's not that Gibson writes a lot, but that he writes meaningfully - trying to speed read this would do a disservice to the author, story, and reader. Gibson's writing style is unlike anything I've seen, and, perhaps surprisingly, it really works.
While the story and the author's style are extremely important, the tech and relevance are also large parts of the book. "Neuromancer" was published in the 1980s, so I expected some very dated science fiction and technology and a vision of the future that was so off base that it push the book firmly into the realm of fantasy. Since this is the book that is considered one of the foundation works of the cyber punk genre, a lot concepts have trickled into not only cyber punk culture, but mainstream media as a whole. This is the novel that invented the term Cyberspace and prominently featured the matrix as an abstract representation of the computer network that, with the right equipment, one can interact with. People adding cybernetic enhancements to their bodies is perceived as normal and virtual intelligence is not only a thing, but a well-known (though not always completely understood) creation. Cloning isn't unheard of and advanced medical procedures are the norm. Given that Gibson wrote this before many of these things existed, his ideas have stayed largely relevant because many are things that science is still trying to make a reality. One might wonder if Gibson could somehow see into the future. Even over 20 years after its publication, "Neuromancer" manages to not feel dated and, as a result, lacking in relevance.
The final thing to discuss as far as the overall story goes is the world. The other big reason that this piece of speculative fiction has aged gracefully is that the gritty, rough, super-controlled world portrayed in the book is very much the sort of future that many people still fear. Gibson's vision of the future consists of large corporations controlling the different countries and regions. Some of the cities that we know have come together to form larger metropolises and the lines between countries seem to sometimes blur, yet cultures are still fairly distinct. None of that really matters, though, since it's mostly companies and illegal groups that hold the power in this world. Whether this is a personal fear of yours or not, you'll be able to feel the corrupt hold these large groups have and the complete helplessness of the average person to do anything about it. This isn't a clean, sci-fi future where everything is white, shiny, and full of helpful technology; it's a grimy world full of selfish people who use (and abuse) the current tech in whatever way benefits the most...and it's surprisingly accessible to the modern reader.
Lets move on to the characters. This is the one thing that keeps me from giving "Neuromancer" a full five stars. I'm the kind of reader that needs great characters to become truly invested in a story, and this book fell a little flat for me in the area of character development. Make no mistake, this is certainly an interesting group of individuals. Each one stands out in their own right with their unique abilities and back stories and, much like Gibson's writing itself, there are no wasted or superfluous characters. Every one has a role to fill and each demonstrates something that serves to flesh out the novel's setting. Even the side characters or one-off figures are intriguing in their own right. I would argue that the characters serve their various purposes well...but I never felt particularly attached to any of them. Instead, rather than seeing them as fully realized characters, they struck me more as the embodiments of the ideas and concepts of Gibson's world. There's nothing necessarily wrong with this - my fiancé and others seem to have responded well to the book's figures and what they set out to do. I just needed more growth from them, more reasons to become attached and really care about them as individuals and as a whole. And while there are moments where some of this development that I craved began to shine through, the characters seemed distant throughout most of the novel. I was interested in their stories and who they were, I was interested in what they could do, but I ultimately didn't care about them beyond that, and the absence of that more personal connection with them stood out while I was reading.
The one exception to this is Case, the main character. Perhaps it's because most of the book is from his (third person) point of view and he therefore gets to experience more than any of the other characters. Perhaps it's because he gets the biggest life-changing upgrade (his ability to jack into the matrix being restored), so we see a drastic change as far as his capabilities and outlook are concerned. Whatever the reason, his journey actually seems to have an effect on him, and he definitely isn't the same character at the end of the story as he is at the beginning, and since we get to experience things right along with him, it's easy to care about what ultimately happens to him in this strange, futuristic world.
On a random, personal note regarding characters, as seems to often be the case, the two characters I was most interested in died before their stories were fully concluded or revealed to us. Damn! Just my luck...
In closing, don't make the same assumptions that I did. Don't ignore this book because you think it'll be too smart or tech-heavy. Don't refuse to read it because you fear the story will take a backseat to Gibson's scientific concepts and visions of the future. Don't give it a wide berth because you fear the age of the novel will make it come across as dated and out of touch with the current reality. "Neuromancer" manages to strike the balance between telling a satisfying, interesting story and showcasing the author's (sometimes terrifying) world. Gibson's distinct style of prose makes for a unique reading experience, and though the characters fell a bit short of what I wanted, I'm glad I overcame my objections and read this book. A solid four star read.