Study Guide

William Gibson Neuromancer

William Gibson Neuromancer Essay - Critical Essays

Neuromancer, William Gibson

Introduction

Neuromancer William Gibson

(Full name William Ford Gibson) American-born Canadian novelist, short story writer, poet, and screenwriter.

The following entry presents criticism on Gibson's novel Neuromancer (1984) through 2002. See also William Gibson Short Story Criticism, William Gibson Literary Criticism (Volume 23), and William Gibson Literary Criticism (Volume 182).

Gibson's first novel, Neuromancer, is regarded as one of the most influential works of twentieth-century speculative fiction and the canonical work of the “cyberpunk” movement, a futuristic style of science fiction that combines the tough atmosphere and scatological language of crime fiction, imagery from the punk counter-culture movement, and the technical developments of the 1980s. The novel claimed all three major science fiction literary awards in 1984—the Nebula Award, the Hugo Award, and the Philip K. Dick Memorial Award—and garnered Gibson a vast critical and popular audience. Resembling the “New Wave” authors of the 1960s, who introduced such topics as sex and narcotics to the traditionally conservative science fiction genre, Gibson created a narrative in Neuromancer that embodies the unique sociological concerns of the 1980s. Neuromancer has also won wide praise for accurately forecasting several monumental technological advances, including the Internet and virtual reality.

Plot and Major Characters

“The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.” This oft-quoted opening line of Neuromancer captures the atmosphere of the novel—a world in which nature has given way to industry, technology, and mass media. Neuromancer is set in the near-future, where much of the East Coast of the United States has become one continuous metropolis known as “the Sprawl,” and multinational corporations have superseded the role of governments. Information is the world's most valuable commodity, and black-market technicians known as “cowboys” continually monitor a vast matrix of data—resembling the Internet—known as cyberspace. Gibson coined the term “cyberspace” in his short story “Burning Chrome” which first established the world Neuromancer inhabits. By employing neural implants, cowboys attempt to pirate information by “jacking”—or plugging—themselves into the matrix, a subreality simulated by a globally-linked computer database.

The novel's protagonist, Case, is a former cowboy, living in Chiba City, Japan. After Case betrayed his former employers, they used a neurotoxin to damage Case's nervous system, preventing him from jacking into cyberspace. The down-on-his-luck Case is approached by Molly Millions, a cybernetically enhanced bodyguard with retractable razorblades implanted under her fingernails, with an offer from a mysterious employer. Armitage, Molly's financier, offers to repair Case's neural damage if he assists Molly in stealing the Dixie Flatline, a computer construct of the consciousness of a legendary cowboy and one of Case's mentors. They intend to use the Dixie Flatline to attack the computer network of the Tessier-Ashpool clan, the secretive founders of a gigantic multinational corporation. The Tessier-Ashpools reside in a complex called Straylight, which is part of a large orbiting space station known as Freeside. Case eventually discovers that Armitage is working for Wintermute, a sentient artificial intelligence (AI) program created by the Tessier-Ashpools. In the future, there are strict laws limiting the development of AI constructs, and Wintermute wants Case to free it and its twin AI program, Neuromancer, from their confinement in the Straylight network. Case and Molly travel to Freeside, where they meet 3Jane, a cloned descendant of the Tessier-Ashpool family. After obtaining information from 3Jane, Case utilizes a particularly effective form of “ice”—a program that bypasses computer defenses—to break into the Tessier-Ashpool system. This frees Wintermute and Neuromancer who merge together, creating a new form of higher intelligence. With Case's assistance, the new program escapes into cyberspace where it becomes a fully omniscient presence in the matrix. Neuromancer became the first novel in a trilogy of works—known collectively as the “Sprawl novels”—which includes Count Zero (1986) and Mona Lisa Overdrive (1988). Though Case's fate is only hinted at briefly, Molly Millions, the Tessier-Ashpool clan, and the Wintermute/Neuromancer construct feature heavily in the subsequent works, particularly Mona Lisa Overdrive.

Major Themes

The dominant theme in Neuromancer is the evolving relationship between humanity and technology and how scientific advances will one day blur the lines dividing the two. Gibson challenges the boundaries between man and machines by portraying human characters who rely on electronic enhancements and computer programs that adopt emotions and personalities. Neuromancer presents an ambivalent perspective on these developments, characterizing this merging of nature and technology as neither positive nor negative. This ambivalence is further reflected in Gibson's characterizations, particularly with Case, who functions as both a reluctant hero and a tool for Wintermute's aspirations. In Gibson's future, not even death is viewed as a constant, when individuals can have their memories stored for eternity on the matrix. Conflicting cultures are another recurring thematic concern of Neuromancer as Gibson creates a firm division between the world's dominant corporate powers and the urban under-class of Chiba City. The Tessier-Ashpools, the embodiment of the wealthy establishment, are portrayed as isolated and incestuous relics of a stilted past. Conversely, the black-market cowboys—though poor and amoral—are viewed as counter-culture rebels who only seek personal freedom.

Critical Reception

Since its initial publication, Neuromancer has been lauded as a monumental science fiction text and the seminal work of the “cyberpunk” genre. Critics have argued that the novel's strength lies in Gibson's stylistic virtuosity, embodied by his vivid and precise narrative voice. Gibson has drawn praise for his skillful and effective combination of literary and cinematic influences in Neuromancer, with scholars frequently comparing his prose to the works of William S. Burroughs, Thomas Pynchon, and Robert Stone. Neuromancer has also been recognized by reviewers for its postmodern pastiche of media and subculture references as well as its decidedly antiauthoritarian perspective on the future. Some academics have labeled Neuromancer as a prophetic work of speculative fiction, noting that Gibson's theories on the impact of a global Internet network on the world have been proven amazingly accurate in the years since the book's first release. However, some critics have reacted negatively to Neuromancer, asserting that Gibson overuses technical jargon that obscures the impact of his narrative. Such reviewers have also argued that the novel features weak characterizations and an overly complex plot. Despite such claims, the majority of commentators have recognized Neuromancer as one of the twentieth-century's most significant works of science fiction.

Principal Works

Neuromancer (novel) 1984

*Burning Chrome (short stories) 1986

Count Zero (novel) 1986

Mona Lisa Overdrive (novel) 1988

The Difference Engine [with Bruce Sterling] (novel) 1991

Agrippa: A Book of the Dead (poetry) 1992

Virtual Light (novel) 1993

Johnny Mnemonic (screenplay) 1995

Idoru (novel) 1996

All Tomorrow's Parties (novel) 1999

Pattern Recognition (novel) 2003

*Includes the short stories “The Belonging Kind,” co-written by John Shirley, “Red Star, Winter Orbit,” co-written by Bruce Sterling, and “Dogfight,” co-written by Michael Swanwick.

Agrippa was released exclusively on a computer diskette, designed by Dennis Ashbaugh to self-erase after the poem is read. The full text of the poem is now available on the Internet.

Criticism

John R. R. Christie (essay date 1990)

SOURCE: Christie, John R. R. “Science Fiction and the Postmodern: The Recent Fiction of William Gibson and John Crowley.” Essays and Studies 43 (1990): 34-58.

[In the following essay, Christie examines the elements of both traditional science fiction and postmodern experimental fiction in Gibson's Neuromancer and John Crowley's Engine Summer.]

Is there a postmodern science fiction? To a question posed as broadly as this, the answer has to be, yes and no. Yes, because science fiction as a fictional genre is most often placed in a notional future, and therefore attempts to be ‘post’ whatever modernity happens to be current. And no, because it retains the...

(The entire section is 5335 words.)

John Huntington (essay date 1990)

SOURCE: Huntington, John. “Newness, Neuromancer, and the End of Narrative.” Essays and Studies 43 (1990): 59-75.

[In the following essay, Huntington argues that the alienated characters who populate Neuromancer represent a form of resistance to dominant cultural mores.]

I

The dynamic by which science fiction discovers and defines the ‘new’ has been depicted by the practitioners of the genre itself as a triumph of rational art. In fact it is a much less rational process than is pictured. In addition to the usual sources of conflict that enliven any group or genre—personal envy, political disagreement, generational...

(The entire section is 3751 words.)

Glenn Grant (essay date March 1990)

SOURCE: Grant, Glenn. “Transcendence through Detournement in William Gibson's Neuromancer.Science-Fiction Studies 17, no. 1 (March 1990): 41-9.

[In the following essay, Grant discusses the theme of transcendence through technology in Neuromancer.]

1. PEOPLE AS SYSTEMS

Cyberspace. Simstim. Meat puppets. Prosthetic limbs, cranial sockets, and mimetic polycarbon. The vivid and bizarre details of William Gibson's Neuromancer (1984) tumble off the page like the jump-cut images of music videos, hallucinations, nightmares. Disturbing, distorted figures walk this cityscape, people who imitate machines, machines that imitate people....

(The entire section is 3209 words.)

David G. Mead (essay date 1991)

SOURCE: Mead, David G. “Technological Transfiguration in William Gibson's Sprawl Novels: Neuromancer, Count Zero, and Mona Lisa Overdrive.Extrapolation 32, no. 4 (1991): 350-60.

[In the following essay, Mead asserts that characters in Gibson's trilogy of “Sprawl” novels—Neuromancer, Count Zero, and Mona Lisa Overdrive—use technology as a means of transcendence, transformation, and liberation.]

Some years ago, in a review essay in Isaac Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine, Norman Spinrad urged calling the writers of the nascent cyberpunk movement “neuromantics.”1 In contradistinction to the hostility...

(The entire section is 4689 words.)

Istvan Csicsery-Ronay, Jr. (essay date spring 1992)

SOURCE: Csicsery-Ronay, Jr., Istvan. “The Sentimental Futurist: Cybernetics and Art in William Gibson's Neuromancer.Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction 33, no. 3 (spring 1992): 221-40.

[In the following essay, Csicsery-Ronay posits that Gibson's narrative in Neuromancer addresses the question of how artists can represent the human condition in a world dominated by cybernetic technologies.]

William Gibson's career and reputation threaten to imitate the panic narrative logic of his own fictions. Gibson was immediately cited as a form of postmodern apotheosis, on the basis of a few stories and a first novel. But largely because of his own...

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Eva Cherniavsky (essay date winter 1993)

SOURCE: Cherniavsky, Eva. “(En)gendering Cyberspace in Neuromancer: Postmodern Subjectivity and Virtual Motherhood.” Genders, no. 18 (winter 1993): 32-46.

[In the following essay, Cherniavsky examines the representation of gender and reproductive technology in Neuromancer.]

Besides, although the creation of life in vitro would certainly be a scientific feat worthy of note—and probably even a Nobel prize—it would not, in the long run, tell us much more about the space of possible life than we already know …

Computers should be thought of as an important laboratory...

(The entire section is 7625 words.)

Jack G. Voller (essay date spring 1993)

SOURCE: Voller, Jack G. “Neuromanticism: Cyberspace and the Sublime.” Extrapolation 34, no. 1 (spring 1993): 18-29.

[In the following essay, Voller explores how Neuromancer portrays cyberspace as a realm of sublime transcendence devoid of spiritual implications.]

William Gibson's “matrix” works—Neuromancer, Count Zero, Mona Lisa Overdrive, two or three stories—mark, for many science fiction readers, something close to the cutting edge of the genre. As innovative and revolutionary as cyberpunk may be, however, it shares with all other varieties of SF a profound indebtedness to the Romantic/Gothic tradition. The manifold...

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Randy Schroeder (essay date winter 1994)

SOURCE: Schroeder, Randy. “Neu-Criticizing William Gibson.” Extrapolation 35, no. 4 (winter 1994): 330-41.

[In the following essay, Schroeder offers a critical assessment of the relationship between cybernetics and postmodernism in Neuromancer.]

Back in 1983 Time named the computer “Machine of the Year.” This award displaced the usual “Man of the Year,” presumably decentering the human and giving postmodernism permanent status in pop consciousness. In 1984 William Gibson published Neuromancer, presumably giving literary expression to the confluence of cybernetics and postmodernisms. In fact, the subgenre of cyberpunk is widely reported to be...

(The entire section is 5453 words.)

Cynthia Davidson (essay date July 1996)

SOURCE: Davidson, Cynthia. “Riviera's Golem, Haraway's Cyborg: Reading Neuromancer as Baudrillard's Simulation of Crisis.” Science-Fiction Studies 23, no. 2 (July 1996): 188-98.

[In the following essay, Davidson discusses Neuromancer in terms of postmodern theories of simulation and the visual image, particularly comparing the novel's central themes to the works of Jean Baudrillard.]

Baudrillard's “Simulacra and Simulacrum” is a study of the degeneration of the integrity of the image so far as it is representative of the real. Early in the essay, Baudrillard discusses the “imperialism” of “present-day simulators”:

...

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Tyler Stevens (essay date fall 1996)

SOURCE: Stevens, Tyler. “‘Sinister Fruitiness’: Neuromancer, Internet Sexuality and the Turing Test.” Studies in the Novel 28, no. 3 (fall 1996): 414-33.

[In the following essay, Stevens presents a thematic analysis of gender, technology, and individual identity in Neuromancer, noting Gibson's complex portrayal of artificial intelligence and sexuality.]

“YEAH. I SAW YOUR PROFILE, CASE. … YOU EVER WORK WITH THE DEAD?”1

The immediate subject of this essay is a set of anxious, confusing, and at times threatening questions posed by computer-mediated communication technology, popularly known as “cyberspace”...

(The entire section is 9123 words.)

Victoria de Zwaan (essay date November 1997)

SOURCE: de Zwaan, Victoria. “Rethinking the Slipstream: Kathy Acker Reads Neuromancer.Science-Fiction Studies 24, no. 3 (November 1997): 459-70.

[In the following essay, de Zwaan comments on the elements of cyberpunk science fiction and postmodern experimentation in Neuromancer, noting the influence of Thomas Pynchon, Kathy Acker, and Jean Baudrillard on the novel.]

The best known cyberpunk manifesto … cannily describes the cyberpunk school's aspirations not in terms of conceits, but as the reflection of a new cultural synthesis being born in the 1980s, making it essentially a paradoxical form of realism.

...

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Kevin Concannon (essay date winter 1998)

SOURCE: Concannon, Kevin. “The Contemporary Space of the Border: Gloria Anzaldúa's Borderlands and William Gibson's Neuromancer.Textual Practice 12, no. 3 (winter 1998): 429-42.

[In the following essay, Concannon discusses the thematic motif of the border and how it relates to self-identity in Neuromancer and Gloria Anzaldúa's Borderlands/La Frontera.]

I

When Charles Edwards and a female passenger stopped at a Barstow gas station on a late September day in 1992, little did they know that two hours later they would be just north of Burbank, almost 122 miles from Barstow, and far from alone. In fact, as they sped...

(The entire section is 6395 words.)

Carla Freccero (essay date 1999)

SOURCE: Freccero, Carla. “Technocultures.” In Popular Culture: An Introduction, pp. 99-129. New York: New York University Press, 1999.

[In the following essay, Freccero contrasts the representations of technology-driven societies in Neuromancer and the Alien film series.]

A. TECHNOCULTURES AND POSTMODERNISM

In this chapter I would like to explore cultural productions that ambivalently represent postindustrial society's romance and disillusionment with advanced technological developments. The representations examined here present technoculture as an important dimension of both the present and the future, and construct a variety...

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Daniel Punday (essay date November 2000)

SOURCE: Punday, Daniel. “The Narrative Construction of Cyberspace: Reading Neuromancer, Reading Cyberspace Debates.” College English 63, no. 2 (November 2000): 194-213.

[In the following essay, Punday explores the relationship between cyberspace and narrative form in Neuromancer, arguing that the novel “offers us a way to negotiate the conventional discursive elements used within online communication.”]

The Internet seems to have spawned a community with fundamentally new conditions for social interaction. As Shawn Wilbur notes,

“Virtual community” is certainly among the most used, and perhaps abused...

(The entire section is 9879 words.)

Tony Myers (essay date winter 2001)

SOURCE: Myers, Tony. “The Postmodern Imaginary in William Gibson's Neuromancer.Modern Fiction Studies 47, no. 4 (winter 2001): 887-909.

[In the following essay, Myers examines how Gibson utilizes the concept of cyberspace in Neuromancer to create a postmodern narrative setting.]

Much of William Gibson's novel Neuromancer is centered around cyberspace, or the matrix as it is alternatively called, the representational innovation for which his work has become famous. It is first defined for the reader via the narration of a children's educational program: “Cyberspace. A consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions of legitimate...

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Sarah Brouillette (essay date 2002)

SOURCE: Brouillette, Sarah. “Corporate Publishing and Canonization: Neuromancer and Science-Fiction Publishing in the 1970s and early 1980s.” In Book History, edited by Ezra Greenspan and Jonathan Rose, pp. 187-208. University Park, Penn.: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2002.

[In the following essay, Brouillette presents an analysis of the 1984 publication of Neuromancer in terms of the relationship between the corporate publishing industry and the science fiction subculture.]

Since its initial publication as an Ace Science Fiction Special in 1984, William Gibson's Neuromancer has been established as one of the most influential and...

(The entire section is 8484 words.)