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of the United States has become one continuous metropolis known as “the Sprawl,” and multinational corporations have superseded the role of governments.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.
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.
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.