Tuesday, 9 April 2013


William Gibson Neuromancer (1984)

This was of course the one that arguably started that whole cyberpunk thing, dark, gritty, noir tales of hi-tech crime written as a reaction to a published wave of crappy sword and sorcery shite at the end of the 1970s, if the official version is to be believed. This sort of accounts for the -punk element I suppose, and was the last time the suffix made sense in a literary context, at least to me. Excepting Mark Hodder's writing, I still don't quite discern any pronounced strand of rebellion within steampunk as a genre, but never mind.

William Gibson enjoyed success with short stories later collected as Burning Chrome and was then commissioned to produce a full length novel which became Neuromancer; except Blade Runner came out just as he was getting stuck in, obliging a rewrite for fear of readers assuming he'd simply tapped into Ridley Scott's version of Philip K. Dick. After no less than twelve revisions of the first two thirds of the novel, he ended up with something that won a shitload of awards, helped spawn an entire genre, and which kicks off with one of the greatest opening sentences of any novel I've read:

The sky above the port was the colour of television...

Although the sentence in full is actually the sky above the port was the colour of television, tuned to a dead channel, which reads to me like an overstatement and is as such symptomatic of my problems with Neuromancer.

Like all William Gibson, it's beautifully written, and I mean quite breathtakingly beautifully written, each sentence a string of startlingly vivid images popping away in your reading gland like 1970s space dust. The sheer texture alone is incredible, and notably works much better here than in the short stories which might be considered groundwork, most of which struck me as merely slick for the sake of it - although as Gibson has himself argued, that is to some extent the entire point of his emphasis on surface detail.

The problem for me was that Neuromancer is actually kind of exhausting, the narrative becoming a relentless series of imagistic explosions defusing any attempt at emphasis. Ice, 3Jane, Aerol, Wintermute, Flatline - all the names of either main characters or narrative elements recurring page after page throughout the book, and yet I reached the end without a fucking clue as to who or what any of them might be, or what had happened beyond some vague impression of crimes committed in cyberspace - and I got that detail from Wikipedia. I know my concentration hasn't been great this week, but I'm not normally this bad, and I've had the same problem with William Gibson on previous occasions. Mona Lisa Overdrive was similar but a bit more comprehensible, and more recent books such as Pattern Recognition have more than justified the author's sterling reputation, so whatever he was doing, I guess he managed to stop doing it after about 1990.

What a philistine I am, to be sure.

1 comment:

  1. Ha ha - sure you're not a philistine (you WERE asking for that comment, weren't you :¬) and I think your review really hits the spot. I read it about 10 years ago, and can't remember much about it except for the general feel of it. I liked it, though. The beautifully written sentences and images would have grabbed me, as I don't mind a bit of style over content. Despite the negatives, your review makes me want to read it again, so I'll put it on the long list. I tried to read another of his - can't remember which one - but definitely didn't like it and didn't finish it. I wasn't aware of it being banjaxed a bit by the release of Blade Runner. I like the 'tuned to a dead channel' addition - without it, it just looks kind of smart-aleckish.