Neuromancer (Sprawl Trilogy, Book 1), by William Gibson

I decided to go back to the Sprawl Trilogy by William Gibson, the revolutionary books that contain Neuromancer, Count Zero, and Mona Lisa Overdrive.

Neuromancer has now been in print for nearly 35 years. Originally published in 1984 (dealers offer the original paperback starting at around $55) with a slow start it quickly became a worldwide phenomenon. Gibson invented the word “cyberspace”, inspired The Matrix, and set a generation just gaining an interest in personal computers to begin thinking far beyond the capabilities of the time.

If you are too young to name all The Beatles or never hid under a desk for a nuclear drill you may not remember a time when computers weren’t omnipresent. Tim Berners Lee had developed the Internet for CERN just a few years before the book was written and it was still a mostly military entity. Apple II came out the same year as the book was written and office computers hadn’t yet become part of every office.

Then comes along William Gibson, who wrote not so much a novel as a force of nature. Here we have Case and Molly jacking in to computers in a world where reality and virtual reality are impossible to separate. Case has had his liver and pancreas involuntarily replaced so that he can no longer get a high from drugs. Molly has blades in her fingertips. Gibson had been working on the book for some time when Blade Runner hit theaters and Gibson says his main thought was “Great, now everyone is going to think I modeled my world after the movie.”

The book would seem psychedelic if it wasn’t so doggedly realistic and centered on an electronic world. The language is beautiful and Gibson was one of the early sci-fi writers to incorporate tons of social, intellectual, commercial, and artistic references.

Gibson didn’t invent cyberpunk (he tends to dislike the name) but he certainly pushed it forward for millions of readers, and did it at a time when computers were mostly a hobbyist domain and the digital world was being pushed as a panacea for nearly every ill. The plot is interesting but not nearly as interesting as the world in which it takes place as well as the atmospherics and language.

Gibson wasn’t completely prescient. He famously missed the arrival of cell communications so his world is still rife with rows of payphones. He wasn’t the only writer of the time to miss such things. Philip K. Dick wrote of taking rockets from Boise to Seattle but has characters struggling to find a payphone and androids run by spools of punch tape. In the best sci-fi writers the soul and message of the book overwhelms the specifics. That’s as true of H.G. Wells as it is of Dick and Gibson making them all eminently readable today.

This is still a book that other sci-fi writers tap for inspiration and mentally compete with. It wasn’t so much ahead of its time as perfect for the time it arrived. It crossed out of the tight world of science fiction fandom with an aura of true literature. Approaching its first half century it still has the power to startle and amaze.