Neuromancer is a sacred text of pop culture. It’s where terms like ‘cyberspace’ and ‘the matrix’ were popularised. With its release in 1984, William Gibson set the standard for cyberpunk fiction (it was somewhat prefigured by the 1982 film Blade Runner). The fabric of Neuromancer’s world has since seeped into all corners of pop culture, looming large in The Matrix.
What makes cyberpunk? The word itself is a portmanteau, a mash-up of cybernetic and punk. That means body modification spliced with fringe-dwelling weirdos. All you need to complete the mix is a dystopian society: a world gone rotten. Cyberpunk is high tech plus low life, where decrepit anti-heroes spar with artificial intelligences and megacorps.
Neuromancer follows Case, ex-top hacker, as he is dredged out of drug-addled decline by a mysterious new boss. He’s accompanied on the new job by street samurai Molly Millions, a mercenary with chrome lenses surgically attached to her eye sockets and four-centimetre razors installed under her nails. From there, like its cinematic descendant Ghost in the Shell (1995), Neuromancer wends its way towards the creation of an artificial superentity.
Here’s a quote that captures some of the hyperkinetic buzz of Gibson’s narrative, with its wacky characters, neologisms and general bizarreness:
At midnight, synched with the chip behind Molly’s eye, the link man in Jersey had given his command. ‘Mainline.’ Nine Moderns, scattered along two hundred miles of the Sprawl, had simultaneously dialed MAX EMERG from pay phones. Each Modern delivered a short set speech, hung up, and drifted out into the night, peeling off surgical gloves. Nine different police departments and public security agencies were absorbing the information that an obscure subsect of militant Christian fundamentalists had just taken credit for having introduced clinical levels of an outlawed psychoactive agent known as Blue Nine into the ventilation system of the Sense/Net Pyramid. Blue Nine, known in California as Grievous Angel, had been shown to produce acute paranoia and homicidal psychosis in eighty-five percent of experimental subjects. (p79)
As a subgenre of science fiction, cyberpunk invokes tantalising ‘what if’ scenarios and possible futures. As technology advances, what kind of new angels and demons will emerge? What will it mean for human identity and culture? And Neuromancer repeatedly leaves the reader asking, Did all this hypercybertechno stuff enter pop culture because Gibson was prophetic, or because he said it first?
Arthur Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.