Noir-omancer

Neuromancer by William Gibson is one of my favorite novels. It was published in 1984 but I didn’t get around to reading it until 1990. By then its companion novels in the “Sprawl Trilogy” (Count Zero and Mona Lisa Overdrive) were out and those I gobbled up straight away. While the book is best known for popularizing the term “cyberspace” and for its playful and inventive speculations on computer technology and artificial intelligence, it also, like the brilliant 1982 film “Blade Runner”, works as neo-noir. For one thing the plot is an elaborate crime caper not so different from a Donald E. Westlake heist story or a John le Carré espionage tale. For another, the protagonist Case is a dissolute drug addict with a criminal past. Molly, his eventual partner in the escapade, is a freelancer doing muscle work for a variety of shady underworld types. Both characters are fatalistic and world-weary, willing to take on a dangerous task for the chance of a big payoff. Noir, ultimately, is about outlook and atmosphere and is concerned more with motive and character than action or plot elements. Case and Molly are a classic noir duo—loners thrown together through no choice of their own, sexually but not romantically involved, secretive to the point of paranoia, and willing to sell out their employers if something better comes along. The dystopian near-future so beautifully rendered by Gibson’s dazzling prose (“Blade Runner” achieves the same thing visually) infuses the whole story with an atavistic longing for better times.

Re-reading the novel these last few weeks, twenty-five years later, I’m struck by its vividness, clarity, and penetrating insight into corporate branding, advertising, media saturation, and propaganda. Gibson’s vision of a vast world-wide interconnected computer network which he called “the matrix” and his description of cyberspace as a “consensual hallucination” are still surprisingly fresh despite the intervening decades. Much of the tools of Case’s trade—keyboards, data disks, electrodes, adapter plugs, etc.—are anachronisms but they don’t spoil the effect. The language is amazingly supple, particularly the imagined street slang (reminiscent of Anthony Burgess’s “Nadsat” in A Clockwork Orange) and the fanciful hacker or “data cowboy” argot. His vision of weakened governments kow-towing to an international corporate elite, shared by many post-modern writers, only gets closer to reality with each passing year.

Literature may be from a particular time and place, but if it’s good, it will still work years later. No one goes whale-hunting in sailboats any more, but Moby-Dick‘s foray into madness remains relevant. Armies don’t fight with swords, shields, and spears these days but the Iliad‘s probing of the nature of heroism still resonates. Gibson’s debut novel was the standard-bearer of the short-lived “cyberpunk” movement, but his themes of alienation and the loss of individual freedoms will never go out of style.

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