Why Neuromancer still sucks

Q1.  Why is Neuromancer still relevant today? In what ways is it no longer relevant?

After spending a week with an audio version of the book, forcing myself to listen and trying hard to love it, I’ve come to the conclusion that I dislike Neuromancer today for the same two main reasons I disliked it when I first tried to read it, maybe about 20 years ago:  It’s hard to read.  And it doesn’t say anything particularly new.

This wasn’t a popular opinion when I was coming of age.  Every guy I knew was into Neuromancer, all in love with Molly, along with some of the girls, who desperately wanted to be Molly.  But to me, it just felt – and feels – like the wrong kind of dystopia.

Which is strange, if you think about it, because I really liked, and still like, Blade Runner, and other works that riff on some of the same ideas, like Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash, M.T. Anderson’s Feed, for example, almost everything by Cory Doctorow, including Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, and Ernest Cline’s tour de force Ready Player One (with an unforgettable audiobook narrated by Wil Wheaton!).  Not to  mention movies like The Matrix that riff on these now-familiar concepts.

(oops…almost forgot to mention Canadian Jim Monroe’s fun/classic riff on the cyberpunk theme, Everyone in Silico!)

Give me cyborgs, give me life jacked in to some kind of all-pervasive network, give me cool new performance- and thought-enhancing drugs or body parts, give me virtual identities and even virtual bodies which are almost indistinguishable from virtual ones, and in general, I’ll swallow it up.

But I don’t like Neuromancer.

I thought I was alone, but it turns out that out of 1208 Amazon reviews, the average is only 4 stars.

The top positive review, from 2014, says, “Neuromancer is quite simply the greatest, most prescient near-future sci-fi novel ever written.”

Quite a few reviews echo this sentiment.  But there are also several hundred 2- and 3-star reviews, saying things like…

  • I didn’t like it but I didn’t hate it.
  • Hard to follow.
  • … an exhausting read.
  • Cool ideas, but impossible to decipher without help
  • Keep trying to read, but no go.
  • I’m going to have to try and read it again due to the storyline itself coming across as very stilted.
  • not the “classic” I thought it would be
  • Perhaps not my cup of tea.

Most of these reviews sound a lot like me.  “I love science fiction, I tried hard to enjoy this, I know it’s important, but…”

One addresses the question here most directly, saying, “I realize that this was written in the 80s and was revolutionary for its time, but today it no longer carries the same impact.”  On this Reddit thread, commenters seem to be saying the same thing.  The book was important and relevant because it took good ideas and synthesized them, brought them together, and presented the world with something new.

But speaking as someone who TRIED to read it in the 1980s, I’m going to say it didn’t have the impact back then either.  At least, not for everybody.  To me, it didn’t feel all that new, even in the 1980s.  Honestly, every single “innovative” element seems like it could have been easily predicted from existing technology and the directions tech, medicine, etc., were moving.

So I refuse to apologize for not liking the book.

Do I still feel it’s an “important” book?

Not necessarily.  It makes what I feel is a poorly written attempt to stab at some essential literary and philosophical tropes, but in the end, the odd and jangled quality of the writing – this is probably intentional as one fan writes, “The sensory overload of the world it portrays is reflected in its dense prose“ (Anthony, 2008) – doesn’t carry me along and it doesn’t really make the points (for me) that an Essential Work really ought to.

Where Gibson seems to get the most credit is for putting forward the idea of “cyberspace” – a word which existed before but not in the same way.  But did he invent the idea of living in a “virtual” world – an idea we now take for granted?  Not at all.

For example, the 1982 movie Tron presented the idea that people could survive and play games “inside” the world of a computer.  And according to an article in Wired magazine, the idea of having people moving around together in virtual worlds also dates back to the early 1980s, to a network of military simulators (Hapgood, 1997).

Neuromancer is perhaps nothing more than an example of convergent evolution.  All the ideas floating around in the intellectual climate of the time coming together to create a popular dystopian vision.  But realizing there’s nothing particularly new or innovative about Neuromancer makes me feel a little better about calling myself a fan of this genre.

As film critic Anthony writes in his discussion of a possible film adaptation, “A faithful transference of this to the live-action arena would result in little more than confusion and nausea” (Anthony, 2008).   Funnily enough, this was my reaction on first picking up the book in 1980-whatever.  And sadly, it’s still my reaction when I try to read it today.

References

Anthony, J. (2008).  In cyberspace, no one can hear the Neuromancer fans scream.  The Guardianhttps://www.theguardian.com/film/filmblog/2008/jan/11/incyberspacenoonecanheartheneuromancerfansscream

Gibson, W. (1984). Neuromancer. New York: Ace Books.

Hapgood, F. (1997).  Simnet.  Wiredhttps://www.wired.com/1997/04/ff-simnet/

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