Cyberspace; the World Wide Web; the internet. Whatever you would like to call the now ubiquitous technology, it’s hard for many to remember a time when humanity wasn’t plugged in and online. I remember the days of dial-up AOL and Netzero in the mid-to-late nineties, when I was a middle-school student, and technology has advanced much since those days. What though helped transplant the idea of cyberspace into the public consciousness during a time when most people did not have computers and the internet was almost exclusively for military or governmental use?
When William Gibson’s Neuromancer dropped into the science fiction book world in 1984, science fiction fans and critics alike knew immediately that it was a seminal work in the genre. It was the first novel to win the Hugo, the Nebula, and the Philip K. Dick awards—a hat trick in the science fiction publishing. By the 21st century, millions of copies had been sold, and the novel is still selling well, which is phenomenal, since most people today would likely rather surf the web than read a novel from three decades ago predicting what cyberspace (a term which the novel popularized) would entail for the general populace. Here was a work that married the fashion and attitude of 80s punk culture with the sweep of technological advancement, and we are still being influenced by it today. Look at the popularity of The Matrix films (or at least, the first one), and try to say that cyberpunk, as Neuromancer heralded, is dead.
As important as the novel is, not only in science fiction, but also in literature in general, does it hold up? People have been on the internet for years, and what takes place seems more fantasy than reality at times, especially the virtual reality, which is something people have strived for, but still is unsatisfactory in practical application. I say yes; not due to the description of future technology, which science fiction authors will never get completely correct (though Gibson is a better futurist than most writers), but because of the engaging plot and the intriguing characters. The host of characters includes regular humans, modified humans, clones, computer constructs of people, and AI (artificial technology). Unless you’re paying strict attention, you may not know what each character is until the end of the novel. It can also be confusing at times, especially for readers not used to hard-science fiction, as Gibson uses many technical terms revolving around hardware and software throughout the text. Moreover, the plot is fast moving, and as we join the main protagonist Case on his mission following the murder of his girlfriend, he gains and drops allies, friends, and enemies, like a person’s weight on a yo-yo diet. At times, I had to go back over a previous paragraph or page to make sure that I wasn’t lost. I however believe that the pace/style was deliberate, and thus meshed with the punk sensibility that Gibson was trying to express.
While most people still focus on the cyberspace/cyberpunk elements, I believe there is another aspect more relevant in the novel. Without getting into too many spoilers, the nature of AI is one of the principal themes on which Gibson focuses. Can a machine or a computer have a personality? Should people allow it to increase in power and intelligence? Will we continue to manipulate computers? Or will the computers learn to use us for their own ends? Neuromancer grapples with these questions. Scientists, military strategists, and philosophers are wrestling with these questions right now as technology advances, especially in the field of developing AI. This month, Google’s AlphaGo defeated Lee Sedol, one of the top players in Go, which is considered by many to be the most complex game devised by humans. Before the match, most experts believed that such a feat was at least a decade away. So, will machines in the near future think, and if they do, will their thoughts lead to actions that benefit or harm humankind?
Is Neuromancer for the general reader? It depends. Those who do not touch science fiction literature at all probably will not have their opinion changed about the genre. The book is not a casual read for those unfamiliar with technical terminology, and it will demand concentration from you even though it’s of moderate length. Because it’s a novel that is often featured on reading lists, many likely purchased the book because “it’s one of those books you have to read in your lifetime.” Thus, of the millions of copies bought, one can’t be sure how many were read to completion. I do encourage you to try the book, even if it’s just to see how a previous generation tried to make sense of the dawn of the computer age. If Gibson’s work is not for you, then so be it, but you should still acknowledge his effort in science fiction of shifting attention away from interstellar travel and grand space battles to look at near-future technology and how it would affect the public.