William Gibson’s Neuromancer, the first book in the Sprawl trilogy, is the novel that began the cyberpunk subgenre of science fiction. When it was published in 1984, it was a very revolutionary work, and it was certainly influential in modern day terminology since it made the term “cyberspace” popular (it was originally coined in one of Gibson’s earlier works, the short story “Burning Chrome”). The frequent comparison to the body and “meat” is probably also responsible for the use of “meatspace” in reference to the real world. Undoubtedly, Neuromancer was a very important novel; however, it is not a very good book when considered purely on its own merits as a story.
Case was a talented cowboy, a data thief who worked for wealthier data thieves, until he stole from one of them. Instead of outright killing him, his employer damaged his nervous system badly enough to prevent Case from working in his profession. Case becomes a suicidal drug addict until a man named Armitage finds him and offers to repair his nervous system in return for the use of Case’s abilities as a cowboy. He undergoes surgery, and awakens to find that the same substance that destroyed his nervous system before was put inside of him and will be released if he does not finish his job quickly enough. Case is partnered with Molly, a street samurai, and ordered to steal the construct containing the consciousness of one of his former mentors. Soon Case and Molly find themselves trying to put together the mystery of Armitage’s past and figuring out how the AI entity Wintermute is involved.
Neuromancer is a relatively short book, only 271 pages long in mass market paperback. The first 100 pages are excruciatingly boring and the next 171 are often still fairly boring, making this the longest short book I have ever read. The plot develops at a glacial pace, and the prose is filled with fictional technical jargon. The meaning of some of these terms can be inferred from context at times, but normally not immediately, and Gibson has a tendency to throw out a lot of these words at once. At first, this is fun since it gives the book a certain high-tech, future feel, but it is overdone to the point where it is just confusing and tedious.
Some of the ideas in the story were probably very interesting in 1984, but anyone with a passing familiarity with science fiction today has probably seen these same concepts explored many times in a more interesting fashion. Artificial intelligence and its autonomy, virtual reality, and engineering the body to use technology are all common story elements within the science fiction genre today. This book does not delve in to these concepts, but shows them as a part of everyday life without examining the implications in depth.
The characters in Neuromancer are shallow and two-dimensional. Very little can be gleaned about their personalities from their actions and none of the characters ever feel real. More is revealed about the technology that is wired into their bodies than their hopes and dreams and motivations. The dialogue is often poor, and whenever a character talks about his or her past, it lacks emotion, feeling more like a big info dump.
Neuromancer contains a world that was imaginative when it was written in the early 1980s, but it does not hold up well over 20 years later. Because the strength of the book was exploring a world that is now common, the other obvious flaws–the lack of a strong plot, well-written prose, and deep or interesting characters–become fatal once that strength has been removed. I would not recommend reading it to others unless they really want to be able to say they read the first cyberpunk novel.