Dark Futures Book 12: Neuromancer

Dark Futures is a 20-book exploration of the fears of our futures, an odd sub-genre of Science Fiction that draws in on the society of the time and projects it forward, into uncomfortable visions of the world to be. The idea is the same across many books, the results, very different.  This week witness the birth of something strange and wonderful…

In many ways I think Science Fiction is a broadly optimistic genre – even when it is smashing worlds apart there tends to be a broad assumption that the future will be a better place than it is today. Even reading dystopias and disasters, there is a sense that in the carnage some flicker of the human spirit endures, that we can “make it” out there into space. Back in the early 80s, mainstream SF was dominated by Space Opera – the year William Gibson’s Neuromancer was released, big titles were things like David Brin’s (excellent) Startide Rising, which won the Hugo. The big names of the post-war age like Clarke and Asimov may have been well into their qualitative decline but were still selling big numbers, and whilst it was hardly a stale genre there was definitely space for something new.

And the “new” was Cyberpunk – a tomorrow just the same as today, but with better technology. Neuromancer is not the first “cyberpunk” work, not even from Gibson, who had already published several short stories and a novella set in “The Sprawl”. Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner had come out two years earlier, nailing the grungy, mixed-up and run-down aesthetic, and our old friend Phillip K Dick had been dabbling in gritty, noir-themed visions for over a decade. But what Neuromancer does, and does very well, is pull it all together into one sweeping, coherent vision of the future, and hit the big time with it.

This is another book that I’ve read before, but made the list because of both its influence and the fact that it’s been a hell of a long time since I did. When I first read it I ate up the surface details; the technology, the body implants, the Matrix itself, dangerous sexy razorgirls and orbital colonies, really I think enjoyed it pretty much on that basis alone. After all, it is presenting a compelling world, it feels coherent, and plausible, and oddly, with what must be a 20 year gap between readings, a very real sense being a future just around the corner. Written today, I’m not sure that very much would need to be changed, which is a pretty good record for any genre futurology.

What I missed, however, was the depth of ideas in the novel, especially towards the end. There is a key theme at work in Neuromancer that is all about identity, and how that can be manipulated or sustained, that is actually a lot more interesting than the stuff that so excited the younger me. Armitage, The Flatline, both AIs; they’re all meditations of how personality sustains itself and, fundamentally, asks we if we are just data running on “meat” hardware, and crucially, what that means. It’s deep stuff, thrown out as questions without answers.

So what is it saying about the future, which after all is the point of this list? Well really it is saying it’s going to be pretty much the same, which from a genre dominated by visions of the stars is a pretty depressing thought. No, we aren’t going to blow ourselves to radioactive dust – although we’ll give a go – nor is technology going to free us of poverty and hatred and the existing order. The more things change, the more they stay the same. Even the united AI at the end has little interest in human affairs – no Singularity for you, meatbags…

Next time:  Feminist classic The Handmaidens Tale, by Margaret Atwood.  No, wait! Come back! It’ll be fine, really….

Feedback, corrections and other comments welcome either here or by email to grampus(at)dissectingworlds(dot)com or on twitter @thegrampus. Earlier Reviews in this series can be found using the tag “Dark Futures” or the column name “Tolkien Gestures”.


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