So for the last fifteen years or so, I’ve had a list of books I mean to read right this minute, any day now. And on that list has long been William Gibson’s Neuromancer . So many times I’ve picked it up, fully intending to read it. I’ve even packed it on vacation every year for the last five. But now I’ve finally read it.
And it’s pretty darn good. Obviously, this is one of the defining works of cyberpunk, inventing a bunch of the stuff that we take for granted today, and even the word “cyberspace.” And it was written in 1984, the same year the IBM AT, with its 80286 processor was introduced, and a year after the Delphi dialup service (which wouldn’t have anything to do with the internet for another eight years) was launched. So there was a possibility that it’d feel dated.
But, amazingly, it didn’t. I mean, okay, 3D interfaces sound a little retro Second-Lifey at this point, but this feels a lot like a novel that could have been written this year. It’s less dated than Vinge’s A Fire Upon the Deep (which feels very like the Internet of the mid-90s) or anything by Cory Doctorow (which is usually dated by the time it’s published). In fact, the only thing that felt dated in the book was the orbital space stations. AIs and computer networks, sure, those are expected in modern SF; but space stations? What kind of retro-Golden Age fluff is that? There’s no room for space stations in realist near-future SF.
Timelessness aside, in 2009 this is merely a very good book. Gibson is a very good writer, and everything about the book is very competently done, but from the vantage point of today, it’s all very familiar. Megacorporations controlling everything, down on their luck technocowboys, ninja ladies with mirrorshades and leather, cyberspace, it’s all just the common furniture of the genre. You’ve seen it in a bunch of movies (most notably The Matrix, which owes about eighteen kinds of debt to Gibson), you’ve read it in dozens of novels, including ones like Snow Crash that are responding in a near-parodic fashion to Neuromancer, and it’s just hard to be blown away by it when it’s all so familiar.
Still, it’s not that hard to imagine what this would have been like when it was released 25 years ago, and it would have been motherfucking mindblowing. It won all the major awards, and there’s no question it deserved them. If it suffers from Citizen Kane-itis today, a victim of its own massive success and ongoing influence, well, so it does. But this is one of the foundational novels of SF, and you need to read it for that reason alone; that it’s also enjoyable even on contemporary terms is a nice plus.