Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Neuromancer by William Gibson

Title: Neuromancer
Author: William Gibson
Publisher: Penguin
Rating: WORTHY!

No honest set of sci-fi book reviews could be called complete without a review of Neuromancer a novel often described as part of the 'sprawl trilogy', but which is really a tetralogy, starting with Burning Chrome, and followed by Johnny Mnemonic, Neuromancer, and Mona Lisa Overdrive (cool title, huh? it's also the name of an album by Buck-Tick, named after the novel).

Wikipedia’s page is a great overview and background story of Neuromancer

This story is about an AI called Wintermute, and Gibson’s novel relates how this AI manipulates humans into facilitating its being united with another AI called Neuromancer. So the novel really should have been called Wintermute, but that's no way as catchy as Neuromancer, the novel which fully gave birth to the concept of cyberspace, a term coined by Gibson in Burning Chrome. I think Neuromancer is where the Matrix movie trilogy people got the concept of the matrix, too.

He did a good job of creating a disturbing hi-tech future considering that this novel was, according to wikipedia, written in haste in 1984. It’s notoriously difficult to predict the future, particularly the future of the technology world, where the status quo undergoes routine paradigm shifts. Gibson got many things wrong - like indicating that megabyte memory was a valuable commodity, whereas just thirty years on we buy gigabyte drives for a few dollars and carry them around in our pockets!), but he made a believable if depressing world which seems very real. And in 1984, a megabyte was considered to be a massive amount of memory and extremely expensive.

Gibson has a way of telling the story as though he’s an acquaintance of yours, relating something he personally experienced; he has the facility of describing things which make them seem real and memorable after only a few words.

For me, the real protagonist (other than Neuromancer/Wintermute) in this story is Molly. She appears in each volume of Gibson’s sprawl tetralogy, although she’s had some cosmetic surgery and lives under the name of Sally Shears in Mona Lisa Overdrive where we see a different side to her. Her real name may be Rose Kolodny. Wikipedia describes her as “physically tough (but not instantly imposing)” and this is a great description. It’s implied in Neuromancer that she has her own medical team, which she sorely needs as it happens.

Molly is the one who tracks Case and brings him into the group which eventually frees Wintermute, an AI imprisoned in a mainframe owned by the powerful Tessier-Ashpool family. She has a close (and physical) relationship with Case, although she’s outta there like a cowboy riding off into the sunset at the end of the novel. This is funny because it’s Case who’s referred to as the cowboy riding ‘the boards’ throughout the novel. Molly could have her on TV Series à la Nikita; and who is to say that those Luc Besson movies (La Femme Nikita and Columbiana) weren't inspired by Neuromancer?

In a private conversation, Molly is the one who initially offers to team up with Case, and she asks him to look into the guy who hired them: Armitage, someone who she’s evidently been checking up on herself.

It’s this investigation which leads them to the truth about what Armitage is doing, and who is pulling his strings, and what Armitage actually is, for that matter. Armitrage is the one who knows how to free Case of the poison sacs in his body, which will render him back into the nerve-shattered useless hacker he was before he was picked up and fixed-up for this job.

Molly is a ‘razor girl’, referred to as ‘Steppin’ razor’ by the space-dwelling Rastas in Neuromancer. The reason for the name is the 4cm blades she’s had embedded into each finger (and thumb), which can slide in and out on command.

It’s one of many enhancements she’s had one to facilitate her profession, the most outwardly visible of which is having her eyes enclosed with mirrored lenses which enhance her vision (but which don’t seem to have any ‘heads-up’ style technology other than projecting the time in the corner of her field of view). With these, she can see in the dark, but she appears not to be able to detect infra red. For me, reading this for the first time when I was younger, this was a very cool piece of technology. In order to keep the lenses pristine, her tear ducts were re-routed into her mouth and she won’t let anyone touch the lenses. Hmm!

In Neuromancer, Molly’s first major assignment is to steal the Dixie Flatline, a stored copy of a deceased hacker's neural patterns, the help of which they supposedly need in order to take the next step in Wintermute’s plan. She uses underworld contacts to arrange for a distraction whilst she breaks in and successfully lifts the hacker’s imprint, but not before she has to take on a host of security guards and ends up with a broken leg for her trouble. The injury merely slows her down and is soon fixed with the advanced medical practices of the era, although it comes back to trouble her later.

Case’s role in this job is to run interference on the computer security systems, but a guy referred to consistently as ‘The Finn’ has enhanced both Molly herself, and Case’s systems. The result of this is that Case can ‘jack-in’ to her and see what she’s seeing, which is cool and intriguing, especially in how Gibson describes it, because what Case sees in his mind is what Molly is actually seeing through her lenses. The result is that Case is effectively riding inside Molly. It feels weird to him because she doesn’t walk like he does and he has absolutely no control over what she does or how she moves. 'Riding' Molly is like riding a roller-coaster!

At one point after this job, when Molly is sleeping and she and Case are alone, he could have jacked into her and perhaps spied on what she was dreaming, which would have been really interesting if very abusive, but he doesn’t do this. Gibson isn’t exactly clear on how this technology operates, but it seems that Case is actually jacked into her mind rather than just her visual implants, because he can feel her pain and feel her body as well as see what she sees. I'd forgotten the details of this until I read the last part of the novel.

But commendably, instead of spying on Molly, Case hooks in to the Flatline which they have just stolen, something in which he doubtlessly has far more interest, and therein begins another relationship. The box is somewhat more than a simple response system based on the Dixie Flatline’s neural image, and it asks to be destroyed when the job is done because it doesn’t want to continue with that kind of existence. At the end of the novel, the Flatline disappears from the box, but it's implied that a copy of the image has become a part of the Neuromancer/Wintermute combined AI.

I'm not sure what the need for the Flatline is because it really doesn't contribute much except to exhibit to us a piece of fascinating technology. When they mount the assault on Wintermute's mainframe, it's a piece of Chinese hacking software that does the job. The Flatline essentially does nothing.

Their next step is to recruit a psychotic illusionist called Riviera, who can project images of all kinds which he uses to hide himself and offer distractions, particularly during his capture. With him in hand, the team heads out to the Tessier-Ashpool space station, where Armitage finally loses it and gets blown out of an airlock.

Why the T-A family choose (or even how they could afford) to build what's rather erroneously titled 'Freeside' is a mystery. Something like that would have cost countless billions of dollars. It's a huge Zeppelin-shaped space station orbiting at the L5

Huge is no exaggeration. It's literally a city in space, featuring hotels, parks, stores, gambling casinos, and the Tessier-Ashpool residence. It rotates about its long axis to provide a form of gravity. It recycles its water and air, but everything else has to be trucked up from Earth, a system which would itself cost several fortunes each year. There's no information as to how it's protected from meteors (or even high-speed space dust) in its orbit.

Rivera inveigles himself into the T-A family's good graces by performing a show at one of the venues on Freeside. The show pisses off Molly because she (or rather her psychically created form) is the star of it, interacting with Riviera. This gets him his invitation into the T-A compound, but exactly what this gains the team is not clear. Riviera contributes nothing to Wintermute's plan. Again it seems we're treated to Riviera in the same way we're treated ot the Flatline - to get an idea of some interesting technology, but for no other purpose.

Molly breaks into the compound anyway, and so does Case, both by means of hacking and then phsycially with one of the Rastas called Maelcum (an intriguing name! lol!) to rescue Molly. Riviera has defected to the T-A side, but is poisoned by the resident T-A family member because he's just a nasty piece of work and so, when pushed, is she!

Molly fails badly. She's overpowered by Riviera and the resident T-A ninja (called Hideo, and about whom a story would be interesting). Her leg is broken again and Riviera gratuitously breaks one of her lenses just to see if it's possible. This may be what triggers 3Jane, the only functional T-A family member who is at home, to poison him since she finds herself strongly attracted to Molly.

I was disappointed that we never get to see Molly strut her stuff. No fights are described in Neuromancer! I sincerely hope that this novel is made into a movie and some kick-A Asian martial artist gets her role. I can't believe it hasn't been filmed already, but from what I've read, it's not through want of trying.

Anyway, the T-A family is hugely dysfunctional. Molly encounters one of the aging men, who is in process of committing suicide after having strangled his wife. Molly helps him along with a flechette dart to the eye. The T-A's spend a lot of time in cryogenic storage and spend a lot of money on physical assaults on the aging process. No mention of telomeres here, but a lot of talk about organ transplants and cosmetic surgery.

The T-A residence is pretty much deserted, the only resident who is not in cryogenic storage and is also in the compound being 3Jane, who is the third clone of the original Jane. She seems to be the only one who is close to being normal! After having engineered the overpowering Molly and the capturing Case and Maelcum, she actually wants them to open the box which is the object of their mission. Open the box, key in the password, and free Wintermute from its mainframe prison.

The ending of Neuromancer is rather rushed, like Gibson was forced to hurry it out too quickly to meet his deadline. This is another advantage of self-publishing! No deadlines!

Molly abandons Case, leaving him with nothing more than a note informing him that it's been real, but hanging with him is taking off the edge off her skills. He never sees her again.

Wintermute and Neuromancer merge with some vague plan of trying to contact an apparent AI which has been signalling Earth from space. Case replaces the drug-immune organs with which Wintermute had equipped him as part of his resurrection; now he can enjoy drugs again. Whoop-te-do! He essentially blows all the money he was paid on that operation, and on a new computer system (called a 'deck' here). He gets a girlfriend called Michael, and he goes back to his old life of hacking.

Kinda disppointing overall. But that takes nothing away from the cool concepts and interesting visions which Gibson gave us in this story. It's a bit sad that he hasn't really done anything of great note since then, except to putz around in this same environment for the last thirty years. I've read nothing of his since Neuromancer that has made anywhere near the same impression on me.

Neuromancer was Kick-A, and outstanding when it was first published. It was a sensation among those in the know, but it never generated any great buzz otuside of that circle. Reading it these days when so many others have riffed off the world he created means that it doesn't come off as being anything special any more, and that's sad given how ground-breaking and influential it was when it was first released. But that's the nature of the beast isn't it? There, but for the grace of Gibson, go I!

You can always go read the wikipedia article and then read some more about it at at other venues online to get a better idea of what kind of a novel this truly was.

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