Neuromancer – William Gibson

First off – I hate this book. I properly do not like it at all. If you don’t want to read an entire post of my grouching with no positives whatsoever, you have been warned. Because I am struggling to remember anything about the book with fondness, except maybe the brevity of it. And even that could have been done better.

I strongly suspected I wasn’t going to like it even before I started, but it was the book club book this month, and it was only the second meeting I’ve been to, so I wasn’t going to skive. And I figured I might like it. It’s genre-defining, it’s well-know, it won awards. It must be good. Right? Right? And then I remember that I don’t like Dune or LoTR and probably several other genre-defining novels that I’ve currently forgotten about and plenty of things with Hugo nominations and wins. So there goes that.

I should probably account for this premonition of doom. Maybe it coloured my opinion, made me unable to appreciate what Gibson had to offer.

Nah. It was just a bit rubbish.

Ok, to be serious for a bit, some of my problems with it are ones that can be explained by “the book is now quite dated”. Like, I know in the 1980s women had only just been invented, so it was asking a bit much to get them in all the novels. And the technology that was an amazing future for Gibson has at least partially become a reality for us now, so the awkwardness of his jargon comes from it falling into an uncanny valley of near-accuracy… and yet. But this isn’t enough to get away from the big flaw for me – it’s just not a very well-written story.

This is pretty much what I had to say about Dune, so no shocks here, but it does in much the same way feel like an ideas novel that hasn’t followed through with the actual novel part. It’s disjointed and sporadic, and often drops new stuff in without any sort of build-up – like the (minor spoilers) early sex scene between Molly and the main character. There’s no warning for it, no chemistry between the characters. It’s just “and now I will have sex with you just after you’ve had major surgery”. I’m not even being hyperbolic – there is actually no setup for this relationship at all. And I think the same is true of a lot of the situations. We hop from one thing to another without any sort of foreshadowing or buildup or lead-in, and maybe it’s deliberate on Gibson’s part… but it just feels totally artless. Like he got bored of one scene and decided just to drop us into the next. And, again much like Dune, it feels so much to be lacking on the character side of things.

I feel like I bleat on a lot about characters when I don’t like a book, so I’m sorry about this, but it is definitely something which I feel can so easily spoil things if done badly, and something which seems to plague older SFF in particular. I know it’s not all older SFF. I know. But you give me a list of the big, famous, genre-defining or seminal SFF books from before 1985, and I bet you I’ll have character issues with most of them. My personal theory on this – at least as far as genres like cyberpunk go – is that if you’re doing something new and shiny, maybe you get so focussed on your world-building that everything else falls to the wayside, simply because you’ve got this new and shiny thing to show people. And that’s just not good enough. You don’t get let off the responsibility to basic storytelling, just because you’re doing something a bit different, genre-defining or otherwise. And characters are a key part of basic storytelling. If you can’t write believable, relatable and compelling characters, there’s probably something going seriously wrong. And I don’t think any of Gibson’s characters are believable, relatable or compelling.

That being said, I think for the probably reader at the time of publication, the main character is very much intended to be relatable. I hazard to suggest that the intended reader was very much your traditional male nerd, and for him, the main character is very much an accessible point. He’s not special. He’s not strong or clever or anything in particular. He’s a nerdy everyman, and I think he’s meant precisely for your generic male nerd to self-insert. And then the sexy lady throws herself at him with no lead-in. Just saying. I think the book makes a lot more sense when you think of it in these terms – nerdy wish-fulfillment SF, where a mediocre man gets adventure, sex and all sorts of winning. And as someone who can’t easily identify with the mediocre man… I’m not okay with this. I can’t relate. And once we see all the other characters through the lens of mediocre wish-fulfillment man, everything makes a lot more sense. The two dimensional women, the caricatured men… it all slips into place as the way mediocre-man views the world.

I suppose, should I excuse this? If it’s aimed at an audience that isn’t me, to what extent can I criticise it for not catering to me?

Thankfully, this isn’t the only problem, so I can carry on judging him with a clean conscience.

Aside from poor characterisation, we have a severe limit of female characters at all. The main woman is Molly, who is, in fairness, quite cool. But she suffers from being thrown at the main character and slightly over-sexualised, and from being rather alone in the cast. 3Jane is… not really worth mentioning. She’s again, over-sexualised and barely gets a personality. She’s a caricature of a baddie, to some extent. Then there’s Linda, who gets chucked out of the story barely as soon as she’s in. And very much functions only as a failed motivational tool for Mediocre-Man. But, as I say, women had only just been invented in 1985.

I’ve mentioned the dotting around plot, but one of the things that really contributes to this is the sheer volume of technospeak. Sometimes, this can be great. It can really immerse you in the world and even in your confusion give you a great sense of the atmosphere. I don’t think so here. Here, I’m just a bit lost. He’s overdone it and I’m not sure with any great skill in the creation of his terms, so it feels clunky and awkward. Again, partially this is because the book is old, and a lot of the tech he discusses exists to some extent now. But I think, if a book is great, it should be able to stand the test of time, jargon or otherwise. And I’ve read books who’ve been technologically surpassed by the march of time and still enjoyed them, and still seen the skill in making their world and terminology. This hasn’t done that.

Frankly, to cut short a rant, I am genuinely struggling to see why this is seen as so seminal. I suspect I am the wrong person from the wrong time to see it, but at the same time, I think that making a book where one can be the wrong person at the wrong time is, in and of itself, an objectionable thing. While books can’t always be all things to all people, I don’t think a book where “not being a male nerd from the 1980s” is a major hindrance to your enjoyment is ever one that should be being praised and adored. It’s not well-written, it’s not a good story, it’s not well-peopled or an interesting world. Yes, he brought cyberpunk to the fore. But that’s never enough.

So yes. The book was terrible. I’m never reading Gibson again.

Next – urban fantasy London, because it’s just better.


About readerofelse

A student of a redundant, useless and thoroughly interesting subject and reader of many books, particularly fantasy, science fiction and plenty else besides.
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