in Book Reviews, Hugo-Nebula Series, Science Fiction

Neuromancer: Digital Poetry

One can’t read Neuromancer today without noticing the strong influence it had on the writer(s) of The Matrix. Not only in terminology, but in the aesthetics of the story’s world. The universe of Neuromancer is not quite dystopian, but it is a world where technology, biological life, and artificial intelligences jumble together in an existence rife with conflict and death. As the novel that practically invented the cyberpunk genre, this should be no surprise.

The obvious piece of terminology borrowed from Neuromancer is the matrix itself. Except in the case of this novel, it is the word used to describe the digital realm, like the Internet, except it is experienced as direct sensory input. The matrix is a glowing three-dimensional world of fantastical colors and movement. Someone adept at navigating it, such as Case, the story’s protagonist, can break into storehouses of data the same way a master burglar might break into a museum. And that is the primary plot of this story: An epic digital heist orchestrated by a shadowy, unknown figure with consequences that are cosmic in scope.

If you want to see an author demonstrate a poetic ability to describe altered-consciousness experiences, you should read this book. For me, the single most striking feature of the book was the author’s treatment of Case’s experiences with mind-altering drugs and the world of the Matrix. It had a visceral clarity I normally associate with excellent poetry. Gibson’s flourishes of sound and timing created the sensation that I was in Case’s head, feeling his euphoria, his disorientation, or even his pain. I can remember setting the book down after one of Case’s harrowing episodes with drugs and saying to myself, “Well, now I know what it’s like to be on LSD.”

Rushing through the Matrix to steal an AI program or suffering the comedown from an acid trip were some of the book’s more exciting parts, but there was a more abstract reason I feel this book is best described with the phrase “digital poetry.” This digital world was a living universe of extremes, of danger and adventure. Most people picture the world of technology as stark, lifeless and harsh: like HAL9000, the merciless creature of logic in 2001: A Space Odyssey. For William Gibson the future technological world will cross-pollinate with our organic lives so completely it will be hard to tell where one ends and the other begins. He sees a future where artificial intelligences not only exist, but are in a sense more alive than we are. Over a century and a half before, Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein, wherein technology produces something monstrous and irreconcilable. Neuromancer is far more optimistic: Technology produces a world that is more real (for some people at least) than reality, and produces creatures that are bigger, more intelligent, and possibly more alive, than human beings. In the world of Neuromancer, technology augments human bodies, extends the reach of their senses, and amplifies their minds.

The concept of a superior artificial being is used in many science fiction stories, so often in fact that it seems as though we assume one day our creations will surpass us, and almost certainly kill us. In most cases the artifice turns on us, as in 2001The Matrix, and a thousand other dystopian futures where the robots take over. For Gibson, most of those expectations of mankind’s digital progeny are there, including their high intelligence, incredible speed, and mastery even of manipulating human minds. But absent is much of the menace, malice or vengeance. Indeed, the characters fear and distrust the AI even while it employs them, but one of the great surprises of the novel is what it does with its power.

I take this to mean the author sees technology not as a Pandora’s Box, but as a beautiful and inevitable part of mankind’s future.