Revisting Neuromancer After Three Decades

Neuromancer, William Gibson’s  first novel, was published in 1984. It helped to establish the cyberpunk genre of science fiction: a dark future where computing, communication, and artificial intelligence technologies were dominant, complemented by significant medical advances, large inhabited satellites in Earth orbit, and considerable drug use. I recently re-read it and was struck by how things have turned out differently.

NeuromancerNeuromancer’s Cyberpunk Hero is a Script Kiddie

“Classic cyberpunk characters were marginalized, alienated loners who lived on the edge of society in generally dystopic futures where daily life was impacted by rapid technological change, a ubiquitous datasphere of computerized information, and invasive modification of the human body. William Gibson’s Neuromancer is, of course, the archetypal cyberpunk work, and this (along with early Gibson short fiction like “Johnny Mnemonic” and “Burning Chrome,” The Artificial Kid, and the odd John Shirley work) is whence the “high tech/low life” cliché about cyberpunk and its imitators came.”

Lawrence Person in “Notes Toward a Postcyberpunk Manifesto” (1998)

Case, the hero of Neuromancer, is essentially a script kiddie, using hardware and software designed by others

“Case was twenty-four. At twenty-two, he’d been a cowboy, a rustler, one of the best in the Sprawl. He’d been trained by the best, by McCoy Pauley and Bobby Quine, legends in the biz. He’d operated on an almost permanent adrenaline high, a byproduct of youth and proficiency, jacked into a custom cyberspace deck that projected his disembodied consciousness into the consensual hallucination that was the matrix. A thief, he’d worked for other, wealthier thieves, employers who provided the exotic software required to penetrate the bright walls of corporate systems, opening windows into rich fields of data.”

William Gibson in Neuromancer

Shared Consensual Illusion

“The matrix has its roots in primitive arcade games,” said the voice-over, “in early graphics programs and military experimentation with cranial jacks.” On the Sony, a two-dimensional space war faded behind a forest of mathematically generated ferns, demonstrating the spacial possibilities of logarithmic spirals; cold blue military footage burned through, lab animals wired into test systems, helmets feeding into fire control circuits of tanks and war planes.

“Cyberspace. A consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators, in every nation, by children being taught mathematical concepts…A graphic representation of data abstracted from the banks of every computer in the human system. Unthinkable complexity. Lines of light ranged in the nonspace of the mind, clusters and constellations of data. Like city lights, receding.”

“What’s that?” Molly asked, as he flipped the channel selector.

“Kid’s show.”

William Gibson in Neuromancer

If the telephone is a virtual reality device, fostering the illusion that I am speaking to someone a few feet away who in reality may be thousands of mile distant, the Internet  is certainly a place you can spend your days working without ever leaving your home. It’s an office with a long hallway that wraps around the world.

One thing that’s very disappointing to me is how little business applications have learned from arcade games, and computer games in general. Game interfaces condense a tremendous amount of information into very succinct representations that are primarily graphical. These interfaces enable rapid and informed decision making at an individual and team level–don’t you want that for your business?

Blank-fuzzy-TV-screen-300x241The color of television tuned to a dead channel

“The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.”
William Gibson in Neuromancer (opening line)

When that line was written in 1984 dead television channels were filled with black and white static, they looked like an angry storm cloud on a summer day. For the most part now the are blue and without static. The change in the default setting changes the meaning of line from a storm is coming to it’s a bright sunny day with a cloudless blue sky.

The Sprawl

New York at Night looks like William Gibson's vision of cyberspace in Neuromancer


Home was BAMA, the Sprawl, the Boston-Atlanta Metropolitan Axis.

Program a map to display frequency of data exchange, every thousand megabytes a single pixel on a very large screen. Manhattan and Atlanta burn solid white. Then they start to pulse, the rate of traffic threatening to overload your simulation. Your map is about to go nova. Cool it down. Up your scale. Each pixel a million megabytes. At a hundred million megabytes per second, you begin to make out certain blocks in midtown Manhattan, outlines of hundred-year-old industrial parks ringing the old core of Atlanta…

William Gibson in Neuromancer (opening to Chapter Three: “The Shopping Expedition”)

It’s an interesting image: visualizing data exchange as a proxy for economic activity and seeing the old industrial and commercials re-emerge in this new world. I think there are human scale limits on how much we can absorb, for example if you are having a high definition video conference with real time transcription and hyperlinking of each persons remarks and a simulation or animation is running in parallel to the conversation, providing context or insights, you might also be taking notes or providing screen annotations or voicing notes in your own audio channel, but there is not a lot else you could be doing. There are human scale limits to what you can absorb or emit.

A high performance algorithm running on a computing cluster might be able to absorb or emit a million times as much data, but increasingly these live in cloud data centers that are distant from where humans perform work. The true hotspots on the display would be the data centers, which may or may not be located in the historical industrial centers and downtown business districts.

But I came back to this image many times when I worked in networking at 3Com and Cisco. It was a useful metaphor to think about visualizing network traffic and in a different way using message traffic analysis and footprints from on-line interactions to infer ad hoc work groups, expert communities, and communities of practice.

Cyberspace Everted Into Everyday Life

Cyberspace has colonized our everyday life and continues to colonize everyday life. It’s no longer “the other place”. When I began to write, cyberspace was “the other place”. But now, we’re in cyberspace, in some sense, all the time, and the other place is the lack of connectivity. The other place is the place where there’s no WiFi or where the cellphone doesn’t work.”
William Gibson in a March 2008 interview with ActuSF

This is the truly surprising result. We don’t “jack in” to cyberspace, cyberspace is increasingly woven into the critical infrastructure of our lives. There are not cell phones in Gibson’s vision of the future, but many would feel naked leaving the house–or perhaps even waking up–without one.


“I know you,” Case said, Linda beside him.

“No,” the boy said, his voice high and musical, “you do not.”

“You’re the other AI. You’re Rio. You’re the one who wants to stop Wintermute. What’s your name? Your Turing code. What is it?”

The boy did a handstand in the surf, laughing. He walked on his hands, then flipped out of the water. His eyes were Riviera’s, but there was no malice there. “To call up a demon you must learn its name. Men dreamed that, once, but now it is real in another way. You know that, Case. Your business is to learn the names of programs, the long formal names, names the owners seek to conceal. True names…”

“A Turing code’s not your name.”

“Neuromancer,” the boy said, slitting long gray eyes against the rising sun. “The lane to the land of the dead. Where you are, my friend.  Marie-France, my lady, she prepared this road but her lord choked her off before I could read the book of her days. Neuro from the nerves, the silver paths. Romancer. Necromancer. I call up the dead. But no, my friend,” and the boy did a little dance, brown feet printing the sand, “I am the dead, and their land.” He laughed. A gull cried.  “Stay. If your woman is a ghost, she doesn’t know it. Neither will you.”

William Gibson in Neuromancer

Letting go of his dead girlfriend, archived by an AI named Neuromancer, is the final challenge Case has to pass to complete his mission. I think Edison’s phonograph, capturing the voices and music of the living was an unanticipated invention. Completely different from the telephone that allowed us to speak across miles, this allowed the dead to speak across the years. It’s possible that we will find a way to record personalities or store a copy of enough interactions to build a convincing simulation of a person.  Gibson elaborated on this in a short piece in 1998 for Forbes ASAP called “Dead Man Sings

“Time moves in one direction, memory in another.

We are that strange species that constructs artifacts intended to counter the natural flow of forgetting.

I sometimes think that nothing really is new; that the first pixels were particles of ochre clay, the bison rendered in just the resolution required. The bison still function perfectly, all these millennia later, and what screen in the world today shall we say that of in a decade? And yet the bison will be there for us, on whatever screens we have, carried out of the primal dark on some impulse we each have felt, as children, drawing. But carried nonetheless on this thing we have always been creating, this vast unlikely mechanism that carries memory in its interstices; this global, communal, prosthetic memory that we have been building since before we learned to build.

We live in, have lived through, a strange time. I know this because when I was a child the flow of forgetting was relatively unimpeded. I know this because the dead were less of a constant presence, then. Because there was once no rewind button. Because the soldiers dying in the Somme were black and white, and did not run as the living run. Because the world’s attic was still untidy. Because there were old men in the mountain valleys of my Virginia childhood who remembered a time before recorded music.

When we turn on the radio in a New York hotel room and hear Elvis singing “Heartbreak Hotel”, we are seldom struck by the peculiarity of our situation: that a dead man sings.”
William Gibson “Dead Man Sings

And that is how book ends as well. The Neuromancer AI made a copy of Case to keep its copy of dead Linda company:

“And one October night, punching himself past the scarlet tiers of the Eastern Seaboard Fission Authority, he saw three figures, tiny, impossible, who stood at the very edge of one of the vast steps of data. Small as they were, he could make out the boy’s grin, his pink gums, the glitter of the long gray eyes that had been Riviera’s. Linda still wore his jacket; she waved, as he passed. But the third figure, close behind her, arm across her shoulders, was himself.”
William Gibson in Neuromancer

Postscript: Additional Thoughts After Hacker News Discussion

I posted this on Hacker News at and it generated a number of comments on my part. What follows are some additional thoughts the discussion triggered but it is not intended as a summary. I would encourage you to read the entire thread if you enjoyed Neuromancer.

Cheyana: Gibson’s future just may not have happened yet. In the ‘50s our sci-fi showed rockets landing in the same manner (in reverse) that they launched, and it’s slowly becoming a thing now. Some things, like people living in space or AI, were always obvious and easy to predict. Some things were strangely overlooked (cellphones).

skmurphy: That’s certainly possible. It’s interesting that the developers of the Motorola Star Tac phone said that they were inspired by the Star Trek communicators so science fiction had definitely predicted cell phones. The Technovelgy site is devoted to tracing real inventions to their science fiction counterparts.

electricslpnsld: “Neuromancer, William Gibson’s first novel, was published in 1984. It helped to establish the cyberpunk genre of science fiction.” Cyberpunk dates at least a decade before Neuromancer — Brunner’s Shockwave Rider form 1974 comes to mind (and is a pretty interesting and strangely timely read, given that it is almost 50 years old).

kabdib: Other early works that I associate with cyberpunk are:

  • Vernor Vinge, True Names
  • Thomas P Ryan, The Adolescence of P1
  • Algis Budrys, Michaelmas
  • Robert Heinlein, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress
  • David Gerrold, When Harlie Was One

Obviously, SF involving computers is pretty extensive, and there is a fuzzy line between “cyberpunk” and “this story involves computers at some level.” My criteria are: Are computers major characters in the story, and secondarily, are they helping other characters break lots of rules? :-)

skmurphy: I agree that there were a number of earlier novels and stories that were cyberpunk in their sensibilities: John Brunner’s “Shockwave Rider” and “Stand on Zanzibar”, Vinge’s “True Names”, Dick’s “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep” are some of the most obvious. I think Neuromancer helped establish cyberpunk because of it’s popularity and it’s vivid conceptualization of “cyberspace” as a separate parallel realm, similar to the Celtic Otherworlds, that is visited in more of a lucid dream state–to pass the final barrier Case has to flatline and cross over into what is essentially a land of the dead.

I think Shockwave Rider captured the sense of accelerating change and what Toffler called “future shock” (modeled on “culture shock” it’s the discomfort from finding yourself embedded in the foreign culture of the future). Vinge anticipated privacy issues (and may other important considerations in his other works like “Rainbows End”) and Dick is exploring the nature of what it means to be human.

Gibson’s Neuromancer shows a world where extensive body modifications are commonplace, but it does not seem to affect anyone’s self-image or concerns about identity. So at some level “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep” is more philosophically and psychologically profound.

Additional thoughts
I think there are a couple of distinguishing characteristics for cyberpunk:

  • The heroes are not motivated by a purpose larger than themselves. Case is a thief, hired essentially by one AI to help it circumvent the “Turing Laws” and achieve a level of capability that would make it uncontrolled (similar to Vinge’s “Coming Technological Singularity“).
  • It’s a dystopian world, made worse by corporate exploitation. Governments may be no better.
  • Cyberspace or computer communication networks are accessed directly by neural interface. Cyberspace enables the equivalent of telepathy and astral projection.
  • Artificial intelligence is either unconcerned with or inimical to improving human existence. When Wintermute and Neuromancer are united they pursue their own purposes, ignoring human society.

In many of the stories suggested the protagonists are trying to make improvements in society, often aided by computer intelligence which is a sensibility 180 degrees from the grim dark futures in cyberpunk.

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Photo Credit: Vincent La Foret via Gizmodo’s “These are the most amazing visuals of New York”

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