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Neuromancer
Sprawl #1
by William Gibson
Ace, 271pp
Published: July 1984

Before I dive into the winner of the Hugo Award for Best Novel in 1985, I should point out that this isn't the greatest novel ever written and there are a host of things wrong with it, some of which the author freely points out in his excellent introduction to the 20th anniversary edition. It's ironic, he notes, that a book so often credited as foreseeing the technological future doesn't just not include cellphones but even sets a pivotal scene around a bank of payphones. No, William Gibson didn't get everything right.

What he did do, though, is utterly change the face of the genre in which he was writing and that's never a simple thing to do. Cyberpunk didn't become the be-all and end-all of science fiction, of course. It went as quickly as it came, but it represented a paradigm shift in the genre, one that recognised enough of a changing world to credibly enter a new era. Sorry, Mike, you may run the moon, but it's right here that science fiction entered the computer age. Everything is on. Everything is connected. The future is here.

I've been reading through these Hugo winners in chronological order and this is my thirty-second from a list of books that are sometimes excellent, sometimes important and very often both. It's fair to say at this point that not one of them felt as groundbreaking as this did, not 'Stranger in a Strange Land', not 'Dune' and not 'Lord of Light', as groundbreaking as all of those books were. Part of its genius is to look backward as much as forward, unfolding like a forties film noir, but from the perspective of fifteen minutes into the future. Even now, almost forty years on, this still feels edgy and fresh, even if this isn't the future we got in so many ways. It's still the line in the sand between old and new.

There are a lot of reasons for that but I'm not going to turn this into a thesis. I'm sure that's been done and it doesn't need to be done again by me. Reading this again, perhaps for the fourth or fifth time, I'd like to call out a few things that stood out to me as a fifty-one-year-old grandfather.

One is that William Gibson really wasn't writing science fiction. Sure, 'Neuromancer' is set in the future and it's all about computer networks and artificial intelligences and designer drugs. Sure, it's built on a constant set of speculations about societal change. Sure, it ends up in habitats in the clouds above our planet. Yeah, there's all sorts of science fiction here. But Gibson wasn't writing a science fiction story in the way that all those other Hugo winners did. I don't mean that it's a mystery or a thriller or whatever other genre you might conjure up, fairly or otherwise. I mean that it's not really a novel in a number of ways.

For one, it's poetry, even if it's written as prose. Gibson was clearly in love with language and not just a single language. He's Canadian and he wrote it in English, but he plucked vocabulary from a whole slew of other languages to pepper his manuscript. It's almost like he found a set of specific words and spun a paragraph or three out of each of them until they became pages and then connected them together to form what's generally labelled a novel. But it's arguably as much about "zaibatsu" and "cloisonné" and "djellaba" as it was about whatever happens on their pages.

I could see an art project in condensing each page of this book down to the single word that functions as its fundamental essence, in a similar way to how a film can be condensed into a set of colours displayed as a sort of spectrum. This page might be "triptych", that one "enzyme" and the next one over the turn "razorgirl". Many of them are "baroque", literally or figuratively. Some of them are proper nouns too, whether used in their usual way, like "Chiba" or "Kandinsky" or "Bazaar", invented like "Wintermute" or simply turned into a name like "Riviera" or "Lupus Yonderboy".

For another, it's a set of observations. Gibson is a master at looking at something trivial, commonplace or unworthy of note and seeing something in it that the rest of us don't see. A lot of that boils down to component parts. He sees the weight of a train, the tyres on a car, the pages in a library. He isn't just seeing either, because that's just one sense of many and they're all just as important. One particular location reminds the protagonist, appropriately called Case, of a deserted shopping centre in the wee hours of the morning, but Gibson condenses it down to a "fitful stillness", a "kind of numb expectancy", a "tension that left you watching insects swarm around caged bulbs above the entrance of darkened shops".

And, of course, that brings us back to poetry because that's the poet's job, to see what we don't. Gibson merely does that by disdaining the mainstream. He's not interested in Main Street, he's interested in the alley behind it. He prefers places after they're closed and the regular clientele has left. He prefers people before they put on their make-up, when their guards are down. He prefers accents to a default pronunciation, whatever the language. He prefers subcultures to cultures. He knows that the future is designed for Japanese schoolgirls and everyone else jumps on the bandwagon. He likes acronyms but he doesn't like to explain them.

I say all of this because it's what I see when I read 'Neuromancer' nowadays. When I first read this, as a teenager—I was thirteen when this came out and I was enhancing programs that I'd typed into my BBC Model B from typoed listings in commercial magazines—it was all about technology. Later, as a young adult who was dipping into classic film, it was a noir story about shadowy people in shadowy places. As I started to write, it became a story about a man who's dying but is promised life in exchange for certain services rendered. Now, it's poetry, a dance of vocabulary and hidden insight that turns everyday into the future. I wonder what it'll be next time I read it. ~~ Hal C F Astell

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