Neuromancer: A Foreshadow of Things Still to Come
By Paulo Pacheco on July 20, 2016
Neuromancer is the first novel of the writer William Gibson, and it was published on July 1, 1984 . It has sold more than 6 million copies, and in the year after its launch received the three biggest awards in Science Fiction writing: the Nebula, Philip K Dick and Hugo awards . It defined an aesthetic – Cyberpunk – and left a mark in the tech and digital culture by envisioning the concept of cyberspace and virtual reality, both integrated and being extensions of the physical world . Today, we have the World Wide Web, and the explosion of Virtual Reality is finally around the corner (even if it still hasn’t reached the same level has explored in the novel) has reminders of some aspects of the world created by Gibson that crept in into our reality.
Influences for the Story
William Gibson was not a “techie” by nature. He was aware of the new technologies around him, but according to Gareth Damien Martin, “he never had even touched a PC when he wrote Neuromancer.” His exposure to computers came as he met and conversed with science fiction writers and people who were experiencing that novel technology. He focused on observing their behaviors, addictions, obsessions and how they would interface with technology.
Another influence for the novel came from the counter-culture of the 1960’s. The author was embedded in its excesses, in the drug culture and the exploration of altered states of consciousness. This influence can easily be seen in the main character and in the criminal underworld described in the story. In both of these cases – in the tech and counter-culture world - his value was mainly has an observer . Other influences for the work of William Gibson came from movies (e.g. Escape From New York and 1940’s film-noir), music and pop culture elements .
Summary of the Story of Neuromancer
The setting of the story is in a “post-apocalyptic, not-too-distant future in which ‘human’ has transformed into ‘post-human’ and ecological systems have been supplanted by technological constructs” . It is a future where media, technology, pop culture and market imperatives have spun out of control . It follows the story of a character called Case, a once “cyberspace cowboy” who could hack into corporate databases. Due to a job gone wrong, Case is left crippled and unable to access cyberspace. He is then recruited by an underworld group of people. They promise to heal Case’s nervous system if he helps them to infiltrate an AI (Artificial Intelligence) called Wintermute .
Cyberspace, Virtual Realities and the Fusion of Technology with Wetware
There is no doubt that Neuromancer had a great impact in foreseeing the technologies that would follow its publication, and its level of prescience is still praised; the author’s being named as a prophet of the digital age. Even though there are some technologies that the book foreshadowed, others are still a bit far off . We may not have reached - in the real-world - the bleak aesthetics of the novel, but there still are intersecting paths between fiction and reality that are eerily similar.
One of those is the idea of a World Wide Web: a global network of millions of computers. The concept of linking computers to each other already existed when the book launched – universities had already connected various systems of servers through a telecom link – but not on the global scale that the novel described. The concept of the internet as we know it today was still a decade away, and it may just have been a wild speculation at the time. Jack Womack has suggested, in the afterword of the 2000 re-release of the book, that it could have even influenced the way the Web developed by providing a sort of blueprint, a guide, to the developers who read and grew up with the novel .
It also defined cyberspace (or the matrix as it is also called) has “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…" . The current Virtual Reality technology of our world may not be as advanced as that in the book, where people interact with the network directly through their nervous systems with full sensory stimulation, but that may be just a matter of time . Virtual Reality seems to be finally on the cusp of penetrating our world and becoming the norm with the Oculus Rift and other types of headsets. The book reflects, ultimately, the increasing presence of technology in our lives, having in its core the direct integration of man and computer. Indeed, development in this direction has already started    . The VR headsets are getting better and providing a greater immersion into their virtual realms. Direct brain-to-brain communication between human subjects has been achieved - a sort of technological telepathy – with the aid of electrodes attached to a person’s scalp and the use of the internet to transmit the information . Real-time brain control of a computer cursor was already done back in 2002 . There’s a real tendency to merge computers, the Internet and our own wetware  that is evocative of the world William Gibson created.
With all these developments there is always the risk of abuse, addiction, as escapism – a subject also dealt with in the book. Either way, our connection with the technology we use is already affecting us   and only time will tell if we will achieve that full integration with the machines that was envisioned in Neuromancer.
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