When Neuromancer by William Gibson was first published it created a sensation. Or perhaps it would be more precise to say that it was used to create a sensation, for Bruce Sterling and other Gibson associates declared that a new kind of science fiction had appeared which rendered merely ordinary SF obsolete. Informed by the amoral urban rage of the punk subculture and depicting the developing human-machine interface created by the widespread use of computers and computer networks, set in the near future in decayed city landscapes like those portrayed in the filmBlade Runner it claimed to be the voice of a new generation. (Interestingly, Gibson himself has said he had finished much of what was to be his body of early cyberpunk fiction before ever seeing Blade Runner.) Eventually it was seized on by hip “postmodern” academics looking to ride the wave of the latest trend. Dubbed “cyberpunk,” the stuff was being talked about everywhere in SF. Of course by the time symposia were being held on the subject, writers declared cyberpunk dead, yet the stuff kept being published and it continues to be published today by writers like K. W. Jeter and Rudy Rucker Perhaps the best and most representative anthology of cyberpunk writers is Mirrorshades., edited by Sterling, the genre’s most outspoken advocate.
But cyberpunk’s status as the revolutionary vanguard was almost immediately challenged. Its narrative techniques, many critics pointed out, were positively reactionary compared to the experimentalism of mid-60s “new wave” SF. One of the main sources of its vision was William S. Burroughs’ quasi-SF novels like Nova Express, (1964), and the voice of Gibson’s narrator sounded oddly like a slightly updated version of old Raymond Chandler novels like The Big Sleep, (1939). Others pointed out that almost all of cyberpunk’s characteristics could be found in the works of older writers such as J. G. Ballard, Philip K. Dick, Harlan Ellison, or Samuel R. Delany. Most damning of all, it didn’t seem to have been claimed by the generation it claimed to represent. Real punks did little reading, and the vast majority of young SF readers preferred to stick with traditional storytellers such as Larry Niven, Anne McCaffrey and even Robert Heinlein. Gibson’s prose was too dense and tangled for casual readers, so it is not surprising that he gained more of a following among academics than among the sort of people it depicted. Heavy Metalcomics and Max Headroom brought more of the cyberpunk vision to a young audience than did the fiction
Yet Neuromancer is historically significant. Most critics agree that it was not only the first cyberpunk novel, it was and remains the best. Gibson’s rich stew of allusion to contemporary technology set a new standard for SF prose. If his plots and characters are shallow and trite, that mattered little, for it is not the tale but the manner of its telling that stands out. His terminology continues to pop up here and there. Whereas an earlier generation borrowed names from its favorite author, J. R. R. Tolkien, like “Shadowfax” (a new-age music group), “Gandalf” (a brand of computer data switch), and “Moria” (an early fantasy computer game), there has been a proliferation of references to Neuromancer: there was a computer virus called ” Screaming Fist,” the Internet is commonly referred to as “Cyberspace” or–occasionally–“the Matrix,” and there are several World Wide Web sites are named “Wintermute.” (The rock group named “The Meat Puppets” existed before Gibson borrowed the term.) Gibson produced his vision in a time when many people were becoming haunted by the idea of urban decay, crime rampant, corruption everywhere. Just as readers of the 50s looked obsessively for signs that Orwell’s Nineteen-Eighty-Four was coming true, some readers keep an eye out for the emergence of cyberpunk’s nightmare world in contemporary reality. The fiction may not be widely read, but through movies and comics it has created one of the defining mythologies of our time.
The vision of Neuromancer was too confining for a writer of Gibson’s originality, and after a couple of sequels–(Count Zero and Mona Lisa Overdrive )–he turned to other experiments, such as his “steampunk” collaboration with Bruce Sterling: The Difference Engine, depicting an alternative Victorian Age in which huge, steam-driven computers were developed. In 1994 he returned to Cyberpunk with Virtual Light and in 1995 published another novel set in Japan, Idoru.
Note that Gibson’s related story Johnny Mnemonic Official site of the forthcoming Neuromancer film.
In classic SF, a strongly independent individual often overcomes huge obstacles to solve problems affecting vast masses of people. In what ways does Neuromancer depart from this pattern?
Part One: Chiba City Blues
In the eighties, the American image of Japan underwent a profound transformation. For generations it had been on the margins of our imagination: as the exotic land of cherry blossoms and geishas, later as the war machine sending out kamikaze bomber pilots in World War II, and later still as the source of every sort of cheap, shoddy, imitative gadget. All of these were shallow images, of course. Japan industrialized not long after northern Europe, and Western influences had been strong for centuries. But the success of brands like Sony and Toyota changed everything. Japan suddenly became perceived as the cutting edge of modernity. Whereas the rest of the world had looked toward the U.S. for innovation in the past, young Americans began to think of Japan as the future, and it became a frequent setting for science fiction. Not that the new image was any more profound or less stereotyped, but it was certainly different. Chiba City in this novel has developed into a small section of the megapolis. “The Zone” is the decayed inner core of Chiba City. Today Japan has half the population of the U.S. crowded in the area of California. Urban sprawl is a reality.
The opening image of the book, comparing nature to technology, sets the tone of the narrative. “Case,” the name of the protagonist, could suggest detective fiction, or it could suggest technology. His body–which he treats as almost an alien entity with which he is not friendly terms–is a kind of case for his mind and for the cyberspace with which it fuses, no more significant in itself than the case of a computer CPU. The persistent cyberpunk obsession with the mixture of flesh (called “meat” in the novel) and machinery is introduced through Ratz’s stainless steel teeth–unnatural looking but commonplace in Communist Eastern Europe. Why is it significant that Ratz is ugly? Ratz’ reaction to the unexpected moment of silence is an old cliché, but startlingly incongruous in this setting. Case’s addiction to cyberspace is certainly prophetic; someone half-jokingly set up a Usenet support group for victims of cyberspace addiction: (alt.usenet.recovery). A “coffin hotel” is a building which rents out cheap sleeping space not much larger than a coffin. How is a cyberspace cowboy similar to a traditional cowboy? Different? Case is a classic illegal hacker; but his present dilemma is caused by a classic crime-novel situation, a crook attempting to skim the proceeds from organized crime. Presumably the Russians developed the mycotoxin (fungal poison) as a chemical warfare weapon. It has blocked his ability to experience cyberspace. Why has he come to Japan? What evidence of pollution is contained in the paragraph beginning “Now he slept”? “Arcologies” are huge, self-contained cities enclosed in a single building, imagined by Paolo Soleri. “Dex” is dexedrine, a popular form of amphetimine. What characteristics make Case an anti-hero? What does he do for a living? The possibility of an underground market for body parts has been around since organ transplants became commonplace and has often been treated in SF.
“Miss Linda Lee” may be an allusion to the Velvet Underground song “Cool It Down,” which contains the lines “But now me l”m out on the corner/ You know I’m lookin’ for Miss Linda Lee/Because she’s got the power to love me by the hour.” Where had Case first met Linda Lee? Repeated references to war in Europe suggest it has been devastated in the recent past, probably by nuclear weapons. “Pachinko” is a very popular kind of Japanese gambling machine vaguely like vertically-oriented pinball. “French orbital fatigues” would be the uniform worn by French astronauts in orbit.” “Yakitori” is Japanese barbecued chicken, a common street snack always cooked on skewers. “Sarariman” is the Japanese word for a businessman employed by a large corporation, formed on the English words “salary” and “man.” Compare with English slang: “suit.” What does it tell us that the Japanese industrial giant Mitsubishi seems to have absorbed the U.S. genetic engineering firm Genentech? Although the computer images in the novel have had more impact, the biological ones are almost as important. Why is the “sarariman” in danger in Night City? “Gaijin” is a Japanese term for Westerners. The Yakuza is the biggest Japanese organized crime syndicate, their Mafia. A VTR is a “videotape recorder,” a “simstim” deck is a kind of virtual reality machine to simulate stimuli, Manriki chains and shuriken (sharp-pointed steel stars) are both familiar weapons from ninja movies. Hong Kong is famous for its tailors who can cut and deliver a custom-made suit in hours. Can you guess why the wearing of glasses would be an affectation rather than something normal in this society? The pioneering Russian abstract painter Wassily Kandinsky specialized in shapeless blobs, lines, and smears in bright colors. More Kandinsky.Salvador Dali frequently depicted “melted” watches and clocks (for example, “The Persistence of Memory, ” 1931). Julius Deane uses expressions (“boyo,” “old son”) which indicate a British background. In the paragraph beginning”The cultivation of a certain tame paranoia” he sees in a display window an elaborate alternative to a pocket watch. What is it? A taser stuns its victims with an electrical shock, but is not meant to be lethal. In Japan gasps of pure oxygen could at one time be had from streetside vending machines. What is Case trying to sell now? Why can Ratz crush a shatterproof plastic ashtray to shards in his hand? “Wig”=”crazy;” after old hipster jazz, “flipped his wig,” “wigged out.” Flechettes” are darts (flèche is French for “arrow”). Molly is an extrapolation of the “tough dame” of Chandler-style mean-streets crime fiction. Suchfemme fatale assassins are a mainstay of modern futuristic fiction. Do they represent women’s liberation? What is her characteristic implant?
A “fletcher” shoots “flechettes” (see above). In the operation called “Screaming Fist” (a typical karate film title, though Gibson probably got it from the title of a 1977 song by the Vancouver punk band The Viletones) a team had been hired to destroy a Russian computer network (“nexus”) in Kirensk with a virus, but Armitage failed and was caught. What does “ICE” stand for? What is an “icebreaker?” Note how computers have altered the economy. Molly tells Case that his surgery is being paid for in software. Samurai originated as the faithful defenders of feudal lords during the Kamakura period, but as Japan fell into disorder, many of them roamed the country as “hired swords” and as such are one of the most popular subjects for Japanese fiction, drama, and film. “Ninjas” are a related group who tend to have a worse reputation, though they could be just as honorable as samurai. “Working girl,” is slang for prostitute, though when Molly uses the term it is at first ambiguous, suggesting that she may be willing to work as a street samurai for anyone. Later we learn the horrifying truth. Note the mechanical crab in the courtyard. Endorphins are natural chemicals which provide pleasurable feelings and suppress pain. If Case has been injected with “endorphin inhibitors,” clearly his tormentors have been trying to make him feel as much pain as possible. Note that his surgery was carried out mostly without incisions. To what is the sex Case experiences with Molly compared? Note how Molly is presented as dominant, highly competent, and–most important–better informed than Case. Such women are very common in contemporary action fiction. Why do you think they are so popular with male readers? What is her job?
What is Case trying to find out from Deane? Note how “Watergated” has become a verb, evidently meaning that the “Screaming Fist” conspiracy proliferated in many directions. “Emp” stands for “EMP”=”Electromagnetic Pulse” weapons. Nuclear bombs detonated at certain altitudes with certain characteristics can destroy electrical circuits, effectively destroying the enemy’s defenses. Arpanet, the ancestor of the Internet was first constructed in an attempt to work around this problem. Here “emps” would seem to be a lower-level weapon aimed at penetrations like “Screaming Fist.” In a turkey shoot the birds are released to be shot at, therefore a turkey shoot is a very easy form of killing. Screaming Fist was a turkey shoot because the Soviet military had been informed in advance that it was coming. “Ivan” is the Russian government. Zaibatsus are the giant Japanese corporations which traditionally employ their male workers for life. What is the entertainment like at Sammi’s arena? Why was killed? (Her name is probably derived from that of a woman mentioned in the lyrics of the Velvet Underground Song “Cool It Down.”) Note the recurring question: “Who is behind all this?” This question characterizes this sort of paranoid conspiratorial fiction.
Part Two: The Shopping Expedition
The New-York to Washington D. C. corridor is often discussed as an evolving megapolis. Here the process has gone much further, to develop into “the Sprawl.” Note that the map described on the first page of this chapter depicts not population density, but the frequency of the exchange of data: the new definition of civilization. When a star “goes nova” it explodes. Narita Tokyo airport, Schipol [or more correctly Schiphol] is in Amsterdam, Orly is in Paris. The silent train they rode on is a maglev (magnetic levitation) vehicle of the kind which has been tested in various places. A powerful electrical charge turns the rails into electromagnets which actually lift the train above them a fraction of an inch, reducing friction essentially to zero and allowing for great speed at a low expenditure of energy. “The heat” is old gangster slang for “the cops:” here, any form of law enforcement officer. How has Armitage tried to guarantee that Case will not betray his employers? Krill is the tiny shrimp on which baleen whales live. The Japanese process it into various fish and meat imitations. It has been proposed as a source of protein for an over-populated world. New York is enclosed by a dome, but typically Gibson introduces this fact by observing its malfunctioning: a freak wind blowing a piece of newspaper along the street.
The cerebral cortex is the most complex and vital part of the brain. A “cortex bomb” would obviously be very ominous. The team is being slowly assembled. “Dixie Flatline’s construct” is an electronic recording of the mind of a dead “cowboy” (free-lance hacker specializing in penetrating computer security systems) whose actual name was McCoy Pauley. His nickname suggests death (alluding to a flat line on an intensive-care room monitor) because he experienced brain death three times. We will learn more about the monstrous Peter Riviera later.
One of SF’s narrative difficulties is explaining future technology to the reader in a setting in which such explanations should not be necessary. How does Gibson justify providing his “info-dump” explaining the origin of the matrix? “Dermatrodes” would be electrodes which attach to the epidermis, or skin. A mandala is a complex Buddhist symbol, often in circular form. “Spiral arms” alludes the arms of distant galaxies, unreachable by any current technology. Here they are a metaphor for unreachable distant centers of power on Earth. The idea of a computer or network in which one can experience virtual reality has been around in fiction for a long time, but was first popularized in the movie Tron /CITE> (1982).
The stolen module the Finn has brought will enable Case to experience the world from inside Molly’s body without leaving cyberspace–telepathy made technological.
What distinguishes simstim addicts from cyberspace explorers like Case? Tally Isham is a simstim star. What does Case experience about Molly’s effect on other people? Note the ironic use of the name “Memory Lane.” The sockets implanted in people’s heads were to become a standard feature of cyberpunk. “Softs”=software; the word is an abbreviation for “microsoft,” an obvious allusion to the giant software corporation. The Hosaka computer can function somewhat like the computer on the Starship Enterprise: query it vocally and it will tell you what it knows. The answer is given in multimedia form. Many Japanese women undergo surgery to remove the epicanthic fold in the eyelid, giving them “Western” eyes. What does it mean that people are now having epicanthic folds surgically created? Dr. Rambali alludes to the fact that terrorists depend on the news media to publicize their causes, but the media concentrate so exclusively on their acts of terror that the message they are trying to convey is usually suppressed. How have the Panther Moderns short-circuited this process? “Panther” is usually short for the Black Panther movement of the sixties and early seventies which advocated violent resistance to racism, but in this group is named after the San Francisco rock band “The Panther Moderns” led by Gibson’s friend and fellow cyberpunk author John Shirley. “Big Science” is a term for large, expensive research projects such as the Human Genome Project or the recently-cancelled Superconducting Supercollider; but the name here probably alludes to the title of a Laurie Anderson CD. Anderson’s fusion of live theater and technology is very suggestive of the kind of environment in which Neuromancer is set.
Molly is trying to penetrate the Sense/Net headquarters in Atlanta to steal the Dixie Flatline construct, assisted remotely by Case interfering with Sense/Net’s security software, the two of them linked by the broadcast network created and run by the Panther Moderns. Case’s mind is using Molly’s body. Why do you think Gibson chose Atlanta as media headquarters? A “blackbox” is any kind of illicit electronic device which can bypass normal circuits: the original permitted its users to make long-distance phone calls without paying for them. Strobe lights are known to induce seizures in certain people when pulsed at precisely the right frequency. How do the Panther Moderns terrorize the people in the Sense/Net building? Computer viruses are written mostly to do simple kinds of mischief today; but in the novel viruses are tools which can penetrate secure computers, retrieve information, and cover their traces. Case’s code name is “Cutter.” Molly is “Cat Mother.” “Brood” is the Panthers. How did Molly break her leg? How does Case fool the security system into letting Molly take the construct?
“Lupus” means “wolf” in Latin, although it’s also the name of a disfiguring skin disease. Describe Lupus Yonderboy’s appearance. “Mr. Who” is an allusion to the long-running British SF TV series, Dr. Who, featuring an unnamed hero usually alluded to only as “The Doctor.” Note that although this transaction is taking place in BAMA, the currency is new yen. The “Doppler” effect makes sounds seem to rise in pitch as the sound source approaches the hearer, fall as the recede. Note how Linda Lee continues to haunt him. Here we are first given the name “Wintermute.”
Why is Molly able to dissect her crab “with alarming ease?” What is “jive” and what is its function in this environment? Artificial Intelligence (“AI”) is a much-discussed concept which would involve the creation of a complex computer system which would replicate the functions of a human brain. Debates rage about whether such a construct would possess consciousness, but research goes on toward developing AI. Molly and Case are both bent on learning who Armitage is working for. The tip that Wintermute is involved leads them to its parent corporation: Tessier-Ashpool S. A. “The gravity well” is a concept describing the difficulty of getting objects and people off the earth’s surface into orbit, where space colonies have been built. Cyberpunk seldom depicts travel to other worlds, but takes high-orbit space colonies for granted. An archipelago is usually a group of islands. What is the meaning of the term here? “Spook” is slang for ” spy.” Freeside is an orbiting space colony shaped like a spindle (or cigar). Explain why it is “hard to keep track of what generation, or combination of generations” is running Tesssier-Ashpool at any time? What does the slogan “Travel was a meat thing” mean? What does a “joeboy” seem to be?
In this chapter we learn that “Armitage” is really Willis Corto, one of the agents who tried to carry out “Screaming Fist.” What does “Watergating” seem to mean in this context? How was he used by the military? How is Armitage another variation on the machine/human interface theme? How does the pattern of Armitage’s record suggest that he, like Case, is just a hireling and not an integral part of whatever force is behind this mission?
Why does the Mercedes talk to its passengers as it takes them into Istanbul What is the significance of the existence of letter-writers? How many different kinds of mutual distrust can you find in this chapter among the various characters? Riviera has had an implant which allows him to project onto the retinas of his victims whatever he chooses–far-fetched, but not so unscientific as mental telepathy. What is significant about the horse that they see? How does Riviera deceive Case while Terzibashjian captures him? A seraglio is a harem. According to Case and Molly, who is probably responsible for rebuilding “Armitage” and sending him on this mission? Alan Turing<, a pioneer theoretician of machine intelligence, suggested that a computer might be made indistinguishable from a human being. The “Turing heat” would therefore be police assigned the task of preventing computers from reaching improper levels of intelligence and power. “Shopping politicals”=betraying dissidents. How do we learn that Germany was hit with at least one nuclear weapon during the war? What does the last line of this chapter signify?
Part Three: Midnight in the Rue Jules Verne
The scene now shifts from Istanbul to Paris. Freeside is called “an orbital Geneva” in relation to that city’s emphasis on offering secret bank accounts which are very attractive to those involved in illegal transactions. What subliminal image does Riviera project to Case to symbolize his opinion of Molly? Since they are taking a Japan Air Lines shuttle from Paris to the orbital station called “Freeside” it is natural that koto music is playing the background. Rastafarianism is a movement that originated in the 1930s in Jamaica, which involves the hairstyle called “dreadlocks,” the hope for blacks to return to Ethiopia (identified with the Biblical Zion), reggae music, and the smoking of ganja (marijuana). It was inspired in part by the movement founded during the early 1920s by Marcus Garvey, who advocated a return of blacks to Africa. He created a fleet of ships called “The Black Star Line,” though it was never used for emigration purposes. Rastas refer to White civilization, and the U. S. in particular as “Babylon,” the demonic city of Christian apocalyptic writing. God is called “Jah,” short for “Jahweh,” which scholars think was the original pronunciation of the Hebrew name for God (though in the scholarship the “J” is pronounced as in German, as a “Y” sound). The rasta dialect is used by the characters in this chapter. Without rotation, an orbiting space station is in free-fall, and this creates an apparently weightless environment familiar from televised orbital missions. However, if such a station is spun around a central axis, centrifugal force pushes everything toward the rim. The closer to the rim one is, the stronger the apparent gravity is; whereas at the center of rotation, freefall weightlessness prevails. Note the various visual games Riviera continues to play. What reveals that Dixie Flatline is in fact bothered by knowing that he is dead? “Rue [Street] Jules Verne ” is of course a tribute to the French grandfather of science fiction. “Stepping Razor” is a 1977 song by Reggae great Peter Tosh (from his album Equal Rights). The lyrics of the opening verse and refrain indicate why Molly’s razor implants would remind the rastas of the song:
If you wanna live
Treat me good
If you wanna live, live
I beg you treat me goodI’m like a stepping razor
Don’t you watch my sides
I’m dangerous, said I’m dangerous
I’m like a stepping razor
Don’t you watch my sides
I’m dangerous, dangerous
(Thanks to Thom Cosgrove for this note.)
Names spelled “Aerol” and “Maelcum” are approximations of the rasta pronunciations of “Errol” and “Malcolm.” Dub is a form of Jamaican rap music, popular throughout the Caribbean. Who has persuaded the rastas to cooperate with the team, and how?
A “g-web” would be a retaining net able to absorb the impact of acceleration and deceleration as the tug maneuvers. Such impact is measured in “g’s” or Earth gravity equivalents. To experience 2 gs, for instance, is to be feel a force equal to two times Earth’s gravity. Rastas avoid saying “we,” using “I and I” instead. A “frog” company would be French. Gibson has no hesitation about using rather dated slang in his narrative mixed with futuristic locutions. When Case’s attempt to penetrate Wintermute is repelled, where and when does his mind seem to take him? Where is he really? What does Wintermute reveal to Case about its true nature?
The description of the plants tumbling over the balconies of Freeside strongly suggests traditional images of the Hanging Garden of Babylon. The blue sky overhead is artificial, a recording made in the French sea resort of Cannes. Why does the pseudo-death of Deane haunt Case so much? How does Case react to trees and grass? What bizarre style does he encounter worn by three Japanese wives? Why is Case so puzzled about being sent the Kuang Grade Mark Eleven icebreaker virus? What is Dixie Flatline’s theory?
“Vingtième Siècle” is French for “Twentieth Century,” now a “period.” Here we first encounter Lady 3Jane Marie-France Tessier-Ashpool. Why does Peter Riviera’s show upset Case so much? Of the expensive shops, Gucci is Italian, Tsuyako is Japanese, Hermès is French, and Liberty is English. What does Case learn about Linda from Wintermute in this chapter? Wintermute seems to be behaving like an old-fashioned melodrama villain: manipulating the protagonist by endangering the woman he cares about. The girl in Case’s cubicle is a “meat puppet,” a prostitute who has had her conscious mind artificially disconnected from her body by a “neural cutout” so that she can carry out her duties on “automatic pilot.” Why was Molly so furious at Riviera’s sadistic fantasy performance? “Snuff” refers to film or performances involving the killing of women for the sexual pleasure of sadists. Snuff films have a long-standing status as an urban legend–nobody has ever found an authentic commercial example–but they are commonly cited as the quintessence of pornography. So Molly’s boss was planning to have her killed. Why did she kill the Senator? This story makes clear what Molly has to gain by remaining an outlaw. What is Molly’s theory about how Wintermute is manipulating her?
Why has Gibson invented the term “nighted”? “Le Monde” is French for “The World.” “Old money” means wealth combined with social status in old families such as the Rockefellers. “Old credit” would be mean the same in a culture where physical money no longer has a function. Remember that Case is using the name “Lupus” now. Origami (traditional Japanese paper-folding) cranes have come to be symbols of peace because of their association with the anti-nuclear bomb campaigns in Japan. What do you think is the significance of Cathy’s crane? Examine the metaphors in the paragraph describe the Case’s sensations when the drug hits; can you see any pattern in them? What do they have in common? Why is the zodiac on Freeside referred to as a “loser’s” zodiac? Cath had hoped to seduce Case with this drug. What goes wrong with her plan? What is Case’s attitude toward his anger the next morning? “Turing”=”Turing police,” defined above.
Part Four: The Straylight Run
Case learns for the first time what his real mission is, from the police. What is it? “Good cop/bad cop” is a familiar routine in which one interrogator is angry and threatening while the other feigns sympathy. The suspect is meant to shrink from the first into the “protective” arms of the other and reveal his or her guilt. The “Recording Angel” is a mythical being who records all deeds good and bad to decide who makes it into heaven. Case’s surgical implant procedure, evidently designed by Wintermute, was so innovative it enabled the illegal clinic in Chiba City to capitalize on the knowledge involved to get rich. How has this fact led to Case’s arrest? Why does Michèle say that Case has no “care” for his species? Why will it be difficult for Sense/Net to protest the destruction of the Dixie Flatline construct? Since both the pilot of the biplane and the gardening robot have struck, to whom is Case speaking in the last lines of this chapter?
When Case loads the Chinese icebreaker software, Dixie Flatline observes from outside it that it appears invisible–reassuring for the team. Dixie’s description of the way the virus works is a well-written example of SF pseudo-science talk: a set of metaphors that make a kind of sense without any real technical explanation. When Case finds himself facing what appears to be the Finn back in Metro Holografix, who is he really talking to? For the reference to the burning bush, see Exodus 3:2-6. An old philosophical puzzle asks, “If a tree falls in the forest where there’s no one to hear it, does it make a sound?” How is Wintermute able to recreate people and places Case knows? In what sense is the imaginary vacuum tube part of Wintermute’s DNA? What threat does Wintermute claim to want to protect humanity from? A “folly” is the sort of fantastic architectural construction built in late 18th-century England to suggest medieval or classical ruins. The explanation given by the jeweled head of the Villa Starlight is another example of an “info-dump.” What is the source of this one? “Semiotics” here refers to the meaning of the patterns of the Villa. Why does Wintermute need the team to penetrate past the head? Wintermute’s last speech is highly ambiguous. Can you puzzle a meaning out of it? In Exodus Chapter 3, God speaks to Moses from within a burning bush.
The meeting with Wintermute this time “killed” Case temporarily. When he reestablishes simstim contact with Molly, Wintermute informs her of the connection on her implanted ocular display which normally acts as a digital clock. This trick is what she reacts to when she says “Cute.” The words in ALL CAPS in the rest of this chapter are similar displays. Molly uses her tongue to flip a control in her mouth that switches her vision from perceiving normal light to some kind of substitute which works in the dark. What is a “stash ” as Molly defines it? Molly’s story about Johnny reveals that she and Case have something important in common. What is it? Why do you think the ordinarily very private Molly is telling him this story? “Fancy dress” is British for costumes of the sort one would wear to a costume party. Note how compact discs, invented shortly before this novel was written, are treated here as antique technology. The combination of hypodermic and spoon indicates heroin use. The heroin is melted over heat in the spoon, then injected via the hypodermic needle. What is the symbolism involved in the rerouting of Molly’s tearducts? The Egyptian Pharaohs had their servants killed and buried with them. Ashpool has been in a sort of suspended animation for the last thirty years, forever on the brink of death but never dying, an idea that was earlier explored in Philip K. Dick’s brilliant novel Ubik. What does Case see in the face of the dead 3Jane? (It turns out later that this is not the real 3Jane, by the way.) What is suggested by the fact that a fiberoptic cable is connected to her neck? The theme of a rich, self-indulgent family, fallen into decadent madness, is a cliché of popular fiction, and can be found in Gibson’s model, Raymond Chandler.
What does Molly like about her relationship with Case? His computer completes the search Case had directed it to make for the name “General Girling” and the result is displayed by Dixie Flatline on Molly’s optic implant since Case is jacked into her brain at present. Since the display is not very wide, only a few letters can be shown at a time. The crazed Armitage is trying to order the Rastas around, but they refuse because this is a “Babylon war”–a struggle involving outsiders, not really their concern. “Rude boy” is rasta slang for a tough gang member. Maelcom boasts that he is tough enough to defy the Zionite leaders and stay with Case. “Rocksteady” is one variety of Jamaican pop music, a predecessor to reggae. We learn why Riviera was important, to seduce 3Jane into giving up some of the secrets of how to penetrate Straylight to Armitage/Corto. When the latter next shows up, he has flipped back into the past, into the ill-fated “Screaming Fist” run. Why is Case so upset about Armitage falling apart? The maddened Armitage/Corto has not only killed a man in order to destroy one of the computers being used on the run, but he has set the escape pod that he is in to separate from the ship without closing its seals; he imagines he is escaping Russia for Finland, but in fact he is hurled into the vacuum of space.
What makes the Tessier-Ashpool corporation more vulnerable than the zaibatsus? Who is ultimately behind the deaths of Armitage and Ashpool? What motivates Dixie Flatline to work for Wintermute? The way the books in the Straylight library are described suggests that books are antique rarities. The Dada artist Marcel Duchamp created a large sculpture out of glass and paint depicting some chocolate-grinding machinery and molds and gave it the characteristically surrealistic title “La mariée mis à nu par ses célibataires, même” — The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even. The object was badly cracked when it was being moved early in its history, and the lines of the shards have become a familiar part of the work of art. Knowing how Molly hates Riviera, her message to him to be delivered by Case is ominous. Why would spacial disorientation hold a peculiar horror for cowboys?
Run Run Shaw owned one of the busiest film studios in the world in Hong Kong, churning out hundreds of martial arts films for distribution throughout Asia. Bruce Lee and Clint Eastwood are pioneering “bad-ass heroes” of action movies East and West, respectively. Riviera encases Molly’s hands in a variation of old paper “Chinese handcuffs”: the more you struggle, the tighter you’re trapped. As in classic hardboiled detective fiction (like The Maltese Falcon) , the lines of alliance are constantly shifting, and you never know whom you can trust. Cray manufactures the world’s most popular supercomputers. Using their brand name for a little commonplace monitor raises the ante on the technology. Molly reveals that she had her own agenda when she killed Hideo and tried to kill Riviera. Why has Riviera decided to ally himself with 3Jane against the team? Chairman Mao Tse Tung’s most famous saying was “Power comes out of the barrel of a gun.” How did Riviera prevent Molly from really killing the two men at the pool?
With Molly crippled, Case and Maelcum have to penetrate Villa Straylight themselves to complete the mission, and to rescue her. How do the life-support systems of the Villa Straylight symbolize the role of the corporation itself? What does “decanted” usually mean? (Look it up.) What does it mean when 3Jane says “I was decanted?” Why does she use the present tense when she says “He strangles her in bed?” 3Jane’s mother’s idea of blending the family with artificial intelligences to achieve a sort of immortality is an old SF theme. 3Jane reveals an important fact about the AIs, which holds the key to the novel: Wintermute is only one of two AIs. When Molly abruptly sees her mutilated face, it is of course Peter taunting her again.
When Case next jacks in, he is sent by Neuromancer back to Lady Marie-France Tessier’s recorded memory of a summer in Morocco, where she isolated herself in the bunker that Case moves into with the simulacrum of Linda Lee. Japanese Zen gardens consist of a few well-placed rocks and sand raked in elaborate patterns. Case discovers that the AI manipulating him at the moment is not Wintermute; it is the other one. What is the point of Case’s complaint about the food? The tan Case has acquired on Freeside is an expensive luxury. What is Linda’s reaction to it? When Case feels himself drawn down to the “meat” level by the projection of Linda Lee, he defines the latter in terms of information: spiral DNA molecules and pheromones, molecules which convey messages through smell. His seduction from the world of the Net down into the flesh is highly ironic, of course. Why?
“Event horizon” refers to the border of a black hole and is used here to refer to the limit of the illusion the AI has constructed. It was widely believed in ancient times that you could only summon up and control a spirit whose secret name you had learned. There is a famous scene in Goethe’s Faust in which the protagonist tries and fails to identify the demon Mephistopheles. The name “Neuromancer” is a variation on “necromancer,” a magician dealing in evil spirits and death (“neuro”=nerves, artificial intelligence, “mancer”=magician). “Romancer” is yet another pun.
The Coriolis force, which causes movement to deviate slightly from a straight line on rotating bodies (like the Earth) is perhaps exaggerated in the rapidly spinning spindle; but in fact it would be very small. Case thinks 3Jane may spare Molly because he has experienced the latter’s attraction to her through the simstim rig. A ROM construct would be fixed, whereas RAM is indefinitely expandable. Why does Riviera’s blinding of Hideo fail to defeat him? How has Molly gotten her revenge on Riviera? In an electronic world, old-fashioned mechanical locks are unexpected obstacles.
In what ways is Neuromancer different from Wintermute? How are the dwarfs’ quarters in the palace of the Duke of Mantua like the Villa Straylight for the Tessier-Ashpools? Case needs to energize himself with hate to succeed in breaking through the final barriers. Whom does he hate? Again the Jamaican “dub” music welcomes him back to Freelight.
Coda (Chapter 24)
Why does Molly leave Case? The shuriken, so prominent throughout the novel, was never used. What does Case think it symbolizes? Why did Wintermute want to fuse with Neuromancer? What does this metaphor represent: “a series of warm blinks strung along a chain of winter”? Alpha Centauri is the nearest star to Earth. So what does it mean that Wintermute/Neuromancer has found recorded evidence of another AI there? Michael or Mikal is not a really rare name for a woman; so it’s difficult to know if we are supposed to read anything into the name. Constructs of Case, Riviera and Linda will exist forever in the AI’s mind. Why do you think male authors so frequently imagine highly desirable but dangerous women like Molly who get devastatingly involved with their protagonists and then leave?
Nicola Nixon: “Cyberpunk: Preparing the Ground for Revolution or Keeping the Boys Satisfied?” Science-Fiction Studies, vol. 19 (July 1992): 219-235.
Lance Olsen: William Gibson. San Bernardino, Calif.: Borgo Press, 1992.
More Science Fiction Study Guides
- H. G. Wells: War of the Worlds
- Ray Bradbury: The Martian Chronicles
- Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 and the Dystopian Tradition
- Walter M. Miller: A Canticle for Leibowitz
- Stanislaw Lem: Solaris
- Ursula LeGuin: The Dispossessed
- Philip K. Dick: Blade Runner
- Margaret Atwood: The Handmaid’s Tale
- Selected Stories from The Norton Book of Science Fiction
Notes by Paul Brians, Department of English, Washington State University, Pullman 99164-5020.
First mounted May 1994.
Version of July 16, 2013.
Thanks to Tom Mathews for catching the “Miss Linda Lee” reference.