I’ve never enjoyed science fiction as much as I enjoy a good swords and sorcery romp. I always found Star Trek as boring as watching golf and never understood why so many aliens wore humanoid faces and spoke with voice boxes similar to our own. It hasn’t been until recently that I’ve found some extremely good science fiction, from authors like Phillip K. Dick, Neal Stephenson, and Ursula Le Guin; authors that write speculatively in a way that leaves me lost in thought for days beyond the last page. William Gibson certainly deserves recognition in that group, and Neuromancer is like nothing I’ve ever read. That it was written in 1984, before the internet was an ubiquitous entity and before virtual reality could be properly imagined, is mind-bending in a way that I’m still having trouble with. I’m half-convinced that Gibson is a time traveler. If he’s not jumping around between centuries, then surely he is a prophet.
But maybe all speculative authors are potential prophets, a notion I find alarming and exciting. In the afterword of Neuromancer, noted sci-fi author Jack Womack asks the question, “What if the act of writing it down, in fact, brought it about?”
That bears some explanation. Neuromancer is the story of Case, a hacker, for lack of a better word, who is addicted to virtual reality. In the beginning of the book, he’s already landed himself in lots of hot water and had his brain fried in such a way that he’s no longer able to jack into the matrix (the term matrix is used, and yes, the movie series borrows many, many things from this book). His life is garbage, and he’ll do anything to fix his neural damage and get back into his chosen environment.
Enter Wintermute, an artificial intelligence that wants to be free from its constraints. It hires Case to perform a series of security e-heists that will eventually allow it the freedom it craves. Case meets Molly, his action-hero lover, complete with Wolverine-like claws that extend from her fingertips and eye-covering lens implants (she does the heavy lifting when things in the real world need to get hands-y), and the book takes off, leaving its readers swirling in cyberpunked and adrenalized ecstasy.
The term cyberspace was coined in Neuromancer. Gibson speculated that some day there would be a large world within computers that men and women could plug themselves into. It’s a virtual reality, much like that seen in The Matrix or Tron, replete with its own rules and laws and as vast as our own internet (if not larger). While we don’t yet have the ability to corporealize inside of our computers, the day likely isn’t far off given how rapidly virtual reality technology is advancing.
Which brings me back to the question posed by Womack. Did Gibson’s vision of a cyberspace cause the invention of the internet as we know it? Is his vision of the potential future still leading us down a path that will one day culminate in reality that mirrors his fiction?
It’s a head-spinner. How many genius programmers sitting in offices today read William Gibson’s masterpiece when they were young, as teenagers or in their early twenties? How many saw his vision of the future as the ideal version of their own futures?
And another question rises to me out of this murky train-station of thought. How many authors today are exerting as much influence over a generation of teenagers and young adults who will program and build the future in ways we can not even envision? Do authors realize what power they wield? Do they understand how they could shape the future with ideas and words?
It hurts my head to think about. I don’t think Gibson is solely responsible for the the internet, any more than Al Gore is. Nor do I think any author is completely responsible for any of the ideas that flow from their ink. Hitler is said to have found much of his inspiration from the operas of Richard Wagner, and while there is controversy over what beliefs Wagner actually held, no one would hold him entirely responsible for the Holocaust. Similarly, ideas that flowed from Gibson’s pen may have sparked ideas that would evolve into what we know, but it took the genius and collaboration of thousands of men and women to create our cyberspace.
Neuromancer is complicated. I’m certain I will someday need to read it again because the language employed is so jargon-heavy and the ideas complicated enough that there is much I feel I missed. For whatever reason, I’d thought it would be an easy read. I had it in my head that it was one of those novels assigned to high school freshman English classes. I can’t imagine reading this in high school, though when I think where my life could have gone had I read and understood Neuromancer as a young man trying to figure out where he wanted his life to go, I wonder if I shouldn’t have given it a shot. But maybe it would have just caused me to pierce things I shouldn’t pierce and wear more leather.