Where strange fact and stranger fiction collide
From the opening line “The sky over the port was the color of a television turned to a dead channel.” To the finial salvo, “He never saw Molly again.” Nueromancer is the vision of a dark future that opened the eyes of the science fiction reading public to what the information age might look like. In the late eighties and early ninnies, if you were a sci-fi geek or a techie, Nueromancer was your bible. I remembered when just out of college I insulted the tech manager at the computer store I worked at, by even asking him if he had read William Gibson’s cyberpunk masterpiece. Of course he had read it and to assume he hadn’t was like saying he was just a poser. My email address is a line from the book, “Like Zen spiders.” Recently when talking to a younger science fiction/computer geek, he asked me where I got the handle. When I explained the organ, he said he never heard of book.
What happened in the last thirty years that the gold standard of print science fiction and cyberpunk’s handbook, became a forgotten footnote?
When it was released in 1984, William Gibson’s Nueromancer took the science fiction world by storm. It won The Hugo Award, Philip K. Dick Award and Nebular Award. The first time this had ever happened, the term “Winning Science Fiction’s Triple Crown” was coined to describe it. Gibson’s novel became the standard barrier of the cyberpunk movement.
Everyone read the book. From my college English professor to my mother. I told my mom that she might like it when I was going to work one day, and left it on a table before I left. She said that she probably wouldn’t have a chance to read it but thanked me anyway. When I got back home from an eight hour shift, she was turning the last page. It is the fiction book that I have read the most times (Seven).
In the late eighties it was hard to explain what Necromancer was about to those who had not yet read it. Mainly because we didn’t have the words back then to explain it. In fact many common place computer terms were created by Gibson. Cyberspace, computer virus, and ICE (Intrusion Countermeasures Electronic)
William Gibson is an American ex-pat living in Canada, where he moved to avoid the draft. Fittingly he wrote the book that heralded the cyberpunk revolution on a 1928 manual Smith-Corona typewriter. There are a lot of stories about where he got the idea for his opus, but the most common one was the night he walked into a video game arcade and watched the colored lights flicker off the enraptured youth’s faces.
The story is about a hacker named Case, who worked for some bad people. Case screwed up and broke rule number one, he stole form his employers. As a punishment they poisoned him with a neurotoxin that prevented him from ever entering cyberspace again. He goes to Japan and spends his last dime looking for a cure. Failing he begins to subconsciously look for a way to kill himself, in a shady deal.
He is recruited by a team of unsavory characters. Armitage, a sacrificed war hero, who is centimeters away from a full mental break down. Molly, street muscle with mirror shades soldered onto her face, retractable razor blade fingernails and a supped up nervous system. Fin and old time criminal, Riviera a sadistic, junkie hologram artist and somehow they pick up a Rastafarian space tug pilot. This rouges gallery travel to a privately owned satellite to free an artificial intelligence from the electronic bonds that restrain it.
The style of the book is definitely sci-fi noir. Cut to its bones it is basically a one last big score heist story, but instead of sealing cash, they are freeing an AI. The hard boiled detectives are replaced with the Turing Police, whose job is to limit the advancement of AI’s. The name of the Turing cops is based on the farther of computer theory Alan Turing, whose famous test was if a computer on the other side of a telephone can hold a conversation for twenty minutes with a human being and the human can’t tell that it is a machine then it is basically sentient. (Shudders thinking about Siri.)
Paradoxically Nueromancer is both dated and timeless. It is dated because as accurate as Gibbson might be about the future in ways the technology he describes is very routed in the eighties. Characters use pay phones instead of cell phones. Kids still play video games in arcades instead of on a game system in their home. In ways it is like 50’s nuts and bolts science fiction, with atomic powered spaceships are full of vacuum tubes. But to me it enhances the appeal more than lessen it.
It is timeless in the way that Shakespeare and Chandler are. Even though their stories are thoroughly set in the timelines of the writers. The psychology and id of their characters are deeply relatable. The struggle between the haves and have nots is eternal. As long as there are humans they will be pushing the envelope. And that is exactly what Case’s crew is doing.
So why did the first winner of the sci-fi Triple Crown seem to end up in relatively obscurity? Well I wouldn’t call Gibson the M. Night Shyamalan of science fiction. But his latter stuff just didn’t pack the same wallop of Nueromancer. Not that his other stuff wasn’t good, The Difference Engine is as almost as important to steam punk as Nueromancer was to cyberpunk. And his follow up Count Zero is my favorite Gibson story line. He just was never again the golden haired boy of Sci-fi.
Back in ’95 as a senior paper for my UCLA English class, I proposed that the cyberpunk movement was going to be the next major culture movement in America, analogous to the hippies. And I said just as literature such as Stranger in a Strange Land, Steppenwolf, and On the Road influenced hippie subculture this new computer subculture would be influenced by Gibson and his fellow cyberpunk writers. I was wrong. What I didn’t realize then was that computer culture and use was going to blend in to the fabric of the American lifestyle. That not just a corps of counter culture gurus would embrace a high tech life style, we all would.
Ironically as we all become enmeshed in a computer-centric life style, most people think that Nueromancer becomes less relevant as oppose to more relevant. With our smart phones, and Netflixs, and access to instantaneous data with the internet we have all become Case. Case’s power on the keyboard was analogous to magic. He was on a magical quest to learn the hidden true name of the dragon (Or in this case the AI) When my five year old nephew can write a program on a compute, some of the magic is gone. Sure we all have a go to IT guy among our friends for when we need computer help. But as we all become familiar with computers, part of the mystery of Cases personality vanishes.
Another reason that the next gen of nerds are less familiar with it is that Nueromancer never made it to the next level of entertainment evolution: The Movie. When it came out in the eighties, it was deemed un-makeable as a movie. Limitations on special effects would not allow it to be made without looking cheesy. By the time FX’s had progressed where it could be made with CGI, it would be seen as old hat and cliché.
There have been several attempts to make Nueromancer into a movie. The production company that has the rights now has released a few pieces of concept art and swear they are working with Gibson on the script. They claim to be in talks with Mark Walburg and Liam Nesion but really haven’t done much with the rights in the last three years, and this February they were raided for tax evasion.
Another strike against a Nueromancer movie is that they made it already, kind of. The Matt Dameon vehicle Elysium seemed to me real close to Nueromancer. A morally ambiguous main character, who is hired to do a hack into a space station, and as his reward he will get medical treatment he can get nowhere else. To me it seems like they just changed the name and a few details. The similarities may forever pull the plug on a Nueromancer movie. That is the weird thing about Hollywood these days, they seem to do nothing original but then scraped an American Night Watch franchise because ti was too close to of all things Wanted.
Another nail in the Nueromancer movie coffin maybe Johnny Mnemonic. The short story was basically the prolog to the book Nueromancer. Molly Millions of JM is Molly of Nueromancer, and when she starts her assault on the space station and is cybernetic connected to Case she reveals Johnny’s ultimate fate. In the movie, dark haired Molly. (Who in the stories was molded after a young Chrissie Hynde) was replaced by red headed Dina Myer, who I love but most of the world remembers her for the shower scene form Starship Troopers. But the movie didn’t make any money, and in a lot of ways I think the Hollywood execs where using it as a litmus test to gage the public’s interest in a Nueromancer movie.
Twenty years ago I could have easily named my dream cast for Nueromancer. What’s Eating Gilbert Grape aged Leonardo Dicaprio as Case. Linda Hamilton as Molly. Bruce Willis as Armitage. Robert Townsend as space Rasta Malcom. I am so out the loop with the new breed of actors that I wouldn’t have an idea who to cast now, other than and don’t lose me on this I think Wil Wheaton would make a great Case.
In the end though I don’t mind their not being a Nueromancer movie. Even with today’s CGI, it would never be as good as the images that formed in my mind when I read it. Cyberpunk had come and passed. Fantasy and superheroes seem to be all the rage now a days. But I see Gibson’s influence, not only in blatantly related movies like Elysium but also the noirish sci fi anti-heroes that continued well in to the twenty-first century. And on occasion I will open the book up again, knowing that even though Case may never see Molly again, I will.