Friday, October 27, 2017

Books that Shaped Me, Part 12: Neuromancer and Various Short Stories, By William Gibson

I had a distinct cyberpunk period (of reading and imagining), and it began with Neuromancer before expanding into Bruce Sterling and Lucuis Shepard and Neal Stephenson. For a sheltered child, Neuromancer, and cyberpunk in general, were something like drugs: raw, transgressive, mind expanding, filled with drugs. The cyberpunk aesthetic, especially early work like Gibson’s sprawl, seemed designed to shock, and I was appropriately shocked by the dirt, the smog, the pettiness of criminals and the godlike remove of the zaibatsus (huge corporations are all Japanese, or at least referred to that way, in early cyberpunk.) There was an almost sickening glorification of the violated and degraded in cyberpunk, the obsession with invasive body-modification, with the spiral of addiction, with the invigilating nature of poverty in the future. I had never met anything like it, and it was fascinating.

I came to cyberpunk from a slightly younger period steeped in classic science fiction, the technological optimism of the golden age, and cyberpunk was a splash of cold water collected in a rusted bucket from acid rain filtered through a slowly dying neon sign that advertised a virtual escape from the grind of life in a slum. The drastic transition from optimism to cynicism heightened, I think, the impression that Neuromancer made on me.

Another of the fascinating parts of Neuromancer that I now understand had a serious effect on me was the matter-of-factness of the transhumanism presented. I do not know that Gibson would have used the term then, but Neuromancer, and his short stories, were filled unproblematic human augmentation: implanted organs to prevent drug abuse, fingernail razors and sunglass eyeshades, an implanted holographic projection system. All of it is treated as unremarkable, exceptional for cost and elegance perhaps, but the concept of enhancing body and mind with implanted metal and silicon is not problematized. Stories that spend more time wondering about the nature of humanity and where it breaks down under augmentation have often landed poorly with me, perhaps in consequence of Neuromancer as an introduction.

There is a lot for a kid to not get in Neuromancer, when they haven’t read much similar fiction, or been to a regular school, or learned about the world of current events and recent history in anything approaching a systematic fashion. There are both a character and a backstory subplot that strongly evoke the Vietnam war, which I am not sure I had heard of when I first read Neuromancer. There are multiple cultures of recreational drug use, addiction, dependence and attendant troubles, which I certainly did not fully grasp at the time. There are space Rastafarians. I am certain I did not, when I first read Neuromancer, know what a Rastafarian was.

Despite some things going right over my head, Neuromancer punched hard and settled in. I read a lot of William Gibson after that. I do not remember the novels I read then very well (more about other novels, which I read later, in another blog.) Some of them were perhaps forgettable, others were likely brilliant, but at the time confusing, without the core of straightforward adventure that dragged me through the strangeness of Neuromancer. The short stories were different. Many of those dug in very hard. I still return to the first collection I bought, titled for the story I will begin with.

“Burning Chrome” is the quintessential Gibson, the quintessential cyberpunk short story. When I first read it, it was an action story, full of thrilling crime, colorfully sinister supliers, culminating a heist pulled off with flair and skill and luck to punish the guilty and reward the virtuously criminal. I loved the vivid strangeness of the matrix with its geometries of colored light and shifting identities. Now on my return, the flavor is more melancholy. The success is only part of a larger failure, the victory wins no prize, and the damage of poverty against ambition is done long before stolen wealth can soften the blow.

That, I think is a fair example of my reading of William Gibson then and now. When I was young, it was a grit and the flash that excited me, the thrill of heists and narrow escapes, or failed ones. On returning, the stories are an education in melancholy, in the failure of technology to improve mankind’s morality, society, or soul. Cyberpunk was a shock, and I mainlined the stuff for years. I still remember the smell of smog and ozone, the flash of chrome, and the glow of a sky like a television tuned to a dead channel.


And with that, dear reader, we come to the end of this series on books and authors that shaped my young reading, at a nice round dozen. Next up, since I’ve finally figured out how to write about books in a way I enjoy, and have reasonable hope others may enjoy, is a series on the books and authors whose ideas I am currently trying to steal for my own work. So, read about the hot new (and not particularly new) stuff that’s got me the most excited to read and emulate.

1 comment:

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