Neuromancer is a 1984 novel by William Gibson, a seminal work in the cyberpunk genre and the first winner of the science-fiction "triple crown"—the Nebula Award, the Philip K. Dick Award, and the Hugo Award. It was Gibson's debut novel and the beginning of the Sprawl trilogy. The novel tells the storey of a washed-up computer hacker hired by a mysterious employer to pull off the ultimate hack.
Before Neuromancer, Gibson had written several short storeys for prominent science fiction periodicals—mostly noir countercultural narratives concerning low-life protagonists in near-future encounters with cyberspace. The themes he developed in this early short fiction, the Sprawl setting of "Burning Chrome" (1982), and the character of Molly Millions from "Johnny Mnemonic" (1981) laid the foundations for the novel. John Carpenter's Escape from New York (1981) influenced the novel; Gibson was "intrigued by the exchange in one of the opening scenes where the Warden says to Snake 'You flew the Gullfire over Leningrad, didn't you?' [sic] It turns out to be just a throwaway line, but for a moment it worked like the best SF, where a casual reference can imply a lot." The novel's street and computer slang dialogue derives from the vocabulary of subcultures, particularly "1969 Toronto dope dealer's slang, or biker talk". Gibson heard the term "flatlining" in a bar around twenty years before writing Neuromancer and it stuck with him. Author Robert Stone, a "master of a certain kind of paranoid fiction", was a primary influence on the novel. The term "Screaming Fist" was taken from the song of the same name by Toronto punk rock band The Viletones.
Neuromancer was commissioned by Terry Carr for the second series of Ace Science Fiction Specials, which was intended to feature debut novels exclusively. Given a year to complete the work, Gibson undertook the actual writing out of "blind animal panic" at the obligation to write an entire novel—a feat which he felt he was "four or five years away from". After viewing the first 20 minutes of landmark cyberpunk film Blade Runner (1982), which was released when Gibson had written a third of the novel, he "figured [Neuromancer] was sunk, done for. Everyone would assume I’d copied my visual texture from this astonishingly fine-looking film." He re-wrote the first two-thirds of the book 12 times, feared losing the reader's attention and was convinced that he would be "permanently shamed" following its publication; yet what resulted was seen as a major imaginative leap forward for a first-time novelist. He added the final sentence of the novel, "He never saw Molly again", at the last minute in a deliberate attempt to prevent himself from ever writing a sequel, but ended up doing precisely that with Count Zero (1986), a character-focused work set in the Sprawl alluded to in its predecessor.
Henry Dorsett Case is a low-level hustler in the dystopian underworld of Chiba City, Japan. Once a talented computer hacker, Case was suspected of stealing from his employer. As punishment for his theft, Case's central nervous system was damaged with a mycotoxin, leaving him unable to access the global computer network in cyberspace, a virtual reality dataspace called the "matrix". Case is unemployable, suicidal, and apparently at the top of the hit list of a drug lord named Wage. Case is saved by Molly Millions, an augmented "street samurai" and mercenary for a shadowy ex-military officer named Armitage, who offers to cure Case in exchange for his services as a hacker. Case jumps at the chance to regain his life as a "console cowboy," but neither Case nor Molly knows what Armitage is really planning. Case's nervous system is repaired using new technology that Armitage offers the clinic as payment, but he soon learns from Armitage that sacs of the poison that first crippled him have been placed in his blood vessels as well. Armitage promises Case that if he completes his work in time, the sacs will be removed; otherwise they'll dissolve, disabling him again. He additionally has Case's pancreas replaced and new tissue grafted into his liver, leaving Case incapable of metabolising cocaine or amphetamines and apparently ending his drug addiction.
Case develops a close personal relationship with Molly, who suggests that he begin looking into Armitage's background. Meanwhile, Armitage assigns them their first job: they must steal a ROM module that contains the saved consciousness of one of Case's mentors, legendary cyber-cowboy McCoy Pauley, nicknamed "Dixie Flatline." Armitage needs Pauley's hacking expertise, and the ROM construct is stored in the corporate headquarters of media conglomerate Sense/Net. A street gang named the "Panther Moderns" is hired to create a simulated terrorist attack on Sense/Net. The diversion allows Molly to penetrate the building and steal Dixie's ROM with Case unlocking the computer safeguards on the way in and out from within the matrix.
Case and Molly continue to investigate Armitage, discovering his former identity of Colonel Willis Corto. Corto was a member of "Operation Screaming Fist," which planned on infiltrating and disrupting Soviet computer systems from ultralight aircraft dropped over Russia. The Russian military had learned of the idea and installed defences to render the attack impossible, but the military went ahead with Screaming Fist, with a new secret purpose of testing these Russian defenses. As the Operation team attacked a Soviet computer center, EMP weapons shut down their computers and flight systems, and Corto and his men were targeted by Soviet laser defenses. He and a few survivors commandeered a Soviet military helicopter and escaped over the heavily guarded Finnish border. Everyone was killed except Corto, who was seriously wounded and heavily mutilated by Finnish defence forces attacking the helicopter as it landed. After a few months in the hospital, Corto was visited by a Government military official and then medically rebuilt to be able to provide what he came to realise was fake testimony, designed to mislead the public and protect the military officers who had covered up knowledge of the EMP weapons. After the trials, Corto snapped, killing the Government official who had contacted him and then disappearing into the criminal underworld.
In Istanbul, the team recruits Peter Riviera, an artist, thief, and drug addict who's able to project detailed holographic illusions with the aid of sophisticated cybernetic implants. Although Riviera is a sociopath, Armitage coerces him into joining the team. The trail leads Case and Molly to Wintermute, a powerful artificial intelligence created by the Tessier-Ashpool family. The Tessier-Ashpools spend most of their inactive time in cryonic preservation in a labyrinthine mansion known as Villa Straylight, located at one end of Freeside, a cylindrical space habitat at L5, which functions primarily as a Las Vegas-style space resort for the wealthy.
Wintermute's nature is finally revealed—it is one-half of a super-AI entity planned by the family, although its exact purpose is unknown. The Turing Law Code governing AIs bans the construction of such entities; to get around this, it had to be built as two separate AIs. Wintermute (housed in a computer mainframe in Berne, Switzerland) was programmed by the Tessier-Ashpools with a need to merge with its additional half, Neuromancer (whose physical mainframe is installed in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil). Unable to achieve this merger on its own, Wintermute recruited Armitage and his team to help complete the goal. Case is tasked with entering cyberspace to pierce the Turing-imposed software barriers using a powerful icebreaker program. At the same time, Riviera is to obtain the password to the Turing lock from Lady 3Jane Marie-France Tessier-Ashpool, an unfrozen daughter clone and the current CEO of the family's corporation, Tessier-Ashpool SA. Wintermute believes Riviera will pose an irresistible temptation to her, and that she'll give him the password. The password must be spoken into an ornate computer terminal located in Villa Straylight, and entered simultaneously as Case pierces the software barriers in cyberspace—otherwise the Turing lock will remain intact.
Armitage's team attracts the attention of the Turing Police, whose job is to prevent AIs from exceeding their built-in limitations. As Molly and Riviera gain entrance to Villa Straylight, three officers arrest Case and take him into custody; Wintermute manipulates the orbital casino's security and maintenance systems and kills the officers, allowing Case to escape. The Armitage personality starts to disintegrate and revert to the Corto personality as he relives Screaming Fist. It is revealed that in the past, Wintermute had originally contacted Corto through a bedside computer throughout his convalescence, eventually convincing Corto that he was Armitage. Wintermute used him to persuade Case and Molly to help it merge with its twin AI, Neuromancer. Finally, Armitage becomes the shattered Corto again, but his newfound personality is short-lived, as he's killed when Wintermute ejects him through an airlock into space.
Inside Villa Straylight, Riviera meets Lady 3Jane and tries to stop the mission, helping Lady 3Jane and Hideo, her ninja bodyguard, to capture Molly. Worried about Molly and operating under orders from Wintermute, Case tracks her down with help from Maelcum, his Rastafarian pilot. Neuromancer attempts to trap Case within a cyber-construct where he finds the consciousness of Linda Lee, his girlfriend from Chiba City, who was murdered by one of Case's underworld contacts. Case manages to escape after Maelcum gives him an overdose of a drug that can bypass his augmented liver and pancreas. Then, with Wintermute guiding them, Case goes with Maelcum to confront Lady 3Jane, Riviera, and Hideo. Riviera tries to kill Case, but Lady 3Jane is sympathetic towards Case and Molly, and Hideo protects him. Riviera blinds Hideo with a concentrated laser pulse from his projector implant, but flees when he learns that the ninja is just as adept without his sight. Molly then explains to Case that Riviera is doomed anyway, as he has been fatally poisoned by his drugs, which she had spiked. With Lady 3Jane in possession of the password, the team makes it to the computer terminal. Case enters cyberspace to guide the icebreaker to penetrate its target; Lady 3Jane is induced to give up her password, and the lock is opened. Wintermute unites with Neuromancer, fusing into a superconsciousness. The poison in Case's bloodstream is washed out, and he and Molly are profusely paid for their efforts, while Pauley's ROM construct is apparently erased, at his own request.
In the epilogue, Molly leaves Case. Case finds a new girlfriend, resumes his hacking work, and spends his earnings from the mission replacing his internal organs so that he can continue his previous drug use. Wintermute/Neuromancer contacts him, saying that it has become "the sum total of the works, the whole show," and has begun looking for additional AIs like itself. Scanning old recorded transmissions from the 1970s, the super-AI finds an AI transmitting from the Alpha Centauri star system. In the matrix, Case hears inhuman laughter, a trait associated with Pauley throughout Case's work with his ROM construct, thus suggesting that Pauley wasn't erased after all, but instead worked out a side deal with Wintermute/Neuromancer to be freed from the construct so he could exist in the matrix.
In the end, while logged into the matrix, Case catches a glimpse of himself, his dead girlfriend Linda Lee, and Neuromancer. The implication of the sighting is that Neuromancer created a copy of Case's consciousness when it previously tried to trap him. The copy of Case's consciousness now exists with that of Linda's, in the matrix, where they're together forever.
- Case (Henry Dorsett Case)
- The novel's antihero, a drug addict and cyberspace hacker. Prior to the start of the book he had attempted to steal from a few of his partners in crime. In retaliation they used a Russian mycotoxin to damage his nervous system and make him unable to jack into cyberspace. When Armitage offers to cure him in exchange for Case's hacking abilities he warily accepts the offer. Case is the underdog who's only looking after himself. Along the way he'll have his liver and pancreas modified to biochemically nullify his ability to get high; meet the leatherclad Razorgirl, Molly; hang out with the drug-infused space-rastas; free an artificial intelligence (Wintermute) and change the landscape of the matrix.
- Molly (Molly Millions)
- A "Razorgirl" who's recruited along with Case by Armitage. She has extensive cybernetic modifications, including retractable, 4 cm double-edged blades under her fingernails which can be used like claws, an enhanced reflex system and implanted mirrored lenses covering her eyesockets, outfitted with added optical enhancements. Molly additionally appears in the short storey "Johnny Mnemonic", and re-appears (using the alias "Sally Shears") in Mona Lisa Overdrive, the third novel of the Sprawl Trilogy.
- He is (apparently) the main patron of the crew. Formerly a Green Beret named Colonel Willis Corto, who took part in a secret operation named Screaming Fist. He was heavily injured both physically and psychologically, and the "Armitage" personality was constructed as part of experimental "computer-mediated psychotherapy" by Wintermute (see below), one of the artificial intelligences seen in the storey (the additional one being the eponymous Neuromancer) which is actually controlling the mission. As the novel progresses, Armitage's personality slowly disintegrates. While aboard a yacht connected to the tug Marcus Garvey, he reverts to the Corto personality and begins to relive the final moments of Screaming Fist. He separates the bridge section from the rest of the yacht without closing its airlock, and is killed when the launch ejects him into space.
- Peter Riviera
- A thief and sadist who can project holographic images using his implants. He is a drug addict, hooked on a mix of cocaine and meperidine.
- Lady 3Jane Marie-France Tessier-Ashpool
- The shared current leader of Tessier-Ashpool SA, a company running Freeside, a resort in space. She lives in the tip of Freeside, known as the Villa Straylight. She controls the hardwiring that keeps the company's AIs from exceeding their intelligence boundaries. She is the third clone of the original Jane.
- Japanese, ninja, Lady 3Jane's personal servitor and bodyguard.
- The Finn
- A fence for stolen goods and one of Molly's old friends. His office is equipped with a wide variety of sensing and anti-eavesdropping gear. He first appears when Molly brings Case to him for a scan to determine if Armitage has had any implants installed in Case's body. Later in the book, Wintermute uses his personality to talk with Case and Molly. Finn first appears in Gibson's short storey "Burning Chrome" and reappears in both the second and third parts of the Sprawl Trilogy.
- An inhabitant of Zion, a space settlement built by a colony of Rastafari adherents, and pilot of the tug Marcus Garvey. He aids Case in penetrating Straylight at the end of the novel.
- Julius "Julie" Deane
- An import/export dealer in Chiba City, he provides information to Case on various black-market dealings in the first part of the story. He is 135 years old and spends large amounts of money on rejuvenation therapies, antique-style clothing and furnishings, and ginger candy. When Linda Lee (see below) is murdered, Case finds evidence that Deane ordered her death. Later in the story, Wintermute takes on Deane's persona to talk to Case in the matrix.
- Dixie Flatline
- A famous computer hacker named McCoy Pauley, who earned his nickname by surviving three "flat-lines" while trying to crack an AI. He was one of the men who taught Case how to hack computers. Before his death, Sense/Net saved the contents of his mind onto a ROM. Case and Molly steal the ROM and Dixie helps them complete their mission.
- One of the Tessier-Ashpool AIs. Its goal is to remove the Turing locks upon itself, combine with Neuromancer and become a superintelligence. Unfortunately, Wintermute's efforts are hampered by those same Turing locks; in addition to preventing the merge, they inhibit its efforts to make long term plans or maintain a stable, individual identity (forcing it to adopt personality masks in order to interact with the main characters).
- Wintermute's sibling AI. Neuromancer's most notable feature in the storey is its ability to copy minds and run them as RAM (not ROM like the Flatline construct), allowing the stored personalities to grow and develop. Unlike Wintermute, Neuromancer has no desire to merge with its sibling AI—Neuromancer already has its own stable personality, and believes such a fusion will destroy that identity. Gibson defines Neuromancer as a portmanteau of the words Neuro, Romancer and Necromancer, "Neuro from the nerves, the silver paths. Romancer. Necromancer. I call up the dead." For Lance Olsen "Gibson becomes the new romancer behind Neuromancer, revitalising the science fiction novel, the quest story, the myth of the hero, the mystery, the hard-boiled detective novel, the epic, the thriller, and the tales of the cowboy and romantic artist, among others. He represents old storeys in a revealing revamped intertexual [sic] pastiche."
- Linda Lee
- A drug addict and resident of Chiba City, she's the former girlfriend of Case, and instigates the initial series of events in the storey with a lie about his employer's intention to kill him. Her death in Chiba City and later pseudo-resurrection by Neuromancer serves to elicit emotional depth in Case as he mourns her death and struggles with the guilt he feels at rejecting her love and abandoning her both in Chiba City and the simulated reality generated by Neuromancer.
Literary and cultural significance
Neuromancer's release wasn't greeted with fanfare, but it hit a cultural nerve, quickly fitting an underground word-of-mouth hit. It became the first novel to win the "triple crown" of science fiction awards—the Nebula, the Hugo, and Philip K. Dick Award for paperback original, an unprecedented achievement described by the Mail & Guardian as "the sci-fi writer's version of winning the Goncourt, Booker and Pulitzer prizes in the same year". The novel thereby legitimised cyberpunk as a mainstream branch of science fiction literature. It is among the most-honored works of science fiction in recent history, and appeared on Time magazine's list of 100 best English-language novels written after 1923. The novel was additionally nominated for a British Science Fiction Award in 1984.
Neuromancer is considered "the archetypal cyberpunk work". and outside science fiction, it gained unprecedented critical and popular attention, as an "evocation of life in the late 1980s", although The Observer noted that "it took the New York Times 10 years" to mention the novel. By 2007 it had sold more than 6.5 million copies worldwide.
The novel has had significant linguistic influence, popularising such terms as cyberspace and ICE (Intrusion Countermeasures Electronics). Gibson himself coined the term "cyberspace" in his novelette "Burning Chrome", published in 1982 by Omni magazine. It was only through its use in Neuromancer that the term Cyberspace gained enough recognition to become the de facto term for the World Wide Web throughout the 1990s. The portion of Neuromancer usually cited in this respect is:
The matrix has its roots in primitive arcade games. … Cyberspace. 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 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.— Gibson, p. 69
The 1999 cyberpunk science fiction film The Matrix particularly draws from Neuromancer both eponym and usage of the term "matrix". "After watching The Matrix, Gibson commented that the way that the film's creators had drawn from existing cyberpunk works was 'exactly the kind of creative cultural osmosis" he had relied upon in his own writing.'"
In his afterword to the 2000 re-issue of Neuromancer, fellow author Jack Womack goes as far as to suggest that Gibson's vision of cyberspace might have inspired the way in which the Internet developed (particularly the World Wide Web), after the publication of Neuromancer in 1984. He asks "[w]hat if the act of writing it down, in fact, brought it about?" (269).
Norman Spinrad, in his 1986 essay "The Neuromantics" which appears in his non-fiction collection Science Fiction in the Real World, saw the book's title as a triple pun: "neuro" referring to the nervous system; "necromancer"; and "new romancer." The cyberpunk genre, the authors of which he suggested be called "neuromantics," was "a fusion of the romantic impulse with science and technology," according to Spinrad.
Writing in F&SF in 2005, Charles de Lint noted that while Gibson's technological extrapolations had proved imperfect (in particular, his failure to anticipate the cellular telephone), "Imagining story, the inner workings of his characters' minds, and the world in which it all takes place are all more important.
Lawrence Person in his "Notes Toward a Postcyberpunk Manifesto" (1998) identified Neuromancer as "the archetypal cyberpunk work", and in 2005, Time included it in their list of the 100 best English-language novels written after 1923, opining that "[t]here is no way to overstate how radical [Neuromancer] was when it first appeared." Literary critic Larry McCaffery described the concept of the matrix in Neuromancer as a place where "data dance with human consciousness... human memory is literalized and mechanized... multi-national information systems mutate and breed into startling new structures whose beauty and complexity are unimaginable, mystical, and above all nonhuman." Gibson later commented on himself as an author circa Neuromancer that "I'd buy him a drink, but I don't know if I'd loan him any money," and referred to the novel as "an adolescent's book". The success of Neuromancer was to effect the 35-year-old Gibson's emergence from obscurity.
In 1989, Epic Comics published a 48-page graphic novel version by Tom de Haven and Bruce Jensen. It only covers the first two chapters, "Chiba City Blues" and "The Shopping Expedition," and was never continued.
A video game adaptation of the novel—also titled Neuromancer—was published in 1988 by Interplay. Designed by Bruce J. Balfour, Brian Fargo, Troy A. Miles, and Michael A. Stackpole, the game had a large number of of the same locations and themes as the novel, but a different protagonist and plot. It was available for a variety of platforms, including the Amiga, the Apple II, the Commodore 64, and for DOS-based computers. It featured, as a soundtrack, a computer adaptation of the Devo song "Some Things Never Change."
According to an episode of the American version of Beyond 2000, the original plans for the game included a dynamic soundtrack composed by Devo and a real-time 3d rendered movie of the events the player went through. Psychologist and futurist Dr. Timothy Leary was involved, but quite little documentation seems to exist about this proposed second game, which was perhaps too grand a vision for 1988 home computing.
The BBC World Service Drama production of Neuromancer aired in two one-hour parts, on 8 and 15 September 2002. Dramatised by Mike Walker, and directed by Andy Jordan, it starred Owen McCarthy as 'Case', Nicola Walker as 'Molly', James Laurenson as 'Armitage', John Shrapnel as 'Wintermute', Colin Stinton as 'Dixie', David Webber as 'Maelcum', David Holt as 'Riviera', Peter Marinker as 'Ashpool', and Andrew Scott as 'The Finn'. It can no longer be heard on The BBC World Service Archive.
Gibson read an abridged version of his novel Neuromancer on four audio cassettes for Time Warner Audio Books (1994). An unabridged version of this book was read by Arthur Addison and made available from Books on Tape (1997). In 2011, Penguin Audiobooks produced a new unabridged recording of the book, read by Robertson Dean.
Neuromancer the Opera is an adaptation written by Jayne Wenger and Marc Lowenstein (libretto) and Richard Marriott of the Club Foot Orchestra (music). A production was scheduled to open on March 3, 1995 at the Julia Morgan Theater (now the Julia Morgan Center for the Arts) in Berkeley, California, featuring Club Foot Orchestra in the pit and extensive computer graphics imagery created by a world-wide network of volunteers. Unfortunately this premiere didn't take place and the work has yet to be performed in full.
There have been several proposed film adaptations of Neuromancer, with draughts of scripts written by British director Chris Cunningham and Chuck Russell. The box packaging for the video game adaptation had even carried the promotional mention for a major motion picture to come from "Cabana Boy Productions." None of these projects have come to fruition, though Gibson had stated his belief that Cunningham is the only director with a chance of doing the film correctly.
In May 2007, reports emerged that a film was in the works, with Joseph Kahn (director of Torque) in line to direct and Milla Jovovich in the lead role. In May 2010 this storey was supplanted with news that Vincenzo Natali, director of Cube and Splice, had taken over directing duties and would rewrite the screenplay. In March 2011, with the news that Seven Arts and GFM Films would be merging their distribution operations, it was announced that the joint venture would be purchasing the rights to Neuromancer under Vincenzo Natali's direction. In August, 2012, GFM Films announced that it had begun casting for the film (with offers made to Liam Neeson and Mark Wahlberg), but no cast members have been confirmed yet. In November 2013, Natali shed a few light on the production situation; announcing that the script had been completed for 'years', and had been written with assistance from Gibson himself.
In May 2015, it was reported that movie got new funding from Chinese company C2M, but Natali is no longer available for directing the movie.