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February 18, 2012

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Kebernet

I was ten. I was already a nerdy kid. I had been reading Odyssey (an Astronomy mag for kids) and SciAm for ages, and my prized possession was my telescope. I still have a notebook from that year where traced out the progression of a solar eclipse in 2 minute chunks projected onto a notebook.

I always remember two things from that year: Reading Neuromancer, and a SciAm special edition on computers and networks. My interest was piqued. I had read a lot of Sci-Fi in third and fourth grade -- mostly Asimov and the Dune books. From that point on, cyberpunk was just what I read.

It also is likely responsible for my spending the rest of my childhood (OK and adult life) in front of a keyboard. That xmas I asked my mom for a computer. I still remember her giving me a speech about how it was going to go down. "You have to understand," she said something like this, "you will only get one thing. Your sister will have a lot of presents to open, but you will just get that one thing." Yeah, I got it. (Up until then, xmas had usually be a collection of books, "Stomper" brand little electric cars, and some LEGO.) I got the "Trash 80." My mom was going to "teach me how to use it", but eventually she gave up on it. I still haven't. :P

I still re-read it once every couple/three years. The last few years I have found myself almost making apologies for it. "I know a lot of it will read as cliche," I tell some younger reader. "But you have to remember, nobody had seen anything like this before back then. And here it popped, a fully baked new 'world'. It wasn't even like The Lord of the Rings. That was a world, but it was drawn from all kinds of stuff that came before it."

In real terms, "Pattern Recognition" will likely be remembered as the best thing Gibson ever wrote. But "Neuromancer" made me think about technology. And still does. To this day, I wonder about the opening line:

"The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel."

What does that even mean to people reading it? Does it mean the textured gray of static in 1984? The electric blue of 1994? The absolute black of 2004? Some how there is something that rubs me the wrong way about the "Steampunk" stuff (oh, another thing Gibson kicked off, BTW), but "Neuromancer" and Gibson I suspect will be the "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea" and Verne of this new century. Something familiar, and classic, and wildly new.

Wes

I first read it in a Popular Lit class my senior year of college. I just read it again last month, as I do once every year or two. I've given it to friends as a gift.

I compare it to Slaughterhouse Five as a "genre" book that is so much more.

Robert Stanton

"The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel" sets up the noirish tone, the central metaphor, and the emotionally dead and jaded universe. Cyberspace is a metaphor for television, and the means Gibson uses to tell the story--the fractured point of view of the main character, as he hops in and out realities, seeing an industrial attack through the eyes of an assassin with retinal cameras, then popping into a three-dimensional GUI, and interacting with a sentient program, to locations in other places on the ground and in orbit--are as important as the story itself. The fractured storytelling IS television. Gibson said he was inspired by watching his children channel hop on a Saturday morning, and their nonchalant ability to keep the multiple narratives they were simultaneously watching alive in their heads.

I also remember the hair-raising scene where Wintermute rings a series of payphones as Case walks past them, the sentient program knowing his exact position on the ground; the drone to suddenly come to his rescue from the sky, crashing it into his attacker; the complex geopolitics of a future history that has left people both physically mutilated (the bartender with the grubby Soviet prosthesis--it's a book rich with texture and grit) and psychically mutilated (the shock holograms created from the perverse sexual fantasies and traumatic memories of the performance artist, made for lounge entertainments and left as psychologically destabilizing roadblocks); I recall the way technology is used to enhance the human body for military purposes (Molly) and for vanity (vat-grown muscle grafts).

I remember how multicultural the future was, how urbanized, how I imagined scenes not taking place in the beautiful, clean future of 2001 or the brutalist council estates of Clockwork Orange, but by the Eagle staple factory in Long Island City, where I was living at the time, under the 7 train.

And, as in all good noirs, I recall the terrible isolation of the main character and the ticking clock. The single tear of grief and frustration floating from his eye and drifting like a bubble in the helmet of his spacesuit.

I agree with you that Gibson's social satire masquerading as near-future-industrial-espionage-thriller, Pattern Recognition, dwarfs Neuromancer.

But it is the work of a great stylist. And I remember thinking, too, that somehow, like Philip K. Dick or the Kingsley Amis, William Gibson managed to cross over, and wasn't writing genre fiction. Or that he was mixing genres to create something new, literary fiction that was even more important than my other favorite superstylish novel of 1984, Martin Amis's Money.

Kebernet

@Robert Stanton: I think you missed my point. I get TV as the structural metaphor for the book. My point is the words uses have already been made anachronistic three times over.

Robert Stanton

@Kebernet: No, I got your point, and it's a valid one. As someone who grew up with dead channels, I know exactly what it means to me. You're right, it is of its time. And yet timeless.

Kebernet

Necropost... http://penny-arcade.com/2012/04/18

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