In 1984—which seems like a good year for science fiction to us—a relatively unknown author named William Gibson published a small novel called Neuromancer in a tiny subgenre called cyberpunk. His book told the tale of "console cowboy" Henry Case, a freelance hacker who takes a job from a mysterious benefactor and becomes entangled in a cyberspace conspiracy that will forever change the digital landscape. And the rest, as they say, is history. (Or would that be future history?)
Well, sort of, anyway.
At first nobody paid much attention to Gibson's debut except for the science fiction community, which awarded the novel with the Hugo, the Nebula, and the Philip K. Dick Award—also known as "the science fiction triple crown." Not too shabby for a first novel, which went on to become a cult classic and commercial success. But take a step back and think of it this way: what was so special about Neuromancer that it won so many awards to begin with?
For starters, Gibson's voice was something new and startling in science fiction. Like it or lump it, science fiction has a tendency to read a lot like…well, science in fiction form. In other words, it can be clinical, moralistic, and even boring to the non-sci-fi-lovin' eyes. Some high falutin' literary folks are inclined to write it off because they think the stars of the show always do the right thing, and the universe always always always gets saved. Snooze.
Ah, but that's where Gibson enters the fray. His voice reads like a hard-boiled detective novel set in a dystopian future, ripe with excitement and more than a little uncertainty. His characters are anti-heroes at best, lowlifes in general, and they know how to navigate society's underbelly. Their heroic deeds are not based on a code of selflessness and honor but on street smarts, survival, and greed. A vast difference from your run-of-the-mill Captain Kirks and Luke Skywalkers.
Gibson's world contains a technological wonderland of virtual realities, human modifications, and space travel, sure, but it's also a dirty and dangerous place full of dark shadows and neon lights. Criminal organizations rule the streets from back alleys and seedy bars while global corporations run the world in gilded towers. In short, Gibson's future does not bring the happy-go-lucky future science fiction fans had grown accustomed to, but it still has all the scientific and futuristic pizzazz they crave.
These aspects of the novel were unusual and in some cases controversial, but they certainly didn't hurt its popularity. Neuromancer eventually became to cyberpunk what Dracula is to vampire fiction or The Godfather is to mafia films. It even spawned a video game adaptation, which is clearly how we know that something's really made it to the big time. (The Neuromancer opera, maybe not so much.) If you're looking for a movie version, though, you might need to wait a little longer. Adaptations have been in and out of development for the years, although recent rumors have given us some glimmer of hope.
Right now, the closest thing there is to a Neuromancer movie is Johnny Mnemonic, a 1995 film based on a short story Gibson set in the same fictional universe. We like watching Keanu Reeves running through space/his mind/the Internet as much as the next person, but we recommend waiting for the real thing in Neuromancer's case. Better yet, why not crack open the book?
Why Should I Care?
Have you ever used the Internet?
Okay, considering where you are and what you're doing, we'll assume you have. Let's try that one again.
Have you ever thought about how insane the very idea of the Internet might have seemed just a few decades ago? (Here's a hint: seriously, seriously insane.)
Back in 1984, lo those many years ago, most people still thought of the World Wide Web as something that existed onlyin science fiction, like Terminators and sandworms. Although the issues Gibson raised were incredibly relevant at the time, it's also not a stretch to imagine that the novel was written specifically with the 21st Century in mind. Back then, computers were just getting their sea legs. But today, digital information plays a huge role in just about every moment of our modern lives.
Be honest: how many screens are you looking at right now? We spend oodles of time connected to gadgets and gizmos aplenty. We get information from websites, share data about ourselves on other websites, and spend the rest of the time cheating at Draw Something on our phones. People (not us) no longer have to go to Wal-Mart to steal movies or albums; instead, they have a couple thousand friends who help them (still not us) steal them through peer-to-peer networks, and then stream them on their tablets.
Now that we're at the point of gathering more information to help us figure out how to make decisions about all the information we already have, though, what else is there left for us to do?
The future we see in Neuromancer gives us the opportunity to look past the face value of all that information constantly coming at us. What happens when the people in charge repress certain kinds of knowledge for their own gains? What about groups that manipulate data to challenge the status quo? Is information truly free, or does it come at a price? How do we police this enormous mass as we become more reliant on a constantly expanding Internet, and what are the consequences if we can't? Where do we draw the line between information about the world and the world itself? Yep, our heads are spinning, too.
We've determined pretty conclusively that the Internet wasn't invented by Al Gore, isn't a series of tubes, and—sadly for everyone—probably doesn't look like Space Mountain from the inside. But no matter what the Internet in fact is, it's worth noting that we've been preoccupied by since at least the days of Neuromancer. And the cyberquestions raised in this book are so complex that their answers can be as broad and diverse as the questions themselves. Or, you know, the cat videos on YouTube. There are a lot of cat videos on YouTube.
And now that you're mulling over the sheer magnitude of that comparison, let's get started.