If You’re Seeing Snow, it’s Time to Change the Channel

The book club is discussing Neuromancer this month. This is the second book by William Gibson I’ve read, the first being Spook Country. Since they were written a good 20 years apart, I’m taking them as emblematic of his writing style and themes.

I’ll go ahead and admit this first off: I seem to be the only sci-fi geek in the world who doesn’t like Gibson’s work. His books just leave me cold. I’m not entirely sure why. His writing is crisp, if a bit sententious at times and prone to excess lingo but these are the usual tics of vocabulary that you find in most science fiction authors, so it’s not off-putting.[1] I think what I find cold about his writing is the atmosphere.

Gibson — especially in Neuromancer — is mainlining Chandlarian noir. It’s all bad people doing bad things in a fallen world. Which is fine but it’s a little too clinical and detached for me to really get engaged with the characters. Not even the psychopaths seem to have any passion. His characters all have shadowy pasts or just enough pasts to facilitate the plot and nothing more. As if they are conscious of their artificial nature, never having anything more revealed about them than the plot demands. They’re just people doing things for dubious reasons, many of which are never explained or even hinted at.[2] I honestly have no idea why I’m supposed to care about Case or Molly. I feel sorry for Armitage and nothing at all for Riviera. I’m not sure why he’s even there, other than to show off his cool holographic technology.

The characters with the most striking personalities are stereotypes: the Rasta freebooters and the Dixie Flatline, which is the neurological ghost of a dead hacker stored on a hard drive. With a southern accent. They’ll probably be relegated to the comic relief in the movie,[3] which is a shame because they are far more interesting than the main cast.[4]

I suppose I’m supposed to care about the plot but in that reverse osmosis of storytelling, where the bones of Neuromancer have been picked clean by 25 years worth of writers (some of them better at Gibson’s own shtick than he is) I’m finding that a monumental task. I guess it boils down tot the fact that I just don’t give a crap about the whole AI Question.

Science fiction for the last forty years or so has been preoccupied with the tin plated Pinocchios of our imagination and frankly, I’m bored with robots who want to be real boys. I’m even more bored by disembodied consciosusnesses who may or may not be PoMo stand-ins for the God we wished was there but isn’t. I’m fine living in a godless mechanistic universe devoid of rational control or preordained design and I certainly don’t want to build a machine that thinks it’s better than me just because it doesn’t have to poop or ever want to fuck. I’m comfortable in my skin and not interested in escaping it. Which apparently makes me a weirdo in this here twenty first century. I guess my old fashioned humanism isn’t cool any more.[5]

Though on second thought, I think what is missing is a touch of humor. This is a clearly absurd situation, yet every character seems to grok that they’re in a hardboiled sci-fi novel. None of them laugh, except for the Dixie Flatline and even he has trouble with it, because he’s just a simulation of a dead man. Perhaps that’s what’s missing in all this grim grimmy grimness: a bit of gallows humor.

Whatever. Neuromancer needed more heart and soul, or at least a dick joke or two and it’s total lack thereof left me wanting more of something the author clearly is not interested in providing. So clearly it’s not my cup of tea.

1. There’s probably a whole essay to be written on this topic. Something related to the sci-fi/fantasy vocabulary and the needs of world building that demands a certain level of self conscious lingo. This lingo is a signifier of sorts. It says to the reader that you’re in that world, not this one, and you can tell because we use these weird words. More on that later, after many more cups of coffee.

2. This was especially the case in Spook Country, which I found annoying. Characters run around and do things without much reflection. It reads like a movie script, which would be fine, if it were a movie because then the actors would be telegraphing their motivations through body language and facial expression. But Gibson doesn’t describe people except when he has too and then its filtered through brand name clothing.

3.The movie was mentioned briefly during one of the panels I attended at comic con, by Lou Anders, the editor of Pyre books, who wandered aloud if the movie would be a period piece or contemporary. He was only half joking. But that’s typical Hollywood, where a novel old enough to¬† drink is a cutting edge hot property. I hear next year, they’re adapting that scandalous sex novel, Portnoy’s Complaint.

4. Even Molly. You’ve probably heard of Molly, even if you’ve never read Neuromancer, because she’s become an archetype, the burgeoning post-human with extensive body modifications who is also a cute girl who can kick your ass. She’s Buffy, without the snark or fashion sense and a set of mirror shades over her eyes. After reading the book, I think this reputation is pure fanwank because on the page, she’s a shallow, sad shell of a person and it takes 300 pages just to get that much out of her.

5. Well, there goes my Hugo.