Thursday, 30 August 2018

Book review: Neuromancer, William Gibson (1984)

This tiresome noir thriller is full of clever technological gimmicks and replete with genre tropes like a Mexican drug-lord’s safehouse contains gold-plated handguns. Gibson evidently grew up with pulp fiction and has chosen to celebrate its achievements in the same way that Quentin Tarantino did with ‘Kill Bill’ numbers one and two, the screamingly dull martial-arts celebrations that were released in 2003 and 2004.

Noir doesn’t have to mean creating a world as unnecessarily cruel as Gibson’s, nor does it require slavishly imitating precedents. Two great pioneers of literary noir, Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, take great care of their heroes and make sure that their psychological existences are as carefully described as the crimes they are investigating.

They also take time to ensure that each interaction their heroes have with others who emerge in the drama are valuable either to help to develop character or to advance the plot. You feel while reading that you are right there with these men as they go from place to place in the course of their investigations. How they feel and how they cope are as important to the reader as the clues they are assembling like links in a chain, in the course of the days and nights over which the stories evolve. There is economy and sophistication.

But Gibson’s science fiction novel is merely thick with wise-guy slang and the traces of nefarious dealings (cybercrime and black-market chemicals) in some dystopian future Tokyo, and it’s about as interesting as a flat-earther’s rantings. I read eleven percent of the book before giving up, bored with yet another predictable plot twist as Case met a high-level criminal named Armitage. No doubt some sci-fi fanboys would have loved Gibson’s cross-genre synthesis but it left me cold.

I can’t understand why this writer is celebrated in the way he is, it’s completely beyond me. Schlock is always just schlock and nothing but wishful thinking can turn it into quality material. There’s no doubt that crime stories can be well-told (as this year’s ‘Boy Swallows Universe’ by Brisbane’s Trent Dalton attests), but just vomiting up routine commonplaces that are wrapped in a thin film of glossy high-tech to give them a fresh-looking patina, doesn’t do it for me.

1 comment:

Matt Moore said...

I'd agree that Neuromancer is not a literary pinnacle but I enjoyed it a lot as a teenager. It is very much a creature of its time - and some of the books that came after I prefer. Simon Ings Hot Head in particular - it has problems but it is a very ambitious first novel.

The making of a terrible Blade Runner sequel just highlights that this particular sub-genre has been dead as a creative force for some time.