“Cliches became cliches for a reason; that they usually hold at least a modicum of truth, and the following cliche is truer than most: You can’t know where you’re going if you don’t know where you’ve been.”
During the second week of my vacation last month, I got drawn into a discussion among friends about our favorite books. The top slots on my list vary depending on current mood and prevailing interests, but it’s a given that William Gibson’s Neuromancer will appear somewhere in that tier. It been a while since I last read the novel, so I pulled my (originally Maura’s) copy of the first edition paperback version from the shelf for my umpteenth re-read.
It was as good a read this go-round as it was the first time I read it oh-so-many years ago. There’s a lyrical beauty to Gibson’s prose, couple with a manic energy which he manages to focus with tight-beam intensity.
“His teeth sang in their individual sockets like tuning forks, each one pitch-perfect and clear as ethanol.”
Individual passages read like an electrified form of “word jazz” yet build to a greater purpose. His style isn’t a bolted on affectation, but an integral part of the work as a whole. It had originally put me off buying the book when I thumbed through a copy at the Booksmith in the Woburn Mall during my junior high days, but dug its hooks deep into me after I’d gained a few more years worth of sophistication as a reader.
The re-read left me breathless, as it did every other time. After finishing it, I contemplated following up with the other parts of Gibson’s “Sprawl Trilogy” but decided against it. The experience was complete in and of itself. While I love those other two books (and Gibson’s other work), there’s something especially compelling about Neuromancer. It has electrifying feel of a first album by a band with a promising streak of single releases. There’s an intensity to it that can be honed — and even improved upon — on a technical level, but never quite recaptured.
I instead opted to revisit some similarly-themed neighbors of Neuromancer‘s on my perennial favorites shelf, Walter Jon Williams’ Voice of the Whirlwind and George Alec Effinger’s When Gravity Fails.
Around the turn of the millennium — when I was amped up by a previous re-read of Neuromancer and had access to a shop with a gloriously deep inventory of used sci-fi books — I accumulated a massive collection of “cyberpunk” paperbacks. The roadmap for my purchases was cobbled together from the Mirrorshades anthology, book reviews from old ‘zines, and the “recommended reading” sections of some RPG sourcebooks.
The scene had largely passed me by when it originally unfolded, mainly because its biggest evangelists in my social circle happened to be irritating wannabe writers who harbored big dreams for their thinly veiled Shadowrun fan-fiction. Their antics didn’t sour me on Gibson’s work or Blade Runner, but did throw shade-by-association over the subgenre in-general. That changed after they drifted out of my orbit and I started to seriously delve into the realm of retrology. My initial focus was the early Eighties, and the cyberpunk craze was a significant part of its overall zeitgeist.
Most of what I bought was utter crap, bog-standard potboilers and hard-man fantasies dressed up to pander to the prevailing fashion. At some point during Armagideon Time’s early years, I even considered doing an ongoing “Bad Cyberpunk Theater” feature to spotlight the worst of these efforts. I never got around to it because I’d started loosing my taste for “dur hur look at this garbage” flame-jobs and I really, REALLY didn’t feel like wasting any more of my precious time re-reading those cookie-cutter travesties.
It wasn’t all bad, however. There were a few books that stood out among the high and fragrant piles of trash-lit dross. Some were legitimately entertaining, and a couple were genuinely decent. Both Voice of the Whirlwind and When Gravity Fails fell into the latter category.
Voice of the Whirlwind was the follow-up to Hardwired. Hardwired was a full-on attempt by William’s to write “A Cyberpunk Novel,” and its overly earnest efforts to out-Gibson Gibson bordered on the realm of unintentional parody. Voice of the Whirlwind, on the other hand, was a gritty space-opera about the clone of a murdered special forces veteran trying to complete the unfinished work of his “alpha,” where the cyberpunk aspects represented the incorporation of the subgenre into the mainstream sci-fi as a whole. As a result, it’s a much stronger work, despite some telegraphed plot twists and Williams’ tendency to occasionally lapse into some awkwardly Gibsonesque riffs.
When Gravity Fails hewed much closer to the Neuromancer template, but had the advantage of a unique (and regrettably still radical) setting — a future Earth where the Middle East has become the global center of economic and cultural power. The story itself is fairly engaging, an old school private eye tale retrofitted with cybernetic enhancements and fascinating fictional world. Subsequent volumes in the series pulled further away from the cyberpunk axis in favor of further exploring the culture and relationships which shaped its protagonist and supporting cast.
I have a good deal of affection for both Voice of the Whirlwind and When Gravity Fails, but reading them on the heels of Neuromancer got me to thinking about the concept of “cyberpunk” as a distinct entity. Neither of the books would exist in the current form without Neuromancer. Its tropes and themes and concepts permeate them — every other work of cyberpunk literature — from top to bottom.
Yet these were hardly new or unique to Gibson’s novel. They can be found in works of Dick, Ballard, Brunner, and others, dating back to the late Sixties and even earlier. With Neuromancer, Gibson synthesized and reworked these various parts into a personal vision reflecting a certain moment in time and hypercharged them with his unique voice and style. That latter part is the critical factor here, and what separates that novel from the genre tag that emerged in its wake. The collectively understood notion of “cyberpunk” puts an excessive emphasis on the window-dressing — cybertech, computer generated universes, and other easy to visualize bits ganked from Blade Runner and Tron — while lacking the style and vision which set its seminal work apart.
Neuromancer was a genre unto itself, removed even from the other two books the “Sprawl Trilogy.” Cyberpunk (and every subsequent “-punk” appended scene) is merely a marketing tag based on the most superficial surface elements.