Saturday, 29 March 2014

Neuromancer's amphetamine snare

"It took a month for the gestalt of drugs and tension he moved through to turn those perpetually startled eyes into wells of reflexive need. He'd watched her personality fragment, calving like an iceberg, splinters drifting away, and finally he'd seen the raw need, the hungry armature of addiction. He'd watched her track the next hit with a concentration that reminded him of the mantises they sold in stalls along Shiga, beside tanks of blue mutant carp and crickets caged in bamboo." - Neuromancer

"[When I was a teenager] there was a kind of literary war underway between the British New Wave people and the very conservative American science-fiction writers—who probably wouldn’t even have thought of themselves as very conservative—saying, That’s no good, you can’t do that, you don’t know how to tell a story, and besides you’re a communist. I remember being frightened by that rhetoric. It was the first time I ever saw an art movement, I suppose." - William Gibson

William Gibson's Neuromancer was a wildly influential novel by any standard, arguably the most significant science fiction novel of the late twentieth century. Published in 1984, it determined the language people would use to describe and define the internet over the following two decades. It established so many tropes that a reader coming to it context free, after The Matrix and Inception and a thousand other blunt emulators, might be forgiven for thinking it was just a particularly well written list of clichés. Fans of the novel in the media like to wear their influence on their sleeve - look in the credits of any science fiction film and you're bound to discover that thug#4 just happened to be named Corto...

Other cyberpunk classics like Hardwired and Schismatrix have largely disappeared into obscurity, with only two real exceptions - Pat Cadigan's Synners still has a literary reputation which will keep it in (limited) print for years to come, while Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash (1992) was taken as a kind of ideological manifesto by the Silicon Valley techno-libertarian crowd (they're literally still trying to build the Metaverse). So my question is this - if astonishing novels like Islands in the Net and Vacuum Flowers are destined to little more than a forgotten half life in my memory, why has Neuromancer lived on?

I could natter about the prose, or the simple timing of a hacker novel about 20 seconds before computer hacking became a thing people had heard of, or the revolutionary way it treated the "infodump." I could spend even more time talking about cyberpunk's genre swagger; how it had an incredible propagandist in the form of 'my intellectual and literary hero' Bruce Sterling, how he managed to propagate the patently false idea that all science fiction in the early 1980s was crap and Neuromancer had come to save it...

Instead i'm mainly going to make a case about narcotics. Also teenagers. Teenagers on narcotics, in some cases. Nerdy teenagers being accidentally exposed to the whole wide world of transgressive fiction...


Ten to thirteen is the age people lock into a love of genre fiction. It's the identity building time. Frankly, it's also the time when people have the most free, developed mental space spare to spend thinking about rockets and monsters before more important stuff intrudes. Neuromancer is definitely a novel that grabs people at thirteen.

Most genre fiction has its bowdlerised kid's version - it was probably Star Wars or Doctor Who or space LEGO that grabbed science fiction fans in the first place [1]. That early teenage time is also the time when you want to transcend those stories, to discover the deeper stuff that hasn't been whitewashed to keep the parents happy. What the parents think doesn't quite matter so much any more.

([1] not that I have anything against any of that stuff!)

The path beyond the child-friendly stuff has to start somewhere, and for most people in my generation it began with easily accessible writers like Stephen King, Anne McCaffrey or a group of 1950s "golden era" science fiction writers - particularly Arthur C Clarke and Isaac Asimov (I'll freely admit that I made an abject failure at reading Frank Herbert's Dune when I was ten...) who dominated the library and secondhand bookshop shelves. By the time I was 15, JK Rowling had arrived to trigger a renaissance in Young Adult fiction - there's now more quality YA genre stuff about than at any point since the era of the Asimov and "Heinlein juveniles." For an added bonus, the writers of this new cycle acknowledge that their female protagonists might do more than just tidy up, Wendy-in-Peter-Pan style.

There are some commonalities to the kind of characters you find in those novels (and in Asimov, and Heinlein, and Cory Doctorow's great YA stuff, and and and). Tween readers will have met dozens of determined heroes, and tough heroes, and cowardly heroes, and lately there have been a lot of spunky heroes. They'll have encountered deeply flawed heroes, who had to struggle to transcend deep personal, mental health and family problems to achieve their goals.

What they almost certainly won't have encountered is a hero speeding through a drug-induced paranoiac whirlwind towards final, explosive self destruction. 


"I was trying to pass for a hard-bitten, drug-soaked, New Worlds British New Wave guy" - Bruce Sterling

(Above: the most famous song explicitly about Neuromancer...)

Case isn't a unique character. Burnout punks basically composed the culture in 1983, so far as I can tell! 

The delirious first thirty pages of Neuromancer, in which Case is pursued by his own paranoia (and more) through the streets of Chiba, establishes a character in an archetypal tradition. I suspect virtually every adult in every city on the planet knows someone who is or was locked into a self destructive helterskelter downwards, fueled by drugs or alcohol or sex. I've counted a few of those people among my best friends - and I'm a chronically shy nerd who grew up in a suburban house which had a subscription to the Daily Telegraph. If I know those people, I'm sure you do as well! Marc Maron has interviewed at least a hundred.

Better to burn out than fade away! There are entire genres of music and books dedicated to that personal trajectory, straight down at high speed. There's an appealing pure darkness to the idea. As many novels and uplifting personal tales are dedicated to the fight to return to the world, although those stories don't draw teenagers the same way as, say, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. People searching for some kind of bohemian underground have been drawn to William Burroughs for the last four decades at least. Trainspotting might be the most enduring British novel of the last quarter century. 

It isn't just about the drugs. The rush is just as important to people trapped in high school, that gulag for adolescents after they lost their economic utility in the early 20th century. People don't like to admit it, but part of the reason teenage boys are so eager to put on jackboots and throw their life away in warfare is because extremism is fun, whether in sport, action or thought. Beyond that, there's the sense of transgressing boundaries. Experiencing a world beyond limits that, in a child's life, have always been imposed from above by external authorities. The point isn't "a desire to do evil" but a desire to have agency, to decide for yourself.

Searching out transgression is also about individuating yourself. "My parents won't like this" is a really powerful emotion. Experiencing it is part of the basic process of becoming a separate, independent human being. That achieved, it becomes all about determining the boundaries of morality, testing them, going beyond morality and into the realm of personal ethics. Speaking as a "millennial" (whatever that means), I can't help but think that last process was more important to my generation than any before - with States and Uniforms and Jobs-for-Life fading away, with no single fount of enforced moral virtue standing at the heart of the culture, the only remaining morality is personal. I have to be a bit careful here - I don't want to spend paragraph after paragraph discussing the allure of transgression, the desire for ideological purity or the drive for extremism in artistic movements, so on and so on... there's an enormous amount to say, mostly beyond the scope of this post.

Grove Press' heroic effort to bring banned books into print during the 1950s was followed by a wave of experimental novels in the 1960s and 70s, exploring the way opened by writers like Allen Ginsburg and Henry Miller. Charles Bukowski and JG Ballard redefined the entire literary culture. By the 1990s it would be possible to place writers like Kathy Acker, Chuck Palahniuk and Bret Easton Ellis into their own "transgressive" genre.

These books had (and still have, I expect!) huge cachet among disaffected teenagers. They drive the same emotional turbines that made Marilyn Manson the biggest rock star on the planet for the best part of a decade - a gawky nerd called Brian who made himself into a genuine moral threat to the Rove-era conservative right by the simple expedient of putting on a corset and some make-up: what's not to love? Irvine Welsh, Chuck Palahniuk and Iain Banks (in his savage literary iteration) dominated the bookshelves of almost every angry, alienated reader I knew (i.e half my friends). Mine was much the same, with added Kerouac and Gibson. 

Science fiction has a reputation for staid, upstanding, one-dimensional characters almost entirely inherited from the 1950s generation that so dominated the library shelves. But no genre was going to survive a brush with the 1960s counter-culture unscathed. Dune - a novel fundamentally about altered states - was only the beginning. Rallying around New Worlds magazine, a group of predominantly British "new wave" writers totally upended the genre. Exploring literary experimentation, psychedelia and psychiatry, they began to probe inner space.The cyberpunk writers were inspired by their new wave predecessors, especially JG Ballard, and cyberpunk presaged the return of the inner space after an outer space period dominated by frolicking Jedi and their imitators. Acid-head psychedelia was replaced by cyberspace but the effect was the same.

Now, I'd like to make a clarification. When I say that me and my friends were reading "transgressive" novels as a teenager, I mean "when I was 15 and older." 

At 13 I had no idea about any of this stuff, and therein lies the rub:


There's a process to exploring any subculture; in the wiki era it happens quicker than ever before. First you discover the most mainstream iteration of the genre, or you're introduced to a single part of it... you find the creators you like, search out everything they've made, read all about their influences and then... you dive down the rabbit hole.

Anyone delving science fiction written after 1983 is going to hear about Neuromancer really quickly. They'll hear about it as the progenitor for the literary movement that changed everything after it, they'll hear about it for the way it exploded the language and visual culture of the genre, they'll hear about the spare effective text and the noir-infused descriptive prose.

It'll be available in any bookshop. No-one will try to stop a 13 year old buying it, the way they might with Naked Lunch or Fight Club or Pussy, King of the Pirates. It wasn't written for 13 year olds, but the clerk just knows it came from the science fiction section, and isn't that all aimed at 13 year olds?

So the unsuspecting 13 year old reader - stereotypical science fiction nerd like me, possibly! - will find the book and suddenly come face to face for the first time with one of the most enduring and magnetic character archetypes in fiction. The opening thirty pages make impressive, heart-pulsing reading for an adult; for a teenager it reads like nothing they've ever read before. It contains transgression and darkness. It's entirely possible that no-one in their experience will have acted like that before. It contains a new option for the future to add to astronaut and firefighter and doctor - destroy yourself

(Above: Some Things Never Change, by Devo - an 8 bit version was the title music to the 1988 video game version)

This post makes Neuromancer sound a lot more transgressive than it actually is. It really isn't, by the standards of the fiction I've been comparing it too. Everything new in Neuromancer - the drugs, the nihilistic spiral, the 'punk' ethos - is there to be discovered within a few years. What Neuromancer is is accessible. It's likely to end up in the hands of a 13 year old. People remember it because it's where they were introduced to a way of life their parents and teachers would never encourage. For me it was the gateway drug to the whole world - from cyberpunk through the Beats through punk and electronic music. The actual quality of the book is almost irrelevant, compared to that. It opened up my possibility space, and judging by the way people talk about it, I'm far from alone. For people mentally predisposed to respond to it, the first place they experience the charisma of underground culture will be burnt into their memory forever. 

Neuromancer: underground culture's trojan horse hidden amongst the racks of 1950s science fiction novels! Corrupting the youth since 1983!


  1. Since writing this I re-read that Paris Review of Books interview and discovered that William Gibson wrote almost the same things about JG Ballard as I wrote about him!

    "It gave me an uncensored window into very foreign modes of thought. There was a lot of inherent cultural relativism in the science fiction I discovered then. It gave me the idea that you could question anything, that it was possible to question anything at all. You could question religion, you could question your own culture’s most basic assumptions. That was just unheard of—where else could I have gotten it? You know, to be thirteen years old and get your brain plugged directly into Philip K. Dick’s brain!

    That wasn’t the way science fiction advertised itself, of course. The self-advertisement was: Technology! The world of the future! Educational! Learn about science! It didn’t tell you that it would jack your kid into this weird malcontent urban literary universe and serve as the gateway drug to J. G. Ballard."

    The cycle continues!

  2. The PRoB interview was great! In depth with a very interesting selection of questions (and answers). The J.G. Ballard interview is also worth a read of you're a fan.