This year marks the 25th anniversary of the publication of William Gibson’s first novel, Neuromancer, which became the manifesto for the nascent cyberpunk movement. In the years since, cyberpunk has grown from a niche sci-fi genre to a startlingly accurate description of modern times. Cyberpunk’s cultural influence has become so powerful as to be practically invisible; it’s the default setting of our daily reality. So much so, that Gibson has taken to writing about the recent past: there’s no need to imagine a savage, tech-drenched dystopian near future because it’s already happened!
Before we continue, let’s review some of the basic tenets of cyberpunk as blueprinted in Neuromancer. Gibson’s dark vision of the 21st century: a world ravaged by capitalism, dominated by technology, perched on the brink of social and ecological collapse. The gleaming skyscrapers and walled city-states of the rich stand in stark contrast to a grimy urban sprawl of discarded lives and outdated tech. A vast global computer network, known as the matrix or cyberspace, swarms with renegade hackers, deadly viruses, omniscient AI and the occasional reconstituted consciousness of a dead person. Cyberspace is accessed by “jacking in” to the matrix, effectively forming a direct interface between the brain and the computer. Neural implants and cybernetic prosthetics are also common, further blurring the line between man and machine. Megacorporations effectively replace governments and operate according to their own dictates, waging covert operations against each other, employing spies and private armies in an effort to control dwindling natural resources or the latest tech. Greed, betrayal and cruelty predominate the global monoculture as bodies and minds are steadily dehumanized by the assimilation of technology. The cold logic of libertarian capitalism defines every relationship; every interaction reduced to a commodity, the transaction of biz. Conversely, the dense databanks of the matrix spawn a human-like sentience with murky motives of its own.
Above: Why Gibson figured the future was gonna suck it
Neuromancer succeeded in capturing the political, economic and cultural zeitgeist of the early 80s, suffusing it with an air of eerie plausibility. While Reagan and Thatcher ebulliently pushed privatization and supply-side economics, superpowers pointed nuclear missiles at each other across the Iron Curtain and secret wars raged across Africa, Latin America and Southeast Asia. Information Age companies like Microsoft, Apple and Genentech were on the ascendancy, while the industrial base began shifting to the developing world and the resulting wealth consolidated in the hands of multinational corporations. No, the 80s weren’t all neon and white suits and Ferraris – crack cocaine descended on the ghettos and spread to the ‘burbs. Nihilistic kids passed over by Reaganomics took up punk rock and slam dancing and skateboarding. The inevitable comparisons to Orwell weren’t lost on the day, as seen in this jaw-dropping ad for Apple computers that aired during the Super Bowl in 1984.
Above: Ridley Scott (Alien, Blade Runner) directed Apple’s “1984” TV ad
In popular culture, films like TRON (1982) and War Games (1983) introduced the rebellious archetype of the hacker. Blade Runner (1982), often referred to as the definitive cyberpunk film, had been a commercial flop but developed a resurgent fan base as the genre gained popularity. Other film influences on Neuromancer include Fritz Lang’s dystopian classic Metropolis (1927), 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968,) THX-1138 (1971), and the noir detective thrillers of the 1940s. Neuromancer also evokes a variety of literary influences, not all of which are science fiction. Echoes of Aldous Huxley, Philip K. Dick, Bruce Sterling and non-SF writers like William Burroughs, Thomas Pynchon and Dashiell Hammett run throughout Neuromancer. The roots of our present day mashup cyberculture are apparent in Gibson’s sampling of influences, in which the rapid assimilation and recombination of information fragments into cultural memes that reshape thought and human experience.