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Neuromancer: 25 years later

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skyscrapers and walled city-states of the rich stand in stark contrast to a grimy urban sprawl of discarded lives and outdated tech.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.

52 comments

  • 0over0 - August 19, 2009 3:54 p.m.

    Thanks for having this article--excellent!
  • TheWebSwinger - August 18, 2009 7 p.m.

    The Neuromancer film will star Hayden Christensen? Now that promises to be quality.
  • GamesRadarJoeMcNeilly - August 18, 2009 3:28 p.m.

    More cyberpunk-is-now video of BigDog: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VXJZVZFRFJc&NR=1&feature=fvwp
  • GamesRadarJoeMcNeilly - August 18, 2009 2:54 p.m.

    Thanks for all the great comments, I really enjoyed researching and writing this article. If you couldn't tell, I'm a huge fan of cyberpunk. I still cherish my Cyberpunk RPG, still in the original box with the original dice that I bought back in 1988. I wish I'd had more time to explore the sociological and philosophical aspects of our current technological scenario... know any book publishers who are interested in a Complete History of Cyberpunk?
  • HardlyBirdman - August 17, 2009 3:54 p.m.

    Another ballot cast for 'Best Researched GR Article' The topic is a little existential in comparison to the usual "this is what's going on in games now" vibe of GR, but I'm more than okay with that. I would be supremely happy to see more articles like this about bigger issues related to games. Great read; thank you!
  • rxb - August 17, 2009 11:40 a.m.

    Good article, felt like Ive be educated a bit. Will defo read the book at some time. I cant wait till next time I jack into cyberspace to play gears of wars too.
  • rebelx18 - August 17, 2009 1:01 a.m.

    i almost never comment but dam that was beautiful really bravo an utterly brilliant article i enjoyed the metropolis and Blade runner refrences XD
  • cosmolu - August 16, 2009 1:17 a.m.

    Absolutely brilliant article, guys! This is why this is always my first stop on the interwebs. Please keep the awesomeness coming!
  • noswar26 - August 15, 2009 7:04 p.m.

    Holy shit that article was deep. reCAPTCHA: kate fragments
  • Elessar - August 15, 2009 4:31 p.m.

    Best artice ever produced here, please, please PLEASE produce more similarly 'high-brow' articles in the future.
  • mbalexa - August 15, 2009 4:26 p.m.

    creeplytuna, as others have said, this is a GREAT book, it is one of my all time favorites. William Gibson is credited with coining the term "cyberspace" and for anyone that has not read Neuromancer, it is a must. The rest of his collection should not be overlooked either. GREAT ARTICLE!
  • awackslash - August 15, 2009 3:28 p.m.

    I agree with derigible...but seriously, @loonyman978 (and others with same view) how can you not understand this article? It's merely pointing out that while not as drastic as any of the cyberpunk universes, we're on the right track for creating such a downer society.
  • Doctalen - August 15, 2009 7:50 a.m.

    Such an eye opener. For the time till I fall asleep I am going to be paranoid but then forgot and become one with cyberspace again.
  • RickyV300 - August 15, 2009 4:46 a.m.

    IM AM CONFUSED
  • mman36 - August 15, 2009 4:18 a.m.

    This is easily the best article on the entire site! I immediately had to go look for change to buy Neuromancer, and I was flipping out at the video about the implants. MOAR! reCAPTCHA- Odetto dong
  • Derigible - August 15, 2009 3:49 a.m.

    Great article, why are you all so surprised that something like this is on GR. The guys are very capable of writing stuff without boobs. But I, am not. Boobs
  • CreeplyTuna - August 15, 2009 2:33 a.m.

    anyone know if this book is really good? cuz i can only read books that don't suck ass. always end up like 20 pages in and get bored.
  • uz_mike222 - August 15, 2009 1:40 a.m.

    @doomdoomdoom Dude, go read a book series that has 900pgs per book, and i dont mean Harry Potter or Lord of The Rings. but it was a good article, once im done with the book series im reading, ill probably go take a look at it.
  • sniper430 - August 14, 2009 11:26 p.m.

    ahhhh double post i shall forever be commissioned to shame! I apologize :P
  • sniper430 - August 14, 2009 11:25 p.m.

    GR, this is why i haven't abandoned you for N4G A~freaking~mazing article, keep it up please!

Showing 1-20 of 52 comments

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