Stumbling into an Art Movement

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There’s a book that I’ve taken everywhere with me. It’s one of the three books I saved when I moved to the USA. It was the book that went into my hand luggage when I moved back. It’s hard to imagine life without my battered paperback copy of Neuromancer, by William Gibson, close at hand.

First Impressions
Neuromancer benefits from one of the best opening lines in a science fiction novel. It starts with “The sky above the port was the color of a television, tuned to a dead channel.” It’s a vivid, and at the same time bleak, image. It also immediately dates the book. It’s talking about a type of TV that no longer exists. Can you even tune a TV to a dead channel any more? Despite the book showing its age in minor ways, that opening line sets the tone for the rest of the novel. There are shades of gray throughout. To an impressionable teenage mind, this was a very different kind of science fiction.

Previously, on My Reading Habits…
I’ve always been a fan of science fiction. I grew up reading the James Blish novelizations of Star Trek and the Target Books novelizations of Doctor Who. I graduated to the likes of John Wyndham and Arthur C. Clarke, taking in Isaac Asimov along the way. It was heady stuff, full of high concepts and hard science. The science and engineering was either a bit over my head, or a lot over my head, but it was glorious fun to follow along and attempt to keep pace. I felt like SF was my natural home, but at the same time I felt oddly dissociated from it, like I was never part of it. It seemed like all the good books had been written by authors now dead or retired.

Crystal Engines
Like I said, I didn’t really understand the science behind the SF. It’s a limiting factor. It turned out that neither did William Gibson. He wrote the book that introduced the world to Cyberspace on a typewriter. The book depends on computer technology and Gibson’s imagination made computers very much less mundane than they are. He was reportedly disappointed by his first word processor, a beige box with a keyboard attached, and it’s only recently that computer designs have begun to approach the level of cool that Gibson gave them. Look at a gaming PC today, with exotic cooling systems and moody lighting, they’re far closer to the systems he imagined than the ones IBM were making when he wrote about The Matrix.

Mean, Moody, Magnificent
Another standout feature of the book is the attention it pays to mood, color and style. Like Ian Fleming before him, Gibson uses brand names to anchor certain types of aesthetic. You know, if you’re aware of the brand, approximately what to expect. Today, it would be like referencing an Apple product and you know it would be smooth, rounded, well engineered. He also engages the reader’s senses to give a feeling of place. An early sequence set in a video games arcade feels genuinely crowded and claustrophobic. It is loud, sweaty and full of vivid color. This set Neuromancer very firmly apart for me. Reading it was a revelation. It hooked me. Because it hooked me, I started talking about it to friends and discovered there was more going on than I had suspected.

Being Part of It
The art movement associated with Neuromancer became known as Cyberpunk. There were associated movements in other areas – fashion, music, art and politics. It tapped into the preexisting hacker/cracker/phreak culture, like it was shining a light into a dark room. For the first time in my life there was an art movement going on that I could join in with. So I did. In a very minor way, because without access to the places where the scene was growing and changing, there wasn’t much I could do to influence it. Plus, and perhaps most importantly, I was a kid. Nevertheless, this was the moment, and the book, that opened a vital door in my life. I was part of the genre I loved and, in however small a way, I could make a contribution to it.

And then later…
I was sitting in a room full of men in suits who, like me, were bored and unhappy at being on a training course to teach them things they already knew. I opened my copy of Neuromancer and flicked idly through the pages to get to a section that might carry me through another terse lunch time. The man next to me noticed the battered paperback and took an interest. He’d never heard of Cyberpunk, but it turned out he’d been involved in the start of the New Wave. His name was Langdon. He offered to lend me a copy of a book called Camp Concentration by Thomas M. Disch if I lent him Neuromancer. Over the following weeks we educated one another. I discovered all the books I’d missed out on and he discovered new writers and new ideas. We were both significantly better off for the experience.

Shelf Life
My paperback copy of Neuromancer sits on my bookshelf. There’s an electronic copy on my phone and another on my Kindle. In some ways, William Gibson helped design a future that we’re now all living in. Connected. On line. Able to share ideas and stories, and books, in ways we couldn’t guess at even ten years ago.

I still love the paperback best, though.

David Webb is a freelance writer, working on at least three things at once.

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