Neuromancer – William Gibson

[I decided to read this novel three chapters at a time. I wrote about each section before reading on, so I never knew what was coming next.]

9 March 2017
Chapters 1-3
This is a famously ground-breaking novel, and a lot of features that have since become tropes of the genre make their first appearance here – which means it isn’t easy to imagine how mind-boggling they must have been for readers in 1984. A computer-generated matrix? Visions of ‘cyberspace’ – a word that has entered the language, although with none of the richness of Gibson’s original meaning – that offer a viable alternative to a brutal reality? Minds that can somehow be plugged into a vision of all human and non-human knowledge, allowing a character to surf around it like a cosmic superhero? If these things weren’t first seen in this novel, Gibson is the one who brought them to the widest possible audience. And the cyberpunk world of Neuromancer is still the go-to dystopic vision for any writer or movie director without the energy to make one up for themselves.

Some passages are still striking, all these years later. In Chapter 3 Case, the maverick cyber cowboy, is able to re-enter cyberspace for the first time after a long exile:

‘Disk beginning to rotate, faster, becoming a sphere of paler grey. Expanding— And flowed, flowered for him, fluid neon origami trick, the unfolding of his distanceless home, his country, transparent 3-D chessboard extending to infinity. Inner eye opening to the stepped scarlet pyramid of the Eastern Seaboard Fission Authority burning beyond the green cubes of Mitsubishi Bank of America, and high and very far away he saw the spiral arms of military systems, forever beyond his reach.’

That ‘3-D chessboard extending to infinity’ might have the smack of early wire-frame computer graphics, and it’s hard not to think of Tron, but those ‘spiral arms’ are a galaxy of possibilities. They might be beyond his reach now, but I bet he’ll find himself up there someday soon. This isn’t the so-called cyberspace of Facebook or online gaming. This is an altered state that Case knew he would never be able to recreate with drugs. Not that it has ever stopped him trying. When his new masters, whoever they might be, fix up the medical vandalism that has kept him out of the cyber loop, they make sure to indulge in a little tweak of their own: his body can’t absorb mind-altering drugs any more.

It’s not the only tweak they’ve made – if he doesn’t do what they want, untraceable sacs of some exotic chemical will be offloaded into his bloodstream, and this time his exile from cyberspace will be permanent. So they tell him, anyway, and a tame medic that his minder introduces him to – I’ll come back to his minder, because she also provides the sexual interest – can’t confirm it one way or the other. For now, he’d better play ball.

What else? Not everything about this novel is cutting-edge. It’s classic American hard-boiled – even the name of the hero (or anti-hero) is hard-boiled – and, aside from the futuristic details the plot so far is classic noir thriller. Case, we are told, really knows his stuff, and he clearly knows how to look after himself. But a mixture of his own lack of foresight and the perfidy of his enemies has made him embittered. He realises long before his new masters’ surveillance assessment confirms it that he has reached a 21st Century existential crisis. If, as looks likely, he isn’t going to survive much longer, that’s ok by him. His ex has stolen the last marketable thing he has, there’s a tail on him that she’s lied to him about and…

…and these plot details hardly matter. The Tokyo of an unspecified near future is a terrible place where terrible things happen – almost every detail of the grungy Asian mise-en-scene is taken wholesale from Blade Runner – and the only important thing is that somebody somewhere seems to think that if Case’s old skills are restored he can still be very useful. Out of all the cowboys out there, Case must have something special. He is the one chosen by Armitage, his new master (if that’s who he really is), to do a special job, and has paid a small fortune to get him fixed. The most marketable product in this universe seems to be a kind of anatomical ‘programming.’ The right product can keep whichever faceless organisation is buying it ahead of the game, and the price paid for Case’s industrial-scale medical reboot is as good as a three-year head start.

I mentioned Blade Runner, first released in 1981. The aesthetic of that movie had become a trope before Gibson ever got his hands on it, and remains so in films and books all these decades later. (It had already been there in 1970s comic-book visions like Judge Dredd’s Mega-City.) As for the sex-interest…. I can’t imagine that Gibson invented the sexy leather-clad assassin. But she has her own unique feature – one that didn’t remain unique for long – in the implanted mirror-glass covering her eye-sockets that provide her with useful digital read-outs. She seems, so far, to be on Case’s side – and when he wonders why, her response is to grope the front of his pants. The sex they have, often, is every heterosexual young man’s fantasy. I should know, I was a young man once.

(I should have mentioned that at the end of Chapter 2 Case and his minder, the ever-sexy Molly, leave Chiba. This is Gibson’s vision of a sprawling, dystopic future Tokyo, and its squalid underbelly is where Case had ended up after failing to find anyone who could fix his chewed-up synapses. Long before the start of the novel he’s run out of money, is now no better than a low-level hustler of the sort of illicit software that would have been beneath his notice a couple of years before, and life has stopped having any meaning for him. But that was then, and by Chapter 3 he and Molly are now residing in the urban sprawl – helpfully known as the Sprawl – that now spreads from New York to Baltimore. And Armitage has set him up with the ‘deck’ that lets him gain access to that electric dream of cyberspace I liked so much.)

11 March
Chapters 4-6
We get to see how things operate in Gibson’s digital universe. Molly is Case’s working partner, doing the groundwork in the physical world – it’s a break-in, literally – while his job is to become the ghost in any machine trying to block her entry. And that’s it. Everything else that Gibson throws at it is part of an elaborate superstructure – future sociology, social policy, fashion, you name it – and a future technology that is no more clearly explained than the magic in Harry Potter. Like, when his work is done, Case needs to get out of the security system of Sense/Net, the corporation that Armitage is making them steal from. He must leave no tracks in the ‘ice’ (Intrusion Countermeasures Electronics – so he’s ice-breaking now):

‘He withdrew the line through the library ice. It whipped back into his program, automatically triggering a full system reversal. The Sense/Net gates snapped past him as he backed out, sub-programs whirling back into the core of the ice-breaker as he passed the gates where they had been stationed.’

Now I know why I thought of Harry Potter. The way Case gets into and out of systems is exactly – I mean exactly – like the way things happen in and around Hogwarts. In Harry Potter it wouldn’t be a program withdrawing from a security system, it would be a glowing, snake-like spell whipping back into Harry’s wand after it had incapacitated some monster. At the end of it the monster wouldn’t even know it had been rendered harmless and Harry, like Case, would be tired out after a good day’s wizardry.

Gibson is vague about the details of how Case actually does what he does – he famously knew nothing of the realities of computers and hacking when he wrote this novel. The actual connections between Case’s consciousness and the three-dimensional construct of cyberspace are to do with ‘trodes’ he can attach to his forehead by way of a tiara-like gizmo that dangles from the hardware. But does he need a keyboard? Or is his brain-magic, his ‘neuromancy,’ something more direct? Elsewhere in these chapters we are introduced to characters who have an implanted socket behind the ear where they can plug in ‘microsofts’ (I’m not joking), but the surgery involved relies too much on the ‘meat’ of non-digital existence for Case’s liking, and he avoids them. He likes to keep it mystical, somehow…

… which is why Neuroancer is the perfect title for the novel. It isn’t a word we can ever imagine anyone using in Gibson’s future, but it combines exactly the universes I’ve been talking about. ‘Neuro-’ implies some kind of direct neural input, at the cutting-edge of science. But ‘-mancy’ is a suffix meaning ‘divination through magic.’ In combining the two, not only does Gibson give us a strange hybrid, as other-worldly as cyberspace itself… the sound of the word makes Case appear engaged in a new kind of romance. Is he a cowboy, or is he on some kind of Grail-like quest? The Arthurian legends were becoming popular again when Gibson was writing, and the heart of the new fantasy genre was an Arthurian world of quests to be embarked on, and monsters to be quelled. Case, of course, is Merlin himself.

There are more plot details than I’ve mentioned. Case can be linked, by way of a magic Being John Malkovich gadget, directly into Molly’s consciousness. When he first tries this, she teases him by stroking one of her own nipples and letting him stew back in his white-painted loft. It’s such a well-known technique in the Sprawl that a young microsoft fan she wants information from realises she’s doing it and he tells her to lose her passenger. Or whatever. Case can switch this feature on and off throughout the heist so, although the narrative is all based on his point of view, (technically, third person limited), the reader gets hers too from time to time in this highly selective way. We sometimes see what she sees and, when a security guard unexpectedly appears, Case feels her pain as he breaks her leg.

We also – and this is when Gibson adds something else to the mix – get a view of the mayhem being caused by the distraction strategy they’ve devised. There’s a convenient local anarchist terrorist group who like to stage high-profile incidents and, with Case’s help, they have convinced the security systems that their threat of a mass poisoning is real. Meanwhile the city security authorities have received totally reliable (false) information about terrorists in the building, and have locked it down. People die in the confusion and panic, and at one point Case sees what the now pain-desensitised Molly can see. It’s traumatic, and… and what? Gibson doesn’t make a big thing of it, but crimes like this one have consequences for ordinary people. File that idea away for later.

The heist is the theft of a bit of kit containing the digitised consciousness of a now-dead cyber cowboy called Dixie that Case used to know. He was Flatlined – rendered brain-dead, I think – by something in cyberspace. With Dixie’s help, Case begins to do some research on who Armitage really is. In Gibson’s 21st Century there’s a less open but, when accessed, more powerful version of the Internet. Armitage, it turns out (and you’ll need to pay attention now), was really one Colonel Corto. A rogue American security agency sent him with a military force on a suicide mission to test Russia’s defences. Everyone but Corto was killed, and he received horrific injuries along the way. The price for the Bionic Man-level surgery he receives is his willingness to give false testimony about the raid in court. Which he does. But he’s not happy, and now has a personal vendetta against the agency involved, or somebody in it.

That will do for plot – except that Case is going to need Dixie’s help to navigate the weird places he will need to go. Gibson has some fun when Case boots up Dixie’s consciousness for the first time. In fact, Gibson has a lot of fun patrolling the ill-defined borders between consciousness and future technology – and the vocabulary to go with it all. I’ll get back to those later, because I need to read on now.

16 March
Chapters 7-9
Gibson loves to give his novels a lot of surface texture. So at the end of Chapter 6 – I forgot to mention it – Molly and Case are about to set off for Istanbul, both to check out and pick up another co-worker on Armitage’s project. Then they are on the way to a space-shuttle pad just outside Paris, then in a Rastafarian-themed space station – Gibson offers a back-story to account for its outlandish décor and dreadlocked personnel, but we don’t have to believe it – and then towards a Vegas-style orbiting resort. This is Freeside, and its centre of cyber-operations is in the station’s zero-gravity core. (Rotating ‘toruses’, as in Kubrick’s 2001, A Space Odyssey, are what stations otherwise use to imitate gravity.) Which is why Case needs to practise working in zero-g. He’s on his way from the Rastafarian outpost in the patched-up, spray-painted ex-Russian shuttle crate they’ve modified, and he tries out his deck in gravity-free conditions for a while.

The colourful surface details are just the top layer. Underneath that there are new characters, new mind-bending concepts to deal with and, meanwhile, various branches of the plot are taking on a new significance. ‘Wintermute’, somehow connected to an AI entity, has been making its presence known to Case and Molly, but they haven’t really grasped its significance until now. (Or I might be just talking about me – I hadn’t grasped its significance.) But by the end of his zero-g adventure, Case knows a lot more about it. It’s much more complex, and much more dangerous, than he’s ever imagined. For a while, just going near it in cyberspace is enough to make him suffer 40 seconds’-worth of flatlining – and the chance to speak, in a matrix of Wintermute’s invention, to a version of the AI entity itself. Or a very, very important part of it. (Tell you later.)

Plot. In Istanbul, with help from Finn (the tame medic I mentioned in the early chapters), they assess a seedy character called Riviera for his usefulness. His USP, beyond his hideous sex-murderer personality and his massive drug habit, is his ability to project into other people’s field of vision a seemingly real, three-dimensional image of anything his own mind conjures up. So when they first meet him, he is transformed into a luridly terrifying sci-fi monster. From then on, Molly threatens to kill him if he ever tries anything like that again – although he sometimes keeps them entertained, as when warts and pustules appear on Armitage’s face….

The Rastas, on their Zion space-station, are willing to help Armitage’s project because one of their elders has heard a powerful disembodied voice telling of how this will help them to bring down Babylon. Case and Molly are pretty sure that the voice is some sort of mind-game, probably rigged up by Armitage. The Rastas are in such a permanent stew of ganja smoke they have trouble recognising what’s real at the best of times – but then, in this universe, they aren’t alone in that. As we see in the next chapter, after Armitage has told them a little about Freeside. He uses the sort of room-filling hologram that was already familiar in movies as Gibson was writing (not that I’m spending so much time now wondering about when tropes first appeared), and his somewhat affectless manner is one that we are coming to understand. According to the AI Case meets, his mind was reconstructed at the same time as his body. Corto is still in there somewhere, but there doesn’t seem to be very much of him left, in fact. Molly has never trusted him. (Shades of Robocop? Just saying.)

The mind-fuck in the next chapter happens when Case tries out the deck in zero gravity. After letting him know that he really, really doesn’t like his post-death existence – ‘this scam of yours, when it’s over, you erase this goddam thing’ – Dixie helps him. He warns Case that it was through trying to mess with AI in cyberspace that led to his own flatlining, and Case says he’ll be careful. In fact, he isn’t. When he approaches the apparently smooth white cube that is Wintermute, he begins to perceive the complexities inside and he cranks himself ‘a single grid-point’ too close, whatever that means – and he’s done for. The defences bloom out to meet him, and he tries to disconnect himself. He hits ‘Max Reverse,’ the matrix blurs backwards as he plunges down a twilit shaft… and then, as if by magic, it’s as though the past days and weeks have never happened. He’s in Chibo, in a games arcade, and there’s… Linda, his ex. They talk, just as they would before her betrayal of him – but suddenly things become weird, everybody disappears, and Case is left alone in the arcade.

Do we guess what’s going on? Case does – he decides it must be a construct, and he reminds whoever is pulling the strings that he always has some cigarettes with him. When he leaves the arcade and finds a fresh pack of his favourite brand outside, his theory is proved right. He goes up to an office we know about from the early chapters, and there is Deane, the crime boss he was expecting to be there. In fact it isn’t Deane, because this is all an elaborate matrix stitched together from Case’s memories by Wintermute. It’s the only way it could devise to communicate directly with him, apparently. Fine. And basically, it tells him, there isn’t just one aspect to Wintermute, because the mainframe isn’t the entity (Gibson’s italics). Each part is like hemisphere of a brain separated surgically – and will only become the potential entity it’s capable of being (Gibson’s italics, again) if, somehow, they are brought together. It’s Wintermute that has assembled the team, not Armitage/Corto – and Corto is likely to come apart very soon, so Wintermute is ‘counting on you, Case.’

He knows it’s pointless, but Case does it anyway. With the Magnum that Deane/Wintermute has been staring at all along, he blows his head apart in a cascade of bone and brains. It’s almost picturesque.

20 March
Chapters 10-12
It doesn’t make him feel better. Blasting Deane’s head to bits. Not only because it’s not really Deane, but an avatar – and even if he suspects Deane (or Wintermute – or both, with one pulling the strings) to have been involved in Linda’s death, he can’t be sure. It’s getting complicated. And, following a drugs binge I can only describe as ill-advised – he’s found some young tourists who can get him stuff that bypass his blockers – the virtual shooting is giving him nightmares. The image of the splattered wall behind Deane’s body is just the start of it, an ugly metaphor of his psychic disorientation.

There’s a lot of disorientation in these chapters. Freeside is one of those rotating space structures that Case really can’t get his head around – it’s nearly as bad as zero-g for him, and he hates zero-g – and it becomes another metaphor. There are no certainties in cyberspace either, as he is discovering, and it feels exactly right that he should be in a three-dimensional physical space that’s just as impossible for him to fathom. There are power relationships in cyberspace that Dixie can help him with, but only up to a point… and it’s in these chapters that he seems to have gone beyond that point. Who holds the power? Who seems to hold it, but doesn’t really? And does Case’s arrest by agents of the Turing cyber police, there to stop him doing exactly the thing they were set up to prevent, signal that he’s gone as far as he can?

Obviously not. First, we don’t really know they are who they say they are. And second, there’s half the novel yet to go, and there’s no way anything is settled. But… we do know a little more about what issues Case might be dealing with. And we know a little more about the people he’s working with. None of it, obviously – I must stop using that word – is straightforward as Case tries to negotiate different worlds in which the truth is as darkly hidden as anything in the noir fiction Gibson clearly loves. There’s the Tessier-Ashpool family, who own Freeside and so many other corporations that Case is starting to see their logo even in his dreams and hallucinations. (It appears on a hideous, writhing wasps’ nest he remembers during one of these episodes. Gibson loves his metaphors.) Family members are on Freeside, including a daughter Case has accidentally met briefly. There’s AI in general, and Wintermute in particular, apparently aiming – although Dixie warns Case not to think in terms of motive when it comes to AI – to get what the Turing Police want to prevent, an unstoppable expansion of its own potential to develop. And there’s a new virus package that Case has that seems – seems – capable of breaking down all the walls, including those of the military whose ‘spiral arms’ had been well beyond his reach only a few days ago.

Over all this – I called it one of the layers the last time I wrote – are the details of the physical future of Earth and its orbiting ‘archipelagos’ that Gibson imagines. Sometimes the descriptions are almost tactile – the feel of fabric or the taste of vat-grown meat – but usually what we receive are impressions that come past us too fast to register fully. This is true of both cyberspace and, in these chapters, the attractions that are Freeside’s selling points for tourists, concealing the ‘biz’ – Case’s catch-all word for all the transactions that go on behind closed doors. There are a lot of closed doors, real and metaphorical.

One of the real ones is the door in the brothel where Molly has gone to spend some me-time following a typically vile performance – for the public, in a cabaret act – by Riviera. He has created an act in which he creates, from his own psychopathic brain, a version of Molly out of slowly forming body-parts, leading to live onstage porn. Molly has been watching, her expression hard to read, and she leaves before Case realises. He has to use all the skills he can muster, including his tame flatliner, to find out where she’s gone. He ignores Dixie’s warnings, again, that he’s treading on dangerous ground, and that alarm-bells are starting to go off in Freeside’s security systems…. But he gets to find Molly, and she tells him why Riviera’s act got to her. She made the small fortune it cost to get herself modified by working in a brothel just like this one. In the future, sex workers have an implant to switch off the conscious mind for the duration, so it feels like money for nothing. Except, of course, some of the work she’s having done interferes with the firewall and she is conscious while a murder is committed during a threesome (I think) involving a senator. You couldn’t make it up.

What else? A few things. Another avatar from the Chibo days tries to convince him (I think) that Wintermute did not have Linda killed. Armitage grows more affectless every day. The job they’ve come to Freeside to do set to begin the next morning. And Case goes for another drugs hit after Molly’s bombshell. This section (Part 3) ends when he arrives back at this room. One of three chic-looking agents, sitting comfortably on one of the room’s wicker chairs, keeps it simple. ‘“Turing,” she said. “You are under arrest.”’

22 March
Chapters 13-15
Everybody’s a storyteller in this book. The Turing agent is there to tell Case, and the reader, that the crime he’s attempting to commit really is as serious as we think it is. Turing has been trying to keep AI within strict limits for decades, and now Case is aiding and abetting a criminal wanting to cut through the shackles that keep humanity safe. But hers is only one story, and soon there is different version for Case to think about. During one of those occasional flatline interludes that worry Case’s Rastafarian minder so much – he’s back on the space-tug as soon as Wintermute has hacked into Freeside robots to kill the three Turing agents – yet another avatar tells him something much bigger is at stake than an unshackled AI nexus let loose on poor old humanity. The future is humanity itself, if only it knew.

We find out two things. Wintermute has not been constructing its hyper-real matrixes just for effect. It has been creating them from Case’s own memories, often in real time, to demonstrate to Case something about himself, and about humanity. This is the big news. When Case tells Wintermute his memories aren’t that good, it tells him, oh yes they are. The memories of every human being are this good, but ‘not many of you can access it. Artists can, mostly, if they’re any good.’ And for human beings, memory is ‘holographic,’ and unlike anything that AI can access: ‘The holographic paradigm is the closest thing you’ve worked out to a representation of human memory…. But you’ve never done anything about it.’

We’re getting there now. Wintermute, perhaps, has chosen Case because he’s good at this kind of holographic visualisation. But it’s humanity that it’s interested in. ‘You’re always building models. Stone circles. Cathedrals. Adding machines. I got no idea why I’m here now, but if this run goes off tonight’ – Case and Molly, with Dixie’s help, are half-way through penetrating the Tessier-Ashpool core – ‘you’ll have finally managed the real thing…. That’s you in the collective, Your species.’ And it tells Case that the wasps’ nest, complete with Tessier-Ashpool logo, is ‘the closest thing you got to what Tessier-Ashpool would like to be.’ Ah. So it’s a bid for freedom from the corporate hive-mind that the nasty corporate family has in store for all of us. Wintermute knows this, and – it doesn’t know why – wants to stop it.

It decides it’s time for another storyteller to take over. It adjusts the matrix to take Case through a virtual version of the deep (physical) core of Tessier-Ashpool, the one Molly is busy trying to penetrate. And at the centre is a panelled room, complete with a talking head that speaks words once written in a school essay by 3Jane, the Ashpool daughter Case had a glimpse of a day or two before. It’s an explanation of how the family came to be what it is, why it created Freeside. But the essay is incomplete, and something else is needed in order to unlock the core. That something – and I don’t really know what I’m talking about – is a word, spoken aloud by a living person. This, and this alone, is why Wintermute has assembled its team – to get a person to that central room and say the word. Fine. Except it doesn’t know what the word is: ‘I am basically defined by the fact that I don’t know, because I can’t know.’ And somebody has to say it at the same time that Case and Dixie ‘punch through that ice and scramble the cores.’

As I said, I don’t know what I’m talking about. But… it’s a classic adventure trope, straight out of Rider Haggard or one of the Indiana Jones movies. And for most of the next chapter, Case is using the Being John Malkovich program (Gibson calls it simstim) to go with Molly on the journey through Freeside’s inner structure, aka Straylight. It owes a lot to two movies, one of which I’ve already mentioned: 2001, A Space Odyssey and Citizen Kane. We get the scene near the end of Kubrick’s movie, when we see the space commander as an old man in an elegant European room from an earlier century. And the rooms and corridors full of loot from all over the world are basically Kane’s Xanadu, and the cases of random stuff in storage there. Molly, ignoring warnings that Wintermute flashes up inside her eyepieces, goes through a door – and meets Ashpool himself, 200 years old if you count the periods spent in suspended animation, in his own inner sanctum. He’s pointing a gun at her, but he isn’t feeling too hot. Some perceived wobble in Freeside’s security has caused him to be woken up from 30 years of hibernation, and all he really wants to do now is end it all forever. He’s on the brink of suicide, and is so drugged up he falls asleep. Molly helps him on the way to dusty death with a dart through a closed eyelid. Bless.

Baroque nonsense? I couldn’t possibly comment. But I’m enjoying it.

27 March
Chapters 16-18
This is reminding me more than ever of Indiana Jones. Raiders of the Lost Ark was released three years before Neuromancer, and Speilberg, like Gibson, (and George Lucas, for that matter) has a lot of affection for earlier genres. Raiders begins with that prologue in which everything has to go wrong before it goes right: the corpse shot through with arrows, slouched there as a warning, the ancient mechanism that kicks into operation as soon as Jones removes the precious figurine, the giant stone ball – and the lost tribe of the jungle whose only role is to make life hard for him. I feel this is where we are in Neuromancer. By the end of Chapter 18, Molly is out of commission. Armitage, having had his RoboCop moment – Corto’s schizoid personality has spectacularly smashed through the Armitage persona that Wintermute gave him – is now in orbit around Freeside, dead. Riviera was never to be trusted, and he’s proved it big-time not only by stopping Molly in her tracks but by smashing one of her eyeglass implants. Even the pilot of the Haniwa (don’t ask) has been garrotted.

Case is going to have to take over by getting into Straylight himself. But he easily gets space-sick, he is clumsy in zero-g – he’s always bumping into the walls and bulkheads whenever he has to make his way through the Marcus Garvey – and he can’t stop obsessing about the toxic sacs that are going to ruin his deck cowboy chances forever. So Gibson has provided him with the unlikeliest of helpers, Maelcum the Rastafarian space-tug pilot. He’s the one who tells Case he needs to get his space-suit on, and as Chapter 18 ends, he has shown that he really, really knows what he’s doing. With his all-purpose toolkit, he’s been working on the multiple hex-head bolts and has managed to lock them on to Freeside. Case is skinny – we’re told how he sees himself in the mirror – but Maelcum has rippling muscles and a can-do mentality that might come in handy. So long as Riviera and 3Jane’s ninja doesn’t get to him first.

But I need to rewind. The big virus package – special delivery from China, which I didn’t mention – is the one that is slowly insinuating itself into the Freeside cyber superstructure. Case sees it visually, one big monolith slowly penetrating – or not quite penetrating – another. Somehow, the virus morphs itself into the core’s very being, so it doesn’t know it’s been infiltrated at all. (Last time, I said I didn’t know what I was talking about. I still don’t – but I don’t feel too bad, because I’m pretty sure Gibson didn’t know either. The Freeside core is getting well and truly fucked over, apparently, and that’s all we need to know.) It takes time – Dixie has calculated the process will be complete 30 minutes before it needs to be. It adds another layer of jeopardy – what if it takes longer?

Armitage, as I’ve mentioned, has reverted back to being to the crazed Corto the military discovered and who Wintermute re-programmed. He’s about to abort the mission, thinking he’s back in Russia again and trying to set co-ordinates for Finland. Wintermute kills him – if it has no qualms about killing an eight-year-old, as we discovered a few chapters back, it has no problems with a reprogrammed adult gone ape-shit. Meanwhile, Case had been following Molly’s progress via the simstim link, and it turns out to be much harder than they both expected. Her patched-up broken leg hurts, and Riviera, instead of putting on a show for whoever is at the centre of Straylight – it’s the original of 3Jane, not the clone or avatar we’ve met – is creating weird (or downright sick) distractions for Molly. As she reaches 3Jane’s inner sanctum, her leg finally gives out and the extent of Riviera’s treachery is clear. He’s made it impossible for Molly to sweet-talk 3Jane into giving her the code – I guess he was supposed to create some illusion that she was someone else – and she loses consciousness.

Which is why Maelcum is having to transfer Case from the space-tug to Freeside, taking the deck with them. Case hasn’t only got to do all that work in cyberspace (if I’m honest, it doesn’t seem that difficult with Dixie keeping his virtual eye on everything), he’s got things to do in meatspace too.

(I mentioned Robocop, released three years after Gibson’s book. But Verhoeven always was good at taking the essence of science fiction and running with it, and the stolen shell of a personality being replaced is a good one. Two years after Robocop, the first manga editions of Ghost in the Shell appeared, and it seems Masamune Shirow had the same idea of playing with personalities made new and strange inside an enhanced cyborg body. But he adds something else from Neuromancer to the mix: his nubile lead character is Molly without the eyeglass implants. The movie, a remake of the 1995 anime version, is released everywhere later this week. Hmm. They should try something original for a change – the ideas are nearly 30 years old.)

29 March
Chapters 19-21
At last we’ve met Wintermute’s alter-ego, Neuromancer itself. Its boyish avatar confirms what Case already knows: ‘Neuromancer… the lane to the land of the dead. Where you are, my friend…. Marie-France, my lady, she prepared this road but her lord choked her off before I could read the book of her days. Neuro from the nerves, the silver paths. Romancer. Necromancer. I call up the dead. But no, my friend… I am the dead, and their land.’ So, the other half of Wintermute doesn’t know the code either – it didn’t have the chance to ‘read the book of her days’ – the full plan 3Jane’s mother had in mind before her husband killed her. 3Jane has told Molly all about this, and that her mother was looking for ‘a symbiotic relationship with AI,’ the ‘hive’ – her word – that the more familiar half of Wintermute showed Case in that dream half a novel ago. But Neuromancer doesn’t see a symbiotic relationship. He sees the death of humanity, which Case has now seen. It’s an empty bunker on a beach so dark grey it’s nearly black. And Case only has three chapters left to get it all sorted out.

Should I rewind? Probably…. Maelcum gets Case safely inside Freeside, and its ‘parasitic’ extra limb, Silverlight. As Wintermute drafts in service wagons to get them to the right place, Case jacks in and out of simstim to check up on Molly’s progress. Luckily for her, 3Jane has decided she rather likes her, and the suggestion that it goes beyond mere sisterly affection must have seemed cutting-edge in 1984…. 3Jane is keeping Riviera in check – he is out to kill Molly if he can – and, as she strokes Molly’s face, she tells her how her mother wanted to set up that symbiotic relationship with AI, creating the monolithic cube that Case was almost flatlined by when he edged a step too close. (The cyberspace picture we get is far easier to imagine than a literal version of what 3Jane’s mother has actually constructed. What on earth are all the millions, or billions of lines of code supposed to actually do?

Don’t ask, because it seems to be in the realms of psychic weirdness, along with the limbo that Neuromancer has created for humanity to reside in. Case is forced to visit it, and it makes him piss his virtual pants. It’s a nothing space, actually based on one of Linda’s memories – so it is very sketchy indeed, as she clearly doesn’t have Case’s holographic memory capacity. Linda is there – or is she? Case decides, obviously, that she is another construct in a different matrix, but the possibility dawns on him that this really is her, and this really is a limbo prepared for both him and her by Neuromancer. It is offering Case what it thinks will tempt him, and it does. But for one night only. Maelcum – what would Case have done without Maelcum? – rescues him in time, with the Jah-blessed dub he feeds him through the earpieces he never usually removes from his own ears.

We don’t need to know the details of how it happens, or why Case is so obtuse as to ignore all the warnings Wintermute sends him before he arrives in Nowhereville. Now, at least, he knows who the enemy is – and maybe three chapters is all it will take for him to save humanity from an eternity of nothing much.

30 March
Chapters 22-24 – to the end
No, not three chapters. Two chapters, in which the somehow shrunken, claustrophobic feel of reality in Straylight – there’s a comic scene with four of them in a lift made to carry one – is gloriously opened out, as if by magic, into Gibson’s most exotic cyberspace cityscape yet. It’s based on Manhattan, centred on the old RCA building, and we think, OK…. But Case and Dixie are riding on Kuang, the Chinese mega-virus that works in a transformative way that Case has never experienced before. And when Dixie ‘aligned the nose of Kuang’s sting’ – whatever that means – ‘to the centre of the dark below,’ suddenly it isn’t about the retro visuals. Something weird is happening inside Case’s head, in a far more palpable way than usual. It’s changing his whole physical makeup from the inside out. In other words, as he feels himself becoming part of the digital landscape, it’s becoming a part of him too.

‘Case’s sensory input warped with their velocity. / His mouth filled with an aching taste of blue. / His eyes were eggs of unstable crystal, vibrating with a frequency whose name was rain and the sound of trains, suddenly sprouting a humming forest of hair-fine glass spines…. / The roof of his mouth cleaved painlessly, admitting rootlets that whipped around his tongue, hungry for the taste of blue….’

It has the sound of automatic writing or those cut-up texts the Dadaists turned into poems. But I like the blue he can taste. At this level of interaction, Case has reached a transcendental place where there’s no boundary between every single particle of himself and the in the infiltrated code. His journey lasts for four more pages, and he and Kuang become so much a part of one another he has no identity left. He’s attained ‘a level of proficiency’ equal to the deadly fluidity of Hideo, 3Jane’s ninja bodyguard:

‘Beyond ego, beyond personality, beyond awareness, he moved, Kuang moving with him, evading his attackers with an ancient dance, Hideo’s dance, grace of the mind-body interface granted him, in that second, by the clarity and singleness of his wish to die.’

He’s obviously never going to get out of this – he’s in there for good. Except… he isn’t. For the second time, it seems, Maelcum’s dub tracks come to his rescue. The city – not as Manhattan now, but ‘as Chiba, as the ranked data of Tessier-Ashpool SA’ – is receding, and he is beginning to perceive things from a long way away, in the physical world he’s been away from. But not before he sees, momentarily, every detail of the neat tying-up of the operation, right down to the ‘numbered Swiss bank accounts, and the payments to be made to Zion….’ But by the end of the chapter, what fills his mind is ‘the long pulse of Zion dub.’

So he isn’t dead. By the final stand-alone chapter, the one Gibson labels as a coda, Tessier-Ashpool has been put back into its box, while the world turns. Wintermute’s avatar makes a final appearance in Case and Molly’s hotel room – they’ve been in a lot of those as they’ve been recovering and getting themselves repaired – and Case tries to get a handle on what it has achieved. ‘How are things different? You running the world now? You God?’ Wintermute’s reply isn’t helpful. ‘Things aren’t different. Things are things.’ Case’s response, after the face disappears from a huge screen in the hotel room, is to embed the shuriken star in it. It’s been prone to dig into him accidentally ever since Molly gave it to him – her first gift. He doesn’t want any more reminders of Wintermute…

…or of Molly. She’s just written him a note to tell him she’s leaving for good – ‘IT’S OK BUT IT’S TAKING THE EDGE OFF MY GAME…’ – and I’m pretty sure Case knows what she’s talking about. They’ve been having an easy time of it, living on the money that Wintermute thoughtfully transferred to that bank account. Case has had the toxins flushed out of him and Molly has got herself repaired, but they both must have known they couldn’t go on like this. Now it’s time to get himself motivated again.

He leaves and, in a few quick sentences, spends all his money fixing himself up – a new liver, a new pancreas, and a state-of-the-art deck. We’re told at the end that he never does see Molly again, and by now, we know he’s living with a different woman. She’s called Michael, as if it matters. What Case wants is to ‘punch’ himself back into cyberspace – where, at the very edge of one of the vast steps of data, stand three tiny figures. Neuromancer is there, and so is Linda. And so is he. Before his disappearance after the infiltration of the T-A core, Dixie had explained a few things to Case about his own constructed consciousness. Now, ‘very close,’ Case hears Dixie’s ‘laugh that wasn’t laughter.’

So where exactly is he now? Does he even know?

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