It's rare that a science fiction novel comes out of nowhere and upends the large part of a literary movement, but that's just what William Gibson did 30 years ago with his first novel, Neuromancer. The book depicted a dystopian future and codified a simmering movement within the genre: Cyberpunk. It's a claustrophobic, cynical and raw take on the future, and it became an instant hit, one that changed science fiction for years to come.
William Gibson was born on the March 17th, 1948, in South Carolina. His father died when he was 8, and with a move to Virginia, Gibson noted that "this experience of feeling abruptly exiled, to what seemed like the past, that began my relationship with science fiction." The death and move were traumatic for Gibson. His new life in Virginia was suffocating: “suddenly I was living in a vision of the past. There was television, but the world outside the window could have been the 1940s, the 1930s or even the 1900s.” Early on, he watched science fiction television shows and eventually came across a "moldering stack of 1950s Galaxy Magazines," in the loft above an office supply store, which he took home in a brown paper bag. He began reading, coming across stories from authors such as Alfred Bester, Samuel R. Delany, Robert Heinlein, Fritz Lieber and Theodore Sturgeon. By his late teens, though, he had largely moved on from science fiction, becoming enraptured with the works of William S. Burroughs and Thomas Pynchon. His mother died when he was 18. The Vietnam War raged on halfway across the world, and he made an effort to be as unappealing as possible to his local draft board, eventually moving to Toronto, Canada, before traveling throughout other parts of the world.
It was in the late 1970s that Gibson rekindled his interest in science fiction. He married and entered the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. The couple had a son. He rediscovered Bester's novel The Stars My Destination and read it again, expecting a nostalgic trip, but instead found a brilliant novel: "[It] blew, as we used to say, my mind. I hadn’t, I saw, actually been able to read it fully before. It had been too fast for me, too gloriously relentless, too brilliant...It was, I saw in my twenties, a book that had absolutely ignored everything that science fiction had been doing when it was written." Gibson became the primary caregiver for their son, writing during his down time. He soon took a class on science fiction literature run by a friend of his, Susan Wood, who encouraged him to write his own fiction. His first short story, “Fragments of a Hologram Rose,” was written in lieu of a term paper, and with her editing and encouragement, he submitted it to Unearth magazine, who published in the summer of 1977. Still, Gibson was deeply disillusioned with the state of science fiction of the day—“so much of the genre was patently awful"—and he was disturbed by the conservative and centric views of most American authors from that time.
It was in his next story that Gibson began to make a mark. “Johnny Mnemonic” was published in Omni Magazine's May 1981 issue. Gary Westfahl noted in his recent survey of Gibson's work that its publication in "Omni, the genre's most prestigious venue, [was] a sign that insiders at least were identifying Gibson as a major new talent." The story introduced a dystopic, futuristic sprawl of cityscape with a language that was unlike anything else seen in science fiction. In it, Johnny is a data mule with a contract on his head, and he's eventually saved by a woman named Molly Millions. Another short story, “The Gernsback Continuum,” came out of a rejected review, and was published in Universe 11, edited by Terry Carr. Another story, “The Belonging Kind,” co-written with John Shirley, appeared in Shadows 4, edited by Charles L. Grant. His stories with Omni also continued: “Hinterlands” appeared in October 1981, but it was “Burning Chrome” in July 1982 that landed Gibson a nomination for a Nebula Award the following year. The story follows a pair of hackers infatuated with a girl, Rikki, stealing money to win her over. The story also coined the term “cyberspace.”
Cyberspace was a new, although not original, concept in science fiction. Gibson had been struck by what he had seen in Vancouver: newfangled, dark arcades that captured the attention of their teenage patrons. “Even in this primitive form, the kids who were playing them were so physically involved; it seemed to me that they wanted to be inside the games, within the notational space of the machine. The real world had disappeared for them.” Gibson realized the importance of the coming computer revolution: Computers would arrive, and people would likely treat them like those teenagers were treating their games. It was a concept ripe with the anxieties of science fiction.
Around this time, Terry Carr had returned to Ace Books, where he started up a new science fiction novel series, the Ace Science Fiction Specials, with an emphasis on picking up debut novels from new talents. He approached Gibson with an offer, who promptly accepted: "I said 'Yes' almost without thinking, but then I was stuck with a project I wasn't sure I was ready for. In fact, I was terrified once I actually sat down and started to think about what it meant." To cope, he turned to the world that he had already begun to create in “Johnny Mnemonic” and “Burning Chrome.” In it, a hacker named Case has been cut off from the global computer infrastructure known as The Matrix. Hired by a shadowy agent named Armitage and Molly Millions, he’s tasked entering cyberspace to help link together two immensely powerful AIs.
The process of writing a novel was a terrifying one to Gibson: "Neuromancer is fueled by my terrible fear of losing the reader's attention. Once it hit me that I had to come up with something, to have a hook on every page, I looked at the stories I'd written up to that point and tried to figure out what had worked for me before." He pulled in Molly from “Johnny Mnemonic” and elements from “Burning Chrome.” Gibson worked hard at the book: Much of it was written and re-written a number of times before he settled on his story and voice before narrowing in on the ending. Given a year, he took that and half again before the book was completed. In that time, Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, an adaptation of the Philip K. Dick novel Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep?, was released: Gibson found himself “afraid to watch [the film] in the theater because I was afraid the movie would be better than what I myself had been able to imagine.” Later, Scott would note that Neuromancer and Blade Runner came from “basically the same list of ingredients.”
In the meantime, Gibson published “Hippie Hat Brain Parasite” in the April 1983 issue of Modern Stories; “Red Star, Winter Orbit” in the July 1983 issue of Omni; and “New Rose Hotel” in Omni's July 1984 issue. In July 1984, Ace Books published Neuromancer as an original paperback. The book was an immediate hit, nominated for the British Science Fiction Award for Best Novel and placing eighth in the Locus 1985 poll for best novel. It gathered steam and won the triple crown of science fiction awards: the Philip K. Dick, Nebula, and Hugo Awards in 1985.
Neuromancer was largely an antithesis of everything that science fiction had become throughout the 1960s and 1970s. It quickly became the centerpiece in a growing movement called Cyperpunk, which treated technology and its implications as part of the surrounding background of a story, rather than the focus. While Gibson’s novel wasn’t the origin point of the genre, it helped to codify many of the various elements into a single narrative. The stories wove in elements of globalized infrastructure, computer technology and a mixing of worldwide cultural influences. It was dark, cynical and postmodern.
Gibson continued to work in the world of The Sprawl, writing two additional novel. Neuromancer: Count Zero was published by Gollancz in 1986, and Mona Lisa Overdrive was published in 1988, both of which continued to play with a number of the themes introduced in the first book. A collection of his short fiction appeared in 1986, titled Burning Chrome, which contained several of his Sprawland cyberpunk stories.
It’s hard to underestimate the huge impact left by Neuromancer: The book is ripe with ideas that have influence generations of authors and directors in three decades it’s been in print. Movies such as The Matrix and Elysium and television shows such as Person of Interest have borrowed substantially from its themes, while the cyberpunk subgenre has continued to run forward as computers continue to occupy greater and greater parts of our lives. Even as it feels outdated (there are no cellphones, for example), the novel will undoubtedly continue to remain as relevant and as raw as it was in 1984.