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Neuromancer | Context


Science Fiction

Arguably, science fiction is a genre of literature that began at some time during the 19th century. Many critics consider British author Mary Shelley's novel Frankenstein (1818) the first work of science fiction. In science fiction, authors examine how scientific and technological advancement affect society. The genre extrapolates from current trends, asking what would happen if a specific invention or discovery were made. Some early science fiction was considered "pulp," or popular rather than literary, but by the time Gibson published Neuromancer in 1984, science fiction had matured into an accepted literary genre.

The breadth of the genre developed experienced readers who knew what to expect in many ways from each new text. This prior knowledge meant writers could refer to possible technological development briefly and casually, knowing an experienced readership would follow along, as Gibson did when introducing the monitors of artificial intelligence—the Turing police—whose name readers are expected to recognize as a nod toward English computer scientist Alan Turing. This savvy reading audience enabled writers such as Gibson to write at an intense pace. It also meant that to make a big splash, writers would have to do something new, rebelling against existing models. This fast-paced rebellion is what Gibson accomplished with Neuromancer and what the cyberpunk movement represented in general.


Neuromancer is an example of the science fiction subgenre cyberpunk. Cyberpunk emerged as a movement in the 1980s. The two parts of the genre's name indicate its meaning: cyber refers to computers and information technology, and punk refers to punk subculture, which originated in 1970s Britain and quickly spread to other countries, including the United States. Punk emphasized extreme independence, bordering on alienation, accompanied by rebellion. Cyberpunk fiction became a form of rebellious science fiction that focused on computers.

Cyberpunk takes place in urban, dystopian worlds. The main characters in these stories are often on the margins of society. They are rebels and outsiders, rarely successful in most people's eyes. However, they have special powers: they are often hackers such as the protagonist Case, who has tremendous abilities in the digital realm of cyberspace, a term Gibson created and popularized. Cyberpunk writers consciously sought to reshape science fiction to include more social issues and welcomed a broader array of literary styles.

William Burroughs and the Beat Movement

Gibson grew up reading two main types of fiction: science fiction and Beat literature, which began in the 1950s. William Burroughs, an American novelist and part of the Beat movement, was very influential on Gibson. The Beats rebelled against the conformity of the era by embracing jazz music, using drugs, and practicing alternative spirituality, such as Japanese Zen Buddhism, which emphasizes meditation and intuition. Beat writers such as poet Allen Ginsberg and novelist Jack Kerouac experimented stylistically in their writing, as did Burroughs. Burroughs used drugs, wrote about drugs in his work, and used his prose to create intense narratives with a very different mood from realistic prose. Gibson does something similar in this novel through his selection of a junkie drifter as a main character, the extensive tour of seedy settings, and his prose style, which is wild and metaphorical for science fiction.


Academic critics most often discuss cyberpunk as an example of postmodernism. Postmodernism is a movement that cuts across literature, the arts, and several aspects of culture. Where realistic literature seeks a smooth, unified whole, postmodern literature is fragmented and skeptical. It rarely offers any unified answers or final solutions. Narrators tend to be unreliable or untrustworthy, which further complicates the fragmented narratives. Postmodern literature blends esteemed high culture with popular culture. It assumes a backdrop of advanced capitalism, an economic system where trade and industry are controlled by private ownership. It often includes parodies or imitations of other works for comic effect. It often borrows material from a style called pastiche. The genre often employs style choices that disorient readers or disrupt common assumptions. In Neuromancer, for example, the protagonist Case flips a switch and his experience changes—his mind fragments among multiple streams of experience.


In the past, agricultural societies were largely local. A few individuals might have traveled, but most people only experienced the language, art, and culture of their immediate regions. The advent of modern technology and capitalism, on the other hand, created a globalized economy and culture. Rather than operating independently and in isolation, national economies became part of a larger global economy. Investments and people flew from place to place according to economic demand. Culturally, this produced hybrids, with traditions from different places mixing and blending. Globalization created great opportunities for some, but it also eroded established cultural traditions and made local economies more vulnerable to foreign activity.

The protagonist Case and the other characters in Neuromancer operate in a globalized economy. They buy goods from multiple nations, use bits of multiple languages, and expect multinational corporations to operate freely across national boundaries. Gibson wrote Neuromancer while Ronald Reagan was president, and he has said he was writing in part about Reaganomics in this book, an economic policy that reduced taxes on the rich and promoted an unrestricted free market. The novel evokes a world where every place had become more like Mexico City, Mexico, with huge gaps between the rich and poor.

Artificial Intelligence and Alan Turing

Artificial intelligence (AI) refers to the building of machines that can think like people. Researchers have been toying with this idea since the first computers were invented. This experimentation has led to extensive reflection on what it means to think, how computers think, and how to evaluate the intelligence of computers. In 1950 English computer scientist Alan Turing, one of the creators of the computer, proposed an evaluation that has become known as "The Turing Test." The test provides a way to determine whether a computer or intelligent machine can actually think. In this test, someone asks a human and a machine the same questions, comparing and contrasting the answers. This test became part of popular culture and shows up frequently in science fiction novels. In the world Gibson has created, people take for granted the existence of advanced AI. "Turing cops" are tasked with monitoring developing AIs, making sure they stay under human control.

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