When life takes an unexpected left turn I do four things – tidy my room, go running, take 72 hours away from anything stressful…and read a good book.
This time around I landed on Neuromancer by William Gibson. I first read this book when I was 14, I suspect I read it at least seven our eight times before I was 20, and if I had to point at one cause for ending up in the scifi industry, Gibson’s novel would likely be it.
Going back to such an influential book after an 18 year time lapse is…risky. I also really liked Dragonlance books when I was 14, and let’s just say those didn’t hold up when I last re-read one. But from the iconic first sentence onwards, Neuromancer didn’t just hold up to, it exceeded my expectations.
Yeah, cyberspace, virtual reality, Artificial Intelligence blah blah blah. Praise for Neuromancer tends to focus on the ideas, and those are certainly there. But coming back to the book with two decades writing experience under my belt, what floored me is just what a spectacular feat of storytelling it is.
Firstly, Gibson writes that rare beast, a truly cinematic novel. Neuromancer weighs in at around 80,000 words – a short book by today’s standards. In that space Gibson constructs a near perfect 3 act structure. Many Neuromancer film adaptations have been rumoured, none have ever materialised, perhaps because of the pretty awful Johnny Mnemonic. If a filmmaker ever does adapt Neuromancer, they could use Gibson’s manuscript beat for beat as an edit decision list. The prose is so spare that Gibson turns entire scenes in a few sentences.
“Hard SF”, that part of the genre that is all about the science, has a problem with storytelling. Perhaps it’s because the story is the humanistic part of the equation, and the personalities drawn to scientific speculation and futurism have a bias against the “soft” arts of communication, persuasion, composition, and of course poetry. Hard SF novels often feel like they’ve been written by people who don’t read or even particularly like novels, or who have simply never applied the same intelligence to learning story that they have to learning physics.