William Gibson and Neuromancer

I wish I could remember the source, but years ago I read an article on predictions about technology that included one made around 1910 about the then-infant technology of aircraft. As I recall, the person being quoted was convinced that air travel would soon lead to national boundaries being dissolved and a global society of peace and good will towards men.

Within a few years, airships became killing machines. Only history buffs remember this now, but both Zeppelins (rather steampunk,don’t you think?) and airplanes bombed civilians during the First War World of 1914-1918.

Compared to what happened later as the technology improved, the casualties were light. However, by the 1930’s, the Spanish Civil War—a sort of dress rehearsal for World War II—included such horrors as Guernica. At the Nuremberg trials, Hermann Goring testified that he had seen the Spanish war largely as an opportunity to test the weaponry of his new Luftwaffe.

William Gibson’s 1984 novel Neuromancer, even though it is rather dated in some respects, is still well worth reading. Gibson got a lot right. He got things right because he understood that “the street finds its uses for things.” Bad uses, generally.

In 1984, organized gangs of sophisticated cyber criminals were pure science fiction. They are now a fact. Ten or fifteen years ago, if you took sensible precautions, you could keep the kids writing amateur malware in their bedrooms out of your computer.

Now there is malware crafted by professional criminals with graduate degrees in computer science. Some of this stuff can eat security software for breakfast.

There is good reason to believe that cyber-weapons are being created—and have already been used—by nation-states. These weapons bear the sort of resemblance to the crude computer viruses and worms of a decade ago that a tactical nuclear device does to a slingshot. If you read Neuromancer, you may remember a stolen military cyber-weapon of immense power that was an important plot device. If you haven’t read the book, I won’t spoil it for you here.

Gibson’s sprawl trilogy (Neuromancer, Count Zero, Mona Lisa Overdrive) describes a polluted and overpopulated world where the rich can be young and beautiful almost indefinitely while most people live in toxic squalor. The vision of his early novels is not a happy one, but, in predicting the future, pessimists have a better track record than optimists.

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3 thoughts on “William Gibson and Neuromancer

    • Gibson also wrote some extraordinary short fiction back then. See if you can find the collection Burning Chrome. Not everything he wrote was dark. There is a delightfully fun story called “The Gernsback Continuum” about a guy who starts seeing other possible realities that include some of the cheesier 50’s sci-fi futures.

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