Neuromancer, Day 5: … and he never saw Molly again.

When someone disagrees with me about detectives, I can be fairly sure that it’s due to a difference in interpretive effort and emphasis, rather than due to a factual error on my part. I’m less confident in my knowledge of Cyberpunk and William Gibson. Re-reading Neuromancer as a starting point for thinking about the genre has thrown up some interesting ideas, but at the same time it seems to me that while technology plays an important role in the narrative Neuromancer expresses at least as much interest in traditional novelistic strategies and concepts.

To my untutored mind, Neuromancer is actually pretty far toward the humanist end of the Science Fiction spectrum, with Philip K Dick and Kurt Vonnegut, rather than hanging out with the automaton-creating Asimov or the ponderously philosophical Arthur C Clarke. Specifically, these reflections are causing me to revisit how I understood Idoru, which I now suspect I read almost entirely incorrectly. As time passes, it’s going to be interesting to see how history regards William Gibson. There’s a real potential for him to become regarded as simply an author, rather than sequestering him in the sub-literary field of Science Fiction – but what would such a distinction mean?

How do we evaluate and think about “ordinary” novels? What is there to say about literary techniques that was missed by my the genre prisms of Days 2 to 4? When thinking about non-genre authors, critics focus on tone, and look for connection between themselves and the work they’re reading. They look for “meaning” to interpret and interpolate between and around the obvious “story”. Primarily though, I think non-genre fiction is far more interested in character. To the genre author, characters are simply story trajectory who will fulfil any story function as required. When done badly, this leads to incoherence like BattleStar Galactica, in which any character might do anything at any time as dictated by the plot. Robin Laws’ “Iconic” character is so prevalent in genre fiction because it is a strategy for character-design that neatly side-steps this potential problem.

We must therefore end this extended look at Neuromancer by coming at last to the characters. Who are they? Are they good? Wise? What can we say of their inner lives that is interesting or illuminating? Genre analyses are in large part about comparing a literary work to a framework of conventions, but when it comes to character, the final arbiter is always the emotional response of the reader. As Jenni’s always asking in her 500 films posts, does it make me love the people?

No matter how I look at the cast, Neuromancer is a tale of broken people living shallow and meaningless lives. We see them almost entirely in the context of their sub-legal profession, but since that is virtually the whole extent of their lives, I feel more pathos than boredom. I think those are the two responses prompted by the characters as characters. We feel sorry for them, because they don’t even understand how limited their perspectives on the world are and how bereft they are of human contact. Neuromancer tries to explain this to case, by summoning the dead back and creating a needless world for him to inhabit. Case rejects this modicum of happiness because he would rather live in the unpleasant real world – but Neuromancer has isolated the exact problem with Case. Case has forgotten how to have dreams, he lives without hope or purpose. In essence, humanity has been crushed from the human cast.

It is usual in these kinds of stories, adventure or heists, or indeed quests, to have a romance. Vonnegut said that he never introduced a love interest in his work because once an audience catches that scent, it over-rides their other narrative interests. Well, Neuromancer is the antidote to that. Case and Molly fuck in the same spirit as they live – an ephemeral activity to parse them from moment to moment, to provide the specific support they need at the moment they need it. There is never an empathetic connection between the two, even when going beyond sexual intercourse into shared sensory perception. Case can no more understand or connect with Molly’s horrific origin as a Street Samurai than he can understand his own blunted emotional response to Linda.

The novel ends as all genre fiction demands – with the separation of the so-called lovers. In most cases, the reader feels a twinge of regret at a quashed potential, but here the obvious emptiness of the relationship is washed away by our exaltation over the ascension of AI. Molly and Case come to an end in just the same way as all the other mechanics and gadgets of the heist. Case never saw Molly again – why would he?

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