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When Neuromancer by William Gibson was first published it created a sensation. Or perhaps it would be more precise to say that it was used to create a sensation, for Bruce Sterling and other Gibson associates declared that a new kind of science fiction had appeared which rendered merely ordinary SF obsolete. Informed by the amoral urban rage of the punk subculture and depicting the developing human-machine interface created by the widespread use of computers and computer networks, set in the near future in decayed city landscapes like those portrayed in the film Blade Runner it claimed to be the voice of a new generation. (Interestingly, Gibson himself has said he had finished much of what was to be his body of early cyberpunk fiction before ever seeing Blade Runner.) Eventually it was seized on by hip "postmodern" academics looking to ride the wave of the latest trend. Dubbed "cyberpunk," the stuff was being talked about everywhere in SF. Of course by the time symposia were being held on the subject, writers declared cyberpunk dead, yet the stuff kept being published and it continues to be published today by writers like K. W. Jeter and Rudy Rucker. Perhaps the best and most representative anthology of cyberpunk writers is Mirrorshades., edited by Sterling, the genre's most outspoken advocate.
But cyberpunk's status as the revolutionary vanguard was almost immediately challenged. Its narrative techniques, many critics pointed out, were positively reactionary compared to the experimentalism of mid-60s "new wave" SF. One of the main sources of its vision was William S. Burroughs' quasi-SF novels like Nova Express, (1964), and the voice of Gibson's narrator sounded oddly like a slightly updated version of old Raymond Chandler novels like The Big Sleep, (1939). Others pointed out that almost all of cyberpunk's characteristics could be found in the works of older writers such as J. G. Ballard, Philip K. Dick, Harlan Ellison, or Samuel R. Delany. Most damning of all, it didn't seem to have been claimed by the generation it claimed to represent. Real punks did little reading, and the vast majority of young SF readers preferred to stick with traditional storytellers such as Larry Niven, Anne McCaffrey and even Robert Heinlein. Gibson's prose was too dense and tangled for casual readers, so it is not surprising that he gained more of a following among academics than among the sort of people it depicted.
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Yet Neuromancer is historically significant. Most critics agree that it was not only the first cyberpunk novel, it was and remains the best. Gibson's rich stew of allusion to contemporary technology set a new standard for SF prose. If his plots and characters are shallow and trite, that mattered little, for it is not the tale but the manner of its telling that stands out. His terminology continues to pop up here and there. Whereas an earlier generation borrowed names from its favorite author, J. R. R. Tolkien, like "Shadowfax" (a new-age music group), "Gandalf" (a brand of computer data switch), and "Moria"; (an early fantasy computer game), today there is a proliferation of references to Neuromancer: " Meat Puppets" is a rock group, there was a computer virus called " Screaming Fist," the Internet is commonly referred to as "Cyberspace" or--occasionally--"the Matrix," and there are several World Wide Web sites are named "Wintermute."; Gibson produced his vision in a time when many people were becoming haunted by the idea of urban decay, crime rampant, corruption everywhere. Just as readers of the 50s looked obsessively for signs that Orwell's Nineteen-Eighty-Four was coming true, some readers keep an eye out for the emergence of cyberpunk's nightmare world in contemporary reality. The fiction may not be widely read, but through movies and comics it has created one of the defining mythologies of our time.
The vision of Neuromancer was too confining for a writer of Gibson's originality, and after a couple of sequels--( Count Zero and Mona Lisa Overdrive )--he turned to other experiments, such as his "steampunk" collaboration with Bruce Sterling: The Difference Engine, depicting an alternative Victorian Age in which huge, steam-driven computers were developed. In 1994 he returned to Cyberpunk with Virtual Light.
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