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William Gibson: How I wrote Neuromancer (theguardian.com)
227 points by _pius on Dec 29, 2014 | hide | past | web | favorite | 91 comments

"The sky above the port was the color of television tuned to a dead channel" -- That is one of the all-time classic opening lines. It is also something people will gradually lose since most people no longer have that grey static.

Worse yet, some generations will misread the symbolism, as my current TV displays a bright blue screen when set to an input that's not in use. This is probably a passing phase, though, as the TVs of the current generation have strange media hubs with crappy builtin apps.

"The sky was the perfect untroubled blue of a television screen, tuned to a dead channel." - Neil Gaiman, "Neverwhere"

A fan asked Neil Gaiman about it and here's the exchange:

A fan: "You're either paying homage to Gibson, which is weird because the two books are in different genres and he isn't mentioned in the acknowledgements, or perhaps there's some manner of Jungian collective unconscious phenomenon at work here, in which you have unwittingly mimicked Gibson, or..?"

Neil Gaiman: "Or it was a very small joke, essentially pointing out that since what is arguably the most famous opening sentence in SF was published in 1984, the nature of what a "dead channel" looked like had completely changed, from grey static fuzz to a pure dead blue. Well, I thought it was funny, anyway."


I'd forgotten how much I'd laughed at that line. Gaiman is great.

Oh God. I can see it now. [Static app] for your TV, purchased by old fogies. Configure Static app to come on when you fall asleep in front of the tv.

Most often purchased with [Off: Vanishing dot], [Stand by mysterious hum], [wired VCR controller (comes with 3 feet of wire)], [bad signal - signal degrades depending on weather]



We already have [Static app] in some devices, which apparently play some sort short video recording of static. So now we get static with DCT compression artifacts.

My android device already does a weird animation of a CRT blinking out when I turn off the screen: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_zFwpb_LDHQ

I want a little blinking 7-segment under my television that only displays "12:00".

You might be interested in this app:


Premium option: burnt out vertical deflection amplifier, and upset convergence.

Maybe something like "The sky was the color of the sky, seen through a tacky vintage Instagram filter."

Maybe there should be a "Museum of endangered visuals", just as there is a "Museum of endangered sounds".


Similarly, I remember reading a short story (or poem) that I believe was penned sometime in the 1960s. The piece contained a line to the effect of “he had a heart like a telephone”. Now days, people might think that the subject’s heart was easily broken, but it meant just the opposite because those heavy Bell rotary phones were unbelievably durable.

thats a great line. There are all sorts of secondary meanings that could be added by new connections. Yes, easily broken, but also inconstant (dropped calls), easily distracted. This is very much like the whole authorial fallacy. Meaning, in a work of art, is not simply what the author wanted it to mean, but also what the audience took it to mean, and that changes.

Nooooooo! His heart telegraphed all his emotions like a telephone. You always knew what mood he was in because you could "hear" it. Land lines never dropped calls.

That's an interesting interpretation.

But now I need an excuse to write, "He had a heart like a text message, phoning in his emotions like a telegraph."

I've been wondering lately how many young children would actually understand what is going on when the HBO ident appears.


Recently I have been started using Windows 8 and was "relieved" to find out that Microsoft kept the Blue Screen of Death, well, blue.


Neil Armstrong equates the moon and tv :

We could see that at the terminator, at the boundary between the black part of the moon and the lighted part of the moon. It was as if you were looking at a television set with the contrast turned to full contrast, very black and very white.

from http://youtu.be/PtdcdxvNI1o?t=1m30s Sky At Night BBC 1970 , Neil Armstrong & Patrick Moore

silly me is waiting for the day when thin displays can be rolled out to cover walls at affordable prices, then I can set it to static and keep it as a background.

all I will need to do is add a hiss sound

Hello best idea ever.

hah reminded me of my favourite gibson quote:

> These people figured video was the Lord's preferred means of communicating, the screen itself a kind of perpetually burning bush.

This reminds me of the First Latitudinarian Church of Celebrity Saints, from John Varley's Steel Beach. Their temple features glass tubes in the rounded-rectangle of classic CRTs.

Or the Cathode Ray Mission from Videodrome:



1. White noise.

An interesting brief history of what is, if I was forced to pick one, (still!) the best among the thousands of novels I've read.

The whole Sprawl trilogy is fantastic, and while I agree with other commenters here that Gibson's subsequent novels have become somewhat less awesome, it's hard to complain too much about that if you believe, as I do, that the author in question's first attempt resulted in the best novel of all time.

Still, Neuromancer is indisputably dated, as any such work would inevitably be, so I am glad to have originally read it in the 1980s.

I recently re-read Neuromancer this year as part of my VR research, and while it basically had no technical relevance, it stood head and shoulders above the rest (Snow Crash, etc) as a literary work, and if you rework some numbers/treat as slang the few bits of technical flavor ("three megabytes of hot RAM"!!!) it actually doesn't feel very dated to me - mostly due to just how clear/strong the writing is.

I was surprised by how strongly it evokes this sort of late-80s oppressive paranoia though. A reminder/argument for science fiction as a lens on contemporary society I suppose.

Yeah, it doesn't feel that dated until you get into the technical details. I think part of that stems from the fact that Gibson didn't really know anything about computers and technology (and, IIRC, wrote Neuromancer on a manual typewriter). The novel itself is about humans. Well, and a couple AIs also.

But a glaring example, as Gibson himself has mentioned, is that lack of cell phones. In fact, once of the most powerful scenes in the novel -- that I remember raising the hairs on the back of my neck as a read it -- involves the AI, Wintermute, wanting badly to talk to Case. Case is walking through an airport, past a bank of payphones, and the AI causes each phone to ring in turn as he passes it.

There aren't even long banks of cellphones in airports anymore, but that notwithstanding, why wouldn't Case and Molly and everybody have cellphones, in this future-world where they have fully immersive VR interfaces to the matrix?

Of course they would. But you can't really hold that agains the decades-old novel... especially since it was so remarkably prescient in so many ways.

People turn off their cell phones when they really don't want to be disturbed, or sometimes in anticipation of the "turn off your devices" rule of air travel, or it's just a dead battery. What's an AI to do when wanting to talk to someone who's phone is off? ring every cell phone he walks by?

That would actually be even cooler.

Existence of cellphone and google turns so many plots of even pre-1995 movies void.

Not only sci-fi, all of them - romances, dramas, action movies - it's very common to build drama by showing people doing something wrong because the other person can't tell them they are mistaken, or because they can't remember something and have to go to library or ask friend/old monk/whatever.

It's completely different world we're living, despite no hoverboards.

Maybe those particular plots, but just last night I was watching (more like passively observing) a show on NBC where something bad ended up happening because a character was distracted from answering her cell phone.

Indeed, now days you could still have dramatic tension by showing the character being distracted by some new attention seeking appliance.

Everything in the Sprawl plugs into something. The most common verb I can remember for using cyberspace back in the 90s was "jacking in". Characters had "cortical sockets".

This was an intensely connected future. But it was an intensely connected future hooked together by <em>wires</em>.

I've read science fiction most of my life. I grew up in a 70s and 80s that looked absolutely nothing like what books from the 60s predicted. And now that the twenty-teens looks nothing like what books in the 90s predicted, I'm not surprised. SF is about asking "what if", not saying "I think this will be". And it is especially prone to making good guesses about a few things, and looking incredibly silly because the author failed to anticipate some out-of-left-field thing that made a huge change in how society works.

(It does, however, never cease to amuse me that the polyamorous, legal-dope-smoking societies I laughed at in 60s books is pretty much what I live in now that I'm an adult in 2015 Seattle. I'm not sure how much of that can just be chalked up to moving from "kid in the South" to "grownup on the West Coast" though. But I digress. Probably because of that legal dope.)

Yeah, that was such a powerful scene, though it wasn't an airport but the lobby of the Istanbul Hilton. We shared the same reaction.

> ("three megabytes of hot RAM"!!!)

Hell, even today, three megs of RAM can be pretty expensive: http://www.ebay.com/itm/SMI-2MB-Premium-RAM-Card-for-HP-48GX...

I personally find it only superficially dated. A few specifics, like the pay phones, maybe, but...

We've got viruses to attack physical infrastructure, a Beijing that looks not unlike Gibson's Tokyo, billionaires beginning to create their orbital empires, and even the 'trodes. Search for TDCS. It's not an interface technology, but it's close enough.

The politics are also dead on. This is looking more and more like Gibson's post nation state "criminal age," with elite criminality and corrupt intelligence agencies mixing with corporate power to form a global postmodern nihilistic meta-state.

Another couple of aspects of the government you describe are transparency and passivity.

Nobody feels inclined to hide or dispute the blatantly corporate government; relatively inconsequential people know the intimate details of corporate corruption. There are no real "politics" as they relate to most people, merely figures of power moving pieces on a chessboard in full view for those who care to watch.

Let's think about this once more : "global postmodern nihilistic meta-state"

ouch !


Straining to describe something for which there isn't a good word. We have socialism, capitalism, etc. but no good term for this.

The Mars trilogy by Kim Stanley Robinson used the description "transnational" and "metanational" to describe the corporations that have arisen as nearly state-actors in power and influence. Today Goldman-Sachs and BP (among many others) probably significantly exceed the international influence of many countries. Just a matter of waiting for them to coalesce into entities big enough to stop pretending to be under any kind of control and it'll be a perfect analogy...

Just so that this doesn't stand entirely unchallenged: Gibson's newer stuff is excellent and continues to be prescient and quite a lot of fun. The Blue Ant trilogy ("trilogy", like the Sprawl books) is a very sharp look at the decade past, especially the middle book, Spook Country.

Strongly agree on Spook Country. It is my second favorite Gibson by quite a bit and I feel it's generally underappreciated.

This is very interesting to me from the "performing under pressure" point of view. I've been under the gun, so to speak, on more than one occasion and invariably I've delivered and learned most rapidly during those times.

Makes me wonder if people who "get shit done" operate on that sort of do-or-die mental state, or how long it's possible to put yourself in that mental state without either burning out or breaking down. I've read similar anecdotes from people like John Carmack and Richard Feynman (again, pressurized during WWII).

It's almost like we're operating at 50% efficiency, maybe we go to 75% when we're really focusing, but actually only when we're in the self-preservation state, we go to 90+%

I find Gibson's greatest gift is naming things and coming up with vernacular. Panther Moderns and ice are obvious standouts but I particularly liked "funny" as a term for pirated 3d printed objects in The Peripheral.

A great book. Unfortunately after Johnny Mnemonic , and the matrix(2+3) which were total garbage, I'm not sure I would want a movie based on that book.

It however influenced so much good stuff,like Ghost in the shell which is basically the same plot,Deus ex and others.

I enjoyed the audio-book read by Gibson itself,it was excellent.

I enjoyed the audio-book read by Gibson itself,it was excellent.

Me too. For others who might be curious, it can be obtained from [1]. The source is legally dubious, but Gibson's narration doesn't seem to be commercially available at the moment.

[1] http://www.bearcave.com/bookrev/neuromancer/neuromancer_audi...

Didn't know about this thanks for posting it :)

Ghost in the Shell Stand Alone Complex (the show, first two seasons) is definitely some of the best and most sophisticated sci-fi in the genre. Really quite amazing.

If you're ok with animation you might like Kaiba. This very weird visual style which is actually the whole point, and a superficially childish world that makes the underlying cyberpunk horror all the clearer.

It's pretty bad luck that his books suffered from so much adaptation decay. If only the same studios and directors that produced movies inspired by Philip Dick were also interested in Gibson (blade runner, total recall, minority report, just to name a few), there might have been some cinematographic masterpiece.

The Matrix? I know there are several things in it inspired by Neuromancer. Is that what you are referring to?

I think he means the two sequels, not the original. Many people believe that the two sequels compromised their artistic integrity in order to pander to the lowest common denominator of movie audiences.

Having Neuromancer turn out that way would be incredibly disappointing.

If produced by Charlie Brooker, count me in. Hell, make a multi-season series of the Sprawl Trilogy. HBO?

Considering that Darren Aronofsky is adapting Margaret Atwood's 'MaddAddam’ book Trilogy as a HBO series, a Sprawl Trilogy could very well be a distant reality.

Neuromancer was amazing. I realize now that Gibson's books monotonically decreased in quality.

The books have gotten thicker, artier, more self-indulgent, and weaker.

I'm sure he'd like to recapture the magic he had at 34, but maybe it requires the fear he spoke of. And an absolute ignorance about computers and networks.

I think it shares more with The Maltese Falcon than with any SciFi.

Saw WG complaining about GamerGate recently and thought how much he's aged, and how ungracefully, since GG and Operation Disrespectful Nod reminded me of the Panther Moderns.

Opinions will differ, of course.

Personally, I think his Bigend Trilogy is every bit the equal of his Sprawl Trilogy. Extraordinarily perceptive about the contemporary world and the way our social lives have changed over the last 15 years, in both scope and in experience.

I'm not crazy about his Bridge Trilogy, though it has its moments. Overall, I think those were his weakest books.

The Peripheral also sort of underwhelmed me. I liked the near-ish future, with the look at how hopeless redneck-ville would be affected by technological and economic trends. There's a mix of the past and the present (our present and our future) in those bits that plays quite nicely and feels very real. His far-future London, though, felt very under-imagined. I don't think it went far enough. I also think he tried something interesting with hicks being just as dangerous as the sophisticates, but it didn't quite gel the way I think he meant it too. Still, it's not a bad book, it's just not as good as I'd hoped.

The Blue Ant/Bigend trilogy is basically the Sprawl trilogy rewritten in the present day.

Yeah. They're quite good, definitely better than the Bridge novels, although I read those again recently and they were better than I remembered. He still leans a bit too heavily on contextual striptease, though.

The Bigend trilogy is my favourite. I was actually hoping for another novel in the series. Something along how everything inevitably goes to hell when Bigend has his finger on the pulse of everything and the rest of the world has to "grind the rivets down on their Levi's" to get out from under his thumb.

OK, I need to give the Bigend Trilogy a try. The Bridge books were the end of the road for me. If they're just a temporary low spot, I'll keep going.

I definitely think the Bigend Trilogy is as strong as the Sprawl Trilogy. Pattern Recognition and Neuromancer are my two favorite of his novels.

Sadly however, I'm having trouble with The Peripheral (his latest), maybe it'll grab me but it has yet to do so.

I don't know. I mean, he's still got his finger on the pulse. "Idoru" was excellent, and the idea behind the main character in "Pattern Recognition" (brand allergy) was brilliant. His stories are a bit more conventional. But I think that's because the strange future he visualized has become more conventional as well.

What about his opinion on GamerGate troubled you?

I grew up on neuromancer and the burning chrome short stories, count zero, etc... I thought those books were excellent. Pretty much from The Difference Engine (awful) forward, I haven't liked anything he's written.

The thought that runs through my mind whenever I read his non matrix stuff is "what the hell am I reading and why am I spending time on it?"

I realize it doesn't matter if I like the books or not, other people obviously do. I'm just jealous because I enjoyed the early books so much, and they were so influential in my life. I wish I could like his more recent works, but they just aren't for me.

I think personally the main difference is that the matrix novels were aggressively futurephilic right from that famous opening line.

The more recent novels are more tempered by demonstrating the present is a strange and wonderful place that is accessible in our own lives. That requires a non-aggressive feel.

I like both. The futurism and technophilia and edginess is more inspiring in work. I feel more bad ass. The modern day is wonderful novels remind me of the joy of living now and that I can actually live the dream I want.

Have you found any other authors like the early Gibson? I would say Snow Crash is similar. Other than that I've found cyberpunk a dead end.

Also, Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler are slightly similar, but much less intense.

I think there's a huge opening for a talented new author to revisit cyberpunk as seen through the lens of what's actually happened since Neuromancer was published, then project that new understanding forward into the next near future. So much of what the early genre saw has come true in a way (or feels like it's about to), I think it might be useful to clean out what it didn't get right, or revisit how things have changed (the rise of China, advances in computing, etc.) and set those wheels in motion.

I think of cyberpunk, and an awareness of what it talks about as more of a tool for understanding the changing world, in a similar way that 1984 helps provide mental tools for understanding the world.

A very different style and language, but I felt Richard K Morgan's Takeshi Kovacs series' had a similar non-relenting future-technology somatic pressure as I was reading them. http://www.richardkmorgan.com/books/broken-angels/ (using Count Zero as reference)

As to Idoru, I definitely remembered it when the AKB48 news came out some time ago: http://ksfm.cbslocal.com/2011/06/24/new-member-of-japanese-p...

Seconding the Richard Morgan reccommendation. The Kovacs novels are great.

The investment banking/mad max one is an absolute hoot as well.

I sometimes wonder if they'll ever make films of them. It would be good. They'd be pretty hardcore though.

Charles Stross's Scratch Monkey and Accelerando.

Both are not necessarily cyberpunk (at least not through and through), but they both give off that same raw vibe that I get from Neuromancer.

Try The Shockwave Rider by John Brunner. He wrote this book in the early 70's.It's pretty much proto cyberpunk.

Bruce Sterling?

Hmm, can't say I agree. The Peripheral that came out recently was quite good, as good as Neuromancer in my opinion. Felt very real and visceral except for the time travel nonsense which I guess has to be accepted to make a story of it. He integrated all the new stuff we know is going to happen very well, like drones and trading algorithms.

Not sure if it was longer or shorter myself, though. I remember Neuromancer being quite a thin paperback as a kid, but The Peripheral was an even thinner Kindle app on a smartphone and read easily in a couple days. He didn't get into any weird iffy computer existences like in the past which were always a bit of a stretch, so he seems to have dropped some of the self-indulgent stuff you are complaining about maybe.

He could have easily gone just as mysterious about the Chinese server or the crime analyzing algorithms in The Peripheral as he did about the Japanese previously, but he just left it alone, much to the book's benefit.

Just finished The Peripheral in an evening binge, and honestly I don't care for it.

Gibson, in the Sprawl trilogy (probably his best works), and the associated short stories, used to do a much better job of focusing on the characters. You usually had some lower-class or poor folks scurrying about, trying to eke out a living. I likened it to a friend once as ants fighting on the edges of glaciers: fierce, crude, and utterly inconsequential in the orbits of their environs.

The problem I had with Peripheral, as well as with Zero History, is that he's fallen into "Oh, hey, here's a bunch of rich people--so super rich you can't even imagine--and they'll just deus ex machina everything along". I hate that.

In the earlier works, those characters (the dim spectre of Maas Biotech, or the Tessier-Ashpool for example) are just background threads, occasionally injecting events or setting the stage, and focus is kept on the minions and protagonists. In Peripheral, the real badguy is just dull "oh and then this evil thing happened", and the rich people are kind of separated from any of the action and stakes that matter. Indeed, the central conceit of the story is such that, by definition, there is no real impact beyond a slightly-higher-than-normal gentleman's game going on.

Contrast this with Case, or Armitage, or Automatic Jack, or any of those characters in the Sprawl verse. Those characters occasionally directly deal with high-up powers, constantly get used by them, and are fully aware of it, and yet there is the very real chance that maybe--just maybe, if they play their cards right--they could perhaps get a slim chance to act instead of react. No such setup is available in Peripheral.

Moreover, I'm really disappointed in the way that Homes and the veteran stuff is handled. Like, I kind of dig the "haptic veterans" human refuse thing, I get some of the used-world feel, but honestly it all feels kind of phoned in. Contrast this with what Stephenson pulled off twenty years ago, or even what Gibson himself pulled off in Count Zero. Like, the notes are there, but there's no soul behind it.

> The problem I had with Peripheral, as well as with Zero History, is that he's fallen into "Oh, hey, here's a bunch of rich people--so super rich you can't even imagine--and they'll just deus ex machina everything along". I hate that.

I wonder how much of this tendency could just be explained by Gibson's success. "When you were poor and unknown, you wrote about poor, unknown people. Now you're rich and famous, so you write about rich, famous people."

There are very few writers whose work has been improved by massive infusions of money and fame, after all.

dogfight is still IMHO the single best thing he's written: http://lib.ru/GIBSON/r_dogfight.txt

Just read them in the reverse order and you'll feel that they are getting better with every book.

Scoring a big hit like that when you're young sure sucks, everybody will be disappointed in your forever after.

>Scoring a big hit like that when you're young sure sucks, everybody will be disappointed in your forever after.

Nah, you just need to have the right attitude about it; see Joseph Heller: "When an interviewer told Mr. Heller that he had never written anything as good as 'Catch-22,' the author shot back, 'Who has?'"

hehe, excellent answer. Thanks.

>I realize now that Gibson's books monotonically decreased in quality.

That's interesting, I always felt that Count Zero was the best of that trilogy. Neuromancer to me felt like he hadn't quite found his pacing yet, and the characterization in CZ was much fuller.

Agreed. Count Zero was the best. Neuromancer was good. Mona Lisa Overdirve and onwards was garbage.

Also, having written a classic like Neuromancer early on is a surefire way to screw your career over, if only purely in terms of living up to and topping expectations. Just look at J.K. Rowling and her new book. She (rightfully) tried to get a pen name so that people wouldn't associate the new stuff with the old, but clearly they didn't let her have that. No shit it wasn't another Harry Potter, rarely can people churn out classic after classic. If you write anything that isn't even more mindblowing, it's considered a flop, and I think that's pretty harsh.

I quite enjoyed his essay book "Distrust that particular flavor", and I just read The Peripheral and I thoroughly enjoyed it. Nothing genre-expanding, but solid, and has good ideas.

I don't have anything to say on the matter above what this guy says: http://www.fimfiction.net/blog/140521/do-writers-get-better

He questions whether the writers actually get better over time, as a rule. His conclusion is: not necessarily, because they are not getting the feedback.

NB: fimfiction now accounts for 2-3% as much reading as do all of the new books sold in America? http://www.fimfiction.net/blog/401563/we-are-the-twoandahalf...

Wow, his books have changed (and Neuromancer is an absolute classic...you don't get that with every book), but I think all of his output that I've read has been quite good. His most recent, The Peripheral, is excellent.

I don't know. I found his book about jeans fashion to be remarkably awful and disappointing, just a bleak reflection of Neuromancer.

* PSA: Zero History. It was called Zero History.

Neuromancer was spectacular. Count Zero was ok. I don't really remember anything about Mona Lisa Overdrive.

Everything after that may be written as well or better, but they simply aren't stories I want to spend my time on.

If, like me, you haven't read Neuromancer in 20 years, from wiki: "A street gang named the "Panther Moderns" is hired to create a simulated terrorist attack on Sense/Net. The diversion allows Molly to penetrate the building and steal Dixie's ROM."

I'm not really seeing why this (or the fedora squad) is something to be welcomed.

Yeah. Anonymous/GG is a bunch of jerkholes on the Internet, and so are the Panther Moderns. I thought the Moderns were pretty rad when I was 12, but I thought a lot of stupid things were pretty rad when I was 12. (Like the word 'rad'.)

Interesting to find that editor/author Terry Carr was so instrumental. The first scifi I ever read was his Cirque. That was a deeply weird book for an 8yo in the early 1980s (and thinking back I'm not sure whose bookshelf I could have raided to find it) but I was hooked.

  “Is it going to be OK?” I asked, my anxiety phrasing the
  question. He paused on the stair, gave me a brief,
  memorably odd look, then smiled. “Yes,” he said, “I 
  definitely think it will,”
Anxiety. Over the quality of the manuscript.

answer to title: I would write, then, to the audience I imagined in the future of my discovery by friendly if unimaginable forces, and to them alone.

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