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June 23, 2004

"Neuromancer" on Audiobook

Dear Vanessa --

Currently on the commute-to-work tape-player: an abridged audio version of William Gibson's Neuromancer. (It's buyable here.) I'd tried several of Gibson's books before but was unable to get through them, hence my resort to the audiobook. I'm eager to hear how you've reacted to Gibson's fiction if you've given it a try.

It occurs to me -- audio propagandist that I am -- that I've hit on another good way to use books-on-audio. I've blogged before about how audiobooks enabled me to get through books I hated but felt I needed to have read. ("Feeling obliged to finish books I hate": now that's a phase I'm long done with!) It turns out that audio's also a good way to get through books I'm curious about but don't have the reading-willpower to finish.

Because it does take a fair amount of willpower to get through a whole print book, doesn't it? Either that, or the book's got to be delivering a darned rewarding time. (Also, middle-aged eyes give out suprisingly fast. No more read-a-thons for bi-focal'd me.) So what becomes of you-and-a-book if you're merely idly curious about it? What if you haven't got the necessary horsepower to get through the print version, yet you wouldn't mind knowing what the book's like? Solution: let the Walkman take care of the grunt work for you. Click the "play" button, and all you have to do is stay awake.

As if turns out, I'm semi-enjoying my abridged audio Gibson. It's brilliant; what a great job he did of capturing the fantasy life that many geeks seem to share. I'm finding it hard to tell how satirical Gibson is being, though. This is admittedly a pitfall of books on audio, especially abridged ones; it can be hard to be certain of a book's exact tone. It's pretty funny, after all, that so many geeks share such an overblown fantasy life. But is Gibson giggling about this, or is he offering up his perceptions and observations with a straight face? I can't tell. Can anyone illuminate here?

It's also a culturally-significant book, of course. Gibson helped set a style (cyberpunk is its usual name, though videogame-noir is how I think of it) that's proved important and surprisingly long-lasting. So, culturally-curious guy that I am, I'm enjoying learning a little something first-hand about what this "Neuromancer" thing has been all about.

My problem with the novel -- and this isn't a criticism, just a personal reaction -- is that I simply don't share this particular fantasy life. (I'm tempted to use the term "fantasy space" instead of "fantasy life." It sounds so much more ... I dunno, conceptual or technical or something, doesn't it?) How about you? What direction do your own fantasies tend to race off in?

To be honest, I can't imagine getting much pleasure out of the techno-noir fantasy world. I had my share of little-boy, action-comedy fantasy pleasures when I was a child, but I put them aside as a teen when I discovered art, sex, and France. And since eroticism has always been central to my interest in Culture, my own fantasies tend to run off in the general direction of actresses, women, sailboats, beaches, Provence ...

I'd never, ever choose to spend fantasy time in a drizzly, silicon-implanted, cyber-decaying, back-alley Tokyo. This world looks like a nightmare to me, and not an alluring one. It doesn't turn me on and make me want to battle it out with bad guys; instead it makes my brain hurt. It makes me want to leave town for a refreshing weekend in the country -- where, with luck, someone I know will be up to some sexual no-good, preferably by poolside. At first, I'll just sneakily observe, but then I'll get drawn into the shenanigans. Soon I'll be caught up in voyeuristic, malign, and luscious decadence, well over my head. But is it all dream or reality anyway? ...

"Neuromancer" is also a tremendous and vivid reminder of those years when it seemed like geeks were taking over the world. Remember registering what was happening? My first reaction was, "Omigod, who let them snag some power?" And, "Who knew they were such fantasists and bullies?" Prior to those years, I'd never given the inner lives of geeks a moment's thought, had you? What a surprise it was to learn that they had inner lives at all. As far as I knew, geek-guys were simply overweight, sweaty techies on Jolt who had some handy skills, no sense of style, and a bizarre taste for referring to the human body as "meat."

And what a surprise too to learn a bit about what those geek inner lives consist of. As far as I've been able to tell, Gibson nails it once and for all. Geek guys evidently enjoy imagining themselves as studly cyber-cowboys having gritty adventures on the frontiers of consciousness. In their own minds, they're unshaven manly-men performing unrecognized, heroic rescue missions while the rest of us -- in the geek mind, idiots all -- slumber innocently.

Something I've never quite figured out (and that Gibson has some fun with) is the geek love of techno-jargon. All fields have jargon, it's fun for insiders to sling jargon around a bit, etc etc. But doesn't it seem that geeks really, really love their geekjargon? Why is that, do you suppose? Perhaps it enables them to swagger a bit. I get the impression that the geek brain identifies with the computer, don't you? Geeks seem to love inhabiting the machine's insides; the reason the geek feels like a superman (and has such contempt for the rest of us) is that he can control the computer in ways we non-geeks can't. Whoa: the power! So perhaps what their extreme case of jargonlove indicates isn't merely that they're having fun being insiders; perhaps it represents a real desire to be inside ... inside the machine.

I've got less than no interest in interacting with a computer's guts. To me, the computer is a rickety enabling tool in bad need of stabilizing and humanizing. I expect computers to serve my needs and pleasures; the last thing I want to worry about is what the computer's rules are. Come to think of it, I suspect that the main reason I've never been able to get hooked by a videogame is that all the videogames I've tried feel like being trapped inside a computer. That seems to be the thrill of them: the corridors and puzzles you're expected to explore, solve, and race through are metaphors for the software and hardware of the computer itself. Lemme outta here, is my response.

Hey: a half-baked, admittedly not-yet-very-catchily-expressed theory? That there are two classes of grown men: those who really love women, and whose fantasy lives are centered around women; and those who don't, and whose fantasy lives center around guy stuff. Group One: men for whom women are the great adventure. Group Two: men for whom women are at best supporting players in the great adventure.

Something that often surprises me about American men is how many of them belong to Group Two. They may want women around, and they may love how pretty and pleasing women can be. But woman as mystery; as source of life and creation; as poetry; as endlessly-tormented (and occasionally ecstatic) creatures of instinct, emotions, and ideas ... Well, doesn't it seem that remarkably few American men get fascinated by this package?

(FWIW, I've never known a guy who has felt that his emotions were in conflict with his intellect. For a guy, having a little extra brainpower is always and everywhere a straightforwardly and unambiguously Cool Thing. But I've known few bright women who don't experience tensions between the directions their intellects tug them in and the directions their emotions want them to go. Any thoughts about this? I'll betcha that it wasn't a man who invented the word "conflicted," in any case.)

Did you ever read the critic Leslie Fiedler? One of his theses was that much American art is basically juvenile -- boy stuff. "Moby Dick"? "Huckleberry Finn"? Adventure yarns for the pre-pubescent mind. His explanation for this phenomenon -- adult malehood as an extended boyhood -- is that part of what Americans were running away from when they fled the Old World (the ones who fled the Old World, anyway) was adult sexuality. Given half a chance, the typical American guy will sneak away from the gals and head out to the frontier, there to shoot guns and avoid bathing. It seems that the cyber-world is the up-to-date version of Fiedler's American frontier, doesn't it?

This line of thinking helps explain why American movies these days seem so eroticism-free, despite all the glossy pecs and tummies on display. It's bizarre how the foreground of American life features so much aggressive "sexiness," while the general gestalt -- the background texture -- is so exhaustedly un-erotic. American movies these days are generally corporate, cyber, Dolby, and techno. The gizmos and gimmicks are the new frontier, and they seem to be absorbing all the energy. And what's erotic about that? Roger Ebert, interviewed in Rosanna Arquette's silly documentary about movies and actresses, confessed to being surprised by today's young-guy moviegoers. "They aren't interested in sex!" Ebert marveled, more or less. "Back in my day, sexiness and actresses were a big part of why a young guy would go to the movies."

Eager to hear your reflections about whatever the hell it is I've been babbling about ...,


posted by Michael at June 23, 2004


Gibson, while not precisely ashamed with Neuromancer, conceded with some chagrin on at least one occasion that it was a young man's book, with all the energy, innovation, and immaturity that goes with it. Since it was his first novel written in his mid-twenties, I guess that shouldn't be too surprising.

Also, while the next two books in the Neuromancer trilogy are in the same vein, his later books have protagonists who "pay their taxes" as I believe he once put it. Normal people with regular jobs and seemingly normal people with strange “gifts” populate the later books (unique abilities to process random data for cogent information, allergy to trademarks which is honed into a never miss fashion/marketing sense, to name a couple.) IMO, they are better books because of it, although I must admit when I was 13 and first read Neuromancer, I wanted to be a console cowboy :)

Lastly, while I can't be 100% positive about this, I'm pretty sure Case's Tokyo was supposed to be a nightmare, an example of technology, crime, and civil institutions run amuck. His comment in the first chapter about Night City being an experiment seemingly perpetrated by a bored researcher in Social Darwinism was a not so subtle dig at the geeky technophiles who would tend to favor that. Clearly, technology in Gibson's world is a destructive and dystopian force; that is why cyberpunk caught on in the first place as an alternative to the Golden Age sci-fi, where technological and social progress went (generally) hand-in-hand.

Posted by: Jon G. on June 23, 2004 02:50 PM

Hollywood has changed, perhaps due to the popularity and availability of "indies". Indies' very nature is to be cutting edge and "in-your-face" kind of film-making. Few movies today weave any great mystery, or acknowledge audience imagination, it seems. IMHO, Hitchcock was the master at injecting subtle erotic nuances in his films. Maybe it takes a director with a touch of voyeurism in his own make-up to project any convincing eroticism on the big screen. Hitchcock certainly filled that bill. The only modern name that comes to my mind is Tarantino. But, even Quintin belittles his audience's intelligence.

The age-old Tarzan/Jane question is neverending, so I shall bow to the more erudite of your readership on that one.

Posted by: Cowtown Pattie on June 23, 2004 05:02 PM

"But doesn't it seem that geeks really, really love their geekjargon?" You betcha we do. For many, language is as much toy as tool. Computer languages and natural languages are just two cases of the same thing. Crosstalk is fruitful; linguistic legerdemain is useful and fun.

Browse the Jargon File for shortcut insight into the whole geek worldview:

Posted by: Lloyd on June 23, 2004 05:45 PM


Hitchcock was THE master at injecting subtle erotic nuance? Try some of the real masters - Lubitsch or maybe Chabrol, and see if you still agree.

Posted by: burritoboy on June 23, 2004 05:49 PM

Dear Vanessa --

What's the big deal about 'The Great Gatsby'? That Jazz Age stuff might be fun for some of you, but I thought the story was depressing and the characters totally self-centered and manipulative. Didn't you? And how about 'A Tale of Two Cities'? I don't know about you guys, but I just can't see the appeal of living through the French Revolution. I mean, everyone's heads get chopped off, and the only French girl showing a little flirtatious semi-nudity just inspires a bunch of guys to fight or something. And don't get me started on Shakespeare - has everyone forgotten how bad the dentistry was back then? No thank you.


Posted by: Ethan on June 23, 2004 06:14 PM

Jon G. -- Thanks for info and sci-fi history, which I know little about. The Wife tells me "Pattern Recognition" is pretty terrific, but she can manage sci-fi a lot better than I can. You raise a good question: why are some so attracted to cyber-nightmares? Back when "Blade Runner" was released, for instance, its visuals were widely seen to be a "please help us, no" vision of the future. How odd, then, that its style came to be considered cool and desirable. (The cybergeek look makes me want to move to another planet.) I think you're right that Gibson wanted us to understand the future he was projecting was awful. But I think certain types groove on it, don't you? I guess my only theory is that geeks, at least, seem to enjoy the look because it matches their own imaginations, and maybe because it suggests a kind of awful situation that only they can rescue us from. But that's probably a lousy stab at explaining this. Any thoughts?

Pattie -- Yeah, and isn't it strange how un-erotic the indie flix are too? Very odd. It's as though eroticism has vanished into thin air. As well as movie-art consciousness. I've been amazed at the way the indies offer raw self-expression (and little in the way of style, slyness or art-consciousness) as their alternative to the big corporate extravaganzas. Hmm, art and eroticism together have gone missing -- I wonder if there's a connection there.

Lloyd -- The computer-language/jargon connection explains a lot, thanks. I'm having a good time exploring Jargon Watch too. Am I wrong in suspecting a lot of this has to do with geek macho?

Burritoboy -- I'm second to no one in my love for Lubitsch, although Chabrol tends to leave me pretty cold. Just watched "The Beast Must Die" last night, which I found just-OK. I dunno, I don't get the tingle from his movies some seem to. But you don't love the Hitchcock way with eroticism? Not even in pix like "Notorious"? Lordy, I think he had a great way with man/woman stuff ...

Ethan -- That's pretty funny, thanks -- the dentistry bit's especially good.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on June 23, 2004 06:15 PM

The movies haven't been truly sexy in a long time -- neither have most movie stars.

When I lived in NYC in the mid to late 90's I used to go now & then to this store -- I think it was on West 14th Street -- that sold movie stills & publicity photos of movie stars from the past to the present. The photos were in large binders, arranged alphabetically. You located the pic you wanted, gave them the pic's order number & they would pull a copy.

I used to go in there and trawl the books for old movie star glamour shots. Lauren Bacall. Heddy Lammar. Veronica Lake. Louise Brooks.

Point is, for my young man's sexy movie starlett fix I had to go back fourty or more years -- I almost never looked for contemporary stars. Plus, of course, I rented a lot of old movies.

Posted by: Twn on June 23, 2004 07:07 PM

As a 26 year ols and at the tail end of the generation that frew up with Neuromancer and it's spawn: My generation is very Nihilistic without even realizing it. Some are overt about it as in the Goth and Punk sub-cultures. Most would resonate with Camus if the were to read it, but then why bother?

My generation exists in a place where a "better life" is not better than the one we grew up in; and a "worse off life" is not really all that much worse than what we have now. We realize that the trappings of the "good life" do just that: trap us in a cybernetic feedback system that perpetuates our consumption. We work to pay for the things we have had, not the things we will one day get.

Given this, a dystopian breakdown of society (not one caused by cataclysmic event) makes sense and seems inevitable.

I'll end with a quote by a man who saw mankinds hollowness/uselessness on a cosmic scale decades before Gibson:

"Frankly, I cannot conceive how any thoughtful man can really be happy."

- H. P. Lovecraft

Posted by: Conal O'Keefe on June 23, 2004 07:23 PM

Michael - I think you're dead right that some technophilic geeks groove to Neuromancer and other cyberpunk books precisely because technology overshadows people/personalities. Technological fatalism pervades their thought and they sincerely believe that technology can do no wrong so long as smart people like them have their hands on the levers of power. This scares the bejeezus out of me too, and, I think to some extent, Gibson. Neuromancer sort of feeds into this desire if one reads it only superficially, which sadly most of them probably do. Clearly mastery of technology gives the villains and the anti-heroes great power in a sense, but none of them are particularly thrilled with their f'ed up lives, environments, etc., to put it mildly. And the Panther Moderns (the nihilistic techno-fetishist cult) seem to me to be immature versions of the geek ideal. But I’m probably reading too much into it…

What I find humorous/scary is what many geeks seem to read as the lesson of Neuromancer. Instead of continuing unaccountable, corporate laissez-faire technological progress (which I believe is what Gibson was most concerned about) the only solution is to the let the highly skilled geeks decide what’s best for us. So yes, I think you’re on to something when it comes to geeks desiring to save the planet from the rabble who don’t understand how vital, important (and powerful), they are. /rolls eyes

My memory is hazy, but I recall reading a maybe ten to fifteen-year-old article in which Gibson was somewhat taken aback by enthusiastic geeks telling him how much Neruromancer, et al, inspired them work furiously towards creating the technologies described therein. The gist was, “Didn’t you read the books?” :)

As an aside, Neuromancer, considered one of the greatest sci-fi books of all time, was written on an old typewriter when personal computers were well on their way towards ubiquity. In many ways Gibson was a pretty unlikely sci-fi star since he was never trained or aspired to be a scientist, engineer, etc., unlike the previous giants like Asimov, Niven, etc. I suppose this is why technology wasn’t assumed to be good and socially congruent, a priori. To this day, Gibson isn’t much of geek when it comes to technical issues, especially when you compare him to a cyberpunk contemporary like Neal Stephenson, a geek’s geek, at least in terms of technical skill and nerdly inquiry.

Lastly, Pattern Recognition is quite good, and not as sci-fi’y since it’s set in post 9/11 London and Tokyo mostly. Admittedly, the cosmopolitan settings and the high end world of fashion, marketing, crime, terrorism, and flat-out coolness was more interesting to me as a man born, bred, and living in suburbia, but you still might find it an interesting read.

Posted by: Jon G. on June 23, 2004 08:15 PM

First off, the embrace of a dystopian aesthetic by geeks in the form of cyberpunk and Blade Runner is not confined to geeks.

The appeal is danger and freedom - think the old Las Vegas; the old Times Square. Note that even the most technophobic liberal-arts type bemoans the cleaning up of Times Sqaure; and naively believes that their voluntary residency in a superficially sketchy Brooklyn neighborhood eclipses their Midwestern sensibilities.

These mythical places represent to technophiles the opportunity to finally just play with technology without any regard to consequences, legal or moral. Want to hook a computer up to your brain without FDA approval? Want to hack into systems to learn how they work? Just do it and accept the risks - which are individual in nature, not social or political.

You are right to think this is primarily a youthful sentiment. But I think the young are a little bored that there's no longer any titilating pseudo-danger around these days - geek or not.

Posted by: Jonas Cord on June 23, 2004 08:18 PM

Our whole world is in a hurry. Faster and faster it goes. Okay, we all know this. Why waste your time with such obviousness. Because the key to eroticism is slowness, an unforced pace; and in a woman who has really got....IT, hardly any movement at all.
I don't know whether to laugh or cry when I hear that cable television, to take one example, is overflowing with sex. There's practically none. Forced, mechanized grinding is not sex! A really sexy woman just has to sit there, or slowly walk down a street, or look over her shoulder. Ah, what's the use. This brave new techno-world....what a waste.

Posted by: ricpic on June 23, 2004 08:42 PM

I guess I am a geek — I make my living writing software, for Father's Day I asked for a history of classical and medeival engineering, and I loved Neuromancer when I read it in pre-bifocal days.

It's clearly techno-horror: the scene where every payphone in a long row rings as Case walks by still gives me the heebie-jeebies just thinking about it. And nevertheless I wanted to help make parts of that world come true and still do. After all, Neuromancer's tech, sans the jacks, is not so different from the internet.

But, lordy, there's nothing sexy about it, not even Molly. For that, try Jenny Factor's poetry, or Kim Addonizio's.

Posted by: Michael Snider on June 23, 2004 10:25 PM

Neuromancer is another in a long line of survivalist novels. It happens to be couched in comp-sci jargon since comp-sci was the next frontier when Gibson wrote it. It is, with it's brethren, semi-nihilistic, but also pseudo-educational. Hell, it's practically a durn horse opera.

Guys dig that stuff because we all like to believe that we could make it through to the other end when TSHTF, whatever form that takes. And we'll be left standing all by our lonesome with the remaining few Lauren Bacalls of the world gazing at us with dewy longing.

As far as hot movies go, I think that you, Ebert, and I are not what they're aiming for, and I don't think it's possible (in passing) for us to dig what is sexy to the kids these days. Your eroticism, in other words, is old fashioned. Dude.

Posted by: Scott Chaffin on June 24, 2004 01:55 AM

"That there are two classes of grown men: those who really love women, and whose fantasy lives are centered around women; and those who don't, and whose fantasy lives center around guy stuff."

Can you say Rat Pack? Rolling with gin and juice and no women?

I always thought this is what Gertrude Stein was getting at when she complained that men are much of a muchness.

In fairness, I should point out that many females have nasty, hate-filled inner lives in which they and helpful unicorns rid the world of almost everyone else except a couple of helpful elves or something. I'm not really clear on the details.

Completely disagree about techno robbing the movies. It's simply bad writing, son. The sexual fireworks of most of the films you miss comes from well-developed (no, not there!) characters and complex interaction. Occasionally, an action hero has enough interesting lines that he's more than just eye candy, but not often. My hopes are high for the new Vinny movie, cuz the first was kind of cool and he's so lovely.

Or maybe the nation as a whole just gave up on the whole idea when Rosanna Arquette got in the game.

Posted by: j.c. on June 24, 2004 01:25 PM

What Scott said. Kids don't need demure women; they already have overtly sexual women and girls on television and in person. Why watch a "tease" when you can have the real thing? Perhaps today's actresses are the Big Macs to yesterday's Filet Mignon -- of lesser quality, but easily obtainable and popular as hell.

Posted by: jay on June 24, 2004 01:33 PM

I read Gibson as a young(er) man and loved it as an adventure yarn then went back and read it as a (slightly) older man and realized what a horror tale it is. Part of the appeal is the alienness of the setting. Gibson, if nothing else, can create atmosphere and mood like nobody's business. Chiba City is werid, alien, dark, and horrifying, yet not-to-far from life. A wee one reading it in his rural home thinks Chiba City eptiomizes the idea of The City..which is dangerous, messy, cluttered, and Not At All Like Here.

Gibson isn't really a geeky writer, he's an aestehte writer. He loves buildings and clothing but hates people.

Oh and TWN, that store is Jerry Olinger's Movie Material Store. I worked there for 4 weeks in June of 2000. My first job in NYC.

Small world.


Posted by: jleavitt on June 24, 2004 02:33 PM

When everyone was talking about LOTR a common thread was Tolkien's adolescent schoolboy ethos.

This also reminds me of an article in ... was it Forbes FYI? The one Christopher Buckley edited, anyway. It said the whole sci-fi genre was an expression of the adolescent male mind and that therefore it had little chance of ever producing a great work of liturature. (You know, "great" "liturature.") Edgar Alan Poe was sited as the founder. Much effort was put into analyzing an obscure story by Poe called Berenice about a man obsessed with his beloved's teeth. In the end he digs up her corpse so he could look them over one more time. This proved Poe had no healthy, mature interest in women.

Or something. Maybe this line says it best: "the golden age of sci-fi was whenever the reader was 12 years old."

Posted by: The Fredosphere on June 24, 2004 02:57 PM

Golden Age sci-fi is basically an extrapolation of the Transportation Revolution that ran from the steamship to the moon landing, then fizzled. Its giant, Robert A. Heinlein, was an invalided U.S. Navy officer who wrote sea stories set on space ships.

Cyberpunk reflects the closing down of the possibility of a New Age of Exploration. Vehicles have stopped getting faster, but computers keep getting faster, so that's what people write about now. But, it's so claustrophobic compared to the old fantasy of sailing to the stars.

Posted by: Steve Sailer on June 24, 2004 08:57 PM

Michael: Thanks. You are a good sport and an indulgent host.
I think what is being mostly missed in this discussion is that the nightmare scenario depicted isn't merely the future Tokyo but the future, period. And it isn't new technologies, but ghastly overcrowding, especially in the former United States - now referred to as 'The Sprawl' and still wide open to immigration - that creates the dystopia. Gibson's successor, Neal Stephenson, agrees, in his book, “Snow Crash,” the main character lives in a former self-storage unit near LAX airport.

Interestingly, it's a testament to the stength of the current taboo on suggesting a stop to mass immigration that in the middle of reveling in his morals-free world of pain, misery and meaningless death, Neal takes a few sentances to point out that a vast floating city of thieves, slavers, pirates and their victims ought to be allowed to land on California and welcomed to North America. Of course. I mean, hey, this is a dystopia, not some kind of crazy world.
Ethan Herdrick

Posted by: Ethan on June 24, 2004 10:20 PM

Nice analysis! I knew this all the time but couldn't really put my finger on it. Of course it makes sense that nerd fantasies are hypermasculine, adolescent, and don't focus on women. Has anyone seen the obvious reason why?
There are like 10 nerd men for every nerd woman. Do the math.

As for the lack of eroticism in regular movies, though, I think it's just feminism. Women have to be strong and self-sufficient these days (or the writer will be accused of sexism or being 'backward') so they can't be all mysterious and teasing.

Posted by: SciFiGeek on June 25, 2004 08:47 AM

Jon G.: ah, but how many times have we all now heard the phrase "I can't do anything about it, that's what the computer says"?

Your money, your electricity, all of it, are hooked into computers. Ponder that, and then get back to me about how much real power geeks have.

"Undesirables" such as extreme spammers have had all their utilities shut off, well-forged email threatening the President have been sent causing the Secret Service to show up and haul folks off before, etc. These little machines are paid attention to in the real world now folks. People with guns do what they tell them to.

Ya want the toys the Wizards make, ya gotta put up with Wizards.

Posted by: David Mercer on June 25, 2004 10:29 PM

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