I’ve had this book since 1989. I’d heard it was cool and, impressionable 13-year-old that I was, I snaffled a copy and was immediately confused by it. I couldn’t get into it, didn’t know what to make of it. I couldn’t go on, and it sat on the shelf since then, occasionally daring me to give it a go, but mostly biding its time.
Here we are, some 16 years later and I’ve finally finished. And my first thought on reaching its conclusion is that if I can ever jack in and meet some representation of 13-year-old me, I’m gonna smack him in the head.
It’s difficult to write about the experience of reading this novel as it’s so hard to separate it from everything that came afterwards. The Lawnmower Man comes to mind in the hacking scenes, even though I know Gibson Was First. Portrayals of the Matrix, the Net, the collection of tubes we spend out lives connected to – they all stem from here, really.
Initially, at least – until I fell into the rhythm of Case’s cant, it felt dated. I mean, we’re talking about MEGABYTES of data. Oops. It’s an understandable misstep – who knew we’d be carrying terabytes around in pockets? – but it’s also rare: once I’d adjusted to some of the anachronisms (helped in part by the hefty helping of neo-Tokyo futurist style – here’s where I mention my bookmark is a goddamn Shinkansen ticket) I was in for the ride.
What a ride it is. Everyone knows how many awards this thing won. It’s masterful, and what nobody tells the first-time reader is that the techno-jargon babble stuff is really a bit of a distraction. You think this is a sci-fi tome – and it is, really – but it’s so much more than that. It’s a love story, a kind of techno-Barfly drug bender – there’s a lot of drugs, a meditation on identity and death, and – most entertainingly – a ballsy heist tale with an excellent range of sidekicks, both real and artificial.
Gibson’s phrasing is excellent. There’s touches of the throwaway declamation found throughout sci-fi, where characters bring seriousness to outlandish ideas because the narrative loses if not – but he’s also wonderfully brisk. There’s the most understated description of optic assassination in a sentence maybe four words long. The imagery of hacking as icebreaking is far, far better than any of that flying alphanumeric hooey we’re so fond of. The editing, too, is brilliant – the switches of perspective which occur in later chapters serve to create an air of breathless forward motion. It’s wonderful.
Friends have all come out of the woodwork to thumbs-up the reading of this and they’re right. This is smart stuff, but it’s not too proud to revel in dumb action. I waited to long to read it, and that makes me feel a bit sad, as this is deeply rereadable, I suspect.
This is a true classic. My review won’t change anyone’s mind on it – how do you effectively review something which casts a shadow this long? – so damn, just read the thing.