William Gibson's 1984 novel Neuromancer predicted how technology would shape our future. Some of Gibson's ideas such as the web and cyberspace have become reality, but others were just wide of the mark. As the novel celebrates its silver anniversary this year, we look at just what it got right and what went wrong.
Fixation on technology
Ultimately Neuromancer is a book about the increasing presence of technology in the life of human beings. This may well be the dominant story line of the 21st century.
People in Neuromancer constantly use, wear, think about, and talk about technology in its various forms. Case uses a deck, goggles, electrodes, and other gear to jack into cyberspace.
Others insert tiny chips called 'microsofts' (no relation to Bill Gates's company) into slots behind their ears. Microsofts form a direct neural link with the brain and can deliver anything from raw data to games to various forms of entertainment.
Here's Gibson introducing the idea of microsofts in chapter four. "Booths lined a central hall. The clientele were young [...]. They all seemed to have carbon sockets planted behind the left ear [...]. Behind the counter a boy with a shaven head stared vacantly into space, a dozen spikes of Microsoft protruding from the socket behind his ear."
Another character in Neuromancer, an art dealer, leaves seven microsofts inserted behind his ear to make him a walking encyclopedia of art history.
Gibson's view of tech culture in the future is starting to look a lot less exotic. Despite its advances, we tend to experience technology as a slow, creeping force in life - with effects so gradual that we don't really notice. But look around; it's everywhere. If it all suddenly shut down, we'd be helpless. And if Gibson is right, technology will play an even bigger part in life and culture over the next 25 years.
Prosthetics and plastic surgery
Gibson was fascinated with plastic surgery, the physical integration of human and man-made tissues, and the logical limits that they might evolve toward in a not-so-distant future. Almost everybody in Neuromancer has some kind of physical enhancement.
One cybercowboy has a Russian-made computerised heart. Case's friend Molly has mirrored cybernetic eyes built into her sockets that constantly show her the time and other data, and enable her to see in the dark. A bartender has a cybernetic arm that buzzes quietly when it moves. Joeboys (bodyguards) show up with huge "vat-grown" muscles grafted onto their arms.
The goal of plastic surgery in Neuromancer is not so much to enhance beauty as to serve anonymity. Gibson's characters wear their altered skin like masks.
In chapter four Gibson describes the face of a local gangster in Chiba City: "His [Angelo] face was a simple graft grown on collagen and shark-cartilage polysaccharides, smooth and hideous".
The same character might show up a year later with a completely different face, the novel suggests.
Just this year, the science of plastic surgery achieved its first full-face transplant. Plastic surgeons routinely enhance biceps, chest, and butt muscles. When science perfects the growth of human tissue to predetermined specifications, the industry will likely mushroom again. Twenty-five years after Neuromancer, Gibson's vision of the, uh, 'beauty image' is closer than you might think.
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