It took me over a decade to finally find enough motivation and push through this classic of science fiction. I remember trying it when I was still in school, then university, then I put it aside for a long time. But this whole self isolation thing is doing wonders for my motivation to catch up on things I should have read ages ago. And now I have finally done it, I have read this classic SF novel that not only coined the term “cyberspace” but also kickstarted an entire subgenre. Did it live up to the expectations? Well…
by William Gibson
Published: Gollancz, 1984
Paperback: 297 pages
Series: The Sprawl #1
My rating: 5/10
Opening line: The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.
Case was the sharpest data thief in the Matrix, until an ex-employer crippled his nervous system. Now a new employer has recruited him for a last-chance run against an unthinkably powerful artificial intelligence. With a mirror-eyed girl street-samurai riding shotgun, he’s ready for the silicon-quick, bleakly prophetic adventure that upped the ante on an entire genre of fiction.
I am so glad I finally read this book. Not that it was an entirely pleasant experience, mind you, but it was worth it for the feeling of accomplishment and for seeing where all those many ideas came from that I had encountered in books by other authors or movies or general popculture. Whatever I may think of his abilities as a writer of prose, there is no denying that Gibson has laid the groundwork for many other works of fiction, some of which ended up being much better than this.
Case is a depressed former console cowboy (read: hacker) whose last boss destroyed his synapses in such a way that Case can no longer jack into cyberspace. And without cyberspace, he’s just a drug addict with a death wish but not enough motivation to get the job done himself. When a beautiful kick-ass lady named Molly shows up on his doorstep, offering him the job of a lifetime and his synapses repaired, he obviously says yes.
And so starts a sort of heist hacker story that has very little to do with plot or character and is all about ideas and technobabble.
You guys, the writing is so bad! I mean, maybe everything I disliked about it was intentional and it just doesn’t work for me but whether on purpose or not, it was just so bad! Let me elaborate.
The introduction of new settings or characters just happens. Suddenly people are there. They aren’t mentioned beforehand, the setting isn’t built up. It felt like any new and shiny idea that came to the author’s mind was promptly put on the page, without foreshadowing, without building things up, without even mentioning that something like this existed.
Mid-book, Case and Molly travel to a satellite city in orbit around Earth. Until that point, I had no idea that, in this world, there was a satellite, let alone one that is a sort of space Las Vegas. I was a bit stunned when Case got Space Sickness and had to backtrack a little to see if I’d missed anything. I hadn’t. Gibson just didn’t mention this teeny tiny bit of information until it was time for our heroes to go there. World building, you say? Who needs that?
The same goes for characters. On the one hand, I commend William Gibson for trusting his readers enough to understand what he’s trying to convey without having to repeat everything fifty times, but when you only mention a character by one name and then suddenly in a dialogue he gets called a different name we had never heard before, how am I supposed to know it’s the same guy??
The only distinguishing qualities the characters have other than their names is the way they talk. And oh boy, the dialogue was cringy. Not so much because of what was said but because how people talk. Molly, for some reason, needs to mention the name of whomever she’s speaking to in every single sentence. I kid you not, there would be lines like this (paraphrased by me)
“You’ve heard of him before, haven’t you, Case? Do you know how we will reach him, Case? Let’s just get outta here, Case.”
I am not exaggerating, this is how Molly talks. And don’t even get me started on the Rastafarian space ship pilot and the way his speech is portrayed. But seeing as the differences in speech are the only thing that give the characters something like a personality, I’m glad it was there. At least I knew who was talking…
Probably the scene that made me cringe the most and also gave me embarrassed giggles happened way at the beginning when Case had just met Molly and agreed to do the mysterious job with her. She waits for him in his room where they have a very short conversation and then suddenly, out of nowhere, they have sex. The scene goes literally from “oh, I thought you had a nice hotel room, why aren’t you there” to “she put her hand between his legs”. Thankfully, it was a short sex scene but it had me laughing nonetheless. Oh boy, it was so bad.
Which leads me to the characters as such . Because if there had been the slightest hint of a budding relationship, the protagonists getting together would have made perfect sense. But the characters are mostly cardboard and there is no chemistry between any of them. And not just romantic chemistry – there’s no sense of friendship or dislike or love or hate or anything! Gibson just didn’t put any focus on his characters and so I remained emotionally cut off from them. I didn’t much care what happened to them because I didn’t know them. Which takes a whole lot of tension out of the book, as you can imagine.
That’s not completely true though. There is a scene, later on in the book, that shows a bit more of Molly’s personality and that gives us some background about her life. That was literally the only instance where I found myself caring the slightest about someone.
I have mentioned characters and dialogue and lack of world building, but that’s not all. Because this being a Science Fiction Novel with Important Science Fictional Ideas, there has to be a lot of jargon. Well… if the technobabble the characters spew made sense in the 80ies, it didn’t make much sense to me now. In part, that is probably because some technology Gibson was predicting actually exists now, in altered forms, and others were ideas that never actual came to fruition. It’s not the author’s fault but this aspect does date the novel and makes it harder to read nowadays. Whatever his intentions, a lot of the time it just felt like he tried to sound super smart and tech-savvy without actually making sense. If you invent cyberspace for your novel, have the decency to at least make it work within your fictional world.
All of that said, there are some truly brilliant ideas in this book and the plot, once I started following it properly, was even somewhat exciting. I know, reading this now must be a vastly different experience from reading it when it first came out in the 1980s and I tried to be fair to the book and always keep in mind when the story was written. So I ignored mentions of a few Kilobytes being a lot and just rolled with it. That doesn’t mean I was any less annoyed with Gibson mentioning the size and position of every female character’s boobs. I mean, seriously. There are characters who show up once for a few lines and have no meaning for the plot, yet we just have to know that she had “small and high breasts”.
The idea of jacking into cyberspace must have been mindblowing then and I really love the idea of the Turing Police, which makes sure that no AI ever gained enough freedom and intelligence to do harm. He also mentions cryogenic sleep and tons of ways to modify your body – starting with Molly’s eyes that are covered by mirrors (like sunglasses) and give her all sorts of cool powers. These may all be things I’ve seen before but when this book came out, they were still new!
The plot takes a long time to get started but once it becomes clearer what the story is actually about, I really enjoyed watching it play out. The writing gets marginally better in the second half of the book but I can’t help but imagine what these ideas would have looked like if someone more capable or more careful had written this. Intellectually, I understand the importance of this novel and I respect what Gibson did for the genre as a whole. But there are plenty of older books that can still be read today and feel relevant as well as just readable. This is not one of them. And because I rate books based on my own enjoyment, I can’t rate it that highly. It may have been a groundbreaking piece of science fiction in 1984 but to me, reading this in 2020, it was first and foremost an example of bad writing.
MY RATING: 5/10 – Okay