Friday, January 4, 2013

Why's That So Good? - Neuromancer

The first five paragraphs of William Gibson's cyberpunk classic Neuromancer may be the most famous in science fiction:


The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.

"It's not like I'm using," Case heard someone say, as he shouldered his way through the crowd around the door of the Chat. "It's like my body's developed this massive drug deficiency." It was a Sprawl voice and a Sprawl joke. The Chatsubo was a bar for professional expatriates; you could drink there for a week and never hear two words in Japanese. 

Ratz was tending bar, his prosthetic arm jerking monotonously as he filled a tray of glasses with draft Kirin. He saw Case and smiled, his teeth a webwork of East European steel and brown decay. Case found a place at the bar, between the unlikely tan on one of Lonny Zone's whores and the crisp naval uniform of a tall African whose cheekbones were ridged with precise rows of tribal scars. "Wage was in here early, with two joeboys," Ratz said, shoving a draft across the bar with his good hand. "Maybe some business with you, Case?"

Case shrugged. The girl to his right giggled and nudged him. 

The bartender's smile widened. His ugliness was the stuff of legend. In an age of affordable beauty, there was something heraldic about his lack of it. The antique arm whined as he reached for another mug. It was a Russian military prosthesis, a seven-function force-feedback manipulator, cased in grubby pink plastic. "You are too much the artiste, Herr Case." Ratz grunted; the sound served him as laughter. He scratched his overhang of white-shirted belly with the pink claw. "You are the artiste of the slightly funny deal."

That first line is more than an apt description for the color of an industrial overcast; it's a perfect use of metaphor. The TV comparison is technological, and the novel is all about tech. The channel is dead, like Case's decaying world.

The rest of the excerpt plays off our knowledge of hard-boiled detective fiction. The sleazy bar, the laconic bartender, the cynical barflies: The genre tropes are there, but transfigured by Gibson's technology. The tough guys have scars, but they're African tribal scars. Instead of an eyepatch and a baseball bat under the table, the bartender has a seven-function prosthetic arm and decaying metal dental work. Gibson has taken each stock character and changed out the hardware. The tension between what we expect from the genre and Gibson's descriptions highlight the new details. The detail that's just one or two steps different from what we expect is one of the most powerful techniques for creating "otherness" in science the "dilating" doors in so much of Robert Heinlein's Past Through Tomorrow.

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