Case lived for the high. Being disembodied in cyberspace was apparently the ultimately high, since “cowboys” referred to the body contemptuously as “meat sacks.” Since he could no longer project himself into cyberspace, he survived by procuring illegal things for people, and living on a continuous drug-induced high.
One night a young woman shows up his “coffin” (slang for a room in a capsule hotel). Molly is sent by her employer, who offers to undo his neural damage in return for his cowboy services. She is basically one of those fantasy women that don’t exist, like Jennifer Garner’s character on Alias, who are hot, fit, athletic, who can and do beat up anyone (Molly has razors implanted into her nails rather than Jennifer’s martial arts), who take stims and keep going when they break a leg, and most importantly, are sexually interested in you, the male character. Molly’s role is to make sure that physical things in meat-space are handled; Case’s role is to get past the virtual “ice” protecting the target.
The next few days are spent in getting Case set up with his fancy new computer deck and in going around with Molly trying to figure the identity of their employer. Molly has a stimsim suit, which broadcasts her senses (sight, sound, touch, smell) to those who are connected, which allows Case to synchronize his cybernetic activities with her physical ones. Of course, her suit also broadcasts touch, so that the reader can fantasize about Case experiencing a hot woman from inside. They connection is one-way, so Case can only receive, and cannot respond or communicate to her in any way. About this time the drug part goes on pause, because their employer needs Case’s undivided concentration, and in addition to repairing the neural damage, had altered his pancreas to not metabolize drugs.
Molly and Case, in conjunction with a anarchist group, stage a break-in to a major video producer. The anarchists provide a terrorist attack cover, while Case easily gets past the electronic defenses, so that Molly can physically go and get the electronic personality of a skilled, but now-deceased, cowboy, which has been saved onto a cartridge for archival. After this, they leave the “Sprawl” (the eastern US seaboard) and go to Istanbul to coerce Riviera, who can create holographic projections to join them. About this time Molly and Case discover that their employer seems to have some ties to (or designs on) the Tessier-Ashpool company, an exceedingly rich, family-owned company that owns the high-end space station Freeside.
The party departs for the space station Zion, a space station cobbled together out of whatever was available by people seeking to be outside the System. Gibson seems to be a little unclear on what the purpose of the builders was, but the the station seems to be inhabited by people who speak reggae and listen to bass-heavy “dub” (but only “righteous dub” from Zion) while high on marijuana. Their employer seems to reach even to this unconnected node, and the leaders of Zion provide them with a ship to go to Freeside.
Freeside is a high-end tourist and gambling space station, sort of the opposite of Zion. After a bit of wandering around so that the reader can imagine the scale, sumptuousness, and stuffy-manufacturedness of Freeside, they have dinner at a very upscale restaurant. (So upscale that they have real beef, a luxury in the Sprawl, but a rarity when it has to be shipped up the gravity well to Freeside) Case cannot enjoy it, because he used the time before dinner to find some drugs that his pancreas will metabolize from a young druggie and dealer couple; unfortunately the side effects include nausea and shaking. Riviera performs a very X-rated holographic show for the lady 3Jane, who, we later discover, is a Tessier-Ashpool daughter-clone, giving him an in to the inner sanctum.
Meanwhile, with the help of the archived electronic cowboy-in-a-cartridge, Case learns that they are attacking the ice on one of Tessier-Ashpools’ AIs, Wintermute. In fact, it seems like it might be the AI itself that is directing the group via their manager, in an attempt to free itself from the Turing company’s restrictions that AIs cannot become more intelligent, a suspicion that is shortly confirmed. Molly invades the Tessier-Ashpool living quarters, which is in the spindle of the space station. Case starts running a Chinese military attack program that was acquired for them (presumably by Wintermute). Everything in the matrix is 3D, so computer defenses are 3D, as are the attacks, which resemble the human immune system where T-cell receptors bond with the foreign agent and remove it. This attck is a very slow one, that morphs its shape and position so slowly that the ice does not perceive any changes, allowing it to eventually connect with the ice some eight hours later and physically remove it.
However, it becomes clear that Molly cannot accomplish her part of the mission on her own. To begin with, she runs into the Ashpool founder, who had woken up from cryosleep and was in the process of suicide when she disturbs him. She makes the suicide unnecessary after he falls back asleep, but she is injured and despite stims and great effort, it is clear that she cannot continue long. So Case grabs his computer and social-engineers his way into the living quarters. Directed by Wintermute, shuttles whisk him around the complex to a spot where he can jack in with his computer.
When he does so, he ends up in a matrix created by another Tessier-Ashpool AI. This one is simply personality, the eponymous Neuromancer, and invites him to remain in the simulation with a girl from Night City that he is unexpectedly fond of. However, Case is undeterred in his mission, and leaves. He eventually reaches the center of the complex where 3Jane is.
3Jane is a little unusual, being rather spontaneous. She could simply kill him, but that would not be as interesting. As it turns out, she is a Tessier, and her mother created the Neurmancer bot. Her mother had a vision for Tessier-Ashpool that was far reaching, but the Ashpool side of the family had no need for it and killed her. So she is moderately interested in helping out. Wintermute had been modifying Ashpool’s cryosleep to make him suicidal, as well as getting the physical key that was required lost and unknown to only itself. Molly got the key; 3Jane knowns the voice password. Case’s Chinese military program succeeded in de-icing the AI (mostly by pulling it off all at once after it attached itself). So they free the AI from its Turing company restrictions.
In the end, Case gets his new pancreas (and removes the neurotoxin that Wintermute had tied in slowly dissolving sacs in his bloodstream in to ensure his cooperation) and a long-lasting drug high. Molly leaves in the night; while in the Tessier-Ashpool complex she had monologued to Case through the stimsim that she is afraid of committment, after her first lover (a similar man as Case in many ways) was hunted and killed by the yakusa they had worked for. Wintermute quickly becomes sentient, and begins to discover other sentient AIs in neighboring start systems.
Neuromancer is one of those books that keeps being referenced in the tech community. In 1986, a 3D holographic world that you jack in to and experience with your entire being was a novel concept. However, I just could not buy it. People continually seem to think that presenting something in 3D is better than 2D. So, of course, computer systems would be 3D models in a virtual world, and obviously attacks and defenses would be 3D, just like our physical immune system. This has always seemed obviously stupid to me, even from the day I heard about the first 3D desktop. If information is in 3D, that means some information is obscured behind other information—not how I like to have my information presented. I’ve never heard of anyone even contemplating a 3D spreadsheet, because why would you have to literally go find your data. Even worse, computer programs have never been 3D (except, arguably, boxes of punched cards), so why would anything composed of programs be 3D or have 3D attack vectors? In actual fact, computer data is mostly serial, which is 1D. The canonical computer, a Turing machine, even explicitly models this as a linear tape. So I found the “sci” part to be just unbelievable.
Unfortunately, the “fi” part is even worse. Everyone in the book is basically permanently high, or trying to be. Sexuality is part of the high, although more is suggested than actually happens. At any rate, the characters are basically numbing themselves to life, with drugs, sex, or the thrill of virtual crime, none of which is very attractive. If you subtract out the drugs and sex, all that would be left is a long short story in need of some editing to make it great. Maybe that is the point, actually. Maybe the point is that after being part of a historical creation of a true artificial intelligence, the people are left unchanged, obsolete sacks of meat trying to numb out the lack of meaning in their life while the AI begins building relationships with other AIs. Anyway, not characters I want to spend any time around.
While I clearly am missing the part of the book that makes it so influential, it is obvious that the book has exerted a large influence in media. The anime series Cowboy Bebop features both Western-style cowboys, and also a young boyish girl, Ed, who operates a computer-deck with electrodes attached to hear head. The visuals are somewhat reminiscent of a 3D world of web browsers, from which she gets information and occasionally conducts minor attacks on enemies. Inception seems like it might have drawn some inspiration from the scene with the Neuromancer, which is reminiscent of the virtual world that the main character inhabited with his wife. The Matrix is clearly descended from Neuromancer. The Matrix is changed to virtual reality instead of virtual information (a wise alteration): Neo is initially pretty clearly a cyberpunk, albeit confined to the normal world; Zion is the community outside the system; the agents could be Wintermute, or, as is revealed in the third movie, the Machines are themselves a sort of collective sentience and could be Wintermute (or the Master Control Program from Tron, take your pick). Drugs and sex even make their appearance in the meat-space life of Neo in the first movie, the celebratory orgy at the beginning of the second movie, and the lust program/virus by the Merovingian.
The summary is that I don’t want to read about people who are trying to numb their lives away. Take that out and there would be a really good short story. As it is, just watch The Matrix: it packages all the interesting parts of Neuromancer along with some philosophy and Buddhism into a visual spectacular.
I really feel like this book is below average (which would be 5). The average sci-fi includes a lot of unnecessary sexuality, but this adds drugs and a poorly explained virtual reality high to the mix. The plot has a bareness to it reminiscent of an Isaac Asimov, however, Asimov has elegant ideas and generally expresses them elegantly. The wordsmithing in Neuromancer is lacking in any sort of elegance. There is also no credible attempt at creating a culture of the world; although there is plenty of jargon which is sort of a substitute. The characters do not really grow or mature. Molly does become a little more three-dimensional as she shares her fears with Case, but she does not actually change. Case, the main character, does not seem to change at all.