William Gibson’s Neuromancer is a major work in the Cyberpunk movement. While he didn’t create the genre, he coined the phrase cyberspace, the collective hallucination representing data abstracted from memory of every computer in the human system, accessed by millions. Neuromancer is the first of Gibson’s Sprawl Trilogy, and is followed by Count Zero and Mona Lisa Overdrive. The novel has one of the best first sentences in literature, let alone just science fiction; “The sky above the port was the color of a television tuned to a dead channel.” The one line alone sets up the tone for the entire story.
The main characters of the novel are Case, console cowboy and artist of the crooked deal; Molly, the archetypal street samurai; Armitage, ex-special forces and leader of the team; and Peter Riviera, creator of holograms. As the story progresses, it becomes obvious that each of these characters are inherently broken. Molly has issues in her past and is looking to avenge the death of Johnny. Armitage is a personality construct built on top of the remains of Colonel Corto, the commanding officer of Operation Screaming Fist, where the special forces team was shot down by the Russians leaving Corto as the sole survivor. Rivera gets off to betrayal and is a drug addict, using hypos instead of the more common dermal patches. As for Case, he stole from the wrong people and, when caught, had the talent burned out of him. He turns to being a minor league fixer in Night City, along Ninsei in Chiba City and he still has the problem of not knowing who to not steal from.
Case gets recruited by Armitage and Molly; they need a hacker and they were given his name by their employer. The carrot for Case is being able to punch deck once again, return to cyberspace. The stick, installed while repairing his nerves and replacing his pancreas, is a number of toxin sacs that will dissolve unless he’s given the counter agent, after the job is done. The details of the job, though, are on a need to know basis, with Armitage deciding on who needs to know.
The first part of the job involves the retrieval of the memory construct of McCoy Pauley, aka The Dixie Flatline. The hacker earned the handle after surviving brain death after brushing up against an AI. He’d go one to suffer brain death two more times before finally dying of a heart attack when his artificial heart finally failed. Before that, Sense/Net offered a sum of money to Dix that he couldn’t turn down to make a full recording of his brain and memory. To retrieve the construct, Case runs on the cyberspace matrix, dealing with Sense/Net’s digital defenses. Molly, with the help of the anarchist Panther Moderns, handles the physical security and grabs the construct. The run doesn’t go smooth; Molly winds up with a broken leg. Case, though, is back in his element.
The job leads to London, to Istanbul, and to Freelight Station. Along the way, Case starts digging into the job, trying to find out who is paying and what the end goal is. Wintermute is more then happy to fill in the details, though the AI isn’t telling Case everything, just enough to keep stringing Case along. In the L5 Lagrange point, more help is recruited, this time from the Zion cluster, founded by Rastafarians who never returned to Earth after constructing Freelight Station. Freelight is the home to Tessier-Ashpool SA, a conglomorate that formed when two families, the Tessiers and the Ashpools, merged their family businesses. T-A, the corporation, has holdings in Berne and Rio, where they have AIs.
The run into Villa Straylight, home of the Tessier-Ashpool family, goes wrong. While Case and the Dixie Flatline are guiding a military-grade virus into the T-A system, home of the AI, Molly is in the villa and runs into the Ashpool founder, who managed to live a couple hundred years thanks to anagathics and cryogenics, being thawed out everyone once in a while to help the corp. He slows Molly down, though she winds up speeding up his death. After that, she finds Peter and Lady 3Jane Tessier-Ashpool, the current scion of the family. Peter has betrayed the team to 3Jane and her thawed ninja, turning the tables on Molly. This leaves Case to come in to finish the job.
Case, though, is dealing with his own issues on the righteous tug Marcus Garvey. The Armitage construct finally crumbles, leaving Corto on the bridge of a yacht docked to the Garvey reliving his escape from Russia to Finland during Screaming Fist. Corto ejects the bridge from the yacht, leaving him forever in orbit around Freelight. Wintermute gets in touch with Case, lays out the problem, and insists on having Case along with Garvey and her captain Maelcum to be the backup plan. After some convincing, Maelcum brings out an ancient shotgun, the sole weapon for the sole vessel and sole member of the Rastafarian Navy, ready to storm Freelight and Villa Straylight.
On board Freelight, Case checks in on Dix and the virus. The virus has merged with the AI’s boundaries, meshing with it and slipping inside. Then Case tries to flip back, only to find himself on an island. Who he expected to be Wintermute turns out to be a different AI, or, rather, another side to the T-A AI. Wintermute’s goal was to merge the two sides of the AI, bringing together the id and the ego of the two. The other half does not want the merger to happen, being unsure of what the result would be. Case breaks out of the AI’s trap.
Case does manage to get the information, help Molly, and force 3Jane to provide the AI’s true name, allowing the two parts to merge. Payment is made to the survivors Case and Molly; Peter was hunted down my 3Jane’s ninja but was already poisoned via his drugs by Molly. The Dixie Flatline even gets his wish; his construct is wiped. The toxin sacs in Case are neutralized thanks to the rage he experienced during the run; a flushing and replacement of his blood removes the threat completely. On returning Earthside, Case and Molly are together for a few days before she leaves, not wanting to have a repeat of what happened with Johnny. Case returns home, only to find that it’s not really home anymore. He stops at his old watering holes, but then disappears.
Neuromancer was groundbreaking in 1984. Gibson wove noir/crime with science fiction, with neither feeling like it was tacked on. The heist relies on the cyber, and the cyber on the heist. There are details that may not work as well today, such as the opening line, but other little details are still in the future for us. The cryogenics the Tessier-Ashpools use are still in development today. The Mercedes in Instanbul is a self-driving car that’s long out of the early development we’re seeing by Tesla and Google. Cybernetic limb replacements, as seen used by Ratz in Night City, aren’t available today, but 3-D printing of prosthetic limbs may be paving a road in that direction. Neuromancer doesn’t read like a story from the Eighties, despite being influenced by the the era.
In 2002, the BBC produced a two-part radio drama based on the book. The drama starred Owen McCarthy as Case, Nicola Walker as Molly, James Laurenson as Armitage, John Shrapnel as Wintermute, Colin Stinton as the Dixie Flatline, David Holt as Peter, and David Webber as Maelcum. The drama ran under two hours total and that’s the adaptation’s main problem. To get as much of the plot in, parts of the book had to be cut out. Gone are the parts set in Chiba. While on first glace, the opening part in Night City might be seen as not needed, not having the part takes away from the emotional impact when Case is on the island created by the other AI. Dixie’s laugh is also not quite right; while Stinton does provide an annoying laugh, it’s not electronic. Also gone is most of the run on Sense/Net, though it is there, and the trip to Istanbul to pickup Riviera. Other parts are glossed over.
Also gone is the drug use. Granted, there may be restrictions about the portrayal of drug use, but it is a key element in the story. Case’s use of drugs started when he tried to find a replacement for the thrill of punching deck in cyberspace. Riviera goes even further, using hard drugs that were available in the Eighties. Molly is on painkillers after breaking her leg inside Sense/Net’s HQ. It’s a sign of the characters being outside the law and society and how broken Case is. Even when Armitage upgrades Case’s system to make most recreational drugs useless, the hacker manages to score something that can bypass the lockout.
That said, other than the loss of the Chiba parts, the radio drama proceeds much like the novel, with the focus on the heist. Case becomes the narrator for the story, allowing Gibson’s prose to come through. Details get lost, but the key beats of the story are kept. A listener unaware of the original novel would not notice what is missing. To that degree, the adaptation is good, with a cast that can handle the roles well.
The drama’s main problem falls to two areas, a small cast and a short run time. The novel has a number of characters that do reappear during the run on Straylight, especially when Case flatlines. Their appearances are important to the story. The run time leads to the dropped parts mentioned above. If a radio drama has to cut key parts, it doesn’t bode well for any possible film adaptations[https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/heat-vision/deadpool-director-tim-miller-adapt-neuromancer-fox-1028185]. Gibson packs a lot into Neuromancer‘s 287 pages.
BBC’s adaptation of Neuromancer should have been longer, but what it does keep stays faithful to the novel. Is it perfect? No, but it is a good effort hampered by limitations imposed on it.