It took at least a decade for me to realize that many of my readers, even in 1984, could never have experienced Neuromancer’s opening line as I’d intended them to. I’d actually composed that first image with the black-and-white video-static of my childhood in mind, sodium-silvery and almost painful—a whopping anachronism, right at the very start of my career in the imaginary future.
But an invisible one, interestingly; one that reveals a peculiar grace enjoyed by all imaginary futures as they make their way up the timeline and into the real future, where we all must go. The reader never stopped to think that I might have been thinking, however unconsciously, of the texture and color of a signal-free channel on a wooden-cabinet Motorola with fabric-covered speakers. Readers compensated for me, shouldering an additional share of the imaginative burden, and allowed whatever they assumed was the color of static to take on the melancholy of the phrase “dead channel”.
In my teens, in the Sixties, I read a great deal of science fiction dating from the Forties, a very fertile period for the genre, and recall being aware of making just this sort of effort on behalf of fictions that had grown a bit long in the technological tooth, or whose imagined futures had been blindsided by subsequent history. I cut such fictions just the sort of extra slack, in exchange for whatever other value the narrative might offer, that some readers must be cutting Neuromancer today––not for invisible anachronisms like my color of television, but for unavoidable sins of omission on the order of a complete absence of tiny and ubiquitous portable telephones. (Indeed, one of my own favorite moments in the book hinges around the sequenced ringing of a row of pay-phones.
Imagine a novel from the Sixties whose author had somehow fully envisioned cellular telephony circa 2004, and had worked it, exactly as we know it today, into the fabric of her imaginary future. Such a book would have seemed highly peculiar in the Sixties, even though innumerable novels had already been written in which small personal wireless communications devices were taken for granted. A genuinely prescient cell-phone novel would have moved in a most unsettling way, its characters acting, out of an unprecedented degree of connectivity, in ways that would quickly overwhelm the narrative.
In hindsight, I suspect that Neuromancer owes much of its shelf-life to my almost perfect ignorance of the technology I was extrapolating from. I was as far from the Sixties author who knew everything about cell-phones as it was possible to be. Where I made things up from whole cloth, the colors remain bright. Where I was unlucky enough to actually have some small bit of real knowledge, the reader finds things like the rattling keys of a mechanical printer, or Case’s puzzlingly urgent demand, when the going gets tough, for a modem. Unlike the absence of cell-phones, those are sins of commission. Another vast omission is my failure to have quietly collapsed the Soviet Union and swept the rubble offstage when nobody was looking.
Though there was a strategic reason for my not having done that. I had already done it to the United States, which cannot be proven to exist in the world of Neuromancer. It’s deliberately never mentioned as such, and one vaguely gathers that it’s somehow gone sideways in a puff of what we today would call globalization, to be replaced by some less dangerous combine of large corporations and city-states. Having disappeared the USA, I though I’d better have the USSR in there for the sake of continuity. (Had I disappeared the USSR instead, I might eventually have been burned as a witch, so just as well.)
Today’s reader might keep in mind that I wrote Neuromancer with absolutely no expectation that it would be in print twenty years later. I knew that it was to be published, if I could finish it and if the editor accepted the manuscript, both of which seemed constantly unlikely, as a paperback original—that most ephemeral of literary units, a pocket-sized slab of prose meant to fit a standard wire rack, printed on high-acid paper and visibly yearning to return to the crude pulp from which it had been pressed. My best hope for the book was that it might find, in whatever modest numbers it would have its debut, some kindred soul or five. Probably in England, as I imagined them, or perhaps in France. I didn’t anticipate much in the way of an American audience, because I felt that I was writing too deliberately counter to what I had come to assume the American audience had been taught to want from science fiction.
I was doing this because I couldn’t for the life of me seem to do it any other way. Having been talked into signing a contract (by the late Terry Carr, without whom there would certainly be no Neuromancer) I found myself possessed by a dissident attitude that I certainly wasn’t about to share with my editor, or really with much of anyone. The only people who got that were a few of the other tyro writers with whom I would eventually be labeled “cyberpunk”, and they were far away, mostly in Austin TX.
Like Case at the book’s climax, I was coming in steep, fuelled by…;I couldn’t have to told you, though one element was a smoldering resentment at what the genre I’d loved as a teenager seemed to me in the meantime to have become. Though I know I had neither the intention nor the least hope that what I was doing, tapping out my Ace Special paperback original on an aged manual portable of precision Swiss manufacture, would in any way change the course of science fiction. (Nor did it, apparently, except to the extent of helping to keep open doors I certainly never built, doors I’d found as a teenager, with names like “Bester” and “Leiber” gouged into their lintels.)
I was recently told that Neuromancer has sold more than a million copies. That would be over the past two decades, and I assume in either North American editions or English-language editions. Abroad, it’s managed to get itself translated into most of the languages books are translated into, though not yet, as far as I know, Chinese or Arabic.
This is something like having an adult child one never hears from, but who evidently does quite well, travels widely, and seems to meet interesting people.
My real sympathy, though, is with the bright thirteen-year-old curled on a sofa somewhere, twenty pages into the book and desperate to get to the root of the mystery of why cell-phones aren’t allowed in Chiba City.
Hang in there, friend.
It can only get stranger.
—Vancouver BC 5 17 04
CHIBA CITY BLUES
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.”
“Sure,” Case said, and sipped his beer. “Somebody’s gotta be funny around here. Sure the fuck isn’t you.”
The whore’s giggle went up an octave.
“Isn’t you either, sister. So you vanish, okay? Zone, he’s a close personal friend of mine.”
She looked Case in the eye and made the softest possible spitting sound, her lips barely moving. But she left.
“Jesus,” Case said, “what kinda creepjoint you running here? Man can’t have a drink.”
“Ha,” Ratz said, swabbing the scarred wood with a rag. “Zone shows a percentage. You I let work here for entertainment value.”
As Case was picking up his beer, one of those strange instants of silence descended, as though a hundred unrelated conversations had simultaneously arrived at the same pause. Then the whore’s giggle rang out, tinged with a certain hysteria.
Ratz grunted. “An angel passed.”
“The Chinese,” bellowed a drunken Australian, “Chinese bloody invented nerve-splicing. Give me the mainland for a nerve job any day. Fix you right, mate....”
“Now that,” Case said to his glass, all his bitterness suddenly rising in him like bile, “that is so much bullshit.”
The Japanese had already forgotten more neurosurgery than the Chinese had ever known. The black clinics of Chiba were the cutting edge, whole bodies of technique supplanted monthly, and still they couldn’t repair the damage he’d suffered in that Memphis hotel.
A year here and he still dreamed of cyberspace, hope fading nightly. All the speed he took, all the turns he’d taken and the corners he’d cut in Night City, and still he’d see the matrix in his sleep, bright lattices of logic unfolding across that colorless void....The Sprawl was a long strange way home over the Pacific now, and he was no console man, no cyberspace cowboy. Just another hustler, trying to make it through. But the dreams came on in the Japanese night like livewire voodoo, and he’d cry for it, cry in his sleep, and wake alone in the dark, curled in his capsule in some coffin hotel, his hands clawed into the bedslab, temperfoam bunched between his fingers, trying to reach the console that wasn’t there.
“I saw your girl last night,” Ratz said, passing Case his second Kirin.
“I don’t have one,” he said, and drank.
“Miss Linda Lee.”
Case shook his head.
“No girl? Nothing? Only biz, friend artiste? Dedication to commerce?” The bartender’s small brown eyes were nested deep in wrinkled flesh. “I think I liked you better, with her. You laughed more. Now, some night, you get maybe too artistic; you wind up in the clinic tanks, spare parts.”
“You’re breaking my heart, Ratz.” He finished his beer, paid and left, high narrow shoulders hunched beneath the rain-stained khaki nylon of his windbreaker. Threading his way through the Ninsei crowds, he could smell his own stale sweat.
Case was twenty-four. At twenty-two, he’d been a cowboy, a rustler, one of the best in the Sprawl. He’d been trained by the best, by McCoy Pauley and Bobby Quine, legends in the biz. He’d operated on an almost permanent adrenaline high, a byproduct of youth and proficiency, jacked into a custom cyberspace deck that projected his disembodied consciousness into the consensual hallucination that was the matrix. A thief, he’d worked for other, wealthier thieves, employers who provided the exotic software required to penetrate the bright walls of corporate systems, opening windows into rich fields of data.
He’d made the classic mistake, the one he’d sworn he’d never make. He stole from his employers. He kept something for himself and tried to move it through a fence in Amsterdam. He still wasn’t sure how he’d been discovered, not that it mattered now. He’d expected to die, then, but they only smiled. Of course he was welcome, they told him, welcome to the money. And he was going to need it. Because––still smiling––they were going to make sure he never worked again.
They damaged his nervous system with a wartime Russian mycotoxin.
Strapped to a bed in a Memphis hotel, his talent burning out micron by micron, he hallucinated for thirty hours.
The damage was minute, subtle, and utterly effective.
For Case, who’d lived for the bodiless exultation of cyberspace, it was the Fall. In the bars he’d frequented as a cowboy hotshot, the elite stance involved a certain relaxed contempt for the flesh. The body was meat. Case fell into the prison of his own flesh.
His total assets were quickly converted to New Yen, a fat sheaf of the old paper currency that circulated endlessly through the closed circuit of the world’s black markets like the seashells of the Trobriand islanders. It was difficult to transact legitimate business with cash in the Sprawl; in Japan, it was already illegal.
In Japan, he’d known with a clenched and absolute certainty, he’d find his cure. In Chiba. Either in a registered clinic or in the shadowland of black medicine. Synonymous with implants, nerve-splicing, and microbionics, Chiba was a magnet for the Sprawl’s techno-criminal subcultures.
In Chiba, he’d watched his New Yen vanish in a two-month round of examinations and consultations. The men in the black clinics, his last hope, had admired the expertise with which he’d been maimed, and then slowly shaken their heads.
Now he slept in the cheapest coffins, the ones nearest the port, beneath the quartz-halogen floods that lit the docks all night like vast stages; where you couldn’t see the lights of Tokyo for the glare of the television sky, not even the towering hologram logo of the Fuji Electric Company, and Tokyo Bay was a black expanse where gulls wheeled above drifting shoals of white styrofoam. Behind the port lay the city, factory domes dominated by the vast cubes of corporate arcologies. Port and city were divided by a narrow borderland of older streets, an area with no official name. Night City, with Ninsei its heart. By day, the bars down Ninsei were shuttered and featureless, the neon dead, the holograms inert, waiting, under the poisoned silver sky.
Two blocks west of the Chat, in a teashop called the Jarre de The, Case washed down the night’s first pill with a double espresso. It was a flat pink octagon, a potent species of Brazilian dex he bought from one of Zone’s girls.
The Jarre was walled with mirrors, each panel framed in red neon.
At first, finding himself alone in Chiba, with little money and less hope of finding a cure, he’d gone into a kind of terminal overdrive, hustling fresh capital with a cold intensity that had seemed to belong to someone else. In the first month, he’d killed two men and a woman over sums that a year before would have seemed ludicrous. Ninsei wore him down until the street itself came to seem the externalization of some death wish, some secret poison he hadn’t known he carried.
Night City was like a deranged experiment in social Darwinism, designed by a bored researcher who kept one thumb permanently on the fast-forward button. Stop hustling and you sank without a trace, but move a little too swiftly and you’d break the fragile surface tension of the black market; either way, you were gone, with nothing left of you but some vague memory in the mind of a fixture like Ratz, though heart or lungs or kidneys might survive in the service of some stranger with New Yen for the clinic tanks.
Biz here was a constant subliminal hum, and death the accepted punishment for laziness, carelessness, lack of grace, the failure to heed the demands of an intricate protocol.
Alone at a table in the Jarre de The, with the octagon coming on, pinheads of sweat starting from his palms, suddenly aware of each tingling hair on his arms and chest, Case knew that at some point he’d started to play a game with himself, a very ancient one that has no name, a final solitaire. He no longer carried a weapon, no longer took the basic precautions. He ran the fastest, loosest deals on the street, and he had a reputation for being able to get whatever you wanted. A part of him knew that the arc of his self-destruction was glaringly obvious to his customers, who grew steadily fewer, but that same part of him basked in the knowledge that it was only a matter of time. And that was the part of him, smug in its expectation of death, that most hated the thought of Linda Lee.
He’d found her, one rainy night, in an arcade.
Under bright ghosts burning through a blue haze of cigarette smoke, holograms of Wizard’s Castle, Tank War Europa, the New York skyline....And now he remembered her that way, her face bathed in restless laser light, features reduced to a code: her cheekbones flaring scarlet as Wizard’s Castle burned, forehead drenched with azure when Munich fell to the Tank War, mouth touched with hot gold as a gliding cursor struck sparks from the wall of a skyscraper canyon. He was riding high that night, with a brick of Wage’s ketamine on its way to Yokohama and the money already in his pocket. He’d come in out of the warm rain that sizzled across the Ninsei pavement and somehow she’d been singled out for him, one face out of the dozens who stood at the consoles, lost in the game she played. The expression on her face, then, had been the one he’d seen, hours later, on her sleeping face in a portside coffin, her upper lip like the line children draw to represent a bird in flight.
Crossing the arcade to stand beside her, high on the deal he’d made, he saw her glance up. Gray eyes rimmed with smudged black paintstick. Eyes of some animal pinned in the headlights of an oncoming vehicle.
Their night together stretching into a morning, into tickets at the hoverport and his first trip across the Bay. The rain kept up, falling along Harajuku, beading on her plastic jacket, the children of Tokyo trooping past the famous boutiques in white loafers and clingwrap capes, until she’d stood with him in the midnight clatter of a pachinko parlor and held his hand like a child.
It took a month for the gestalt of drugs and tension he moved through to turn those perpetually startled eyes into wells of reflexive need. He’d watched her personality fragment, calving like an iceberg, splinters drifting away, and finally he’d seen the raw need, the hungry armature of addiction. He’d watched her track the next hit with a concentration that reminded him of the mantises they sold in stalls along Shiga, beside tanks of blue mutant carp and crickets caged in bamboo.
He stared at the black ring of grounds in his empty cup. It was vibrating with the speed he’d taken. The brown laminate of the tabletop was dull with a patina of tiny scratches. With the dex mounting through his spine he saw the countless random impacts required to create a surface like that. The Jarre was decorated in a dated, nameless style from the previous century, an uneasy blend of Japanese traditional and pale Milanese plastics, but everything seemed to wear a subtle film, as though the bad nerves of a million customers had somehow attacked the mirrors and the once glossy plastics, leaving each surface fogged with something that could never be wiped away.
“Hey. Case, good buddy....”
He looked up, met gray eyes ringed with paintstick. She was wearing faded French orbital fatigues and new white sneakers.
“I been lookin’ for you, man.” She took a seat opposite him, her elbows on the table. The sleeves of the blue zipsuit had been ripped out at the shoulders; he automatically checked her arms for signs of derms or the needle. “Want a cigarette?”
She dug a crumpled pack of Yeheyuan filters from an ankle pocket and offered him one. He took it, let her light it with a red plastic tube. “You sleepin’ okay, Case? You look tired.” Her accent put her south along the Sprawl, toward Atlanta. The skin below her eyes was pale and unhealthy-looking, but the flesh was still smooth and firm. She was twenty. New lines of pain were starting to etch themselves permanently at the corners of her mouth. Her dark hair was drawn back, held by a band of printed silk. The pattern might have represented microcircuits, or a city map.
“Not if I remember to take my pills,” he said, as a tangible wave of longing hit him, lust and loneliness riding in on the wavelength of amphetamine. He remembered the smell of her skin in the overheated darkness of a coffin near the port, her fingers locked across the small of his back.
All the meat, he thought, and all it wants.
“Wage,” she said, narrowing her eyes. “He wants to see you with a hole in your face.” She lit her own cigarette.
“Who says? Ratz? You been talking to Ratz?”
“No. Mona. Her new squeeze is one of Wage’s boys.”
“I don’t owe him enough. He does me, he’s out the money anyway.” He shrugged.
“Too many people owe him now, Case. Maybe you get to be the example. You seriously better watch it.”
“Sure. How about you, Linda? You got anywhere to sleep?”
“Sleep.” She shook her head. “Sure, Case.” She shivered, hunched forward over the table. Her face was filmed with sweat.
“Here,” he said, and dug in the pocket of his windbreaker, coming up with a crumpled fifty. He smoothed it automatically, under the table, folded it in quarters, and passed it to her.
“You need that, honey. You better give it to Wage.” There was something in the gray eyes now that he couldn’t read, something he’d never seen there before.
“I owe Wage a lot more than that. Take it. I got more coming,” he lied, as he watched his New Yen vanish into a zippered pocket.
“You get your money, Case, you find Wage quick.”
“I’ll see you, Linda,” he said, getting up.
“Sure.” A millimeter of white showed beneath each of her pupils. Sanpaku. “You watch your back, man.”
He nodded, anxious to be gone.
He looked back as the plastic door swung shut behind him, saw her eyes reflected in a cage of red neon.