William Gibson never meant to become the leader of a movement. But with the publication of Neuromancer in 1984, he had that role foisted upon him. If you were at all active in SF in the mid-eighties, then all you heard was cyberpunk this and cyberpunk that. There was a feeling — actively encouraged by most of the writers who were participants — that a new, zeitgeist-altering moment was at hand, and SF was finally going to undergo its first meaningful literary revolution since the New Wave struck at the end of the sixties.
Into all of this hype — for hype it largely was — was thrust the unassuming figure of Gibson. I remember interviewing him for my fanzine at ArmadilloCon back in 1986, and while he was friendly and gregarious, there was also a hint of shyness and modesty to his personality (in this, he was kind of the anti-Sterling), and a very real bewilderment at what was taking place all around him. "You'll notice I sit in on these panels," he told me, "but I don't say very much." It was true. At that con's inevitable cyberpunk panel, I distinctly remember Gibson — quiet, thin, bespectacled — sitting off to the far right of the table while guys like Bruce Sterling and John Shirley held forth on how what they were writing was the real cutting-edge stuff that everyone should be reading instead of crap like Piers Anthony. Which may have been true, but still self-aggrandizing, and Gibson wasn't into that. He sat up there, yet managed to remain aloof from the proceedings, a detached observer, quietly amused if not bemused. Cyberpunk was, in the memorable term coined by the British music press to refer to shoegazer pop, "the scene that celebrated itself." I think Gibson just wanted to write cool books.
In retrospect the modesty is understandable, because stripped of the hype, the multi-award-winning Neuromancer is — in addition to being the book that launched a thousand manga — a fairly modest story. That its protagonist, Case, is described as a console "cowboy" is no coincidence. Gibson is working within well-worn tropes here. Case is the classic thousand-faced hero, the loner of a million westerns who doesn't come looking for trouble even though trouble has a knack for finding him. His story, in turn, is the Hero's Journey dressed out in techno-chic. Over 20 years later, yes, Neuromancer's capacity to totally blow you away, dude, has dimmed somewhat. It is still an entertaining story to read, and one can see how Gibson's approach certainly had what it took to awaken a fairly stodgy genre from whatever publishing torpor it was in at the time. But one gets the feeling one is reading a dated artifact of a particular moment in SF's past. You appreciate Neuromancer not so much for what it does for you now, but because it paved the way for later (and to be blunt, better) authors like Charlie Stross, Greg Egan, and the rest who helped to refresh hard SF starting in the nineties.
Gibson didn't invent a whole lot in Neuromancer, but his masterstroke was in the delivery. Gibson simply turned everything up to "11". The seedy, run-down landscape of the Sprawl has already become the most overused cliché in SF since warp drive. But at the time, thanks to both this book and Blade Runner, it was gloriously new and a welcome riposte to the spotless and squeaky-clean steel and glass futures, inhabited by people who apparently never so much as shed skin cells, presented in media SF like Star Trek. (During our interview, Gibson mentioned going to see Blade Runner while working on Neuromancer's early drafts and coming very close to binning the book as a result, fearing accusations of ripoffery.) Gibson also knew that pacing was key. The story has a forward momentum that, at least in the early chapters, allows for no indulgent digressions. Finally, Gibson's language sparkled with moments of sheer visual poetry, adding a texture to the story that made his information-age future all the more real. We'd never really had an SF author talk about "the music of the street" before, or allow us the visualization of the inner workings of a computer matrix as literal landscapes in the way Gibson did. In even the most ruthless techno-future, Gibson found the artistry within the circuitry.
In re-reading Neuromancer for the first time since 1984, I admired how the story helped usher in a trope soon to become popular, the notion of the information future where corporations rather than governments run the show. And while today's internets ain't nothing like Gibson's cyberspace, I'm still delighted that he gave the English language that word. On the downside, I found passages, especially towards the end, that felt pretentious and that actually managed to drag the pacing down when it most needed to be racing. And often I found Gibson's style getting in the way. Right when I most wanted him to just get to the point, he'd jump into obscurantism with both feet. The kind of narrative Neuromancer has — involving Case's unwitting involvement in a labyrinthine plot to hack the security surrounding a massive orbital AI, which appears to be instigated by the AI itself — is naturally prone to confusion and murkiness. But while Gibson does manage to keep most of the book's twists and turns both sufficiently easy and entertaining to follow, it's not a wholly smooth ride either. (He'd improve markedly in his next story, Count Zero.)
Unlike other books of the period that have attained classic status — Card's Ender's Game for one — Neuromancer is not universally accessible, and your appreciation of it will be entirely a matter of taste. Still, there are probably a good half-dozen SF writers you're reading right now who might well not be where they are today were it not for the klaxon that was sounded by Gibson and the cyberpunks back in the day. And for that, Neuromancer has earned its pride of place in SF's history.