Neuromancer by William Gibson, book of a lifetime: An intricate and forgettable plot

Author Ken Macleod was transfixed by Gibson's book from the first sentence

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The Independent Culture

Between the ages of 12 and 20, I doubt I read by choice one work of fiction that wasn't science fiction. This gave me the ambition to become a scientist. In my 20s my reading became belatedly wider, and more discriminating. I failed to become a scientist and drifted into clerical work. I must have been one of the last despatch clerks to hack out endless, repetitive invoices on a typewriter. The office was being computerised just before I left to train – like many a failed scientist in the mid-1980s – as a programmer.

My first IT job was at London Electricity's HQ in Holborn. It was the only place I'd ever worked where most of my colleagues read science fiction. Battered paperbacks circulated around the department like summer colds. Most, I could take or leave. Apart from Ursula Le Guin's The Dispossessed, and the manuscripts of Iain Banks's then unpublished SF novels, I hadn't read a new work of SF that thrilled and moved me for years. But in Interzone, Britain's then upstart, now established, SF magazine, I came across an interview with a new writer: William Gibson. This looked interesting.

I got Neuromancer (1984) out of the library and was transfixed from the first sentence: "The sky above the port was the colour of television, tuned to a dead channel." It's one of the great opening lines, up there with "It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen." Gibson's prose was threaded with throwaway lines like that: evocative, knowing, sidelong. The plot was intricate and forgettable – like the pilot episode of a "tax-loss mini-series" as SF critic John Clute wrote at the time – and in several re-readings I've never quite followed its every twist and turn, but that didn't matter. You were along for the rollercoaster ride and the vertiginous views.

Above all, Neuromancer was projected from, and reflected back on, the world I lived and worked in. In those days we programmed mainframes. Desktop screens were cathode ray terminals like televisions, back when televisions had the bulk of furniture, their displays green-on-black and text-only. But programmers already thought about their work in visual, visceral ways that Gibson's invented cyberspace gave shape to. SF resonates in the real world when it gives us a metaphor for the mundane. Neuromancer gave me a conviction that by writing science fiction I could say something about, and to, the wonderful world of today.

Ken Macleod's latest book, 'Descent', is out in paperback (£8.99)