"The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel."
A 1984 noir novel by William Gibson, and Trope Codifier for an entire generation of Sci Fi stories. Neuromancer is the primary example of Cyberpunk, showcasing the cynical use of technology so characteristic of that genre. Most modern stories related to Cyber Punk, Cyber Space and related tropes can be largely traced back to this one story. It is also the first of Gibson's famous Sprawl Trilogy (followed by Count Zero and Mona Lisa Overdrive).Henry Dorsett Case was a "console cowboy", a hacker for hire in the dystopian future city of Chiba, Japan. During a job, his employer caught him stealing, and retaliated with a mycotoxin that destroyed his ability to jack into the matrix (not that Matrix). Now, he's a useless waste of space on a self-destructive course — until a mysterious Street Samurai by the name of Molly shows up to hire him for one more job.Molly turns out to have some of her own skeletons in the closet, and her own backstory intertwines with Case's disjointed adventure of drugs, self-destruction, hazy sex, virtual reality, Techno Babble and really cool ninja fight scenes.Neuromancer has been compared to impressionist Beat poetry. When it first came out, very little of the lingo used in the narration made sense to the target audience. The fact that it's somewhat easier for a modern day reader is solely because fiction writers and scientists alike started using Gibson's words for actual things. (Jerry Holkins once aptly described it as "a book that travelled back in time of its own accord, a book written for people in the future in their own Goddamn language".) Although the novel foregoes characterization in favor of Scenery Porn and gratuitous sex scenes — a view acknowledged, and ultimately shared, by Gibson — it succeeded at building an impressively intricate world, and coining much of modern Sci Fi's vocabulary.
Action Duo: Molly and Case, although moreso her than him.
Action Girlfriend: Molly. Unlike most boyfriends in this trope, Case isn't totally helpless or any sort of naïf.
Molly, a Street Samurai of the "razorgirl" variety. She has mirrored lenses surgically implanted over her eyes that allow her to see in the dark. She is incapable of crying since her tear ducts were re-routed into her mouth. Crying for Molly means spitting, which actually tells you a lot about her. She has cybernetically-enhanced reflexes, retractable double-edged scalpel blades under her fingernails, and is a deadly shot with a flechette-pistol firing poison or explosive darts. Surprisingly she spends most of the novel's climax in an improvised hospital bed.
Beige Prose: Very much part of the style and very much keeps the book sharp and focused. The only details that you get are ones that build the characters and the limited parts of the world they inhabit. The narration is as bleak and cynical as the characters, and occasionally just point blank refuses to elaborate on anything outside the plot. This kind of use has shades of Chekhov's Gun about it, since almost anything that the narration lands on for more than a few seconds is going to be important on some level.
Big Eater: Molly, who is more frequently described eating (even if it's only quick snacks) than the other characters, and at one point even eats Case's dinner on top of hers when he's too hung over to enjoy it. Presumably those jacked-up reflexes cranked up her metabolism too.
Bondage Is Bad: Riviera has elements of this, actually betraying his lovers in horrific ways instead of finding more ethical ways to get off. (see Chronic Backstabbing Disorder below). Molly's experience as a meat puppet prostitute plays the trope straight.
Also one of Neuromancer's main purposes, although his/its ability to accurately store memories and personality is so comprehensive as to make "Dixie" look like nothing by comparison — so much so that he/it fruitlessly insists to Case that "To live here is to live. There is no difference."
Break Out the Museum Piece: Maelcum is a peaceful Rastafarian, but keeps an ancient shotgun behind a hidden panel in his ship anyway, which he takes to confront Riviera and Lady 3Jane.
Molly encounters a mechanical lock in Straylight. While Wintermute is able to hack into electronic locks, it can't defeat this.
Bring News Back: Subverted. Armitage believes he has to do this before he dies, but this is due to his Sanity Slippage and regressing into his old persona of Corto.
The Caper: Case is originally recruited to participate in a caper, but it is only the tip of the iceberg.
Catch Phrase: Molly's "It's just the way I'm wired", her explanation for her motivations.
Averted with the shuriken Molly gives Case. Symbolic, but not plotworthy.
Riviera's holoprojector implant. When explained to the gang, the Finn notes immediately how easy it would also be to burn somebody's eyes out with a concentrated laser pulse from the projector. Riviera uses exactly this function on Hideo at the end, only to discover that Hideo is quite adept at hunting in the dark.
Subverted by the Cobra collapsing baton that Case buys when he's being shadowed by Molly. The weapon receives an exotic name and a detailed description, but a few pages later Case throws it in the trash.
The new drug that Case buys from Cath and Bruce, capable of bypassing his modified pancreas and liver, later helps keep him from being flatlined by Neuromancer.
"Motive," the construct said. "Real motive problem, with an AI. Not human, see?"
"Well yeah, obviously."
"Nope. I mean it's not human. And you can't get a handle on it. Me, I'm not human either, but I respond like one, see?"
"Wait a sec," Case said. "Are you sentient, or not?"
"Well, it feels like I am, kid, but I'm really just a bunch of ROM. It's one of them, ah, philosophical questions, I guess...." The ugly laughter sensation rattled down Case's spine. "But I ain't likely to write you no poem, if you follow me. Your AI, it just might. But it ain't no way human."
It makes sense that as a ROM construct, Dixie can't really learn or create (it's shown earlier that his memory wipes back to its default state when he's turned off and back on). In fact, his predictability is why Neuromancer tries to take out Case first.
Creepy Child: Neuromancer's form in his private cyberspace realm.
Crippling the Competition: In the backstory, the main character was a hacker who was caught stealing and punished by being given a treatment that destroyed his ability to interface with the matrix.
Cruel and Unusual Death: Graphic violence is sparse in the novel, but it is present. Most notable is when Wintermute murders the Turing police officers with a gardening robot and a microlight, which causes Case to puke everywhere.
Dark and Troubled Past: Nearly every character. Case is a burned-out drug addict and washed-up former hacker whose girlfriend was murdered by gangsters; Molly is a former prostitute who was abused and who grew up in poverty (whose boyfriend was murdered by gangsters); Armitage was a high-ranking army officer who participated in a catastrophically failed raid on the Soviet Union, and so on.
Death Seeker: Case, to begin with. One interpretation is this is what Case is after during the climax of the novel and why he is so powerful during his run. Also, the Dixie Flatline's life as a construct is implied to be a hollow, chilly experience, which is why he asks to be erased after the job is done.
Decoy Hiding Place: When Molly is pursuing Case in Chiba, Case pulls a scene right out of a noir detective novel: racing into a videogame parlour, he runs upstairs and kicks open a locked door. He then sneaks into a nearby open room and readies his weapon.
Divided States of America: In the novel's backstory, America no longer exists, but has fragmented in several smaller states. The Sprawl consists of the heavily populated and industrialized eastern seaboard.
Do Not Adjust Your Set: Wintermute does this to Case, appearing on monitors and generally creeping him out whenever he wants to talk to him.
Dude, She's Like in a Coma: A special service at a brothel Molly used to work at, where prostitutes are in comas and mechanically controlled like puppets by a computer. Riviera does a performance piece based on how her tenure as a meat puppet went horribly wrong. The service is first described in "Burning Chrome."
EMP: The Russian military protects their AIs with EMP weapons, which destroyed the unit of Colonel Willis Corto (Armitage). Also, EMP bombs are built into all AIs: in case of rampant self-extention, break glass.
Empty Shell: Armitage, to some extent. He sets up the job with efficiency and skill, but according to Molly, he just sits down and stares at the wall when he is not working.
Hold the explosives. Armitage has several sacs of poison implanted in Case's blood vessels - the same poison that was first used to cripple him. Unless Case completes the mission in time, those sacs will dissolve and he will again lose his ability to jack into cyberspace.
Every AI has a built-in EMP bomb set to go off the nanosecond they attempt to figure out how to become smarter. The team's mission turns into an attempt to break Wintermute free of its programming constraints without triggering the bomb.
The Finn mentions a "cortical bomb" when scanning Molly and Case for non-biological implants (he can't do biological scans).
Extreme Graphical Representation: In cyberspace. Programs appear as brightly coloured geometric shapes, and viruses are shown as literally penetrating layers of security. As well, everything seems to be 3D.
Fantastic Drug: Case starts out addicted to various drugs, including cocaine and amphetamines. Armitage has his liver and pancreas modified so that they will no longer affect him, but while on Freeside, he is introduced to a new drug that can bypass those organs.
A Form You Are Comfortable With: Not having much of a personality of his/its own, Wintermute assumes the identity and, to some extent, the personality of people from the protagonists' pasts in order to interact with them.
Freudian Excuse: It's implied that Riviera's overall monstrousness is a result of his horrific childhood in the ruined remnants of Bonn.
Future Slang: All over the place, eg. "deck" for computer, "ice" for cybersecurity and so on.
As noted in the introduction, a very unique case: The people building the future liked the slang and used it wholesale, resulting in a book that sounds more understandable today than when it was published.
General Ripper: Armitage served under one in Russia. Later, when he begins to go insane, he also starts acting like one himself.
Hollywood Cyborg: Molly. How the heck does she store four-centimeter-long blades inside her fingers?
Fridge Brilliance: In Mona Lisa Overdrive, Molly (going by the name "Sally Shears")'s long, bright red fingernails are commented on as odd and unfashionable. Since 4cm is about 1.5 inches, she probably has about half the distance of the blade in the tip of a finger— and half sheathed under the fingernail.
Hollywood Hacking: Co-Trope Maker with WarGames. William Gibson is a prose poet with very little technical experience of computers. The absence of concrete details has prevented much of his work from dating.
Human Popsicle: The Tessier-Ashpools freeze themselves cryogenically for long periods of time, so appearing to be immortal.
Idle Rich: Marie-France's original plan takes this to extremes. They wouldn't even have to think for themselves, their AIs would do their thinking for them.
I Have Many Names: Both Molly and Armitage go by aliases. Armitage is actually Willis Corto.
I'm a Humanitarian: One of the nightmarish images that Riviera projects is of a gang of cannibalistic children in Bonn eating a human corpse.
Immune to Drugs: Case's failing liver is altered to make him incapable of metabolizing cocaine or amphetamines. It is one way to cure an addiction. However, he can still take drugs that go directly to the brain, which he inevitably does.
It Is Pronounced Tro PAY: Case, having never heard a word of Armenian before going to Istanbul, mispronounces Terzibashjian's name as "Jersey Bastion."
It's Personal: Case's motives for helping Molly and Armitage — cracking the T.A. construct, and finding out who killed Linda Lee.
Which was exactly Wintermute's plan - it used detailed psychological profiles to select agents that would have personal motives for doing what it wanted them too.
Japan Takes Over the World: Japanese culture and economy seem to dominate the world. The international currency is the New Yen, and massive Japanese corporations rule the marketplace. The Yakuza are an international power. Popular culture oozes with Japanese influence, from noodle shops to "Street Samurai."
Japanese Tourist: Several of these folks pop up in the background in the Sprawl.
Negated Moment of Awesome: Tough luck about that broken leg, Molly. Since she never really got time to mend, and the walk through the Tessier-Ashpool mansion is unexpectedly long, it collapses just as she faces off with Peter Riviera.
Neural Implanting: Quite possibly the Trope Maker. Chips called "microsofts" can be inserted into skull jacks which act as memory extensions and a quick way to learn new skills.
The Not So Harmless Punishment: In Case's backstory, his former employers let him keep the money he stole from them... because he would need every cent after their brand of retribution damages his nervous system, leaving him unable to access the matrix (and therefore unemployable). He burns through it in a hurry trying to find a cure.
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.
Pretty in Mink: Justified. Furs are grown from tissue, possibly because some animals were driven to extinction by a combination of pandemic disease and environmental degradation. Although cloning furs is a good way to avert Fur and Loathing it is doubtful this hard world has any such concerns.
"Operation Screaming Fist" arguably counts as one. With all the tantalizing references to it, it seems like it will be crucial to the mission in some way. As it turns out, the only important thing about it is that it drove Armitage/Willis Corto insane, allowing Wintermute to use him as a puppet and create the illusion that he was in control.
The shuriken that Molly buys for Case seems like it will be a Chekhov's Gun, but he never uses it. Case even lampshades this himself when he throws it at the TV before leaving his hotel room for the last time.
Sunglasses at Night: Molly. To be fair, they are permanently attached to her face, and as it's later revealed, don't actually dim light at all.
Technology Marches On: Gibson wrote most of his early works on a typewriter. A copy of Neuromancer printed in 1994 includes an afterword by the author on that subject. Included in the afterword is a reminder to his modern readers that the typewriter was the high-tech whizbang of the day. In 1981, the hottest computer on the mass market was the Apple II (not even the IIe, yet), and that cost a bundle.
Case starts out trying to sell "three megabytes of hot RAM" in a world where Brain Computer Interfaces are commonplace. At the time the novel was written, the Apple II came with 64 kilobytes of RAM. It is possible that it was the contents of the RAM that was really important, but this possibility isn't even suggested until much later in the book, and even then would only make slightly more sense to a modern audience.
The book famously begins by likening the colour of the sky to that of a television tuned to a dead station. This originally conveyed a gray, dreary day, the colour of analogue static; nowadays, most TV sets default, ironically, to a blue screen when there isn't a channel or anything to display.
This was referenced in Neil Gaiman's novel Neverwhere, which opens with, "The sky was the perfect blue of a television, turned to a dead channel."
One scene takes place in an arcade, which have gone the way of the dodo with the rise of home video game consoles.
VoIP apparently doesn't exist, and the only way to call someone from an airport is a bank of pay phones.
More recent editions include an introduction by Gibson apologizing for his failure to foresee the rise in cellular technology.
Ironically, as Augmented Reality becomes closer to fruition, the less likely it is that it will look anything like Gibson's vision of cyberspace. Most computers are also much smaller and lighter than Case's Hosaka (although possibly not more powerful yet).
Terrorists Without a Cause: The Panther Moderns, who have no agenda aside from some weird, postmodern statement on terrorism as reason for their devastating pranks.
Two-Keyed Lock: Lady 3Jane has to say a password in a special room, locked by a physical key forgotten to everyone except Wintermute, at the same time as Case breaks protections in cyberspace to remove the Restraining Bolt on Wintermute.
The Unreveal: Even when her Cool Shades are broken, the readers never discover the color of Molly's eyes. Also, the readers (and possibly Case) never learn the code word that frees the AIs.
Unusual Euphemism: "Flipping" between views in cyberspace, "jacking" into the matrix and all sorts of other techy-sounding jargon.
Used Future: A signature aspect of the Cyperpunk genre.
The novel is a part of Gibson's "Sprawl" series, which all take place in the same universe. Neuromancer contains some crossover characters:
Molly also appears in the short story "Johnny Mnemonic" going by the name Molly Millions. In Neuromancer, she reveals Johnny's ultimate fate. She is also the main character of Mona Lisa Overdrive, now going by Sally Shears.
Automatic Jack, the narrator of Gibson's short story, "Burning Chrome", is implied to have been the only other survivor of the ill-fated Operation Screaming Fist. He fared significantly better than Corto afterwards. The story's secondary protagonist, Bobby Quine, is mentioned to be one of Case's hacker mentors.
Viewers Are Geniuses: Given a choice between a ten-word, easily-understood description and a two-word description that forces the reader to stop and figure out what he means, Gibson will go with the shorter one.
Played With in that the Flatline is basically a Chinese Room - he's actually not sentient at all, he just acts like he is. Information goes in, information comes out. Because he is dead and "alive" at the same time, the Flatline wants to be deleted. He strikes up a deal with Wintermute that he will be deleted at the end of his/its scheme.
Voice with an Internet Connection: Played with. When watching Molly while jacked into his computer, Case can see her, but has no way to communicate with her. She can talk to him, however.
Waif-Fu: Molly looks like a slender young woman, but she is packed to bursting with synthetic reflexes that make her a holy terror in a fight. In an almost unheard-of departure, Molly gets badly hurt in a fight. Twice.
Whatevermancy: Actually a good use of the "mancer" suffix - a "Neuromancer" "divines information" with a "neural interface", albeit through the use of technology rather than magic. His name relates to his ability to recall dead people as software.
"Neuro from the nerves, the silver paths. Romancer. Necromancer. I call up the dead."
Working For A Body Upgrade: Case agrees to work for Armitage in exchange for being cured of the nerve-damage that prevents him from punching deck.
Molly's backstory had her "working" as a meat puppet to afford her cybernetic upgrades.
Xanatos Speed Chess: the AI Wintermute describes himself this way: "I try to plan, in your sense of the word, but that isn't my basic mode, really. I improvise. It's my greatest talent. I prefer situations to plans, you see..." The plot of the book never makes a big point of this, though: when Molly decides to take a detour and when Case gets tricked by Neuromancer into thinking he's Wintermute, he doesn't manage to stop them.
Yakuza: The most feared gang in Japan, especially their ninja assassins.
Your Mind Makes It Real: Flatlining, or being killed by ice (Intrusion Countermeasures Electronics) software while connected to cyberspace, is a very real danger for hackers. The Dixie Flatline, Case's mentor, is famous for being one of the few to survive it.