I’m orchestrating a study group for advanced readers at the local high school. I’ve encouraged them to tackle Gibson’s famous Neuromancer, and when we’re done with that we’re going on to Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep. (There are plenty of reasons to put the two texts side by side, so to speak. I’ll leave it as an exercise for the reader to discover them.)
Now, Neuromancer is a challenging work on a lot of levels, and it includes some very adult themes. My position, of course, is that advanced readers in the mid-teen range should be encouraged to address these ideas, and to do so in a thoughtful, critical manner in a supportive intellectual environment.
The school has sent home permission-slip notes to ensure that parents are comfortable with the book. By and large, it’s been a non-issue. One parent, however, has (rather puzzlingly to my way of thinking) asked for “logical reasons” why the book should be studied.
Well… my instant reaction is: hey, they study Catcher In The Rye, which has themes that are just as touchy — but Catcher is far less engaging, much less interesting, and to my way of thinking not as strongly written as Neuromancer. But the student whose parent posed the question asked me if I could write some kind of a letter.
I figured I could. So — here’s my note explaining why Neuromancer is (logically) a worthy topic of study at the high school level. I’d be grateful for any comments.
Reading, discussing, and responding to books is a major part of the standard high-school English curriculum. Books have been an enormous and irreplaceable part of our culture for hundreds of years, and despite advances in digital technology and alternative media, books don’t appear to be going away any time soon.
One of the big problems that schools face, however, is that not all students enjoy the same material; nor do they all read at the same level. This is an issue because the goals of interacting with a book include:
- Improving vocabulary
- Improving reading and comprehension
- Improving communication skills, both verbal and written
- Improving critical thinking through discussion
- Exposure to challenging themes and ideas
- Exposure to alternative constructions of social issues
Obviously, a text which will reach a moderate-level reader will provide few challenges for a reader who is better equipped. This means that the standard classroom model, in which an age-cohort group reads a single novel as part of the class curriculum, doesn’t really do much for either the more skilled readers, or those with less interest in reading.
Schools address this problem in different ways. Typically, they try to choose a range of ‘classic’ texts which will hopefully have sufficient depth to challenge the better readers, and they supplement these texts with more popular works which may engage the interest of students less motivated to read. (Scottsdale High School is currently looking at “The Hunger Games” as one of their texts for precisely this reason.)
This approach doesn’t offer as much value to high-end readers as it might seem. Popular texts are usually not particularly challenging. On the other hand, “classic” texts are frequently rather dull reading for younger people. There is, however, a smaller list of books which are both engaging and entertaining to read as well as being powerful, challenging texts with complex, thought-provoking language. Ordinarily it’s difficult for schools to reference such books because as they are not part of the regular curriculum, there are few easily-obtained resources for a busy teacher to utilise in dissecting and discussing the texts. Despite this, such books represent a remarkable opportunity for school-age readers because by virtue of being interesting and exciting stories they draw the readers in and encourage them to enjoy the work, while still being exposed to an array of complex ideas and powerful language techniques.
William Gibson’s novel Neuromancer, published in 1984, is precisely such a novel. An impressive bestseller, the work has remained popular long after its publication because it is far more than a simple science fiction novel. In point of fact the book was a driving force in establishing a new genre of science fiction which came to be known as ‘cyberpunk’, and by virtue of its themes and its powerful literary style forced a landmark change in the way science fiction itself was perceived.
Gibson readily admits to drawing on and being influenced by the crime novels of the first half of the 20th century, in particular the works of Raymond Chandler. (It’s worth mentioning that the next novel to be addressed by this study group will be Raymond Chandler’s most famous work, The Big Sleep. Students will be discussing links between the two works in terms of themes, style, and historical position.) As a result, Neuromancer is a forceful, vivid work that broke the contemporary traditions of science fiction by representing the influences of technology at street level — and below.
Summing up the importance of Neuromancer as a modern novel is not easy. It is a complex work. The language itself is stylish and vivid, reminiscent of the almost poetic approach of Raymond Chandler, but the ideas and themes are at the cutting edge of the modern world. In its depiction of “cyberspace” (a term which Gibson himself created, now well entrenched in popular language), Neuromancer created an idea of ‘virtual reality’ which has literally changed the world as we know it. It is impossible to say just how many computer companies, working both in software and hardware, were influenced by Gibson’s clear and vivid vision. Projects such as Oculus Rift and Google Glass are only now beginning to explore the simpler aspects of Gibson’s ideas, but the effect of the novel on the development of computer technology since the early 1980s has been, and continues to be, profound. Evidence of this is easily found all over the Internet: entering the novel’s title alongside the word ‘technology’ in Google Search offers over 182,000 separate hits.
Aside from the book’s remarkable influence on modern technology (and hence modern society) it is also a broadly recognised work of exceptional literary standing. It is the first book ever to receive the Hugo, the Nebula, and the Phillip K Dick awards together. TIME magazine refers to it as one of the 100 most important novels of the 20th century. (“Violent, visceral and visionary (there’s no other word for it), Neuromancer proved, not for the first or last time, that science fiction is more than a mass-market paperback genre, it’s a crucial tool by which an age shaped by and obsessed with technology can understand itself.” — Lev Grossman, TIME Magazine.) The fusion of technology, powerful human themes and vivid language makes it at once compelling to read, and intellectually confronting, a combination which is extremely rare.
In terms of themes and ideas which are relevant to modern readers, ideas which are important to Neuromancer include:
- questions of technology and society versus the environment; mass extinction of large animals (including horses) and heavy urbanisation are features of the work
- questions of human identity: what does it mean when a human mind can be copied and replicated in a cybernetic environment
- questions of human-ness and intelligence: how might an artificial consciousness manifest itself? What would it want? How would we interact with it?
- questions of economics and crime: in a crowded, corporate-driven world, how do individuals survive?
- questions of politics: when corporations and financial institutions have more power than nations, who ensures rule of law? What laws would those be?
- questions of human nature: Neuromancer confronts issues of drug use, criminal, systematised violence, and the commodification of human emotions, including love
Any and all of the assertions made here can easily be confirmed by a brief investigation on the Internet. A simple list of statements such as this is open to question, and I would encourage anyone who is interested in the work to look further, and discover for themselves the truth of what has been written here. Of course, the very best way to discover the truth about this wholly remarkable book is simply to read it — to read it, and then to discuss and respond to it, preferably with a group of people who can help by asking questions, offering critical insight and learning about the novel and about themselves as they go.
The opportunity to read and interact with a book as powerful, as thoughtful, as complex and as engaging as Neuromancer is not one to be missed. The book is not on the regular school curriculum, but that has nothing to do with the quality of the book as a work of literature, and everything to do with the way school classes are organised by age-cohort, and moderated by a need to offer a ‘safe’, conservative structure to deflect criticism from groups which have in the past objected on social grounds to a range of works from authors including James Joyce, D H Lawrence, and even William Shakespeare.
Put simply: Neuromancer is a once-in-a-generation book, and it represents a rare chance for skilled readers to expand their understanding of themselves and the world about them in ways which are usually just not available through the school system. It is a book that anyone who lives in the 21st century, surrounded by computers, the Internet, mobile telephones, corporations, environmental problems and energy shortages should read at the earliest possible opportunity.