#12 – Neuromancer Review – William Gibson

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Neuromancer is another one of those novels that I didn’t appreciate fully the first time I read it. While I clearly remember the ideas and characters being fascinating, I had a hard time deciphering the dense technical language and computer slang that colored most of the dialogue. Maybe it’s the fact that I’m not much of a computer hacker myself (just a lowly humanities loving English-major), but the fact that a lot of the novel takes place in the nebulous realm of “Cyberspace” (a term coined by Gibson himself) made it difficult for me picture the action that was being described. But regardless of my inability to “break the code” of the novel, I still recommend it for anyone who likes their science fiction gritty, dystopic and seeped in the culture and conventions of computer hacking.

Released in 1984, Neuromancer is probably the most famous “Cyper-Punk” novel of all time. Gibson’s masterpiece features all of the conventions of the genre, including a marginalized computer hacker for a hero, a bleak future landscape of mega-corporations and crime infested slums, vast connected data networks that can interface directly with the human brain and the tone of a hard-boiled film noir. While it wasn’t the first to use these elements, it was the first to breakthrough and become a mainstream success, winning the “Triple Crown” of science fiction awards: The Nebula, the Hugo and the Philip K. Dick Awards.

Neuromancer Summary: The novel focuses on disgraced computer hacker Henry Dorsett Case who has been poisoned by his former employer and rendered unable to interface with the global computer network. In exchange for a cure for the poison (and the ability to work again), Case agrees to help a shadowy ex-military officer named Armitage perform a particularly difficult hack. With the help of the beautifully lethal mercenary Molly Millions, Case sets out to uncover the mystery behind his new employer and the true nature of the work that he is being asked to do.

While the sub-genre of Cyber-Punk may not be my favorite, I can certainly appreciate a well told story with unfamiliar elements. Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash (#24 on this list) is another cyper-punk styled novel that I enjoyed immensely. And although it may not have resonated with me as much as some of the other novels on this list, I have to admit that Neuromancer is still one of the most thoroughly unique and ambitious books I’ve ever read.

Neuromancer Quotes: “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 he’d still see the matrix in his sleep, bright lattices of logic unfolding across that colorless void….”

“Cyberspace. A consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators, in every nation, by children being taught mathematical concepts… A graphic representation of data abstracted from banks of every computer in the human system. Unthinkable complexity. Lines of light ranged in the nonspace of the mind, clusters and constellations of data. Like city lights, receding…”

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September 21, 2010

#9 – I, Robot Review – Isaac Asimov

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The second book from Isaac Asimov on this list actually takes place in the same fictional universe as the first one, albeit thousands of years previous. Years before Hari Seldon starts preparing the Foundation, I, Robot shows us a time in which mankind is taking its first baby steps out into the universe with the help of intelligent robots. While these robots are able to perform tasks that no human would possibly be able to do, they also start to exhibit some unexpected behavioral and psychological tendencies that threaten to derail the use of robots altogether.

I, Robot Summary: Told primarily through the perspective of robopsychologist Dr. Susan Calvin, the book is made up of 9 separate short stories that detail the early history of robotics and the different stages of robot development. As the robots become progressively more intelligent and sophisticated, the unique peculiarities of their psychology (informed primarily by Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics) take on many different forms that their human creators are forced to deal with. The majority of these incidents occur as a result of a conflict between the laws that the robots are taught to obey and the ways in which their actions affect the humans that work with them.

I, Robot Review: While most depictions of robots in fiction up to that time had been of the “Frankenstein Complex” variety (in which a robot turns against its master), Asimov’s Robot stories offer a much more complex vision of the interactions between men and thinking machines. Because of the three laws of robotics that are programmed into every intelligent robot, complex moral ambiguities and situations begin to arise as humans are forced to ask more and more of their mechanical creations. While some of the stories do tap into our traditional fears of robots (including one in which a politician is accused of being a robot or another one in which a robot can read minds), the reasons for the robot’s dysfunction is never seen as malicious or aggressive – merely the product of a mind that is incapable of thinking outsides its pre-set parameters.

Besides creating a blueprint for all future science fiction writers (and some actual scientists) to use when dealing with robots, Asimov also gives the reader 9 effortlessly captivating detective stories in which Dr. Calvin (or the team of Powell and Donovan) are forced to play Sherlock Holmes in order to deduce the reason for a particular robot’s erratic behavior. Told with Asimov’s usual biting wit and humor, I, Robot presents a compelling (and entertaining) argument for the notion that robots are often just a morally conflicted and complex as the humans that create them.

I, Robot Movie: The recent film adaption (in name only) of I, Robot, starring Will Smith, really has absolutely nothing to do with the book it stole it’s name from. The movie uses the basic premise of man’s growing wariness and suspicion of robots and turns it into a dull, formulaic action flick with the robots as the bad guys and Smith as the hero. Any subtlety or analysis of the robot psyche is discarded in favor of silly car chases as simple, moralistic sermonizing. It’s so bad I won’t even link to it below.

The Three Laws of Robotics:

  1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
  2. A robot must obey any orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
  3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.

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