Pretty much every hacking movie you’ve ever seen, whether as elaborate as The Matrix and its sequels or as horribly bad as Swordfish, comes from this novel first published in 1984. William Gibson projected the coming of the Internet with Neuormancer, his noir-styled thriller set in cyberspace (a term he coined). Several terms from The Matrix come directly from its pages, such as “matrix” (what we now know as the Internet itself) and “jacked in.”
Neuromancer concerns Case, a former data thief whose nervous system is wrecked by his former employers so that he can’t directly interface with the matrix. He’s relegated to living in a domed slum outside of Tokyo working as an errand boy for some future underworld. Along comes Molly, she of the cybernetically enhanced eyes and fists (metal blades under the nails) and enhanced ninja skills. Molly works for a strange man named Armitage who recruits Case to do what he was born to do – go directly into the matrix and steal data. They’ll even fix his nervous system for him. Case buys in and is soon on his way to a space station run by a secretive clan of wealthy aristocrats who make the Rothschilds look like the Brady Bunch.
Along the way, it becomes apparent that Armitage is not what he appears. In fact, Armitage is a manufactured personality grafted onto a shell of a man who is a tad insane. The real employer is an enigmatic AI named Wintermute. Wintermute is smarter than most flesh-and-blood humans, one step ahead of everyone. Case is confused, though. His attack on the mainframe Wintermute wants cracked will destroy him. Or it, though Wintermute presents himself to Case as a male, preferring the image and voice of an associate of Molly’s called “the Finn.”
A bizarre novel by even today’s standards, it was very far ahead of its time when it appeared in the mid-1980’s. The only thing remotely resembling it at the time was Blade Runner, and Gibson even worried he might be seen as ripping off that movie. Indeed, the way data is depicted in this novel was almost impossible to imagine back in 1980, when Gibson first conceived of the idea.
One thing Neuromancer does is shake the cobwebs off of science fiction, cut out a lot of the fat built up by Star Wars and Star Trek and throw a lot of its stodgy and more pretentious conventions out the window. Gibson wrote a nasty noir novel involving a computing environment that barely existed back then. (The first spammer actually typed in the name of everyone on the network manually.) Gibson’s is a dirty, damaged future, dystopic to be sure, but lived in.