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 still he'd see the matrix in his sleep, bright lattices of logic unfolding across that colorless void. . . . The Sprawl was a long strange way home over the Pacific now, and he was no console man, no cyberspace cowboy. Just another hustler, trying to make it through. But the dreams came on in the Japanese night like livewire voodoo, and he'd cry for it, cry in his sleep, and wake alone in the dark, curled in his capsule in some coffin hotel, his hands clawed into the bedslab, temperfoam bunched between his fingers, trying to reach the console that wasn't there.
William Gibson, Neuromancer
Neuromancer, William Gibson's first novel, was published in 1984 to an almost ludicrous amount of critical and reader acclaim, and now stands as quite probably the most directly and indirectly influential book published in the last twenty years. It was a radical departure from traditional science fiction, both in style and content. At the time it seemed almost wholly sui generis, a whole new complicated, organic and more that a little scary universe sprung full-form from Gibson's head.
Looking back, we can see that this isn't the case, as of course it hardly could be. Gibson and the Mirrorshades Group he was a part of were followers of a loose tradition, albeit one taken in a whole new direction. A close reading of Neuromancer shows that it owes a particular debt to Samuel Delany, Raymond Chandler, Roger Zelazny, Alfred Bester, John Brunner and Phillip K. Dick, and the New Wave movement in science fiction in general. What Gibson did was not an invention out of whole cloth, but a synthesis and recombination of these influences in a new, shocking and brilliant way.
Neuromancer is the story of Case, a literally burnt-out ex-"cowboy", or hacker, who is half-blackmailed and half-bribed into doing a complicated job for an unknown party, and the weird assortment of criminals he does it with. The real protagonist might be the settings, though: the deadly hustler-based churn of Chiba City, the concrete and steel closed ecosystem of the Boston-Atlanta Metropolitan Axis, the corporate paradise of Freeside orbital, and the neon-lit ghost world of data in the matrix that Case is drawn to like a moth to flame.
Much is made of the fact that Gibson coined the term cyberspace in Neuromancer, but this is in many ways a red herring, an easily-digested media factoid that misses the point. Gibson knew relatively little about computers when he wrote the book, and the idea of immensely important network serving as a backbone for commerce and human affairs appeared ten years earlier in Brunner's The Shockwave Rider. Neuromancer is not primarily a work of technological extrapolation, but social, and the point is not the network, but the way that the network interfaces with humanity.
One of the most immediately remarkable things about Neuromancer is its prose style. Gibson, like the rest of the Mirrorshades Group, made heavy use of the technique that Rudy Rucker called "crammed prose": text almost overloaded with visual imagery and novel metaphors, so that almost every clause created a new and unusual image. Gibson took this technique to extremes, to the point where passages from Neuromancer have a hallucinatory vividness.
Neuromancer seemed to fill a hole that nobody knew existed. It took its place almost immediately not just in the literary pantheon, but the collective unconscious; a fever dream of confusion and violence that, as time has passed, has seemed more relevant to the present than the future. It spawned an army of imitators that lifted every possible aspect of the book wholesale, to the point where they became the genre conventions of late cyberpunk, and then literary clichés.
Gibson wrote two more novels set in the same universe, Count Zero in 1986 and Mona Lisa Overdrive in 1988, as well as publishing a collection of short stories in 1987, Burning Chrome, which contained several stories set there, some written before Neuromancer, and some after. While very well received, none of his stories or novels, within or without the universe of Neuromancer, achieved the same level of veritable canonization that it did, despite the fact that his writing has matured a great deal since 1984. Sometimes an author writes one book, if they are lucky, or perhaps, unlucky, which transcends the level of being a story and moves into the realm of a cultural phenomenon, and this is precisely what Neuromancer has become.