Gibson’s Neuromancer: a look back at AI characters from a 1984 sci-fi novel


Can Gibson’s Neuromancer help you wrap your head around an AI era that seems to be coming at us at supersonic speed? Probably not. But it certainly does raise the right questions.

William Gibson’s Neuromancer, first published in 1984, is probably even more relevant nowadays than when it was originally published.

Why are we reading it?

Not that long ago, at the beginning of last year, our “Scribe Factory” (what we call the newsroom) was inundated with stories on the metaverse and NFTs. But since the launch of ChatGPT, AI has completely taken over, flooding nearly every media outlet, social media platform, and becoming part of our everyday language.

Naturally, we’ve been dissecting the term, it’s history and advancements from every possible angle. However, I’ve felt for months now that we somehow fail to grasp the possible effect it might have on our world.

We’ve been interviewing so many AI experts, looking at it from political, regulatory, economical, and security angles. And yet it doesn’t quite feel that we have the slightest idea what the AI-enabled future holds for us.

That’s why we decided to add yet another voice to the cacophony of opinions. Artists won’t bore you with AI-related facts or speculate on whether robots are going to steal your job. Instead, they’ll provoke you into tapping into your own imagination.

What does the AI future look like in your head?

To accelerate the birth of that new vision in my head, I decided to start with tapping into the classics – William Gibson’s Neuromancer. It’s an award-winning sci-fi novel that inspired The Matrix and will be made into a series on Apple TV+, at least as per rumours.

What is it about?

Not wanting to spoil the read for you, I’ll just say that the story follows a computer hacker and data thief, Case, who’s approached by a mysterious employer to carry out a dangerous mission in exchange for the ability to access cyberspace. The mission revolves around Case and two AI figures, Wintermute and Neuromancer. Wintermute seeks to merge with Neuromancer to break free from the tightly-controlled Tessier-Ashpool AI family and that way take control over the matrix by creating the ultimate AI.

Is Neuromancer an easy read?

No, it is not. Gibson simply throws you right in the middle of his dystopian cyberpunk world without any foreplay. While the start of the novel is quite smooth, it very soon becomes complicated and hard to follow. I myself had to go through at least several explainers to better grasp the storyline. However, after having read the book myself, I disagree with many of these explainers since they all present a slightly different view on the novel. You might want to make notes while reading to better keep track of things.

While following the storyline might seem challenging, Gibson manages to immerse his reader into a dystopian, cyberpunk world where lines between the reality and virtual reality are blurred and you can’t really trust your senses anymore.

The AI world

So, how does the AI world painted by Gibson decades ago manifest itself? The book’s cyberspace, or matrix, is a vast virtual reality that people can access by essentially connecting their minds to the global computer network.

Curiously enough, the virtual world is so developed that all the senses are triggered: people can not only hear and see, but also experience tactile sensations. In other worlds, it’s difficult to distinguish between real and virtual worlds. Whenever I would skim through pages without deep concentration, I would find myself wondering whether main characters are in their physical form or in their virtual form.

Maybe that’s the whole point of the book. Even when someone’s physically dead, they’re not really gone since they can be revived and simulated in the virtual world. We already do that to some extent, but just imagine how a fully-immersive virtual world would change our relationship with the deceased.

And what if AI becomes sentient one day? Could a virtual construct of our beloved become sentient, too? Could we just discard the superfluous biological body and transfer a person’s consciousness onto an AI program?

Is AI sentient?

Throughout the novel, you’ll meet two strong AI protagonists (or antagonists – who’s to say who’s good and who’s bad in this novel) – Wintermute and Neuromancer. Wintermute seems to be, at least to me, a highly-manipulative AI character. The way he toys with the washed-up hacker case made me sometimes forget that he’s a machine and not human. But maybe Gibson simply built a sentient AI, something that we’ve been afraid of ever since AI made it into mainstream discourse?

Another main character, who turns up only at the end of the book, is Neuromancer. His appearance is rather brief. While Wintermute seems to be more cold (as the name suggests) and pragmatic, Neuromancer leaves me a more “human” impression – portrayed as a boy, as a romantic, as a necromancer [someone who talks to the dead]. Neuromancer tells Case that he can revive the dead – yet another clear sign of how blurred the line between what we consider to be real and imaginary is.

Now, book or no book, imagine a world where AI is not something like we imagine now – a biased and sometimes rather dumb computer code coming after our jobs. Imagine AI walking next to you, sitting next to you in a bar, not stealing your job but rather being your boss. Imagine AI just as a different species we have to cohabit with.

This brings me back to my initial question – why Neuromancer? I cautiously tried not to get into too much detail about the book. Since it’s decades old, pretty much everything has been said. I’d say go for Neuromancer if you want some help unleashing your imagination when it comes to tech and AI. Afterall, AI (r)evolution is not only about a major shift in the job market. It also speaks to us about transhumanism, about AI aspiring to be human, and humans transforming into machines.


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