I'm slightly ashamed of the fact that I took 11 days to read one 300-page novel (an abysmal reading speed for me), especially since I can't actually work out why I found Neuromancer so abominably, fundamentally dull.
It's partly, I suspect, due to the fact that I bought it mainly on the strength of the blurb's implicit reference to The Matrix, a film that, despite all its flaws, I heartily love and which this book is not. Where The Matrix has kick-ass fight scenes, visual puns, badass catchphrases which mean absolutely nothing but sound terrific (“Welcome to the desert of the real”) and Keanu Reeves, Neuromancer has bewilderingly meandering scenes that don't seem to add anything to the plot, irritatingly stereotypical Rastafarians, and a version of cyberspace which is probably supposed to look really cool but actually seems to look like that black-and-white plan of the Death Star in The Return of the Jedi.
Case (what kind of a name is Case, exactly?) is a computer hacker, where the computer network in question is not the Internet but the matrix (note the lower case), a “visual representation of the databanks of every computer in the human system” (quoting from the blurb). The point of this matrix is never quite explained, but in any case it allows Case and others like him to “jack in” to a computer and...sort of attack software ...like a kind of human virus? I'm not sure. Anyway, he's mysteriously picked off the streets of Chiba City, a nightmarish Japanese technoslum – see Neo Seoul in Cloud Atlas or Cinder's New Beijing – by a wealthy man who offers him a deal: lots of money (obviously) and a repaired nervous system (we're told that Case's has been badly damaged by some irritated employers) for one job – no questions asked.
The book does have some striking similarities to The Matrix, it's true: hostile AIs, a city called Zion that seems to have way too much fun actually to survive (remember that ten-minute orgy scene in Reloaded?), and a certain cyberpunk aesthetic that gives everything a sort of greyly bleak cast. It's fairly clear that the Wachowski Brothers read this before they wrote The Matrix. But, unlike the film, the time spent by the narrative in the matrix is actually not large, and I don't think we get very much of an insight into how it actually works, and why. That disappointed me, for a start; it's a very personal narrative, very focused on a single heist (albeit a monumental one) rather than a social exploration. Which weakens the conviction of the novel; we get the feeling that the world of Neuromancer is deeply dystopian, but no actual evidence that you could point at and call dystopian, or even any sort of indication as to how humanity got there. It doesn't feel real.
Technically, the novel isn't terrible; not even bad. The writing is always competent, and even rises to moments of poetry, especially towards the end. Character development is, surprisingly for such high-concept SF, actually very good. There's even a strong female character who's not, for once, defined by her relationships, although the final scenes veer unfortunately into damsel-in-distress territory. I do think the plotting is spotty, though, and a little labyrinthine; and the Rastafarian patois is just painful to read.
I was continually getting the sense that the book was gesturing at some kind of theme behind all this. I'm still not sure what it was: the nature of reality? The malleability of the human mind? The consequences of putting all mankind's data online and making something new out of it? Artificial intelligence vs. human intelligence? Am I just being really obtuse?
I think, ultimately, that's what I didn't like about Neuromancer: I found it too dense for a light, fun read and too convoluted for a 'meaningful' read. I'm still not sure what to make of it, but I probably won't be reading the rest of the Sprawl series.