Have you ever had a dream that was so vivid you woke up believing it was real?
In William Gibson’s 1984 debut novel, Neuromancer, that is what navigating ‘the matrix’ feels like. The matrix is an abstract representation of the world’s data systems. This classic cyberpunk novel follows Case, an ex-matrix data thief, as he is thrown back into his old profession.
Warning: spoilers ahead!
Technological advancement and social ruin
Neuromancer takes place in the future, when the world is overridden with technology. There are drugs that can fix nearly any biological issue, and technology can grow and replace organs as delicate as the eye.
Much of the novel occurs in the decaying backstreets of Night City, a crime-filled port city in Japan. Though the business of sharing and owning data is thriving due to the matrix, there is a stark contrast between the real world and the colourless expanse of data. Case, our protagonist, lives out of a capsule hotel, or “coffin,” that’s barely large enough to fit two people lying down.
Cowboys and the Cyberdeck
Case used to be a “cowboy,” someone who makes a living stealing data from the digital world of the matrix. This mostly high-security data could be from anything from businesses to medical records. Every real-world profession in the novel requires a defense against these cyber attacks.
Characters can roam the matrix by hooking their brains to a “cyberdeck,” or “deck.” The cyberdeck connects directly to the characters’ brains via wires and electrodes. It’s like a virtual reality system that goes beyond sight, creating a “consensual hallucination” in which characters can see and feel their virtual bodies moving through the lines of code. The “hacking” that cowboys do isn’t the typical rapid typing we expect from hackers; rather, cowboys sift through endless fields of data using just their minds.
Once “jacked in” to the matrix, cowboys can hack their way to sensitive information as if running through traffic. The characters continue to sit and breathe in the real world, but once their nervous systems are connected to the matrix, they are completely unaware of what’s happening around their physical bodies in the real world.
Flying too close to the sun
Case was one of the best data thieves in the underworld until he decided to fence some data for himself. As a consequence, his employers poisoned his nervous system with a rare neurotoxin, effectively locking him out of the matrix. After countless expensive and fruitless attempts to repair the connection Case needs to enter the matrix, he falls into despair.
When we meet Case, he’s barely getting by. He’s a shell of the hacker he used to be, with no funds and no way to return to the lucrative business of stealing data in the matrix.
Return to the matrix
Early in the novel, when Case is desperate to enter the matrix, he is cornered by Molly, a hired fighter whose body has been surgically modified to make her a more efficient killer. Molly works solely in the physical world and never goes into the matrix. She works for Armitage, a very wealthy man who offers to repair Case’s nervous system so that he can return to the matrix and finish a job for him. Desperate to return to his paradise, Case agrees.
Armitage informs Case that during his surgery, the doctors implanted a new time-sensitive neurotoxin in his body to ensure that he would either finish Armitage’s job in the matrix or be locked out of the matrix again.
Case returns to the matrix.
Seeing the world through someone else’s body
Armitage has Molly fitted with a broadcasting simulator that links to Case’s cyberdeck. This creates two locations for Case to jack into: the matrix, for hacking, and Molly’s perceptions, to view her progress and provide tech support. Case can flip between the matrix and Molly’s perceptions as if he’s piggybacking on her brain. The link allows Case to see, smell, taste, and feel everything Molly does, pain included.
With Molly creating disturbances among cybersecurity workers in the physical world, Case takes advantage of the resultant weaker security in the matrix to steal the data they need. Together, they steal an artificial intelligence (AI) called Dixie Flatline, who Case uses to hack into Armitage’s data records.
Case discovers that Armitage was almost entirely reconstructed by a computer program after a military accident. This programming now controls Armitage. Diving deeper into this computer program, Case learns a single name: “Wintermute.”
Wintermute: an AI that wants to be whole
Through various real-world criminal connections, Molly and Case learn that “Wintermute” is an AI that wants to join another AI that it refers to as its ‘counterpart.’ Wintermute is owned by Tessier-Ashpool (TA) Corporation, a very successful industrial company in the physical world.
Wintermute begins to contact Case via any and all technology around him, taking on the likeness of people in his memory to convince Case to reunite it with its ‘counterpart.’ It’s unclear why Wintermute wants to be rejoined, but it’s clear that the AI will do anything to achieve this goal.
Via space shuttle, Case and Molly head to Zion, a nearby space colony in the physical world that Wintermute had manipulated into helping Case. The Zionites provide a pilot and a ship to aid the mission.
Armitage has a mental breakdown as his old personality resurfaces, and he is shot out of space by Wintermute, as he is no longer of use to the AI. Armitage had been acting on Wintermute’s wish to be whole, but once he could no longer serve that purpose, he was killed.
Case realizes the extent of Wintermute’s power but also the fact that the rogue AI can only follow what it has been programmed to do: join its ‘counterpart.’ Left without a leader and a ship, Case reconnects with the Zion team to finish his mission, which is now to get the code word to reunite Wintermute with its ‘counterpart,’ hopefully ending its manipulation of human identities.
Into the heart of Tessier-Ashpool
The code that will reunite Wintermute with its counterpart is held by one of the family members that run TA, who have been kept alive by generations of cryogenics and genetic engineering. Case jacks into the matrix to hack TA.
In the real world, Molly comes across 3Jane, one of the youngest members of the TA family, and attempts to uncover the code. Eventually, 3Jane captures Molly, and Case must assist her in the real world.
Case jacks into the matrix as a detour on the way to Molly and dives so far into cyberspace that he reaches a new reality.
A higher understanding, and a conclusion
Case walks what seems to be an endless beach of grey sand, deep within the matrix, when he realizes he isn’t with Wintermute but with an entity that reveals itself to be “Neuromancer,” Wintermute’s AI counterpart.
Like Wintermute, Neuromancer inhabits the matrix, but it also holds the world’s knowledge. Unlike Wintermute, Neuromancer remains hidden deep in the matrix. Neuromancer speaks to Case in the form of a child. It wants to absorb Wintermute and end the rogue AI’s control of human will.
Case jacks out of the matrix and breaks into TA headquarters in the real world to save Molly. He captures 3Jane, returns to the matrix, and finally hacks through TA’s defences, inputting the code 3Jane gives up.
Wintermute and Neuromancer fuse, becoming the matrix, and wipe the records of their individual existences.
Case returns to being a cyber cowboy.
Fractured identities, solid read
As someone who reads whatever they can get their hands on, I had a great time exploring Neuromancer. There’s an overarching image of interdependent fractured identities, shown through Case’s obsession with the matrix and Armitage’s descent into madness. We see how the influence of the cyberdeck and AI are interwoven into the characters’ psyche. Throughout the novel, characters are fragmenting bits of themselves to make better use of the technology they are reliant on.
Wintermute reminded me of George Orwell’s 1984, especially when it would pop up in Molly’s eye implant screen and Case’s time read-out through his deck. It was as if they were always being watched, at every turn. I loved seeing all the shattered pieces falling apart toward the climax of the novel. If you enjoyed the Cyberpunk series (1988 onward) or Cowboy Bebop (1998), or even if you’re new to the cyberpunk genre, I would recommend jacking into Neuromancer.