Nicking from Novels: William Gibson’s Neuromancer

Sex, Drugs, and Damaged Souls

Part of the original purpose of this feature was to catch up on books I “ought” to have read years ago. Neuromancer certainly qualifies—William Gibson was one of the first people I followed on Twitter, and until a few weeks ago, I had not read any of his books. One of the many small (and not so small) luxuries that have come with my change in schools is a principal who really advocates for student reading. He gave all the English teachers a budget to start classroom libraries (alongside an academic independent reading initiative). Among the books I bought for mine was Neuromancer.

First: wow. This is a damn fine book. Occasionally, you read something this wildly inventive and wonder “how the hell did the author come up with this?” More rarely, that comes in combination with writing that holds up at the sentence level, with plots that reveal themselves with the right layers at the right pace. Neuromancer does that. It’s that good.

If you’ve ever played the role-playing game Shadowrun, this is it: a mysterious figure gets a hacker (console cowboy) together with a razor girl (samurai) for some carefully-planned invasions of corporate assets. (Six years before the first edition of Shadowrun.) This is a world where complicated neurosurgery allows people to interface directly with computers, where you can buy cloned replacements for your liver and pancreas when you’ve done too many drugs. It’s world where life is cheap and everything costs something.

It’s a dirtier, busier, more cosmopolitan dystopia than the more recent vintages of the Hunger Games and Divergent series. It is also a dystopia of fragmentation, deep shadows, and decadence rather than simple totalitarianism—one that seems more likely even in the current political climate.

The Plot
Case is an addict with a death wish, a formerly promising cowboy whose ability to flip to the matrix was crippled by drugs as payback for a run gone bad. Molly is the samurai sent to Chiba City to collect him for the mysterious Armitage. Armitage has technology that will restore Case’s damaged nerves. Case leaps at the chance, but after restorative surgery, discovers that Armitage has also laced his blood with slowly dissolving sacs of the poison that crippled him in the first place. He has to go to work for Armitage. Case quickly falls into bed with Molly. (That’s about the only moment in the book that I scratch my head about.)

Case and Molly, assisted by various subcontractors, make a number of intermediate runs—stealing a ROM with the personality and skills of a deceased hacker, collecting an illusion-projecting sociopath named Riviera, and eventually heading for a space station. Along the way, Case and Molly make their own investigations and discover that Armitage has a secret backer. Neither Armitage nor the backer properly exist. (Explaining why would take spoilers.)

The novel’s ending is wonderfully ambiguous—one more delicate grey stroke on a canvas full of them.

The Cool Thing to Consider
I don’t know if I’ve ever read a novel with a cast of such damaged souls. (Graham Green’s The Third Man comes close.) Nobody is whole. Case has his addiction and the quiet death-wish that underlies it. Molly has skeletons in her closet and has devoted her life to violence. Armitage is built on slender threads of borrowed sanity. Riviera is, as mentioned, a sociopath whose kinks are rather beyond degenerate. The supporting cast is likewise full of flaws: terrorists who consider themselves performance artists (or performance artists who consider themselves terrorists), mangy data cleaners, space Rastas. (I love the space Rastas.)

The remarkable thing about Neuromancer is that Gibson doesn’t make the plot about fixing the characters. The characters have their internal conflicts. Those internal conflicts pull and push on the central plot without needing to resolve themselves neatly. Case might understand his damage better at the end of the book, but he’s not healed.

Nor is it a case, precisely, of fitting together the jagged edges of the characters’ personalities. Molly and Case have a thing. There’s something real in it, but it’s not a fix for either of them. It probably isn’t even love. The characters’ jagged edges cut and scrape against each other.

This all fits hand-in-glove with Neuromancer’s technicolor grays. For all the vivid descriptions of drugged highs and the life of professional criminals, for all the color in the book, there’s no moral black and white. There aren’t heroes; there aren’t villains. There is mystery. There are obstacles for the characters. They face vital decisions with ramifications that extend well beyond the personal…but those questions are never about the “right” thing to do. (I won’t discuss the  brief moral questions toward the climax for the sake of spoilers, but the characters don’t spend much time indulging them.)

What We Nick from this Novel
You don’t have to have heroes (or antiheroes) to tell a good story.
It’s easy, especially for those of us who write imaginative fiction, to fall back on tropes of heroic fantasy and the myths that underlie it—heroes and villains and monsters. I’ve never been a fan of absolute evil in storytelling, but I’ve also never indulged in protagonists as unheroic as Case and Molly. Gibson’s Neuromancer is a fantastic case study in telling a story that’s big not only in its themes, but in the scale of its events. He does that while letting his nominal heroes stay smaller than the story. They barely get what’s going on. They barely get through what’s going on…and the story is all the better for it.


Request to Join

I have a “secret” project in the works—perhaps foolishly, given all the other irons I have in the fire. Said project has numerous bits and pieces, but the one I’ve been struggling with is populating it with the right characters. I’m doing okay hammering out setting details (in part because some of them are recycled) and dealing with large-scale plot stuff. I have plans for some of the project’s general architecture. I’ve even spoken to an artist about doing some work on it.

Characters though…seriously. This is a rare problem for me. Ghosts of the Old City nearly populated itself. There have been consistency issues here and there, and I had to spend some time working out motivations at certain spots…but those problems had as much to do with structure and plot as with characterization. I can’t recall the last time I had writer’s block over characters.

Part of this is that I play role-playing games. Over the years, I have put together many, many characters. When I do them for games, the process is generally fast. In the midst of my struggles with Secret Project, I cranked out a fully-fleshed out character in the course of an afternoon…an afternoon in which I also played games with my kids and caught up on the dishes.  With the right motivation and a specific prompt, I’m fast.

With a specific prompt. Over on RPOL, new games have a “request to join” feature. The person running the game usually asks a set of questions that help give him or her a feel for both the character and the person playing it. Sometimes these RtJ prompts are detailed, sometimes they’re vague. Many game-runners request a writing sample; some require that it feature the applying character. My Secret Project isn’t a game I’m running, but…a prompt seemed like a good solution. Here’s the one I developed. These are questions that help me get a fix on my characters, tweaked for this particular project. I include a brief explanation of what the question does for me.

Names are important. I hardly ever do them first, though. Usually, they come in the middle of the process, late enough to pick a name that fits what I’ve got and early enough to help anchor the rest.

Something short, seldom even a complete sentence. Maedoc’s, for example, would be something like “bad-luck gentleman medium.” Zahra’s would be “adventurous fiddler-thief.”

What does the character do on a daily basis?
Usually, this amounts to a job description co-mingled with an overview of the character’s day. It gets me thinking about family and professional relationships. Those are important even for adventurous fantasy types. I don’t write characters without “day jobs”—even if the character’s a mercenary or professional spy, their days are not always worth being “on camera.” This question helps me think about what they’re doing during that time…and how plot conflicts can disrupt it in interesting ways.

How does the character prefer to solve problems?
Again, this helps me think about conflicts in future stories. Sometimes, the character will be able to do things the way she wants. Other times, her preferred method of conflict resolution won’t work, and I’ll get to see how she deals with backup plans or improvising.

Who does the character rely on?
Adventuring heroes too often exist in a vacuum. Sometimes it’s appropriate for a character to be a self-reliant loner. Usually, though, I like to have them tied into their social and physical environment. This question can help set the stakes for conflict. It also helps me fill in the world around the character—particularly important when I’m starting a new project.

History: Describe three incidents that set the character on his or her current course.
Fully-fleshed out life stories are overkill. They can also be constricting if you get into too much detail too early in the story process. Picking a handful of important moments is suggestive of the rest of the character’s history. Those moments also help reinforce some of the ideas deployed in answering the other questions. Again, the idea is to solidify the character enough to start writing the story proper. 

Physical descriptions are important. They don’t have to be photographic in their level of detail, but they do need to include the character’s prominent features. I particularly like to think about the character’s voice and way of moving. Those details help me pin down the character’s style. I find that more important than finding exactly the right word for “green” to describe a character’s eyes.

For a game, this is where I’d actually think about numbers. For Secret Project, this is just a short list of the special things the character can do. It’s a particularly flexible section, too, because I have no qualms tweaking characters’ skills to make the plot work. Once the plot gets going, I can worry about making these consistent.

Taken together, these questions are helping me through this round of writer’s block…which is good, because drafting material for the project is my assignment for the July edition of #CampNaNoWriMo.

Missing Characters

I am juggling a good number of projects right now. Writing cover letters, tweaking resumes, writing for games, thoroughly reworking some old stories to get them ebookified as quickly as possible. It’s all taken time away from my novel (working title “The Fairworth Chronicles”). When I woke up this morning, I missed it. I missed the characters. I keep wondering what they’re up to, what they will be up to when I can get their activities out of my head and onto the page.

Missing fictional people is odd. If they’re other writers’ characters, they’re seldom farther than your bookshelf (or e-reader, if you swing that way). I’ve missed others’ characters sometimes, especially the ones who have grown and changed. Brust’s Vlad Taltos is a fun one to miss, because he’s easy to revisit at various points over his development. The Vlad books are also short enough to plow through one in an afternoon. Zelazny’s Corwin is much the same. Others take more work to visit: Gaiman’s Shadow, Le Guin’s Ged, Chabon’s Kavalier, even Moorcock’s Hawkmoon. They don’t live quite as close to the surface of their stories. (There might be something about first person narration lurking in there, although Gene Wolfe’s Arthur Ormsby is not the easiest to visit in spite of the way he colors the narration of The Knight and The Wizard.) At any rate, even if they don’t live next door, other writer’s characters live on familiar roads, and getting to them is more a matter of time than of work.

Missing your own fictional people is harder. Even if they’ve thoroughly established residence in your head, as Maedoc and Zahra have in mine, getting to them takes work. Oh, sometimes it’s easy. It feels like your characters are sitting right next door, with a full pot of coffee and an extra cup. Usually, though, it’s a cross-country hike. Often it is painfully uphill. Sometimes there are giants at the top, playing you for a pin in a game of downhill boulder bowling.

Regardless, it is exciting to get there. You’re not quite sure what the characters are going to do, whether they’re going to cooperate, whether they’re going take your story and run with it so hard you’ll have to chase it. Or maybe your characters don’t want to run at all. They just want to sit there and leave you feeling very much like you do trying to get your three year-old to put on her shoes so you can go grocery shopping. When it’s been a slog to even get to them, this is inordinately frustrating.

The hard thing is also the cool thing: you don’t know until you get there. That’s what makes missing your own characters more exciting than anything else. There’s risk. We know, all of us, that adventures do not always end happily. We also know that unhappy endings might better resemble a hospital waiting room than a rubble-strewn battlefield. When you miss your own characters and go looking for them, it’s an adventure. That’s the important thing to remember, even if other clutter is blocking your front door. Go out through a window if you have to. The adventure is worth it.