54 pages 1 hour read

William Gibson


Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 1984

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Summary and Study Guide


William Gibson’s Neuromancer, published in 1984, was his breakthrough novel and one of the founding books of the cyberpunk genre of science fiction. It became the first paperback-only release to win the genre’s trinity of prizes: the Hugo, Nebula, and Philip K. Dick awards. Gibson’s lyrical prose played an important role in that recognition, while his gritty vision of a future that coupled improved technology with minimal social progress gave it immediate relevance for readers disillusioned with capitalist society. Gibson also broke ground in speculating on the nature of the new computer technology and its potential to create virtual realities. His book captured anxiety about the goal of creating artificial intelligence (AI) smarter than people and the implications of such technology for what it means to be a person. The importance of his meditation on technology can be seen in the general adoption of terms that he coined, such as “cyberspace.” The title of the movie The Matrix also comes from the word that Gibson used to describe the virtual world through which his protagonist navigates.

This guide uses the 1984 paperback edition of Neuromancer published by Ace Books.

Content Warning: The source material features depictions of drug use, exploitation of sex workers, incest, and suicide.

Plot Summary

Narrated in third person limited point of view, Neuromancer tells the story of Case, a former “console cowboy” (computer hacker), as he struggles to survive on the streets of Chiba City, Japan, brokering illegal deals. He came there futilely seeking an antidote to a neurological drug that keeps him from accessing cyberspace; his former employers gave him this drug as punishment for stealing. Molly, a mysterious “street samurai” (mercenary) with razor-blade fingernails and artificial eye lenses, approaches him with a job offer. She introduces him to Armitage, a former special operations officer, who offers him a cure in return for doing a cyberspace hacking job for an anonymous employer. Case agrees and receives the operation. As he leaves the underworld of Chiba City, he finds Linda Lee, his former lover, dead. She is apparently a victim of a botched attempt to sell computer programs she stole from Case.

Case and Molly travel to the Sprawl, the giant metropolitan region stretching from Boston to Atlanta. Case learns that during his operation, Armitage planted toxins in his body to ensure his cooperation; only at the end of the operation will Armitage give the antidote. With the help of a tech supplier named the Finn and a terrorist group called the Modern Panthers, the team infiltrates the headquarters of the Sense/Net corporation. Case attacks the system in cyberspace while Molly infiltrates in person. They steal a drive with a recorded version of Case’s old mentor Dixie Flatline that preserves all his memories, personality, and skills. They then move to Istanbul, where they abduct Peter Riviera, a man who takes pride in his own “perversity” and has implants that allow him to project convincing holographic illusions of his twisted visions.

Meanwhile, Case and Molly grow increasingly suspicious of Armitage and his mysterious employer. They discover that Armitage is really Willis Corto, a former colonel and the sole survivor of a bungled attempt to infiltrate Russia during the last major war. Betrayed by his own military and political leaders, Corto drifted into the criminal world and became lost in schizophrenia. During an experimental cybernetic treatment, he gained a new persona as Armitage, which an AI named Wintermute had hacked into the experiment and created. Wintermute is the anonymous employer behind Case’s hacking operation, which, as Case learns, targets the Tessier-Ashpool family corporation—the creator and theoretical owner of Wintermute.

Molly, Case, Armitage, and Riviera travel into orbit. After preparing for the mission in the free Rastafarian station of Zion, they go to Freeside, the tourist and gambling station controlled by the Tessier-Ashpool corporation. In a series of meetings in the matrix with Wintermute, Case learns that his mission is to break into Villa Straylight, the home of the Tessier-Ashpools, and free Wintermute from the electronic shackles that keep it from merging with a second AI. If they merge, they will form a super-AI with potentially unlimited and uncontrollable ability to increase its intelligence. The Turing law enforcement agency, created to prevent this very situation, appears, but Wintermute kills its agents.

Riviera enters Villa Straylight first, having been invited by Lady 3Jane of the Tessier-Ashpool family after she witnessed a holographic show in which he appeared to have sex with Molly while she tore him apart. This kind of fetish appeals to the bored rich woman. Molly then infiltrates Straylight with the help of Wintermute, while Riviera convinces Lady 3Jane to lower Straylight’s defenses. Case, with Dixie’s help, works on infiltrating the Tessier-Ashpool computer systems via cyberspace.

The operation goes sideways quickly. Riviera betrays them and Molly is captured. Armitage’s personality disintegrates and Wintermute kills Corto, who thinks he’s still back in the war. Case enters Villa Straylight with Maelcum, a helper from Zion. Case is trapped in the matrix by Neuromancer, the second AI, where he is given the option of a happy virtual existence with a recording of Linda Lee. He refuses and escapes with Maelcum’s help. In the end, Case and Molly convince 3Jane to help them rather than Riviera. 3Jane’s retainer hunts Riviera, who is already dying from poison given to him by Molly. Case completes his run into the Tessier-Ashpool system, and the team inputs the code word that frees Wintermute from control.

Wintermute and Neuromancer merge into the new super-AI. It gives Molly, Case, and the Zion community their promised rewards but otherwise seems uninterested in humanity. Instead, the super-AI wants to find more of its own kind and thinks it has detected a message from one in the Centauri star system. Case and Molly drift back into their old, separate lives. On a cyber run for another job, Case sees virtual versions of the super-AI, Linda Lee, and himself in the distance, implying there is an independent recording of Case exploring a new life in a new virtual reality.