V is for Virtual Reality

Sometimes I finally get around to doing one of those things I’ve been meaning to do and end up disappointed. Perhaps the anticipation outweighs the pleasure of completing the task. Perhaps it was never a good idea to begin with. Being a dedicated, loyal type of person doesn’t help.  Something I agreed to months earlier, or decided was a new interest, has—as a notion—passed its natural expiry date but I am loath to let it go due to my previous commitment and/or original enthusiasm. When it turns out well I congratulate myself on going through with the activity; when it doesn’t I wish I’d kept it as merely a happy thought in my head.

Earlier in the year my book group read Neuromancer by William Gibson. Touted as the seminal cyberpunk novel, the best science fiction novel, the book that invented the internet etc. we thought we’d give it a whirl. After all, there were Dr Who fans among us, we could read science fiction and love it. Plus a few of us had been meaning to read it for, oh, a decade or so. As I traipsed off to my independent genre bookshop, I was feeling all uber-geeky and techno-cool at the thought of crossing this ‘intended task’ off my list. But in the end I felt a little deflated. The techo-cool became techno-tepid.

Don’t get me wrong, the concept—the ideas—are fantastic. Even 27 years after the book was published. They’re probably not as ‘unique’ as they were back in the early eighties, but then, as you read it you see that Neuromancer was most likely where a whole lot of writers and filmmakers got their inspiration. So I appreciated it from that point of view. I liked its dystopic, grungy, metallic feel. And, in a small way, I liked that I was getting around to reading it. But liking a concept and being able to tick it off your list are different things to making a connection with a book.

This could be one of those times when my reading and comprehension abilities let me down, but honestly, if I hadn’t seen The Matrix trilogy I would have had a hard time visualising (and somewhat following) what was going on in cyberspace. Maybe if you spent your adolescent years pulling  apart motherboards it would all make sense, but I struggled at times to have a clear idea of ‘what was going on’ when protagonist Case was in the system, and to move on in the novel I just had to continue blindly and assume my brain would pick things up again when it could. Not necessarily a bad thing if you’re after some literary leaps of faith, but potentially frustrating for a reader who is spending more time trying to comprehend, instead of engage.

And I don’t know about you, but when I’m failing to connect with a book I start finding other things wrong with it, and the current edition that I read left a little to be desired production-wise. As an editor I know more than anyone that there are always small mistakes in books but Neuromancer has been kicking around for almost three decades and yet it seems no one could be bothered on one of the trillion reprintings it must have had to fix any basic typos, dodgy line spacing, or update the internal design to something that looked less Gutenberg. The cover was pretty naff as well, in my opinion.

None of these whinges should have too much effect on a reader if they are loving what they’re reading, but this wasn’t my experience. Maybe seminal cyberpunk just isn’t my thing, and I’m happy to accept that. I’m also happy to accept that I may be a narrow-brained dunce and missed the whole point, but William Gibson’s breakthrough novel just didn’t leave me feeling particularly enlightened or entertained, just kind of fuzzy-minded and slightly disappointed. Even the satisfaction of doing something I’d been meaning to do for years wasn’t quite enough. In the end the biggest influence it had on me was that it made me want to watch The Matrix again.

2 thoughts on “V is for Virtual Reality

  1. Neuromancer is a book i’d been considering reading but wondered if it would too influential on my own writing.

    I’m not a fan of sub-genre novels (at least the concept of them), particularly the ones that end in “punk”, they imply a certain cliquishness and exclusivity. Of course there’s nothing better than having a cult following that leads to mainstream appeal. I can only dream. But I wonder if certain SF writers set out to bamboozle their readers, or get caught up in the maxim that’s drummed into them about showing and not telling. And so a complete lack of exposition is mistaken for good writing – the approach of not being obvious, except on the third revision that notion of subtlety can become distorted. It can be a fine-line judgment.

    It is strange, though, how a “well-edited” book by a major publisher can still have basic errors. Yes, unforgivable.

  2. It’s a tricky decision – whether to read similar to what you’re writing or stay well away from it. If you’re in the process of writing, perhaps best to stay away!

    I wonder about the bamboozlement as well. In some ways I like it when you’re thrown into a story and just have to start working out what’s going on… but you have to be able to work it out after a while. Select moments of exposition are valuable and important. As you say, most people only read a story once.

    As an editor I must say that I know how easy it can be for small errors in books to live on. Especially those older ones, if truth be known. No one is working on them, no one has time to do random typo checks, they are selling steadily. The only opportunity for a book this age would be if it was being re-designed, the type re-flowed and thus being re-proofread. Otherwise you really only know of errors if someone tells you, and then a business decision has to be made about making the changes. I don’t think it’s the end of the world, usually. Far from it. But there must have been enough in this book for it to bug me! I think the whole design just needs a revamp.

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