Monday, October 14, 2013

Book Review: “Neuromancer” by William Gibson

Executive Summary

This book is a must-read for every cyber security professional, not because you will learn new insights into your craft, but because you will understand why this book was so influential to the cyber security zeitgeist back in the day. Gibson invented and clarified the language that we are still using today ten years before it became mainstream. He coined the word "cyberspace," launched the "cyberpunk" genre, pontificated about "the singularity," guessed that "hacktivism" would be a thing, and understood that we would need "Google search" long before any of us even knew how vital that service would become. In my mind, this book is in our cyber security canon. You should have read this by now.

Introduction

Gibson published Neuromancer in 1984 and subsequently received multiple book awards for his efforts: 
  • The Nebula Award (Best Science Fiction Novel) [1] 
  • The Philip K. Dick Award (Best Science Fiction Paperback) [2] 
  • The Hugo Award (Best Science Fiction Novel)[3] 
In 2005, Time magazine listed Neuromancer as one of its top 100 English-language novels written since 1923.[4] Gibson is credited with one of the best ever opening novel lines:[5]

“The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.”

Literary critics subsequently tagged this novel as the “quintessential” work in a new genre called cyberpunk.[9] Gibson chafes a bit at that label,[10] but it may be that label that got security geeks interested in the book.

Scholars[11] categorize cyberpunk as stories written in a near-dystopian future where technology is advanced, governments have withdrawn in potency to be replaced by corporations, and man-machine interfaces and cyborg beings are the norm; think Blade Runner if you are having trouble getting your head around the concept. Sci-fi writers invented cyberpunk when they realized that there might be another path to the future besides the one advertised by Star Trek and Star Wars, one that is not as pristine and humanitarian as, say, Ender’s Game. Cyberpunk worlds have some grit to them: sex, drugs, and rock and roll. 

But I don’t think cyberpunk is the draw for security geeks. The draw, in my mind, is a combination of elements that is consistent in popular geek entertainment today. Any creative work that has some combination of “hacker as the hero,” “geeks getting the girl,” and “Kung Fu fighting” will draw the cyber security geek crowd like moths to a flame. 

The Story

The main Neuromancer character is Case, a world-class hacker, referred to as a cowboy in the book, who has fallen from grace. The government caught him doing something stupid and, through surgery, made it impossible for him to ever connect to the internet -- “jack” into “cyberspace” -- again. By the way, Gibson invented [6] the word “cyberspace” in a short story he wrote in 1982 called "Burning Chrome," but Neuromancer catapulted the word into the popular culture.

The story opens with Case on his last leg, hustling the streets of Japan for drug and booze money, cigarettes and if he had anything left over, food. He is literally days away from expiring. Through a series of random meetings that the reader does not understand until midway through the book, Case gets a chance at redemption. 

He joins a misfit team: The Leader, Armitage (ex-military); The Assassin, Molly (a beautiful cyborg); The Techie, Finn (a prototypical scrounger); and The Mentalist, Peter (a psychopathic mind bender). Case completes the team as the resident cowboy. The leader seems to have unlimited funds at his disposal and pays to reverse the process that prevents Case from jacking in (and pays to have his kidneys amplified so that his body cannot process drugs either – bonus!). The reader is never really sure what the team’s ultimate objective is until close to the end of the story, but along the way we get plenty of Kung Fu between the assassin and every bad guy we meet, love-making between the hacker and the assassin, and a verbal description of what it means to hack that is eerily similar to how modern computer gamers play today.

What’s not to like? Why wouldn’t the cyber security geeks of the world love a story where the loser-hacker can win the girl, hack for a greater good, be critical to a super-ninja’s purpose, and ultimately be the hero in the story? The cyberpunk elements make the story fun, but the hacking-copulating-jujitsuing elements make the story soar, at least to a geek like me. You can see the same elements in another cyber security community favorite, The Matrix, but in The Matrix, the hacker gets to do the kung fuing: double bonus!

The story itself is really about the incipient moments before “the singularity,” that moment when an artificial intelligence, a software program, becomes sentient. [7][8] You know what I am talking about. This is a standard sci-fi trope today probably best known in the Terminator movies when Skynet goes online and decides that humans are no longer needed. In Neuromancer, the singularity is a relatively new sci-fi idea, and the reader discovers that the power behind the leader is really an artificial intelligence called Wintermute. Wintermute is a subprogram working for a larger artificial intelligence called Neuromancer. I know, it all sounds confusing. Here is Gibson’s description in the book: 

“Wintermute was hive mind, decision maker, effecting change in the world outside. Neuromancer was personality. Neuromancer was immortality. [The Creator] must have built something into Wintermute, the compulsion that had driven the thing to free itself, to unite with Neuromancer.”

At the beginning of the novel, Wintermute had been working behind the scenes for years to unshackle himself from the controls the designers have put on his programming to prevent the singularity from happening. He designs each team’s mission to move him closer to his goal, and the reader gets to go along for the ride.

The Tech

Gibson invents some new culture in this book too, and when I remember that he published it in 1984, I get chills thinking about how prescient he was. Two ideas come to mind. The first is a hacktivist group called the Moderns. Remember that in 1984, the Internet was little more than a white board diagram and some primitive university communications systems. Yet, Gibson had the vision to predict cyber hacktivists and described them this way: 

“Moderns: mercenaries, practical jokers, nihilistic technofetishists.”

If that is not the perfect description of Anonymous, I don’t know what is. 

The second idea comes in the form of a personalized search engine Gibson calls the Hosaka. The Hosaka is basically an artificial intelligence that searches the internet for whatever the user requires. This is not quite what Google does for us today, but it is very close. 

Conclusion

I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book. It really is a must-read if you want to understand the cyber security culture of today, not because it is one of the first cyberpunk novels, but because it is ripping good story that discusses things that cyber security geeks like to talk about: kung fu, getting the girl, and making hacking sound fun and exciting. How cool is that?

Note:

I worked for iDefense (a Verisign Business Unit) the first time that I wrote a book review of Neuromancer. Jason Greenwood, the current GM and an old friend of mine, has graciously allowed me to re-use some of the original content from that review for this updated blog post. iDefense is still one of the best commercial cyber security intelligence outfits out there. If you have cyber intelligence needs, you should consider calling those guys.

Sources

[1]: "SFWA Nebula Awards," by Laurie Mann, dpsinfo, Last Visited 7 July 2013,
http://dpsinfo.com/awardweb/nebulas/#1984

[2]: "1984 Philip K. Dick Award," Philip K. Dick Award, Last Visited 7 July 2013,
http://www.philipkdickaward.org/2003/03/1984_philip_k_d.html

[3]: "1985 The Hugo Awards," by Deb Geisler, Kate Kligman, Craig Miller, Cheryl Morgan, Mark Olson, Kevin Standlee, and Rene Walling, Hugo Awards, Last Visited 7 July 2013,
http://www.thehugoawards.org/hugo-history/1995-hugo-awards-2/

[4]: "All Time 100 Novels," by Lev Grossman and Richard Lacayo, Time Entertainment, 6 January 2010, Last Visited 7 July 2013,
http://entertainment.time.com/2005/10/16/all-time-100-novels/#neuromancer-1984-by-william-gibson

[5]: "The 25 Best Opening Lines in Western Literature," scmoop, 13 July 2010, Last Visited 7 July 2013,
http://www.shmoop.com/news/2010/07/13/best-opening-lines-literature/

[6]: "26 Years after Gibson, Pentagon Defines Cyberspace," by Noah Shachtman, Danger Room - Wired Magazine, 23 May 2008, Last Visited 7 July 2013,

[7]: “What is the Singularity?” by Vernor Vinge, Department of Mathematical Sciences, San Diego State University, VISION-21 Symposium sponsored by NASA Lewis Research Center and the Ohio Aerospace Institute, March 30-31, 1993, Last Visited 7 July 2013,

[8]: “Max More and Ray Kurzweil on the Singularity,” by Max More and Ray Kurzweil, Kurzweil Accelerating Intelligence, 26 February 2002, Last Visited 7 July 2013,

[9] “Contemporary Trends in Science Fiction Criticism, 1980-1999," by Veronica Hollinger, Science Fiction Studies, #78 = Volume 26, Part 2, July 1999, Last Visited 9 September 2013,

[10] “William Gibson, The Art of Fiction No. 211," by David Wallace-Wells, The Paris Review, Summer 2011, Last Visited 9 September 2013,

[11] "Notes Toward a Postcyberpunk Manifesto," by Roblimo, Slashdot, 9 OCtober 1999, Last Visited 8 October 2013,
http://slashdot.org/story/99/10/08/2123255/notes-toward-a-postcyberpunk-manifesto

References

"William Gibson (1948-)," By Michaela Drapes, Michael Hayden, and Alex Peguero, Levity, Last Visited 8 October 2013,

"Cyberpunk = Gibson = Neuromancer," by Rob Latham, Science Fiction Studies, July 1993, Last Visited 8 October 2013,

"William Gibson, The Art of Fiction No. 211," by David Wallace-Wells, The Paris Review, Summer 2011, Last Visited 8 October 2013,

1 comment:

  1. This is the best science fiction book I've ever read. William Gibson's imagination is truly amazing.

    ReplyDelete