Skip to main content

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.


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categorize cyberpunk as stories written in a near-dystopian future where technology is advanced, governments have withdrawn in potency to be replaced by corporations, and man-machine interfaces and cyborg beings are the norm; think Blade Runner if you are having trouble getting your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. 


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?


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.


[1]: "SFWA Nebula Awards," by Laurie Mann, dpsinfo, Last Visited 7 July 2013,

[2]: "1984 Philip K. Dick Award," Philip K. Dick Award, Last Visited 7 July 2013,

[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,

[4]: "All Time 100 Novels," by Lev Grossman and Richard Lacayo, Time Entertainment, 6 January 2010, Last Visited 7 July 2013,

[5]: "The 25 Best Opening Lines in Western Literature," scmoop, 13 July 2010, Last Visited 7 July 2013,

[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,


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


Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

Book Review: Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson (1992)

Executive Summary

Every cyber security geek on the planet should embrace this book. It has everything that we like: Metaverse hacking, real-world swordplay, awesome weapons, and—to cap it all off—the loser hacker ends up with the girl. Stephenson is a cyber geek of the first order, and his personality is all over this story. His description of the “Metaverse” and the “avatars” that live in it, both terms he made famous in this book, are so prescient that anybody playing World of Warcraft or Second Life today would feel right at home. It is canon and written by an author who truly understands the hacker culture. And if that is not a good enough recommendation for you, Time Magazine included Snow Crash in a list of 100 novels everyone must read. You should have read this by now.


Because I recently reviewed the classic cyber punk novel Neuromancer,[1] I figured I would continue the trend and review another classic in the genre to see if it too still holds up. That novel is call…

Books You Should Have Read By Now

When I started Terebrate back in January 2010, I always intended it to be a place to put my book reviews on whatever I was reading. Since then, a lot has happened in my professional life. I changed jobs, twice. I presented my collection of cybersecurity book reviews at the annual RSA Conference and suggested that the cybersecurity community ought to have a list of books that we all should have read by now. My current employer, Palo Alto Networks, liked the idea so much that they decided to sponsor it. We ended up creating the the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame for cybersecurity books. We formed a committee of cybersecurity experts from journalists, CISOs, researchers and marketing people who were all passionate about reading. My collection became the the candidate list and for the past two years, the committee, with the help of community voting, has selected books from the candidate list to be inducted into something we are calling the Cybersecurity Canon. It has been very exciting.

This i…

Book Review: Kingpin: How One Hacker Took Over the Billion-Dollar Cybercrime Underground by Kevin Poulsen (2011)

Executive Summary
Kingpin tells the story of the rise and fall of a hacker legend: Max Butler. Butler is most famous for his epic, hostile hacking takeover in August 2006 of four of the criminal underground’s prominent credit card forums. He is also tangentially associated with the TJX data breach of 2007. His downfall resulted from the famous FBI sting called Operation Firewall where agent Keith Mularski was able to infiltrate one of the four forums Butler had hacked: DarkMarket. But Butler’s transition from pure white-hat hacker into something gray—sometimes a white hat, sometimes a black hat—is a treatise on the cyber criminal world. The author of Kingpin, Kevin Poulsen, imbues the story with lush descriptions of how Butler hacked his way around the Internet and pulls the curtain back on how the cyber criminal world functions. In much the same way that Cuckoo's Egg reads like a spy novel, Kingpin reads like a crime novel. Cyber security professionals might know the highlights of…