High Tech, Low Life

John Updike (who we might be reading next with his famous Witches of Eastwick) once wrote some simple rules for reviewing a book. The first is the most important, really the only rule a critic needs:

Try to understand what the author wished to do, and do not blame him for not achieving what he did not attempt.

A variation on this would be, “Does the book succeed on its own terms?” Implicit there is that a book, to be a great book, does not need to succeed on my terms. I will admit that I need to work on that bit – I have trouble appreciating books that are excellent at what they do, but that aren’t my cup of tea.  An example, for me, would be Call It Sleep by Henry Roth. This book is widely considered a classic, but I came to it at an odd time, shortly after having read the following books: The Plot Against America and American Pastoral, both by Philip Roth, and World’s Fair and Billy Bathgate, both by E. L. Doctorow. None of these books could be called carbon copies of one another. But there were similarities: Jewish boys growing up in Newark and the Bronx, respectively, enduring discrimination and family strife. Call It Sleep is about a Jewish boy growing up in Manhattan, enduring discrimination and family strife. I shouldn’t have read it because I had just exhausted my interest in that archetypal story. Since I came at it with a degree of pessimism, I didn’t like it. Only at the end did I realize that Call It Sleep was really a beautifully written, touching, and very, very heartfelt story. I did not read it, thinking, “Does it succeed on its own terms?” I didn’t like it because I was burned out on books like it.

As I start reading Neuromancer, I don’t want to make the same mistake. Neuromancer is about computer hacking, and is the book that made famous the subgenre of cyberpunk. I’ve never read a book like this before so I need to check myself at the start. What is this book attempting to do, and what is it not?

A very cyberpunky post online defines the genre as an outlet for an attitude.

There seems to be a common attitude or philosophy among those attracted to cyberpunk. They often find themselves caught in the romantic struggle between themselves and the system. For some this manifests in an interest—sometimes even an obsession—with privacy and security, both online and offline. The cyberpunk also notices that the world might be heading in the wrong direction: the wealthy are becoming more powerful while the poor are becoming helpless, working more and earning less. As disparities grow wider, [the cyberpunk’s] tactics become more desperate: using the tools of the system against the system.

I’d love to hear what other people think defines cyberpunk. When reading this book, what are its terms? What is it trying to achieve, to say?

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