How Cyberpunk cribs from Naked Lunch

Ten pages into William Gibson’s debut novel Neuromancer, the book that set fire to a whole genre of science fiction known as cyberpunk, it is clear that the noir detective mysteries of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett are not the frame Gibson is building on. To be sure The Big Sleep and Red Harvest are all over these pages: tough men using Teutonic-rich words in curt sentences, associating with  sullied ladies and world-weary men. Yeah, that’s noir. But that is just the gist of the introduction. The way Gibson actually uses his words is not so much like the old noir pulps as it is like the counterculture novels of the Sixties. Specifically,  it is William S. Burrough’s Naked Lunch that is tapping me on the shoulder on every page.

I wasn’t ready for Naked Lunch when I read it. If you read that book and it did not disturb you than please stop reading my blog. Naked Lunch is fundamentally inhumane. It is a book that takes the human soul and considers, “How can we deject this? How can we dehumanize it? How can we destroy it?” Looking back at the Updike rules for reviewing books, I can appreciate Naked Lunch as a work of art. Burroughs intended for readers to be shocked and disgusted by the content. The message: “This is drugs.”

The way Burroughs crafts his language though is distinct, and I see the same sort of hand building paragraphs in Neuromancer. Here are a few lines from Naked Lunch, page 17:

The Buyer spreads terror throughout the industry. Junkies and Agents disappear. Like a vampire bat he gives off a narcotic effluvium, a dank green mist that anesthetizes his victims and renders them helpless in his enveloping presesence. And once he has scored he holes up for several days like a gorged boa constrictor. Finally he is caught in the act of digesting the Narcotics Commissioner and destroyed with a flame thrower – the court of inquiry ruling that such means were justified in that the Buyer lost his human citizenship and was, in consequence, a creature without species and a menace to the narcotics industry on all levels.

Now, a line from Neuromancer, page 8:

He’d found her, one rainy night, in an arcade. Under bright ghosts burning through a blue haze of cigarette smoke, holograms of Wizard’s Castle, Tank War Europa, the New York skyline… And now he remembers her that way, her face bathed in restless laser light, features reduced to a code: her cheekbones flaring scarlet as Wizard’s Castle burned, forehead drenched with azure when Munich fell to the Tank War, mouth touched with hot gold as a gliding cursor struck sparks from the wall of a skyscraper canyon.

The staccato scattering of sharp, hallucinatory images; the distancing from any world the reader may relate to, the anxiety and alienness… Gibson may not be aiming for the same extremes as Burroughs reached in Naked Lunch, but he’s working from the same playbook.

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  1. […] of the writing? My take? It is a bit unpolished, a little pulpy to be considered really good prose. Gibson’s style is heavily influenced by the cut-up writing of William S. Burroughs, blips and whispers of content dropping in all the time. Highsmith reads (as much as you can […]



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