Talking Technobabble – Neuromancer Does It Right

Neuromancer is a book about computers and hackers. It pretty much invented the genre of hacker literature. And author William Gibson had never owned, or much used, a computer when he wrote this novel. Here’s Gibson talking with critic Larry McCaffery:

It wasn’t until I could finally afford a computer of my own that I found out there’s a drive mechanism inside- this little thing that spins around. I’d been expecting an exotic crystalline thing, a cyberspace deck or something, and what I got was a little piece of a Victorian engine that made noises like a scratchy old record player. That noise took away some of the mystique for me; it made computers less sexy. My ignorance had allowed me to romanticize them.

Gibson reportedly took some heat for making up a lot of ideas about how computers work, but he also was praised for conceiving things that didn’t even exist at the time (such as viruses and hackers). So the sword cuts both ways. A lot of the technobabble has to be vague because it isn’t based in any reality, but it also frees the imagination.

One thing Gibson does right is keep the language short and sweet. As I mentioned in a previous post, this book is tight. Sometimes scenes and pivotal actions are merely hinted at. The reader needs to fill in a lot of what is left unsaid. Though that isn’t always a good writing strategy, for a book like this it works. I’ll show why by comparison.

I’ve gotten grief from some friends for hating on another cyberpunk-esque book, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. I complained that the writing was sloppy, the main character was pure author wish-fullfillment, and the themes were callow and hateful. All this is true, but it’s the first point that is easy to showcase. So here’s a scene from Dragon Tattoo where the cyberpunk character Lisbeth Salander (a direct ancestor of Neuromancer‘s Molly) walks into a room:

My reaction to all of this: I don’t care! Do you care? I mean, honestly, who cares about the dimensions of the room, what model the PC is, what’s on the desk… how many times she came to the office… any of it! Who cares? It adds no value to the story.

When Gibson must get into specifics in Neuromancer, such as describing a space, or getting into technical details of a machine, etc. He swings the other way, to the point that we’re craving more information. Here’s a bit of back-and-forth between the characters Case and Molly that zips through some old history, some technobabble, and character development in rapid fire. It’s short enough that I’ll write it out:

“You’re a console cowboy. The prototypes of the programs you use to crack industrial banks were developed for Screaming Fist. For the assault on the Kirensk computer nexus. Basic module was a Nightwing microlight, a pilot, a matrix deck, a jockey. We were running a virus called Mole. The Mole series was the first generation of real intrusion programs.”

“Icebreakers,” Case said, over the rim of the red mug.

“Ice from ICE, intrusion countermeasures electronics.”

And that’s it. No more jargon. Gibson goes right back to people actually talking about what they plan to do next. You can say you don’t like technobabble in your novels at all, that’s fine. But my two cents: If you’re going to do jargon and jargon-esque description, get in and get out. Fast. Kudos to Neuromancer. Boo to Dragon Tattoo.

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  1. […] his post “Talking Technobabble” at the Letters Republic blog, Kevin Donovan is spot on in his explanation of how to use […]

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