Sustaining Dread – Neuromancer teases out the bad guy

The most painful thing about reading this book is knowing how just about every idea in it has been turned into a cliche. Some of these ideas were innovative at the time. For example, action scenes in cyberspace, cybernetically-enhanced characters, and the intermingling of the human brain and the computer. However, some tropes in Neuromancer were well established even before the book came out.  Tropes are, as I’ve written before, unavoidable in fiction. The fact that they are commonly used in storytelling shows that people relate to them, understanding that they have counterparts in the real world.

A very old trope  is that of the mysterious major villain that gets a reveal only in the final act. I have the suspicion that Neuromancer is running that trope as I pass into the second hundred pages. This is a trope that, at least in my experience, is more common in drama than in novels. Typically, if there is an evil force of opposition it is a regular figure in the narrative. Think of all those Charles Dickens baddies, from David Copperfield‘s  Uriah Heep to Oliver Twist‘s Fagen. All of them make regular appearances in the story.

Looking over the master list, the idea of the unseen villain is not common until the invention of the horror genre.The first example that I can find is that of Poseidon who regularly tries to destroy Odysseus on his return voyage from Troy. But then, except for Satan’s appearance at the end of Dante’s Inferno, there is a length of time where this trope is forgotten. It doesn’t pick up until the 19th century when we get stories where fear or shock-and-awe play a major role: Frankenstein and Dracula are two. Moby-Dick is another. Then, of course, the “women haunted by women” trilogy: Rebecca, Jane Eyre, and The Woman in White, all of which concern an ingenue in a mansion, tormented by an off-screen female presence.

Neuromancer has a lot of the 19th century horror novel in it. Secondary characters, in hushed tones, speak of “Wintermute,” first with great reluctance but eventually in more explicit language.  Wintermute is the Moby-Dick of this novel, and the Rebecca, the Dracula, the Kurtz. It circles the narrative, popping in early to foreshadow its menace and then more regularly building in the reader’s imagination.

In the case of this unseen villain, Wintermute is an artificial intelligence, which is really just an upgrade on the classic poltergeist that haunts Victorian gothic novels. Wintermute possesses characters, can chase our hero Case down the hallway, ringing every phone he passes when it wants to talk. It’s a great, creepy villain that I can’t wait to read more about.

One Response to “Sustaining Dread – Neuromancer teases out the bad guy”
  1. Massive spoiler if you’ve not finished the book, but Wintermute’s not really the “villain.” In fact the actual villain turns out to be a somewhat under-developed character! (sorry if you’ve not read it yet!) Just done a Neuromancer post over at my blog!

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