02 October 2013


I haven't read William Gibson's seminal cyberpunk novel Neuromancer since I was a teenager.

The most memorable scene in it for me is marvelously spooky. Let me set you up: it's in the hazily-defined near future. Various prosthetic technologies are common; we meet a character who has had a lung replaced with gear for making animated holograms, another who has extensible razor blades implanted under her fingernails for fighting. Our protagonist, Case, is a “cyberspace cowboy”: he connects to the internet through a direct brain interface. At one point in the novel he uses his computer to feed him the live stream of sensory experiences from his colleague, who is working with him to unravel a mystery involving an AI program named “Wintermute”.

Here's the scene:

There were cigarettes in the gift shop, but he didn’t relish talking with Armitage or Riviera. He left the lobby and located a vending console in a narrow alcove, at the end of a rank of pay phones.

He fumbled through a pocketful of lirasi, slotting the small dull alloy coins one after another, vaguely amused by the anachronism of the process. The phone nearest him rang.

Automatically, he picked it up.


Faint harmonics, tiny inaudible voices rattling across some orbital link, and then a sound like wind.

“Hello. Case.”

A fifty-lirasi coin fell from his hand, bounced, and rolled out of sight across Hilton carpeting.

“Wintermute, Case. It’s time we talk.”

It was a chip voice.

“Don’t you want to talk, Case?”

He hung up.

On his way back to the lobby, his cigarettes forgotten, he had to walk the length of the ranked phones. Each rang in turn, but only once, as he passed.

I love the wonderfully cinematic image of the phones ringing as he walks by them. But of course, one could not make that film now, because: payphones?


Ron Edwards said...

My favorite similar bit in the novel is when Case gags when he eats real meat for the first time, because "you could taste the *animal* in it."

Seriously, about those payphones.

Jonathan Korman said...

Samuel R. Delaney has a similar scene that is very good, Ron.

Erik said...


Tagline says it all:

"Was Gibson a prophet? 'Not a very good one,' he says. 'There are no cellphones in Neuromancer.'"

Joseph Max said...

There are some other decent prophets of sci-fi. Asimov predicted iPads, or something like them, in "I, Robot" (the interviewer of Susan Calvin uses a pocket-sized, computerized transcription device that he's typing into - and he wrote that in the 1930s!) So did Arthur C. Clarke - the astronauts on the Jupiter mission in "2001" have pad computer interfaces, that even LOOK like iPads in the film - and they use them to watch videos.

And, of course, 'Star Trek' predicted the flip-phone...

One of the most hilarious anachronisms comes from Ayn Rand, who somehow thought intercontinental hi-speed rail would be a big deal in the future of the late 20th century.