The latest genre in my series of first chapter breakdowns is Science Fiction. As with the other books I’ve analysed (Hunger Games, Harry Potter, The Notebook and others can be found here), I will attempt to see how a debut novelist managed to create an opening to his story that successfully pulls the reader in.
William Gibson’s Neuromancer (1984) is the preeminent cyberpunk novel. A good example of a very derivative work on one level (Philip K. Dick, J.G. Ballard, noir and hardboiled all rolled together) that is at the same time influential in its own right, spawning countless books and films and even fashions.
The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.
The first line is pretty famous one now, even if it is describing the weather. As usual the important thing is whether it's an interesting idea, not if it observes arbitrary rules of fiction. And I would say the technological yet non-functional vibe here sets us up nicely for the kind of world we are about to enter.
As with all stories set in an alien world, whether it’s the future or the Land of the Fairies, you need to orient your reader as to where they are. This book starts with a guy who walks into a bar. It’s a pretty slow start, just normal Friday night downtown sort of stuff, some banter. But the futuristic setting is worked into nearly every line through little details.
Then we get the backstory. Again, forget the ‘rules’, Is it interesting? is the only question worth asking. Our hero, Case, used to be a hacker, a talented one, who tried to scam his bosses. They let him live but crippled his ability to navigate the digital realm of cyberspace, leaving him to operate as a mundane hustler on the real streets.
The backstory is concisely told and not lingered on. It’s difficult to gauge now, when the ideas are so familiar from countless imitators, but it's interesting enough at a couple of hundred words.
Then Case is told by a friend that someone he owes money to has put a hit out on him. Feeling paranoid and wary he takes precautions, but soon finds himself on the run from a mystery assailant. They run around town pulling various odd weapons on each other.
Case eventually arranges to meet the guy he owes money to, only to discover there is no hit. The ‘friend’ who warned him has sent him on wild goose chase so she could rob him while he was otherwise involved, and the person chasing him turns out to be doing so for a completely unrelated reason.
Now, the real reason he has to go through all this rigmarole is so we can get an idea of the world he lives in. As he runs around the streets of futuristic Japan (the cyberpunk homeland) renting guns off street urchins, buying odd mechanised bladed weapons, hiding in various establishments, we get a very good idea of the hi-tech/low-life environment the story is set in. And when you’re not in Kansas anymore you need to know these things.
The language is very description-heavy, but they’re always very specific, unusual details. A mirror with a red neon frame, spectacles with bevelled edges like windows in a Victorian doll’s house. And always within movement, trying to get to the next thing, finding the way blocked, working a way round it.
It’s a pretty long first chapter, over twenty pages, and ends with his pursuer catching him, and offering him a job. She could quite easily have left him a message, made the offer much sooner, and no doubt he would have taken it. If this was a detective story in the Chandler vein (which is basically what it is modelled after) that’s probably how it would have started. Lady comes into the office and says, “I’ve got a job for you.” But Chandler didn’t have to explain how a phone worked or what kind of drugs were out there or the way police and criminals operated, the readers belonged to the same world as the protagonist and already knew. Here, it needs to be explained, but just listing it like an entry in an encyclopaedia is boring. And boring, no matter how good the reason for it, is unacceptable. Hence the runaround.
This book was not particularly successful when it first came out, more a cult hit. It appealed to the people who were into the subject matter—a look into the future without the rose-tinted camera lens of corporations trying to lure consumers. That kind of dystopian writing is of course still very popular. It’s a good example of ‘write what you know’. I often see this idea ridiculed as antithetical to using your imagination. Did Tolkien know what orcs liked for breakfast? etc. And of course the answer is yes, he did.
Write what you know doesn’t mean you can only write about time travel if you’ve actually invented a working time machine. It means write what you’re passionate about, what interests you, what you can spend months and years on. You can still make things up, but care enough to make sure it all works within its own internal logic. It means: Be invested in your creations.
Well, duh, Mood, I hear you say (somehow). Obviously! Doesn’t everyone do that? No, they don’t. They write what’s popular, what’s selling, whatever’s in vogue. Sure, I could write a vampire story, a French vampire who loves garlic buy can’t eat any. 90,000 words—no problem. But would my heart be in it?
Gibson had virtually no knowledge of computers or of hacker culture when he wrote this book. A lot of the ideas he came up with are way off the mark compared to how these things work in real life. It doesn’t matter. His passion was for the way culture develops with technology, what it means when a computer can mould your dreams and you can jack into a world that’s so much better than the real one. And passion is infectious.
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