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Book History 5 (2002) 187-208

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Corporate Publishing and Canonization:
Neuromancer and Science-Fiction Publishing in the 1970s and Early 1980s

Sarah Brouillette


Since its initial publication as an Ace Science Fiction Special in 1984, William Gibson's Neuromancer has been established as one of the most influential and respected novels in the history of its genre, as well as in mainstream literary culture. It won the three major awards in the science-fiction field that year—the Nebula, the Hugo, and the Philip K. Dick awards—and has since gone on to receive critical treatment rarely accorded to novels that were initially marketed as genre science fiction. Indeed, it is ostensibly responsible for spawning an entire subgenre—cyberpunk—and has become standard fare on syllabuses for literature courses of all varieties. 1 It has been translated into languages from Magyar to Japanese to Danish, and has been published in numerous printings and editions—from a Gollancz hardcover published in London in 1984 to a Phantasia Press limited hardcover "collector" edition in 1986, from a tenth-anniversary deluxe edition to a graphic novel.

A partial explanation for this attention is the skill with which Gibson maps the dystopic spatial scenes of a late capitalist culture increasingly familiar to the audience that received and continues to receive his work. Neuromancer is often read as a potent example of the kind of postmodern fiction that attempts to address late capitalism and the increasing presence [End Page 187] of corporate power within our global landscape. 2 In fact, in his influential description of his vision of the postmodern cultural scene, Fredric Jameson calls Gibson's cyberpunk fiction "the supreme literary expression, if not of postmodernism, then of late capitalism itself." 3 The novel's plot involves Case, a strung-out computer hacker who is hired to perform a task he does not understand for a force he is not allowed to identify. He hooks up with Molly, a gunslinger with optical implants and retractable talons, and together they embroil themselves in a monumental hack of the Tessier-Ashpool corporate enclave, involving Molly's physical might and Case's fearless travels through "cyberspace." The complex machinations of the plot pose a challenge to even the most astute reader, yet Gibson's map of a future determined by corporate power continues to be a major draw for those interested in his articulation of a rift between corporate monopoly culture and the criminal underclass that is forced to position itself both within and against it. Indeed, critical readings of Neuromancer continually explore the ambiguous relationship between the book's corporate upper culture and its deviant, displaced subcultures.

What I will argue here is that the general championing of Gibson's text is intimately related to its situation within a particular print environment. Specifically, the initial critical success and continuing interest of Neuromancer have much to do with the situation of science-fiction publishing in 1984, when the novel was first released by Ace Books as part of editor Terry Carr's Science Fiction Specials Series. I want to explore the relationship between Carr's series, the ethos of Gibson's novel, and the complex world of science-fiction publishing in which both the series and the novel were situated, in order to argue that the science-fiction community that initially received Neuromancer with high praise was particularly ready to embrace the sort of underclass, subcultural challenge to corporate might that it evokes. I hope to show that the relationship between the corporate book marketplace and the subculture made up by science-fiction writers and readers is analogous to the relationship within the novel between the world of Case and his deviant companions, and the corporate world of the dystopian cityscape and the Tessier-Ashpool monolith that vies to control it. Throughout the 1980s, the science-fiction subculture articulated itself both as aware of increasingly stratified divisions between its own self- identification and the demands of corporate culture, and as ironically incapable of resisting the necessity of strapping itself into the machine...


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