I recently tried for a second time to read William Gibson's Neuromancer, which I have long been told is perhaps the most important contemporary science fiction novel, and for the second time I failed--although this time I did make it to page 85, which is about 50 pages farther than I got the first time.
I was defeated mostly by passages such as the following:
At midnight, synched with the chip behind Molly's eye, the link man in Jersey had given his command. "Mainline." Nine moderns, scattered along two hundred miles of the Sprawl, had simultaneously dialed MAX EMERG from pay phones. Each Modern delivered a short set speech, hung up, and drifted out into the night, peeling off surgical gloves. Nine different police departments and public security agencies were absorbing the information that an obscure sect of militant Christian fundamentalists had just taken credit for having introduced clinical levels of an outlawed psychoactive agent, Blue Nine, into the ventilation system of the Sense/Net Pyramid. Blue Nine, known in California as Grievous Angel, had been shown to produce acute paranoia in eighty-five percent of experimental subjects.
I suppose that this sort of infodumping is part of the admission price in most science fiction, but I confess I have a hard time slogging my way through it, an even harder time actually caring about the "information" once it's been dumped on me. I know that I am eventually supposed to understand what a "link man" is, who the "moderns" are, what the "Sprawl" is, and why "MAX EMERG" is a code being used. That the "Sense/Net Pyramid" is a highly significant sort of thing will become clear. But since the presentation of these things in the pedestrian prose of this paragraph has left me indifferent, I also know I'm not going to be able to muster up much interest when they make their inevitable returns. A passage like this doesn't so much incite my imagination as it does beat it into submission.
Perhaps this kind of interlude would be tolerable if it were just an occasional hazard, but unfortunately in Neuromancer such piling-on of exotic details just keeps on coming. And perhaps I would be more willing to accept that as a necessary part of the "world-building" of science fiction if I could take some interest in the novel's plot and characters, or find some other aesthetic attraction to offset the tedium of the endless exposition, but alas the characters are made of the thinnest of cardboard (limited almost exclusively to their function as devices to advance the story), the "plot" seems just a retread of the Hollywood thriller with its international cartels and conspiracies as objects of intrigue, and the writing itself never rises much beyond the perfunctory--move the characters through their melodramatic paces, offer up the "vision" supposedly invoked by the unfamiliar terms, occasionally pause to feature some snappy dialogue. Finally it seems that the unfamiliar terms and their world-building are primarily what the novel exists to provide, as if the accumulation of the nomenclature in itself is some kind of aesthetic accomplishment.
Maybe I'm asking of science fiction such as Neuromancer something it isn't intended to provide. Maybe "art" is not what draws most of its audience to the genre, and thus I should just leave it to those who do appreciate what it wants to do. I'd still like to think, however, that science fiction can have aesthetic interest that isn't overridden by the need to "say something" about the future (and implicitly about the present), turning fiction almost entirely into a form of cultural criticism.