Henry Dorsett Case, known simply as Case during the story, is a washed up console cowboy. Once a top hacker, he crossed his former crime boss employer, but instead of losing his life, they burned out his ability to neurally connect to the web. Now a middle man in the slums of Japan, he’s stuck doing drug deals and fencing electronic gear. Case has become a suicidal addict, desperate for a cure that will reverse his mutilation, but beyond all hope of ever finding one. This is where Molly finds him. She’s a street tough working for a man named Armitage, a mysterious character that neither Molly nor Case knows much of anything about.
Molly and Armitage clean Case up, repair his neural damage, and add a little incentive to the mix to force him to work for them. This comes in the form of poison sacks hidden in strategic places inside his body that will slowly dissolve over time, putting him back in the same debilitating state they pulled him out of. Unless he is given the final antidote at the end of his work for them, he’ll be back in the gutter. The job? The preliminary run is just a basic smash and grab, stealing a unique program from a mega-corporation. But the ultimate goal of their little team is unclear, the only clue being a name; Wintermute.
The name Wintermute is revealed to be that of an AI, an artificial intelligence with a strange and perhaps dangerous agenda. It’s up to Case, Molly, and the rest of their team and friends to decide whether to help or hinder the AI. They’ve got to manage this somehow, while trying to stay alive, stay out of jail, and stay connected to the web. The meaning of the title isn’t revealed until well into the book, and it is truly astounding when it is.
Characters are diverse but all have a recurrent theme, that of some kind of social outcast. Case is a hacker, someone who makes a living by breaking into computers and selling what he steals, but he’s also an intelligent and thoughtful man, with a penchant for falling in love. Molly is a woman with a past, and a desperate need to protect her future. Her physical adaptations make her an ideal strong arm, but they came at a heavy price that still haunts her, and brings to mind some of today’s social injustices. The other characters are all equally memorable, and have equally difficult or heart breaking pasts.
This book is the definitive cyberpunk novel, the founding work and the place where the rest spring from. The most amazing part of the book is the fact that it came out in 1984, years before easily accessible personal computers, cell phones, or serious genetic manipulations were available. Gibson correctly imagined technology and innovations that wouldn’t happen for years, and wrote well using them. Not only was it visionary, it was a first novel. Gibson managed to create something amazing and genre-creating on his first publication. A good point for first time writers: Don’t be afraid to use your imagination; no species, technology, or characterization is too bizarre if done right. Gibson did it right.