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March 27, 2011 / tietze

Neuromancer: Cyberpunk and Novum Ownership (Pt. 2)

William Gibson was born in South Carolina in 1948, grew up in Virginia and Arizona, and left the United States for Canada when he was nineteen, where he still lives. Neuromancer was his first novel, and netted him the three major American science fiction awards: the Hugo, the Nebula and, perhaps appropriately, the Philip K Dick award.

But what does this actually tell us about Gibson and about his influences? His emigration to Canada in 1968 was in response to the conscription of soldiers during the Vietnam War, which pegs him in the right part of ‘70s society to be as responsive to the punk movement. Indeed, despite his retaining dual citizenship, his permanent exodus to Canada suggests a general disillusionment with the United States, certainly the home and heart of western culture. This disillusionment is certainly supported by Gibson’s redrafting of America in the novel, the seeming take-over by Japanese interests clearly satirising the growth of consumer culture and corporate dominance in that country.

The plot itself is decidedly straightforward and action-based, resembling something out of an episode of The A-Team, so it’s not really worth our while looking at it in too much depth. Basically, it’s a race against time in which protagonist Henry Dorsett Case is forced to do a job for a criminal before the sacs of mycotoxin in his body dissolve entirely. (I assume this is where Case gets his name from – since that’s exactly what he is, carrying the mycotoxin like he’s a well-cushioned case for it.)

This central threat element is stolen pretty much wholesale from John Carpenter’s 1981 Escape From New York, which Gibson is forced to cite as an influence: Snake Plissken must rescue the President from the Manhattan prison island before two microscopic explosives detonate in his bloodstream. That this only real twist on such a straightforward plot is ‘borrowed’ effectively negates any need for a deep analysis of narrative in Neuromancer. But, as with a lot of good science fiction, this doesn’t particularly matter. In SF, plot is rarely the important element, usually playing second (or even third) string to the concept, the fantastical setting (if there is one), and sometimes even the characters.

That said, characters are usually only important in SF if they serve the concept and/or the setting, which Case certainly is. He represents not only the punk sensibilities of the underdog in this overwhelming corporate world (in which the individual is even smaller than usual), but he also shows us the more illicit side of Gibson’s America, introducing us to the Moderns, the AIs, and what Mike Featherstone and Roger Burrows call “Gibsonspace” – Gibson’s version of cyberspace, which exists through the matrix.

Case, the classic example of a high-tech drug addict –it almost kills him to be reminded that, owing to a genetic adjustment, caffeine and amphetamines no longer have any effect on him – sees everything in machine terms. The anonymity of one sexual partner (she is referred to only as “she”) serves to amplify the cold detachment with which Case regards the encounter. The cold, functional prose style reminds us that Case is here with a purpose – and that purpose isn’t necessarily pleasure. He sees the sexual encounter as a means to just moving on. Case obviously sees little or no humanity in humans he meets. We can see another example of this in a description of a naked woman: “He [Case] lay on his side and watched her breathe, her breasts, the sweep of a flank defined with the functional elegance of a war plane’s fuselage.” Here, Case reduces the woman’s breathing, a specifically human act, to the routine dynamics of a machine, and compares her form to that of a plane.

This view of the world is perhaps appropriate, as his only means of narcotic satisfaction is through a machine-based simulacrum. This equivalent is, of course, cyberspace, to which he is most assuredly addicted, and which gives him the same temporary ‘release’ from the real world as would a hallucinogenic narcotic.

The novel’s setting is pure Cyberpunk, an uneven mixture of technological, corporate and consumer cultures, with a combination of social types that almost seems to struggle in order to make do. However, underlying this in Neuromancer is a distinct noir feel. Although it is not entirely prominent and considerations of identity determined through memory are not incorporated into the story as they are in, say, Blade Runner and Dark City, the novel’s setting is very reminiscent of the former. Indeed, this film is frequently cited as a major influence, and it shows. The corporate domination, the clash of cultures and the neon signs that burn into the night are all tropes of that film’s world, but they have dated more in Neuromancer.

I think this dating can be pinned down to the growing trend in 1980s western culture that Japan showed the way forward in industry, and that a Japanese cultural explosion would soon accompany it. Although it may be inaccurate to suggest that a Japanese domination of industry and productivity was visible only in the 1980s, the typical image of a productive neon Tokyo extending at least as far back as 1967’s James Bond entry You Only Live Twice, the fear that this would spill over into western society was never more prevalent than in the 1980s. This, of course, is why learning to speak Japanese suddenly became so popular at that time, and is where remarks about the Japanese buying up Queensland’s Gold Coast tend to come from.

Thus, we must sit through dozens of references to numerous Japanese words, names, companies – not to mention the predominance, at least in the early part of the novel, of traditional Japanese weapons. I’m sorry but, elegant as they as implements of death may be, they died (in a pop culture sense) with the phasing out of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, if not earlier.

Another very obvious place where Neuromancer dates more than Blade Runner lies in its choice of core SF concept. While Blade Runner and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? chose to concentrate on philosophical debates regarding the human rights of artificial intelligences – still an element of science fiction today – Neuromancer examines the increased involvement of computers in everyday life. This was and is a valid topic of discussion, it is true, but because it’s so valid, Gibson’s 1980s approach has become invalidated. Computers have become such a central part of society that technological advances in the field have accelerated well beyond any predictions. Consequently, Neuromancer features references to ROM cassettes (which always remind me of Amstrad desktop computers, for some reason) and a mere three megabytes of RAM being needed to jack in to the matrix.

(While on the topic, though, I wonder what inspired the use of the word “microsoft” at one point in the novel, and whether or not Bill Gates is within his rights to sue Gibson.)

So, Gibson fails in exactly the same regard as so many science fiction writers – trying to predict scientifically plausible extensions of contemporary technology and failing over time. That said, such instances are limited in the novel, and they do not detract from the major themes it examines.

Which is a topic for next time…

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