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April 3, 2011 / tietze

Neuromancer: Cyberpunk and Novum Ownership (Pt. 3)

Through his two central SF concepts – cybernetics and cyberspace – as well as the less referenced artificial intelligence, Gibson is able to comment on questions of privacy, culpability and identity – this last one, of course, being a particular favourite of a clear influence, Philip K Dick. What I plan to do first is to take a look at the three concepts Gibson uses, their scientific and literary ancestors, the way they work with each other to ask even greater philosophical questions, and where else they’ve appeared (in science fiction and in reality). Only then, when we have a very clear understanding of Gibson’s tools, will we examine where he might be taking us with them.

Though not as central to the popular image of Cyberpunk as computer-generated artificial realities, cybernetics still has a large part to play in Neuromancer, from the post-battle surgery performed on Corto for his trial appearance to the various bodily modifications made to incidental characters to the cyberspace interface Case must use to enter the matrix, cybernetics is a major feature in the novel’s imagined world.

First off, it might be prudent to clarify a few matters concerning cybernetics, just to make sure we’re all talking about the same thing. The most commonly known fruit of cybernetics is the cyborg, or cybernetic organism, seen through the likes of Robocop, etc. As a result, the modern definition of cybernetics has almost exclusively to do with the creation of biomechanical machines and beings for whatever functional or (sometimes) aesthetic reasons. However, if we take a look back to the origin of the term, we soon discover that it had quite a different meaning -–one which serves to encompass rather more of the concepts in Neuromancer than any number of Robocops ever could.

According to David Banks’ surprisingly well-researched Cybermen, we need to go as far back as the days of James Watt to find where the story begins. From his invention of the steam engine came a device known as the Flyball Governor for the Control of Speed in Steam Engines. Watt’s Governor makes use of the two basic elements of cybernetic control: self-adjustment through feedback information, and quick and automatic response.

Although almost wholly unrelated to the science of cybernetics, this example does display quite clearly what the fundamentals of cybernetics were outlined as being when Norbert Weiner, a mathematics professor, coined the term in 1948. Says Banks, “Weiner noted that all animals, including humans, used certain common means for internal communication, and to maintain control of their bodies. One such means is the nervous system.” Thus, the concept of cybernetics as originally outlined referred far more to feedback systems than to human-machine hybridisation. And this concept is more in tune with the core SF concept in Frankenstein, in which life is created through spare part surgery.

Naturally, this raises the contentious issue of whether or not artificially created life is as valid as other forms of life – namely, us – an issue that relates to the AIs in Neuromancer. The idea of life after death is another popular one in this age of bringing people back from medical death, and one that relates in Neuromancer to the character of Flatline.

How is this important to the themes of Neuromancer? The idea of internal communication and maintained control relates to Gibson’s concept of the matrix in that it is representative of a mass organism within which the components (people) communicate with other components (other people). Without the presence of people communicating within the matrix, it dies. And the feedback element? Although it is never made entirely clear who or what regulates and maintains the matrix, one can safely assume that the situation isn’t entirely dissimilar to the work of internet servers.

So where did science fiction go so wrong with the definition of cybernetics, and why? Well, the notion of self-regulation through feedback seems essential if biomechanical compatibility is to be achieved, so it does seem something of a sensible, if extreme, leap. Where the crossover occurred was in a Bernard Wolfe novel, Limbo 90, published in 1952. In it, Wolfe employed the concept of cybernetics as an explanation for his core SF concept: cyborgs. In a somewhat dubious link, Wolfe had characters willingly replacing limbs with mechanical equivalents in an effort to go beyond bodily maintenance and actually improve their physical statures. This link was conveyed rather more effectively in Martin Caidin’s Cyborg, which of course evolved into prime time crime success The Six Million Dollar Man.

We’ve made quite a leap here, jumping from the 1950s to the 1970s. Along the way were many cyborgs in science fiction, though none perhaps as durable as the Cybermen, Doctor Who’s second answer to cybernetics – the first, of course, being the Daleks. The motivation behind these creatures’ gradual transformation into cyborgs came from an actual need to conduct physical maintenance through biomechanical implants. Their creator, Dr Kit Pedler, envisioned spare part surgery (part of the popular press of the time) taken to its ultimate extent, with virtually every body part replaced by an artificial equivalent. Here we see definite parallels with Neuromancer, as the biomechanical adaptation comes more from necessity than aesthetics or a desire to attain physical perfection. (Admittedly, the only real necessity for cybernetic adaptation in the novel emerges in the case of Corto, and even then we’re on shaky ground, but being fitted up with the latest simstims in an effort to fight back the craving of the matrix would certainly count as a necessity to an addict.)

Easily the most important popular cyborgs to have emerged in the last couple of decades, at least in terms of Neuromancer, are Star Trek’s Borg. Again sporting something of an unfortunate name (a strange chunk of the word cyborg), the Borg not only represent the result of biomechanical technology, but they also bring us to a discussion of Gibson’s idea of a collective cyberspace, as they form a vast collective consciousness.

There are a number of various types of cyberspace, two main variants being virtual reality and Gibsonian cyberspace. The latter shares similarities with other imagined virtual space. A prominent example features in The Matrix (1999, dodgy sequels in 2003), which not only carries the same name as Gibson’s cyberspace, but also a number of similar features. It is, as distinct from old-fashioned virtual reality, a collective plane, much like the internet, in which (in this case) millions of people are experiencing a shared universe. The link is via a direct neural implant, and the illusion is brought on by thought instead of by any combination of external senses.

Another matrix, and one that predates Neuromancer, again featured in Doctor Who.

(As an aside, I would like to note that this example pretty well conclusively disproves the notion that Gibson invented cyberspace and virtual reality. Certainly he popularised them, but they are both evident in this story, one episode of which takes place almost entirely within cyberspace. What is more, the basic concept of the internet has been floating around since the 1960s in the form of ARPANET, and the word ‘internet’ was first coined in the early 1970s.)

In the 1976 serial The Deadly Assassin, the Doctor returns to his home planet for the first time in centuries to discover a few new innovations floating about the place. One is the Amplified Panatropic Computer Net – clearly an early version of the internet – whose cyberspace is referred to as the matrix. The main purpose of the APC Net is as a storehouse of the knowledge and identities of all dead Time Lords, thus forming a sort of collective consciousness in cyberspace. This gives rise to the question of identity, which has appeared in varying forms – and to varying degrees – in such works as Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, We Can Remember It For You Wholesale (not to mention most of the rest of Philip K Dick’s oeuvre) and the film version of The Lawnmower Man, all examples of Cyberpunk. And it is a fairly valid issue, as it relates to the real world through such situations as the culpability of criminals with multiple personalities, among other examples.

Virtual reality, on the other hand, has somewhat less to do with Neuromancer, although it has been no less influential on science and science fiction. While VR seemed to be coming into its own in the late 1980s and early 1990s, with crude virtual reality demonstrations popping up all over the place, less well-read writers were beginning to see its potential in science fiction, particularly in cinema and on television. Examples abound, including VR5, The Lawnmower Man and Strange Days.

Clearly, then, Neuromancer has done much to popularise cybernetics, virtual reality and digital interactivity in science fiction. However, its claims to originality ought to be taken with a grain of salt, and its influence on the genuine digital age we live in considered tenuous at best. As a core influence in a new wave of fiction, its presence is undeniable, but it remains hard to argue for it as anything more than a particular distillation of themes and ideas that appeared in the right place at the right time.


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