Monday, March 30, 2009
by William Gibson
I first encountered William Gibson’s debut novel, 1984’s “Neuromancer,” about ten years ago, in ’98 or ’99. For me, the experience of reading the book remains firmly tied to a particular place. I remember sitting in my father’s truck in the parking lot of a state park in Syracuse, New York the weekend after graduating 8th grade, thumbing through this strange paperback replete with body transfiguration, hallucinogenic violence, and post-Baudrillardian media spectacles. My father used the truck for his pest control business, and I can recall the faintly chemical smell of its interior as I sat hunched over the book. The novel’s mix of hardboiled noir tropes, post-human science fiction and sharply bitten prose made an incredible impression on me, and like Larry McCaffery’s academic casebook of postmodern science fiction, “Storming the Reality Studio,” it strongly informed the trajectory of my developmental reading. On his website, Gibson discusses his preliminary encounters with the Beats, how he “…read this stuff, or tried to, with no idea at all of what it might mean, and felt compelled - compelled to what, I didn't know… At the time, I had no way of knowing that millions of other Boomer babes, changelings all, were undergoing the same metamorphosis.” “Neuromancer” has ascended to a position of influence quite similar to Burroughs in the past decade.
Rereading “Neuromancer,” one is startled by the prescience of the text, both in the speculative domain of SF, as well as in terms of aesthetic trends within the genre – it is difficult to consider the contemporary SF landscape without at least a passing nod to Gibson and his accomplishments. The shock of disorientation “Neuromancer” must have once conveyed has long since been subsumed by vivid recognitions – strip the book of its flash and sensational technological trappings and you are left with a world resembling our own in a very fundamental, if not necessarily literal, sense. How much of this is can be attributed to the book’s influence and how much can is on account of Gibson identifying a then nascent zeitgeist on the verge of its surfacing? The truth probably lies somewhere between the two options.
Gibson’s debt to Burroughs is notable. “Neuromancer” occupies an interesting legacy in relation to that Burrough’s “Naked Lunch” and the later Cut-Up Trilogy. Both Gibson and Burroughs balance on the pivot of a highly visible mainstream and a subterranean, more experimental contingency. Gibson’s readership covers a remarkably broader spectrum than that of his contemporaries such as Pat Cardigan, Lewis Shiner, and John Shirley. The second most prominent founding member of the so-called “cyberpunk” movement would be Bruce Sterling, who despite frequent contributions to WIRED magazine and a magisterial presence in defining the movement through his seminal anthology, “Mirrorshades,” has somehow sustained a much lower profile than Gibson, with whom he co-wrote “The Difference Engine,” discussed elsewhere on this blog. Why has Gibson entered the popular conscience to such a greater degree than others writing in a similar vein? Gibson’s reputation occupies a very similar position that Kerouac, Ginsberg and Burroughs possess in relation to the Beats. He is both a central hub of the “cyberpunk” movement, as well as an introduction to a whole cast of wonderful, brilliant writers. “Neuromancer” has burst into the mainstream conscious like few other books so conscious of SF as a genre, yet like the recent “surfacing” of the graphic novel “Watchmen,” the reader will be rewarded by taking into account its more hidden contexts and backgrounds.
But let us move away from such general discussion and focus more intently on the text at hand. “Neuromancer” follows Case, a suicidal former “cowboy,” or hacker, enlisted through the mysterious Armitage to lead a dangerous run at the Starlight Villa, a hermetic off-world palace with its share of strange secrets. The plot in many ways mirrors a traditional hard-boiled noir by Raymond Chandler or Dashiell Hammett, but these elements cohere more as a graft than an integration. The novel is a swirling cryptozoology of discarded 20th century literary and cultural tropes.
Looking solely at the title though, we find that it encompasses many of the novel’s central concerns. We have here a clear roadmap for the entirety of the text. Gibson explains the title wonderfully, telling us “Neuro from the nerves, the silver paths. Romancer. Necromancer.” Throughout the book, he returns again and again to images of totality and partiality – Case’s memory of the hornet’s next, the conflict between the multinational zaibatsus, which when “…viewed as organisms…had attained an immortality,” and the tribal corporate empire of Tessier-Ashpools, as well as the narrative’s great thrust – the AI Wintermute’s desire to attain singularity. It is in the title that Gibson manages to condense the thematic sprawl of the novel within a form so familiar to poetry, philosophy and SF - the neologism! The word “neuromancer” has become so familiar due to the novel’s fame that it is easy to forget the strangeness of this myriad contraction. Gibson pulls this layered verbal condensation through is wonderful ear for language –both literary and colloquial. His prose excels in its virtuosity and its density. The crystalline complexity of his prose reminds me of another SF writer of image – JG Ballard. Both writers display a fractal clarity – combining the crisp lucidity of pulp writing with a heady complexity and dislocation.
The word “neuromancer” is only one of the many neologisms Gibson coins over the course of the book. Simstim, matrix, cyberspace and others all refer to the blurring of flesh-based context and a broader sensory context - a new vista. Old words have worn thin in the face of a new reality. The novel’s justly famous first sentence establishes this milieu through its reversal of realities as nature reflects artifice – “The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.” This sentence, like the greater novel itself, is also notable for its anachronism. For all its post-modern futurism, the sentence is already archaic. The pixilated grey and white visual feedback of early televised broadcasting has given way in recent years to a dead, digital blue. A teenager reading “Neuromancer” for the first time in 2009 may see something very different in this sentence than me or anyone else born before 1984. To say this is a fault of Gibson would be to miss his point. The importance of approximation and pastiche to “Neuromancer” must be recognized.
This anachronistic futurism further locates the book as a discussion of the intersection of humanism and technology in the eighties. The novel’s use of pastiche is also conscious of anachronisms. To read “Neuromancer” as “new” is perhaps – perhaps- beside the point. Instead, Gibson’s borrows of hard-boiled crime tropes and a Beat and punk rock attitude quite consciously. This is a novel of appropriation, of a continuance. The through line of civilization instead of its break – that even a flashpoint exists on a line. Gibson’s debt to the too-often forgotten earlier practitioners of progressive science fiction must also be recognized. William Gibson and the entire “cyberpunk” movement synthesize and continue the innovations of Brian Aldiss, Thomas Disch, Samuel Delany and others. Delany is an important reference point. Gibson’s preoccupation with bodily mutability is forefigured in Delany, though while Delany celebrates the diversity technology can bestow upon the human form and sexuality, Gibson envisions a site of mutilation and destruction. But perhaps Gibson’s vision of mutilation is a foreground for a post-human actualization as information and identity beyond the body. Compare the violent zero-g battle between genetically modified spacecraft captains in Delany’s “Babel-17” with Gibson’s portrayal of a Chiba City deathmatch in “Neuromancer” to better appreciate the similarity and differences between these two great writers.
Again, the title. “Neuromancer” echoes the word Necromancer – an occult revitalization of the body. It also recalls “romancer,” a sensual word of communion and corresponding intimacy. But this “realness” which is traditionally believed to be a feature of flesh, of the physical, is transported to a more nebulous realm – a neurological netherspace of mind and memory. The book captures humanity in the act of “becoming,” in a rare liminal moment between flesh and something else. Case has been caught in the angst of this new adolescence of the species. After double-crossing his employers, “they damaged his nervous system with a wartime Russian mycotoxin,” rendering him unable to jack into cyberspace. He becomes a petty street thug and assassin roaming the neon gutters of Chiba, rushing towards self-annihilation. Cut from the Matrix’s digital “fix,” Case responds like a terminal junkie in withdrawal, yet his despair is not only biological, but also strangely spiritual – “For Case, who’d lived for the bodiless exultation of cyberspace, it was the Fall. In the bars he’d frequented as a cowboy hotshot, the elite stance involved a certain relaxed contempt for the flesh. The body was meat. Case fell into a prison of his own flesh.” Look at the wonderful cadence of Gibson’s prose, as he produces a steady with the ends words of those last three sentences – flesh, meat, flesh. There is a musical pulse to Gibson’s prose like the dub coursing through the controlboards of the Rastafarian satellite community, Zion.
The progress of technology has allowed humanity to will many of its prophecies and fantasies into being. “The Sprawl,” a loose trilogy to which “Neuromancer” is the first part, could be said to be about the actualization of humanity’s dreamlife. Flesh has been devalued in Case’s world; now the emphasis is placed upon ideas. An idea, then, gains its negotiable reality unencumbered by the absence of the physical body. Naming is a creative becoming, a name is a creative reality. While off-world on Freeside, three Turing agents – cops dedicated to squelching the onset of an AI singularity, arrest Case. The Turing agents discuss the crumbling sanity of Case’s boss, Armitage. “Armitage,” we learn, exists mostly as a name; the name creates a mask identity for a broken, schizophrenic former soldier by the name of Corto. In response, Case says “Everyone’s got a lot of names.” A name is an identity, and the diversity of an individual’s names reflects the fractured of one’s roles in society.
A demon is, essentially, a name imbued with power. Michele, one of the Turing agents, chastises Case, telling him “For thousands of years men dreamed of pacts with demons. Only now are such things possible.” Are AI like Wintermute or Neuromancer demons? Is that definition a one-to-one translation, or is it an associative means of discussing something that does not have a definition? Is it an approximation of a definition or an actual one? At the novel’s climax, which does not occur in the physical world, Neuromancer explains to Case, that “To call up a demon you must learn its name. Men dreamed that, once, but now it is real in another way. You know that, Case. Your business is to learn the names of programs, the long formal names, names the owner’s seek to conceal. True names…” Ah! So is a name’s concealment also a litmus of its reality.
Does a concealment, then, in some way equal a truth or veracity?