A short analysis of Neuromancer
William Gibson's novel Neuromancer is concerned with charting a new frontier, the Matrix - a frontier with unpenetrable regions, albeit one that is used everyday; it is a vast evolution beyond today's Internet. Gibson creates a hi-tech future, but there is no specified date. The setting is urban - the story begins in the Ninsei enclave of Chiba city in Japan, a huge urban sprawl encompassing Tokyo, and perhaps the entire country. It later moves on to "the Sprawl", also known as BAMA (the Boston-Atlanta Metropolitan Axis), on the eastern seaboard of the US, and then to Freeside, an orbital station. There is also the suggestion of environmental degradation - people in Chiba wear filtration masks (p.19), a "pandemic of horses" is discussed (p.88).
Case, the Matrix and the body
The central character, Case, begins the story as a hustler, scamming the dregs of Ninsei. He had previously lived as a member of the technological elite, a "cowboy" riding a cyberspace deck that projects his disembodied consciousness into the Matrix and the unknown of ice-protected systems. But this was before his "digital exile", before Case stole from his employers whilst working as a corporate cracker, and before he was punished by having a mycotoxin injected into his nervous system. He describes the "bodiless exultation of cyberspace", and the "unlimited subjective dimension" he experiences. In Neuromancer, the Internet and virtual reality have combined within the Matrix, but this does not preclude the low-level hacking of, for example, obtaining free phone calls (often a primary motive for many contemporary would-be hackers); Gibson describes Case using the stolen entry codes for Bell Europa, posted on an academic grid (p.78). Also like many contemporary hackers, Case appears to know the computer system better than its builders, seeming to fool the Sense/Net building network with relative ease (p.62). The cowboys mock the body; Case describing his inability to access the Matrix as "the Fall", back into a "prison of his own flesh" (p.4).But the weakness of the flesh makes Case vulnerable; he has little choice when Armitage "asks" him to work for him; he also has little choice as he craves a return to the fold of the Matrix. But Case and his "co-employee", Molly, really have little idea who they are working for.
Not only have the Internet and virtual reality combined in the Neuromancer future, but humans have combined with technology - everyone, it seems, has become a cyborg. Whereas contemporary cyberians may carry a laptop, the cyberians in Neuromancer have implanted "microsofts", which jack directly into the brain in order to increase memory and knowledge. Gibson depicts advanced neurosurgery and body repair, such as Ratz the barman's prosthetic Russian arm (p.7), Wage's Nikon eye transplants (p.25) or the finger-blades, and the mirrors inserted into Molly's eye sockets (p.29). Cloning and genetic manipulation are available, though at high cost; the 135 year-old Julius Deane has his DNA reset every year (p.16), and an assassin is described as having the "...hallmarks of a vat-grown ninja" (p.72) The personalities of dead people can be recorded and resurrected in the Matrix, as in the case of the Dixie Flatline. At the extremes, whole personalities can be created by computer, as by Wintermute, one of the artificial intelligences) for Armitage. This is an "age of affordable beauty", but that may be true of now, more or less. But the cyberneticisation of humanity goes deeper than bodily or neural enhancement. The human characters in Neuromancer have assimilated the language of computing; when Case takes a drug he says it "lit his circuits" (p.23) or when Molly leaves her note reads "It's just the way I'm wired" (p.247). Humans have taken on the characteristics of computers.
What is reality?
"Cyber-sex" (as such) seems not to have become as popular in this future as some in this present would have it. In Neuromancer it seems that this mode of interaction is spurned in favour of human "puppets" with neural cutouts. But sex and euphoria are now linked into the experience of the Matrix, at least for Case; "...his orgasm flaring blue in a timeless space, a vastness like the matrix" (p.56). Thus increasingly the Matrix becomes reality, not the other way round.But what passes for reality? If reality is chaotic, then the artificial intelligence that is "Neuromancer" (the counterpart of Wintermute) understands chaos theory. It says that "I saw her [Linda's] death coming. In the patterns you imagined you could detect in the dance of the street. Those patterns are real" (p.242). The Panther Moderns, a group of nihilistic technofetishists, also believe in chaos; "'Chaos, Mr.Who', said Lupus Wonderboy, 'That is our mode and modus'" (p.66). At the end of Neuromancer - Wintermute and Neuromancer merge to become the matrix, which then initiates contact with another, alien computer network (perhaps akin to the TOPY's belief in the evolution of a "global information being" in Rushkoff's Cyberia).
Drugs and the drug
Whether it is pink octagons, ketamine, hypnotic Cloud Dancers, hormonal triggers or betephenethylamine, the names may change but this does not protect the innocent. Not that there seem to be many "innocents" in Neuromancer - most of the characters appear to have a drug addiction. Employees above a certain level in corporations (such as Mitsubishi-Genentech) are "implanted with advanced microprocessors that monitored mutagen levels in the bloodstream" (p.14). There is a correlation here in the modern-day corporations' attempts to crack down on drug use, such as urine testing in Silicon Valley. Many of the best computer programmers take psychedelics in order to provide new insights into otherwise intractable problems; a senior executive for a major defense contractor privately confessed that "the long-hairs we've hired have the ability to attack computer problems from completely different angles" (Cyberia, p.47). Yet the real drug in Neuromancer is the Matrix, to which Case (and presumably other cowboys) is addicted. When he jacks in again, he sees "...the unfolding of his distanceless home, his country, transparent 3D chessboard extending to infinity", while in his body, in reality, "...he was laughing, in a white-painted loft, distant fingers caressing the deck, tears of release streaking his face" (p.52).
Power and immortality
Power, in Case's world, means corporate power. The Japanese zaibatsus have seemingly overcome all opposition. They have gained immortality as organisms - you cannot "kill" a zaibatsu by assassinating its executives, as there will always be others to take their place. But the powerful Tessier-Ashpool family, owner of the Wintermute and Neuromancer AIs (located in Berne and Rio respectively), are more vulnerable. They attempt to overcome this through cloning of family members, cyrogenic stasis, and the vision of Lady Jane Marie-France Tessier-Ashpool. She commissioned the construction of the AIs, hoping to create a symbiotic relationship with them, so that they can take the family's corporate decisions for them. This vision saw little in the way of individual consciousness, thereby pushing the limits of cyberneticisation. Thus Tessier-Ashpool would gain the immortality of the zaibatsus, but without the inconvenience of replaceable, fleshy executives.
Ultimately, however, this immortality (especially the sham immortality of cryogenics) is revealed as unattainable - the AIs coalesce into an entity that encompasses, or is, the Matrix. While still remaining the global information network, the Matrix now has a "mind" of its own. The personality substitute of Armitage disintegrates, and the body it inhabited is killed. Molly leaves Case. The Tessier-Ashpool family is perhaps mortally wounded, but the AIs have a "happy" ending, as does Case, who returns to Earth and finds work as a cowboy once more. Those with the most knowledge and the most acceptance of technology ultimately triumph.
BibliographyW.Gibson, Neuromancer (Victor Gollanz Ltd, London, 1985)
D.Rushkoff, Cyberia (Flamingo, London, 1994)