Neuromancer – by William Gibson

neuromancer

 

First Edition Provenance

Gibson, William. Neuromancer, Ace Books: New York, 1984.

Excerpt Provenance

Gibson, William. Neuromancer, Ace Books: New York, 1986.

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Neuromancer, by William Gibson – Introduction to the Selection by Derek Chen

The world of science fiction has long been an umbrella term referring to a diverse collection of genres whose only uniting characteristic is taking a speculative approach to technology and futuristic settings. In this case, I would like to focus my attention on just one of its many subgenres, which this book is part of called cyberpunk.

What exactly is cyberpunk?

If you have ever seen Blade Runner or read anything by Philip K. Dick, especially Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (incidentally freshman summer reading for our year) which Blade Runner was based off of, these are considered to be seminal works of cyberpunk fiction. The genre is very particular in the ways that it deals with technological and future-setting speculation.

Settings are often portrayed as dark, gloomy, semi-dystopian urban environments, occurring in societies which have experienced rapid advancements in technology, especially in the fields of cybernetics/cyberspace/internet, artificial intelligence, economics, and artificial prosthetics. Cyberpunk is very much about speculation on the implications of the fusion of technology and the digital age, and the physical world (often endearingly known as meatspace). Conflict exists at this point of intersection, driven by humanity’s inability to cope with rapid and constant change.

Neuromancer, and by extension, Gibson, was instrumental in establishing many of these tropes which have become pervasive throughout the genre. The main character, Case, is a space cowboy, an occupation whose scope is vague enough encompass individuals whose roles include hackers, hitmen, spies, information traffickers[1] and thieves – outlaws of the cyberpunk era. Their lowlife and in some ways subversive lifestyles promotes an existence in the underbelly of society. Often portrayed as moody and emotional, the personas of these protagonists are focused on perhaps outdated notions of absolute justice and personal liberty, striving for a chance to live life free from the oppressive external influences of the future. In some sense, these depictions seem to be anachronistic projections of current ideals displaced into fictional futuristic settings, immediately placing them at odds with the faceless coldness of unfathomably large global corporations – expressions of capitalism run rampant or struggles between the new and the old.

As a result, Cyberpunk is undeniably gritty and brooding, a strange lovechild of Gothic and noir traditions embedded in a technologically advanced not-so-future world. It strives to achieve a level of realism through a combination of character introspection and an intentional apathy towards portraying the future in a positive light by obscuring its flaws. The complexity of deterioration and junkspace, of inextricably tangled messes of wires leading nowhere, of metal haphazardly grafted to flesh[2], of sleazy subterranean bars populated by shifty drug peddlers, of exposed untreated concrete wanting a good powerwashing, become setting elements which are celebrated or even fetishized for the beauty of decay. Cyberpunk thrives in its own pessimism, the contemporary manifestation of Paul Valery’s “The future isn’t what it used to be!”

Since its initial publication in 1984, Neuromancer has been and has remained a genre-defining book, placing Gibson at the forefront of the cyberpunk movement without explicitly identifying with it[3]. Its influence has only continued to progress as time and technological innovations continue to advance – our world seemingly inching ever closer to this less-than-ideal future. Gibson has often been described as a descriptive writer first, and a storyteller second. While the overall plot of Neuromancer is nonetheless compelling in its own right, it is always evident throughout the text that Gibson is also very much invested in establishing extremely atmospheric settings calculated from the scale of a megalopolis down to projections of the mannerism of personal speech. And although flowery musings on the urban nature of a cheap, rundown hotel room[4] are reminiscent of novels from the Victorian Gothic concerned with establishing their own fantastical settings, Gibson’s preoccupation with the environment of the cyberpunk city become treasure troves of architectural data so integral to the fundamental ideas of the genre.

Plot Summary

Neuromancer’s plot arc follows a trajectory which in some sense creates a literary tour through the genre of cyberpunk. Case’s story begins in Chiba, an urban offshoot of Tokyo, in a depressed environment full of dirt, grit, and technology. Gibson’s Chiba is a breeding ground for much of the same, and it is here Case meets the other members of his team: Armitage, a former soldier in the world war serving as the architect of the plan; and Molly, a semi-bionic assassin who is the physical foil to Case’s cybernetic abilities. The plan, as enumerated by Armitage, is to investigate the secretive workings of Tessier-Ashpool, an immensely powerful global corporation run by the union of the Tessier and Ashpool families, which made its fortune developing the infrastructure for the human colonization of space. Skirting around the world and beyond to assemble further members of the group, Case and Molly are joined by the digitally preserved consciousness of Case’s former mentor in hacking, McCoy Pauley (usually referred to by the nickname Dixie Flatline); Riviera, a psychopathic holographic projectionist; and Maelcum, a pilot from the alternative space colony of Zion.

During their journey towards the Tessier-Ashpool home of Straylight, located within Freeside, a corporation owned space station colony of consumerism and hedonism, Case becomes acquainted with an artificial intelligence construct called Wintermute. Wintermute is later revealed to be a construct programmed by the Tessier-Ashpool family, and is the ‘consciousness’ responsible for inciting Armitage to instigate the investigation. While the overall intentions for the creation of Wintermute is never fully understood, Wintermute’s goal is to trick Armitage’s group into merging Wintermute with his corresponding half, called Neuromancer, who is physically separate because of international laws limiting the power of artificial intelligence constructs. Case eventually meets the current iteration of the Tessier-Ashpool clan, Lady 3Jane, a clone of the original Lady Jane. As the only extant member of the family on Straylight, 3Jane vaguely enumerates the reasoning behind the creation of Wintermute and Neuromancer, citing boredom and complacency which has become rampant within the family. In the end, Case, ever the risk taker, agrees to help Wintermute merge with Neuromancer, though the final results of this remain ambiguous.

Japanese Cyberpunk – Junkspace Revived

The issue of style and genre, however much it is later transplanted or grafted into other contexts for other uses, is a concept which is inextricably linked to a geographic location. For Gibson, ever the pioneer, it seemed evident that the world was progressing towards a cyberpunk future, and that its aesthetics and lifestyle had already begun to fester in certain regions. And indeed it had, in the postwar, technocratic, urban consumerist frenzy that was modern Japan. Gibson noted:

“Modern Japan simply was cyberpunk. The Japanese themselves knew it and delighted in it. I remember my first glimpse of Shibuya, when one of the young Tokyo journalists who had taken me there, his face drenched with the light of a thousand media-suns – all that towering, animated crawl of commercial information – said, ‘You see? You see? It is Blade Runner town.’. And it was. It so evidently was.”[5]

It comes as no surprise, then, that the initial events of Neuromancer, especially those involved in establishing an atmospheric sandbox from which the main characters’ backgrounds are elucidated, are set around a fictionalized version of Tokyo Bay.

Of course, Case’s Tokyo is not the pristine metropolis of the architectural persuasion. It is dark and grimy, a place of messy intermixing between diverse individuals and technological junk. One cannot help but visualize Tokyo as a city covered with a perpetual cloud of smog and night (lit only by a profusion of seizure-inducing neon displays), a sentiment immortalized by Gibson’s famous opening line: “The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.”[6] The environments frequented by Case and his ilk are given a similar treatment, with the exterior of Case’s provisional lodging at ‘CHEAP HOTEL’ exuding an aura of slapdash design.[7] Gibson treats Tokyo almost as an impermanent settlement whose occupancy changes too quickly for anyone to truly identify with the space, resulting in neighborhoods which are used by all yet maintained by none. Its development becomes emblematic of Koolhaas’ Junkspace, wherein construction values only expediency[8].

Neuromancer’s future world also begins to suggest a new set of intangibles associated with living in a globalized society. As the spread of a world culture is disseminates through continents and cultures, the quirks associated with establishing a sense of place are removed, resulting in a world which is infinitely variable and monotonous. Upon returning home to the Sprawl, a megalopolis of continuous urban fabric on the East Coast of the United States, Case notes that “[t]heir room might have been the one in Chiba where he’d first seen Armitage. He went to the window, in the morning, almost expecting to see Tokyo Bay. There was another hotel across the street.”[9] The promise of variability results in a loss of spatial sensibility.

While this loss is eminently present at the urban scale, Neuromancer also suggests an ability to scale, producing environments which begin to interact with humans on more emotional levels. In Tokyo, the constant barrage of neon, both in traditional tube signs and the flashing lights of digital advertisements, introduces an element of artifice into architectural space. Within this framework, the configurable space of neon signs is responsible for exuding an atmosphere of constant movement and change. But these emblems are not always optimistic. For those individuals who have fallen behind, unable to cope with rapid societal transformations, the neon city is overwhelming, creating an environment of alienation and despair. In this sense, the synthetic nature of the new urban environment itself becomes a new type of reality. Strangely enough, despite his youth and technological expertise, Case initially experiences a combination of the two experiences when being led through Tokyo by Molly, who is much more self-assured in her position in this world.[10]

Isolated far above the jurisdiction of an Earth beset with artificial detritus, Freeside and the Villa Straylight represent a different type of artifice altogether. The very premise of their construction, built with the intention to create artificial fantasies in order to escape from the gritty ‘artificial’ environments of Earth, is strangely ironic, and introduces a second level of psychological and architectural changes brought upon the world through technology. The Villa itself is described by 3Jane as a “Gothic folly”[11], a construct of perhaps unnecessary external complexity designed to distract and prevent others from knowing the contents contained within. The Gothic moniker also begins to suggest certain emotional responses to the architecture of Straylight. Themes such as isolation, loneliness, and the festering workings of a family living in a closed system of their own design, present space (in both meanings of the word) as a moody affair It comes as no surprise, then, that the novel’s central conflict revolves between the contrived, Las Vegas-esque nature of Straylight and Freeside, and the horizontal neo-organic urbanism developing on Earth.



[1] “In cyberpunk novels high-tech rebels live in a dystopian future, a world dominated by technology and beset by urban decay and overpopulation. It is a world defined by infinitely powerful computers and vast computer networks that create alternative universes filled with electronic demons. Interlopers travel through these computer-generated landscapes. Some of them make their living buying, selling and stealing information, the currency of a computerized future.” Katie Hafner and John Markoff. Cyberpunk: Outlaws and Hackers on the Computer Frontier. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1991, p.9.

[2] “The bartender’s smile widened. His ugliness was the stuff of legend. In an age of affordable beauty, there was something heraldic about his lack of it. The antique arm whined as he reached for another mug. It was a Russian military prosthesis, a seven-function force-feedback manipulator, cased in grubby pink plastic.” Neuromancer, (2).

[3] Gibson is often associated with popularizing the term “cyberspace” (appearing in the short story Burning Chrome in 1982).

[4] “A block down Baiitsu, toward the port, stood a featureless ten-story office building in ugly yellow brick. Its windows were dark now, but a faint glow from the roof was visible if you craned your neck. An unlit neon sign near the main entrance offered CHEAP HOTEL under a cluster of ideograms.“ Neuromancer, 19.

[5] Gibson. The Future Perfect: How Did Japan Become the Favored Default Setting for So Many Cyberpunk Writers?, Time International, 30 April 2001, 48.

[6] Neuromancer, 1.

[7] “A block down Baiitsu, toward the port, stood a featureless ten-story office building in ugly yellow brick. Its windows were dark now, but a faint glow from the roof was visible if you craned your neck. An unlit neon sign near the main entrance offered CHEAP HOTEL under a cluster of ideograms […] The elevator, like Cheap Hotel, was an afterthought, lashed to the building with bamboo and epoxy.” Neuromancer, 19.

[8] “Junkspace is the body double of space, a territory of impaired vision, limited expectation, reduced earnestness. Junkspace is a Bermuda Triangle of concepts, an abandoned petri dish: it cancels distinctions, undermines resolve, confuses intention with realization. It replaces hierarchy with accumulation, composition with addition. More and more, more is more.” Rem Koolhaas, Junkspace.

[9] Neuromancer, 88.

[10] “Lifeless neon spelled out METRO HOLOGRAFIX in dusty capitals of glass tubing. Case picked at a shred of bacon that had lodged between his front teeth. He’d given up asking here where they were going and why; jabs in the ribs and the sign for silence were al he’d gotten in reply. She talked about the season’s fashions, about sports, about a political scandal in California he’d never heard of.” Neuromancer, 47.

[11] Neuromancer, 172.

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Excerpt 1, p.1

Case in Tokyo.

The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.

“It’s not like I’m using,” Case heard someone say, as he shouldered his way through the crowd around the door of the Chat. “It’s like my body’s developed this massive drug deficiency.” It was a Sprawl voice and a Sprawl joke. The Chatsubo was a bar for professional expatriates; you could drink there for a week and never hear two words in Japanese.

Ratz was tending bar, his prosthetic arm jerking monotonously as he filled a tray of glasses with draft Kirin. He saw Case and smiled, his teeth a webwork of East European steel and brown decay. Case found a place at the bar, between the unlikely tan on one of Lonny Zone’s whores and the crisp naval uniform of a tall African whose cheekbones were ridged with precise rows of tribal scars. “Wage was in here early, with two joeboys,” Ratz said, shoving a draft across the bar with his good hand. “Maybe some business with you, Case?”

Case shrugged. The girl to his right giggled and nudged him.

The bartender’s smile widened. His ugliness was the stuff of legend. In an age of affordable beauty, there was something heraldic about his lack of it. The antique arm whined as he reached for another mug. It was a Russian military prosthesis, a seven-function force-feedback manipulator, cased in grubby pink plastic. “You are too much the artiste, Herr Case.” Ratz grunted; the sound served him as laughter. He scratched his overhang of white-shirted belly with the pink claw. “You are the artiste of the slightly funny deal.”

“Sure,” Case said, and sipped his beer. “Somebody’s gotta be funny around here. Sure the fuck isn’t you.”

The whore’s giggle went up an octave.

“Isn’t you either, sister. So you vanish, okay? Zone, he’s a close personal friend of mine.”

She looked Case in the eye and made the softest possible spitting sound, her lips barely moving. But she left.

“Jesus,” Case said, “what kinda creepyjoint you running here? Man can’t have a drink.”

“Ha,” Ratz said, swabbing the scarred wood with a rag, “Zone shows a percentage. You I let work here for entertainment value.”

As case was picking up his beer, one of those strange instants of silence descended, as though a hundred unrelated conversations had simultaneously arrived at the same pause. Then the whore’s giggle rang out, tinged with a certain hysteria.

Ratz grunted. “An angel passed.”

“The Chinese,” bellowed a drunken Australian, “Chinese bloody invented nerve-splicing. Give me the mainland for a nerve job any day. Fix you right, mate….”

“Now that,” Case said to his glass, all his bitterness suddenly rising him like bile, “that is so much bullshit.”

—–

Excerpt 2, p.47

Tokyo’s future underbelly.

Lifeless neon spelled out METRO HOLOGRAFIX in dusty capitals of glass tubing. Case picked at a shred of bacon that had lodged between his front teeth. He’d given up asking here where they were going and why; jabs in the ribs and the sign for silence were al he’d gotten in reply. She talked about the season’s fashions, about sports, about a political scandal in California he’d never heard of.

He looked around the deserted dead end street. A sheet of newsprint were cartwheeling past the intersection. Freak winds in the East side; something to do with convection, and an overlap in the domes. Case peered through the window at the dead sign. Her Sprawl wasn’t his Sprawl, he decided. She’d led him through a dozen bars and clubs he’d never seen before, taking care of business, usually with no more than a nod. Maintaining connections.

Something was moving in the shadows behind METRO HOLOGRAFIX.

The door was a sheet of corrugated roofing. In front of it, Molly’s hands flowed through an intricate sequence of jive that he couldn’t follow. He caught the sign for cash, a thumb brushing the tip of the forefinger. The door swung inward and she led him into the smell of dust. They stood in a clearing, dense tangles of junk rising on either side to walls lined with shelves of crumbling paperbacks. The junk looked like something that had grown there, a fungus of twisted metal and plastic. He could pick out individual objects, but then they seemed to blur back into the mass: the guts of a television so old it was studded with the glass stumps of vacuum tubes, a crumpled dish antenna, a brown fiber canister stuffed with corroded lengths of alloy tubing. An enormous pile of old magazines had cascaded into the open area, flesh of lost summers staring blindly up as he followed her back through a narrow canyon of impacted scrap. He heard the door close behind them. He didn’t look back.

The tunnel ended with an ancient Army blanket tacked across a doorway. White light flooded out as Molly ducked past it.

Four square walls of blank white plastic, ceiling to match, floored with white hospital tile molded in a nonslip pattern of small raised disks. In the center stood a square, white-painted wooden table and four white folding chairs.

The man who stood blinking now in the doorway behind them, the blanket draping one shoulder like a cape, seemed to have been designed in a wind tunnel. His ears were very small, plastered flat against his harrow skull, and his large front teeth, revealed in something that wasn’t quite a smile, were canted sharply backward. He wore an ancient tweed jacket and held a handgun of some kind in his left hand. He peered at them, blinked, and dropped the gun into a jacket pocket. He gestured to Case, pointed at a slab of white plastic that leaned near the doorway. Case crossed to it and saw that it was a solid sandwich of circuitry, nearly a centimeter thick. He helped the man lift it and position it in the doorway. Quick, nicotine-stained fingers secured it with a white Velcro border. A hidden exhaust fan began to purr.

—–

Excerpts 3+4,

Villa Straylight and Freeside.

p.172

“They floated in the center of a perfectly square room, walls and ceiling paneled in rectangular sections of dark wood. The floor was covered by a single square of brilliant carpet patterned after a microchip, circuits traced in blue and scarlet wool. In the exact center of the room, aligned precisely with the carpet pattern, stood a square pedestal of frosted white glass.

‘The Villa Straylight,’ said a jeweled thing on the pedestal, in a voice like music, ‘is a body grown in upon itself, a Gothic folly. Each space in Straylight is in some way secret, this endless series of chambers linked by passages, by stairwells vaulted like intestines, where the eye is trapped in narrow curves, carried past ornate screens, empty alcoves….’

‘Essay of 3jane’s,’ the Finn said, producing his Partagas. ‘Wrote that when she was twelve. Semiotics course.’

‘The architects of Freeside went to great pains to conceal the fact that the interior of the spindle is arranged with the banal precision of furniture in a hotel room. In Straylight, the hull’s inner surface is overgrown with a desperate proliferation of structures, forms flowing, interlocking, rising toward a solid core of microcircuitry, our clan’s corporate heart, a cylinder of silicon wormholed with narrow maintenance tunnels, some no wider than a man’s hand. The bright crabs burrow there, the drones, alert for micromechanical decay or sabotage.’

‘That was her you saw in the restaurant,’ the Finn said.

‘By the standards of the archipelago,’ the head continued, “ours is an old family, the convolutions of our home reflecting that age. But reflecting something else as well. The semiotics of the Villa bespeak a turning in, a denial of the bright void beyond the hull.

‘Tessier and Ashpool climbed the well of gravity to discover that they loathed space. They built Freeside to tap the wealth of the new islands, grew rich and eccentric, and began the construction of an extended body in Straylight. We have sealed ourselves away behind our money, growing inward, generating a seamless universe of self.

‘The Villa Straylight knows no sky, recorded or otherwise.

‘At the Villa’s silicon core is a small room, the only rectilinear chamber in the complex. Here, on a plain pedestal of glass, rests an ornate bust, platinum and cloisonne, studded with lapis and pearl. The bright marbles of its eyes were cut from the synthetic ruby viewport of the ship that brought the first Tessier up the well, and returned for the first Ashpool…’

The head fell silent.

‘Well?’ Case asked, finally, almost expecting the thing to answer him.

‘That’s all she wrote,’ the Finn said.”

p.225

The Villa Straylight was a parasitic structure, Case reminded himself, as he stepped past the tendrils of caulk and through Marcus Garvey’s forward hatch. Straylight bled air and water out of Freeside, and had no ecosystem of its own.

The gangway tube the dock had extended was a more elaborate version of the one he’d tumbled through to reach Haniwa, designed for use in the spindle’s rotation gravity. A corrugated tunnel, articulated by integral hydraulic members, each segment ringed with a loop of tough, nonslip plastic, the loops serving as the rungs of a ladder. The gangway had snaked its way around Haniwa; it was horizontal, where it joined Garvey’s lock, but curved up sharply and to the left, a vertical climb around the curvature of the yacht’s hull. Maelcum was already making his way up the rings, pulling himself up with his left hand, the Remington in his right. He wore a stained pair of baggy fatigues, his sleeveless green nylon jacket, and a pair of ragged canvas sneakers with bright red soles. The gangway shifted slightly, each time he climbed to another ring.

The clips on Case’s makeshift strap dug into his shoulder with the weight of the Ono-Sendai and the Flatline’s construct. All he felt now was fear, a generalized dread. He pushed it away, forcing himself to replay Armitage’s lecture on the spindle and Villa Straylight. He started climbing. Freeside’s ecosystem, not closed. Zion was a closed system, capable of cycling for years without the introduction of external materials. Freeside produced its own air and water, but relied on constant shipments of food, on the regular augmentation of soil nutrients, the Villa Straylight produced nothing at all.

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