William Gibson Essay - William Gibson American Literature Analysis

William Gibson American Literature Analysis

Gibson may have helped spark the cyberpunk movement in science fiction, but the concept—and Gibson’s writing—has its roots in previously established forms. This includes the science-fiction New Wave of the 1970’s, represented by such novelists as Philip K. Dick, J. G. Ballard, and postmodern writers who dealt with technology but were rarely labeled science fiction, such as Thomas Pynchon. A particularly important influence on Gibson is William S. Burroughs, whose hallucinatory visions of contemporary life and keen understanding of the human body’s fragility can be traced in cyberpunk.

Stylistically, Gibson owes as much to the hard-boiled detective noir style as to science fiction. The typical Gibson hero is a descendant of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler’s private detectives: loners outside of the system, hired to handle problems which conventional methods cannot solve. He has used femme fatales, such as the razorgirl Molly, and often employs MacGuffins—-plot devices which move a story forward but whose real significance is miscalculated or unknown by the story’s characters—such as the title sunglasses in Virtual Light.

Noir is often paranoid, especially about organizations that wield great authority but are essentially corrupt. Combining this notion with the science-fiction dystopia—a future world of chaos and disorder—Gibson often explores the workings of what may be called “corporate feudal states.” While countries exist and national borders are observed, the true arbiters of power are organizations that do business across national borders or beneath legal codes of conduct, whose brand names and manipulation of the media are more influential than any political edict. As a result, Gibson envisions consumerism as the engine that drives the world—-a desire to follow the latest fashions, to own the latest technology, to know the most celebrity and pop-culture references. He often parodies this mania, perhaps most succinctly in Pattern Recognition’s brand-allergic heroine, Cayce.

Given the technologies about which Gibson writes, he handles the thematic concern over the mind/body division with striking clarity. He does not endorse a complete separation of mind and body—each is dependent on the other, and problems arise when characters refuse to admit this. This construct raises questions, however. If one’s mind is the true source of identity, then what purposes can the physical body serve? And how reliable is memory if it is simply another construct? If intellect is a mechanical function, does a re-created mind (such as the Flatline Dixie in Neuromancer) count as a living being? Do the various artificial intelligences that pop up throughout Gibson’s work?

Where technology ends and the human begins is often unclear, and a person’s true identity is what emerges from this melding. Gibson imagines different possibilities. For console cowboys who control cyberspace, bodies are worthless appendages (“meat”) that get in the way of their true calling. In “Johnny Mnemonic” the brain is used as secure information storage that can be rented out. A “victimless” form of prostitution involves women becoming “meat puppets” as their bodies are used for sex, but they have no memories of what transpired. Cybernetic enhancement of beauty or lethality is an everyday occurrence. In such a world, the body is (to use Burroughs’s term) a “soft machine,” and memory is merely another form of storage. As Gibson shows, in such a culture it takes a special act of will, a humane level of insight, to see humans as more than that.


First published: 1984

Type of work: Novel

A broken cyberspace console cowboy has his abilities restored in order to help an artificial intelligence evolve into a higher life-form.

The title’s significance is revealed late in the book, but the word itself is evocative: taken from necromancer, magic involving the dead, neuromancer is magic involving the human nervous system. Henry Dorsett Case’s neuromancy is his ability to jack into cyberspace and navigate through the matrix of a computerized online world. Once a highly skilled console cowboy—someone who navigates through cyberspace (also known as the matrix) and breaks ICE, security measures that protect information—-he stole from a client and had his jacking abilities physically destroyed as punishment.

Now based in Chiba, Japan, Case finds out from his lover Linda Lee that a client of his, Wage, wants him dead. Confronting Wage, Case learns that Linda’s claim was merely a ruse so she could steal a RAM from Case and fly home. However, Case was being tailed by Molly, a cybernetically enhanced bodyguard. Molly introduces Case to her boss, Armitage, who offers to surgically restore his console abilities if he will perform an assignment with those skills. Later, at an arena with Molly, Case witnesses Linda’s murder.

After Case undergoes his operations in Chiba, he, Molly, and Armitage head to Paris, then to the Sprawl, a megalopolis covering the eastern United States. Thrilled to be able to jack into the matrix again, Case gets to work. With the help of Molly’s associate Finn and the Modern Panthers gang, Case simstims through Molly—that is, jacks into her sensory experiences—while she steals a construct housing a copy of legendary console cowboy McCoy “Dixie” Pauley’s intelligence. Later, the group finds out Armitage is controlled by Wintermute, an artificial intelligence (AI) owned by the Tessier-Ashpool corporation. Finn recalls an earlier encounter with another Tessier-Ashpool AI, Rio. With the Flatline Dixie’s help, Case discovers Armitage is a personality imposed on Willis Corto, a soldier of Screaming Fist, Russian military special forces which helped develop ICE-breaking techniques. Throughout, Wintermute repeatedly contacts Case, often assuming the form of past Chiba associates, and eventually confesses to killing Linda to push Case forward.

Molly, Finn, Case, and Armitage go to Istanbul, where they join with a holograph artist, Pete Riviera. Finn stays on Earth, while the other four go to Freeside, an orbiting satellite city. Through Zion, Freeside’s Rastafarian fringe community, Case’s group is given use of the ship Marcus Garvey and the help of its captain, Maelcum. The plan is to infiltrate Straylight, the fortress home of the Tessier-Ashpool clan.

Attending dinner at the Vingtieme Siecle, the group watch a holographic performance by Riviera dedicated to 3Jane Tessier-Ashpool, who is in the audience. Riviera uses Molly’s likeness to re-create a traumatic incident she once lived, forcing her to leave dinner and prepare alone for the raid. Case discovers that...

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