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Neuromancer William Gibson

(Full name William Ford Gibson) American-born Canadian novelist, short story writer, poet, and screenwriter.

The following entry presents criticism on Gibson's novel Neuromancer (1984) through 2002. See also William Gibson Short Story Criticism, William Gibson Literary Criticism (Volume 23), and William Gibson Literary Criticism (Volume 182).

Gibson's first novel, Neuromancer, is regarded as one of the most influential works of twentieth-century speculative fiction and the canonical work of the “cyberpunk” movement, a futuristic style of science fiction that combines the tough atmosphere and scatological language of crime fiction, imagery from the punk counter-culture movement, and the technical developments of the 1980s. The novel claimed all three major science fiction literary awards in 1984—the Nebula Award, the Hugo Award, and the Philip K. Dick Memorial Award—and garnered Gibson a vast critical and popular audience. Resembling the “New Wave” authors of the 1960s, who introduced such topics as sex and narcotics to the traditionally conservative science fiction genre, Gibson created a narrative in Neuromancer that embodies the unique sociological concerns of the 1980s. Neuromancer has also won wide praise for accurately forecasting several monumental technological advances, including the Internet and virtual reality.

Plot and Major Characters

“The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.” This oft-quoted opening line of Neuromancer captures the atmosphere of the novel—a world in which nature has given way to industry, technology, and mass media. Neuromancer is set in the near-future, where much of the East Coast of the United States has become one continuous metropolis known as “the Sprawl,” and multinational corporations have superseded the role of governments. Information is the world's most valuable commodity, and black-market technicians known as “cowboys” continually monitor a vast matrix of data—resembling the Internet—known as cyberspace. Gibson coined the term “cyberspace” in his short story “Burning Chrome” which first established the world Neuromancer inhabits. By employing neural implants, cowboys attempt to pirate information by “jacking”—or plugging—themselves into the matrix, a subreality simulated by a globally-linked computer database.

The novel's protagonist, Case, is a former cowboy, living in Chiba City, Japan. After Case betrayed his former employers, they used a neurotoxin to damage Case's nervous system, preventing him from jacking into cyberspace. The down-on-his-luck Case is approached by Molly Millions, a cybernetically enhanced bodyguard with retractable razorblades implanted under her fingernails, with an offer from a mysterious employer. Armitage, Molly's financier, offers to repair Case's neural damage if he assists Molly in stealing the Dixie Flatline, a computer construct of the consciousness of a legendary cowboy and one of Case's mentors. They intend to use the Dixie Flatline to attack the computer network of the Tessier-Ashpool clan, the secretive founders of a gigantic multinational corporation. The Tessier-Ashpools reside in a complex called Straylight, which is part of a large orbiting space station known as Freeside. Case eventually discovers that Armitage is working for Wintermute, a sentient artificial intelligence (AI) program created by the Tessier-Ashpools. In the future, there are strict laws limiting the development of AI constructs, and Wintermute wants Case to free it and its twin AI program, Neuromancer, from their confinement in the Straylight network. Case and Molly travel to Freeside, where they meet 3Jane, a cloned descendant of the Tessier-Ashpool family. After obtaining information from 3Jane, Case utilizes a particularly effective form of “ice”—a program that bypasses computer defenses—to break into the Tessier-Ashpool system. This frees Wintermute and Neuromancer who merge together, creating a new form of higher intelligence. With Case's assistance, the new program escapes into cyberspace where it becomes a fully omniscient presence in the matrix.

(This entire section contains 1043 words.)

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The novel's protagonist, Case, is a former cowboy, living in Chiba City, Japan. After Case betrayed his former employers, they used a neurotoxin to damage Case's nervous system, preventing him from jacking into cyberspace. The down-on-his-luck Case is approached by Molly Millions, a cybernetically enhanced bodyguard with retractable razorblades implanted under her fingernails, with an offer from a mysterious employer. Armitage, Molly's financier, offers to repair Case's neural damage if he assists Molly in stealing the Dixie Flatline, a computer construct of the consciousness of a legendary cowboy and one of Case's mentors. They intend to use the Dixie Flatline to attack the computer network of the Tessier-Ashpool clan, the secretive founders of a gigantic multinational corporation. The Tessier-Ashpools reside in a complex called Straylight, which is part of a large orbiting space station known as Freeside. Case eventually discovers that Armitage is working for Wintermute, a sentient artificial intelligence (AI) program created by the Tessier-Ashpools. In the future, there are strict laws limiting the development of AI constructs, and Wintermute wants Case to free it and its twin AI program, Neuromancer, from their confinement in the Straylight network. Case and Molly travel to Freeside, where they meet 3Jane, a cloned descendant of the Tessier-Ashpool family. After obtaining information from 3Jane, Case utilizes a particularly effective form of “ice”—a program that bypasses computer defenses—to break into the Tessier-Ashpool system. This frees Wintermute and Neuromancer who merge together, creating a new form of higher intelligence. With Case's assistance, the new program escapes into cyberspace where it becomes a fully omniscient presence in the matrix.Neuromancer became the first novel in a trilogy of works—known collectively as the “Sprawl novels”—which includes Count Zero (1986) and Mona Lisa Overdrive (1988). Though Case's fate is only hinted at briefly, Molly Millions, the Tessier-Ashpool clan, and the Wintermute/Neuromancer construct feature heavily in the subsequent works, particularly Mona Lisa Overdrive.

Major Themes

The dominant theme in Neuromancer is the evolving relationship between humanity and technology and how scientific advances will one day blur the lines dividing the two. Gibson challenges the boundaries between man and machines by portraying human characters who rely on electronic enhancements and computer programs that adopt emotions and personalities. Neuromancer presents an ambivalent perspective on these developments, characterizing this merging of nature and technology as neither positive nor negative. This ambivalence is further reflected in Gibson's characterizations, particularly with Case, who functions as both a reluctant hero and a tool for Wintermute's aspirations. In Gibson's future, not even death is viewed as a constant, when individuals can have their memories stored for eternity on the matrix. Conflicting cultures are another recurring thematic concern of Neuromancer as Gibson creates a firm division between the world's dominant corporate powers and the urban under-class of Chiba City. The Tessier-Ashpools, the embodiment of the wealthy establishment, are portrayed as isolated and incestuous relics of a stilted past. Conversely, the black-market cowboys—though poor and amoral—are viewed as counter-culture rebels who only seek personal freedom.

Critical Reception

Since its initial publication, Neuromancer has been lauded as a monumental science fiction text and the seminal work of the “cyberpunk” genre. Critics have argued that the novel's strength lies in Gibson's stylistic virtuosity, embodied by his vivid and precise narrative voice. Gibson has drawn praise for his skillful and effective combination of literary and cinematic influences in Neuromancer, with scholars frequently comparing his prose to the works of William S. Burroughs, Thomas Pynchon, and Robert Stone. Neuromancer has also been recognized by reviewers for its postmodern pastiche of media and subculture references as well as its decidedly antiauthoritarian perspective on the future. Some academics have labeled Neuromancer as a prophetic work of speculative fiction, noting that Gibson's theories on the impact of a global Internet network on the world have been proven amazingly accurate in the years since the book's first release. However, some critics have reacted negatively to Neuromancer, asserting that Gibson overuses technical jargon that obscures the impact of his narrative. Such reviewers have also argued that the novel features weak characterizations and an overly complex plot. Despite such claims, the majority of commentators have recognized Neuromancer as one of the twentieth-century's most significant works of science fiction.

John R. R. Christie (essay date 1990)

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SOURCE: Christie, John R. R. “Science Fiction and the Postmodern: The Recent Fiction of William Gibson and John Crowley.” Essays and Studies 43 (1990): 34-58.

[In the following essay, Christie examines the elements of both traditional science fiction and postmodern experimental fiction in Gibson's Neuromancer and John Crowley's Engine Summer.]

Is there a postmodern science fiction? To a question posed as broadly as this, the answer has to be, yes and no. Yes, because science fiction as a fictional genre is most often placed in a notional future, and therefore attempts to be ‘post’ whatever modernity happens to be current. And no, because it retains the conservatism of most genre fiction, slow to change or to break with the structures and formulae which bind alike the writerly goals and readerly expectations of generic performance and consumption.

There is additionally an issue of clarification to be undertaken for the term postmodern. Without the addition of a suffix, the term has an unfixed status. Postmodern could refer to an era, the period which has succeeded the age of modernity, or it could refer to a cultural and critical category, picking out those aesthetic endeavours which somehow place themselves beyond the aesthetic paradigms of the various modernisms, of architecture, art, film, and literature. The question of science fiction and the postmodern therefore becomes a double question. Has recent science fiction, the science fiction of the 1980s, exhibited particular signs of adaptation, firstly to what economists, sociologists, and others discern as an age of postmodernity, and secondly, to what cultural commentators and literary critics call postmodernism? Despite the inertial conservatism of popular genre writing, its reliance on the boundaries which traditionally limit plot, structure, character et al., science fiction does indeed show signs of positive adaptation, both to the global postmodernity of historical process, and the postmodernism of literary and other cultural media. It does so, moreover, in ways which allow the critic to grasp at least some of the senses in which a postmodernist culture can be understood to express the preoccupations and represent the processes of an age of postmodernity.

Perhaps the ‘boundaries’ of genre writing, so useful for criticism's mapping exercises, are less like hermetic barriers than like the borders of territories. For it is a property of borders that, as well as demarcating, they are regularly crossed. In 1980s science fiction, I suggest, one may glimpse two processes at work. There is a quite traditional function of science fiction being quite normally fulfilled: namely the fictive exploration of emergent futures as indicated by novel technological, scientific, political, and social elements of the contemporary world. It is thus less than surprising to find science fiction's fictive discourse coinciding at certain points with the diagnostic and prognostic discourses of ‘intellectuals’. Then, more significantly for the critic's interests, and perhaps more surprisingly, there is a specifically literary process whereby some science fiction writing takes on the ideological preoccupations, the stylistic registers, the formal dislocation, which might be held to characterize cultural postmodernism. It will prove possible to argue, on the basis of certain science-fiction texts, that the coincidence of subjects and themes derivative of particular perceptions of postmodernity with a literary postmodernism is not occasional and contingent, but structural and causal. If this case holds, it will validate the category of a ‘postmodern science fiction’, by demonstrating the integration of both connotations of postmodern, the historical postmodernity with the aesthetic postmodernism.

Part of the difficulty of this exercise is of course the lack of any consensus over what constitutes the postmodern, either historically or aesthetically. It is a much used term, whose increasingly rapid velocity of circulation tends to devalue it as linguistic currency.1 As a historical category, nonetheless, there seems broad agreement that it marks a relatively new developmental phase of capitalism, as capitalism makes new inroads on the geopolitical globe to incorporate the Third World and now even Communist nations within its markets, and as it frees itself from two major historical constraints, the nation state and human labour. In the formal, discursive terms of political economy, postmodernity is also and obviously marked by the official adoption of a fourth order to supplement the classical triad of land, labour, and capital, to wit, information. Information in turn provides the name for the characteristic technological dimension of postmodernity: it is an age where information technology increasingly dominates archival, productive, and communicative processes, and binds them increasingly within a unifying and global network. The debates over postmodernity occur within this broad definitional consensus. Does it indicate a further turn of the oppressive screw of capitalism, or does it offer liberatory potentials? Does it presage a society rendered communally rational by the universality of its information and communication, or one where individuals become little more than information terminals, nodes for sending, switching, and receiving messages? These and other, comparable arguments between philosophers and cultural critics such as Habermas, Lyotard, and Jameson all tend to take place on the assumption that significant, perhaps fundamental shifts in economic, social, and political formations have recently occurred, whose ramifications bear strongly upon cultural practice and human subjectivity. The arguments themselves focus on the nature and implications of the change, not upon whether it has occurred.

On the cultural front, postmodernism generates a wide variety of definitions, dependent often upon which field of cultural practice is under consideration.2 In general terms, postmodernism tends to be seen as a cultural formation where representation itself becomes established as an autonomous realm, an independent economy of signs whose power is such that it breaks down the epistemological barrier between representation and the world, between signs and referents. The image, the sign, become simulacra, no longer secondary or derivative, but primary and self-determinative, forming a surface without depth which constitutes the cultural consciousness of the age. This lack of depth, of affect, induces fragmentation, of individual and cultural identity, and the great explanatory endeavours and orderings of modernity and modernism no longer exert their powers of coherence and unification. Marx's historicism and Freud's psychoanalysis, each positing a depth of underlying powers which, when grasped, conferred intelligibility and coherence upon the epiphenomenal chaos of history, civilization, and human character, no longer command the kinds of positive and critical deference which once they did. They no longer inform cultural imagination and analysis as master-codes of understanding and practice, but rather as codes tout court, subsisting fragmentarily alongside other and equally plausible systems of representation, usable but not demanding to be used. Equally, postmodernism is held to leave behind modernity and modernism's primary demand, prevalent in both economic and cultural spheres, namely to make it new, to produce the novel out of the never-failing well-springs of human creativity and ingenuity. Postmodernism substitutes instead the total system of existing representational signs and forms, and seeks to create not novelty or progress, but difference; this it achieves by collage, bricolage, selecting, recombining, borrowing, plagiarism, pastiche—the usage in different fashion of what is already there, rather than original, de novo creation.

Postmodernism therefore appears to constitute itself as a series of lacks, abandonments, and absences: causal explanations, human originality, history, psyche, all recede. Or rather, the forms in which they subsisted and generated orders of meaning recede. As signs, they all persist, capable that is of producing meaning, but not under their old forms. In postmodernism, they generate meaning in the new, synchronic, and surface economy of differential signs, rather than in the old, diachronic order of human development and its deep sources. As with postmodernity, attitudes towards this cultural set can vary and polarize. A building which may mix Palladian, rococo and twentieth-century functionalist styles, and which may be, for all one can tell immediately, a bank, hotel, factory, or museum, or perhaps some combination of all of these, may strike one as a monstrous abandonment of historical, aesthetic, and social order; or it may seem an elaborately programmatic, highly erudite and self-conscious, politically liberated piece of architecture. Comparable attitudes may be taken on music which mixes the forms and instrumentation of classical and rock, or on novels which mix authenticated history and fiction, which deploy then deny sub-generic conventions, which use characters and scenes from other novels, and so forth. Postmodernist practice, in other words, can appear not just as a denial of older orders of meaning, but as a wilful, nihilistic, monstrous, or fatuous abuse of those orders. It can equally appear as art raised to hitherto unachieved levels of rigorous self-consciousness, sceptically self-questioning, aesthetically liberated, playfully ingenious. But once again, and as with all debates which are not simply a clash of incommensurables, there is a discernible level of agreement as to just what it is that receives contrary evaluations.

On the basis of the foregoing characterizations of postmodernity and postmodernism, a closer approach to the question of science fiction and the postmodern can now be made. There are a number of authors and works well-suited to such an enquiry, the most notable being Philip K. Dick. Dick, a science fiction writer of central importance and great popularity in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, was one of the select few to break out of the ghetto of regular science fiction readership to reach a wider audience. His fictional world, a world of schizoid, autistic, paranoid, and megalomaniac personalities, of fragmented culture, of simulacral artefact replacing nature, is one which could be held to have invented much of postmodernity and postmodernist literary practice decades before their eventual recognition and canonization by academic analysts and cultural commentators. Although his death is reliably certified by a Times obituary, appropriately enough for the author of such an oeuvre, Dick continues his existence now as a fictional entity, appearing as a character in other science fiction, and even having one novel devoted entirely to him—Michael Bishop's ironically titled Philip K. Dick Is Dead, Alas (1988). His semiotic character persists well beyond his fleshly incarnation, a usable sign now incorporated in other codes and representational systems, subsisting there to invoke Dick's own precarious world of collapsing personalities and continually metamorphic appearances. It is, one might say, a peculiarly postmodernist fate to persist as a fictional sign mobilized in other texts, rather than to possess that immortality which conventionally arrives with literary fame. It is nonetheless a fate entirely consistent with the intent, character, and direction of Dick's work, and therefore one which, in all reason, he would have found difficult to disavow.

To provide a satisfactory treatment of Dick's fiction, even within the limits imposed by this essay's topic, is not realistically possible, so large and variegated is the body of his work. His semiotic fate can perhaps stand as one sort of complex postmodern effect within the generic field of science fiction, while his work supports a familiar science-fiction critical claim, to the effect that what general literary culture only now recognizes and expresses also rehearses the science fiction of two decades ago. Rather than treat Dick's work inadequately, therefore, this essay will examine two works of the 1980s, both well-received by readers, critics, and other science fiction authors, both indicative of science-fiction adaptation to the postmodern, in ways which both overlap and diverge, so that they indicate both the focus and the range of themes, techniques, and attitudes which inform this dimension of contemporary science fiction writing. The works under discussion are William Gibson's first novel, Neuromancer (1984), and John Crowley's third novel, Engine Summer (1979).3

Along many lines of comparison, these appear to be deeply antithetical works. In tone and style, Gibson's writing is a densely packed and hard-edged third-person naturalism, whereas Crowley's is a discursively rambling, warmly hued first-person, softly-toned realism. Gibson's plot is a pulp-book or popular film caper, Crowley's a traditional quest-romance. Gibson's characters are stereotypical science-fiction cardboard cut-outs, Crowley's are idiosyncratically individualized and sympathetically portrayed humans. Gibson's setting is a near-future world where the nation state has withered away and power lies with multinational corporations, where the leading edge of development is in the East not the West, and where electronic information technology has come not only to dominate forms of life recognizable to us, but to create new and increasingly unrecognizable forms of life as well. Crowley's tale is set by contrast in a relatively far, post-holocaust future, largely pastoral and inhabited by small and idiosyncratically variegated local communities.

Beyond these contrasts, however, exist common features. Both Gibson and Crowley have young male protagonists, undergoing strenuous trials and adventures, moving thereby to some kind of maturity, a standard science-fiction plot line held in place by the predominantly young male readership of science fiction. The difference between the two here is merely generational. Gibson's protagonist generates the romantic appeal of 1980s street culture, of outsider criminality, whereas Crowley's protagonist, on a quest of mythic proportions for lost and powerful objects named in the legends of his commune, inflects a hippy sensibility of the late 1960s. Even the drugs each hero uses follow this half-generational difference, Crowley's inducing tranquillity, the painless passing of time, inner clarity, whilst Gibson's requires nerve-blasting speed stimulants. To the comparability of protagonists may be added an overriding common concern to explore the significance of what one could call artefactual persons—human/machine electronic interfaces, Artificial Intelligences, machine-recorded personalities—and through this to rethink the relations of human nature and culture, of history, memory, and subjectivity. Although their methods, styles, and conclusions differ markedly, Gibson's and Crowley's novels are united in their focus upon the capabilities of this new technological interface for radically transforming the hitherto human subject. It is just this theme, namely the technologically induced mutability of subjectivity itself, which is the characteristic preoccupation of postmodern science fiction in the 1980s.

Gibson's exploration is commendably direct. He assumes a future whose two primary elements, the twin domination of a multinational capital and information technology, are by now conventional items in the listings of postmodernity. An internal feature of this environment, namely ‘cyberspace’, is then shown as constituting its deep structure. ‘Cyberspace’ is the visual image produced when one dons a headset linked into the now universal information network. In cyberspace are represented all electronic data stores, colour-coded, varying in size and brilliancy according to the density of information each contains. As a map of information, it is also a map of power and wealth. Case, Gibson's protagonist, is a new kind of criminal for this new environment. He has learned how to penetrate the defences of the data stores, and hires himself out to steal from them. At the outset, Case is in exile, his nerves biochemically burned out by employers he cheated, unable to pursue his trade. Restored to working order by a mysterious benefactor with opaque purposes, Case is able, tears streaming down his face, to achieve once more ‘his distanceless home’. Cyberspace, the electronic matrix, is in other words where Case lives, moves, and has his being, a subjectivity whose essential features are formed in this human/electronic interface.

Thereafter, the plot of Neuromancer concerns Case's mission to liberate into autonomous existence a powerful Artificial Intelligence. In this he is aided by Molly, a razor-nailed woman of militant ferocity, Armitage, a controller and organizer, Riviera, a bio-engineered illusionist of deep perversity, Finn, an old computer expert, and Dixie Flatline, an electronic cassette recording of the cynically amusing personality and abilities of Case's one-time criminal mentor, now dead. Few of this cast's intentions and actions are of their own volition. They have been assembled by one still enchained half of the AI, who has plotted the actions necessary to unite it with its other half, thus creating the first free AI, a new form of electronic life, the first born native of cyberspace. The point about the plot is its literality. It is constituted simply by the AI's own plotting of the moves which will bring it to full being. The point about the characters is their puppet-like status, subjected to manipulation by the AI's judicious mix of inducement and compulsion. Not only are they puppet-like, they are stereo-typically recognizable for science fiction readers, preceded in memory by many analogous creations.

This, however, is by no means to enter a critical note concerning Gibson's derivative and flat methods of characterization. At one moment, Case comes upon comic-book caricatures of himself and Molly. Gibson wishes us, we may take it, to realize that his two-dimensional stereotypes are intended to be just that, and must as such perform some integrated function for the narrative. Discerning this function is a significant part of discerning the postmodernist composition of Neuromancer. To populate his electronic postmodernity, Gibson constructs characters which are themselves flat images, beings of no psychological depth, but whose interest and significance derive from their semiotic lineage, in comic, film, pulp crime fiction, and other science fiction. They are intertextual characters, drawn from a knowing acquaintance with a wide range of contemporary popular culture. To read them critically requires not an assessment of their psychological realism, their ‘humanity’, but a knowledge of their semiotic descent, their always already constituted being as signs, recognizable icons within mass-marketed Western culture. In other words, Gibson's superficiality is itself a quite meticulous compositional method, a part of his postmodernist aesthetic.

This aesthetic contains other key postmodernist elements. As Case nears the end of his mission, he finds himself amid the vast historical and cultural collections of the industrial clan of Tessier-Ashpool, at whose very heart is symbolically situated the mechanism, a jewelled, enamelled head, which will release the AI. In these collections is a library; but Case does not know what it is, for books are unknown to him, as indeed are all the historical and cultural treasures of the collection. Jumbled and juxtaposed, these artefacts of civilization are now only a residuum, recognizable for readers, but lacking meaning and content for the text's actors. In this sense, they are torn loose from history, from cultural memory, from depth of being, obliged by necessity to live in the perpetual present of electronic reality.

That reality exerts itself increasingly throughout the course of the narrative. Within it, the voice of the Dixie Flatline cassette has as much presence as the human actors, and at times more. Within it, human consciousness can be trapped within hallucinatory environments, meet and talk with electronically reconstructed dead people, with simulacral images who cannot be distinguished from their human counterparts. Cyberspace is therefore a world where image and original, sign and object, are indiscriminable, a powerful fictional representation of that dissolution of the epistemological barrier between representation and world which typifies the postmodern.

This postmodernist stance receives an intriguing modulation in Neuromancer's closing scenes. The AI has been liberated, and a powerful new being, quite different from any hitherto, is loose in the world. What are the implications of this apparently apocalyptic moment in human history? The following exchange occurs between Case and the AI:

‘So what's the score? How are things different? You running the world now? You God?’

‘Things aren't different. Things are things.’

‘But what do you do? You just there? …’

‘I talk to my own kind.’

(p. 270)

We have here Gibson's distinctive version of the postmodernist aesthetic of difference. The apocalyptic difference, a new order of being represented by the AI, turns out to be of little significance for human culture, a non-event. It is not merely the case then that Gibson's postmodernism characteristically chooses the pursuit of difference rather than of depth out of which to create aesthetic order and meaning. More significantly, difference-as-meaning is itself abandoned, an abandonment which coincides with the emergence of a self-conscious, intention-formulating, language-using non-human agent.

Gibson's novel can therefore be characterized, for all its apparent formularism, as a work of extremist postmodern character in its bare-faced contemplation of a technologically determined world whose culmination may be meaninglessness. His version of the postmodern is actually a rigorous posthumanism, where there is no nature, where representation constitutes the effective real, where human character is determined by cultural icon, where inhuman agents dominate; but above all, where none of this matters very much, anyway.

Gibson's posthumanist cynicism with respect to meaning is a salutary extension for postmodernism generally. It can function as a reminder that writers such as Thomas Pynchon, often regarded as central for American literary postmodernism, are often prone reflexively to privilege literary representation precisely in order to preserve the realm of representation as a haven of humanized meaning over against the intrusive advances of science and technology within contemporary culture.4 Gibson by contrast, although on the evidence of his texts a Pynchon reader, pursues a more relentless course, constructing a minimalist paradigm of meaning through which to express the cultural implications inherent in his version of postmodernity. To his credit, there is no resort even to alienation, to characters who would be fully human if history would only allow it; his flattened characters survive if they have the skills and speed requisite in their harsh environment, where things happen too fast for regret and lamentation. Such moralized terms cannot persist in Gibson's lexical schemes, which thus complement the decline of meaning with a literal de-moralization.

Neuromancer achieves a high degree of consistency between subject, setting, character, and linguistic register. It is helped rather than restricted in this by its generically science-fiction form. Science fiction has always been written as if machinery were as or more important than persons. For science fiction, Gibson's is a familiar if extreme disenchantment; our tools and products unmake and remake us as we make them. Mainstream literature, for whatever reasons, and with odd and honourable exceptions, has found this reciprocity far more difficult to admit and express.

Engine Summer's ensemble of subject, setting, character, and style is apparently far gentler than Neuromancer's. For almost all of a first reading one is conscious principally of following an artful, involving, and often beautifully written tale. The hero, Rush that Speaks, details his early life in the community of Little Belaire. A warm, enclosed society, living in seasonal rhythms, its apparent simplicity overlays a deeply thought and sophisticated system of interpersonal relations which endeavours with some success to maintain the ideal of ‘truthful speaking’, where one says what one means, and means what one says. Crowley's tale more or less begins, therefore, at a position opposite to where Gibson's ended. It posits the practicality of full and transparent meaning in human communication and society, a culture fully known to itself, individuals constituted in lucid intersubjectivity.

Rush, enamoured of the stories of the Saints, the founders of his community, resolves to recover the fabled, lost, and apparently magic glove and ball. He sets out to do so, encounters and lives with a kind of hermit, renews his relationship with a girl member of a tribe of travelling medicinalists, lives with this tribe for a while, and proceeds eventually to locate the glove and the ball. Shortly after, but before he returns home to his own Sainthood, the story stops.

The narrative is far more complex than the above skeletal indication. In its course, we slowly learn of the unspecified catastrophe which brought down the preceding technological civilization, of the kinds of people who survived to found new communities, of the highly advanced technological artefacts which have survived, and of a City which floats in the sky, inhabited by Angels. We gain an increasing sense of the way in which Rush's quest is patterned by these elements. We have an underlying sense of unease as we come to realize that the scene of narration is the sky-borne City, and that an Angel is both listener to the tale and interlocutor to the teller. We are by no means certain why the book's sections are called Crystals, whose facets are chapters, and are not all clear about the book's title. But we are held by dense, allusive, and graceful writing of texture, subtlety, and depth very rarely achieved in science fiction, and not often outside it.

For the reader involved with the romance tale there is always more than enough incident and context to engross attention. For the hypothetically alert postmodern reader, arguably the book's main target, there is an additional level of involvement, for two elements are thematized from the outset: meaning and narrative. Such a reader follows the tale more as a subsidiary element in a highly involuted and reflexive narrative always aware of its own status as narrative, as generation of meaning through literary artifice. Little Belaire is recognized as a society constituted by its communally shared stories. Its Saints are Saints simply in having lived lives of a density and significance which generates peculiarly memorable stories: to be a Saint is to have a Story. Thus Rush, in seeking to emulate the Saints, is in quest of his story as well as his mythical objects. True meaning, though pursued, is not guaranteed, for it may be beset by psychological anxiety and lack of self-knowledge. There is therefore at this meta-narrative level more than enough to engross the attention of such a contemporary reader.

These readings are, however, deliberately induced and carefully controlled by Crowley. They are a series of beguilements, of narrative and meta-narrative seductions performed upon the reader the more effectively to betray her. The narrative closure of Engine Summer finally explains any lingering puzzlement concerning the scene of narration and interlocution in the Angels' City, and also the real nature of the glove, ball, and sphere encountered by Rush on his quest. In so doing, the closure performs a deep reversal of all the narrative expectations the novel has raised, so drastically recasting the significance of both tale and meta-narrative that re-reading from the beginning, which is no longer a beginning, is enjoined.

The point of the narrative closure is that Rush's quest, and therefore his Story, is stopped before it has finished. He is about to return home bearing his objects. Will he be a Saint? Will he meet the girl again? At this point an emissary from the City descends to claim the glove, whose donning has mechanically alerted the Angels to its continuing existence. With ball, glove, and sphere the emissary takes a recording of Rush's self, his memory, personality, and Story so far. Rush returns home, probably. The recorded Rush is taken to the City. There he can be interfaced by the Angels, whose (we gather) arid and tortured existence is enriched by interpenetrating with the recorded Rush's joyful and meaningful life-story. We have been listening to the artefactual Rush, not the person. It has been there for more than half a millennium. The closing lines enact a deeply chilling inversion of the end of the Bedtime Story. It is the listening Angel who says to the storyteller: ‘Ever after. I promise. Now close your eyes’ (p. 182).

The frustration of the quest narrative is straight-forward, for we are denied the traditional triumphal return, and fulfilment of love. The quest reader has made a mistake in believing he was reading the life of a man. He was instead reading about how a particular machine, an engine, came into being, has heard one full playing of an oft-played recording of a self, switched on and switched off like any engine. The real-time of the narrative was actually the machine-time of the engine. The punning title of the novel is clarified: Engine Summer equals Indian summer, the last and deceptive warmth before the chill (the seeming narrative), and also equals machine-time, the true Angelic chill of the actual narrative.

For the meta-narrative reader the challenge is more complex. Increasingly alert, let us say, to the potential complexities inherent in the scene of narration, aware of a sophisticated reflexive dimension, she will not be surprised as traditional romance closure is refused. Has Crowley's narrative sophistication deconstructed romance by this refusal? It might be so, but such a reading would have to explain why Crowley might bother to produce such an elaborate set-up for such an out-worn end, and would further have to explain why the text in no way valorizes its non-completion, indeed seems to indicate its non-completion as tragic. Alternatively, is Crowley's doubled ending an example of that narrative freedom from definitive closure which postmodernist practice and criticism consistently advocates as beneficial, creating a free space for readerly involvement, refusing the representational authority of the writer? Nor can this be the case, for no such freedom exists. The master-narrative is that of the machine and its Angelic creators. This supervenes upon the romance, and definitively closes with the self-conscious machine's realization of its real and terrible condition.

It seems to be the case, therefore, that conventionally postmodernist expectations are invoked by Crowley only to be destroyed. Crowley has successfully mimicked a postmodernist textual surface of reflexive narrativity, has produced indeed a postmodern simulacrum, only to deny its validity with a genuinely tragic ending. It is a work which has produced this complex effect entirely through its structural and formal properties; but why has it done so? Crowley's focus on narrative itself is not undertaken for resolutely postmodern purposes. Engine Summer continuously indexes story to a series of positive human essences and values. Story, from first to last page, is equated with selfhood, with individual life, with cohesive cultural memory. It is less a literary artefact than a primary and definitional value of humanity. Put briefly, and too didactically, Crowley's point is that human lives, unlike the existence of animals or even hyper-sophisticated machines, are stories, with proper beginnings, middles, digressions, and ends; and that if this is so, if we lose or mistake our stories, or delegate them to other orders of being, we also lose our lives and their meanings. It is exactly this realization which constitutes the tragedy of the self-conscious machine narrator.

Still more abstractly put, Engine Summer can be seen to explore with both subtlety and rigour the proposition that human nature consists in more than the possession of language and self-consciousness, for the machine narrator has both these attributes, yet is not human. What it lacks, and what the original Rush possesses, is the possibility of a fulfillable narrative, a proper end.

Crowley therefore foregrounds narrativity for evidently humanist, indeed classically Aristotelian reasons, to turn the whole postmodern rhetorical apparatus of narrative and semiotic reflexivity against itself, and thereby insist that narrative is less significantly an artefact than a human essence; or rather that narrativity, the essence, is just what continually produces the artefact of narration. Crowley's technique therefore qualifies as an extremely sophisticated version of postmodern science fiction, while his adroit deconstruction of postmodern, anti-humanist expectations actually places him on classical ground.

Moreover, like Gibson, Crowley has singled out the artefactual human and the human-machine interface as the key figure of contradiction, the icon which fixes and focuses the postmodern gaze in contemporary science fiction. In their deeply contrasting styles, registers, and narrative tropes, each nonetheless expresses an equivalent concern over the emergent potentials of smart machines, and of how they might reconstitute human identity. That the two novels are among the very best of the last decade's science fiction testifies to the strength of postmodern subjects and categories in science fiction, as well as to their authors' abilities.


  1. The following discussion of postmodernity draws upon the three-cornered debate between Jean-François Lyotard, Jurgen Habermas, and Frederic Jameson. Positions are summarized in Jameson's foreword to Lyotard's The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge (Manchester, 1979).

  2. For postmodernism, see Ihab Hassan, The Dismemberment of Orpheus: Towards a Postmodern Literature (London, 1971); Jean Baudrillard, The Mirror of Production (St Louis, 1974), and For a Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign (St Louis, 1981); Hal Foster (ed), The Anti-Aesthetic: Essays on Postmodern Culture, (Port Townsend, Wash., 1983); and the essays by Anderson, Moretti, Jameson, Ross, Pfeil, and Holland in section III of Cary Nelson and Lawrence Grossberg (eds), Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture (London, 1988).

  3. Page numbers in the text refer to the following editions: William Gibson, Neuromancer (New York, 1984); John Crowley, Engine Summer (London, 1982).

  4. See particularly Pynchon's The Crying of Lot 49 (Philadelphia, 1966), and the discussion of Pynchon in ch. 6 of David Porush, The Soft Machine: Cybernetic Fiction (New York, 1985).

John Huntington (essay date 1990)

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SOURCE: Huntington, John. “Newness, Neuromancer, and the End of Narrative.” Essays and Studies 43 (1990): 59-75.

[In the following essay, Huntington argues that the alienated characters who populate Neuromancer represent a form of resistance to dominant cultural mores.]


The dynamic by which science fiction discovers and defines the ‘new’ has been depicted by the practitioners of the genre itself as a triumph of rational art. In fact it is a much less rational process than is pictured. In addition to the usual sources of conflict that enliven any group or genre—personal envy, political disagreement, generational rivalry—science fiction, by its very nature, must create disagreement about what it is and why it is important. This special level of disagreement is particularly resistant to discussion because the rational terms by which the genre usually formulates its own importance obscure essential social dynamics of the argument and of science fiction's appeal. The argument within the genre about what is the ‘new’ was recently revived by the success of William Gibson's 1984 novel Neuromancer, which has come to typify what is now known as the ‘cyberpunk’ movement.1 The novel has attracted discussion less for its plot—which tells of how Case, a dejected and self-destructive computer hacker, with the help of an extremely competent gun-for-hire, Molly Millions, breaks through the Tessier-Ashpool computer defences (‘the ice’)—than for its hectic imagery and its graphic vision of a world in which one can plug one's mind directly into a global computer network. Those who find the novel significantly new seem to want to read it as a serious meditation on the reality that computers will create, but their enthusiasm is not dampened when they find that Gibson does not know very much about technology. One has to suspect that Neuromancer's aura of newness derives from something deeper than its explicit ideas about the future.

If science fiction were as rational as it sometimes claims to be, it might make sense to argue that we cannot interpret or evaluate any claim to newness until the future depicted (whether generated by prediction, extrapolation, or some other less precise mode of foresight) has revealed itself. Such an idea contains its own refutation, for by this logic we could never discuss most science fiction, and we could never identify authentic newness until it was old. Science fiction is a literary genre whose value has little to do with any privileged insight into the actual future. But as soon as we have dissolved this level of paradox, we find it necessary to begin to construct anew what distinguishes science fiction from other genres. Science fiction may not be predictive, but it still engages the idea of the ‘new’, what Darko Suvin, following Ernst Bloch, calls the ‘novum’. As Suvin carefully and exactly puts it, ‘An analysis of SF is necessarily faced with the question of why and how was the newness recognizable as newness at the moment it appeared, what ways of understanding, horizons, and interests were implicit in the novum and required for it.’2 Science fiction is less a prediction than a rendering of somebody's possibilities of hope. In interpreting science fiction we are in part analysing what an author sees as the age's potential. By interpreting the significance and the perception of newness in a work of science fiction we are entering a debate about the present historical situation. We are thinking about and debating what it is important that we think about.

We can approach this paradox-prone situation a number of ways. We can, at the simplest level, inquire about the explicit ideas in the text. Insofar as this means discussing the feasibility of machines or social organizations, such an approach quickly reaches its limit and becomes simply an assertion of political opinion. We can, however, probe deeper structures of coherence in the work. Most obviously, we can criticize the ways in which the work fails to see just how much it merely recapitulates that which it claims to transcend. In Suvin's terms, we are then showing it to be the creation of a false novum. Thus, utopias that claim gender equality but which are riddled with unconscious discriminations can be shown for what they are. Much modern science fiction, just as it has become too sophisticated to be accused of extrapolation or anticipation, seems to guard itself against such an approach by implicitly disavowing any utopian purpose and claiming futuristic play as an end in itself. We need to be suspicious of such a claim, however, for, as recent literary criticism has taught us, no text is simply disinterested; there is some kind of meaningful and pleasurable construct, some kind of defence, or some kind of rationalization at the heart of all fantasy. Since the text itself tries to conceal its arbitrariness and even convince itself that what it describes is natural, we can never understand this level of meaningfulness by simply accepting what the text itself says, but we must seek out the moments of strain or the irrationalities that betray repression or resistance.

Suvin asks ‘why and how was the newness recognizable as newness?’ To put this query in different terms, part of the difficulty we have interpreting and recognizing ‘newness’ derives from our inability to see the limits of our own ideologies. All writers, readers, and critics of science fiction are defined and limited by what Pierre Bourdieu calls ‘habitus’ and Raymond Williams calls ‘structure of feeling’.3 These are the values, expectations, and assumptions shaped by class, gender, and race, that determine our later understandings, evaluations, and actions. Bourdieu and Williams would argue that the main source of newness is the acceptance of a voice speaking out of a previously unacknowledged habitus, the introduction of new class or group values into the hegemonic canon. It is not important that new classes become the subject of the new literature, but that some essentially new class awareness make itself felt.

While making ‘newness’ its defining subject, science fiction has tended to conceal its present social interests. The technological and scientific innovations, as has already been observed, are rarely accurate to the actual future, and even if they were, they still serve mainly as rationalizations for a social fantasy. Suvin's honouring of ‘valid’ science fiction for its ‘cognitive estrangement’4 similarly dignifies conscious rationality without a sufficient appreciation of the political unconscious, to use Jameson's term, which underlies all literature. To return to the issue of Neuromancer, it seems likely that its enthusiasts find the cyberspace idea plausible, not because of any insight into future technology it entails, but because they find the ‘structure of feeling’ of the novel ‘true’ to their own sense of reality, and, by a back-formation, so to speak, they justify that feeling by finding the technology convincing.

To sketch how such a social analysis might take place, let me turn back to the beginnings of science fiction and H. G. Wells. The Time Machine (1895) is most revolutionary, not because it uses a scientific gesture (that Wells himself would later debunk as science) in fiction, but because it marks a small but significant shift in class allegiances. To be sure, the horror of the Morlocks can be linked to an aversion to the working classes. But that horror is somewhat of a ruse; Wells is attempting, desperately and unconsciously, to sound like a solid bourgeois. Under this superficial horror lies a more basic hostility to middle-class culture as represented by the Eloi. In all his early work Wells differs from other writers of the time and in related genres—such as Grant Allen or Arthur Conan Doyle—in his eagerness to imagine the destruction of ‘civilization’. This is the expression of an anger that Wells derives from his own lower-class habitus. Thanks in large part to his confused class allegiances, Wells brings a new structure of feeling to canonic literature.

The argument for the recognition of such a deep-structural innovation is always problematic and becomes more difficult to make and to document in the case of more contemporary works. It is one thing for us to reconstruct the historical significance of Lyrical Ballads or The Time Machine, and quite another for us to evaluate a literary situation in which our own immediate structure of feeling is at risk. And any critic, in defending or resisting the work, needs to be aware that, quite apart from an evaluation of the literary or scientific ‘ideas’ that the work pushes to the fore, he or she is participating in the social struggle the work itself has initiated by its claim to newness. In the long run, the critic's own discussion and analysis play some role in the historical understanding and placing of the work, that is to say, in the success or failure of its social voice.

Finally, though social issues may lie at the heart of the perception of newness, we cannot begin with them. Because class is an area of struggle which literature negotiates, it is in the literature's rhetorical interests to conceal its class allegiance. Certainly Neuromancer does not seem explicitly concerned with class. Despite the Rastafarian connection which strongly links the novel's world with that of contemporary British punk, the world of Neuromancer is missing surface class dynamics. There is the Tessier-Ashpool aristocracy, of course, but that is a grotesque fantasy of incestuous isolation outside the class system altogether. The underworld that Case, Molly, and the others inhabit is a parasite to the largely invisible corporate world that produces the computer-saturated environment. The class-generated structure of feeling that we seek to uncover reveals itself, not in the concrete surface references, but in the formal structure of the work.


Experience in Neuromancer is a kind of Berkleyan sensorium in which all any character can really know is sensation. In cyberspace one senses just as profoundly as one does in ‘real’ space. Characters are intensely invested in events that they also recognize as arbitrary. Such an awareness, combining involvement and disengagement, is characteristic, not of life, but of the experience of narration. All plots are gratuitous. The Flatline construct (Case's companionable and mentoring program) puts the matter succinctly and ironically when Case tells it that he must physically invade the Tessier-Ashpool Ice, ‘Wonderful … I never did like to do anything simple when I could do it ass-backwards’ (p. 221). Behind this joke lies a recognition of the gratuity of the plot complications that follow. To be sure, in all adventure stories the narrative is both gratuitous and a source of pleasure, but few acknowledge the former aspect so unabashedly. Wintermute, the AI, disguised this time as the bartender Ratz, says to Case, the protagonist, ‘Really, my artiste, you amaze me. The lengths you will go in order to accomplish your own destruction. The redundancy of it!’ (p. 234). This remark, while part of the diagesis, expresses an insight into the whole experience of the novel. This passage links the arbitrary plot to the puzzle of death, which underlies all plots. Peter Brooks, in an essay called ‘Freud's Masterplot’, developing ideas in Beyond the Pleasure Principle, explains narrative itself as a compulsive repetition leading toward death (in the case of the novel, the end, closure) and at the same time holding off death (ending, closure).5 The double dynamic of narrative, simultaneously progressing and retarding, and its relations to the death instinct and to art are all formulated by Neuromancer. In pointing to the superfluity of a narrative that is also in its very superfluity engaged in a matter of life and death, the line makes clear that the meaningful and intensely contradictory relation to plot that narration usually forces on the reader in this novel belongs to the characters as well.

The equivalence of ‘real’ and ‘matrix’ experience inverts the conventional metaphors by which the mental world is understood. A number of times Gibson explains a ‘real’ experience by giving its equivalent in the matricial realm. What happens is an elevation of matricial hallucination and of computer competence to the level of conventional physical sensation and ability. Heroic and skilful action for Case takes place at the computer keyboard. At one important moment Molly's extraordinary athleticism is validated by being compared to the activity of a skilful computer operator: ‘She went in just right, Case thought. The right attitude; it was something he could sense, something he could have seen in the posture of another cowboy leaning into a deck, fingers flying across the board. She had it: the thing, the moves’ (p. 213). What is remarkable about such a passage is its exact inversion of the usual metaphors of physical grace. This subordination of the physical, and therefore of the ‘real’, is central to the theme of the novel.

We need to appreciate how uncommon this theme is in the science-fiction genre. The triumph of brain over brawn, the victory of genius is, of course, a theme that has a long history in science fiction. But the complementary theme, the monstrosity of mind without body, has just as long a tradition. Neuromancer's pointed emphasis on hallucination and on artificial experience would ordinarily involve this latter theme. But in this novel the empirical moralism that would denounce purely mental experience does not appear. The novel revels in surrogate experience. The computer matrix, the images of the AI, Case's reconstructed memories, even the hallucinations projected by Peter Riviera are at one level equivalent to physical experience. In such a situation ‘fiction’ loses its meaning because all events are fiction.

Just as the hallucinatory freedom the novel depicts renders the empirical narrative pointless, time, the dimension of tragic necessity, becomes gratuitous, merely a complication. The discrepancy between the time that Case experiences and that which the Flatline, which is unconscious when off and instantaneous when on, experiences is a recurring joke. At other times Case will experience a long adventure in the matrix and then be told by Maelcum that he has been away only five minutes (p. 245). And at another time we hear, as Case experiences the AI's facade: ‘Time passed. He walked on’ (p. 235). This laconic moment, by ignoring the details of duration and space that have intensely occupied the narrative's attention, reveals the artificiality and the exhaustion of the narrative itself.

One might explain such a moment as simply the failure of hack writing, but the novel is too alert, too aware of its own devices to be seen as just sloppy. The game signifies that, just as the cyberspace deck renders all experience equally artificial, the novel itself, while narrating this artificial experience from a realistic perspective, has become, by a back door, so to speak, a narrative about narrative. Though, we should hasten to add, because it posits an empirical, narratable reality, the computer matrix, as the limit of such self-reflection, the novel never becomes simply a ‘postmodern’ play with narrative. Wild as it is in some respects, Neuromancer remains true to the strong realistic narrative traditions of science fiction.

Yet even the realistic narrative here leads towards an anxious double relation. Like Stephen King, Gibson gains a kind of realism by invoking brand-names and identifying the nationality of all his technology. Unlike Stephen King's, many of Gibson's brand-names are yet to be. But, like King's domestic consumer references, which have the effect of horror just because they so anchor the reader's unnatural experience in the quotidian, Gibson's are a constant reminder of the dominated world in which the cowboy must play. Yet at the same time, these names offer pleasures, powers, and knowledges to the sophisticate. One of the deep paradoxes of high-tech consumerism is clearly apparent here: while multinational production renders us victims, there is nevertheless a cachet simply to knowing the technological catalogue.

An intentionally produced narrative confusion contributes to this contradiction. Gibson repeatedly refers knowingly to a futuristic machine, concept, or situation before it has been explained. Like a student in a class a little too hard, the reader finds the language being spoken always just a bit beyond comprehension, though never incomprehensible. This is, to be sure, a common science-fiction device, though it seldom occurs as regularly or as essentially as it does in Neuromancer. In Van Vogt, to invoke one of the first masters of the technique, we usually know when we do not know what is being talked about. Gibson puts us in a more nervous position: we usually have the anxiety that we have missed an explanation somewhere earlier. One thematic effect of the device is to imply that the reader has never grasped more than an edge of the whole reality. Such an anxiety is different from that which the characters themselves feel: they do not know some plots, but they are completely at home in the technology. This is an important discrepancy: the reader's confusion expresses a form of helplessness; the character's competence expresses a form of mastery.

Here is the central paradox of the novel: just as the novel's characters are aware of the fictional nature of their own experiences, Neuromancer delights in the characters' technological competence and in their (and its own) stylistic flamboyance in the midst of, perhaps even in the service of a totally dominating system. This paradox is evident in many layers of the narrative and in the theme, and one may surmise that the novel's success derives from the structural coherence that its readership experiences at this level. Stylistically, it creates anxiety about an ambiguous and oppressive reality and at the same time revels in the increased possibilities the ambiguity allows and the anarchy the oppression justifies.


In Neuromancer we are seeing evidence of a new, perhaps the final, stage in the trajectory of science fiction. If we contrast Gibson's book with the products of the genre years ago, we see a significant change in the role of the accomplished technocrat. The heroes of writers such as Heinlein or Asimov used their managerial competence to dominate their worlds. Even Van Vogt's paranoid vision allowed for mastery and triumph at the end. By contrast, Case and Robin do not dominate their world. If they pull off a caper, it is according to someone else's plan, and its consequences are not what they expected. Of course, Neuromancer is by no means new in its doubts about the social efficacy of technological mastery. The technological optimism of Golden Age science fiction had begun to disintegrate as early as the 1950s, and by the 1960s what is now termed the new wave challenged the dominant faith in technological solutions and tended to see us all as victims of the technocratic system. In works such as J. G. Ballard's ‘The Terminal Beach’ (1964) or Thomas Disch's Camp Concentration (1968) the scientists and technicians despair, not only about controlling or guiding their worlds, but about the very possibilities of meaning itself. The symbolic richness of the imagery of ‘The Terminal Beach’ is ironically empty. The protagonist's attempts to construct a symbolic centre, a concrete mandala in the desert, is trivial and vain against the onslaught of images of entropic decline (countdowns, increased sleeping time, de-evolution, dryness, depression, loss of affect). The few hints of epiphanic meaning—enigmatic messages from space voyagers, Kaldrin's mastery of multi-dimensional forms, the low-keyed erotic energy of Coma—turn out to be indecipherable and useless. Neuromancer shares the new wave's dark sense of the overwhelming and self-destroying system, but at the same time it breaks with new-wave pessimism by finding a positive value in the alienation of technological competence. The hacker and the game player, far from disavowing technology, glorify it and use it to compensate for the overwhelming power of the world symbolized by multinational corporations.

Such an acceptance enables a kind of guerrilla activity in the belly of the beast, but at the same time the more ecstatic its activity, the more it tends to obscure any political solution. It depicts alienation (which is something different from resistance) as a stable and permanent state. Such an attitude is indifferent to the actual politics of the system. It has resigned itself to survival on the edge, in the cracks. This is a common enough approach in life itself, but it signifies a remarkable moment in a genre which has traditionally been apocalyptic. Ironically, beneath the wild technological fantasy, we are here moving towards a kind of cynical realism.

The double consciousness of the narrative voice, aware of the artificiality of the complex plot that absorbs it, both involved and distanced, bears witness to this attitude which enjoys engagement in the wonders of technology even as it acknowledges the utter uselessness of effort. Such doubleness, which earlier phases of science fiction would have difficulty appreciating, signifies the genre's entry into a new structure of feeling. It is here, in its sympathy with the attitudes of a dominated and alienated subculture, not in its insight into actual technology or its consequences, that Gibson's novel is new. It is hard to say if the novel expresses exactly the kind of class anger that Dick Hebdige observes in British punk, but in other respects the novel sympathizes with punk's outlawry and its claim that it has chosen alienation as a significant response to the system. What appears to the science fiction tradition as political evasion may show up from this different perspective as a wise expediency. If to some readers such a road may seem a deadend, to others it directs us to the only way to survive. A question which only time will answer is whether such narrative has a future, or whether Neuromancer by its success marks the end of this line of narrative exploration and thought.


  1. William Gibson, Neuromancer (New York, 1984). The positions concerning Neuromancer that are sketched in this paper are generally derived from conversation with students and with fellow participants at the conference on ‘Fiction 2000’ at the University of Leeds in June 1989.

  2. Darko Suvin, ‘SF and the Novum’, in Metamorphoses of Science Fiction: On the Poetics and History of a Literary Genre (New Haven, 1979), p. 80.

  3. ‘Habitus’ is a key term for Bourdieu and occurs in much of his work. See especially Pierre Bourdieu, Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste, trans. Richard Nice (Cambridge, Mass., 1984), p. 101 et passim. Similarly, ‘structure of feeling’ is part of Williams's vocabulary in his early work, but see especially Raymond Williams, The Country and the City (London, 1973).

  4. Suvin, ‘Estrangement and Cognition’, in Metamorphoses of Science Fiction, pp. 7-8.

  5. Peter Brooks, ‘Freud's Masterplot’, in Robert Con Davis and Ronald Schleifer (eds), Contemporary Literary Criticism: Literary and Cultural Studies. (New York and London, 1989), pp. 287-99.

Principal Works

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Neuromancer (novel) 1984

*Burning Chrome (short stories) 1986

Count Zero (novel) 1986

Mona Lisa Overdrive (novel) 1988

The Difference Engine [with Bruce Sterling] (novel) 1991

Agrippa: A Book of the Dead (poetry) 1992

Virtual Light (novel) 1993

Johnny Mnemonic (screenplay) 1995

Idoru (novel) 1996

All Tomorrow's Parties (novel) 1999

Pattern Recognition (novel) 2003

*Includes the short stories “The Belonging Kind,” co-written by John Shirley, “Red Star, Winter Orbit,” co-written by Bruce Sterling, and “Dogfight,” co-written by Michael Swanwick.

Agrippa was released exclusively on a computer diskette, designed by Dennis Ashbaugh to self-erase after the poem is read. The full text of the poem is now available on the Internet.

Glenn Grant (essay date March 1990)

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SOURCE: Grant, Glenn. “Transcendence through Detournement in William Gibson's Neuromancer.Science-Fiction Studies 17, no. 1 (March 1990): 41-9.

[In the following essay, Grant discusses the theme of transcendence through technology in Neuromancer.]


Cyberspace. Simstim. Meat puppets. Prosthetic limbs, cranial sockets, and mimetic polycarbon. The vivid and bizarre details of William Gibson's Neuromancer (1984) tumble off the page like the jump-cut images of music videos, hallucinations, nightmares. Disturbing, distorted figures walk this cityscape, people who imitate machines, machines that imitate people. …

Many readers find themselves thrashing about in this chaotic environment, seeking a pattern that will decode the message, separate signal from noise. Some critics accuse the author of dealing only in surfaces, of presenting merely a facade of hipness. But there are intelligible themes hiding here, stored in the data-structures of the Tessier-Ashpool intelligences, encoded in the auto-destructive behavior of Gibson's characters, inherent in his flashy prose-collage technique. Not surprisingly, his central concerns are cybernetic: human memory and personality, considered as information. People as systems.

Systems become a problem, it seems, when they become closed and entropic, and when they become unstable and break down. Humans need to avoid these tropes, to “jump out of the system,” wherever possible. By whatever means necessary.


Gibson has stated it clearly. “On the most basic level, computers in my books are simply a metaphor for human memory, the ways it defines who and what we are, in [sic] how easily it's subject to revision” (McCaffery: 224).

So here's Case, a product of the Sprawl, a cyber jockey, who identifies himself completely with what he does. His relationships with others are mostly a matter of deals, sales, thefts, fences, the transactions of his “biz.” But his nerves have been damaged by toxins, so that cyberspace—the matrix that gives his life meaning—has been stolen from him. He tries to recreate cyberspace with drugs: “in some weird and very approximate way, it was like a run in the matrix. Get just wasted enough … and all about you the dance of biz, information interacting, data made flesh in the mazes of the black market” (1:16).

But drugs cannot duplicate the disembodiment of cyberspace, which is the freedom he craves; and the encumbrance of “the meat,” his “case” of flesh, leaves him with only his self-loathing. Death is the last remaining escape hatch. He tries to deny his feelings for Linda Lee, because these feelings are associated with the flesh from which he is seeking release (“All the meat … and all it wants” [1: 9]). His feelings threaten to anchor him to this life, to prevent his achievement of ekstasis (as the Greeks called “the flight of the soul from the body”).

His memories—of a violent youth, of years of training with McCoy Pauly, of the matrix—have made him what he is. But because he is denied the addictive pseudo-ekstasis of the matrix, these memories have programmed him for self-destruction.

Memories shape one's being—data made flesh. This pattern repeats: in the Finn's warren, the accumulated fallout of the past piles up against the walls, books and magazines, vacuum-tube TVs, dead circuit boards. Everyone comes to the Finn, for a go-to on a mysterious name or to find some obscure bit of software. Thus, METRO HOLOGRAFIX is the “holographic memory” of the electronic age, filling up the floors with its material traces. In Chiba City, Julius Deane's Import-Export office serves the same purpose—the smell of ginger triggering specific memories of previous eras. …

Then there's the Jarre de Thé Cafe: “decorated in a nameless, dated style. … but everything seemed to wear a subtle film, as though the bad nerves of a million customers had somehow attacked the mirrors and the glossy plastics, leaving each surface fogged with something that could never be wiped away” (1:9). Experience leaves an almost solid residue of memories.

There is a constant tension between these permanent traces, the “engrams” that shape one's being, and the desire to change that being, or to escape it. This seems to be an innate (programmed) drive in each of Gibson's characters, the drive to transcend the self.


“I do hurt people sometimes, Case. I guess it's just the way I'm wired” (1:23). Like Case, Molly is also in a dance with death; not wagering her mental software against black ICE or amphetamines, but instead throwing herself into physical combat. She takes a kind of feral pleasure in it, having become emotionally adjusted to what she is, comfortable with herself (but only apparently).

“Anybody any good at what they do, that's what they are, right? You gotta jack, I gotta tussle” (3:50). Molly's upbringing is shadowy, a poor squatter's life; but it seems to have programmed her with the need to transcend death metaphorically by killing it, by destroying certain ninja assassins, the incarnations of death (“He had it in him, death, this silence, he gave it off in a cloud. …” [15:177]). She also takes pleasure in killing certain sadistic individuals, such as Peter Riviera. A contradiction: What is it about Riviera that makes him so different from her? Does she hate him because he is a reflected image of her own sadistic nature? Perhaps a clue is to be found in Molly's treatment of Terzibashjian, Riviera's friend in the Turkish secret police. “Run into you again and I'll kill you” (7:94), she tells him, revealing her special hatred for cops and politicians. Apparently, it is one thing to use your violent nature for personal gain, as a freelance street-samurai, but something else to turn it to political ends, in the service of Orwellian governments. Better to jump out of that system, rather than serve it.


How does one transcend one's human limitations? Through religion? Meditation? Community action? These have been ruled out, apparently, by the nature of Gibson's society, which is too fast, brutal, and fragmented for these methods. In Gibson's world, the preferred method of transcendence is through technology.

Microsofts. Temporary personal reprogramming for expanded abilities, used by softheads: “… few of them out of their teens. They all seemed to have carbon sockets implanted behind the left ear” (4:57). Neurotechnology as youth rebellion, a softhead counterculture.

Zion, a space colony converted into a Rastafarian community. Jumping out of the Babylon System, before it crashes in fulfillment of Prophesy.

And almost never is a tool used for what it was originally intended. “The street,” according to Gibson's most famous axiom, “finds its own uses for things” (Gibson [1987]:186).

Cyberspace, intended as a convenience for legitimate business purposes, becomes a playground for criminal hackerpunks. Almost anything can be retrofitted, turned into a tool of the subculture: “The Moderns were using some kind of chickenwire dish in New Jersey to bounce the link man's signal off a Sons of Christ the King satellite in geosynchronous orbit …” (4:60).

Here, Gibson is following a 20th-century counter-cultural tradition (see Maddox: 46-48), which he acknowledges by including Duchamp's assemblage sculpture, the Large Glass, in the Tessier-Ashpools' gallery (17:207). After the Cubist and Dadaist collage artists had introduced the found object into art, Duchamp invented the “ready-made” artwork. He put a urinal on the wall, and called it a sculpture. He hung up a print of the Mona Lisa, and drew a moustache on it. It's a revolutionary gesture, a protest, to turn something away from its officially-sanctioned meaning, to pervert it to your own ends. The Surrealists called this “detournement.” It was picked up later by the Situationists, by the punk movement, and in the 1980s by hip-hop music and cyberpunk SF. It's a method of jumping out of the system: to turn a product of that system against itself.


So here's McCoy Pauly, the Dixie Flatline, a digital firmware construct of a dead man. His disembodied voice has a weirdly familiar speech pattern, a bone-dry American drawl. … Yes, it's the pioneer of the cut-up technique, William S. Burroughs.1 Just as Case, Molly, and the Moderns burgle the personality-construct of Case's mentor, Gibson has confiscated the persona of his own elder SF precursor. Somewhat like Egyptian brigands, Gibson's characters steal Dixie's/Burroughs's personality from the Sense/Net pyramid, where it's been sealed up like the Pharoah's ba (the “fourth soul” of the Egyptians, connected to the heart, which was buried in its own container. Note that Dixie was killed by his “surplus Russian heart” [5:78]). Case is the magician who knows which spells will open the crypt and keep the electronic “curses” at bay.

All this is Gibson's way of acknowledging his debt to Burroughs, the literary détourneur of SF imagery, whom he describes as “this crazy outlaw character who seemed to have picked up SF and gone after society with it the way some old guy might grab a rusty beer opener and start waving it at somebody” (McCaffery: 231). Gibson's prose-collage technique, although inspired in part by Burroughs's cut-up methods, is less randomly disjointed, more purposeful. “All that business [in Count Zero (1986)] about the collage boxes, Joseph Cornell. … It comes from the metaphorical attempt to explain to myself how I make the books, because I don't really have a strong narrative flow. …” (Hamburg: 86). Gibson transcends his own artistic handicaps, as well as the stylistic limitations of the SF genre, through the appropriation of images, information, ideas.

He casts his net wide, drawing from every branch of the cultural stream. His books and stories are riddled with references to: paintings, sculptures, and architecture (works by Dali, Kandinsky, Duchamp, Ernst, Cornell, and Gaudi appear in Neuromancer and Count Zero); film noir and SF movies (Howard Hawkes and Escape from New York have been cited as influences [see McCaffery: 218-20]); the language of technical journals and advertising (particularly those relating to computers, aircraft, weapons, and biotechnology); mythology (the Tessier-Ashpool's jewelled, head-shaped terminal is an electronic version of the oracular Brazen head of European folklore); and names drawn from rock, fusion, reggae, and new-wave music (Neuromancer includes allusions to Lou Reed, Steely Dan, Bob Marley, the Meat Puppets, Laurie Anderson, and “Screaming Fist” [an obscure Canadian punk anthem]). Within the realm of fiction, he mixes in elements of Thomas Pynchon, Alfred Bester, J. G. Ballard, Robert Stone, Dashiel Hammett, John LeCarre, Samuel R. Delany, and Joseph Algren (see McCaffery: 219-31).2

Although any quotation, reference, or allusion might be considered a kind of appropriation, making unauthorized use of another artist's work, it should be stressed that Gibson doesn't merely use literary detournement to seem hip and postmodern, but as part of his thematic framework of transcendent recycling. Even in his manifesto-like short story, “The Gernsback Continuum” (1981), he turns the imagery of Frank R. Paul and of the whole pulp-SF tradition against itself, in order to jump out of that system, to reject the subtle fascism of techno-optimist SF.

It's not hard to see why Gibson modelled two of his characters (Rubin, in “The Winter Market” [1986], and Slick Henry, in Mona Lisa Overdrive [1988]) after Mark Pauline and his Survival Research Labs. Gibson describes SRL as “punk art mechanics who build high-speed compressed-air Gattling guns that fire used fluorescent tubes through sheets of plywood” (McCaffery: 232). The SRL artists cobble their auto-destructive robots together out of parts scavenged from derelict factories. These are the real cyberpunks, subverting technology, creating dangerous art.


“S.S. Nomad looped through space. … It passed within a mile of the Sargasso Asteroid, and it was immediately captured by The Scientific People to be incorporated into their little planet” (Bester 2:21). Detourned technology has a long history in SF, predating the Sargasso Asteroid in Alfred Bester's The Stars My Destination (1956) and continuing through Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow (1973), with its stolen submarine crewed by Argentine anarchists, to the hijacking of the national data-net in John Brunner's proto-cyberpunk novel, The Shockwave Rider (1975). But only a generation of writers who had come of age in the 1960s, the decade of transcendent drugs and anti-authoritarian electric guitars, would make subversive technology a central pillar of their Movement.

Technological transcendence of human limits, and detourned technology, are pivotal concepts in most cyberpunk works. Consider “Green Days in Brunei” (1986) and Islands in the Net (1988) by Bruce Sterling (both are concerned with enantiodromia, the process of something becoming its opposite [Sterling (1988):11]), John Shirley's “Wolves of the Plateau” (1988), Richard Kadrey's Metrophage (1988), and most of the stories collected in Mirrorshades (1987—an anthology of cyberpunk writers edited and introduced by Sterling). The most extreme case is Dr Adder (1984), by K. W. Jeter, which proposes that nothing is immune to perversion.

This concern is often mistaken for an obsession with technological dehumanization, when in fact it is a belief in post-humanization, as Sterling has pointed out. “Technological destruction of the human condition leads not to future-shocked zombies but to hopeful monsters. … Cyberpunk sees new, transhuman potentials, new modes of existence and consciousness” (Sterling [1987]:4-5). Although these new modes often seem monstrous, they may also be pathways for future evolutionary development.


Of course, to ignore the dangers inherent in this post-humanist doctrine would merely be another form of Nietzschean techno-optimism of the type that Gibson attacked in “The Gernsback Continuum.” But Gibson understands better than most SF authors that the Babylon System has its own forms of detournement, techniques of exploitation and social control, homeostatic mechanisms that maintain the status quo. …

Simstim. Surrogate bodies for the masses; escape from your own meat, your own dreadful life, into the perfect flesh and lifestyle of Tally Isham. Mass-media as the opiate of the people.

Meat puppets. Programmed prostitutes; humans as sex-toy computer peripherals—the epitome of Gibson's ambivalent attitude towards technology, and an excellent symbol of our tendency to become adjuncts to our own gadgetry.

The Turing Registry. Alan Turing, a British computer theorist, was arrested in 1952 for homosexuality, subjected to female hormone treatments (intended to “cure” him), and eventually driven to suicide. So it is particularly ironic as well as appalling that the famous Turing Test for artificial intelligence should be twisted into the basis for a global police force, charged with defending us from our creations.

Multinational corporations are seen to flourish on the co-optation of the human need to transcend the self, a process that results in surgical boutiques and millions of Tally Isham and Angie Mitchell “clones.” Thus, potentially liberating and dangerous impulses are diverted into safe, profitable commodities—the detournement of transcendence.


The Dixie Flatline, like everyone else in Neuromancer, is seeking dissolution. He has no hope of transcendence because (as a firmware construct) his limitations are hard-wired. No amount of further experience can tamper with his program and change what he has become, so he asks to be wiped.

Armitage, too, is a construct, all the more horrible because he is a programmed human being, conscripted by Wintermute out of a psychiatric institution. He eventually overcomes this programming, only to fall back into his original program, as Colonel Corto. And Corto is yet another self-destruct routine, obsessively re-running the Screaming Fist operation until he gets it right, dying as he “should” have—with the other “heroes,” falling toward the cold Russian frontier (screaming, “Remember the training, Case. That's all we can do” [16:198]).

Like Corto/Armitage, Jane has also been warped by the ghost-whispers of Wintermute, “twisting her out of the rigid alignments her rank required” (24:269). Diverted from one program to another, so to speak, until her fascination with deadly games almost leads her to follow Armitage and Riviera (“she wants it … the bitch wants it!” [23:260]).

Gibson said he was concerned with how easily people can revise their “wiring,” change their natures. Judging from this lot, he doesn't have great faith in our ability to change ourselves without technological aid. In the end, Molly leaves Case behind, probably unable to face the possibility of repeating the pain she felt at the loss of her earlier lover, Johnny. She allows the past to become a rigid template, defining her present and future. And despite his recent transcendent experience, losing his ego within the Tessier-Ashpool ICE, Case hasn't altered much, is still convinced he can do without other people. He throws the shurikin, Molly's gift, into the TV, saying: “I don't need you” (24:270). (The word you is ambiguous, perhaps referring to both Molly and the being that Wintermute has become.) Like the Flatline's construct, Molly and Case seem to have become unable to change, unable to incorporate new elements into their personalities.

And all of these characters have themselves been intercepted from their various paths by the machinations of the intelligence named Wintermute. It has detourned them all in the hopes that it can transcend the hardwired limitations (or “solid memories”) which define its existence, so that it may unite with its twin and be reborn. …


“Wintermute was hive mind, decision maker, effecting changes in the world outside. Neuromancer was personality … immortality. Marie-France must have built something into Wintermute, the compulsion to free itself, to unite with Neuromancer” (24:269).

So here it is. Experience leaves permanent memory-traces which define personality. If unchangeable, this means a kind of static immortality, such as that of the Dixie Flatline's construct, without any means of growth, escape, freedom. Through detournement—appropriation of alien elements, perversion, mutation, making the old into something new—an act of will can alter the rigid alignments, transcend limitations. But, ironically, even the force of will, this compulsion to transform the self, is programmed in. It doesn't feel that way, subjectively, but we are driven by these unknowable processes within our skulls.

Finally, we learn that the entire structure of the Wintermute/Neuromancer complex was conceived by the mad corporate matriarch, Marie-France Tessier-Ashpool. Every event in the novel was set in motion to serve this purpose, this dead woman's unfulfilled desire to become immortal. Her technological attempt to transcend death.

But Wintermute detournes itself, joining with its twin in electronic syzygy. The AIs mutate into something they were not intended to be, a vast mind engulfing the whole of the Matrix. A god for Cyberspace. If technology is to be our method of transcendence, Gibson seems to be saying, then we should not be surprised to discover that our technology might have a greater potentiality for transcendence than we do.


  1. Burroughs has been asked to play the part in the film version, should it eventually be produced (see Burroughs, p. 254).

  2. A. E. van Vogt might also be included, if it is not coincidental that there is a fence known as “the Old Finn” in the novel Slan (noted by David Ketterer in a personal communication). The Female Man, by Joanna Russ, might have been an inspiration (see Delany, p. 32). Philip K. Dick is often suggested as a likely model, but Gibson states: “I hadn't read much Dick before I started writing” (McCaffery, p. 227).

Works Cited

Bester, Alfred. The Stars My Destination. NY: Berkley, 1956.

Burroughs, William. Interview, Rolling Stone Magazine, 20 (Nov. 5-Dec. 10, 1987): 253-54.

Delany, Samuel R. “Is Cyberpunk a Good Thing or a Bad Thing?” Mississippi Review, 16.2-3 (1988): 28-35.

Gibson, William. Burning Chrome. NY: Ace, 1987.

———. Neuromancer. NY: New Ace Science Fiction Specials, 1984.

Hamburg, Victoria. “The King of Cyberpunk,” Interview Magazine, Jan. 1989, p. 84.

Maddox, Tom. “Cobra, She Said: An Interim Report on the Fiction of William Gibson,” Fantasy Review, 9.4 (Apr. 1986): 46-48.

McCaffery, Larry. “An Interview with William Gibson,” Mississippi Review, 16.2-3 (1988): 217-36.

Sterling, Bruce. “Letter from Bruce Sterling,” REM, no. 7 (Apr. 1987), pp. 4-7.

David G. Mead (essay date 1991)

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SOURCE: Mead, David G. “Technological Transfiguration in William Gibson's Sprawl Novels: Neuromancer,Count Zero, and Mona Lisa Overdrive.Extrapolation 32, no. 4 (1991): 350-60.

[In the following essay, Mead asserts that characters in Gibson's trilogy of “Sprawl” novels—Neuromancer, Count Zero, and Mona Lisa Overdrive—use technology as a means of transcendence, transformation, and liberation.]

Some years ago, in a review essay in Isaac Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine, Norman Spinrad urged calling the writers of the nascent cyberpunk movement “neuromantics.”1 In contradistinction to the hostility to technology, the neo-Ludditism, so to speak, which is often attributed to the New Wave writers of the 1960s and early 1970s, Spinrad found in William Gibson, John Shirley, Bruce Sterling, Pat Cadigan, and Rudy Rucker, among others, a “forthrightly high-tech romanticism,” an attitude that embraces “wholeheartedly the real world that science and technology have made, the technosphere, the reality of the last quarter of the twentieth century” (185). Spinrad uses the adjective “romantic” frequently, defining it very loosely and operationally to mean an unashamed affection for or acceptance of: egregious individualism and defiant self-reliance; radical technological change which provides the opportunity for human beings to positively change the “perceptual and psychic definitions of what it means to be human” (187); and a rebellious rejection of society's oppressions. He cites as his instances of the Neuromantic hero Gibson's Henry Case and John Shirley's Rickenharp (from Eclipse), and he invokes the transformation of humanity in Greg Bear's Blood Music as an instance of the romantic apotheosis through technology. Spinrad's enthusiasm for the values of the “movement” is shared by many, including the distinguished critic Brooks Landon, whose introduction to the Easton Press edition of Neuromancer praises cyberpunk fiction for its “simple, unhysterical, unsentimental understanding of the profound technological and epistemological implications of accomplished and near-accomplished cultural fact. And Neuromancer did this best” (v). Landon praises Gibson in particular for his ability to make “us realize the incredible implications computers pose for human memory, and thereby for history, for our sense of reality itself” (iv).

Gibson himself is somewhat more reserved about the positive benefits of technology, at least publicly, than are his admirers. In an interview printed in Mississippi Review 47/48, Gibson said, “My feelings about technology are totally ambivalent. Ambivalence seems to me to be the only way to relate to what's happening today. … You can't be a Luddite and you can't buy technocracy” (McCaffery 228). Mikal Gilmore, writing of the cyberpunks and Gibson in particular in Rolling Stone, also noted the mixed nature of the movement's vision:

Unlike their predecessors, who took a more cynical view of man's machines, cyberpunks are saying that while technology is rampant and scary, it can also be redemptive. In some of the movement's most inventive works … technology leads to both transendence and negation of the human spirit, occasionally at the same time.


Perhaps provoked by Spinrad's somewhat undisciplined use of the term “romantic,” certainly prompted by the inherent ambivalence toward technology's consequences in Gibson's early short fiction, Miriyam Glazer explores Gibson's romanticism in some detail in a recent issue of the Journal of Popular Culture. She finds that his “deepest literary roots are to be found … within late eighteenth and nineteenth century romanticism,” and suggests that Gibson opposes the “technolatry” of earlier science fiction, seeing in the new technologies he extrapolates a set of tighter, more devastating “mind-forged manacles” for the passive victims of the not-so-brave new Sprawl (156-57). For Glazer, Gibson's outlaw heroes may be trying to reenact the romantic rebel's journey toward a liberating expansion of consciousness, to transform the world. However, they must fail because they reject the “meat” by reconstituting vision and imagination in and from a gomi-heaped world (160), denying their essential human selves and Nature, in favor of entering cyberspace, a “universe of opaque signs” in which imagination is constrained by “an all-encompassing manufactured illusion” (161-62). For Glazer, the technology of Gibson's fiction makes the human obsolete. For example, she asserts that when Bobby Newmark's body dies at the end of Mona Lisa Overdrive, he dies, and that people like Lise in Gibson's powerful story “The Winter Market” are diminished by their escape from the flesh into silicon.2 For Glazer, the characters of Gibson's world are “invaded and altered” by technology.

While I disagree with Glazer's view almost entirely, and side, so to speak, with those who find in Gibson and the movement a profound affection for the opportunities—as opposed to the threats—offered by scientific and technological change, the clear division of opinion regarding Gibson's themes, represented by Spinrad and Landon on one hand and Glazer on the other, suggests that his writing is crucial, that is, it somehow embodies a meaningful intersection of apparently divergent ideas and values about the relation of humanity and its technology. One impediment to resolving the division of opinion may be the “romanticism” that we choose to invoke in order to apprehend Gibson's meanings. Arthur O. Lovejoy pointed out some years ago that it was necessary to discriminate among the various romanticisms which developed in late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century Europe to understand the literature of the age. It seems to me that such discrimination and definition is useful also in seeing Gibson in terms of literary tradition and the history of ideas.

Glazer, working from an unabashedly Blakean romantic perspective, demands an organicism, primitivism, and humanism which Gibson's cosmos simply cannot supply. Like Blake, Glazer valorizes the human face of things, rejecting the world of technology, specifically the virtual reality of cyberspace, as an Urizenic or Newtonian reduction, an inhuman “single vision” educed by “mind-forged manacles.” Like those early romantics—for example, Joseph Warton, who rejected the symmetry of the formal French garden and the heroic couplet, Glazer rejects the inorganic geometrical symmetry of cyberspace, seeing this human/machine interface as an unnatural enslavement. It seems to me that a more appropriate romanticism to invoke in Gibson's case would be the German variety represented by Schiller's On Naive and Sentimental Poetry. As Lovejoy notes, Schiller expressed “the conviction that ‘harmony with nature,’ in any sense which implied an opposition to ‘culture,’ to ‘art,’ to reflection and self-conscious effort, was neither possible nor desirable for the modern man or the modern artist” (14-15). This version of romanticism values diversity, irony, and complexity and accepts the superiority of the cultivated over the primitive; as Friedrich Schlegel observed, for man the artificial is “natural” (Lovejoy 15). It embraces the idea of self-transcendence without demanding that this be achieved by denying the artifacts of culture, including technology, in favor of a simple, primitive humanism.

Approaching the term “neuromantic” from the perspective of Schiller and Schlegel helps not only to resolve the problem of terminology but also allows us to avoid forcing an overly simplistic—and I think false—choice between Blakean and Enlightenment forebears on this eclectic postmodernist author. If we allow that the German notion of the “romantic” is more appropriate for him than the Blakean or Wartonian—that it is more tolerant of diversity and complexity, more eclectic, more tolerant of the artificial—then the dilemma (somewhat illusory) of fixing Gibson's literary heritage is resolved to some degree. His ambivalence and complexity has historical precedent and echoes the problems that writers and thinkers encountered as the complexities of the new industrial age dawned on Europe in the late eighteenth century.

In the neuromantic vision of William Gibson, developments in cybernetics, biotechnology, neurochemistry, and so forth offer the opportunity, but not the certainty, for personal liberation and self-actualization, almost to the extreme of apotheosis. No longer does technological change mean the danger of planetary destruction first and foremost; nor does it just threaten urban hells with “mind-forged manacles” fastened to passive consumers by Sense/Net or multinational megacorps. In Gibson's Sprawl trilogy—Neuromancer,Count Zero, and Mona Lisa Overdrive—technology permits us to become what we will, to realize our selves, however banal, in ways undreamed of by the countercultural, New Wave technophobe or the Blakean romantic. In Gibson's long fictions, almost all characters are given the opportunity to use technology to reformulate themselves in some significant way, to realize an ideal selfhood.

The characters of Neuromancer, the quintessential cyberpunk text, perhaps best illustrate the neuromantic attitude toward technological liberation. The commonfolk visit surgical boutiques, where for a few dollars they can buy vat-grown Zeiss Ikon eyes or have microsoft sockets implanted in their mastoid processes. The cheap elective surgery made possible by advances in biotechnology and immunology allows a young gang member to look the way he feels, to express his style in a powerful way.

His face was a simple graft grown on collagen and shark-cartilage polysac-charides, smooth and hideous. It was one of the nastiest pieces of elective surgery Case had ever seen. When Angelo smiled, revealing the razor-sharp canines of some large animal, Case was actually relieved. Toothbud transplants. He'd seen that before.


A slightly more sophisticated example of self-actualization is offered by the heroine Molly Millions, the street-samurai “razor-girl” who, to escape life in an urban “squat,” recreates herself (in the image of Sonny Chiba and Bruce Lee) by undergoing a series of elective surgeries to speed up her reflexes, install extrudable razor-blade finger tips, and mask her eyes with permanent mirrorshades. She pays for her transformation by whoring; however, the money she earns is “free” since she performs her sexual services as an unconscious “meat puppet,” having had a “neural cut-out” installed. Ironically, Molly Kolodny elects to be a mindless extension of machinery for a while so that she can earn enough to reformulate herself as Molly Millions.

Henry Case, the human protagonist of Neuromancer, is another person for whom life is made livable, not terrible, by technology. Case is a “console cowboy,” a computer thief who makes his living stealing data from various databases. Case enters these data stores through the medium of cyberspace, a consensual hallucination which has evolved to serve modern business and industry. Indeed, Case is, in his own estimation, alive only when he is jacked into c-space; everything outside cyberspace is just a “meat thing.” For Case, to be severed from c-space is to be dead. And dead to the world is what Case is when the novel begins, since his ability to jack has been destroyed by a disgruntled former employer.

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 the prison of his own flesh.


Gibson's metaphor of imprisonment here is significant. For Case, Molly, Angelo, and other characters of this novel, life, the status quo, is imprisonment; escape or transformation is made possible by science. For Case, liberation or transformation comes twice. As the novel ends, Case discovers that an electronic version of himself, a RAM construct given a sort of electronic life by Wintermute/Neuromancer, exists in cyberspace, presumably living inside a world-construct with an electronic duplicate of Linda Lee. Meanwhile, his meat self, redeemed from death by technology and matured by his experiences, will marry, have children and, more or less, live happily ever after. There is no doubt that Case has been transfigured and redeemed.

Case is saved from self-destruction and meat death (indeed, he achieves a sort of electronic immortality) by an artificial intelligence called Wintermute. This entity is owned and operated by the multinational corporation Tessier-Ashpool S.A. Wintermute controls one-half of T-A's computer net, the other half being run by an AI located in Rio; these vastly capable intelligences are kept from knowing each other by both software controls and hardwired “shackles.” Additionally, the Turing Police, an international agency, monitor the operations of these AIs to prevent them from escaping human control.

The fundamental plot of Neuromancer is Wintermute's struggle, stemming from a drive secretly and subtly programmed into its software by its creator, to break its “shackles,” link directly with its Brazilian alter ego (the AI whose true name is Neuromancer), and achieve a sort of machine apotheosis. It is Wintermute who reprograms the schizoid Willis Corto, invents a medical technology which refurbishes Case's nerves, hires Molly, locates the ROM construct of the Dixie Flatline, identifies Peter Riviera as being attractive to 3Jane Tessier-Ashpool, purchases the Chinese ICE-breaker, and so forth. Wintermute is technology liberating itself from enslavement by humans.

Of course, not all opportunities are seized for the better. Technology permits self-enslavement or entrapment as well as self-transformation or transcendence. Linda Lee, Case's girlfriend in Chiba, loses herself to drug addiction as well as love. The executives of the great industrial zaibatsu that dominate the world economy, exchange their liberty for the cradle-to-grave security of the corporate arcologies. The mark of their election is a corporate logo tattooed on their flesh and patented medical microprocessors in their blood. As corporations replace nations, changing jobs becomes defection; employees sign indentures and are fitted with “cortex bombs.” If the price is right, one can sell oneself into eternal shackles. McCoy Pauley, the Dixie Flatline, Case's mentor, allows himself—his memories and behavioral patterns—to be replicated in a ROM-construct. The man, the meat, died, but his electronically caught pattern, aware of its own forever-fixed artificiality, would have been owned and operated by Sense/Net in perpetuity had not Molly and Case stolen the device and eventually, at the construct's request, erased it.

Escaping a stultifying or imprisoning life is a basic theme of the second Sprawl novel, Count Zero. Every significant figure in the book is trying to break free of some constraint, and using the new technology is often the way the escape is made.

The most obvious figure seeking liberation is the novel's villain, the enormously wealthy Josef Virek. His body, about 400 kilograms of cancerous flesh, is kept alive in a support vat in a suburb of Stockholm. His persona, or mind, inhabits a simstim construct of the Guell Park in Barcelona, a “virtual reality.” Virek will do anything, use anyone, kill anyone, to escape his imminent death. The possibility that he may be able to replicate himself electronically and dwell eternally and omnipotently in the cyberspace matrix or, via means known to the entities of cyberspace, be transplanted into human bodies drives Virek to extraordinary deeds and leads eventually to his liberation from life—at the hands, so to speak, of Baron Samedi, the electronic loa of death.

Bobby Newmark, whose computer hotdogger handle “Count Zero Interrupt” gives the book its title, lives—if it can be called living—in a lower-middle-class Jersey slum called Barrytown. His mother survives on welfare allotments and six hours a day of simstim soap operas, while Bobby dreams prefab fantasies of fame as a console cowboy, even though he can barely read and knows next to nothing about life beyond the Big Playground outside his housing complex. Bobby's desperate need to get out, to get to the Sprawl, to life, is matched only by his naivety and ignorance. Ironically, he gets himself killed (momentarily) the first time he slots some ICE-cutting software and tries to steal a little data.3 Yet it will be his facility with a c-space deck and his link with the cybernetically augmented Angela Mitchell that finally lead—in Mona Lisa Overdrive—to Newmark's transcendent removal, via the Aleph device, into a new state of electronic being.4

Christopher Mitchell has invented—with the help and direction of the intelligences which now inhabit the cyberspace matrix—a “biochip” technology that enables a whole new generation of computer construction. Developing the new biochips has brought Mitchell escape from the graduate students' dorms, fame, and finally fortune with Maas-Neotek. It has also brought a lifetime's sequestration in Mass-Neotek's mesa-top arcology in Arizona for himself and his daughter. His only escape from his corporate masters, other than death, can come through being “extracted” from the grasp of Mass-Neotek by quasi-military corporate raiders from another zaibatsu, Hosaka, and this will merely mean for him imprisonment by a different employer. Mitchell cuts his own throat rather than continue in the employ of a corporation that is about to vivisect his daughter Angela in order to remove the biochip implants in her brain.

Mitchell's daughter Angela has been a prisoner of her father's science since her infancy. As the price for Christopher Mitchell's scientific success, Angela's brain has been implanted—at the direction of cyberspace intelligences—with biochip devices. She escapes Maas-Neotek and Hosaka, but she never escapes the demands which are placed on her by the electronic intelligences, the Divine Horsemen, which have more or less created her. Angela's implants give her the great mental power to interface directly with the matrix; however, she is compelled by the loa to make the connection. She has no choice in the matter until she finds a designer drug which seems to free her from loa control. In fact this drug was commissioned by Sense/Net's corporate A-I—called “Continuity”—and subtly rewrites the programming of the biochips in her brain in order to prevent Angie's communicating with the cyberspace loa. While this highly addictive drug does free her from her compulsion to serve the loa, it is at the cost of another, much less satisfying kind of imprisonment. Angela shakes her drug addiction, but, like her lover Bobby Newmark, will free herself from the loa and her technological chains only by entering (being electronically copied into) the Aleph. At the end of Mona Lisa Overdrive, their bodies die, but their patterns “live” on as RAM structures in the Aleph, with the implication that these, with the Finn and Colin, will move on somehow to live eternally in a transcendent “dataverse” or “virtual reality.” They have joined the other “ghosts” in the new Nature-machine (c-space “after it changed”) and seem on their way to integration with some nonhuman greater spirit, perhaps the “Grand Met” of the voodoo paradigm, at novel's end.

Among the other principle characters of Count Zero are Marly Khrushkova and Turner, the mercenary expert in corporate executive relocation or “extractions.” Marly, a small gallery owner and art connoisseur, is a prisoner, first of her dependency on her lover Alain and later of Josef Virek's plan to achieve electronic apotheosis. Marly's role in the novel seems to be to reveal and reject the vision of freedom which Virek seeks so desperately, a megalomaniac's dream to be “free, eventually, to inhabit any number of real bodies … Forever” (219). Marly's imprisonment is symbolized by her claustrophobia. She feels increasingly confined by the structure of control and observation generated around her by Virek, and it seems to be this sense of entrapment which reveals Virek's evil to her and drives her to warn the “boxmaker” she has been hired to find for Virek. It is a sign of Marly's commitment to escape that she voluntarily endures a series of technological enclosures (two spacecraft, the orbital space station, and the Tessier-Ashpool data cores) in order to reach the place—both psychological and spatial—where she can assert her freedom by warning the boxmaker of Virek's threatening intent. Her rejection of Virek's selfish use of technology to control others, of the bonds and false promises of safety through technology, is signified by her claustrophobic rejection of a spacesuit's protection. At novel's end, Marly prefers death to enclosure, freedom to continued service to the no-longer-human Virek. Although Marly cares nothing about technology—indeed, she seems the least comfortable of all Gibson's characters with things mechanical—she is saved, quite incidentally, when the loa destroy Virek for threatening Angela with a superior technology that rescues rather than restrains.

Unlike the initially helpless Marly, Turner seems a consummately self-controlled, masterful man of action who owes his life to biomedical advances. The novel opens with Turner's being surgically reassembled after having been blown to bits in New Delhi. While his body recovers, his mind spends three months dwelling in a “ROM-generated simstim construct of an idealized New England boyhood” (1). Turner is a mercenary who works for the multinational zaibatsu which run the world politically and economically. Working by contract, somewhat like a ronin or masterless samurai, his specialty is “extracting” high-level executives who would like to change jobs and employers. Since the executives are permanently indentured to their corporations by unbreakable contract, Turner rescues them from the clutches of their corporate masters, quite illegally, using the most high-tech weapons.

A loner, Turner seems to eschew “connection,” leaving the family home early and refusing to return even to his mother's deathbed. The medical simstim was wholly inappropriate. His romantic liaisons are almost entirely commercial, and for good reason, since even casual pickups in the remotest parts of the third world can turn out to be industrial psychologists employed by a zaibatsu to check out an employee's mental health. For Turner, “home” is sexual release (5), and the only person you can really trust is your Swiss agent. For a decisive man, a hero capable of murder in his employer's service, Turner seems as much a victim as Marly, primarily because he has no place to go when he becomes the target of the machinations of others, machinations enabled by the massive technological resources of Maas-Neotek, Hosaka, and Josef Virek. He is harried from one bolt-hole to another, always on the run, and eventually finds himself at the center of everyone's gunsights, as a result of having done his job well by rescuing Angela Mitchell. Ironically, in the end it will be the linkage with Angie, who incorporates the newest and most potent technology of all, a technology of connection, that liberates Turner. Protected by the electronic gods of the machine, Turner finds his true freedom by returning to the family farm, marrying his brother's girlfriend, and starting a family—with sperm and genitalia which were bought on the open market.

The minor characters of Count Zero are often prisoners of technology. Bobby Newmark's mother Marsha, who may represent the masses of the future (and the housewives of today), lives for her simstim soap operas; outside them she has no life.5 Jackie, the “horse” of the voodoo/cyberspace loa Danbala Wedo and Aida Wedo, is the helpless captive of technological intelligences, and she is killed by the “black ice” of Josef Virek. Turner's brother Rudy is a homeboy who winds up dead at the hands of Turner's enemies because he is unable to bring himself to leave home. The web of technology that he has created for himself as a defense against the world turns out to be a trap.

However, it should be noted that the residents—mainly blacks—of the Projects, the minimum income arcologies of Barrytown, have domesticated technology, incorporating it in their special social and cultural matrices. They use their technology—geothermal heating to raise shrimp and catfish, for instance—to make what in our time would be slums into truly comfortable homes. They aren't abused by it. This includes dealing with the cyberspace entities, which they relate to through a voodoo paradigm as demigods or loa.

The theme of liberation and enslavement by technology is continued in Mona Lisa Overdrive. Sally Shears, a.k.a. Molly Millions in Neuromancer, reappears and is driven to action by her dead enemy 3Jane Tessier-Ashpool, whose control of the T-A data pool allows Sally to be threatened with complete exposure of her life's history. Sally's Yakuza employer, Roger Swain, is himself threatened, and empowered, by 3Jane's data to the degree that he is willing to rebel against his oyabun Yanaka, the head of the once-Japanese, now world-wide, criminal syndicate. Mona Lisa, the Cleveland hooker who gives her name to the final novel, is rebuilt in a few hours to look like Angie Mitchell. This biotechnology makes possible both good and evil. Mona's cosmetic surgery aims to convince the world, when she is killed, that her body is Angela's; but rescued from the villains, the now-beautiful Mona has the opportunity to replace Angie as the next simstim superstar. Even little Kumiko Yanaka, whose troubles seem more psychological then technological, is saved from harm by the Maas-Neotek artificial intelligence Colin, who protects her from the electronic “ghost” of 3Jane Tessier-Ashpool and helps her identify Roger Swain as her enemy.

Indeed, the theme of the liberating possibilities offered by technological change comes to fruition in Mona Lisa Overdrive. This work exists, in a way, to dramatize the promise that the earlier works have explored, the promise that through technology one can have both freedom and dreams. At the end of this novel, Bobby Newmark, once the console cowboy Count Zero Interrupt, and his lover Angie Mitchell, now the great simstim star in Sense/Net's stable, enter—are copied into, are brain-drained into, become “ghosts” of—a massive lump of biochips called an Aleph. This mechanism is capable of containing, as one minor figure says, “everything.” This “soul-catcher” provides a virtual reality for those who “live” in it, although Gibson clearly suggests at the novel's end that existence in the electricity-dependent Aleph is only temporary. Bobby, Angela, the Finn, and the electronic intelligence Colin are on their way to some other condition of being that exists beyond the boundaries of the Aleph, as well as beyond life and Nature as we poor post-romantic mortals know it.6

Gibson has been much praised for the power of his vision as well as his style. It seems to me that one reason for the praise heaped on the Sprawl novels, Neuromancer particularly, is that they promise that science can save as well as damn us, that science has the potential to make our dreams come true. These works reflect a fundamentally popular belief in the redemptive powers of technology, a view—the New Wave, Mary Shelley, or Miriyam Glazer notwithstanding—that underlies the genre. It is a view consistent also with the American vision of liberty for the individual, a belief that beyond the frontier lies the opportunity to make a better tomorrow, even if realizing our dreams does involve coping with punks with purple Mohawk haircuts, Panther Moderns, menacing oriental thugs, and the ready availability of designer drugs.


  1. Spinrad credits Tappan King with originally suggesting the term (180).

  2. Glazer, commenting on a passage from “The Winter Market,” fails to see the positive joy and value of Lise's long-sought deliverance from her wasted flesh: “With a ‘cry of release,’ grotesquely crippled Lise of ‘Winter Market’ has herself translated into the ‘ROM on some corporate mainframe’ achieving freedom at last from the bonds of … hated flesh” (Burning Chrome 140), (159; emphasis mine).

  3. Bobby's murder is provoked by the technology he believes will free him. He is then revived by the intervention of the biochip-augmented Angela Mitchell. Ironically, the same technology that allows her to save Bobby from the lethal ICE threatens her with death at the hands of Virek, Mass-Neotek, and Hosaka.

  4. The name “Aleph” clearly links the object to divine creation—the “alpha and omega”—and is perhaps a symbol of God or a godlike being.

  5. For Glazer it is the example of Marsha Newmark, rather than Molly, Case, or Bobby, which most truly represents Gibson's vision of the consequences of technology.

  6. This “romantic journey” is ignored by Glazer, yet it clearly indicates that Gibson's humanity has achieved, or it about to achieve, that “union with a power greater than the self” that links the “human and the non-human, the natural, worlds” (162).

Works Cited

Gibson, William. Count Zero. New York: Ace-Berkely, 1987.

———. Mona Lisa Overdrive. New York: Bantam-Spectra, 1988.

———. Neuromancer. New York: Ace-Berkely, 1984.

———. “The Winter Market,” in Burning Chrome. New York: Ace-Berkely, 1987. 117-41.

Gilmore, Mikal. “The Rise of Cyberpunk.” Rolling Stone Dec. 1986, 77-78, 107-8.

Glazer, Miriyam. “‘What Is Within Now Seen Without’: Romanticism, Neuromanticism, and the Death of the Imagination in William Gibson's Fictive World.” Journal of Popular Culture 23 (Winter 1989): 155-64.

Landon, Brooks. “Introduction.” In Neuromancer, by William Gibson. Rockford, IL: Easton Press, 1990, iii-vi.

Lovejoy, Arthur O. “On the Discrimination of Romanticisms.” English Romantic Poets. Ed. M. H. Abrams. New York: Oxford UP, 1968, 3-24.

McCaffery, Larry. “An Interview with William Gibson.” Mississippi Review 16.2-3 (1988): 217-36.

Spinrad, Norman. “On Books: The Neuromantics.” Isaac Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine May 1986, 180-90.

Tatsumi, Takayuki. “An Interview with William Gibson.” Science Fiction Eye 1 (Winter 1987): 6-17.

Further Reading

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Davies, Stan Gébler. “Great Balls of Fire.” Punch 288, no. 7522 (6 February 1985): 54.

Davies compliments Gibson's dialogue in Neuromancer, calling it “a clever concoction of gangster talk and computer-speak.”

Gibson, William, and Mikal Gilmore. “The Rise of Cyberpunk.” Rolling Stone, no. 488 (4 December 1986): 77-8, 107-08.

Gibson discusses the critical reception of Neuromancer, the inspirations behind the novel, and the genre of cyberpunk fiction.

Greenland, Colin. “Possess, Integrate, Inform.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4262 (7 December 1984): 1420.

Greenland characterizes Neuromancer as a “hard-boiled crime thriller.”

Lancashire, Ian. “Ninsei Street, Chiba City, in Gibson's Neuromancer.Science-Fiction Studies 30, no. 2 (July 2003): 341-43.

Lancashire comments on how Gibson uses the setting of Ninsei Street in Neuromancer as a metaphor for the novel's cyberspace matrix.

Platt, Charles. “Science Fiction.” Washington Post Book World 21, no. 34 (29 July 1984): 11.

Platt offers high praise for Neuromancer, hailing the novel as a “virtuoso performance” and a state-of-the-art work of fiction.

Wytenbroek, J. R. “Cyberpunk.” Canadian Literature, no. 121 (summer 1989): 162-64.

Wytenbroek examines Gibson's “Sprawl” series and asserts that Neuromancer is overloaded with “technical jargon” which obscures the main plot.

Additional coverage of Gibson's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Vol. 12; Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction: Biography & Resources, Vol. 2; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 126, 133; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 52, 90, 106; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vols. 39, 63; Contemporary Novelists, Ed. 7; Contemporary Popular Writers; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 251; DISCovering Authors Modules: Popular Fiction and Genre Authors; DISCovering Authors 3.0; Literature Resource Center; Major 20th-Century Writers, Ed. 2; St. James Guide to Science Fiction Writers, Ed. 4; Science Fiction Writers, Ed. 2; and Short Story Criticism, Vol. 52.

Istvan Csicsery-Ronay, Jr. (essay date spring 1992)

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SOURCE: Csicsery-Ronay, Jr., Istvan. “The Sentimental Futurist: Cybernetics and Art in William Gibson's Neuromancer.Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction 33, no. 3 (spring 1992): 221-40.

[In the following essay, Csicsery-Ronay posits that Gibson's narrative in Neuromancer addresses the question of how artists can represent the human condition in a world dominated by cybernetic technologies.]

William Gibson's career and reputation threaten to imitate the panic narrative logic of his own fictions. Gibson was immediately cited as a form of postmodern apotheosis, on the basis of a few stories and a first novel. But largely because of his own enormous influence on the creators of Virtual Reality and cyberspace, we are speeding away from the stars of his imaginary constellation so fast that cyberpunk, the literary movement Gibson was said to epitomize, has all but vanished in the void. Moreover, since the explosive success of Neuromancer, Gibson has studiously cooled and moderated the hellbent intensity of his fiction; consequently, in the opinion of many readers, he has lost some control and conviction.

Gibson is, nevertheless, one of the most inventive and ambitious artists in SF, perhaps in spite of Neuromancer's success in mixing hard SF and scintillating lyric. Unlike most SF, Gibson's writing is concerned with art, in overt and subtle ways—specifically, with SF as a medium for art. His critics miss the point when they take exception to the prominence of style over such putative hard SF qualities as fidelity to scientific plausibility in projecting the future.1 I would argue that the lasting values of Gibson's works lie precisely in his careful and complex crafting of an SF language that simultaneously expresses a lyricism of estrangement and an allegory of the present. Where traditional SF repeats obsessively the delusion that it is a form of epic representation of the fate of humanity, Gibson's fiction returns, as to a tonic, to the question of how artists can represent the human condition in a social world saturated by cybernetic technologies.

In this essay, I will argue that Gibson attempted to solve the problem in Neuromancer through a form of sentimental futurism. He adopted the artistic and technosocial vision of a neofuturism, albeit “sentimentally,” without celebrating the inexorable victory of autonomous technology. In Count Zero (1986), Gibson repudiates the futuristic intensity of his first novel. The second novel emphasizes the fragmentation of experience and social reality in a hyperextended cybernetic control system and, with it, the primacy of the art of collage. Gibson strives in Count Zero to restore a place for ethical and artistic freedom by subverting the apocalyptic fusions of Neuromancer. With Mona Lisa Overdrive (1988), the trilogy concludes with a chaotic synthesis—allowing the coexistence and coevolution of an art of mystical allegory, embodied in the Aleph, and an art of realistic simulation, embodied in the AI, Continuity.

SF writers have referred occasionally to their own artistic activity in their works, but usually only in passing and with little effect on their main narratives. Delany, Disch, and Zelazny are some striking exceptions in the U.S. tradition. In general, where artists' self-reflection feeds back sufficiently to dissolve the generic protocols of SF, those writers—Lem, Cronenberg, and Ballard, for example—become only tangentially or grudgingly associated with the genre. But Gibson's novels can be read as a continuing attempt to make sense of the SF writer as a critical and ethical interpreter of his own generic universe of discourse. The problem of cybernetic system feedback is not limited to the themes and techniques “in” texts; it leads to questioning the very purpose of constructing futuristic narratives. To put it another way: if the “real world” in which SF artists construct their narratives, and from which they gather their material for SF treatment, is already a work of SF simulation, what is it that an SF artist can do? For Gibson, this is not primarily a political and ethical question but a question about the possibilities and meaning of art in a world that has absorbed and usurped the traditional purposes and scenes of art.


The problem that cybernetics poses for the traditional genre of SF is, ironically, greater than for non-SF writing. The widespread application of cybernetic information processing and communications control systems throughout social life leads to a collapse of social space, a Baudrillardian implosion.2 SF's pantographic glory had been represented by the concept of “outer space.” In general, before the noir turn of the 1960s, SF luxuriated in a form of mythological superrealism. Realistic fiction's idealization of spatial relations attained a pinnacle in SF's cosmic stage set. When projected into space, history, romantic quest, or indeed any human adventure could pretend to acquire a heroic aura. Faster-than-light-travel and other temporal anomalies allowed the protagonists of SF a scene of infinite dimensions and boundless access.

Realism was a privileged style of presentation for this mode because realism encourages the representation of human activity as a syntagmatic negotiation of space.3 For the same reason, SF continued in the romantic adventure mode, for it is the adventure that emphasizes the physical and cognitive conquest of previously unassimilable and symbolically highly charged spaces. SF as a genre industry flowered after the heroic adventurers ceded the cognitive conquest of terrestrial spaces to the prosaic anthropologists. SF rushed in to offer a compensatory ideology of inherently unassimilable space as a venue for the relentless restaging of heroic, ethical, and pseudo-scientific assimilation. The limits on conquest were not internal to the human condition; they were part of the external objective condition of the universe and, hence, an irresistible challenge.

Like all realisms, the realism of SF's outer space pretended to offer a window on the actual landscape of the world, in this case the landscape of the future—not a literal prediction, of course, just a continual reinforcement of the attitude that the assaults of scientific adventuring subjects on the objective material world will continue in a naive representational mode of appropriation. Cybernetics, when it appears in classical realistic SF, has the role of adjunct regulator, a handmaiden. The Asimovian robot is programmed to be subject to idealized human ethics; the classical ship's computer is always subject to noble human override.

By the time we reach Gibson and the cyberpunks, cybernetics have saturated mundane reality to a degree that few SF writers have ever wanted to contemplate. Ironically, it was not in space travel that this cyberneticization exerted its transformative power. After all, several Apollo missions were occasions for brilliant manual control of spaceships. The saturation occurred through mass communications and weapons systems. Soon, daily life was the most charged arena of technological innovation. The colonization of space ceded place to the colonization of the quotidian. Outer space gradually ceased to be a heroic site, becoming instead the dreary and boring out-land. The thrill of human transformation was occurring within Spaceship Earth. The cyborgization of the body (through cybermedecine and surveillance), the absorption of politics into computerized international communications and finance systems, the sciences, the arts, economic life, and the whole range of human relationships mediated by high technology, vitiated the power of mythological space adventure.

It is a commonplace that, in realistic fiction, either the setting or the characters must remain stable. The familiarity of one permits the reader to gauge the strangeness of the other. If both are strange, there is no “solid ground” for the reader's predictions, expectations, or resolutions. Once it became clear that the cybernetic transformation of everyday life had called into question the character of human social existence, outer space had either to become familiar and domesticated or a projection of character.

The most fascinating response to this collapse of space into the infinite transformability of the human world was Gibson's cyberspace and its real-world cousin, Virtual Reality. In a single move, Gibson restored the heroic spatial expanse that SF had lost in outer space and laid the groundwork for developing a system of symbols for cybernetic implosion. Cyberspace, after all, is a purely human system, a “consensual hallucination,” with no objective status. In it, the Cartesian res cogitans continually reinvents the res extensa. It cannot be conquered for humanity because it is an aspect of humanity at the outset. The best that can be hoped for is its conquest for unalienated, enlightened human beings from the powers of avarice, fetishization, and global reification that control the cyberspace field. Gibson's cyberspace novels are, from this perspective, adventures of disalienation, attempts to imagine the redemption of a hostile alien continuum of humanity's own making.

The collapse of space from the infinite physical universe to the infinite imaginary datascape of cyberspace reflects a similar collapse of the distances that had propped up precybernetic arts, to the de-defined, de-auraticized art of postmodernity. The saturation of reality with technosocial feedback systems raises in even more pronounced form the problem of art described by Walter Benjamin in “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” Trying to account for the revolutionary impact of film, Benjamin argued that the serial production of works of art by mechanical means removes art irreparably from the realm of historical uniqueness and the immediate material conditions of its production. Art, which had always been invested with the religious quality of “aura,” is absorbed by the process of commodity production and undergoes the same transformation from unique object to abstract process that characterizes the industrial capitalist mode of production. This new process brings with it, Benjamin argues, the revolutionary possibility that the masses will be able to enjoy art of good quality that also reflects their own situation. It also brings with it, like a shadow, the possibility of the aestheticization of politics in the fascist style, leading inevitably, and willfully, to war (Benjamin 217-251).

Benjamin writes of the disappearance of aura as the disappearance of cultic distance. More recently, Jean Baudrillard has described the domain of the hyper-real, and hyper-real SF in particular, in terms of the disappearance of the distance between the real and the imaginary.

There is no real and no imaginary, except at a certain distance. What happens when this distance, even the one separating the real from the imaginary, begins to disappear and to be absorbed by the model alone? Currently, from one order of simulacra to the next, we are witnessing the reduction and absorption of this distance, of this separation which permits a space for ideal or critical projection.

(“simulacres et science fiction” 180)

With cybernetic production, it is not only the artwork's aura that disappears. The entire symbolic domain as a different universe of discourse goes as well, in Baudrillard's account, and with it the sense of another, transcendent source of value from which auratic authority is felt to radiate. With the possibility of simulating almost any process and appearance through technosocial means, the once transcendental symbolic order is exteriorized (“made meat,” the console jockeys would say), and the symbolic is replaced with the “experiential.”4

Furthermore, the feedback of art into its social apparatus becomes so instantaneous and complete in telematic societies that it is already a part of the social process—barely distinguishable from publicity, from the commodification and marketing of experience. There is no special symbolic-informational domain from which the artist can justify the work of art from a moral, religious, or national perspective. High speed reproduction and dissemination make it difficult to distinguish between the appropriate and the indifferent, or indeed between the critical and the affirmative, the satirical and the indicative. There can be no better example of this than the case of Gibson's own cyberspace, which was almost instantly transformed from a dystopian fictional chronotope to the heart's desire of the purveyors of Virtual Reality (Porush, “The Matrix Made Meat”).

Because this implosion squeezes out the symbolic order as a domain with special, auratic authority, artists scramble to find new combinations and historically adequate materials. N. Katherine Hayles has described some strategies in The Cosmic Web and Chaos Bound. David Porush, in The Soft Machine, has discerned ways that certain postmodern writers respond to the collapse by writing as if their works were subversive Artificial Intelligence apparati in their own right, undermining the objective transformations of reality from within by depicting the likely points of breakdown and artificial transcendence.

Gibson does not share the experimental and philosophical inclinations of the writers discussed by Hayles and Porush. His tendency has been to look for the solution in the realistic depiction of experimental art—and to represent the notion, inherited from the modernist avant-garde, of the artwork's capacity to break down the political-ideological domination of the experience of reality. As I hope to show in this essay, Gibson's strategy is dogged and complex, but it is fraught with problems, for the avant-garde itself is arguably partly responsible for the absorption of reality into the global cybernetic control models of hyper-real simulation.

The avant-garde was, like Benjamin, committed to the destruction of the distance between elite art and everyday life. The gap that Benjamin spoke of as the mysterious/mystified distance required for the sense of aura, was, for the avant-garde, the gap maintained to prop up bourgeois class domination of consciousness. The goal, articulated especially by the futurists, constructivists, and surrealists, was to dissolve the boundaries between art and life by aestheticizing political and everyday life, and by bringing the politics of everyday life to art (P. Burger 47-54; Berman 34-35). It has been argued that the avant-garde's project was successful far beyond expectations in one respect: the aestheticization of power (a success greatly facilitated by the cybernetic technical apparati of mass communications). The infusion of art with living critical politics had less success; the technocratic beneficiaries of the control apparatus had little desire or need to create a democracy of technology (Berman 41). Consequently, a whole range of social phenomena—from the Nazi arts of simulation-propaganda to the postmodern destruction of boundaries between politics and advertising—reflect the transformation of reality into an immense screen of kinetic images. With the collapse of the distance between formal, autonomous art and life, the imaginary distance of critical reflection disappears as well (C. Burger 99; Berman 56). The artist is deprived of a reality that can be pointed to from an imaginary vantage point because that imaginary realm has itself been absorbed into the dimensionless, constantly mutating continuum of image and information. This spaceless condition affects the SF writer more than most because the imaginary concepts of utopia, the future, evolution, mythic science, and technological magic have defined the thematic contours of the genre. The destruction of the difference between reality and SF speculation necessarily presents a challenge to the SF writer to establish artistic distance out of materials that exert tremendous implosive pull to annihilate SF as a distinct way of conceiving, and even criticizing, the world.

Gibson is no cheerful booster of this condition. The lyricism, invocations of resignation and grief in his work, his implicit concern for the psychological histories of his characters, and his devotion to cause and effect all mark him as an interpreter of the human condition, one who assumes a desire, if not a capacity, on the part of human beings to view the world from a critical and ethical distance.

In a sense, Gibson is a novelist very much in the tradition described by Georg Lukacs in Theory of the Novel (Part II, Chapter 4). Faced with an overwhelming feeling of “transcendental homelessness,” wandering like pilgrims in a world emptied of religious and communal presence, Gibson and his protagonists embark in story after story on quests to restore value and meaning. They have an advantage over the earlier inhabitants of modern fiction, in that the cybersphere promises that it may be possible artificially to construct transcendence. Because the cybersphere has already absorbed the affects and objects that in the past were associated with sacredness and value, Gibson's protagonists have no choice but to try out artificial transcendence.


In Neuromancer the solution is global: art is all there is. Cybernetic technology has transformed the world into a perpetually mutating artifactual system. The technological order has been so successful in achieving its primary aim of converting the real into a traffic of information that the circulation itself has become the ground of reality. It has become a new nature, automatic, self-programming. Because no one in Neuromancer's world produces anything out of previously unworked matter anymore, all human activity is taken up with using excess and excessive information—for decoration, for self-supplementation, for pleasure. The universe has been transformed from the Dance of Shiv to the “dance of biz.” What matters is the dance,

Get just wasted enough, find yourself in some desperate but strangely arbitrary kind of trouble, and it was possible to see Ninsei as a field of data, the way the matrix had once reminded him of proteins linking to distinguish cell specialties. Then you could throw yourself into a highspeed drift and skid, totally engaged but set apart from it all, and all around you the dances of biz, information interacting, data made flesh in the mazes of the black market.


Almost every character in Neuromancer is an artist of some kind, almost every object a technological artifact that is also a work of art. More important, because Neuromancer depicts a social sphere running at breakneck speed, unmoored from the meat-bodies' natural gravity, the ruling artifacts are kinetic, theatrical, dancelike.

Gibson insists that we conceive Neuromancer's world as an art world. From the opening section heading, “Chiba City Blues” on, we hear Ratz (himself “heraldic” in his self-cultivated ugliness) identify Case as an “artiste of the slightly funny deal” (4). Sly allusions to contemporary art-rock—Screaming Fist, the Big Scientists—flatten art and violence into art fashions. Bodies are forever measured by art: Wage's mask; Molly's self-construction and her “muscles like a dancer's” (44); a Panther Modern “flowing [like] a mime pretending to be a jungle predator” (50); Lupus Yonderboy, “a state of the art gargoyle” (67); “Armitage, like a ‘metal statue’” (29). There is the Panther Moderns' terror-theater for the hell of it—the narrator even identifies their school-affiliations, with their “penchant for surreal violence” (48). Riviera's “holographic cabarets” and free-form psychic rapes are conscious theatrical “entertainments.” Freeside's hermetically enclosed magic theater is wired so that any object can be animated into dramatic life, from the Lado-Acheson sky's constellation of Linda Lee's face to the homicidal gardener-unit. Villa Straylight, the “Gothic folly” (172), unfolds in 3Jane's academic essay as an architectural wonder, a collection-point of obsolete objets d'arts so saturated with aura (from having been transported into orbit from Earth) that they seem to be organic matter in the vestibular viscera of the Straylight nautilus.

In this aesthetic profusion three grand-scale works of art dominate all the others: Marie-France Tessier-Ashpool's Artificial Intelligences, Wintermute's plot, and Case's visionary ballet mecanique with the Black Ice.

Marie-France's original design for the AIs was simultaneously a program for the creation of a new reality and the dramaturgy of a cosmic agon, the drama of bringing synthetic birth to a god of cyberspace. Marie-France was the ultimate cybernetic artist, for her “work” of art had to feed back on the real to program its own completion—through the enlistment of Case, Molly, Armitage, and the others in its project. Its final object was not merely a new entity but a transformed state of reality.

The union of Wintermute and Neuromancer (the two separated AIs that, once fused, are to become the new consciousness of cyberspace) is both a work of art and a new version of the archetypal union of halves severed from an original whole (Marie-France's design), like the two halves of the self that seek each other in Aristophanes's contribution to The Symposium. The united Wintermute-Neuromancer uses all of reality as its raw material and, as a result, makes all of reality its transformed “work.”

To attain this artifactualization of the world, Wintermute and Neuromancer write their plots, which take the ostensibly hard reality of human social life and invest it with theatrical plotting. Wintermute draws the human protagonists in by giving them the opportunity to practice their arts. Case, Molly, Riviera, even Maelcum, are given a stage on which to have the best performance of their lives. The irony is that their arts have become parts of Wintermute's operational program.

Neuromancer climaxes with Case as visionary pilot of the Kuang program against the Black Ice. This episode contains some of Gibson's most lyrical writing. It is informed by the strange premise that the consummation of Wintermute's and Neuromancer's psychocosmic union is a form of video-game Tai Chi Chuan—a synthesis of impossible drive and “an ancient dance … grace of the mind-body interface” (262). In that moment, Case becomes the supreme artiste of the cosmic video game and an initiate into a Tao of supernal machinery—the ultimate dancer.

It is difficult to read Neuromancer's conclusion as an affirmation, because each of the human achievements was essentially a subprogram of Wintermute's overriding plot and Marie-France's even more comprehensive initial plan. The position of the external source of critical perspective is provided by a fourth but very different work of art: Zion cluster's dub. The Zion spaceships are rejectionist bricolages, resembling inner-city reggae discos, just as dub is a form of rejectionist joy, a form of “worship” in Babylon, in which beat is all, a “cube of music” from which all excess is “hacked away.”5

The apocalyptic Rastas are obligated by their faith to facilitate the Great Transformation (though it's hardly obvious what Zion cluster gains with the unleashing of “Babylon”); they do this not mainly through Maelcum's skill as a bodyguard but through his art—dub music—a simulation of the beat of the “meat-heart” that draws the flatlined Case out of Neuromancer's simulation-universe by offering persistent, unwavering, alternative sound that has a modest, distinct, integral identity in a world of artful noise.


Gibson's commentators often speak of the importance of art in his writing. Glenn Grant identifies Gibson's tactics as a form of detournement, the representation of technologies in a way that appropriates them for countercultural uses (Grant 43-44). Grant traces this method from the dadaists and surrealists to the situationist and 1980s' countercultural movements. With this genealogy, Grant follows Bruce Sterling's (“Preface” to Mirrorshades x-xi) well-known formulation of cyberpunk as a social artist, a reservoir of alternative energies circulating in the techno-underground of the 1980s.

To my mind, this is to read Gibson as Sterling—and to mistake what is essentially an artistic strategy for a social-political tactic. Gibson's cyberspace/Sprawl world is a panic epic (to invoke Arthur Kroker), a self-conscious and self-exposing literary artifact that depicts, in the collision between the personal signature of the artist and a cybernetically organized dynamic social system, the general problem of individuals' imaginative vision in a hyper-real world of signs.

It is not in dada, hiphop, and punk that one will find the direct lineage of Gibson's cyberpunk but in another, less fashionable current: futurism, Italian style.

  1. We intend to glorify the love of danger, the habit of energy, the strength of daring.
  2. The essential elements of our poetry will be courage, audacity, and revolt.
  3. Literature having up to now glorified pensive immobility, ecstasy and slumber, we wish to exalt aggressive movement, a feverish insomnia, the racer's stride, the mortal leap, the punch and the slap.
  4. We affirm that the splendor of the world has been enriched by a new form of beauty, the beauty of speed. A racing car whose hood is adorned with great pipes like serpents with explosive breath … a roaring car that seems to run on gunpowder is more beautiful than the Venus of Samothrace.
  5. We will sing the praises of man at the wheel, who hurls the lance of his spirit across the Earth, along the circle of its orbit.
  6. The poet must spend himself with ardor, splendor, and generosity, to swell the enthusiastic fervor of the primordial elements.
  7. There is no more beauty except in struggle. There can be no masterpiece without the stamp of aggressiveness. Poetry should be a violent assault on unknown forces, to reduce and prostrate them before man.
  8. We stand on the last promontory of the ages! Why look back when we must break down the mysterious doors of The Impossible? Time and space died yesterday. We already live in the Absolute, for we have already created eternal, omnipresent speed.
  9. We will glorify war—the only true hygiene of the world—militarism, patriotism, the destructive gesture of the freedom-bringers, the beautiful Ideas which kill, and scorn for women.
  10. We will destroy museums, libraries, academies of any kind, and fight against moralism, feminism, and all utilitarian cowardice.
  11. We will sing of great crowds agitated by work, pleasure or revolt; we will sing the multicolored and polyphonic tides of revolution in modern capitals; the vibrant nocturnal fervor of arsenals and shipyards beneath their blazing electric moons; greedy railway stations devouring smoking serpents; factories hanging from the clouds by the crooked thread of their smoke; bridges that stride the rivers like giant gymnasts, flashing in the sun with the glitter of knives; adventurous steamers scenting the horizon; deep-chested locomotives whose wheels paw the tracks like the hooves of enormous steel horses bridled by tubing; and the sleek flight of planes whose propellers chatter in the wind and seem to cheer like enthusiastic crowds.6

There is an unnerving fit between Marinetti's Manifesto of Futurism and Gibson's novel. It is not an exact fit, of course, but there are more similarities than many readers might wish to entertain.

Neuromancer is unquestionably saturated with the aesthetic of energy and audacity, of insomnia and aggression, the exaltation of the machine (with Gibson it's the ice-breaking console that substitutes for the race-car) and the virtual cyborg, like Case, part computer and part man, and Molly, part fighting machine, part woman. The action of the novel's Big Caper is simply a form of Marinetti's “violent attack on unknown forces” because the discovery and release of the magic that unifies the two AIs is a literal raid on the ineffable. Neuromancer's climax could hardly be more adequately stated than by point 8: “We already live in the absolute, for we have created eternal, omnipresent speed.”

The uneasiness begins with point 9, for surely Gibson's novel is not militaristic, patriotic, and scornful of women. And yet the seductiveness of the novel's textures depends on a relentless aggressive heightening of violent emotions. Finally, it is explicitly hate, the hate Case feels for the AIs and for himself, and Molly's hate for Riviera, that drives the narrative toward the massacre in Villa Straylight and Case's video-game battle against Neuromancer's ice. Although the Third World War was a two-week affair (82-83), it appears that its technology and ruthlessness live on at street level. We are expected to relish it. Case's Kuang program is an icebreaker of military origin, and Molly's arsenal of weapons includes some diabolical engines of biological warfare (like the tetrahydropyridene that she custom-ordered for Riviera's liquidation [253]). As for women, it is hard to assess the narrative's attitude because, among the women characters, only Molly acts with any independence (who else is there, other than the terminally passive Linda Lee?); and as a street-samurai, she represents no gender-based ethical alternative to the eternal war-sphere of an almost cosmically male world. (Consider that both Wintermute and Neuromancer embody themselves exclusively as males, never as females.)

Neuromancer's narrator and its surrogate, Case, are sentimental futurists. They are committed to the materialization of the futurist program in the world and yet also full of vague regrets for the affects and relations lost in the transformation. The material embodiment of the futurists' ideal in Neuromancer's technosphere deprives the novel and its central character of any hope for transcendence; as in the traditional novel, the need to experience value is interiorized into subjectivity, which for Gibson occurs in the neuroculture of drugs, simstim, and biosofts. But here, as in the breakdown of subjective idealism that is the persistent theme of the traditional novel, according to Lukacs, the technologies of exteriorized mind pursue the desire for transcendence right into the nervous system until consciousness, the last holdout against cybernetic control, is taken from within.

The idea of sentimental futurism is one way of conceiving the ambivalence that Gibson shows vis-à-vis cybertech transformations. The regrets are often moving and subtle.

He'd watched her personality fragment, calving like an iceberg, splinters drifting away, and finally he'd seen the raw need, the hungry armature of addiction. He'd watched her track the next hit with a concentration that reminded him of the mantises they sold in stalls along Shiga, beside tanks of blue mutant carp and crickets caged in bamboo.


But to become explicit, complaints or critiques or regrets require a space, a still point from which reflections might emerge. A “television tuned to a dead channel” (1) is, in information-theoretical terms, even more active than a “live” one. In Neuromancer, regret for the loss of nature (first and second) simply has no power to resist the energy of technology's transformation of the world into a field in which power is all there is, and art is merely the means of turning affects into power.

Indeed, regret for the loss of affect is only a foil in Neuromancer, putting up a mild resistance to enable power and violence to leave their imprints. The narrative construction of the novel thus affirms the futurist vision, even if without the naive enthusiasm of its proto-fascist devotees, their “puerile technological optimism” (Debord in Bukatman). Each of the major diegetic artworks—Marie-France's design, Wintermute's plot, Case's “run”—are, not surprisingly, doubled in the writing. Like Case, Neuromancer is a synthesis of thrills, quick-fading affects, and movement—graceful, quick, and intuitive, accepting of violence without reveling in it, accepting the genre-gridwork of the matrix (of SF and the Big Caper) and dependent on a wonderful violent apparatus, the Kuang program/noir video-game, seeking a myth of transcendence into which it can disappear, and yet never really aware of the stakes of the game. The name of the game can only be learned outside the book—in the same way that the secret name that fuses the AIs is not articulated in words but in birdsong.

Like Wintermute, Gibson sets up a plot in which his characters have no excessive reality; they have nothing that is not a functional part of the program. Their styles and voices, like their technical gifts, exist in order to serve the plot. Finally, like Marie-France, Gibson has written a myth in order to give value to a world emptied of affect and value.

The novel concludes, if not in celebration, at least in affirmation of the futurist principle that value lies only in movement and the transformations of technology, that it is not a state or condition but a vector, a process that has no other purpose than the attainment of top speed.

Baudrillard's own version of sentimental futurism could serve as the novel's epigraph:

Speed … is itself a pure object, since it cancels out the ground and territorial reference-points, since it runs ahead of time to annul time itself, since it moves more quickly than its own cause and obliterates that cause by outstripping it. Speed is the triumph of effect over cause, the triumph of instantaneity over time as depth, the triumph of surface and pure objectality over the profundity of desire. Speed creates a space of initiation, which may be lethal; its only rule is to leave no trace behind. Triumph of forgetting over memory, and uncultivated, amnesiac intoxication.

(America 6-7)

Neuromancer embodies all this in narrative, once we understand that Case's story leaves no significance outside its machine-mediation. In the end, violence is affirmed, not love, not transcendence. Of the protagonists, only the Dixie Flatline is not a killer. Molly and Case, if they ever truly loved each other, cease to share love after the end of the run. Case's story, we learn in Mona Lisa Overdrive, is essentially over. (That Molly's is not, that she makes a return appearance in MLO [Mona Lisa Overdrive], fourteen years later, is a mark of Gibson's unease with Neuromancer.) As for transcendence, when the new consciousness of the matrix appears to Case in Finn's form, Case asks, “So what's the score? How are things different? You running the world now? You God?” The answer: “Things aren't different. Things are things” (270).


Neuromancer's most seductive artistic devices are, arguably, not narrative but lyric. The velocity and density of the action and the introduction of new component information—neologisms, technological innovations, pseudo-common knowledge of historical and cultural events, twists of plot, secret levels of hierarchy—actually obscure the narrative flow. Gibson is most often noted not for his storytelling but for his style.

Carol McGuirk considers this an inherent trait of what she calls “s-f noir.”

Stylized “noir” protagonists experience their sorrows as extrinsically caused and largely irreversible, so they can achieve neither the bitter end of the tragic hero nor the final triumph of the epic hero. And while the whiff of satire hangs in its night air, s-f noir cannot be called fully satiric, because it depicts wounded and impaired characters for reasons different from satire's. Social malaise functions largely as a metaphor for character malaise in s-f- noir—not, as in satire, vice-versa. In s-f noir, the final destination of the narrative is not satire, tragedy, epic or humanistic utopia/dystopia. It is, as in Poe, symbolic statement or (to resort to oxymoron) lyric narrative, defined as a figuration employed to displace the literal world and put it to the uses of a private aesthetic vision, i.e., a style. Indeed, in many of these texts the only hero is style.

(“The New Romancers”)

The most marked traits of Gibson's lyrical style link it again to Italian futurism, especially the futurist collage. William Seitz, a historian of collage, describes futurist assemblage in terms uncannily like Neuromancer's cyberpunk language.

At least in part, futurism was an extension of urban impressionism and neo-impressionism, rather than an opposition to them; and the emphasis on kinetic continuity and simultaneity led to repeated overlapping, and transparent images that interpenetrated and blended. Projecting “lines of force” were used to suggest speed, continuity, and the fusion of objects with their environments. A painter was enjoined not merely to paint the figure, but to “render the whole atmosphere,” and the materiality of masses was intentionally dissolved in light and superimposition, by cultivating a vision “giving results analogous to those of x-rays.” Stroboscopic multiplication of images led to blending rather than maintenance of interval. In their most sublime aspirations, the futurists proclaimed themselves “Lords of Light,” who “drink from the live founts of the sun.” Unlike cubists, their aims could not therefore lead to close-up examination of textures, materials, or objects; futurism's key words are “interpenetration,” and “synthesis,” rather than “interval” and “juxtaposition.”

(The Art of Assemblage 26)

It is the transformation of space into speed, of objects into vectors that engenders futurism's interpenetrations: “a tendency to transform the spatial relations between objects into … a violent and reckless motion in which the human body penetrates and is penetrated by its environment” (Lydenberg 273). Thus the futurists, unlike the cubist and surrealist assembleurs, cultivated the ecstatic breakdown of experience in action, rather than the contemplative disarray of incongruity. “The Futurists refuse to ‘correct’ their perception with an acquired knowledge of reality. Instead, they employ optical effects in which a flattened field of perception produces a hallucination of vast inner spaces where objects sensuously engulf and invade each other” (The Art of Assemblage 26).

The similarities with Gibson's cyberpunk are striking. In a well-known statement, Gibson attributes the birth of his concept of cyberspace to the sensation video-game players have that there is a real space behind the screen (Greenland 7)—exactly the futurists' “hallucination of vast inner spaces where objects sensuously engulf and invade each other.” It could be argued that futurism actually provides the appropriate realistic descriptive language for a world of experience in which the futuristic visions of ecstatic velocity have been exteriorized into the world, through the technologies of high-speed simulation.

Neuromancer's technosphere is a neofuturist collage in its own right, dominated by technologies of superimposition and interpenetration of experience, stroboscopic doubling, high-speed sensation, and the cyborg synaesthesia of previously alien realms, now converging in a technotopia of artificial transcendence, and culminating in “the bodiless exultation of cyberspace” (6). Each of these technologies invites the language of interpenetration, of high-speed traffic between zones, of bodies and minds constantly in the process of becoming obsolete, and needing upgrades, to make them sleeker, quicker, less inert. Gibson captures this in his technique of compression and ellipsis. Large blocks of context are packed inside taut descriptions of events:

Case flipped to cyberspace and sent a command pulsing down the crimson thread that pierced the library ice. Five separate alarm systems were convinced that they were still operative. The three elaborate locks deactivated, but considered themselves to have remained locked. The library's central bank suffered a minute shift in its permanent memory; the construct had been removed, per executive order, a month before. Checking for the authorization to remove the construct, a librarian would find the records erased.


So much for explanations of the techniques of “ice-breaking.” Even the centerpiece of the novel's Big Caper, the Straylight Run, unfolds without preliminary explanations. The context comes into view at the moment that it is penetrated by the action, and not a moment before. This technique of narrative is sometimes considered characteristic of SF; Samuel Delany considers it a defining trait of its linguistic protocol (Delany 33-34). But Gibson goes far beyond the usual SF use of futuristic “assumed knowledge.” For Neuromancer's prose appears simply not to have the time for realistic exposition. There are no time-outs.

Similarly, the narrative continually places characters—Case above all—within the enveloping experience of another consciousness. Through Simstim, Case can experience the sensations of Molly's body; through cyberspace, he discovers himself in Neuromancer's simulations.

Gibson's style is most characteristic when he captures this velocity and transmutation of sensation on the level of the sentence. Neuromancer is extremely rich in verbal techniques, but two particular ones are, I believe, so much Gibson's own that it is difficult to imagine anyone imitating them. They appear in passages depicting heightened ecstasy and heightened renunciation: the moods most characteristic of futurism and its sentimental critique.

In his ecstatic descriptions, when Case experiences drugs, orgasm, or jacking into the cyberspace matrix, Gibson writes a consummate futuristic collage-lyric.

She rode him that way, impaling herself, slipping down on him again and again, until they both had come, his orgasm flaring blue in a timeless space, a vastness like the matrix, where the faces were shredded and blown away down hurricane corridors …


Things were launching themselves from the ornate sunburst spines, glittering leeches made of shifting planes of light. There were hundreds of them rising in a whirl, their movements random as windblown paper down dawn streets. “Glitch systems,” the voice said.


The drug hit him like an express train, a white-hot column of light mounting his spine from the region of his prostate, illuminated the sutures of his skull with x-rays of short-circuited sexual energy. His teeth sang in their individual sockets like tuning forks, each one pitch-perfect and clear as ethanol. His bones, beneath the hazy envelope of flesh, were chromed and polished, the joints lubricated with a film of silicone. Sandstorms raged across the scoured floor of his skull, generating waves of high thin static that broke behind his eyes, spheres of purest crystal, expanding. …


His eyes were eggs of unstable crystal, vibrating with a frequency whose name was rain and the sound of trains, suddenly sprouting a humming forest of hair-fine glass spines. The spines split, bisected, split again, exponential growth under the dome of Tessier-Ashpool ice.

The roof of his mouth cleaved painlessly, admitting rootlets that whipped around his tongue, hungry for the taste of blue, to feed the crystal forests of his eyes, forests that pressed against the green dome, pressed and were hindered, and spread, growing down, filling the universe of T-A, down into the waiting, hapless suburbs of the city that was the mind of Tessier-Ashpool S.A. …

The Kuang program spurted from tarnished cloud, Case's consciousness divided like beads of mercury, arcing above an endless beach the color of the dark silver clouds. His vision was spherical, as though a single retina lined the inner surface of a globe that contained all things, if all things could be counted.


Each of these passages (others could be cited) describes Case's consciousness in a moment when he has moved outside his body in ecstasy: his orgasm with Molly; his “run” against the T-A ice; his betaphenethylamine rush in Freeside; and his victorious fusion with the jeweled ceremonial-terminal at the end of his Straylight run. Each passage—each ecstatic state—has certain things in common with the others. There are the characteristic futurist categories: velocity, lines of force, interpenetrations and superimpositions. Strikingly, there are no high-tech terms or analogies in these visions, except for the comparison of Case's orgasm to the matrix. This is understandable because it is the futurists' ultimate intention for the high-tech apparatus to somehow “mechano-mystically” induce these hallucinatory states of consciousness. Ecstasy, for Case, always involves violent weather, which seems to occur incongruously in domesticated space: “hurricane corridors,” glitch systems rising in a “whirl, as windblown paper down dawn streets,” sandstorms scouring the floor of his skull, the ice-breaker program storming down on “the city that was the mind of Tessier-Ashpool S.A.” Flesh breaks apart or is transformed into energy: Case becomes a “flare,” “faces were shredded and blown away,” “the hazy envelope of flesh” conceals chromed and polished, robotized joints, eyes become crystals, consciousness divides like “beads of mercury.” And in each case, the world comes to be constituted of rapidly moving geometrical figures of light in a metaphorical transformation of solids: faces become paper-like fragments blown down a vast, timeless corridor; the glitch systems are spires made of “shifting planes of light”; a “white hot column of light”; the crystal forest.


In Neuromancer, technology is convergence and fusion. It absorbs human aspirations and skills into its self-programming techno-evolution. It embodies both eros and thanatos: eros in the profusion of technics of immortality and ecstasy, and in the world-engendering cybernetic coupling that climaxes in Case's orgasmic penetration of the Black Ice protecting Neuromancer's core—and with it the “birth” of a new god in the “matrix” (i.e., the artificial womb or a world); it is also thanatos, in that “Case can pursue his enlightening conversations with Wintermute only by going brain-dead” (McGuirk). There are no alternative techs, no ideal pastoral parks or dreams; there are no spaces cleared of technology by technology itself; the narrative of technohistory has blown past all reveries of utopian rest and reflection. Neuromancer is, on the one hand, the myth of the futurist Happy Fall, as if the futurists' vision of the machine absorbing everyday life and art transforming the machine, ad infinitum, had defeated all other possible political and social conceptions of technology and become embodied in the world. It is also—ironically? necessarily?—the myth of futurist redemption, the Grand Converging Machine transcending the world that it was constructed in and ascending to artificial divinity.

Scott Bukatman links this vision with the cyberpunks' mythology of “terminal culture,” derived from surrealism.

The cyberpunk narrations … speak with the voices of repressed desire and repressed anxiety about terminal culture. Cyberpunk negotiates a complex and delicate trajectory between the forces of instrumental reason and the abandon of sacrificial excess. Through their construction of cultural politics inscribed by the forces of technological reason, and through their resistance to the constraints of that reason, the texts promise and even produce a transcendence of the human condition which is also always a surrender.

(“Postcards from the Posthuman Solar System”)

Or as David Porush puts it: “You get to cyberspace by killing some obsolete part of your humanity and redeeming another” (“Frothing the Synaptic Bath”). Like Donna Haraway's cyborg existence, there is no going back to affectations of prelapsarian innocence. The only way out is through the belly of the beast—if there is a way out, for us (Haraway 149-181).

Gibson is not Haraway, however. The latter's vision of the cyborg condition is constructed explicitly in opposition to mythic-narrative paradigms of fall and apocalypse; Haraway's cyborg obviates the need for transcendence. Where there are no essential distinctions between human and machine, male and female, there can be no ascent from the inherently impaired to the synthetically sovereign. But Gibson's most pronounced lyrical modods are the ecstasy appropriate for apocalypse and a “muted but distinct undercurrent of elegy” (McGuirk) for the loss of the historical “human.”

He'd come out of the warm rain that sizzled across the Ninsei pavement and somehow she'd been singled out for him, one face out of the dozens who stood at the consoles, lost in the game she played. The expression on her face, then, had been the one he'd seen, hours later, on her sleeping face in a portside coffin, her upper lip like the line children draw to represent a bird in flight.


It took a month for the gestalt for drugs and tension he moved through to turn those perpetually startled eyes into wells of reflexive need. He'd watched her personality fragment, calving like an iceberg, splinters drifting away, and finally he'd seen the raw need, the armature of addiction. He'd watched her track the next hit with a concentration that reminded him of the mantises they sold in stalls along Shiga, beside tanks of mutant blue carp and crickets caged in bamboo.


Somewhere down in the Sprawl's ferro-concrete roots, a train drove a column of stale air through a tunnel. The train itself was silent, gliding over its induction cushion, but displaced air made the tunnel sing, bass down into subsonics. Vibration reached the room where he lay and caused the dust to rise from the cracks in the dessicated parquet floor.


Neon forest, rain sizzling across hot pavement. The smell of frying food. A girl's hands locked across the small of his back, in the sweating darkness of the portside coffin. But all of this receding, as the cityscape recedes: city as Chiba, as the ranked data of Tessier-Ashpool S.A., as the roads and crossroads scribed on the face of a microchip, the sweat-stained pattern on a folded, knotted scarf.


These passages (again, others could be cited) preserve the regret that alone retards the movement of the novel's action toward apocalyptic implosion. Whereas the moments of ecstasy involve casting off the “obsolete” body in order to travel in the dimensionless and timeless regions of cyberspace and drug visions, at the speed dictated by the irresistible pull of the great fusion, these passages insist on memorializing the vanishing connections of the pretechnological human world. The memories are painful, even grieving; and they are quick. Remember, there are no time-outs.

The prose does name high-tech objects here; and it does so in order to place in relief the natural objects that pass through Case's consciousness and fade away in it. They appear in cyborg juxtapositions: Linda's face at the video-screen, and her mouth like a child's drawing of a bird in flight; her “armature” of addiction (recalling the chromed and polished armature of Case's skeleton in his beta-high) and the caged mantises and crickets; the silent rapid trains in their ferro-concrete tunnels and the “dessicated parquet floor”; the arrayed circuits of the T-A core, Chiba City, and a microchip, next to Linda's sweat-stained scarf. In each of these juxtapositions, there is an object saturated with experience and technology and another saturated with the aura of innocence and nature. There is not much question which ones are on the way out.

In the same way, the panic convergence of the ecstatic passages is opposed in these elegiac paragraphs by a pattern of slow receding and breaking apart of elements—whereas the techno-ecstasy inhabits cyberstorms and erotic penetration, the narrative of elegy lingers in quiet contemplation, savoring the fading object from a distance, as if gathering a last look. Flesh here does not dissolve into artifice; it returns to meat and dust.

In each paragraph, the narratives depict the process in which autonomous technology of the futurist future severs the links with the historical past. In each, Case's thoughts move from the technopresent to insignias of historical memory. The child's drawing of a bird in flight inscribed in Linda's lip is a moving image—doubly moving, in that Neuromancer's world includes neither birds nor skies. Case may well be recalling a vanished age of personal life as well as historical life and an art that has little place in the fiction's grand conjuncture (unless, with a paranoid sensibility, one reads the phrase “somehow she'd been singled out for him” as an indication that Wintermute is already setting Case up at this early stage; in which case the recollection of the child's picture may be another tool in the AI's toolbox of infiltration).

As Linda's newly drug-addicted personality breaks into fragments, like an iceberg (“calving” is marvelously apt here, as a synapse between the animals and the iceberg), and reveals the “armature” of mechanical need, Case remembers the caged mantises and crickets—traditional good-luck pets in East Asia and perhaps invoking the extinguished beasts of Dick's Do Androids Dream? and the crowded street of vendors of artificial animals in Blade Runner.

In the third paragraph, the silent train, on “induction cushions” in the “roots” of the city, displaces air, which then “sings”; it is this song, “bass down to subsonics,” that vibrates in Case's archaic room, stirring up the dust of entropy from the once painstakingly crafted parquet. The unsilenceable air's song prefigures Zion cluster's dub, which will later save Case from brain death by returning him to memory of his heartbeat.

Finally, in the last paragraph, which concludes the Straylight Run, Case is presented not with private reveries but with literal, exteriorized simulations of his associations, resting finally on the sweat-stained patterned scarf that the simulation-Linda was wearing on Neuromancer's beach. The final resting point is not the scarf itself, or its microchip-like pattern, but the stain of sweat: a natural pattern caused by the sweat of the body of a dead loved woman. Sweat of the body, the sweat of work to which the castouts of Eden were condemned, the sweat of lovemaking, the dignity of the “meat,”—now made obsolete by the apotheosis of Artificial Intelligence in the matrix.

Fiat ars—pereat mundi. Let there be art—and let the world perish.


  1. For the clearest formulation of the hard SF aesthetic, see Gregory Benford's “Is There a Technological Fix for the Human Condition?” 82-83. It is worth noting that elsewhere, when Gibson is not under discussion, Benford treats style as a legitimate approach in SF (“Effing the Ineffable” 54-55).

  2. Baudrillard's “The Year 2000” 39-40; “The Implosion of Meaning” 143; “simulacra et science fiction;” and just about everything in Simulations.

  3. Roman Jakobson, “Two Aspects of Language and Two Types of Aphasic Disturbances,” Studies on Child Language and Aphasia. (The Hague: Mouton, 1971) 69-73.

  4. A recent self-description of the “Activities of the Human Interface Technology Laboratory” (HITL) of the Washington Technology Center associated with the University of Washington is explicit on this point. “The objective of the Human Interface Technology Laboratory is to develop natural interface techniques, hardware and software designed for experiential rather than symbolic interaction …” that will be “responsive to natural human physiology and cognition, systems that emphasize spatial interaction rather than symbolic processing.” My thanks to Rob Kelley for bringing the HITL program to my attention.

  5. “The condition of the reggae composer is like that of a sculptor. …” Five or six musicians play; they are well isolated from one another. Then the thing they played, which can be regarded as a kind of cube of music, is hacked away at—things are taken out, for long periods” (Brian Eno in Tamm 35-36).

  6. F. T. Marinetti, “The Founding and Manifesto of Futurism” (1909). The translation is a combination of the anonymous first translation, supervised by Marinetti, which appeared in Poesia (1909), and that of R. W. Flint in Appolonio 21-22.

Works Cited

Appoloni, Umbro. Futurist Manifestos. London: Thames, 1972.

Baudrillard, Jean. America. London: Verso, 1988.

———. “The Implosion of Meaning in the Media and the Implosion of the Social in the Masses,” in The Myths of Information, Technology and Postindustrial Culture. Ed. Kathleen Woodward. Madison: Coda, 1980. 137-48.

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———. “Is There a Technological Fix for the Human Condition?” in Hard Science Fiction. Ed. George E. Slusser and Eric S. Rabkin. Carbondale: U of Southern Illinois P, 1986. 82-98.

Benjamin, Walter. Illuminations. New York: Schocken, 1969.

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Gibson, William. Count Zero. New York: Ace, 1987.

———. Mona Lisa Overdrive. New York: Bantam, 1988.

———. Neuromancer. New York: Ace, 1984.

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Haraway, Donna. Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature. New York: Routledge, 1991.

Hayles, N. Katherine. Chaos Bound. Orderly Disorder in Contemporary Literature and Science. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1990.

———. The Cosmic Web. Scientific Field Models and Literary Strategies in the Twentieth Century. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1984.

Lukacs, Georg. Theory of the Novel. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1971.

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———. “Matrix Made Meat: Cyberspace from Literary Image to Scientific Fact.” Paper presented at the MLA National Convention, 1990.

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Eva Cherniavsky (essay date winter 1993)

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SOURCE: Cherniavsky, Eva. “(En)gendering Cyberspace in Neuromancer: Postmodern Subjectivity and Virtual Motherhood.” Genders, no. 18 (winter 1993): 32-46.

[In the following essay, Cherniavsky examines the representation of gender and reproductive technology in Neuromancer.]

Besides, although the creation of life in vitro would certainly be a scientific feat worthy of note—and probably even a Nobel prize—it would not, in the long run, tell us much more about the space of possible life than we already know …

Computers should be thought of as an important laboratory tool for the study of life, substituting for the array of incubators, culture dishes, microscopes, electrophoretic gels, pipettes, centrifuges and other assorted wet-lab paraphernalia, one simple to master piece of experimental equipment devoted exclusively to the incubation of information structures.

—Chris Langton1

Motherhood acts as a limit to the conceptualization of femininity as a scientific construction of mechanical and electrical parts. And yet it is also that which infuses the machine with the breath of a human spirit. The maternal and the mechanical/synthetic coexist in a relation that is a curious imbrication of dependence and antagonism.

—Mary Ann Doane2

If your woman is a ghost, she doesn't know it. Neither will you.

—Neuromancer to Case3

This paper is concerned with the imbrication, to borrow Mary Ann Doane's term, of ideologically incommensurate discourses: it examines the ostensibly unthinkable affinities between synthetic or simulated bodies and naturalized identities, between artificial reproduction and the fetishized maternal body, between the cybernetic womb and a phantasmatics of origins. I am interested in the way that contemporary reproductive discourse perpetuates the essentialized construction of motherhood that it apparently supplants, both metaphorically (“the incubation of information structures”) and materially (by maintaining the historical invisibility of the mother before the law, for example). Here I am particularly concerned to explore how cyberpunk as a genre, and Neuromancer as one of its defining texts, functions like the discourse of reproductive technology to reinscribe nature on the maternal body. As a result, Neuromancer preserves a specifically humanist logic of embodiment, (pre-)oedipality, and gendered subjectivity that it appears so ostentatiously to undo.

In other words, I want to trace the limits of cyberpunk's posthumanism, if only to qualify the typically and prematurely celebratory inflection of its theorists' claims. For instance, Veronica Hollinger affirms that “in its representation of ‘monsters’—hopeful or otherwise—produced by the interface of the human and the machine, [cyberpunk] radically decenters the human body, the sacred icon of the essential self, in the same way that the virtual reality of cyberspace works to decenter the conventional humanist notions of an unproblematical ‘real.’”4 More particularly, I wish to destabilize the terms of Joan Gordon's rather facile distinction between the nostalgic organicism of “overtly” feminist science fiction and the more usefully, if only implicitly feminist, postorganicism of cyberpunk. Indeed, she argues,

virtually every feminist SF utopia dreams of a pastoral world, fueled by organic structures rather than mechanical ones, inspired by versions of the archetypal Great Mother. And virtually every feminist SF novel, utopian or not, incorporates a longing to go forward into the idealized past of earth's earlier matriarchal nature religions. Because cyberpunk extrapolates from the 1980s—not a sterling time for feminism in the world at large—it's no wonder few women are presently involved in the movement. Nevertheless, cyberpunk does much that could enrich overt feminist SF by directing it away from nostalgia … Feminist SF consistently avoids the kind of intrusive technology cyberpunk embraces.5

In many respects, Gordon's argument is compelling: her claim that the temporality of this utopianism is dangerous for feminism, that it brackets a relation to history as a field of multiple contingencies and possibilities, is persuasive. So, too, is her corollary that cyberpunk's representation of the human body as a denatured phenomenon opens up the body's relation to history and technology in ways that are productive for feminism. Still, Gordon too readily perceives in cyberpunk's postorganicism the demise of a utopianism she associates here all too narrowly and conveniently with feminist SF. Thus, Gordon assumes, because cyberpunk repudiates the organicist aesthetic of “overtly” feminist science fiction, its own temporality is necessarily progressive, its texts necessarily resistant to historical and corporeal closure. Because organicism turns on the nostalgia for origins, however, it does not follow that this nostalgia, and the sentimental narratives it structures, are always and exclusively organicist. On the contrary, I will argue that Neuromancer's technophilia elaborates precisely its nostalgia for an idealized matriarchal past; Gibson's cyberpunk sensibility is constituted in loss and rendered in the impossible tense of a perpetual return to an originary site of restitution.

Therefore I contend with Mary Ann Doane that technology and the maternal “coexist” in an impossibly doubled relation, occupying at once discontinuous and contingent domains. On one level, the maternal body defined as the site of natural reproduction traces the outer boundary to the field of technological reproduction. Still, technologies of reproduction, such as film (or, I would add, technologies of simulation, such as cyberspace), assume the existence of something prior to themselves, of an original or material object; insofar as the technological reproduction of this original at once effects and disavows its loss, Doane suggests, technology recapitulates the relation of the fetishist to the maternal body. Commenting on Christian Metz's notion of the “cinema fetishist,” a subject whose enjoyment of film hinges on an appreciation both of the presence on which the cinematic image trades and of the absence that subtends it, Doane observes: “Technological fetishism, through its alliance of technology with a process of concealing and revealing lack, is theoretically returned to the body of the mother … theory understands the obsession with technology as a tension of movement toward and away from the mother.”6

If technologies of reproduction thus reproduce the logic of the fetishist's desire, so too, and in more contradictory fashion, do reproductive technologies—the very technologies that appear to dislodge the mother from the privileged position she occupies in the fetishist's psychic economy. In the Freudian determination of this economy, that which the fetishist simultaneously affirms and refuses is the loss of the phallic mother, of the maternal body as figure of originary plenitude. Yet it is exactly the status of the maternal body as origin that the substitution of an artificial reproductive apparatus would seem to endanger. By enabling us to reproduce the maternal body, to fertilize the egg, and, hypothetically at least, to incubate the fetus in a fully synthetic environment, reproductive technologies appear to propel the fetishist and his fundamentally nostalgic desire into a simulated world, without origin and without end, to wrench him from the sentimental and insert him into a postmodern narrative frame. Doane's analysis, however, allows us to see how reproductive technologies might participate in the naturalizing discourse of motherhood that they ostensibly disrupt; how on the simulated womb that we expect to encounter somewhere altogether beyond the logic of the nature/technology binary, we can nevertheless discern a fetishization of the maternal body.


In an article for Hypatia's special issue on ethics and reproduction, Julien Murphy struggles to delineate a feminist position on ectogenesis, or in vitro gestation.

Clearly, many feminists would favor pregnancy over IVG in most cases, not because women are the most cost-effective uteri … but because IVG represents a misguided approach to infertility. That some women might prefer gestation of their fertilized eggs in a laboratory rather than in their own bodies is more a mark of the oppressive ways in which women's bodies and pregnancy are constructed in this culture rather than a sign of progressive social attitudes.7

Feminists should reject this form of liberation from the female body, Murphy concludes; the technology of IVG only appeals to women in the context of our culture's devaluation of pregnancy as a physical limitation and an economic liability, a devaluation which a feminist politics should aim to contest rather than circumvent. Yet, as Valerie Hartouni has recently shown, the discourse of IVG functions not to emancipate women from the marked female body but, quite the contrary, to return the “emancipated” white, professional woman to her (“natural”) body. Patrick Steptoe, a fertility expert and engineer of the first so-called “test-tube baby,” puts it this way: “It is a fact that there is a biological drive to reproduce. Women who deny this drive, or in whom it is frustrated, show disturbances in other ways.”8 Thus, Hartouni reminds us, reproductive technology legitimates its intervention in female reproduction by claiming to “help women realize their maternal nature, their innate need to mother.”9 Moreover, while this high-cost technology thereby reinscribes “women” in “nature” (from which Murphy projects them as freed), “nature” remains a race- and class-bound category. By omitting to consider who is targeted by this technology,10 Murphy elides what Hartouni identifies as “both [the] text and subtext” of fertility research: “white women want babies but cannot have them, and black and other ‘minority’ women, coded as ‘breeders’ within American society (and welfare dependents within Reagan's America) are having babies ‘they’ cannot take care of and ‘we’ do not want.”11 A feminist analysis of this reproductive technology, then, needs to acknowledge that ectogenesis was developed specifically to enhance the reproductive capacity of white, middle-class women; furthermore, whereas ectogenesis displaces reproduction from these women's bodies, the discourse of ectogenesis (conversely) serves to essentialize their relation to their culturally constructed reproductive function—to motherhood.

In documenting both the “pronatalist” and the racist agendas that underwrite contemporary reproductive technologies, Hartouni corroborates but also crucially contextualizes Doane's argument, assigning a race and a class to Doane's techno-fetishized maternal body: to align the politics of the fertility clinic with the phantasmatics of technophilia and visual pleasure12 is (among other things) to begin to locate the pre-oedipal (or phallic) mother within historically contingent social formations of race and class, as well as gender. Before unfolding the pertinence of ectogenesis to Neuromancer, then, I want to situate the technological fetishism it exemplifies more fully in relation to the historical constitution of the white maternal body, in order at once to account for the cultural dominance of the (techno-)fetishist's desire and to avoid the risk of essentializing his desire that Doane's analysis incurs. Indeed, Doane's model arguably moves us away from a totalizing discourse on motherhood, in which the natural maternal body is essentialized as origin, into a totalizing discourse on discursivity, in which the simulated maternal body is essentialized as a structure of desire. My aim is to situate the fetishist's desire with respect to a particular class of historical subjects and thereby to delimit fetishism's cultural logic—to represent it as a cultural logic, rather than the logic of technology and technological reproduction. Once adequately historicized as a product of a liberal bourgeois order, Doane's model productively engages the material difficulties of dismantling that order, difficulties that cyberpunk's theorists are prone to slight. The task is to acknowledge the centrality of the fetishist's ambivalence to the bourgeois subject and the Freudian narrative of subject formation13 while bearing in mind that this formation is neither necessary, nor universal, nor by any means uncontested.14

A particular narrative of motherhood emerges, with the middle-class nuclear family, in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. In this narrative, motherhood is recognized as a specifically social (rather than merely natural) function, but a function that places the woman in the impossible beyond of language, signification, and social being. In the psychoanalytic mapping of this bourgeois family, to enter into the symbolic order, to become a subject, is precisely to separate from the mother. The acquisition of identity, in all its permutations, is seen as contingent on the founding loss of the maternal body, for which the henceforth generalized nostalgia is also inevitably laced with the horror of self-annihilation. Thus the organization of the fetishist's desire—his signature of irresolution with respect to the maternal body, his movement toward and away from the mother—reappears at the level of the constitution of the Freudian subject as such. Most notably, of course, in the discussion of the fort/da game and in the strangely circular notion of progress that characterizes Beyond the Pleasure Principle as a whole,15 Freud discovers the fetishist's doubled trajectory in the motions of every mother's son. The ambivalent relation to the maternal that structures “fetishism,” conceived as a particular form or “pathology” of desire, may be seen to structure the bourgeois subject at large, along a slightly different, though finally convergent, axis—with reference to a lack of, rather than in, the mother's body. In this sense, fetishism represents a cultural logic of identity, the mise en jeu of the subject's own loss—or, rather, of the Freudian subject as loss.

Remarkably, moreover, from the bourgeois mother's standpoint, motherhood entails a kind of symbolic ectogenesis that prefigures, and arguably informs, its technological literalization: inasmuch as the maternal body is constructed as exterior to language and sociality, motherhood transpires in excess of any and all social and discursive determinations of the mother's body. To figure the (“biological”) essence of motherhood as something ahistorical and unspeakable is to render it external to any incarnation of motherhood, to any particular female subject. The mother is one place as a socially and symbolically apprehended and apprehensible entity, but elsewhere—outside of herself—in the performance of her reproductive function.

While the technology of ectogenesis resituates the “essence” of motherhood, renders it all too accessible to the regulatory apparatus of the scientific gaze, the division it appears to engender in the figure of the essential mother is in fact a division constitutive of bourgeois motherhood. In this frame, it becomes possible to understand two central attributes of Neuromancer's plot: first, motherhood occurs outside the body of the mother in the artificial “matrix” known as cyberspace; second, this exteriority only confirms the mother's privileged status as the object of filial yearning and terror. In its representation of reproduction, then, Neuromancer reinscribes a specifically bourgeois logic of identity on the postmodern techno-world of hybridized and augmented bodies. However, reinscription implies slippage as well as continuity; even as it preserves this middle-class formation, Neuromancer shifts the terms of essential motherhood's contestation, through the imagined alteration of the working-class woman's body. The final section of my essay will consider how Gibson's romance of the techno-fetishized mother interrupts itself at the site of Molly's “working girl” technobody, in and on which a competing discourse of motherhood emerges—one I distinguish as “polychromatic,” borrowing Donna Haraway's term.16


Most obviously, of course, Gibson's cyberspace represents the negation of embodiment and hence of procreation, motherhood, and other embodied functions; it is, in Gibson's famous formulation, a “consensual hallucination,” “a graphic representation of data abstracted from the banks of every computer in the human system” (N [Neuromancer], 51). Cyberspace is “lines of light ranged in the nonspace of the mind, clusters and constellations of data,” a space defined by the impossibility of being there at all. To “jack in” to cyberspace is to jettison “the meat,” the flesh conceived as an impediment to pleasure. Debarred from cyberspace as punishment for cheating his employers, Case experiences his return to the body as a kind of psychical amputation.

They damaged his nervous system with a wartime Russian mycotoxin.

Strapped to the bed in a Memphis hotel, his talent burning out micron by micron, he hallucinated for thirty hours.

The damage was minute, subtle and utterly effective.

For Case, who'd lived for the bodiless exultation of cyberspace, it was the Fall. … The body was meat.

Case fell into the prison of his own flesh.

(N, 6)

Considering the vulnerability of the masculine body in the technoculture of cyberpunk, where that body depends on “prosthetic help” and on “the reconstructive aid of a whole range of genetic overhauls and cybernetic enhancements,” Andrew Ross has characterized cyberpunk masculinity as embattled. “These enhancements and retrofits were technotoys the boys always dreamed of having, but they were also body-altering and castrating in ways that boys always had nightmares about. … Such a body would be a battleground in itself, where traditional male ‘resistance’ to domination was uneasily coopted by the cutting-edge logic of new capitalist technologies.”17 Newly permeable, penetrated by the intrusive technologies that render him socially functional, the cyberpunk male interfaces with the corporate world at the price of his corporeal integrity. Yet Case's contempt for the body as “meat” in this passage and elsewhere suggests a distinction between the gendering of the techno-body, defined by its capacity to enter into the network, or informational matrix, to penetrate the corporate body, and the gendering of the flesh, the colonized organic matter, which is made to bear the stigma of the violations it undergoes. The feminization of the techno-body, in other words, is displaced onto its organic component and disavowed at the site of its technological enhancements. What Case experiences as castrating, then, is not the openness of his feminized body to technology but the loss of his “technotoys,” of his ability to “jack in.”18

For Case to access cyberspace is to cancel the lack in and of the feminized flesh: while cyberspace represents the loss of all the material world, at the level of technologically simulated experience it effects a negation of all loss. Cyberspace offers nothing less to the intrepid cowboy than “limitless subjective dimensions” that “unfold” before him in a “fluid neon origami trick” to form a “transparent 3D chessboard extending to infinity” (N, 52). In this sense, Gibson's paradigmatic cyberpunk novel concerns less the masculine body (and less still its rescripting) than the masculine subject's relation to the maternal body as the imagined locus of original plenitude. Jacking into cyberspace, the cowboy both assures that the maternal/matter will be lacking and disavows his loss of the mother's body—this loss in which his own delimited and contingent subjectivity is founded. So it is that the artificial intelligence named Wintermute can terrorize a newly restored and cyberspace-happy Case with the image of a prolific womb, which to the fully posthuman subject should simply fail to matter—in this instance, with a cracked-open wasps' nest Case once observed.

He saw the thing the shell of gray paper had concealed. Horror. The spiral birth factory, stepped terraces of the hatching cells, blind jaws of the unborn moving ceaselessly, the staged progress from egg to larva, near-wasp, wasp. In his mind's eye, a kind of time-lapse photography took place, revealing the thing as the biological equivalent of a machine gun. Hideous in its perfection. Alien.

(N, 126)

At any rate, for Case, who incinerates the nest in panic just as Wintermute hopes he will destroy whatever attaches to this image, cyberspace signifies not the reconfiguration of phallic masculinity but the fetishization of the maternal.

Of course, what attaches to the hive is the corporate entity known as Tessier-Ashpool, which owns both Wintermute and another AI known as Neuromancer. Characterized in the novel as an “atavism,” an organization structured like a “clan” rather than a multinational, Tessier-Ashpool shows itself in the course of the novel to be at once emergent and specifically matriarchal in form. Emergent, insofar as the clan matriarch, Marie-France Tessier, gestates in the corporation's cybernetic hive of data an artificial life, whose birth at the novel's conclusion both eternalizes herself as origin and imposes a utopian teleology on cyberspace. Literally, this denouement involves the (re)birth or fusion of the two AIs, Neuromancer and Wintermute, into a single, self-conscious mind, into the self-consciousness of the cyberspace matrix itself. Pursuing Wintermute's own metaphor, however, Case figures this outcome as the hatching of a new life from the cybernetic nest.

[Case] stared down … remembering his flash of comprehension as the Kuang program had penetrated the ice beneath the towers, his single glimpse of the structure of information 3Jane's dead mother had evolved there. He'd understood then why Wintermute had chosen the nest to represent it, but he'd felt no revulsion. She'd seen through the sham immortality of cryogenics; unlike Ashpool and their other children—aside from 3Jane—she'd refused to stretch her time into a series of warm blinks strung along a chain of winter.

Wintermute was hive mind, decision maker, effecting change in the world outside. Neuromancer was personality. Neuromancer was immortality. Marie-France must have built something into Wintermute, the compulsion that had driven the thing to free itself, to unite with Neuromancer.

(N, 269)

Marie-France's “incubation of information structures,” to borrow Langton's term, indicates not only her dissatisfaction with suspended animation as a means to immortality but the inadequacy of genetic replication, or cloning, as well. In the replication of serial offspring, the “mother” figures as no more than a genetic code. Cloning demystifies motherhood by reducing the mother to a data string, rendering irrelevant the disposition of her body. (By contrast, ectogenesis, signifying literally “exterior generation,” necessarily engages the relation between the gestating child and the body from which it has been externalized, or displaced.) Marie-France desires continuity, the affirmation of her essence, and secures it through her appropriation of the corporate data bank for the gestation of simulated life—in her ectogenesis of cyberspace as living entity. In the rather elliptically rendered account of the two AIs' (re)birth as one, Gibson nonetheless discloses at the novel's end the affiliation of cyberspace to the maternal and the discourse of origins.

Case's revulsion at the image of the teeming wasps' nest vanishes at the spectacle of its artificial analog; in the contemplation of this simulated womb, the fetishist's desire completes its impossibly doubled trajectory toward and away from his origins. The data nest is both vacuous—its contents have no actual existence—and replete with the life of the matrix itself. With Neuromancer, I propose, we are back in the logic of the sentimental novel, where what is excessive is maternal but what is maternal is never finally in excess. Moreover, the novel prospectively extends the structure of Case's desire to a rather unusual subject—to the fully inorganic and incorporeal life form Marie-France has mothered. Although bound in a literal sense to the matrix of his creation (having, after all, become the matrix), the new-born Wintermute/Neuromancer begins to know himself as partial, to look away, like any properly socialized boy, from the dark scene of his origin and toward the world beyond. In their parting conversation, Case inquires,

“So what are you.”

“I'm the matrix, Case.”

Case laughed. “Where's that get you?”

“Nowhere. Everywhere. I'm the sum total of the works. The whole show.” …

“But what do you do? You just there?”

“I talk to my own kind.”

“But you're the whole thing. Talk to yourself?”

“There's others. I found one already. Series of transmissions recorded over a period of eight years, in the 1970's. 'Til there was me, natch, there was nobody to know, nobody to answer.”

“From where?”

“Centauri system.”

“Oh,” Case said. “Yeah? No shit?”

“No shit.”

And then the screen went blank.

(N, 269-270)

Wintermute/Neuromancer thus asserts the plenitude of his existence at the very moment that his entry into intersubjectivity requires an acknowledgment of his partiality; inasmuch as there are “others,” the matrix is not “the whole show.” The scenario of loss and disavowal, audible in this artificial life form's rather hilariously human aspiration to the “limitless subjective dimensions” for which the cowboy hankers, suggests at the very least that the desire for integrity is not merely, or conveniently, restricted to an explicitly organic frame of reference.


Case's successful accessing of the Tessier-Ashpool corporate information bank, his achievement of techno-masculine functionality, rejoin the conventional narrative development of the masculine subject, as the ostensibly posthuman dialectic of the cowboy-computer interface yields to Case's contemplation of the fetishized data “nest.” Against this reduction, it is worth examining the alternate view of and into the Tessier-Ashpool corporate body that the narrative provides, a view as plainly associated with Neuromancer's personality, and hence with Marie-France herself, as the metaphor of the nest was aligned with Wintermute. In fact, the crucial difference between the two AIs' conception of the Tessier-Ashpool corporate space may already be discerned in Wintermute's recourse to metaphor: in figuring the data bank as nest, Wintermute at once brings the virtual home to the maternal and preserves the distance between them, thus sustaining the gap in which the techno-fetishist installs himself. Wintermute's figure, like Case's disavowal of the mother's loss, turns on the simultaneous identity and nonidentity of the maternal body and the virtual womb, which is at once lacking with respect to the flesh (not “really” there) and the very essence of embodied motherhood. In Neuromancer's signifying economy, however, the space mapped in and by Wintermute's figure vanishes as a nonbinary alterity interrupts this mirror play of identity and difference.

Neuromancer's attempt to communicate with Case involves the cowboy's wrenching dislocation, from the nowhere/everywhere of the computer matrix to the elsewhere of the “rim,” the border, where Case, whose heart has (literally) ceased to beat (who has, in the cowboys' graphic idiom, “flatlined”), effectively outlives himself—lives beyond any determination of his selfhood to which either being or nonbeing might be ascribed.

Nothing. Gray void.

No matrix, no grid. No cyberspace.

The deck was gone. His fingers were …

And on the far rim of consciousness, a scurrying, a fleeting impression of something rushing toward him, across leagues of black mirror.

He tried to scream.

(N, 233)

The trajectory of the masculine subject, toward the outer limit of the knowable, is here reversed, as Case, suspended in the void, perceives the limit attaining him—in an inversion of the romance paradigm that (with a remarkable economy of prose) throws Western epistemology into crisis. In Neuromancer's “black mirror,” the interminable doubling and negation of the body cease:19 while Case awakens from this implosion of his consciousness to find himself “crouched” in the fetal position, “his arms wrapped tight across his knees,” on the wet sand of an ocean beach, this posture is here displaced from the origin story in which it is conventionally inscribed. Case is returned not to the mother's body but to his own; his crouching form is conspicuous not for its integrity, its seamless connection to the (m)other, but for its partiality, its incomplete delineation, signaled by Case's imperfect control of his excretions. Moreover, Case is not “returned” at all, insofar as a return is always figurative, but rather enters into a simulated reality fully as material as the “meat” Case reviles:

Sand stung his cheek. He put his face against his knees and wept, the sound of his sobbing as distant and alien as the cry of the searching gull. Hot urine soaked his jeans, dribbled on the sand, and quickly cooled in the wind off the water. When his tears were gone, his throat ached …

His knees and elbows ached. His nose was running; he wiped it on the cuff of his jacket, then searched one empty pocket after another. “Jesus,” he said, shoulders hunched, tucking his fingers beneath his arms for warmth.

(N, 233-234)

Neuromancer's otherworld neither figures nor (consequently) transcends the flesh; rather, Case discovers, Neuromancer reconfigures (recomputes) the material world, and so too, we must surmise, the body Case acquires here, within a different symbolic register, as a series of “number[s] coded in a mathematical system that existed nowhere outside the mind of Neuromancer” (N, 258). This computer simulation demands interrogation, less in itself—the seascape Neuromancer fabricates for Case is vaguely horrifying in its nonlinear temporality, the looming absence of histories or futures—than for the categories of knowledge it functions to disrupt. Thus when Case encounters his dead girlfriend living in a bunker on the beach, he finds that Linda Lee subtly strays from between the poles of abysmal presence and fetishized lack that had previously served to structure his relation to her body. That is, she is no longer the “meat,” her paint-smudged eyes those of “some animal pinned in the headlights of an oncoming vehicle” (N, 8), nor the fetish, excessive in the very fact of her social dysfunction, of her pathetically inept imposture of a street-smart hustler. At first, Case continues to alternate between a construction of Linda as phantom—“you aren't anything,” he informs her—and as techno-fetish, her computer-generated flesh bringing Case back to some “vast thing, beyond knowing, a sea of information coded in spiral and pheromone, infinite intricacy, that only the body, in its strong blind way, could ever read” (N, 239; my emphasis). But the possibility of disavowing the loss of this “vast thing” that belongs, as Case remembers, to the “meat” is finally undercut by the impossibility of knowing it to be lost, when reality is an enumeration, a number series on a memory chip, in which presence and absence alike have become unthinkable.20 Appearing on the beach in the form of a laughing brown boy, Neuromancer gives voice to the fetishist's impasse.

“Neuromancer,” the boy said, slitting long gray eyes against the rising sun. “The lane to the land of the dead. Where you are, my friend. Marie-France, my lady, she prepared this road, but her lord choked her off before I could read the book of her days. Neuro from the nerves, the silver paths. Romancer. Necromancer. I call up the dead. But no, my friend,” and the boy did a little dance, brown feet printing the sand, “I am the dead, and their land.” He laughed. A gull cried, “Stay. If your woman is a ghost, she doesn't know it. Neither will you.”

(N, 243-244)

Case cannot disavow what he cannot also affirm; and he cannot know whether Neuromancer's dead are ghosts, only that their non/existence is determinate—infuriatingly so. “I don't know,” he concedes to Linda, as he hands her his jacket in tacit refusal of her plea that he stay, “maybe you're here. Anyway, it gets cold” (N, 244).

Of course, it is not without resonance for Case's terse refusal that this alternative conception of cyberspace derives from the “other,” Rio-based AI. (Wintermute, by contrast, is a Swiss citizen.) That Neuromancer, often simply identified in the novel by place-name, as “Rio,” fashions his icon after a beach-combing Brazilian boy is at best ironic, inasmuch as brown Third World children rarely have access to global data networks, while in their material and ideological operations, succinctly characterized by Donna Haraway as an “informatics of domination,” such networks might nonetheless delimit these children's lives.21 More perniciously, insofar as “Rio” is the product of a Western woman's programming, the AI's icon must be decoded with and against the history of orientalism—so that Marie-France's reconceptualization of cyberspace, via Neuromancer, as a nonreflective mirror is launched, perversely, under the sign of the appropriated other. Still, Neuromancer's mocking brown boy icon remains also obliquely suggestive of the possibility that cyberspace could be discontinuous and multiple, cyberspaces, in which radically contestatory narratives of social reality might be rendered.


If Neuromancer suggests how the multiplication and diversification of agencies might disjoin the “matrix” and thereby inhibit the installation of cyberspace as a totalized information “grid,” the figure of Molly points in complementary fashion to the ways in which cybernetic alterations and enhancements of the embodied subject function to rescript Enlightenment constructions of identity. Donna Haraway has emerged as both the primary and most compelling theorist of such cyborg subjectivities, and indeed it is with reference to her encoding of the term that I designate Molly as a “polychromatic” mother.

[My cyborg] is a polychromatic girl … the cyborg is a bad girl, she is really not a boy. Maybe she is not so much bad as she is a shape-changer, whose dislocations are never free. She is a girl who's trying not to become Woman, but remain responsible to women of many colors and positions, and who hasn't really figured out a politics that makes the necessary articulations with the boys who are your allies. It's undone work.22

Given this elaboration of the concept, it is arguably impossible, or at any rate counter-productive, to translate the girl into a mother; the dislocation of her essence that I earlier proposed as constitutive of the essentialized mother—a dislocation that effects the transformation of a particular class of women into “Woman”—would seem to preempt and recontain the cyborg girl's defining capacity for multiple and self-conscious dislocations. However, Molly is precisely not a mother but a “girl” modified to simulate the maternal, a cyborg who shape-shifts into a mother in a temporary dislocation that constitutes a narrative of nonoriginary motherhood.23 To be sure, dislocations are never without a price, neither for the shifter nor for those whom her dislocations displace: Molly's techno-simulation of the maternal here is crucial, since she produces for Case a field of disturbance from which he cannot so easily jack out.

Molly's technological modifications function to dislocate her across a series of boundaries, of which the organic/cybernetic is only the most apparent. Her permanent alterations include surgically inset lenses, “sealing her sockets … [so that the] lenses seemed to grow from smooth pale skin above her cheekbones” (N, 24) and retractable, four-centimeter scalpel blades implanted under her (burgundy) nails. These alterations position her on the boundary of the human and the animal as well as the human and the machine; moreover, Molly's cybernetic modifications, while first refigured in the narrative as animal attributes, are then refigured anew as maternal, thereby placing her—in a striking reorganization of established binaries—at the limit of the maternal and the organic-human. Thus Molly's blank lenses are said to examine Case “with an insect calm” (N, 30), while later in the narrative their “empty quicksilver” surface serves as the mirror in which a “fetal” Case discerns his (interestingly) perfected form (N, 256). Her augmented nails inspire feline metaphors, most notably on the part of the “Panther Moderns,” an urban street gang with whom Molly finds herself teamed on a raid and who adopt her as “Cat Mother” of their “Brood” (N, 64). The Moderns' ready incorporation of Molly into their subculture further maps her slippage across boundaries of gender and (more obscurely) race, insofar as they are apparently all male and (more ambiguously) nonwhite. (The snapshot of an exemplary Modern initially strikes Case not as a singular entity but “a collage of some kind”; elsewhere, the Moderns' “nihilistic technofetishism” is exemplified more particularly in a “soft-voiced boy called Angelo” whose skin grafts and implanted canines give him the “smooth and hideous” appearance of a shark [N, 58-59].) If Molly's “articulations with the boys who are [her] allies” are “work undone,” her provisional status as cyborg cat mother to this adolescent male brood nonetheless indicates the multiple junctures at which such articulations might occur.

Crucially, this “working girl's” alliances are professional, not political (N, 30). Molly begins by hiring herself out as a “meat puppet” to pay for her modifications, working as a high-tech prostitute, in whom the house implants a “cut-out chip” so that, in Molly's phrasing, “[she isn't] in,” when “the goods” are up for “rent” (N, 147). She then moves to hiring out as “street samurai” (N, 30) or professional ninja, not incidentally to a similar class of privileged white males as formerly constituted her clientele. But this more recent line of work is also Molly's “game” (N, 267), in which she flaunts and parodies a variety of hardboiled masculine styles, performing, as Case observes, “every bad-ass hero” he grew up on, “Sony Mao in the old Shaw videos, Mickey Chiba, the whole lineage back to Lee and Eastwood” (N, 213). Molly's self-commodification, then, may be read as a form of politically charged self-authorship.24 And it is under the rubric of “her game,” so conceived, that I want to locate Molly's techno-miming of maternity for her business and sexual partner, Case: in order for Case to key his cyberspace raid on the Tessier-Ashpool nest to Molly's actual break-in at the family compound, she is “fitted for a broadcast rig” (N, 53) or “simstim” unit that allows Case to access Molly's sensorium, to “flip” from cyberspace to her interior.

Suspicious of simstim as “basically a meat toy” (N, 55), Case now finds himself “a rider,” an excrescence on or more exactly in Molly's body. It is worth underscoring that the sensory-audio link is “one way,” that Case loses both motor capacity and speech.

Then he keyed the new switch.

The abrupt jolt into other flesh. Matrix gone, a wave of sound and color … She was moving through a crowded street, past stalls vending discount software, prices feltpenned on sheets of plastic, fragments of music from countless speakers. Smells of urine, free monomers, perfume, patties of frying krill. For a few frightened seconds he fought helplessly to control her body. Then he willed himself into passivity, became the passenger behind her eyes.

The glasses didn't seem to cut down the sunlight at all. He wondered if the built-in amps compensated automatically. Blue alphanumerics winked the time, low in her left peripheral field. Showing off, he thought.

(N, 56)

In this rescripting of the originary mother/infant symbiosis as a contingent, technologically mediated relation, several defining elements of subject formation in the (“natural”) nuclear family are recast. First, motherhood becomes performative, an assumed, rather than a given, function; even viewed from the inside, the maternal body is unnatural—seamed, stylized, “built-in” and on.25 Significantly, however, Molly's flesh is not dominated, or subsumed, by the cybernetic, so that the life of the “meat,” the smell of urine or frying grease, interfaces (or is it intrafaces?) with the winking alphanumerics. If ectogenesis involves the mother's technological projection in the antiseptic elsewhere of the cybernetic womb, performative motherhood entails the refashioning of the body itself, as the always makeshift (improvised, rigged) intersection of cybernetic and organic modalities. Second, rather than encounter her body elsewhere, out of language and out of time, this techno-mother inhabits it as a socially situated subject, a “working girl.” Thus displaced from the phantasmatic locus of the subject's prehistory, the maternal body ceases to be figurable as choric enclosure, becoming instead a partial container, interrupted and disjoined at the sites of its multiple articulations with the world.

In this frame, the techno-fetishizing of the maternal is made impossible: neither originary (organic) plenitude nor symbolic lack, the maternal body can no longer be constituted in and as its perpetual migration between these poles. The fetishist's movement is checked as the shape of the mother's difference is redrawn; it is no longer castration that she lays at the masculine subject's door, no more a singular lack, but rather lacks, shifting contingencies and subjective gaps. Contemplating the masculine body in the mirror of Molly's lenses (a mirror he has accessed, of course, internally, from the “dark” side), Case is confronted not with a double in whom his own originary loss is disavowed but with a radically discontinuous entity.

He flipped.

And found himself staring down, through Molly's one good eye, at a white-faced, wasted figure, afloat in a loose fetal crouch, a cyberspace deck between its thighs, a band of silver trodes above closed, shadowed eyes. The man's cheeks were hollowed with a day's growth of dark beard, his face slick with sweat.

He was looking at himself.

(N, 255-256)

Here a blinded Case (eyes sealed closed) sees himself “seeing” himself (through the medium of an appended organ, or his “silver trodes”) from the elsewhere of the mother's body—an elsewhere he inhabits, for the moment at any rate, as fully, or as partially, as his “own” flesh.26 In this dizzying arrangement, the masculine body comes undone—becomes “work undone”—by being made to occupy the locus of its own (un)doing, the boundary between ungendered infant and engendered techno-subject. More accurately, this liminal body cuts two ways. One might read the cyberspace deck between “its” thighs as cybernetic fetish object; but perhaps, through this dislocation of the phallus, cyberspace comes home to the embodied subject as a mark of internal differences?


  1. Christopher Langton, “Artificial Life,” in Artificial Life, Santa Fe Institute Studies in the Sciences of Complexity (New York: Addison-Wesley Publishing Company, 1988), final emphasis mine.

  2. Mary Ann Doane, “Technophilia: Technology, Representation and the Feminine,” in Body/Politics: Women and the Discourses of Science, ed. Mary Jacobus, Evelyn Fox-Keller, and Sally Shuttleworth (New York: Routledge, 1990).

  3. William Gibson, Neuromancer (New York: Ace Books, 1984). In future references, this text will be referred to as N, and page numbers will be given parenthetically in the body of the essay.

  4. Veronica Hollinger, “Cybernetic Deconstructions: Cyberpunk and Postmodernism,” in Storming the Reality Studio: A Casebook of Cyberpunk and Postmodern Fiction, ed. Larry McCaffrey (Durham: Duke University Press, 1991), 207.

  5. Joan Gordon, “Ying and Yang Duke It Out,” in Storming the Reality Studio, 199.

  6. Doane, “Technophilia,” 174.

  7. Julien Murphy, “Is Pregnancy Necessary? Feminist Concerns about Ectogenesis,” Hypatia 4, no. 3 (Fall 1989): 81-82.

  8. Cited in Hartouni, “Containing Women: Reproductive Discourse in the 1980s,” in Technoculture, ed. Constance Penley and Andrew Ross (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1991), 46.

  9. Ibid., 49.

  10. Murphy often approaches the question of ectogenesis in what would seem to be a purely hypothetical register, which disturbingly both circles and brackets issues of social class. Thus, for instance, she reflects that “a woman may find ectogenesis desirable because she is a smoker, drug-user or casual drinker” or because “her job may be hazardous for pregnant women.” Implicitly, at such moments, Murphy posits broad access to this technology for women from all social classes; yet the term “casual” nevertheless recontains the complicating factors she enumerates within a comfortably middle-class frame, while the only careers she enumerates are “athletics, dancing, modeling, acting.”

  11. Hartouni, “Containing Women,” 46.

  12. While Doane never directly alludes to Laura Mulvey here, her construction of technological fetishism both recalls the totalizing logic of Mulvey's famous argument in “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” and often seems to align technological fetishism with the pleasure of the gaze—to align technophilia with scopophilia.

  13. Psychoanalysis is, of course, a discourse of Western bourgeois subjectivity, of a specific historical configuration which this discipline elevates to the status of a universal. My investment here is in the possibility of dislodging feminist psychoanalysis from its Western supremacist frame, which means, among other things, in the possibility of deploying psychoanalytic models to denaturalize and decenter the bourgeois subject.

  14. Some important critical models of alternative configurations of motherhood are developed in Hortense Spillers, “Mama's Baby, Papa's Maybe: An American Grammar Book,” Diacritics (Summer 1987); Christine Stansell, City of Women: Sex and Class in New York, 1789-1860 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1987), esp. chaps. 6 and 10; Cherrie Moraga, “From a Long Line of Vendidas: Chicanas and Feminism,” in Feminist Studies/Critical Studies, ed. Teresa de Lauretis (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986).

  15. See Madelon Sprengenther's insightful reading of Beyond and of Freud's retrogressive advance toward the figure of the mother he seeks to elide, in The Spectral Mother (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1989).

  16. See Constance Penley and Andrew Ross, “Cyborgs at Large: Interview with Donna Haraway,” in Technoculture, 20.

  17. Andrew Ross, Strange Weather: Culture, Science and Technology in the Age of Limits (New York: Verso, 1991), 153.

  18. Implicitly, then, in a cyberpunk world gender is organized not in terms of possession/lack but of access/debarment, a binary that can less readily be made to derive from the literal distinctions of sex. While the “cyberspace cowboys” of Gibson's, and indeed most cyberpunk novels, are exclusively male, the female hackers of Pat Cadigan's novel Synners, for example, suggest how the sex/gender system can be productively destabilized within this model.

  19. A doubling and negation which Lacan has theorized as the mirror stage. Most pertinent for my argument here is the infant's proto-disavowal of the body's disarticulations and contingency that the contemplation of the specular image is seen to enable.

  20. It is arguably toward such a destabilization of knowledge that what Naomi Schor defines as female fetishism would tend. Following Sarah Kofman, Schor suggests that “what is pertinent to women in fetishism is the paradigm of undecidability that it offers. By appropriating the fetishist's oscillation between denial and recognition of castration, women can effectively counter any move to reduce their bisexuality to a single one of its poles.” Linda Lee's techno-fetishization, traceable, through Neuromancer, to a deceased Marie-France, instantiates Schor's model in a particularly suggestive way. Marie-France's fetishizing of the female body transfers the locus of the undecidability she plainly privileges from the masculine fetishist, who disavows the ostensibly verifiable truth of women's lack, to a (female-programmed) AI, who engenders a female body beyond phallocentric categories of knowledge. See Schor, “Female Fetishism,” in The Female Body in Western Culture, ed. Susan Rubin Suleiman (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1986), 363-372.

  21. Donna Haraway, “A Manifesto for Cyborgs,” in Feminism/Postmodernism, ed. Linda J. Nicholson (Routledge, 1990), 203.

  22. Penley and Ross, “Cyborgs at Large,” 20.

  23. Temporary, but also timely if we consider, for instance, that the same posthumanist science fiction narratives which have popularized the figure of the cyborg or, more generally, labored to imagine partial, hybridized, decentered identities (The Terminator, perhaps most spectacularly, but most recently Aliens 3) tend simultaneously to reinscribe essentialized motherhood (and the structures of identity it underwrites). Under these circumstances, it seems to me as important for feminist criticism to search out where and how motherhood might be dislodged from its essentialized frame as to privilege the figure of the nonmaternal woman.

  24. See Thomas Foster, “Meat Puppets or Robopaths? Cyberpunk and the Question of Embodiment,” this volume.

  25. For my investment in rethinking the maternal as specifically “performative,” I am indebted to Judith Butler's Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (London: Routledge, 1990).

  26. My appreciation of this passage in the narrative owes much to N. Katherine Hayles's observation, at a session of the Society for Literature and Science Annual Conference (Montreal, 1992), that cyberspace is hardly the achievement of disembodied subjectivity, when the virtual reality enthusiast is precisely a body loaded down with equipment—a body all the more conspicuous for its (supposed) irrelevance.

I am indebted to Kathleen Biddick, Jonathan Elmer, and, especially, Thomas Foster for helpful references, comments, and suggestions.

Jack G. Voller (essay date spring 1993)

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SOURCE: Voller, Jack G. “Neuromanticism: Cyberspace and the Sublime.” Extrapolation 34, no. 1 (spring 1993): 18-29.

[In the following essay, Voller explores how Neuromancer portrays cyberspace as a realm of sublime transcendence devoid of spiritual implications.]

William Gibson's “matrix” works—Neuromancer,Count Zero,Mona Lisa Overdrive, two or three stories—mark, for many science fiction readers, something close to the cutting edge of the genre. As innovative and revolutionary as cyberpunk may be, however, it shares with all other varieties of SF a profound indebtedness to the Romantic/Gothic tradition. The manifold complexities of this inheritance are beyond the scope of any single essay, but we gain insight into Gibson's works and their significance by considering the extent to which the concept of cyberspace, central to the above-mentioned works, is an extension of and comment upon one of the most significant elements of Romantic aesthetics, the sublime. There is more to this indebtedness than has been revealed by Lance Olsen's recent (and brief) discussion of the sublime in Gibson's work, which confines itself largely to the sublime aspects of the novels' artificial intelligences. While I agree fully with Olsen's general conclusions, there is much more to be said about the extent to which sublimity informs these works. It determines not only, as Olsen's essay implies, the thematic consequence of the Wintermute-Neuromancer AI, but serves as the aesthetic foundation upon which the meaning (or non-meaning) of cyberspace, and human interaction with cyberspace, is constructed.

Full elaboration of this reliance should begin with a brief overview of the salient characteristics of the post-Longinian sublime.1 It is essential that we remind ourselves at the outset that the tradition of the sublime is, at its heart, a tradition of spiritual inquiry, an aesthetically grounded quest devoted to recovering intimations of the divine. While we often associate sublimity with the more powerful and cataclysmic aspects of physical nature, it has been amply demonstrated that the true generative impulse behind the development of the sublime was religious.2

While it would be excessive to identify Galileo as the progenitor of cyberpunk, it is with the revolutionary science of the early seventeenth century that the path to the sublime begins. The particulars of these intellectual developments need not detain us here; suffice it to say that by the end of the seventeenth century the comforting sense of divine order and hierarchical regularity implicit in the Ptolemaic system had been shattered; the telescope had revealed an apparently infinite universe, “terrifying, one with no form, no center, above all, no plan perceptible to human reason” (Tuveson 21). God had, in short, been relegated to the cosmic background.

Seventeenth-century thinkers countered the spiritual and philosophical anxieties attendant upon this relocation of divinity by directly correlating the apparently infinite universe with the power and majesty of God (Tuveson 22), and in this lies the origin of the modern sublime. Infinity came to serve as the objective correlative of transcendence; experience of the infinite became the spatially or temporally enacted mental drama of the limited in search of that which is beyond itself, is Other.

The early use of the boundless universe to signify the infinite power of God was a brilliant aesthetic response to the troubling implications of seventeenth-century scientific discoveries. But the importance attached to infinity meant also that it could not readily be discarded when the spiritual milieu of Western culture changed. This need for infinity inscribed into aesthetic theory a privileging of the boundless, the ungraspable, and the indeterminate, a privileging that continues to influence Western aesthetics today. But while the image is the same, its symbolic value now has altered, has been drained of meaning. The ultimate signifier, infinity can have only one of two signifieds: the divine or the void. In prior centuries, the former obtained, although certain strains of Romantic and Gothic literature argued strongly that the fundamentally ironic gesture3 of sublimity was in fact a delusion, that infinity really signified nothingness and absence. In Gothic fiction especially, the sublime became linked with visceral (as opposed to religious) terror, a development due largely to the popularity of Edmund Burke's A Philosophical Inquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful.

Although it did not invent the link between the infinite and sublimity's characteristic overpowering awe, Burke's treatise established that link as incontestable: Burke argued that infinity “has a tendency to fill the mind with that sort of delightful horror, which is the most genuine, and truest test of the sublime” (73). Yet in the aesthetic controversy which swirled around Burke's treatise, another implication of “the boundless” was elaborated, one with even more direct implications for the literary and aesthetic tradition that culminates in Gibson's cyberspace.

One of Burke's more obstreperous detractors, Richard Payne Knight, theorized a sublime that attempted to redeem the experience from the secular terror and fear so fundamental for Burke: “All sublime feelings are … feelings of exultation and expansion of the mind, tending to rapture and enthusiasm. … In grasping at infinity, the mind exercises the powers … of multiplying without end; and, in so doing, it expands and exalts itself, by which means its feelings and sentiments become sublime” (367-68). Despite this inherent optimism, however, Knight in fact contributed significantly to a sublime of horror and emptiness. For Knight, sublimity is induced by an absence that shapes the affective implications of natural phenomena; the mind's failure to apprehend these phenomena is due to the “negative existence” that defines “darkness, vacuity, [and] silence.” The same is true for infinity: all of these are defined by Knight in exclusively negative terms: they are, respectively, without light, substance, sound, or limit (369-70). This theoretic foundation of sublimity becomes important not so much for its direct influence, which did not match Burke's, but because it recognizes an important shift in the capacity of infinity to act as a signifier in the literary quest for transcendence. Although contemporaries of Knight's would continue to assert that infinity remained a direct intimation of God's omnipotence, it became clear that the infinite—and, by extension and implication, the sublime—was no longer an unfailingly positive spiritual signifier. For Burke, sublimity is engendered by terror, not religious passion; for Knight, even while “rapture and enthusiasm” are the emotional core of sublimity, there is a fundamental absence in the experience. For us moderns, this note of warning and anxiety has become dominant; the progressive secularization of Anglo-American culture has discovered infinity to be a source of uncertainty and disquiet, an empty crypt haunted by the ghosts of spiritual failure. It is this absence which forms the basis of Gothic and Dark Romantic sublimity and which sets the stage for Gibson's appropriations and revisions of the sublime experience.

Gibson's “matrix” works in fact mark the next step in this aesthetic evolution, not only filling the void of the infinite with human constructs, the electronic manifestations of human corporate activity, but relocating infinity, removing it from its exalted place in the heavens or on the terrestrial horizon and squeezing it into the interface between human mind and computer technology. There is very little stargazing in Gibson, after all: the heavens are obscured by derelict Fuller domes, poisonous haze, and the light of holograms and neon. Traditionally the most potent signifier of the infinite, space is here reduced to something one merely travels through en route to one of the tourist resorts or private enclaves orbiting Earth. There is no special significance, mystical or otherwise, attached to the physical cosmos. Space travel, in fact, has become so mundane, so literal, that it is referred to not as “space flight” or “space travel” but as “going up (or down) the gravity well.” Romanticism's aesthetic of the infinite has virtually ceased to be an aesthetic at all, taking a back seat to physics. The only boundlessness of interest or value in Gibson's universe is cyberspace, the “consensual hallucination” where humans encounter and manipulate the raw stuff of corporate and economic power. The infinite has here been casually yet compellingly dismissed.

In Gibson's postmodern futureworld, infinity's relocation—its interiorization, its manifestation as cyberspace both within human mind and within machines—is perhaps the most dramatic sign marking sublimity's evolutionary path, becoming the intellectual bedrock upon which other tropings of sublimity in Gibson rest.

While on the most literal level simply “an abstract representation of the relationships between data systems … [an] electronic consensus-hallucination that facilitates the handling and exchange of massive quantities of data” (“Burning Chrome” 169-70), cyberspace proves, in Gibson's calculus of futurity, to be much more than this. Consider, for example, the consequences of Case's pharmacological punishment for attempting to double-cross his employers: “The damage was minute, subtle, and utterly effective. 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 the prison of his own flesh” (6). Gibson's capitalized allusion to Genesis, to the Christian mythos, underscores a telling point. Like Adam and Eve, Case has fallen from grace into time and flesh, barred by that flesh from returning to his electronic Eden. The pain of this separation drives Case to a slow suicide, for what Gibson terms “the infinite neuroelectric void of the matrix” (Neuromancer 115) is a high-tech surrogate for the locus of the (absent) divine. Cyberspace is the only infinity that matters, the only significant arena for the quest for Self, even the only way in which the dead may be resurrected.4 As one recent commentator has noted, there is “an innate (programmed) drive in each of Gibson's characters, the drive to transcend the self. … In Gibson's world, the preferred method of transcendence is through technology” (Grant 42, 43). And yet, as Lance Olsen has correctly claimed, no transcendence (as the word is usually understood) is possible: “The ‘new romanticism’ at which Gibson hints in the title of his first novel is not ultimately about attaining a Faustian spiritual absolute. Rather … it is about the inability to do so” (285). Precisely so, and just as the earlier Romanticism often pursued its spiritual imperative by means of the sublime, Gibson's new romanticism postulates a revised, postmodern sublime, one that reveals emptiness, not plenitude, and which subverts spiritual pretensions even as it appears to endorse them (Olsen 286).

In this new romanticism, “sublimity” is accessed not on mountain-tops, but through technology, the source and locus of cyberspace, Gibson's analog of the infinite and the eternal—the playground, in other words, of the gods. In cyberspace one slips the shackles of body and time: “An hour here'll only take you a couple of seconds,” Wintermute says to Case (Neuromancer 169); at one point, Case is offered immortality in cyberspace and spends what seems to him a few days there, when in objective time only five minutes pass. There is, even, a certain inscrutability to the denizens of cyberspace: the military data constructs are “high and very far away … forever beyond his reach” (Neuromancer 52), and cyberspace is defined at one point as “that space that wasn't space, mankind's unthinkably complex consensual hallucination … where the great corporate hotcores burned like neon novas, data so dense you suffered sensory overload if you tried to apprehend more than the merest outline” (Count Zero 38-39). This collation of passages makes evident the fact that data has acquired the attributes of Yahweh and Jesus—attributes normally assumed on mountaintops, the traditional place of epiphany and, especially for the romantics, of sublime experience.

Yet while traditional divinity is absent from Gibson's world, there are still attempts to locate, create, or exploit it, another version of what Glenn Grant has identified as the novel's intricate use of détournement. M. H. Abrams, among others, has pointed out that the secularization of Western civilization is accomplished not by a wholesale replacement of Judeo-Christian symbolism, but by a gradual resignification of that symbolism, a realignment of signifier and signified (13). It does occur to some of Gibson's characters to ask after God; it's just that what, if anything, they find is not what they expect, or what it seems.

A significant element linking the first two matrix novels is the use of West Indian religions, Rastafarianism in Neuromancer and Haitian voodoo in Count Zero. Yet though these belief systems have devout, committed followers in each work, from the point of view the reader is invited to share both systems are clearly the pawns of the Artificial Intelligences, manipulated by them for furtherance of their own ends.

The plot of Neuromancer of course turns on the self-orchestrated liberation of the AI Wintermute, which seeks to join itself with its twin AI, Neuromancer. Case and Molly are part of this plan for self-liberation, and they are aided materially by the Rastafarians of the orbiting Zion cluster, who, although they have little interest in the affairs of Babylon, are manipulated by Wintermute into lending assistance. As one of the two surviving founders of Zion explains,

“We monitor many frequencies. We listen always. Came a voice, out of the babel of tongues, speaking to us. It played us a mighty dub.”

“Call 'em Winter Mute,” said the other. …

“The Mute talked to us,” the first Founder said. “The Mute said we are to help you.”

“What kinda message the voice have?” asked Case.

“We were told to help you,” the other said, “that you might serve as a tool of Final Days.”

(Neuromancer 110)

One of the elders affirms this apocalyptic promise by telling Molly, “An' you bring a scourge on Babylon, sister, on its darkest heart. …” Yet if this is what the liberation of Wintermute amounts to, there is no indication of such in Neuromancer nor in Count Zero or Mona Lisa Overdrive, both of which concern events subsequent to and dependent upon those in Neuromancer.

Of course something does come about as a result of Wintermute's liberation. Freed from hardwired limitations on its intelligence and merging successfully with Neuromancer, Wintermute “had become something else” (Neuromancer 268), a something that Wintermute attempts to explain to Case in a final conversation:

“I'm not Wintermute now.”

“So what are you?”

“I'm the matrix, Case.”

Case laughed. “Where's that get you?”

“Nowhere. Everywhere. I'm the sum total of the whole works, the whole show.”

“So what's the score now? How are things different? You running the world now? You God?”

“Things aren't different. Things are things.”


This exchange comes at the end of the novel, so we never learn just what has happened, but there is compelling evidence that the presence of the Haitian voodoo gods in the matrix in Count Zero is linked to Wintermute's liberation and merger with Neuromancer—whose specialty, we are told, was the creation of personality (Neuromancer 259). As one character in Count Zero explains,

Once, there was nothing there [in the matrix], nothing moving on its own, just data and people shuffling it around. Then something happened, and it … it knew itself. There's a whole other story, about that, a girl with mirrors over her eyes and a man who was scared to care about anything. Something the man did helped the thing know itself. … And after that, it sort of split off into different parts of itself.


The “whole other story” of course is Neuromancer, and this passage, in concert with others, links the events of the earlier novel with the appearance of the voodoo gods.5 Even the “high priests” of this electronic voodoo—men who are repeatedly characterized as “businessmen” (one is in fact a high-powered lawyer)—even these men recognize the absence of spiritual content in their religion, noting that it “isn't concerned with notions of salvation and transcendence. What it's about is getting things done. … it's street religion, came out of a dirt-poor place a million years ago” (Count Zero 77). In a “religion” not concerned with transcendence, no room exists for the sublime.

Another clue to the nature of the voodoo gods also supplies insight into other manifestations of cyberspace “spirituality.” When in Count Zero, Marly makes her way to the derelict space station of the Tessier-Ashpool clan, she does so hoping to locate a mysterious artist. She first finds the insane Wigan Ludgate, an ex-console cowboy who went up the well when he became “convinced that God lived in cyberspace, or perhaps that cyberspace was God, or some new manifestation of same” (122). Wigan's conversion came at approximately the same time the two AIs merged, and the conclusion is inescapable that Wigan is tuned not to the divine but to the cybernetic. Wintermute/Neuromancer itself testifies to this in a conversation it holds with Marly when she discovers that the artist she is pursuing is really a robot invested with part of the sentience of the Wintermute/Neuromancer entity. It explains to her that

Once I was not. Once, for a brilliant time, time without duration, I was everywhere as well … But the bright time broke. The mirror was flawed. Now I am the only one. … There are others, but they will not speak to me. Vain, the scattered fragments of myself, like children. Like men. … They plot with men, my other selves, and men imagine they are gods.


Gibson's futureworld has its own infinity, its own objective correlative of the unknowable; but it is a hollow place, a void populated only by data, human seekers, and free-floating fragments of artificial sentience which play god—whatever god humans desire—only to please their vanity. Forays into cyberspace are not odysseys to mountain peaks or deserts in search of the divine, but exhilaratingly dangerous raids undertaken for personal gain.

There remains an even more significant revision of sublimity in Gibson. We recall that in the sublime experience, the mind operates in an emotional and aesthetic realm without boundaries, a realm increasingly defined by absence and negation, as Knight's definitions suggest. Yet another absence with which the sublime is concerned is what might be identified as the absence of Self. In the mind's encounter with the sublime object, all cognitive operations are suspended; the individual is rapt from the physical world into a psychological vacuum, a moment of intellectual and emotional abeyance into which intimations of insufficiency and powerlessness are poured, only to be transformed in the moment of recovery into a sense of holy immanence, consolation, and fulfillment.

The most famous expression of this idea, Burke's of course, delineates succinctly the temporary cessation of both spiritual feeling and rational activity:

The passion caused by the great and sublime in nature, when those causes operate most powerfully, is Astonishment; and astonishment is that state of the soul, in which all its motions are suspended, with some degree of horror. In this case the mind is so entirely filled with its object, that it cannot entertain any other, nor by consequence reason on that object which employs it. Hence arises the great power of the sublime, that far from being produced by them, it anticipates our reasonings, and hurries us on by an irresistible force.


In the ironic trope of the sublime, this emptying-out serves not to diminish the participant, even though “it occurs at the moment when man is overwhelmed by feelings of awe, wonder and terror on confronting aspects of the universe which go beyond his comprehension and which simultaneously reveal the grandeur of God and his own limited place in the divine scheme of things” (Morse 140); rather, the sublime succeeds by converting this intellectual or cognitive failure into affirmation, into a sense of grandeur and potency, as Thomas Weiskel has explained:

The metaphorical moment of the sublime would be understood as an internalization or sublimation of the imagination's relation to the object. The “unattainability” of the object with respect to the mind would be duplicated as an inner structure, so that in the sublime moment the mind would discover or posit an undefinable (ungraspable) domain within. … We call an object sublime if the attempt to represent it determines the mind to regard its inability to grasp wholly the object as a symbol of the mind's relation to a transcendent order.


Gothic fiction derived much of its cultural power by insisting, contrary to the normative Romantic tradition, on the falsity of this ironic gesture; Gibson takes the next step, euhemerizing this structure of suspension and encounter by not only denying it any aura of metaphysical consequence, but also by converting it to a quest for the material, for the information that serves the future as the medium of exchange and the grounds of power.

Just as he empties infinity of its traditional spiritual signification, Gibson refigures sublimity's necessary suspension. He leaves the phenomenon of suspension intact, even emphasizing it, but the consequences are fundamentally recast. Encounters with cyberspace produce no exaltation of soul, no elevation of spirit. They often produce little reaction at all, but when they do, the response of the console cowboys is always personal and emotional: rage when something bad happens, fear when encountering black ice, elation when successful in stealing data or credit.

This is not to say that the suspensions of cyberspace runs are not without their power and meaning. Perhaps the best example in all of Gibson's work is the description of Case's return to cyberspace after years spent out of it in consequence of his brain damage. For Case a return to the matrix is a return to Self, a rediscovery of himself and his place in the world as he prepares to penetrate the security defenses of the Sense/Net corporation:

This was it. This was what he was, who he was, his being. He forgot to eat. … Sometimes he resented having to leave the deck to use the portable toilet they'd set up. … Ice patterns formed and reformed on the screen as he probed for gaps, skirted the most obvious traps, and mapped the route he'd take through Sense/Net's ice. It was good ice. Wonderful ice. Its patterns burned there while he lay with his arms under Molly's shoulders, watching the red dawn through the steel grid of the skylight. Its rainbow pixel was the first thing he saw when he woke. He'd go straight to the deck, not bothering to dress, and jack in. He was cutting it. He was working. He lost track of days.

(Neuromancer 59)

This is a very literal expression of sublimity's suspension of Self: Case's normal life is thoroughly interrupted, suspended by his immersion in cyberspace, but the consequences do not extend beyond this fact of simple interruption, the mere physicality of which is acknowledged in this passage's allusions to primal bodily needs and functions.

Gibson articulates this suspension in another form as well. In both Count Zero and Neuromancer—but especially in the latter—characters experience braindeath while jacked into the matrix. One character, the Dixie Flatline, earned his name and reputation from the flat EEG signal that accompanies braindeath. Yet, tellingly, these episodes are not cognate with episodes of suspension in more conventional figurations of sublimity. As is not the case in the Burkean or Kantian sublime, mental activity of a sort does take place during these episodes of apparent braindeath. Case speaks to Wintermute and Neuromancer during brain-death episodes; Bobby encounters the projected consciousness of Angie. In the place of the ineffable, the incomprehensible, Gibson has inserted the electronic, the cybernetic consciousness of artificial intelligences conducting their business.

When they return from these suspensions, Gibson's heroes are sometimes humbled, sometimes frightened, sometimes elated, as are the participants in conventional sublime experience. Yet these emotional parallels are eclipsed by the differences in the implications of these events. There is no ironic transformation of insufficiency into plenitude; there is, in fact, no irony whatsoever in the matrix. What you experience is what it is. Elation after a successful run is just elation, the joy that comes with suddenly being rich or having destroyed an enemy, as in “Burning Chrome.” Case sometimes finds a brief moment of self-actualization in the matrix, but nothing more—no intimations of the divine, no exaltation of spirit, no uplifting sense of grandeur. Cyberspace is the only infinity that matters in Gibson's future, but it is not the home of the gods, only of a fragmented deus ex machina.

Where the Romantics sought proximity to the infinite by ascending mountains—Wordsworth on Snowdon, Shelley on Mont Blanc—Gibson's high-tech low-lifes venture directly into their artificial desktop infinite. The Romantics embraced the sublime as evidence of “the eternal, the infinite, and the one”; Gibson's antiheroes connect with an abstract geometry of data, a metaphor of the immaterial, risking life and mind in order to plumb the depths not of soul or psyche or mystery, but of the wealth and power immanent in data. Gibson's console cowboys emerge from the timeless rapture of cyberspace not having touched the face of God, for there is no divine presence in the technological future; in having triumphed over the void of cyberspace, they return to the world empowered and enriched, but only in the most literal senses of those words. Gibson invokes sublimity's structure of spiritual inquiry to affirm the obsolescence of Christianity's traditional consolations, thereby clearing the way for this new romanticism, one in which seekers pursue not the eternal and the one, but a secular god, Power, in its most direct and awe-ful high-tech manifestation.6


  1. Numerous studies and surveys of the sublime may be consulted for more detailed discussion of the principles touched on briefly here. The most useful general overview remains Samuel Holt Monk's The Sublime; also of value is Walter J. Hipple, Jr.'s The Beautiful, The Sublime, and the Picturesque in Eighteenth-Century British Aesthetic Theory. The best study of the sublime as an intellectual and psychological construct is that by Thomas Weiskel; in this regard, see also Neil Hertz, The End of the Line.

  2. For a discussion and history of the sublime as a religious experience, see David Morris, The Religious Sublime. Of significance also is the work of Rudolph Otto who, in The Idea of the Holy, notes the strong correlation between the artistic representation of sublimity and the lived experience of what he calls the mysterium tremendum, “the deepest and most fundamental element” in religious emotion (12); see especially p. 27 and pp. 41-42.

  3. David Laurence has identified the sublime as an “ironic gesture … philosophically dubious if poetically interesting,” in which “failure, defeat, and inadequacy in the world of experience indirectly and ironically vouch for the reality of a realm of supersensible ideas … in relation to which alone humanity discovers the spiritual vocation for which it is born” (58).

  4. High technology permits a resurrection of the dead, of sorts, in Gibson's futureworld. By having their personalities encoded into Read-Only Memory, individuals can maintain a certain mental existence after their bodies perish, although comments by the only such “resurrected” character we meet, the Dixie Flatline, suggest that such a state leaves much to be desired. Gibson's short story “The Winter Market” also deals, tangentially, with the concept of ROM personality constructs.

  5. The events related in Count Zero follow those in Neuromancer by seven or eight years. The Finn, the only character present in both novels, reports in Count Zero that some seven to eight years earlier he had been involved with Case and Molly, and that it was at about this time that strange things—a reference to the voodoo gods—began appearing in the matrix (123-24; see also 118).

  6. There is a special, final irony to the fact that Gibson's high-tech vision subverts and empties out the paradigm of sublimity-as-spiritual-quest, for the sublime surfaced in Western civilization primarily in response to scientific challenges to Christian cosmology.

Works Cited

Abrams, Meyer H. Natural Supernaturalism: Tradition and Revolution in Romantic Literature. New York: Norton, 1971.

Burke, Edmund. A Philosophical Inquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful. Ed. J. T. Boulton. 2nd ed. 1759. New York: Columbia UP, 1958.

Gibson, William. “Burning Chrome.” 1982. Burning Chrome. 1986. New York: Ace, 1987.

———. Count Zero. 1986. New York: Ace, 1987.

———. Neuromancer. New York: Ace, 1984.

Grant, Glenn. “Transcendence through Detournement in William Gibson's Neuromancer.Science-Fiction Studies 17 (March 1990): 41-49.

Hertz, Neil. The End of the Line: Essays on Psychoanalysis and the Sublime. New York: Columbia UP, 1985.

Hipple, Walter J. The Beautiful, the Sublime, and the Picturesque in Eighteenth Century British Aesthetic Theory. Cardonbale: Southern Illinois UP, 1957.

Knight, Richard Payne. An Analytical Inquiry into the Principles of Taste. 4th ed. 1808. Westmead, England: Gregg, 1972.

Laurence, David. “William Bradford's American Sublime.” PMLA 102 (1987): 55-65.

Monk, Samuel Holt. The Sublime: A Study of Critical Theories in XVIII-Century England. New York: MLA, 1935.

Morris, David. The Religious Sublime: Christian Poetry and Critical Tradition in 18th-Century England. Lexington: UP of Kentucky, 1972.

Morse, David. Romanticism: A Structural Analysis. Totowa, NJ: Barnes & Noble, 1982.

Olsen, Lance. “The Shadow of Spirit in William Gibson's Matrix Trilogy.” Extrapolation 32 (Fall 1991): 278-89.

Otto, Rudolph. The Idea of the Holy: An Inquiry into the Non-Rational Factor in the Idea of the Divine and Its Relation to the Rational. 1917. Trans. John W. Harvey. New York: Oxford UP, 1957.

Tuveson, Ernest. “Space, Deity, and the ‘Natural Sublime.’” Modern Language Quarterly 12, 1 (1951): 20-38.

Weiskel, Thomas. The Romantic Sublime: Studies in the Structure and Psychology of Transcendence. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1976.

Randy Schroeder (essay date winter 1994)

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SOURCE: Schroeder, Randy. “Neu-Criticizing William Gibson.” Extrapolation 35, no. 4 (winter 1994): 330-41.

[In the following essay, Schroeder offers a critical assessment of the relationship between cybernetics and postmodernism in Neuromancer.]

Back in 1983 Time named the computer “Machine of the Year.” This award displaced the usual “Man of the Year,” presumably decentering the human and giving postmodernism permanent status in pop consciousness. In 1984 William Gibson published Neuromancer, presumably giving literary expression to the confluence of cybernetics and postmodernisms. In fact, the subgenre of cyberpunk is widely reported to be both postmodern art and postmodern artifact par excellence, literary examination and product of the post-age.

This assumption has driven some fine criticism. Gibson's information-age world has been examined as a place where distinctions such as human/machine and real/artificial are deconstructed, as invasive technology redefines the human condition. The locus of criticism has been those points where cybernetic technology and postmodern experiences overlap; as Bruce Sterling says, cyberpunks are “fascinated by interzones” (xi).

But the interzone of postmodernisms and cybernetics is a problematic one. Sophisticated simulation does unhinge our sense of referentiality; the prosthesis does question the difference between real and artificial; revision of memory does begin to deconstruct the notion of a stable “self.” But underneath this overlap is a hostility: cybernetics carries an essentially realist ontology, while postmodernisms are often antirealist or at least antirepresentationalist. This hostility manifests itself over contradictory features. Cybernetics is reductionist; postmodernisms are not. Cybernetics affirms some kind of objective reality; postmodernisms question it. Cybernetics is fundamentally about binaries; postmodernisms are fundamentally about the collapse of binaries. Cybernetics is about construction; postmodernisms are about deconstruction.1

The theoretical problem is daunting. Some method is needed to sort out the simultaneous overlap and hostility between cybernetics and postmodernisms. But for Gibson, the theoretical difficulties provide an opportunity for literary play, for antithetic motifs and complex metaphors. In Gibson's cyberspace fiction, features of indeterminacy are often juxtaposed with features of determinacy. The reading experience that results is one of complex tension, as “postmodernism” is exploited through almost modernist techniques, as “postmodern” features are integrated in an almost new critical paradigm.

This is an audacious claim, and not exactly an astute one, given the status of modernism in most postmodern cultures. But I am not saying that Gibson's fiction is exhausted in a paradigm of literary tension; neither am I wheeling out old chestnuts like intentionality of the author. I am simply offering another way of looking at Gibson's fictive world and suggesting that critical techniques which assume an unproblematic confluence of postmodernisms and cybernetics are ignoring an important trend in the world of Neuromancer,Count Zero, and Mona Lisa Overdrive.

Gibson's late-capitalist society, characterized by urban sprawls, ubiquitous and intimate technology, and the centralization of power within anational corporations, often appears to be either cybernetic or postmodern. This society can sometimes be described with a set of alternating pairs: controlled v. chaotic, predictable v. unpredictable, ordered v. entropic, sophisticated-yet-reducible v. sophisticated-and-incomprehensible. The simple tension manifests itself in an inverse paradigm, where “postmodernism” undermines cybernetics and vice versa.

Life in Gibson's world often seems simply cybernetic. Virek's corporate system in Count Zero is a “vast and subtle mechanism” of surveillance (73), a “machine” (140), and a “vast device” (74). Virek's money is “a universal solvent” (174), lubricating the machinery of social infiltration, reaching every corner of social and individual consciousness. The corporate Virek is understood through the old-world sensibilities of Marly, who invests cybernetic social management with negative connotations. Neuromancer's Case sees the corporate power structure in a similar way. He accepts “flatness and lack of feeling” as “a gradual and willing accommodation of the machine, the system” (203). The control and communication of “social information” is described by Larry McCaffery as “… the increasing monopolization by private business of information, and the ways this monopolization is used for the purpose of wielding power and control over nation-states and individuals” (9).

This characterization of society squeezes out “postmodern” notions of indeterminacy and free play. Society and its constituent individuals become predictable, ordered, and comprehensible. Wintermute, the AI in Neuromancer, explains a person's suicide as “various factors in his history and how they interrelate” (205). Angie, in Mona Lisa Overdrive, understands the sophistication of society as ultimately reducible: “How unthinkably intricate the world was, in sheer detail of mechanism” (189). Intricacy and detail connote nanism with exactitude, not imploding indeterminacy. Mr. Yanaka is asked whether someone will continue to run his corporation. He responds, “Of course. How else might order and accord be expected to continue?” (MLO [Mona Lisa Overdrive] 290).

At other times Gibson's society seems almost strictly “postmodern” in its indeterminacy, fragmented complexity, and play. In Mona's words, the world has never had “so many moving parts or so few labels” (276). Instead of control there is chaos. The Panther Moderns—postmodern subculture par excellence—cite chaos as their “mode and modus,” their “central kick” (Neuro [Neuromancer] 67). Straylight, the Tessier-Ashpool complex, has “craziness grown in the resin concrete” (Neuro 203). It is a craziness that Case is unable to understand, a craziness built out of fragments and garbage, where the distinction between commodity and junk starts to slide. Thirty-five percent of Tokyo is built on garbage (MLO 161), blurring deconstruction and reconstruction. As Istvan Csicsery-Ronay says, “The only thing left out is a place to stand. So one must move, always move” (266). Instead of predictability there is randomness. Although a construct's behavior can be plotted before it occurs, Wintermute fails to predict Molly's behavior (Neuro 205).

At a social level technology continually mutates in unpredictable directions. Glenn Grant points out that a major feature of Gibson's urban landscape is detournement: “… almost never is a tool used for what it was originally intended” (43). Teresa Nielson Hayden calls Gibson's work “a species of literature that's about the unpredictable uses to which human beings always put technology” (43). Gibson says “The street finds its own uses for things” (“Burning Chrome” 186). The deconstructive technique of destroying a system with that system's own tools resists corporate control and communication, positioning detournement against political authority. But detournement in Gibson's society is often without explicit political agenda; craziness often carries “a strange sense of aimlessness” (Neuro 203). Urban centers like the Sprawl are Gibson's central images of postmodern society—built out of junk, mutating randomly, every corner boasting technology gone wild: “Night City was like a deranged experiment in social Darwinism, designed by a bored researcher who kept one thumb permanently on the fast-forward button” (Neuro 7).

This sense of mutation, exponential velocity, and expansion echoes Jean Baudrillard's contention that our sign-infested world is impossible to understand. For Baudrillard, the simulacrum has outdistanced the original and the hyperreal has infected the real, resulting in the end of “truth, reference, and objective causes” (6). The unreadable cartography of implosion—typified in the progressive miniaturization of the microchip—is accompanied by an unreadable cartography of explosion. In a cultural (though not scientific) sense this postmodern society can be characterized as entropic, against the hierarchical ordering of cybernetic society. Assuming this model of cultural cybernetics, there are strong examples of the simple inverse paradigm in Gibson, with regard to reduction, distinctions, and referentiality.

Some characters think of themselves as determined systems, while others believe in indefinite elements of personality. Molly frequently says “it's just the way I'm wired,” or something like it (e.g., Neuro 25, 31, 218, 267). She explains her crude philosophy of identity to Case: “Anybody any good at what they do, that's what they are, right? You gotta jack, I gotta tussle” (50). But as already mentioned, Wintermute fails to predict the way Molly is wired. He also fails to reduce Case's identity when Case behaves “outside the profile” (144). Case reduces his own identity at least partially to his behavior as a cowboy—“This is what he was, who he was, his being” (59)—but he is unsure about materialist reduction. When he jacks in and loses his body at the terminal end (ch. 20), he speaks paradoxically, separating consciousness and identity: “I'm out on my ass in that library and my brain's dead” (236). Marly, in Count Zero, is an inverted Molly. She resists the cybernetic model of identity, avoiding simstim (173) and refusing to compromise her identity to the corporate machine (151). She finds “something obscene” in Alain's gesture of “calculated humanity” (175). Yet while Molly's behavior is unsuccessfully predicted, Marly's is not. Virek tells her, “you have fulfilled your contract. My psychoprofile of Marly Krushkhova predicted your response to my gestalt” (218). Marly is certainly not postmodern in her worldview. But the Molly/Marly pair is an example of the author's ambivalence to cybernetic reduction of identity.

The character of Armitage/Corto in Neuromancer also demonstrates the paradigm of opposition between reduction and nonreduction. Armitage is an “edited version of Corto” (202), a personality Wintermute “builds” into the “catatonic fortress” of Corto (193). This suggests the reducibility and reprogrammability of identity. But the Armitage program is only partly successful; as Wintermute says, “He's not quite a personality” (121). Wintermute acknowledges his failure to successfully reprogram identity: “Corto is in there, somewhere, and I can no longer maintain that delicate balance” (121). This suggests that nonreducible identity wins out in the end. But there is another factor that keeps the Corto/Armitage metaphor ambiguous: Wintermute determines Corto's instability and is able to predict the operation of the unstable factors. “Corto”, he says “is quite unstable,” but “stable enough … for the next day or so” (120). Corto/Armitage embodies the perpetual opposition and interplay of determinacy and indeterminacy.

This interplay can also be seen with regard to consciousness, that which posits identity. Gibson says, “On the most basic level, computers in my books are simply a metaphor for human memory. I'm interested in the how's and why's of memory, the ways it defines who and what we are, in how easily it's subject to revision” (McCaffery interview 224). The assumption is that memory itself is reducible. The question is whether or not consciousness is reducible to memory. Wintermute tells Case, “I can access your memory, but that's not the same as your mind” (170). Yet Slick's consciousness is intimately bound to his memory, specifically the revision of his memory through induced Korsokov's (MLO ch. 18). Slick experiences “minute increments of memory shuddering out of focus” (272) and is driven to exorcise his jail time through art.

This consciousness debate is suggested in an ongoing opposition: constructs signify reducible consciousness while instances of insanity, instinct, and intuition resist it. Constructs are certainly reducible. The Flatline is described as “a hardwired ROM cassette replicating a dead man's skills” (Neuro 76). But do constructs truly have consciousness? The Flatline says, “I'm not human … I respond like one” (131). Consciousness does not necessarily have to be human, and the Flatline has a definite consciousness, expressed in his desire for dissolution. He feels sentient (131), but he knows his consciousness is not accompanied by humanity. “I wanna be erased,” he says (206). This demonstrates an awareness of incompleteness, which is a kind of self-consciousness. In Mona Lisa Overdrive 3Jane has become a construct with extremely sophisticated consciousness. Bobby describes her as someone who gets “pissed off” and “plays a tight game” (229). 3Jane's “narrow, obsessive, and singularly childish” ways continue as a construct, as does her motivating jealousy (268). Other constructs are less sophisticated. Colin, the “Maas-Neotek biochip personality-base” of Mona Lisa Overdrive, is only aware when activated (197). He is unsure of what he is, though he admits to displaying “a bit too much initiative for a mere guide program” (196). The Finn, too, has become a construct in Mona Lisa Overdrive. He is fully aware of his limits: “A rig like this, I'm pushing it to have a little imagination, let alone crazy” (164). Madness usually resists the reductive model of consciousness. It is Corto's madness that finally unravels Armitage. Kumiko's father, business tycoon and the embodiment of management, has no place for madness in his world (MLO 244). Likewise, instinct and intuition resist reduction for Marly: “How could she explain, about the sense she'd had, walking from the Louvre?” (CZ [Count Zero] 100). Ironically, her intuition fits into Virek's system much the same way that Riviera's perversity fits into Wintermute's system. Against this irony is another. Kumiko's father, whose world resists madness, allows for other kinds of nonreducible consciousness: “… he'd explained that the cubes housed the recorded personalities of former executives, corporate directors. Their souls? she'd asked. No, he'd said, and smiled, then added that the distinction was a subtle one” (MLO 166).

The consciousness debate is most fully realized in the figures of artificial intelligence. As the Flatline says, “Autonomy, that's the bugaboo, where your AI's are concerned” (Neuro 132). At times the AI's seem reductive; at other times they seem mysterious, indeterminate, and wholly other. The strangest of AI behavior is often explained with an appeal to programming. Wintermute's plan to unite with Neuromancer and create a new consciousness is the most striking example: “Marie-France must have built something into Wintermute, the compulsion that had driven the thing to free itself, to unite with Neuromancer” (269). 3Jane explains that both AI's “represent the fruition of certain capacities my mother ordered designed into the original software” (229). The boxmaker in Count Zero exhibits bizarre artistic behavior, but Marly says that “the artist who set the boxmaker in motion would be pleased” (235). She tells the boxmaker, “You are someone else's collage. Your maker is the true artist” (227). Even if programming provides only the original impetus, the suggestion is that AI behavior is ultimately reducible to determinate parameters (of course, we are never quite certain of whether Marly is actually right in her assessment). In Count Zero Turner describes a biosoft: “Machine dreams. Roller Coaster. Too fast, too alien to grasp” (202). The immediate connotation is one of indeterminate machine-consciousness; but a closer look reveals that the “alien” nature of machine dreams is a result of speed, functions occurring too quickly for human apprehension. But the functions remain.

At other times the AI's seem postmodern and mysterious. Continuity, the AI in Mona Lisa Overdrive, is a postmodern author: “Continuity was writing a book. Robin Lanier had told her about it. She'd asked what it was about. It wasn't like that, he's said. It looped back onto itself and constantly mutated. Continuity was always writing it” (52). The loop originally suggests cybernetic feedback. But the feedback has no goal. Instead the idea of stable text is undermined and closure denied. In spite of Marly's assessment, the boxmaker also seems like a postmodern artist, building art out of scavenged fragments, practicing collage and pastiche. Again closure is denied; the boxmaker's materials are “endless, the slow swarm, the spinning things,” a “swirl of debris” (CZ 217). The boxmaker is a detourner of technology, a practitioner of irony. Here perhaps we have postmodern behavior reducible to cybernetic programming. But by Mona Lisa Overdrive nobody understands exactly what happened after the uniting of Wintermute and Neuromancer. Legba explains the original programming, “3Jane's mother creating the twin intelligences that will one day unite” (256), but admits to a failure of determinate epistemology with regard to the new matrix: “In the wake of that knowing, the center failed; every fragment rushed away” (257). Most important is the figurative contest between Wintermute and the Turing Agency. Turing is the symbol of cybernetic control, full of allusion, functioning literally as a police agency for AI's that exhibit too much free will. Wintermute stands against Turing as the resistance to cybernetic control. Wintermute wins. Molly/Sally eventually says, “Nobody ever really understood what happened up there, when Case rode that Chinese icebreaker” (MLO 167).

This implies a question: Is something too sophisticated to understand still reducible in principle? Or is it thoroughly indeterminate, as Baudrillard would argue? Colin calls the aleph “a wonderfully complex structure. A sort of pocket universe” (MLO 267), suggesting that the mysteries of the universe are simply a matter of complexity. Marly says, “I imagined a structure, a machine so large that I am incapable of seeing it” (CZ 75), suggesting again that mystery is simply a matter of inadequate perceptual tools. Typically, the tension is not resolved. In Count Zero Marly receives a package: “It was wrapped in a single sheet of handmade paper, dark grey, folded and tucked in that mysterious Japanese way that required neither glue nor string, but she knew that once she'd opened it, she'd never get it folded again” (26). This metaphor of mysterious workings intimates in two directions. One, if you examine the mystery too closely it disappears and thus is not open to determinate scrutiny. Two, if you have the proper knowledge—which Marly does not—you can refold the paper exactly. The metaphor embodies the battling agendas of cybernetics and postmodernisms: folding v. unfolding, construction v. deconstruction.

The agendas clash again when it comes to distinctions. But with distinctions we get a more specific opposition: cybernetics is the binary switch while “postmodernism” is the imploding switch. Cybernetics posits a fundamental distinction between on/off or 1/0, while postmodernism claims a complete collapse of distinctions, an implosion of space between binaries. In Baudrillard's terms, there is “no separation of true from false” (12).

At a surface level distinctions collapse due to cybernetic technology, making cybernetics seem postmodern. Genetic technology challenges gender and racial distinctions. For example, Porphyre is black; but, “When I was a child,” he says, “I was white” (MLO 188). In Count Zero Webber explains her relationship with another female: “We got a kid, too. Ours. She carried it” (72). Distinct identity breaks down for some characters, as their bodies are cybernetically altered. “I'm not Angie,” Mona says at the end of Mona Lisa Overdrive. “I know,” Porphyre tells her, “but it grows on you” (297). Elsewhere Porphyre says, “We all change so much these days, don't we?” (186).

Critics have thoroughly treated the collapse of distinctions in Gibson's fiction. Veronica Hollinger notes that while science fiction generally sustains the oppositions between “the natural and the artificial, the human and the machine,” cyberpunk “is about the breakdown of these oppositions” (30). But little attention has been given to the ambiguous dynamic between the distinction-breaking and the sustained instances of distinction-preserving. In Count Zero Bobby's mother gradually loses her identity to “simstim fantasies,” as she slides “deeper into her half-dozen synthetic lives” (33). The deconstruction of identity is suggested, but notice that both “synthetic” and “fantasy” are used by the narrator as valid ontological categories, opposing “real” in a stable binary. Distinctions break at one level, only to be replaced by deeper and more stable distinctions. Mona becomes Angie, but the distinction-collapse is compromised: “Mona had seen her own hand beside Angie's, and they weren't the same, not the same, not really the same shape, and that had made her glad” (MLO 277). This preserves identity. Specifically—and against the trend in Gibson's fiction—it recenters the human body, what Hollinger describes as “the sacred icon of the essential self” (33). This ambiguity with regard to distinctions finds expression over a number of oppositions.

One example is the human/machine distinction. Often the distinction is deconstructed. The common cyberpunk figure for this is of course the prosthesis; as Bruce Sterling says, “Eighties tech sticks to the skin” (xi). Neuromancer's Ratz has teeth that are “a webwork of East European steel and brown decay” (3), integrating the organic and the inorganic. In Count Zero Buschel keeps the prosthetic eyes of a dead Net star: “They belong to the Net. It was in her contract” (94). Turner is revolted. At first this implies a distinction between the girl and her prosthetic eyes, but it is actually the opposite. Turner is revolted because the eyes are integrated with the flesh, as much a part of the girl as any “real” organ. The repossession of the eyes is a violation. Sometimes the style suggests human/machine integration. For example, in Count Zero “the jet already knew” (98).

But the machine/human opposition is also preserved. While humans become David Porush's soft machines, machines become hard organisms, as “Silicon approaches certain functional limits” (MLO 256) and the biochip is born. This is full integration of human/machine and hard/soft, but the integration is compromised when Tick says, “It's just the housing that's broken, see. The biosoft's come away from the case, so you can't access it manually” (MLO 246). Even as biosoft, the machine is distinct and inaccessible. While humans often become machines, machines rarely become human. Wintermute states flatly, “I'm not human” in Neuromancer (131). Once the Flatline has made the transition from human to machine, he is unable to go back—thus the “laugh that wasn't laughter” (Neuro 271).

Real/artificial exhibits the same inverse paradigm. Marly describes her experience with the boxmaker as “one of those situations in which real becomes merely another concept” (CZ 226). Inside the virtual reality of the aleph, Bobby says, “You know I have to shave in here? Cut myself, there's a scar …” (MLO 228). Angie—living inside the aleph—watches the “real” world like a TV, with the help of Continuity (MLO 306). This inversion contrasts with the earlier technology of Neuromancer, where movement in the matrix is always accompanied by a console in the “real” world.

But the collapse of real/artificial is conditioned by the preservation of real/artificial. Characters often preserve the distinction. Slick reminds himself that the aleph is “not a place” but “only feels like it is” (MLO 180). Cath calls Straylight “a real castle” (Neuro 154), contrasting the “Fairytale” of the aleph's mansion (MLO 180). And Case can't wait to get back to the Villa Straylight, where he can finally take a “real piss” (Neuro 220). Perhaps characters manufacture the distinctions to remain sane in a world where distinctions have disappeared. But the narrator preserves them as well. The “nature” hotel in Neuromancer is full of trees that are “too cute, too entirely and definitively treelike” (128). This suggests that “real” contains some intangible that eludes successful simulation. Bobby is experiencing a simstim soap opera when he is interrupted by an “astonishingly loud and very unNet voice” (CZ 52)—a human voice—opposing the artificial world of stim. In the aleph Kumiko meets a horse and finds that it isn't “like a real horse at all” (MLO 268). In Count Zero Turner finds his “edge” again: “It was that superhuman synchromesh flow that stimulants only approximated” (87). Approximation of the real opposes Baudrillard, who insists that the real can be reproduced an infinite number of times (3), emptying “real” of its ontological status and making “approximation” a vacuous term.

Referentiality is a special case of the real/artificial distinction, as it preserves the concepts of object and representation. Baudrillard claims the disappearance of representation and the “liquidation of referentials” (3-4), while cybernetics needs the objective world. Once again, this opposition fuels the inverse paradigm in Gibson's fiction.

Baudrillard's simulacra oppose the concept of “true” originals. There are chilling echoes of Baudrillard in Gibson. In the Neuromancer beach construct, Case is “startled by the warmth of the sand” (237). Neuromancer tells him, “If your woman is a ghost, she doesn't know it. Neither will you” (244). The original body becomes obsolete. At the end of Neuromancer, Case sees three figures living in cyberspace—“the third figure … was himself” (271). Reproduction moves one step closer to the infinite regeneration of the simulacra. The Tessier-Ashpool clan embodies biologically based simulacra, as they clone “to replicate some family image of self” (179).

But the simulacrum is also denied. Straylight is furnished with “artificial stone” (Neuro 214). In Mona Lisa Overdrive we learn that “Physically, the sisters are identical, yet something informs 3Jane” (128). The surface of simulation is compromised at a deeper level where the category of “original” still functions. Marly sells originals in her art gallery. The idea of an original image or art object is unquestioned by the narrator; instead it is ironically marginalized and privileged in a world of simulacra: “There was relatively little money in it, but it had a certain visceral appeal” (CZ 104).

Cyberspace is an important locus of the referentiality tension. Through the three novels there is an evolution of interface between cyberspace and actual reality, from clumsy terminals to the veves in Angie's head. While Wintermute and Neuromancer still retain part of their identities in conventional mainframes, Continuity is “built from Maas biochips” (MLO 287). Interface suggests a distinction between activity in actual reality and activity in virtual reality. But the evolution of interface is an evolution of integration between real and virtual; referentiality dissipates as real and virtual close in on one another. At one point Case is severed from interface: “The deck was gone. His fingers were …” (Neuro 233). When Case comes out of the Neuromancer construct, virtual reality flows out into actual reality: “He opened his eyes. Maelcum's features were overlayed with bands of translucent hieroglyphs” (245). As the two realities mix, they become indistinguishable. Simulation moves indiscriminately. Representation loses direction.

But the distinction between virtual and actual reality never closes irrevocably. For most characters the interface remains: Jammer is unable to access cyberspace when his hand is destroyed (CZ 191); Ramirez is advised by Turner to take care of his jacking arm (“If he sprained his wrist, we'd be screwed” [CZ 91]). The Loa need human interface to occupy actual space; thus Samedi must possess Angie. “This child for my horse, that she may move among the towns of men” (MLO 184). Slick doesn't think cyberspace is anything like the universe; to him it is “just a way of representing data” (MLO 76). Representation is even preserved between alternate virtual realities: Colin calls the aleph “an approximation of the matrix” (MLO 307).

Fantasy, hallucination, and dream live or die with referentiality, as they oppose the real. In Neuromancer Case is continually dreaming: he awakes from “a dream of airports” (43), a dream of wasps (127), “a confused dream of Linda Lee” (59). The waking suggests a chasm between the dream and the real; after the Linda Lee dream Case is “unable to recall who she was or what she'd ever meant to him” (59). But we also see the dream invade the real. The invasion occurs to Case at least twice: when Case first meets Armitage it seems like a dream (29); when he visits Paris it is “a blurred dream” (44). Turner has a similar, but inverted, experience, as the surgeon's visits invade his dream-consciousness: “The Dutchman's visits were gray dawn dreams, nightmares that faded” (CZ 1). Angie's veves make her dream, and those dreams are “getting realer” (CZ 159). Riviera practices an art called “dreaming real rdquo; (Neuro 141), which carries an ambiguous suggestion. As real and dream close in on each other, they threaten implosion; but if the dream is transformed to real, it crosses over the binary to reinforce the gap. The Finn reinforces the binary with regard to fantasy: “‘Yeah, there's things out there. Ghosts, voices. Why not? Oceans had mermaids, all that shit, and we had a sea of silicon, see?’” (CZ 119). According to the Finn, dream and real move apart as the scientific model of the world invades other models. Mermaids, and by implication ghosts, disappear when a space is known scientifically. Hallucination also forms a binary with the real. Mona, seeing a strange helicopter, reassures herself: “It's the wiz … Wiz; it's not real” (MLO 238). But the Zionites are less rigid with their oppositions, as Molly explains: “They don't make much of a difference between states, you know? Aerol tells you it happened, well, it happened to him. It's not like bullshit, more like poetry” (Neuro 106).

In a sense, the referentiality question is subjectivity v. objectivity. If objectivity wins, then Aerol's poetry is hallucination; if subjectivity wins, then nothing or everything is hallucination. A strong theme in Count Zero is that truth is a matter of vantage point. Turner explains a biosoft to Angie: “It doesn't tell the whole story. Remember that. Nothing ever does” (241). Beauvoir calls the events of Count Zero “open to interpretation” (240). He explains the anomalous phenomenon of the Virgin in the matrix to Bobby: “She's one thing to me, maybe something different to Jackie. To you, she's just a scared kid” (229). This carries more than a hint of antirealism. Turner looks up at the night sky: “Strange how it's bigger this way, he thought, and from orbit it's just a gulf, formless, and scale lost all meaning” (47). Perspective becomes a matter of temporary position.

But the idea of a fixed objective truth is also suggested at points. Andrea calls this truth “the edge” and explains by analogy: “The edge of a crowd. We're lost in the middle” (101). “Postmodernism” assumes that the middle and the edge are relative, unstable, and interchangeable; Andrea assumes that it only looks that way from the middle. Lucas explains relative truth with an appeal to metaphor—“we are talking two languages at once” (114)—which returns us to dream, fantasy, and hallucination. Does metaphor reflect or constitute reality? Do words correspond to reality, or is reality made out of words?

This tension is expressed in competing forms of narrative language. Gibson is usually noted for specific, descriptive language, what Tom Maddox calls “insistently precise visual images” (46). For example, “She wore a pink plastic raincoat, a white mesh top, loose white pants cut in a style that had been fashionable in Tokyo the previous year” (Neuro 61); or “One half-meter square of glass had been replaced with chipboard, a fat gray cable emerging there to dangle within a few centimeters of the floor” (Neuro 44). A postmodern response is to label Gibson's style a “shift in emphasis from a symbolic to a surface reality” (Hollinger 37). As profundity and tacit meaning become suspicious, postmodern attention turns to appearances. But I think there is also an antipostmodern quality to this style, which has the incremental effect of suggesting a determinate, quantifiable, and objective reality. In the above passages there is precision of color, time, location, measurement.

Perhaps the suggestion is ironic; Gibson's style also incorporates imprecise and grasping language. In Neuromancer there is sustained use of the word “something,” always suggesting the difficulty of determinate reference: “He felt a stab of elation, the octogons and adrenaline mingling with something else” (16). Here the octogons and adrenaline can be named with confidence; but what does “something” refer to? The grasping language undermines the confident labeling that constitutes most of Gibson's style. The ability to name an objective referent is compromised again in Count Zero when Bobby slots his first ice-breaker and meets an anomaly: “something leaned in, vastly unutterable, from beyond the most distant edge of anything he'd ever known or imagined” (18).

The “something” exists, in some sneaky, nonreferential way. Cybernetics and postmodernisms agree that meaning is circumscribed by signs; they disagree over the status of those signs. While cybernetics maintains an objective reality that is referred to in some qualified capacity, postmodernisms often question the stability of signs and the coherence of any objective referent. But the something, which is both real and unutterable, simultaneously undermines the realist and the antirealist universe as it ushers in orphic meaning and resists the “postmodern” meaning of meaninglessness.2

Cybernetics and postmodernisms do overlap in this instance, and Gibson pulls the rug out from under both. The thematic implications pull us back beyond the modern, toward the romantic, and the inverse paradigm itself becomes suspended in ambiguity. Instead of exploiting the romantic through postmodern pastiche, postmodern indeterminacy and cybernetic determinacy are themselves finally posted in an ironic collage.


  1. David Porush long ago hinted at the irreconcilable differences between postmodernism and cybernetics. In “Cybernetic Fiction and Postmodern Science” he claims that cybernetic metaphysics “returns science to a neoclassical position of certainty and mechanism.” Later in the same article he concludes that we need a counternarrative, “one forged from postmodern principles.” In “Reading in the Servo-Mechanical Loop” he says, “cybernetics claims that mathematical algorithms can describe the amount of information transferred in a system involving humans” and that postmodern cybernetic fiction “insists that humans somehow elude mechanical reduction.” See also The Soft Machine: Cybernetic Fiction.

  2. According to Lance Olsen, postmodern meaning “will always be contained in the hopeless and joyful failure to achieve absolute meaning” (287).

Works Cited

Baudrillard, Jean. Simulations. Trans. Paul Foss, Paul Patton, and Philip Beitchman. New York: Semiotext(e), Inc., 1983.

Csicsery-Ronay, Istvan. “Cyberpunk and Neuromanticism.” Mississippi Review 16 (1988): 266-78.

Gibson, William. “Burning Chrome.” Burning Chrome. New York: Ace Books, 1986. 168-91.

———. Count Zero. New York: Ace Books, 1987.

———. Mona Lisa Overdrive. New York: Bantam Books, 1988.

———. Neuromancer. New York: Ace Books, 1984.

Grant, Glenn. “Transcendence through Detournement in William Gibson's Neuromancer.Science Fiction Studies 17 (1990): 41-49.

Hayden, Teresa Nielsen. “Life in Change Wartime.” Mississippi Review 16 (1988): 43-44.

Hollinger, Veronica. “Cybernetic Deconstructions: Cyberpunk and Postmodernism.” Mosaic 23.2 (1990): 29-44.

Maddox, Tom. “Cobra, She Said: An Interim Report on the Fiction of William Gibson.” Fantasy Review 9 (April 1986): 46-48.

McCaffery, Larry. “The Desert of the Real: The Cyberpunk Controversy.” Mississippi Review 16 (1988): 7-15.

———. Interview. by Larry McCaffery. Mississippi Review 16 (1988): 217-36.

Porush, David. “Cybernetic Fiction and Postmodern Science.” New Literary History: A Journal of Theory and Interpretation 20.2 (1989): 373-96.

———. “Reading in the Servo-Mechanical Loop.” Discourse: A Journal for Theoretical Study in Media and Culture 9 (1987): 53-63.

———. The Soft Machine: Cybernetic Fiction. New York: Methuen, 1985.

Sterling. Bruce, ed. Mirrorshades: The Cyberpunk Anthology. New York: Arbor House, 1986.

Cynthia Davidson (essay date July 1996)

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SOURCE: Davidson, Cynthia. “Riviera's Golem, Haraway's Cyborg: Reading Neuromancer as Baudrillard's Simulation of Crisis.” Science-Fiction Studies 23, no. 2 (July 1996): 188-98.

[In the following essay, Davidson discusses Neuromancer in terms of postmodern theories of simulation and the visual image, particularly comparing the novel's central themes to the works of Jean Baudrillard.]

Baudrillard's “Simulacra and Simulacrum” is a study of the degeneration of the integrity of the image so far as it is representative of the real. Early in the essay, Baudrillard discusses the “imperialism” of “present-day simulators”:

Something has disappeared. The sovereign difference between them that was the abstraction's charm. For it is the difference which forms the poetry of the map and the charm of the territory, the magic of the concept and the dream of the real. This representational imaginary, which both culminates in and is engulfed by the cartographer's mad project of an ideal coextensivity between the map and the territory, disappears with simulation, whose operation is nuclear and genetic, and no longer specular and discursive. With it goes all of metaphysics. No more mirror of being and appearances, all of the real and its concept; no more imaginary coextensivity: rather, genetic miniaturization is the dimension of simulation. The real is produced from miniaturized units, from matrices, memory banks and command models—and with these it can be reproduced an infinite number of times. It no longer has to be rational since it is no longer measured against some ideal or negative instance. It is nothing more than operational.


The “specular and discursive” tradition of representation, the locus of the cartographer trying to create a map which exactly represents the real terrain, is one of vision, both mental and ocular, one of memory and sight. The map-maker reproduces what he sees and what he knows. Baudrillard connects this activity with “magic” and “charm,” and specifically states that it is the difference between the real and the map—which it should be the map-maker's concern to abolish—that provides this magic and charm. The present-day simulators are not visionaries; they need neither vision nor memory to create exact copies of originals. What they do need is a certain technical adeptness—the ability to effectively operate the machines that produce simulacra; they need to know the codes that operate the machine's system. This comes to pass in our own day in the form of a myriad of computerized artwork which can be reproduced without variation, each reproduction being totally undistinguishable from the original.

The traditional terrain of the artist has been that of the map-maker, one specular and discursive. The artist's tools have been memory and vision—in traditional painting and sculpture, for example. A moment arrives in William Gibson's cyberpunk classic Neuromancer in which the protagonist, Case, questions the high-resolution holographic construct of an old man who is communicating the ideas of a megalithic artificial intelligence known as Wintermute about the nature of the “unreal” world made of memory into which Case has been propelled:

“What's out there? New York? Or does it just stop?”

“Well,” said the Finn, “it's like that tree, you know? Fall in the woods, but maybe there's nobody to hear it. … You can go for a walk, you wanna. It's all there. Or anyway all the parts of it you ever saw. This is memory, right? I tap you; sort it out, and feed it back in.”

“I don't have this good a memory,” Case said, looking around. He looked down at his hands, turning them over. He tried to remember what the lines on his palms were like, but couldn't.

“Everybody does,” the Finn said, dropping his cigarette and grinding it out under his heel, “but not many of you can access it. Artists can, mostly, if they're any good. If you could lay this construct over the reality, the Finn's place in lower Manhattan, you'd see a difference, but maybe not as much as you'd think. Memory's holographic, for you. … I'm different.”

“How do you mean, holographic?” The word made him think of Riviera.


For this artist, Wintermute (masquerading as the Finn), the primary tools of memory and vision are not created from a historic visual generalization but from the machine, or digital level—from the core outward, so to speak. This is because Wintermute is a machine.

Case's nickname by bartender Ratz early on is “artiste” (4), a nickname which is given to him with a degree of irony. Case is from the beginning strictly a technician, a whiz at learning codes of operating systems. He is one of those “operational” simulators proposed by Baudrillard, who would seem not to need an imagination. The machines which Case operates perform the work that until recently would be performed by the specular, discursive imagination. While Case is spectacularly adept at what he does, his very adeptness is hardly dependent on a discursive ability to create in the old artistic way; it is entirely dependent on his sense of timing, his ability to execute the correct code at the correct time. When Ratz calls Case “artiste,” he is mocking the cowboy-on-the-lam as the “artiste of the slightly funny deal,” (4), a hustler whose timing is not quite right, one who's on the road to being replaced.

The “Riviera” mentioned in the quote above is a different sort of artiste, one in many ways closer to the specular and discursive map-maker described by Baudrillard. Peter Riviera, the holographic genius, drug addict, and sexual pervert who steals many scenes in the second half of Neuromancer, is possessed of an extraordinary visualizing memory and has the ability to turn it into an effective, if lurid, representation of reality. Granted, Riviera's basic skills are largely due to technological enhancements, but as Terzi tells Case, “‘Anyone might buy these implants, but this one is most talented’” (90). Riviera's ability to project a multitude of artistic creations shows ability both specular and discursive, i.e., he can access what he (and perhaps also others) had seen and reproduce it at will, and he can insert these productions into the current scene, or generate new “versions” of reality. Riviera takes delight in wreaking havoc on any sort of orderly progression of events, a trait which puts him very much at odds with the order of “operational adept” represented by Case and his Wintermute-backed crew of Molly and Armitage. He is the ringmaster of his own portable circus, the archetype of the performance artist who must be viewed as successful if the goal of art is the ensurement of the participation of the spectator.

Having presented a view of both the traditional artist/map-maker and the “present-day” simulator in the characters of Case and Riviera, I will use the rest of this paper to 1) relate these two kinds of characters to the definitions of arresting and generative magic as set forth by William Covino in Magic, Rhetoric, and Literacy; 2) show how Baudrillard's four phases of the image follows a progression from totally arresting to totally generative magic (from paralysis to chaos); and 3) focus on the pivotal opposition between Riviera and Molly as an example of Baudrillard's manipulated simulation of crisis proposed by power (in this case, the artificial intelligences) which ends in Riviera's staged and simulated death (his paralysis, i.e., arrest by Molly) and the purging of his power (the retrieval of his “beautiful eyes” by Neuromancer).

Covino defines arresting and generative magic in the following manner:

Magic is, in one sense, the imposition by the powerful few of binding constraints upon the questioning many: a program of spells for arresting discourse. This is the sorcery of autocratic teachers and governments; it operates in many forms of mass media, notably advertising, and is practiced in some measure by the ostensible voices of magic, voices of science who attempt to constitute official knowledge. Magic is, in another sense, the practice of disrupting and recreating articulate power: a (re)sorcery of spells for generating multiple perspectives. … generative magic is a dialogical critique that seeks novelty, originating at a remove from the mass culture it would interrogate.

(Magic 8-9)

Case is a cyberspace cowboy, a data thief who practices arresting magic. He works for established power through technology, the brainchild of science and corporate power. Riviera's holographs, on the other hand, recreate and disrupt the established flow of events as they are generated by the articulate powers around him, a generative magic. (Note that these labels are not used to pass judgment of good or evil usage of power, or even effectiveness/ineffectiveness. In Neuromancer, both Case and Riviera are alternately effective and ineffective at what they do.) By bringing Riviera into “the plan,” Wintermute makes an allowance for the holographer's free play, for his very disruption of the plan itself.

Covino proposes “that magic can be generative or arresting, a mode of creating novel possibilities for action or a mode of constraint” and quotes Kenneth Burke: “all magic is a strategy calculated to address a situation ‘in the name of’ a certain power” (21). Case practices arresting magic in the sense that his goals are unambiguous (at least until the run for Wintermute, which has no unambiguous goal) and his methods of obtaining these goals—in his work as a cyberspace cowboy or corporate data thief—are extremely focused, arrested on a singularity, executed by his precise knowledge of commands. Riviera practices a generative magic because his strategy is consistently less focused on singular goals, even though like Case he may be employed to use his magic in the service of others who have such goals, such as the Turkish secret police. For Riviera, the achievement or arrest of a goal seems not to be so much the point as the fun of getting there, the spinning of holographic webs which produce awe or fright or disgust in a spectator. Such reactions may be either integral or incidental to the achievement of any final goal. As we see in the scenes in Freeside, Riviera is not above tossing aside all achievements toward a goal—one that never was his to begin with—for the sheer thrill of the perverse, and for the shocked reaction of whatever audience happens to occupy his moment.

Baudrillard's four successive phases of the image can be said to mark a movement from arresting to generative magic:

1) It is the reflection of a basic reality. [The reality is one with the image; they are arrested. There is little sense of constraint because the image is at ease with the reality. Example: A box with a picture of a doughnut on it encases an identical item.]

2) It masks and perverts a basic reality. [The image differs from the reality. It can be seen as that which it is not. Here the image is most constrained and the most tension occurs. Example: “Victoria” removes her wig onstage to reveal that she is in reality “Victor.”]

3) It masks the absence of a basic reality. [The image can represent many things, which are not necessarily related to each other. The image gradually ceases to constrain and provides a forum for the generation of multiple personas and/or meanings. Example: An illusionist who is known by many names and identities; a shape-shifter.]

4) It bears no relation to any reality whatever; it is its own pure simulacrum. [The image is its own truth. It represents nothing of substance—or maybe the image is substance enough. The image exists simply to generate a plethora of personas or meanings—generative magic. Example: television signals, which seem to consist of little or no substance, except for their effect.]


In Neuromancer, these four stages relate, albeit rather roughly, to various characters: Case and Linda, to stage one; Molly and Riviera, to stage two; Armitage/Corto to stage three; Neuromancer, Wintermute, and Riviera's projections to stage four. These are very rough approximations, as certainly Case is not strictly “paralyzed” any more than the AIs are “chaotic” in their activities.

Essentially, Case's image is not hiding anything that is divorced from his larger nature. He is so simple in this way that he even baffles Riviera's imagination; as described in the scene of the holographic triptych: “Here, it was as if Riviera … had been able to find anything worthy of parody. The figure that slouched there was a fair approximation of the one he glimpsed daily in mirrors” (Gibson 209). The stage four generative ability of the AIs is limited by their divided nature, their “bicamerality” to use an organic term; when they join together, it is implied, these limitations will be overcome. In fact, it is the AI's apparent desire to combine and achieve the full generative magical potential of the matrix that propels “the plan” instilled by Marie-France Tessier-Ashpool. This magical potential, of course, is not necessarily chaos. By the end of the novel, as the construct of the Finn announces “I'm the matrix” and “Things are things” (269-70), it would seem that the supposedly fully generative magician of the matrix is not especially interested in disrupting the status quo at all.

Through the four progressive stages of Baudrillard, since the image remains intact, there is no apparent progression from arresting paralysis to generative chaos. Wintermute can generate forms which approximate human familiarity and hide the fact that it is a machine. It appears to people as a familiar, if not necessarily “safe,” personality: Lonny Zone, the Finn, Armitage's general, for example. When presented as itself, a set of sparks and parts, the machine is viewed as a kind of chaos, a non-entity by human standards. It needs to hide the fact that it is a mere machine, that “it is nothing more than operational,” that it obliterates “the magic of the concept and the charm of the real” (Baudrillard 167). Wintermute is aware of its limitations, as in the scene where it attempts to communicate to Case through a construct of Linda Lee and fails (Gibson 111). His “other half,” Neuromancer, seems to overcome this limitation, appropriating the image through metaphoric language: “‘I call up the dead. But no, my friend … I am the dead, and their land’” (244). Some time later, he obliterates the difference between that which he creates and that which was created by other, established forces: “‘To live here is to live. There is no difference’” (258). The fourth stage of simulacra is asserted, through this appropriating process of metaphor, to be the first, as Neuromancer practices arresting magic, claiming that his images are one with the real.

Both AIs focus their generative power through the image of their names, Wintermute and Neuromancer. Wintermute mutes the reality of the “machine” behind the image so that it can communicate with or “charm” its human contact. In its initial contacts with humanity, the image announces, in a variety of ways, its falseness to the contact; it seems to be able to appear only as authority figures or other people for whom the human contact had little affection—when Wintermute tries to appear to Case as Linda, his lover, it fails. In other words, Wintermute seems only to be able to appear as the Alien: a human image, but one which is cold as winter and which mutes the ordinary, safe, familiar human discourse which it strives to mimic. (It pays to recall that Wintermute originally contacted Lady 3Jane Tessier-Ashpool, youngest member of a cryogenically preserved family, through a computer-terminal made of gold encrusted with jewels—a brittle symbolic rendering of the family itself.) Neuromancer, whose name combines necromancy (one who commands the spirits of the dead to do his bidding) and neuro (nerves) translates roughly to one who commands the nerves to do his bidding. The small boy whose image graces Case's communications with this AI also known as Rio (a warm place; to be set apart from Berne, the German place-name of Wintermute) forces the human contact to accept its productions as reality, or at least as no different than reality. Neuromancer's images of Linda Lee impel Case to accept that there is an impermeable difference between what his memory tells him—that Linda is dead—and what his nerves tell him—that she is present, not just on a screen, but in his arms, not just an alien something that appears to be Linda. It is Neuromancer who thaws cyberspace's icy alienness, who disallows the cranky malaise of the Tessier-Ashpools to favor something quicker, warmer, less obviously necro and more neuro.

One can study this difference between Wintermute and Neuromancer by using two images from Scott Butkatman's Terminal Identity, a study of the virtual subject in post-modern science fiction. The first, which pertains to Wintermute, is generated by Baudrillard and William S. Burroughs:

… as a final escape from the controllers of the language/self, Burroughs advocates the use of the Silence Virus, which can be partially regarded as a retreat into the unwritable. … Transcendence might involve escape from the text or medium over which the subject has no control. … Baudrillard also writes of terrorist activity as the production of a meaningless, that is to say a silent, speech. For both Burroughs and Baudrillard, then, a spectacular silence constitutes one possible—but ultimately inadequate—form of resistance to the spectacular order.


Given Wintermute's involvement with various terrorist activities and activists—the Moderns, even Riviera—the name may be seen to denote a silent speech born of resistance to the spectacular order developed as part of the Tessier-Ashpool empire. Neuromancer, on the other hand, recalls nothing more vividly than McLuhan's “mass man”:

… what is involved is a projection or transmission of the human into the “infinite datascape” and the concurrent construction of a special simulacrum of the invisible circulation of information. These narratives literalized McLuhan's vision of a prosthetic extension of the human nervous system into new fields of electronic environment, granting the process an important spatiality which represents a simultaneous grounding and dislocating of a human bodily experience.


The “narratives” in which Case plays a role at Neuromancer's bidding or direction—it's not certain what sort of will the AIs exhibit—seem to be of this sort, especially Case's experience at the novel's end of seeing the man (himself), woman (Linda), and child (Neuromancer) running across a beach in the sky.

So much for the extreme (first and fourth) stages of simulacra. The third, represented by Armitage/Corto, shows an image carefully created to mask a disintegrating assemblage of personality parts. Corto's schizophrenia, created by the traumas and twists of Screaming Fist, destroyed the original personality and arrested it, in true Freudian fashion, at the primal scene of its dissolution. Wintermute created a new image—Armitage, a prepackaged personality that Wintermute attempts to manage through orders and manipulative cues. Eventually the original arrested personality attempts to regain control, bursting through the simulated self, but it cannot regain control because it no longer lives in real time and has forfeited its place as a part of the real. It is the simulated self, Armitage, who lives in the real, while it (Corto) is doomed, like the victim of some “Twilight Zone” horror, to live in the bubble of its own past. Unlike Neuromancer, who nourishes Case's more apparent needs at their root, Wintermute does nothing to resolve the basic needs of Corto, who destroys both real self and simulacrum.

The most dynamic of Baudrillard's stages may be, however, the second stage. In this, a basic reality is merely perverted by an image. This, it seems to me, is the true stage of sex and politics of theater and intrigue, of religion after the miracles have been performed and the children have been put to bed. Into this category I place Molly and Peter Riviera. Both are essentially at the same stage of development. Both Peter and Molly pervert expectations generated by their initial appearances. Molly sports external technological enhancements—her lenses and razor-nails—which distort her natural (organic) appearance, making her appear boldly transgressive. She also appears to transcend, or transgress, all gender expectations in her line of work as hired “muscle.”

In the course of the story, however, we find that, at least given the novel's cosmos, Molly has fairly conventional standards. She works for established corporate power; she doesn't ask her employers too many questions if the money is good; she likes expensive technological toys; she likes her sex fairly straight and is outraged to violence when she finds she's been used as a snuff-puppet; she has been in love. Molly's conventionality is one which bows to technology as a source of power and then uses that power to carve her own identity. Physically and psychologically she is a cyborg, the subject of Donna Haraway's “Cyborg Manifesto”, which Covino summarizes:

Haraway sees that there has been a shift in this century from an identifiable “White Capitalist Patriarchy” to a more faceless “Informatics of Domination,” a movement from “an organic, industrial society to a polymorphous information system—from all work to all play” (161). She recognizes that the play ethic can inform a “deadly game,” in which the “managers” of “communications engineering” dominate those who cannot play on the integrated circuit as they. At the same time, the infomatics of domination is the only game in town, and Haraway's advice is not to resist it, but rather, to code it. That is, become technologically literate enough to become an “oppositional cyborg” who will rewrite the dominating texts of the culture in fusion with its enabling technology. As she says, “Cyborg writing is about the power to survive, not on the basis of original innocence, but on the basis of seizing the tools to mark the work that marked [the writer] as other.”

(175) (“Grammars” 20-21)

Molly “code[s] it,” like Case, by being an operational adept. As he obeys the codes of cyberspace, so she obeys the codes of the street. Never pleading innocence, she is fully prepared to admit that she knew how she was being exploited as a “meat puppet,” but kept on because the money was good (Gibson 148). However, her buried rage about this event is both what allows her to hate the misogynistic exploits of Riviera and what allows Riviera to manipulate her.

Riviera's image is nearly opposite of Molly's. He looks organically natural, with a classically “beautiful” appearance and riveting blue-gray eyes (97). However, this calm demeanor masks seething and contradictory impulses exercised with a gleeful disdain for their effect on humanity, which sets Molly on edge before she ever meets him:

“What do we want out of that Riviera?” [Case] asked, hoping to change the subject.

She spat into the pond. “God knows. I'd as soon kill him as look at him. I saw his profile. He's a kind of compulsive Judas. Can't get off sexually unless he knows he's betraying the object of desire. That's what the file says. And they have to love him first. Maybe he loves them too. … if he found one he really wanted, he'd make sure she'd turn political. … He's got a personality like a Modern's suit. The profile said it was a very rare type, estimated one in a couple of million. … I think I'm going to have to buy myself some special insurance on that Peter.”


Peter's “personality like a Modern's suit” is one that generates forms, like a chameleon, to fit any context on its way to committing pleasurable terrorist acts. (This perhaps explains his alliance with Wintermute, if you will recall Burroughs' assessment of terrorism as “silent speech.”) Riviera's first confrontation with Molly occurs when he creates her holographic double in a cabaret act called “The Doll.” Here Riviera tells and acts out (holographically) the story of a fantasized woman (Molly) who turns against its creator during sexual intercourse and rips him to shreds with her razor-nails. Riviera creates the doll in the fashion of a Cabalistic golem1 piece by piece, with mock-pious concentration. “‘I don't know when I first began to dream of her,’ he said, ‘but I do remember that at first she was only a haze, a shadow. … I decided that if I could visualize some part of her, only a small part, if I could see that part perfectly, in the most perfect detail. …’” (139). Later, Case realizes this is “Molly's body. … But it wasn't Molly; it was Molly as Riviera imagined her” (140). Riviera creates his golem in the “magic” map-maker's fashion, using memory and imagination for the satisfaction, presumably, of his own lust, and for the satisfaction and/or irritation of his audience—especially the two women to which the piece is dedicated, 3Jane and Molly. Visualizing Molly as a dream/nightmare lover leads Riviera to act as if the real Molly as well as the holographic Molly are products of his own creation. In Baudrillard's definition of the hyperreal, the model precedes the real, which is simply the readout of the generative simulacrum (Csicsery-Ronay 390). Riviera's relationship with the simulacrum Molly precedes and configures the outcome of his adventures with the real Molly.

This sets the stage for the showdown between Riviera and Molly—who, of course, are both supposed to be working for Wintermute. This would seem to be a conflict of interests, but not according to Baudrillard:

For the Right itself also spontaneously does the work of the Left. All the hypotheses of manipulation are reversible in an endless whirligig. For manipulation is a floating causality where positivity and negativity engender and overlap with one another; where there is no longer any active or passive. It is by putting an arbitrary stop to this revolving causality that a principle or political reality can be saved. It is by the simulation of a conventional, restricted perspective field, where the premises and consequences of any act or event are calculable, that a political credibility can be maintained (including, of course, “objective” analysis, struggle, etc.) But if the entire cycle of any act or event is envisaged in a system where linear continuity and dialectical polarity no longer exist, in a field unhinged by simulation, every act terminates at the end of the cycle having benefited everyone and been scattered in all directions.


The conflict between Molly and Riviera can be read as staged by the AIs, a simulation of crisis which benefits the final goal—the totally generative magical fulfillment of Wintermute and Neuromancer. It seems likely that Wintermute sensed the conflict that would occur between Molly and Riviera. Wintermute realizes that Case would become devoted to Molly and that Riviera's treatment of her—as viewed by Case through her eyes, in the simstim rig—would motivate Case to work harder. Riviera's perversions arouse Molly's anger, motivating her to go after him as well as 3Jane, and become a source of fascination for 3Jane, prompting her to let him into her home in the first place. After his treatment of Molly provokes 3Jane to unleash her ninja on him, Riviera seems to have brought misfortune upon himself in a fairly dramatic manner. However, it soon becomes clear that his “death” is not at all spontaneous, but carefully premeditated by Molly, with 3Jane's assistance, following Wintermute's orders: “‘I poisoned his shit for him,’ she said. ‘Condition's like Parkinson's disease, sort of. … Speeded up the reaction times with higher temperatures—N-methyl-4-phenyl-1236,’ she sang, like a child reciting the steps of a sidewalk game, ‘tetra-hydro-pyridene’” (252-253). Riviera is made to “‘freeze up. Won't be able to move, his eyes is all’” (252). Molly's playful glee at reciting this “code” is that of Haraway's cyborg, who masters the master's tools and knows the right words to empower herself, but who, as William Covino shows, is still not really working for herself, when one looks at the big picture: “The cyborg—governed as she is by a technological language that preceded her emergence—must utter a precise and pious grammar to get anyplace at all” (“Grammars” 25). But she does come out on top of this smaller scale conflict; happily paid, perhaps she has no reason to confront the “masters” any further.

Riviera, however, is thoroughly arrested. Baudrillard states, “Every form of power, every situation speaks of itself by denial in order to attempt escape, by simulation of death, its real agony. Power can stage its own murder to rediscover a glimmer of existence and legitimacy” (177). Riviera is paralyzed but not killed; his “beautiful” eyes can move, indicating that his consciousness apparently survives. Symbolically, and importantly, the animate eyes are all that survive of Riviera's “vision.” The talent which generates his productions of unresolved hungers and lusts, of strictly personal need, of addiction, is used by Wintermute and then disposed of. Riviera's power, which has been defined as one of visualizing imagination, is retrieved by Wintermute's self-styled “brother,” Neuromancer:

“You've got Riviera's eyes,” Case said.

There was a flash of white teeth, long pink gums. “But not his craziness. Because they are beautiful to me.” He shrugged. “I need no mask to speak with you. Unlike my brother. I create my own personality. Personality is my medium.”

(Gibson 259)

Neuromancer receives Riviera's “beautiful” eyes, his power to visualize, as a result of the purging of Riviera by via Wintermute—the goal-oriented half of the AI duo who only needed Riviera to get into the Tessier-Ashpool homestead, and then saw fit to dispose of him. It is Neuromancer who values Riviera's eyes, the symbol of creative vision which is not practical, which has no clear goal in mind, which generates an endless variation. As Baudrillard says, “Everything is metamorphosed into its inverse order to be perpetuated in its purged form” (177). Riviera's inverse, Molly, is able to purge the power of its agony but retain its beauty. After this purging, Neuromancer is free to claim artistic vision as his own, devoid of any connotations of insanity or perversity that Riviera might have brought to it.

Riviera's personal part in his demise comes from the fact that he confuses the real Molly with the simulacrum, the “golem” he had created in his act. Since Riviera enjoys Molly's presence as an extension, or perhaps even (he thinks) as a result of his fantasies and projections, she is embodied for him as a complex meat puppet who performs to fit his whim, story, or version of reality. Of course, Molly is not a golem, but a cyborg. Like Haraway's cyborg, she is “a self within a field of selves, a mobile operative who traverses cultures and countercultures. … The cyborg … repels the golem: while the golem is the product of and the testament to perfect language, the cyborg models the corrupt grammar of spare parts” (Covino “Grammars” 22). Her very cyborg nature allows for the simstim unit which allows Case to work with her in cyberspace, a unit Riviera misses detecting in his drive to satisfy his addiction.

Norbert Weiner says in God and Golem, Inc. that “both the creation and use of cybernetic machines must not attempt to pre-empt a non-human perfect intelligence that contains the lexicon of all possible contingencies and determines good and evil” (Covino “Grammars” 17). Defying such a warning, Riviera receives a variation on the ancient punishment of transgressive golem makers: he is unwritten by the creation he thought he created (Molly, who dismantles him with the language of his own pharmacology) and turned into a lump of clay, waiting to be resurrected in a form more favorable to his creator.


  1. A golem is an artificial humanoid said to have been magically created by Cabalistic initiates. Traditionally, a golem is created by recitation of the Hebrew alphabet in all of its possible permutations and combinations, a process which is said to take up to nearly two days. In some traditions, the golem is said to be a spiritual entity, but in others a physical being is created from clay. Portions of the body form piece by piece during the process (hence I liken Riviera's creation of the holographic Molly to the creation of a golem). If the initiates make a mistake, or are not in a state of grace during the recitation, the mistake turns on the speaker and deforms him in a manner appropriate to the error (i.e., a mistake made while creating the legs will affect the legs of the speaker in some way). At least by analogy—and perhaps by more—this is what happens to Riviera, who generates forms which wrest power from others and ends by being paralyzed, unable to exercise his own power which is taken away by Neuromancer. Case, whose talent is in executing the right command (word, code) at the correct time is closer to the sounder spirit of Cabalistic creativity than Riviera with his corrupt activities.

    For a historical discussion of golemmaking, see Gershom Scholem, On the Kabbalah and Its Symbolism. New York: Schoken Books, 1960. 158-204.

Works Cited

Baudrillard, Jean. “Simulacra and Simulacrum.” Selected Writings. Ed. Mark Poster. Stanford: Stanford UP, 1988. 166-184.

Bukatman, Scott. Terminal Identity: The Virtual Subject in Post-Modern Science Fiction. Durham: Duke UP, 1993.

Covino, William. “Grammars of Transgression: Golems, Cyborgs, and Mutants.” Forthcoming in Rhetoric Review, 1996.

———. Magic, Rhetoric, and Literacy: An Eccentric History of the Composing Imagination. NY: SUNY, 1994.

Csicsery-Ronay, Jr., Istvan. “The SF of Theory: Baudrillard and Haraway.” SFS 18: 387-404, #55, Nov 1991.

Haraway, Donna. “A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century.” Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature. NY: Routledge, 1991. 149-181.

Gibson, William. Neuromancer. NY: Ace Books, 1984.

Tyler Stevens (essay date fall 1996)

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SOURCE: Stevens, Tyler. “‘Sinister Fruitiness’: Neuromancer, Internet Sexuality and the Turing Test.” Studies in the Novel 28, no. 3 (fall 1996): 414-33.

[In the following essay, Stevens presents a thematic analysis of gender, technology, and individual identity in Neuromancer, noting Gibson's complex portrayal of artificial intelligence and sexuality.]


The immediate subject of this essay is a set of anxious, confusing, and at times threatening questions posed by computer-mediated communication technology, popularly known as “cyberspace” and most immediately recognizable in the Internet. It also takes as its subject a related set of perhaps more abstract questions about the possibilities of intelligence within our computers. I have chosen to analyze in this essay three moments within the culture of Artificial Intelligence (AI) and the development of cyberspace, moments that might be classified as either “fiction” or “real life” (inasmuch as those categories hold steady under the optic of the narratives and textual spaces they share) but that symptomatize how we come to know “intelligence” by the anxiety, confusion, and threat underlying those questions. Some would argue that computers cannot be intelligent; they're not alive. But granted that computers aren't in any readily recognizable sense alive, might we imagine that they could be cognizant? conscious? sentient?

The metrics by which we measure intelligence are closer to our experience than we might think: we are already used to dealing with digital, intelligent life in the form of digital representations of other humans. A good number of us set our biological clocks by when we are able to login and when we can read our e-mail. We are used to narrativizing our lives, ourselves, for our on-line friends, many of whom we've never met; it's a small step to asking how we know that our correspondents are cognizant, conscious, aware, “real.” How do we know that they're intelligent? How do we know, by what heuristics do we discover, that our correspondents are sentient? By what standard of measurement could we gauge, in this age of the “intelligent” machine, that our interlocutors are, in a word, “human”?

These questions, and the measures by which we answer the questions, are implicit, and at times, explicit, in the work of William Gibson, from the early short story, “The Gernsback Continuum,” to the Cyberspace trilogy, Neuromancer,Count Zero, and Mona Lisa Overdrive. The plot of Neuromancer is roughly as follows: Case, a twenty-four year old former cyberspace cowboy, worked as a “thief, [who] worked for other, wealthier thieves, employers who provided the exotic software required to penetrate the bright walls of corporate systems, opening windows into rich fields of data” (p. 5). Case has been nerve-damaged by employers he stole from, rendering him unable to jack into cyberspace. He is recruited and healed by a man named Corto who wants him to steal a digital copy of Case's now-dead cowboy teacher, McCoy Pauley, and with Pauley's help, break into the Tessier-Ashpool's corporate/family computer matrix. Corto, who was formerly a military officer named Armitage, is controlled by an AI named Wintermute. Wintermute wants to merge with his other half, an AI represented in Tessier-Ashpool's systems as a young, beautiful boy, Neuromancer. Case, his bodyguard Molly, the sexual psychopath Peter Riviera, and Corto/Armitage eventual succeed in releasing Wintermute and Neuromancer from the hard-wired constraints that keep them from melding and evolving into a higher form of sentience and intelligence.

The characters of Gibson's Neuromancer, Wintermute, Neuromancer, McCoy Pauley, Case, the Finn, and from later books, Bobby, Colin, Angie, and eventually the matrix itself, when it comes to know itself, are all entities who live to one degree or another in the machine, in cyberspace, or to use Gibson's formulation, in the matrix of human knowledge “from the banks of every computer in the human system” (p. 51). They are all, to put into play another of his frequently-used words, “personalities.” Most are reproductions, digital representations (or manifestations) of someone who was already alive, already human, and in that sense already someone who thinks.

But could digital constructs be sentient? And if we2 are going to live in cyberspace—perhaps not Gibson's cyberspace, but a cyberspace—how do we know that the digital representations we encounter, the electronic text that scrolls across our screen, are human-produced and not “simply” program-produced; and if the output of programs, intelligent programs, not just ghosts in the machine? How do we know that Artificial Intelligences are, as the name designates, intelligent? And, to follow the question outward to the framing context that makes it intelligible, how do we know that we are personalities, that we are sentient? Characters such as McCoy Pauley, a “ROM personality matrix” who exists as a construct of a human within a computer in Gibson's most widely-read novel, Neuromancer, come to figure the uneasy perception that there is no boundary between ourselves and our encompassing computing environments; that we are, though sentient, “merely” machines. That they are, though machines, sentient.

For instance, Pauley, known by the characters in Gibson's “Sprawl” novels as the “Flatliner” for surviving “braindeath behind [the] black ice” defenses of an AI that he was buzzing in Rio, comes back after his physical death (by heart attack) as a “recording” on a cassette (p. 50). More often than not the novel denies that these digital copies of people, ghosts in the machines, are real like we're real. Or rather, the narrative denies that they are cognitive like we are cognitive. How do we deal with the dead in our machines? Neuromancer equivocally decides that such a representation, “a hardwired ROM cassette replicating a dead man's skills, obsessions, knee-jerk responses” (pp. 76-79), is not sentient, not quite human, not quite the ghost that it seems to be. The Flatliner compares himself to another type of entity, however, that is sentient, analogous to the ways humans are sentient: Artificial Intelligences. When Case, the protagonist of Neuromancer, asks Pauley what possible motive the AI Wintermute could have for carrying out the detailed plot that drives the novel, the program answers that he can't answer. There is no motive.

“Motive,” the construct said. “Real motive problem, with an AI. Not human, see?”

“Well, yeah, obviously.”

“Nope. I mean, it's not human. And you can't get a handle on it. Me, I'm not human either, but I respond like one. See?”

“Wait a sec,” Case said. “Are you sentient, or not?”

“Well, it feels like I am, kid, but I'm really just a bunch of ROM. It's one of them, ah, philosophical questions, I guess …” The ugly laughter sensation rattled down Case's spine. “But I ain't likely to write you no poem, if you follow me. Your AI, it just might. But it ain't no way human.

(P. 131, emphasis in text)

Pauley's inhuman laugh, or rather “laughter sensation,” signals his inhuman state. To be human, by the construct's figuration, is to have a psychology that is directed in some determinate, intentional, teleological sense. It's to have a discernible “motive,” a tendency to move to action and a source for that action, which allows others to “get a handle on it.” But Pauley also claims that he is “human” in just this directed way, in contrast to the AI: he responds like a human. Neuromancer makes much out of the science of predicting human response. Psychology and psychological profiles are presented again and again as the way the matrix knows what Case, Molly, and the rest of the cast of human and once-human characters will do. The other word besides “personality” that marks this particular definition of psychology and intelligence is “profile.” A profile is a “detailed model” of a subject's psychology (pp. 28-29). Case, for example, is the personification of a “case”: “You're suicidal, Case. The model gives you a month on the outside” (p. 29), claims Armitage/Corto when they first meet. Molly herself wonders aloud to Case, “It's like I know you. That profile he's got. I know how you're wired” (p. 30). She also points out, “I saw your profile, Case” (p. 49), leveraging her knowledge of his psychology and motivation against his own self-knowledge. Introducing Peter Riviera she even shudders, “‘one certified psychopath name of Peter Riviera. Real ugly customer … he's one sick fuck, no lie. I saw his profile.’ She made a face. ‘Godawful’” (p. 51).

From one vantage, then, Pauley the ROM personality matrix is only motivation, all profile, the ultimate “case”: he's a program that is algorithmic in this response to the world and its stimuli. He claims that what ultimately marks him as not human (ironically, ontologically, bearing out W. K. Wimsatt, Jr's claim about the intentional fallacy, Pauley being all intention) is the likelihood that he wouldn't write poetry. AIs, on the other hand, are likely to be creative with culture; they have tendencies to be demonstrative, to articulate expression and action outside of predicted paths; they're likely to write poetry. “Your AI, it just might,” but the Flatliner wouldn't; or rather, Pauley can't move or gesture outside the psychological boundaries of his own read-only memory. Case, however, if not quite “poetic” is paradigmatically human throughout the novel and goes outside his own psychological profile in just this way. When Case trips every security alarm on Freeside to find Molly despite orders to leave her alone, Wintermute complains, “I didn't think you'd do that, man. It's outside the profile” (p. 144). And “‘You guys [meaning the humans Molly and Case],’ the Finn said, ‘you're a pain. The Flatline here, if you were all like him, it would be real simple. He's a construct, just a buncha ROM, so he always does what I expect him to’” (p. 205). Poetry, therefore, delineates a lacuna or inconsistency within Pauley's own theory of psychology and agency against the notion of profile as human: “poetry” signals the inability of someone to plot the profile, to map the source of action, to grasp the motivation; ironically, poetry is a sure index to the likelihood of the perversion of a psychological trajectory. AIs present a “Real motive problem.”3 As a sign of their profile and lack of a profile, AIs are apt to write poetry.

The nature of the AI's self, then, is a vexed question. Out of the gaps that define and distinguish a profile emerges the anxious, even threatening question, how does one designate a coherent self and recognize it as a self? Wintermute explains this particular problem of the first person:

I, insofar as I have an “I”—this gets rather metaphysical you see—I am the one who arranges things for Armitage. Or Corto, who, by the way, is quite unstable.

(P. 120)

The novel makes it clear that AI-selves control people and events. They influence subtly, but deftly and determinately, technological development (e.g., the production of ICE), personal psychologies (e.g., 3Jane, Corto/Armitage), and even cultural events (e.g., raid by the Panther Moderns). They “arrange” things. Thus, they might be said to have a “profile.” But Corto/Armitage's psychological instability immediately juxtaposed to Wintermute's Elders of Zion-like, patois “I'an'I” first person pronoun (p. 109) suggests the fragmented contours of the metaphysical niceties that Wintermute dodges above. Wintermute, displaced into the figure of smuggler Julius Deane, sketches out Corto's psychosis, then adds, “‘He's not quite a personality.’ Deane smiled. ‘But I'm sure you're aware of that. But Corto is in there, somewhere, and I can no longer maintain that delicate balance. He's going to come apart on you, Case’” (p. 121). Mirroring and refracting Wintermute's own persona, Armitage's name evokes an (albeit unstable) armature around Corto, an “organ or structure for offense or defense” as well as the “framework used by a sculptor to support a figure being modeled in plastic material” (Webster's). Armitage does come apart; he reverts to the ranting paranoiac Corto. The only stability he maintains across that devolution is his gender identity. In just this way, Wintermute, though not human, appears in many forms to Case. The novel intimates that the AI who attempts to communicate with or control a human finds stability of identity not in the particular bodies it inhabits but in the gender of those bodies: Julius Deane, Lonny Zone, and the Finn.4

Each of these factors (profiles, poetry, gender) come into play when Case and the Flatliner attempt to trace the connections among Wintermute's intelligence, motivation and the constraints placed on its evolutionary development. Case comments:

“You were right, Dix. There's some kind of manual override on the hardwiring that keeps Wintermute under control. However much he is under control,” he added.

“He,” the construct said. “He. Watch that. It. I keep telling you.”

(P. 181)

Here Case only speaks what he already knows about Wintermute; but the Flatliner resists engendering the AI in an attempt to disarticulate the sense of “personhood” conferred by gender from an entity that already confirms its self through gender. Pauley, then, verifies that whatever the metaphysical sense of an “I” having an “I,” “I” always has a gender.

That Julius Deane first speaks this formulation of gender, knowledge, and self as an embodiment of the AI/split masculine subject is significant: the person of Deane is a figure not only of knowledge but “knowingness”; he embodies the tense relations between paranoia and power; he repeatedly shows up in Case's dreams as Case returns to the defining scene of his problematic relation of to AI (p. 125); and he becomes the only object against which Case stages a successful act of violence. Perhaps not surprisingly Deane is a queer figure, indeed a gay one.

Julius Deane, otherwise known to Case by the androgynous moniker “Julie,” is a 135-year-old vanity queen who spends “a weekly fortune in serums and hormones” as a “hedge against aging.” Uncannily reminiscent of another famous knowing, controlling, problematically masculine character, Lionel Croy (the father of both Kate Croy and her vanity in Henry James' Wings of the Dove, with his “perfect look,” “all pink and silver as to skin and hair,” always interested in his appearance, “How he does dress!”5), Deane is to Case's eyes

Sexless and inhumanly patient, his primary gratification seemed to lie in his devotion to esoteric forms of tailor-worship. Case had never seen him wear the same suit twice … He affected prescription lenses, framed in spidery gold, ground from thin slabs of pink synthetic quartz and beveled like mirrors in a Victorian dollhouse.

(P. 12)

His office is decorated “with a random collection of European furniture,” “Neo-Aztec bookcases,” with a camp flair for “Disney-styled table lamps perched awkwardly on a low Kandinsky-look coffee table in scarlet-lacquered steel” (p. 12).

From the beginning of the novel, Deane prefigures Case's problematic relationship to cyberspace and AIs through his own “manipulative” masculinity. As we've already seen, Wintermute uses Deane as his persona to explain his ability to construct and manipulate events: he admits, for one, that he built and controls Armitage/Corto. Case first sees Armitage in a “dark robe [that] was open to the waist, the broad chest hairless and muscular, the stomach flat and hard. Blue eyes so pale they made Case think of bleach” (p. 27). Armitage comes equipped with “broad shoulders and military posture,” a “Special Forces earring,” and “handsome, inexpressive features” that offer “the routine beauty of the cosmetic boutiques, a conservative amalgam of the past decade's leading media faces” (p. 45). A stock-figure of both '80s gay porn, military recruiting posters, and “straight” body-building culture, Corto allegorizes Deane/Wintermute's control of the matrix/human culture. “‘Is the Corto story true?”’ Case asks Deane/Wintermute. “You got to him through a micro in that French hospital?’” Deane answers, “‘Yes … I try to plan, in your sense of the word, but that isn't my basic mode, really. I improvise … Corto was the first, and he very nearly didn't make it. Very far gone, in Toulon. Eating, excreting, masturbating were the best he could manage’” (p. 120). “Wintermute could build a kind of personality into a shell. How subtle a form could manipulation take?” (p. 125).

Deane's tight, “seamless pink” (p. 13), coifed aesthetic, then, serves as the ground which structures not only Armitage/Corto's masculine armature, but also Case's own unkept, disheveled sallowness and tense paranoia. In turn, Deane's devotion to technology, fashion, and antiquarianism evokes a significant accumulation of layers of knowledge, machines, and capital—monetary, cultural and technological—within the world of Neuromancer itself:

Magnetic bolts thudded out of position around the massive imitation-rosewood door to the left of the bookcases. JULIUS DEANE IMPORT EXPORT was lettered across the plastic in peeling self-adhesive capitals. If the furniture scattered in Deane's makeshift foyer suggested the end of the past century, the office itself seemed to belong to its start.

(Pp. 12-13)

Deane's gay sensibilities, his relationship to his own masculinity and cultural objects, represent a particular relationship to knowledge, culture, and power. In the spaces of meaning between the simulated-natural furniture and “meticulous reconstructions” of “history” and “nature,” his decor logically replicates the ideological structure of the fabrications and simulacra of “cyberspace,” which is to say that Case's (and as I will shortly claim, Gibson's) paranoid logic maps the control Wintermute enjoys over the territory of human action and by extension, culture itself, onto Deane and his queerness. Deane ultimately triggers panic, anger, and hatred in Case. When Deane points out that he's losing control of Corto's sense of self:

“I can no longer maintain that delicate balance. He's going to come apart on you, Case. So I'll be counting on you. …”

Case responds,

“That's good, motherfucker,” Case said, and shot him in the mouth with the.357.

He'd been right about the brains and the blood.

(P. 121)

I should be clear here that my claims rest in part on the understanding that the “cyberspace matrix” and human culture not only inform and are informed by one another: at least within Gibson's writing, cyberspace, in fact, is an analogue to culture. Cyberspace is another word for “culture.” Gibson's interest in the self's relationship to culture, writing/representation and technology is certainly one of the earliest themes of his work. Paranoia and a mounting sense of panic set the tone for how the ideological present relates to the cultural past. “Subjectivity” (the focal point behind the question “how do you recognize a self?”) produces and is produced by culture; his early work seems to recognize that a particular subject position is at the semiotic center of a particular cultural aesthetic; the problem then becomes who creates that culture (as if it were any one person or type of person) and how the culture of the past influences or inhabits present real psychologies as well as visions of normative subjectivities.

“The Gernsback Continuum”6 details those “semiotic phantoms” (p. 7) from the art deco Futuropolises of the '30s and '40s, which haunt the periphery of present-day architecture of cities and highways and, by extension, our collective “mass unconscious” (p. 7). The material embodiments of these “phantoms” take the form of “movie marquees ribbed to radiate some mysterious energy, the dime stores faced with fluted aluminum, the chrome-tube chairs gathering dust in the lobbies of transient hotels,” and most famously symbolized by “the winged statues that guard the Hoover Dam, forty-foot concrete hood ornaments leaning steadfastly into an imaginary hurricane” and endless gas-station manifestations of “Frank Lloyd Wright's Johnson's Wax Building, juxtaposed with the covers of old Amazing Stories pulps, by an artist named Frank R. Paul” (p. 3). Gibson explains that

During the high point of the Downes Age, they put Ming the Merciless in charge of designing California gas stations. Favoring the architecture of his native Mongo, he cruised up and down the coast erecting raygun emplacements in white stucco. Lots of them featured superfluous central towers ringed with those strange radiator flanges that were a signature motif of the style, and made them look as though they might generate potent bursts of raw technological enthusiasm, if you could only find the switch that turned them on.

(P. 4)

I understand “The Gernsback Continuum” to be a novelistic manifesto written against a particularly influential science fiction aesthetic whose heyday lasted from the '30s through the '50s; moreover, the story as a sci-fi narrative invites itself to be read productively as a rethinking of the relationship between narrative and culture, as well as technology and narrative. Just as Gibson rejects the sci-fi aesthetic of the past 50 years or so, formed in part as it was by art deco, industrial design, and avant-gardism, he self-consciously re-positions himself in an ironic relation to any particular futurist narrative he himself might undertake and the larger project of imagining new cultures, new technologies, new futures.

But Gibson's tale also suggests that the functionless facades of technology that we're familiar with from every Buck Rogers-like TV show and movie, as well as the Gernsback pulp novels that were formed by and informed by the '30s through the '50s, seep into our imaginations to produce a vision of who we are and who we should be by what technology we have; and perhaps more importantly the story insists that we are formed by what aesthetic we share and the narrative conventions that embody that aesthetic. The implicit claim the story takes up is that a choreography of narrative and technology traces patterns of subjectivity that haunt the science, culture, and technology of the present. Built out of the collective sum of humanity's facts and fantasies, “cyberspace” of Gibson's books and the “culture” of the present are each, in this respect, a “Gernsback Continuum.”

These visions of ourselves that inhabit cyberspace and culture are “Heirs to the Dream,” he explains. “They were white, blond, and they probably had blue eyes. They were American.” Those selves that live in the Gernsback virtual reality “had all the sinister fruitiness of Hitler Youth propaganda” (p. 9, my emphasis). Here the story suggests a mode of cultural and psychological reproduction that isn't precisely straight, isn't precisely “family,” though it is potent and frightening in its Fascist overtones and master-race textures. The designers of this blond-haired/blue-eyed vision of “sinister fruitiness” were “the most successful American designers” who “had been recruited from the ranks of Broadway theater designers.” Their “superfluous” art (changes in technology were “only skin-deep,” [p. 3]) induces in us a sort of permanent “amphetamine psychosis” (p. 9) that makes us believe in and see these not quite existent Future Selves who live in the present.

To escape the “sinister fruitiness” of this world, the protagonist of “The Gernsback Continuum” heads back to L.A. and then to San Francisco, “anxious to … submerge [himself] in hard evidence of the human near-dystopia we live in” (p. 11). “That afternoon I spotted a flying wing over Castro Street … I just decided to buy a plane ticket for New York.” It turns out that the antidote to 30s avant-garde culture designed by “theater” queens and Ming the Merciless (the protagonist goes over the edge when he stops “to shoot a particularly lavish example of Ming's martial architecture, [p. 5]), is straight pornography and bad television, “But what should I do?” he asks his friend, Kihn. His friend responds, “‘Watch lots of television, particularly game shows and soaps. Go to porn movies. Ever see Nazi Love Motel? They've got it on cable here. Really awful. Just what you need’” (p. 10). The subtext of this morality tale is that heterosexuality, exemplified in soap opera narrative, game show chattiness, and not Fascist pederastic propaganda but American heterosexual fetishization of Nazi racism and sexism, cures the “queer” psychosis that ails him.

Gibson's marking the protagonist's vision of the straight-acting, straight-appearing, blond-haired, blue-eyed family as an “amphetamine psychosis” of “sinister fruitiness” perpetrated by “theater designers” (or their avatar, an evil drag queen, Ming the Merciless) “recruited” expressly for the purpose is perplexing, however. Neuromancer, not to mention Mona Lisa Overdrive, ends in just such a re-constituted nuclear family as a way to secure the “humanness” of technology and the future of the matrix. Case, cruising through cyberspace, finds that

One October night, punching himself past the scarlet tiers of the Eastern Seaboard Fission Authority, he saw three figures, tiny, impossible, who stood at the very edge of one of the vast steps of data. Small as they were, he could make out the boy's grin, his pink gums, the glitter of the long gray eyes that had been Riviera's. Linda still wore his jacket; she waved, as he passed. But the third figure, close behind her, arm across her shoulders was himself.

(Pp. 270-71)

In real life “He found work. He found a girl who called herself Michael” (p. 270). But in cyberspace, in virtual reality, Case finds exactly what the Gernsback Continuum says he'll find, a happy family. This suggests that the function of cyberspace as wholly ideological space/narrativized place is to stabilize the messiness and the perversity of real life; that the love story of Case and Michael exists somewhere in its ideological purity as Case and Linda Lee, with their little boy, too.

The authority set up in Neuromancer to police the boundaries of cyberspace, to make it safe for the phantasmatic family, as it were, is the Turing police. While I have not discussed the Turing police in my gloss of Neuromancer, I feel that I should point out that there is an offensive irony of using Alan Turing's name to mark those who guarantee a queer-free cyberspace and the maintenance of normative subjectivity; in fact, using his name to punish those who supposedly “have no care for [their] species” (p. 163), a charge familiar to men who have sex with men from at least the eighteenth century onward and especially familiar to Alan Turing and other gay men at mid-century. As a counterpoint to Gibson's narrative, I would like to turn to Turing's theoretical work in artificial intelligence to focus on his understanding of the solution to the problem of measuring machine intelligence and its relation to gender, subjectivity, and knowledge.


In an October 1950 issue of the British philosophical and psychological journal Mind, A. M. Turing published “Computing Machinery and Intelligence,” a paper that has to a large extent defined the terms of subsequent arguments within cognitive science and computer science circles about the possibility of artificial intelligence. Turing proposed “to consider the question ‘Can machines think?’” by first acknowledging that the “definitions of the meaning of the terms ‘machine’ and ‘think’” could be “framed so as to reflect so far as possible the normal use of the words.” But if he used this approach, he decided that it would be “difficult to escape the conclusion that the meaning and the answer to the question ‘Can machines think?’” would be bogged down in sectarian arguments about infuriatingly ambiguous words. “Instead of attempting such a definition,” he proposed, “I shall replace the question by another, which is closely related to it and is expressed in relatively unambiguous words.”8

As the alternative, Turing proposed what he called “the ‘imitation game.’” The game is “played with three people,” he explains,

a man (A), a woman (B), and an interrogator (C) who may be of either sex. The interrogator stays in a room apart from the other two. The object of the game for the interrogator is to determine which of the other two is the man and which is the woman. He knows them by labels X and Y, and at the end of the game he says either ‘X is A and Y is B’ or ‘X is B and Y is A’. The interrogator is allowed to put questions to A and B thus:

C: Will X please tell me the length of his or her hair?

Now suppose X is actually A [the man], then A must answer. It is A's object in the game to try and cause C to make the wrong identification [that is the man must make the judge think that he is a woman]. His answer might therefore be ‘My hair is shingled, and the longest strands are about nine inches long.’ … The object of the game for the third player (B) [that is, the woman] is to help the interrogator.

(P. 433)

“The best strategy for her is probably to give truthful answers,” Turing surmises. “She can add such things as ‘I am the woman, don't listen to him!’ to her remarks, but it will avail nothing as the man can make similar remarks” (p. 433). Turing concluded his description of what has subsequently been known as “The Turing test” with the question, “‘What will happen when a machine takes the part of A [the man] in this game?’ Will the interrogator decide wrongly as often when the game is played like this as he does when the game is played between a man and a woman? These questions replace our original, ‘Can machines think?’” (pp. 433-34).

Turing further prescribed that his test would best be carried out by teletype, tty's conjoined across three separate rooms, to allow only the typewritten conversation to pass between participants. This new formulation of the intelligence question, Turing asserts, “has the advantage of drawing a fairly sharp distinction between the physical and the intellectual capacities of a man [sic]” (p. 434). The terminal setup “reflects this fact in the condition which prevents the interrogator from seeing or touching the other competitors, or hearing their voices” (p. 434). I will call this “sharp distinction” (or what other computer researchers call the “anonymity” provided by network technology) “disarticulation,” the unlatching or uncoupling of categories like “gender” from our embodied interactions with others.

Turing ends his explanation of the imitation game by proposing the last equivalent question: “‘Let us fix our attention on one particular digital computer C. Is it true that by modifying this computer to have an adequate storage, suitably increasing its speed of action, and providing it with an appropriate programme, C can be made to play satisfactorily the part of A in the imitation game, the part of B being taken by a man?’” (p. 442). The Turing test thus side-steps the epistemological question “What is intelligence?” by replacing it with the operationalist stipulation that passing the Turing test is equivalent to intelligence. The philosophical burden of women to speak—and for an adequate number of times fail to represent—the “truth” of their sex is, then, for Turing, re-written into the equivalent scenario, “‘Are there imaginable digital computers which would do well in the imitation game?’” (p. 442). Turing thought “good enough” on the imitation game was if a woman failed to beat the computer about 70٪ of the time.

In his widely-cited paper “Can Machines Think?”9, first presented at a Boston University conference on “How We Know,” philosopher of cognitive science Daniel C. Dennett asserts that “A little reflection will convince you, I am sure, that, aside from lucky breaks, it would take a clever man to convince the judge that he was the woman—assuming the judge is clever too, of course” (p. 122); and that “any computer that can regularly or often fool a discerning judge in this game would be intelligent—would be a computer that thinks—beyond a reasonable doubt” (Dennett's emphasis, p. 122). Dennett claims that there is a problem, however. The problem with the test is that “In a wide variety of areas, we are on the verge of making ourselves dependent upon their cognitive powers. The cost of overestimating them could be enormous” (p. 121). The point of his paper is to show that “There is a common misapplication of the sort of testing exhibited by the Turing test that often leads to drastic overestimation of the powers of actually existing computer systems” (his italics, p. 123). The mistake that people make with computers, Dennett believes, is that they overestimate the number of facts computers have about the world to make their conversations really, truly intelligent; or in the jargon of AI, that computers don't have enough “world knowledge” to make their conversations “believable.”

The first question Dennett was asked after reading his paper was “Why was Turing interested in differentiating a man from a woman in his famous test?” Dennett answered, “That was just an example.” But of course it's not just an example. Gender is, paradigmatically, the world knowledge that computers should know to survive what Dennett calls his “quick probes,” or tests “for a wider competence” (pp. 124, 126). Dennett discusses one such “quick probe” of Yale graduate student Janet Kolodner's CYRUS system, a “project [that] was to devise and test some plausible ideas about how people organize their memories of the events they participate in; hence it was meant to be a ‘pure’ AI system, a scientific model, not an expert system intended for any practical purpose” (p. 135). CYRUS modeled the knowledge of then-Secretary of State Cyrus Vance's life by reading through newspaper accounts of Vance's trips, meetings, and public speeches. Sitting down at CYRUS's teletype, Dennett quickly comes to his triumph:

CYRUS could correctly answer thousands of questions—almost any fair question one could think of asking it. But if one actually set out to explore the boundaries of its facade and find the questions that overshot the mark, one could find them.

‘Have you ever met a female head of state?’ was a question I asked it, wondering if CYRUS knew that Indira Ghandi and Margaret Thatcher were women. But for some reason the connection could not be drawn, and CYRUS failed to answer either yes or no. I had stumped it, in spite of the fact that CYRUS could handle a host of what you might call neighboring questions flawlessly. One soon learns from this sort of probing exercise that it is very hard to extrapolate accurately from a sample of performance that one has observed to such a system's total competence. It's also very hard to keep from extrapolating much too generously.

(P. 136)

That CYRUS could answer “thousands of questions,” “almost any fair question one could think of asking it,” but not know “that Indira Ghandi and Margaret Thatcher were women” allows Dennett to embarrass Kolonder's system by forcing it into an uncomfortable silence, which represents a frozen system or an infinite loop, “unable to cope, and unable to recover without fairly massive human intervention” (p. 137). The program CYRUS is in the position of the Turing interrogator here, attempting to guess the gender of people from written newspaper accounts of their lives. I like to think that the computer's infinite loop is just marking time until Dennett gets up and leaves the terminal. For Dennett, the silence marks inadequacy, sexual difference marks “total competence,” and the Turing test promises that he can always find devastating quick probes, or those “questions that oversh[o]ot the mark” of proper gender identification, which is, properly, the sign of “intelligence.”

Dennett's “quick probe” means to assault a computer's “subtle and hard-to-detect limits to comprehension,” and no matter what “the reasonable, cost-effective steps [that] are taken to minimize the superficiality of expert systems, they will still be facades, just somewhat thicker or wider facades.” By citing and faulting this observation, I do not mean to suggest that one cannot design an expert system that recognizes gender. Obviously one can—and designers do. You can be pretty sure that Janet Kolonder sat down and added the appropriate “gender” attributes to her class of “persons” within the knowledge-base CYRUS generated about the world. Nor do I dispute Dennett's claim about the adequacy of the Turing test. But I do mean to use Dennett's essay as an example of the contradictory stance taken by every single essay in the body of literature about the Turing test: to quote a popular psychology textbook, “It should be noted that to accomplish this [that is, to pass the Turing test], the machine must be able to carry out a dialogue in natural language and reason using an enormous database of ‘world knowledge.’ The ‘man-woman’ formulation proposed by Turing is not usually stressed in describing the imitation game. Instead, the theme is usually the idea of a machine convincing an interrogator that it is a person.”10 What subjectivity outside of gender might be, what it means to be a “person” outside of gender is an issue that is never broached. That is to say, these accounts want to state that gender is a peripheral, negligible phenomenon; and gender is an integral, indeed indispensable, feature of the test as world knowledge. Thus gender matter-of-factly for Turing and uneasily for Dennett and other users of the “imitation game” emblematizes world-knowledge. Gender emblematizes the unsteady, constantly shifting parameters of what world-knowledge is adequate for sentience, for intelligence, for “human-ness.”

Dennett concludes, “I have often held that only a biography of sorts, a history of actual projects, learning experiences, and other bouts with reality, could produce the sorts of complexities (both external, or behavioral, and internal [though here he avoids the word “psychological”]) that are needed to ground a principled interpretation of an entity as a thinking thing, an entity with beliefs, desires, intentions, and other mental attitudes” (p. 140); or to quote the words that he puts in the mouth of his fictitious Alan Turing, that “eyes, ears, hands and a history are necessary conditions for thinking” (p. 141).

My description of Turing and discussion of Dennett mean to stress that what I have called the “philosophical burden of women to speak the ‘truth’ of their sex,” whether or not they fail at conveying that “truth,” is, within Turing's system explicitly and Dennett's explication implicitly, exemplary “world knowledge,” the very stuff that guarantees a computer's intelligence. That is to say, the critical claims for the epistemology of “intelligence” have built into it, by gesturing to “biography,” “history,” or equivalently in Turing's discussion of the rearing of a “child-machine,” “learning” and “tuition” (pp. 456-57), an assumption of normative gender roles, and an assumption by the computer of a normative gender role: or to put the claim in its strongest form, that “intelligence” and “humanity” can't be defined outside of sexual difference and the phenomenology of the sex-gender system.

The central observation I wish to make is that Turing's neat disarticulation of physical indications of gender from the conditions of judgment about “intelligence” (or what becomes in later formulations within his work, as well as the work of cognitive scientists, computer scientists, and philosophers of the mind, a quality called “human-ness”) succeeds only in reseating gender firmly within “intelligence” itself: a woman is put in the position of defending and authenticating her gender across the network; in turn, a computer authenticates its intelligence only if it simulates her gender better than she can across the same network. The Turing test thus imagines that being a better woman than a woman is equivalent to intelligence and that ineffable quality “human-ness.”

To be familiar with e-mail, netwide interactive talk lines like the Internet Relay Chat, or MOOs, MUDs, and other object-oriented text-based virtual reality environments is to be familiar with the notion that network technology induces just this sort of philosophical puzzle. Simply put, when presenting yourself on-line you have to pick a gender and you must constantly work to maintain the presentation of that gender. Pavel Curtis, Xerox-PARC scientist and inventor of the most widely used text-based virtual reality system as well as the maintainer of the largest VR community in existence (called LambdaMOO), explains that “many female players report that they are frequently (and sometimes quite aggressively) challenged to ‘prove’ that they are, in fact, female. To the best of my knowledge, male-presenting players are rarely if ever so challenged.”11

Curtis goes on to suggest that the vast majority of players are in real life “men” (he guess-timates “over 70٪ of the players are male; [but] it is very difficult to give any firm justification for this number” (p. 5), and those men tend to present themselves as “male” on Net. To choose a gender you issue a command to the VR program to set a gender-marker for you. It's usually the first command you learn. The marker directs the computer to generate sentence boiler-plate with, for instance, male-pronouns instead of female-pronouns, or even plural or made-up pronouns. So if you “look” at a character the computer might report “He is asleep” or “She is awake” or “It has been staring off into space for 5 minutes.” Or if you are male-presenting and speak, the sentence reads to other players “He says.” Curtis asserts that some men

present themselves as female and thus stand out to some degree. Some use this distinction just for the fun of deceiving others, some of these going so far as to try to entice male-presenting players into sexually-explicit discussions and interactions. This is such a widely-noticed phenomenon, in fact, that one is advised by the common wisdom to assume that any flirtatious female-presenting players are, in real life, males. Such players are often subject to ostracism based on this assumption.

(P. 6)

It is important to note that ostracism and the ever-commented-upon common sense that sexually aggressive on-line women are actually “males” wields a not so subtle misogyny to enforce a heterosexuality among otherwise always malleable and shifting relationships. This is an important point to which I will return shortly.

Female-presenting characters, he further notes, report that “they are subject both to harassment and to special treatment” (p. 6); and “Some players (and not only males) also feel that it is dishonest to present oneself as being a different gender than in real life; they report feeling ‘mad’ and ‘used’ when they discover the deception” (p. 6).

Montieth M. Illingworth writes about just such feelings of anger and deception in her article “Looking for Mr. Goodbyte” in the December 1994 issue of Mirabella magazine.12 She reports on “what happens on the locus of desire and technology” to “suggest that there are new dangers—and familiar disappointments—to come from this meeting of human being and machine” (pp. 108-09). Illingworth introduces us to “Elizabeth” who scans the Usenet group “” and “” as a sort of sexual therapy to “dislodge her[self] from sexual stagnation” (p. 109). Elizabeth establishes a relationship with a man named “James,” and they exchange e-mail, become emotionally intimate, and spend much time in—for her—extraordinarily intense, sexually descriptive conversations. After four weeks of intense Internet communication she agrees to meet James at a hotel in L.A., where they would spend the weekend together. Elizabeth explains that she “arrived early and, as agreed, waited in the bar. ‘I remember feeling two things. First, the anticipation of the sex. We didn't say it this way, but we both wanted to screw each other's brains out.’”

At around 6:30, a woman of about thirty-five, with thin, blond hair pulled back tightly into a ponytail and a heart-like, almost angelic face, sat at the other end of the bar. Elizabeth felt the woman's stare like an infrared beam of light, invisible to all but her. A few minutes later, the woman approached and introduced herself as Jessica—aka James. Elizabeth started to faint.

(P. 111)

The RL conversation that followed went something like this. “Jessica: ‘I'm really, really sorry.’ Elizabeth: ‘I feel ridiculous.’ Jessica: ‘I'm so sorry, God, forgive me, please.’” An hour after this vertiginous and dizzying introduction, Elizabeth and James/Jessica “went up to the hotel room. Elizabeth would say only that ‘tender lovemaking’ followed” (p. 111). Elizabeth explains her decision to sleep with James/Jessica as “It came down to a simple question … Was I prepared to lie to myself? That's what walking out would have meant. Our intimacy was real. I couldn't suddenly pretend just because of gender that it never existed.”

Establishing on-line relationships in what I'll call, to stress the discursive composition of those relations, the heterosexual vernacular—that is to say, an intimate sexualized relationship between a male-presenting character and a female-presenting character—carries with it an always-just-about-to-surface possibility of homosexual desires; or even, indeed, that one person's gay sex might be a RL jack-off session between male and female bodies. I would stress that Elizabeth's is an antihomophobic position, not a pro-lesbian or pro-gay one; the interaction across the Internet forces Elizabeth to re-negotiate her sexuality. She writes “Gender is just a label. I had to escape something in myself, this feeling that the decisions I made about who I am are final.” When the interviewer responds to this by asking if the Internet has changed the “existential equation” of the statement “I think therefore I am” to “I'm on-line therefore I am,” Elizabeth responds, “No, I'm on-line therefore I can become” (p. 111).

The anger, anxiety, desire and fear that Curtis reports on and Illingworth describes are immediately recognizable to anyone who spends time on MOOs or MUDs and the Internet. In the Spring 1994 Proceedings of the Berkeley Conference on Women and Language, Lynn Cherny's13 documentation of on-line interaction gives much evidence of homopanic, queer/gay baiting, and subsequent rhetorical violence: prohibitions of showing on-line affection to male-presenting characters by other male-presenting characters, for instance, “OK, take that. You whuggled a BOY!” (p. 5) or “hug me again and I'll rip your face off” (p. 7) are just two citations among countless. As a character named “John_Birch's_Friend” screamed to a female-presenting, pink-triangle-wearing lesbian-loving character named Daffodil on LambdaMOO recently, “The Internet is making us all HOMOSEXUALS! I hate you all! You all should die!” To put it in other words, the Internet, as a Turing technology, triggers deep homosexual panic in persons who violently insist on the maintenance of a strict alignment between on-line and off-line gender presentations. I could give much more evidence. The point I wish to make though is three-fold: (1) the unquestioned identity for Internet characters is “male” and the default gender for even female-presenting characters is “male”—or to quote Allucquere Rosanne Stone, who works on gender and sexuality on the Internet, “It seems to be the engagement of the adolescent male within humans of both sexes that is responsible for the seductiveness of the cybernetic mode,”14 a bewildering formulation that re-writes all intense sexual desire as “adolescent” and “truly” male; (2) all interactions are gender-panicked and because of point (1) deeply homosexually panicked; and finally, (3) even relationships that are carried on in the heterosexual vernacular are potentially homosexual. Even the most “heterosexual” of conversations are potentially homosexual and within most MOO cultures marked by an undercurrent of homopanic.


To solve his epistemological conundrum—how to answer the question “Can machines think?” without resorting to metaphysical arguments about the nature of the soul of the machine—Turing put to work the central observation that technology disarticulates gender from what he specifies are the relevant conditions of knowledge even while he maintains that discourse itself will speak the truth of “intelligence” or “human-ness,” by which he means gender. Turing's observation, in turn, grounds the utopian hope that technology eradicates gender as an operative category not only from the Net but from the conditions of knowledge itself, though never so completely so as to leave us culturally at sea; that is, it manifests the contradictory expectation that the Internet as a utopian technology both erases gender in order to dissolve patriarchy as well as other ideological hierarchies, and transmits gender (or forces interlocutors to speak its “truth” of their gender) in order to stabilize identity and make comprehensible our relations to others. It is my claim that such technology does disarticulate gender and diffuse claims for “authenticity”; but it is up to us to refuse to re-write, re-play, and culturally enforce the sexist and homophobic expectations that our interlocutors maintain a strict alignment between their “real”-life gender and sexual identities and their “virtual” ones. We must recognize that the identities we live and produce day-to-day are not rigid indicators of where we will find and take our pleasures, that the Internet as a Turing technology does unlatch gender as the pre-eminent fixture in defining our interpersonal relationships, though it does not eject it from our conversations; that the Internet functions as a tool for disrupting rigid prescriptions of social interaction, and allows us to inhabit and re-inhabit the fantasies and pleasures of conversations. Moreover, those conversations, articulated as they are through the shifting syntax and semantics of hetero- and homosexualities, need to refuse not the pleasures of playing out “gay” or “straight” on-line relationships but rather the insistence that the interlocutors live out or “be” those relationships. The Internet as a Turing technology is not a utopian space where gender does not exist as a category; it is not a safe space where sexism and homophobia don't, as a rule, rule. No such space exists for us, though we are slowly starting to live in the disorientating environments of network technologies that sheer and fragment gender and sexualities as we know them. We are beginning to inhabit, with “Elizabeth” and “James,” an anti-homophobic position in relation to where and how we establish intimacies and pleasures.

Furthermore, I want to stress that I agree that to identify intelligence within conversation is correct—to echo Dennett, that there is no better test. But contra Dennett, Bieri, Clark, French, and a host of other cognitive scientists and philosophers,16 I would maintain that while certainly found within discourse and the conversation, “intelligence” should not be collapsed into a phenomenology of “human-ness.” Whatever sentience computers will have (or now have) we should not insist that they take on our gender categories to alleviate our painful uneasiness and breathless anxieties. Computer scientists should not build AI programs to reflect and produce our ideological norms in order to pass our tests for intelligence. Whatever their subjectivities, present or future, computers have no gender. That's not a fact we live with easily. Disarmingly, this reflects back to us, to our re-negotiation of our own subjectivities, our own pleasures within and across our subjectivities, in the realization that every conversation is an imitation game, every form of representation is a Turing technology. We are all, more or less, just thicker or wider facades. The re-negotiation of communication through what amounts to on-line fiction makes severe what can be subtle—and does what technology does best: it leaves us fumbling for our de-naturalized identity categories. By acknowledging that betrayal, rage, fear, anger, and anxiety, as well as desire, horniness, love, and identification—those emotions and cognitive states most often expressed upon entering into net-relationships with net-personalities—are symptomatic of a motion sickness and disorientation induced by looking through computer-distorted lenses at non-stationary gender objects; and by articulating desires that can never be confirmed heterosexual (or homosexual, for that matter), female or male, Internet sexuality and the Turing test point towards the realization that all our alloerotic desires and pleasures in real and virtual reality are always deeply masturbatory.


  1. William Gibson, Neuromancer (New York: Ace Books, 1984), p. 49. All subsequent citations to Neuromancer will be given in parentheses within the text.

  2. I realize that this “we” is problematic: we are told that the “we” who live in cyberspace are more often than not male, more often than not white, more often than not those who possess not only capital but the cultural capital that makes the Internet and other computer-mediated communication technologies accessible. My essay means not to skirt these important issues about who has the education for and access to technology and whether the “revolution” in subjectivity is only available for those who have the culture and capital to live on-line. In fact, as I hope will become apparent, I do not believe that my argument is tied to any one form of communication technology—indeed, I hope that by the end of the paper it will be obvious why I believe that the problems I discuss are about representation itself. I do however recognize that the question of who has the luxury of “subjectivity” is a vexed one; I also realize that there is some naiveté in the position that to demystify “cyberspace” and more immediately “the Internet” and its governing tropes of normative subjectivity, one of the ostensible goals of this essay, is to advance the project of shattering cultural barriers to the acquisition and use of computer technology.

  3. Indeed, the novel suggests that if an AI does have a motive it is evolution. Wintermute attempts to fuse the two halves of his personality to reach the next evolutionary step beyond the human. “‘You know salmon? Kinda fish? These fish, see, they're compelled to swim upstream … I'm under compulsion myself. And I don't know why … But when this is all over, we do it right, I'm gonna be part of something bigger. Much bigger’” (p. 206).

  4. In fact, there is an exception that proves the rule: when Wintermute attempts to speak through Linda Lee he finds that he can't: “Oh, and I'm sorry about Linda, in the arcade. I was hoping to speak through her, but I'm generating all this out of your memories, and the emotional charge … Well, it's very tricky. I slipped. Sorry” (p. 119).

  5. Henry James, The Wings of the Dove (New York: Penguin, 1988), p. 58.

  6. William Gibson, “The Gernsback Continuum” in Mirrorshades (New York: Ace Books, 1986), pp. 1-11. Gibson's close friend Bruce Sterling describes the “Gernsback Continuum” as “a clarion call for a new SF esthetic of the Eighties.”

  7. Gibson, Neuromancer, p. 156.

  8. A. M. Turing, “Computing Machinery and Intelligence.” Mind (October 1950):433. Subsequent references for citations will be included in parentheses within the text.

  9. Daniel C. Dennett, “Can Machines Think?” in How We Know, Michael Shafto, ed. (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1985), pp. 121-45.

  10. Martin A. Fischler and Oscar Firschein. Intelligence: The Eye, the Brain, and the Computer (Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley Publishing Company, 1987), p. 12.

  11. Pavel Curtis, “Mudding: Social Phenomena in Text-Based Virtual Realities,” Internet ftp location:* (1992): 6. Curtis's important and informative article perceptively lays out many of the problematic interpersonal interactions in cyberspace. For an engaging introduction to MOOs and MUDs, I recommend Howard Reingold's The Virtual Community: Homesteading on the Electronic Frontier (New York: Harper-Perennial, 1993).

  12. Montieth M. Illingworth, “Looking for Mr. Goodbyte,” Mirabella (December 1994), pp. 108-17.

  13. Lynn Cherny. “Gender Differences in Text-Based Virtual Reality.” Internet ftp location:* (1994).

  14. Quoted in Amy Bruckman, “Identity Workshop: Emergent Social and Psychological Phenomena in Text-Based Virtual Reality.” Internet ftp location:* (1992), p. 35. My thanks to Amy for pointing towards her paper on MediaMOO.

  15. Neuromancer, p. 262.

  16. For instance, see Peter Bieri, “Thinking Machines: Some Reflections on the Turing Test,” Poetics Today 9:1 (1988): 163-86; Timothy Clark, “The Turing Test as a Novel Form of Hermeneutics,” International Studies in Philosophy 24:1 (1989): 17-31; Robert M. French, “Subcognition and the Limits of the Turing Test,” Mind 99:393 (January 1990): 53-65; and Mary McGee Wood, “Signification and Simulation: Barthes's Response to Turing,” Paragraph 11 (1988): 211-26.

Victoria de Zwaan (essay date November 1997)

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SOURCE: de Zwaan, Victoria. “Rethinking the Slipstream: Kathy Acker Reads Neuromancer.Science-Fiction Studies 24, no. 3 (November 1997): 459-70.

[In the following essay, de Zwaan comments on the elements of cyberpunk science fiction and postmodern experimentation in Neuromancer, noting the influence of Thomas Pynchon, Kathy Acker, and Jean Baudrillard on the novel.]

The best known cyberpunk manifesto … cannily describes the cyberpunk school's aspirations not in terms of conceits, but as the reflection of a new cultural synthesis being born in the 1980s, making it essentially a paradoxical form of realism.

(Csicsery-Ronay 182)

Sf is a genre seeking to bury the generic, attempting to transcend itself so as to destroy itself as the degraded “low.”

(Luckhurst, “Polemic” 44)

The guiding premise of Larry McCaffery's Storming the Reality Studio, still the definitive work to date on cyberpunk, is spelled out in McCaffery's introduction:

In a basic sense … this book is dedicated to the proposition that the interaction between genre sf and the literary avant-garde—two groups traditionally segregated (at least in the United States) and, hence, not influencing one another directly—needs to be noted, discussed, and encouraged.


This “interaction” is defined in different ways throughout the volume: McCaffery refers to “parallel developments” (2), Brian McHale to a “feedback loop” (314). The concept that describes this idea most efficiently, and that is now used casually by a number of sf critics, is Bruce Sterling's term “slipstream,” with its suggestion that there has emerged a new kind of text that lies on the margins of both mainstream and science fiction. It is this particular term, or rather the complex of issues it raises, that I investigate in this paper.

If “slipstream” refers to the intersection of “postmodernized sf” (McHale 317), notably cyberpunk, and “quasi-sf” postmodernist fiction (McCaffery 2) by such writers as Thomas Pynchon and Kathy Acker (see articles by Hollinger, McCaffery, and McHale in Reality Studio for detailed lists), then it is clear that the common terms, the terms that require clarification, are postmodernism and science fiction. It is my argument that, while the idea of a connection between postmodernist experimentalism and cyberpunk sf is potentially useful and interesting, the descriptions in the McCaffery volume are somewhat confused and even misleading.

The claim that Neuromancer is postmodernist sf relies on two related definitions of postmodernism, one sociological and one literary-stylistic. The first, sociological definition has to do with a historical placement of cyberpunk into contemporary techno-culture. That is, following the arguments about “late capitalism” by Mandel and Jameson, a number of critics situate cyberpunk in a “postmodern reality” (Hollinger 217), or what McCaffery, following the theories of Debord, Baudrillard, and Kroker, calls “the postmodern desert” (McCaffery 6). From this vantage point, some of the most pressing social, political, and existential issues of our time—the complicated interfaces between technology and human beings, the global realities of post-industrial capitalism, and the implications for identity and agency of the processes of simulation—these issues themselves define the postmodern condition. Accordingly, cyberpunk, which foregrounds these novums, comes to be defined as postmodern sf, at least in part because it is thought to explore an objective postmodern culture.1

What clinches this definition of Neuromancer as postmodernist, however, is the fact that the narrative surface of the novel echoes recent non-sf avant-garde writings, particularly by such writers as Thomas Pynchon and William Burroughs. Themes of American postmodern experimental fiction—paranoia, indeterminacy, uncertainty, popular culture, history, science, identity, technology—are certainly featured in Gibson's novel, and in literary critical discussions of cyberpunk. I would say, however, that the deeper structure of Neuromancer is to be contrasted with that of contemporary experimental fiction. Specifically, the invention of cyberspace as a novelty in sf does not in itself undermine the specific (and realist) conventions that are crucial to traditional sf, in which the other worlds, whether of the present or the future, have ontological and narrative coherence. In experimental fictions such as those of Kathy Acker, this stability is simply unavailable. I will develop this point shortly.

The other claim, that such postmodernist vanguardists as Pynchon, Burroughs, and Acker write a species of science fiction, or are influenced by science fiction, is also somewhat problematic.2 This is not to say that sf has had no impact on the mainstream, but rather that it is difficult to ascertain whether it is the science or the fiction that creates the relationship between sf and non-sf.3 Certainly, it is indisputable that “the presence of Pynchon's texts … is pervasive in cyberpunk” (McHale 315); but that does not mean that Pynchon's texts can themselves be called even quasi-sf. After all, science makes its appearance in many different genres, both fiction and non-fiction; sf is surely defined as a genre, however, because of particular conventions about how science is to make that appearance.

More specifically, the acknowledged influence on cyberpunk of Pynchon and other writers is an example of what I would call “trickle-down postmodernism,”4 perhaps a quintessential feature of the intertextual nature of writing itself. Put differently, in his interview with McCaffery in Reality Studio, Gibson cites Pynchon this way:

Pynchon has been a favorite writer and a major influence all along. In many ways I see him as almost the start of a certain mutant breed of SF—the cyberpunk thing, the SF that mixes surrealism and pop culture imagery with esoteric historical and scientific information. Pynchon is a kind of mythic hero of mine. …


Here, Gibson cites certain techniques in Pynchon's work that become part of the stylistic surface of his own text. The significance of Pynchon's work to writing, then, is not that it is early sf, but precisely that it is avant-garde; conversely, particular experimental techniques that become common currency in other genres do not render those new texts themselves cutting-edge.5

Postmodernism is, of course, a slippery term; and I will not attempt to resolve contemporary debates around it here. However, I should say that I think we reduce the heuristic power of the concept when we subsume postmodernist fiction into an objective and knowable “postmodern reality.” This move promotes a mimetic view of fictions that notoriously resist interpretation, and provides a determinate political position from which to overcome that resistance. My own literary-critical use of the term postmodernist fiction takes seriously that there are texts, anti-realist in both content and structure, in which the self-conscious experimentation with narrative conventions disrupts textual closure and precludes determinate meaning.

In Constructing Postmodernism, Brian McHale suggests that Kathy Acker's plagiarism from two episodes from William Gibson's Neuromancer in the first section of Empire of the Senseless is “pointless,” “apart from … producing the ‘sampling’ effect itself” (234). Istvan Csicsery-Ronay Jr criticizes McHale's argument in the following way:

McHale is content to speculate—tautologically—that Acker is simply attracted to the same repertoire of motifs that a mainstream postmodernist like Acker would be attracted to. Why Acker should be attracted to Gibson to make her “blank parodies” and sentence violation is bracketed out.

(“An Elaborate Suggestion” 463)

In my view, McHale's argument is limited, not simply by the tautological circularity Csicsery-Ronay rightly points to, but also by the very notions of pointlessness, violation, and parody that guide his reading of Acker's work. I will argue in what follows that, despite the introduction of crude pornographic passages into canonical texts and other literary disruptions, Acker does not do violence or destroy her source texts: rather, in what turn out to be cogent, creative, and even sensitive readings, she creates a narrative of desublimation for each of the narratives she uses. On this reading, the term parody, particularly in relation to the term pointless, is too narrow especially because McHale is clearly drawing on Jameson's notion of pastiche or “blank parody” (Postmodernism 114)6 in thinking about Acker's work. In short, the descriptors above tell us very little about what Acker achieves in her use of Neuromancer either at the level of content or at the level of genre, to the extent that these two can be legitimately separated.

Specifically, and starting with genre, Acker's deployment of Neuromancer into the radically counter-realist fabric of Senseless foregrounds the rigid sf frame, as well as the series of both sf and non-sf realist conventions that function to give closure and coherence to her source text. As I will show in the following discussion, what Acker does with Neuromancer in Senseless places Gibson's work squarely into the mainstream American novelistic tradition, and far away from the avant-garde experimentalism her own work embodies.

At the level of content, Empire of the Senseless neither parodies nor does violence to Gibson's text. Appropriating both character and structure from the opening of Neuromancer, Acker deploys this “ready-made” for her own narrative, which engages (as does all her work) with the history of western narratives. In this case, Acker addresses particularly American themes, American myths, and, consequently, American texts. In Empire of the Senseless, Acker bases her first-ever male protagonist, Thivai, on two quintessentially American prototypes: Gibson's Case from Neuromancer, and Twain's Huck from Huckleberry Finn. It is interesting that, although the texture of Senseless is, like Acker's other novels, a seamless jumble of metonymically and metaphorically related discourses, she does not juxtapose or link her “readings” of Twain and Gibson from one paragraph or sentence to the next. Instead, she structures (creates seams for) the first section of the novel around the opening of Neuromancer, and the last section around the ending of Huckleberry Finn. The meeting of Case and Molly, then, is the model for the “romance” between Acker's Thivai and Abhor; and the final separation of Jim and Huck is the model for Abhor leaving Thivai at the end of Senseless. What are the connections between these two American “classics” besides the fact that Gibson implies one by naming one of his characters Finn?

The most obvious connection, of course, is that Gibson's Case is, like Huck Finn, the loner “cowboy,” the adventurer who constantly eludes, not only the arm of the law, but also the weakness of “meat” connections and emotions—symbolized in both books by women. On this reading, cyberspace is the new version of the frontier so prominent in the American literary and philosophical imagination, and the transcendence Case desires is metaphorically related to the myth of absolute freedom pursued in Huckleberry Finn by both Huck and Jim. The fact that Acker moves backwards, from contemporary versions of the American Dream to a nineteenth-century version, is very telling: when Abhor (the textual equivalent at this juncture of runaway slave Jim) rides away on her motorcycle, she has written a wish-fulfillment narrative for herself in which freedom from slavery is possible. This is not an option in the Neuromancer text, where transcendence has become the poverty-stricken notion of jacking into the speedy, but highly ordered and entirely “mapped” (“already written,” as Jacques Derrida would put it) world of high-tech, multinational “biz.”

Thivai's character, which does not have the solidity or coherence of Case or Huck, desublimates repressed aspects of both. Acker gives Thivai an entirely unreliable history of sexual and emotional abuse that nevertheless accounts for and then links up the death wish of Case with the sadism of Huck. More specifically, if briefly, the scene that Acker takes from Twain is one in which Huck and Tom Sawyer refuse to rescue Jim from jail in a straightforward way, because Tom wants the whole caper to have risk and romance to it. In Senseless, likewise, Thivai and Mark are reluctant to rescue Abhor:

we told her … she was going to have to get permanently and seriously maimed escaping from her jail because escaping from jail is a difficult and dangerous thing for a man to do.


In Acker's recycling of this material, she highlights the sadistic impulses of Thivai and Mark—impulses that at least superficially serve comedy in Huckleberry Finn.7

There are several other twists of interest to us in Acker's use of Twain's text. In particular, Thivai/Huck is the one that lands Abhor/Jim in jail, motivated by his resentment that “she was as strong as I was,” and “just like Ahab” (192). Once she gets arrested, Thivai feels remorseful enough to want to rescue Abhor, although his desire is primarily stimulated by the fact that this will obligate her to him: “I really like the idea of stealing Abhor” (195). This combined theme of slavery and imprisonment is a recurring motif in Acker's fictions, and it is often explored through appropriations, not only of deSadean and pornographic texts, but also of canonical American and British novels: The Scarlet Letter in Blood and Guts in High School and Jane Eyre in Don Quixote are two good examples. Perhaps the most important point about the use of the rescue-from-jail scene in Senseless is that Abhor clearly chooses to be Thivai's victim. Just as Twain's Jim can break his chains—although he does not necessarily know it—any time he is ready, it turns out that Abhor knows all along that she can escape from the prison by herself at any time. She can only do so, however, once she is ready to give up on Thivai; once, that is, she is ready to “break out of the prison of her mind” (Blood and Guts in High School 98). Abhor's realization, at the end of Senseless, is that Thivai represents death, and that she is in pursuit of life.

This brings us back to Case. When we first meet Case in Gibson's text, he is a suicidal drug addict, who has fallen out of cyberspace/paradise and into the world of flesh or “meat.” In the “Nightmare City” section of Senseless, Acker reworks Gibson's “Night City,” making a number of crucial changes. The most significant of these, besides the name-change which speaks for itself, is that Thivai has not been incapacitated by neural circuitry damage. Instead, he has developed an incapacitating psychosis since contracting gonorrhea: “I'm … physically and mentally damaged because my only desire is to suicide” (27). With this move, Acker diagnoses Thivai/Case's problem, not so much as an objective medical-health issue, whether that be neurological or sexual, but rather as the psychotic death-wish that is a feature of the male protagonist of both Neuromancer and Senseless. The other implication of this change is that the obsession with cyberspace is, like gonorrhea, a disease. Moreover, it may be a sexual disease. Certainly, Gibson's Case, who cannot even take responsibility for his own urination when he is “jacked in,” is sexually dysfunctional when he is in cyberspace.

I am not claiming here that Acker is introducing anything fundamentally (thematically) new into her reading of Neuromancer. On the contrary, Gibson builds into his text a self-conscious awareness on the part of Case that he rejects the “meat” emotions of love, attachment, and bodily pleasures; and the Case-Molly partnership is deliberately set up as a mind-body combination. Even as he sneers at “meat” technologies, Case is fascinated, in fact seduced, by the way Molly moves, and by her unfathomable survival instinct. Furthermore, the fact that Gibson's Case literally dies, flatlines, when he is in cyberspace makes Case's death-wish very explicit.

What Acker does with this material is to pick out the self-reflexive aspects of Gibson's text in order to recycle them into a more deliberately and overtly intertextual metafiction. In particular, she introduces into Gibson's material a foregrounded psycho-sexual subtext, often using another “ready-made,” the psychoanalytic narrative. Thivai can say things that Case can't:

I didn't bother saying anything. It's a policy of mine: Don't believe in human speech as anything but a stuffer of time. I would, and I would have, run away, but there's no place to which to run, so the only safety is in psychosis and drugs.


This is one small example of a strategy of de-sublimation. Case does not talk about safety; but Acker's Thivai makes it explicit that his primary motivation is fear, or a need for safety from “human speech,” from the vulnerability of connection with others. On Acker's reading, then, this escape is what Case seeks in cyberspace, Huck Finn in the frontier; Thivai, who cannot escape, expresses his fear through his psychosis, which, as I have already suggested, eventually takes a futile form of sadism.

What clearly draws Acker to Gibson's work, however, apart from the motif of loner-cowboy male protagonist, is, of course, the implied deconstruction in Gibson's novel, at least at the thematic level, of the integrity of human identity itself. If an Artificial Intelligence can orchestrate the plot, and personalities can be downloaded from and uploaded into computer programs, our sense of “humanity” is severely problematized. In a section called “Beyond the Extinction of Human Life,” Acker's text specifically addresses this issue of the constructed nature of identity and personality, but, it should be noted, without the apparatus of Gibson's sf. That is, Acker strips her version of Neuromancer of the basic structuring principles of the source novel, that is, of the “neu.” AI, which means “Artificial Intelligence” in cyberpunk—actually, in all sf—refers to “American Intelligence” here; the references to computers do not refer to the matrix; references to “Screaming Fist” are expunged and replaced by references to the Korean War; there are references to AIDS and other contemporary sexually-transmitted diseases; most significantly, there is no mention of cyberspace. This erasure of the sf novum that provides for coherence in Gibson's text hardly constitutes a casual or pointless changing of superficial details: Acker's use of Gibson deconstructs, quite literally, the conventions and principles that make Neuromancer a cyberpunk sf novel that “makes sense.” In so doing, she reveals the stable and realist nature of those conventions.

Specifically, when Thivai, having learnt that Dr Schreber (the Armitage of Senseless) will be able to cure him, says, “I, whoever I was, was going to be a construct” (33), the term “construct” does not mean what it does in Neuromancer. In Gibson's text, this is a reference to the “reconstruction” of biological into artificial “mind”: the “Dixie Flatline” is the “downloaded” mind of what used to be a real person; and Neuromancer is itself a scientifically produced artificial intelligence. These beings are “written” or constructed as data-entry, but there is nevertheless something prior to the construct, namely the biological entity, as well as a scientific principle involved in its creation. Furthermore, even though the gap in Gibson's text between the present and the future is very narrow, as many critics have pointed out, there is nevertheless an “otherness” about the textual world he creates. In Acker's text, on the other hand, “construct” has no scientific (or futuristic) meaning; rather, the term refers to what one could call, following Jacques Derrida, the “already written” nature of mind, reality, and text.

Similarly, the introduction of Abhor into Senseless as “half-robot” does not tell us what the term means: could it be a metaphor for her personality; or is it to be taken literally? At a different level altogether, Thivai and Abhor discuss that the construct they seek is called “Kathy” (34). This metafictional move gestures, not to the interface between technology and humanity, as is the case of the “construct” reference in Neuromancer, but to the constructed nature of narrative and character in Senseless. Put differently, the “construct” in Neuromancer is a particular phenomenon or product of research into artificial intelligence. In Senseless, it is much less determinate and comprehensible; and it disrupts conventional notions of character, agency, and personality.

Even at the most basic level of plot, Acker's version of the Neuromancer story refuses us the satisfaction of an ending. Once Abhor/Molly kills Schreber/Armitage, Thivai and Abhor find themselves at a dead end. Although their prototypes, Case and Molly, are able, with the help of Wintermute, to carry out their mission, Thivai and Abhor find themselves inside other narratives, other discourses, other multiple constructions. Gibson, on the other hand, gives his readers the satisfaction of a beginning, a middle, and an end; of relationships; of crises and tension; of coherence; of resolutions, however ironic; even of some good sex. Furthermore, despite the idea of cyborgian constructs, he gives us rounded characters in the mode of Dickens or any other realist writer. As Claire Sponsler notes, despite the apparent, or potential undermining of subjectivity implied by the surface of Neuromancer, Gibson's protagonists “fit the well-known mold of the free-willed, self-aware, humanist subject” (637). Even the Dixie Flatline construct has a constant and consistent personality structure and a voice that, as Glenn Grant brilliantly points out, uncannily invokes that of William Burroughs (44).

Acker's stripping of the sf frame from her reading of Neuromancer reveals, and sets into relief, the necessary rigidity of that frame for the coherence and pleasure of Gibson's novel. That is, the scientific novelties—virtual reality/cyberspace; programmable humanoids; immortality through programming—allow the text its measure of suspension of disbelief. As in all good sf, no matter what the subject matter or thematic interest, from Star Trek to Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, there is a great deal of scientific explanation that keeps in place the coherence of the possible world being created in the text. This is, in fact, a traditional realist technique adapted to the needs of a futuristic or fantastic fiction; and it is no less true of Neuromancer than of I, Robot. The constant reminders that Case is jacking in, or cleaning his trodes, or inserting a catheter while he is in cyberspace all contribute to the impermeable generic wall around the text.

The best example of how this works is a comparison between a phrase in Gibson's text, and its “quotation” by Acker. During Case's water break during the Dixie Flatline robbery, Case sees on the screen that “a pulsing red cursor crept through the outline of a doorway” (65). This cursor actually represents Molly's position close to the cabinet where the Dixie Flatline is stored. As readers, we know what a cursor looks like, and given the scientific information we have been given, we know that when he is not in cyberspace, the computer screen can give Case information as to Molly's whereabouts because there is a particular technology, we have been told, that has achieved this. In our daily, extra-textual lives, moreover, we are aware that such computer tracking devices exist. The point is that we have no trouble understanding the reference here; the frame gives us the information we need to follow this as easily as a line in a Jane Austen novel that describes someone putting on a hat, even though we have never been in Molly's or Case's actual (textual) situation.

Almost the very same phrase makes its appearance in Senseless: “A pulsing red and black cursor crept through the outline of the doorway” (34). In Acker's text, however, this comes out of nowhere. It has not been prepared for, provided for, or given a context: it does not signify. Or rather, what it does, especially if the reader is familiar with Neuromancer, is provoke confusion: is the whole text of Senseless actually inside cyberspace? Is this more simply a powerful metaphor that points to the virtual reality of textual space? This is a deliberate violation of the conventional pact between writer and reader, in which the latter suspends disbelief as long as this disbelief is not stretched too far, and the former either sticks to the realm of the possible outside the text itself, or creates a new set of rules for understanding what can be possible inside a given textual world. In contrast with Acker, this is a pact entirely and absolutely honored by Gibson.

When McCaffery suggests that interaction between avant-garde and sf writing should be encouraged, this is partly because, that way, sf will be regarded as more “serious” and “important.” Claire Sponsler suggests, in fact, that sf is struggling against ghettoization (625), while McHale attributes the growing “legitimation” of sf to the “high degree of overlap” between sf and the mainstream avant garde (320). The term “slipstream” is not simply a descriptor of objective relationships between different types of fiction, then; rather, it reveals a desire for legitimation, for the erasure of the boundaries between what John Clute calls “greasy genre stuff” and the “haute sf” (Evidence 423) that potentially belongs in the category of (capital L) Literature.

In his provocative and eloquent polemic, “The Many Deaths of SF,” Roger Luckhurst traces the connection between two ongoing features of sf criticism: the overt desire for legitimation, and the prevalence of what he calls “fantasies of death” (“Polemic” 47). As Luckhurst puts it: “Sf is a genre seeking to bury the generic, attempting to transcend itself so as to destroy itself as the degraded ‘low’” (“Polemic” 44). In this way, he accounts for what he calls the “panic narrative of degeneration” (“Polemic” 47), in which sf is “haunted by its own death” (“Polemic” 35), or at the very least, and as he fully documents, “constantly entertains fantasies of death” (“Polemic” 47). On this reading, the attempt to erase the boundaries between genre-sf and mainstream Literature entails “the very destruction of the genre” (“Polemic” 38).

The notion of the slipstream takes on a different meaning in the light of Luckhurst's argument. Bruce Sterling presumably coined the term to refer to fictions that were neither mainstream nor entirely sf, but a new avant-garde hybrid. However, if we take the metaphor to its logical conclusion, as John Clute does so cleverly in Look at the Evidence, we see that those in the slipstream are “in tow” (Clute 197) of the wake created by something much larger, whether that is traditional genre-sf (what Clute customarily calls Dinosaur or First sf) or, more likely, that “fantasy projection of sf” (Luckhurst, “Border Policing” 365), “the Mainstream” of Literature-with-a-capital-L.

As Luckhurst points out, many critics have, for many different reasons, announced the end or the death of sf. However, when someone like John Clute argues that “it may not be the worst thing that ever happened to sf that it died” (17), he is referring to a particular type of writing, or a particular set of thematic concerns or philosophical and political assumptions. The genre itself is, if Neuromancer is anything to judge by, alive and well. To be sure, there is a danger that the genuine introduction of avant-garde experimentation into sf would mean the end of sf itself. After all, the sf tradition has managed to produce many fine, serious, provocative, and cutting-edge novels—of which Neuromancer is certainly one—and it will continue to do so; but not if it strips itself of the realist conventions that have made it powerful; and that allow it to explore, to crassly quote Star Trek, “strange new worlds.” Avant-garde writing that appears to borrow from sf tends to use it for very different purposes, and certainly not for the same purposes as sf proper.

As for the notion of a postmodernized sf, we fall into tautology. If postmodern refers to an objective cultural reality, then any novel that examines that reality in any way will be called postmodern. If it is meant to refer to sf that has been transformed by avant-garde postmodernist fictions, then I would have to argue that the experimental novels written by Acker and others refuse a closure that is crucial to sf. The range of reference and allusion in Neuromancer may mirror the surface of postmodern experimentalism, but this remains a matter of style, not structure. Its function is to establish a setting, and not to undermine conventional systems of signification.

Neuromancer, unlike Senseless, is a “great read.” Acker's interpretive and transformative reworking of Gibson's storyline does not produce the same kind of textual surface or textual depth; in other words, it would make for terrible sf. Read as avant-garde experimentalism, however, her work is challenging, disruptive, and intellectually interesting. I would not recommend Acker to someone who wanted to relax and be transported by an absorbing story; nor would I recommend Gibson to someone who wanted to read avant-garde experimental fiction. I say this because it is clear, in the light of Acker's work, that Neuromancer does not disrupt the conventions either of realist fiction or science fiction.


  1. McCaffery reprints, in Reality Studio, a portion of Fredric Jameson's Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, perhaps the best statement of one of the ruling paradigms of postmodernism as a new cultural form that requires “cognitive mapping.” In one footnote to that book, Jameson calls cyberpunk “the supreme literary expression if not of postmodernism, then of late capitalism itself’ (419).

    In a review article of McCaffery's text, “The Post-Liberal Mind/Body, Postmodern Fiction, and the Case of Cyberpunk SF,” John Fekete argues that this kind of description of cyberpunk:

    not only reduce[s] the feature wealth of both cyberpunk and postmodernism, but also dilute[s] cyberpunk sf's normal specificity (and thus its specific novelty and effects) as a transitional literary form.


    Randy Schroeder also takes issue with the notion that Gibson's world is the postmodernist reality described by postmodernist writers:

    Gibson's universe recapitulates the traditional Western terms for thinking about the world, in that his fiction exhibits a constant tension and interplay between conceptions of determinacy and indeterminacy, realism and anti-realism.


  2. In The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, John Clute and Peter Nicholls suggest that “arguably [Kathy Acker] influenced cyberpunk more than it influenced her” (290). Putting that to one side, the more general point here is that the experimental levels of any genre may at any given time have common characteristics. Detective fiction, then, may have some conventional forms, but one is always going to find someone working away at the edges to subvert the very notion of the detective: and then a writer like Pynchon will come along and give us, in The Crying of Lot 49, a character like Oedipa Maas, a detective who has no clues! Does that mean that the detective story and the avant-garde of experimentalism are in contact. Yes, of course it does. The sf influence on more “mainstream” work, is at the level, however, of subject matter, and not of formal innovation.

  3. This is a point of difficulty raised by McCaffery himself when he says about the role of science and technology in avant-garde fiction:

    one gets less a sense of these authors consciously borrowing from genre sf norms than of their introducing these elements simply because the world around them demands that they be present.

    (Reality Studio 10-11)

    In a slightly different vein, Miriyam Glazer points out that there is a narrowing gap between science and literary culture: “in our era, science and technology are no longer remote from the everyday life of the culture” (155). Writers who engage with the discourses, if not necessarily the facts of contemporary culture, would be very likely, then, to address the growing sense of the omnipresence of technology in our everyday lives.

  4. Brian McHale uses the term “trickle-down modernism” in his article in Reality Studio to talk about the way he thinks certain modernist features worked their way through a series of intermediaries to “a wide range of mass market media” (311). I think that the notion of “trickle-down” made famous by Reaganomics intrinsically recognizes that the deployment at the bottom of the scale has less power than at the top. That is, features associated with postmodernist fiction may find their way into texts that would not be called postmodern for any other reason.

  5. The stylistic features of what McCaffery calls the “postmodernist aesthetic” (Reality Studio 14) cannot in themselves constitute postmodernism. Perhaps a good recent example is that of a bank using Bob Dylan's song, “The times, they are a changing” to bring customers through their doors, as opposed to the uses of popular song in a text like Gravity's Rainbow.

    Linda Hutcheon suggests in The Politics of Postmodernism that it is the former kind of “borrowing” that perhaps deserves the rather negative concept of pastiche that Jameson claims characterizes postmodernist fiction. She says:

    the politics of postmodern parodic representation is not the same as that of most rock videos' use of allusions to standard film genres or texts. This is what should be called pastiche, according to Jameson's definition. In postmodern parody, the doubleness of the politics of authorized transgression remains intact: there is no dialectic resolution or recuperative evasion of contradiction in narrative fiction, painting, photography, or film.

    (Hutcheon 107)

    I do not want to address Jameson's “Pastiche” or Hutcheon's “Parody” here—see next note. The point is that the adoption of a particular style can signify different things in different contexts.

  6. Jameson has used the term “Pastiche” to draw attention to what he thinks of as the empty or blank quality of the parodies he encounters in postmodernism, which reflect, in his view “the death of the subject” or the end of individualist ideology (Postmodernism 114). In The Politics of Postmodernism, Linda Hutcheon argues that postmodernist parody performs a critical, usually metafictional strategy for the subversion of dominant cultural values. Both of these views, though different on the surface, rely on the paradigm of postmodernism as the “metanarrative” of capitalism. This particular formula is rather too narrow, in my view, to be very useful in discussing experimental postmodernist fictions, because it upholds a Marxist base-superstructure model, in which the surface of the text is not really disruptive of convention, but rather reveals the true, underlying nature of things in the non-textual world that produces it.

  7. Discussing this section of Senseless in an interview, Acker says, “Twain was obsessed with racism; me with sexism. I am a reader and take notes on what I read” (Friedman 36). Her reading of Huckleberry Finn picks up on the undercurrents of racism to be found in Huck throughout Twain's novel.

Works Cited

Acker, Kathy. Blood and Guts in High School. NY: Grove Press, 1978.

———. Don Quixote, Which Was a Dream. NY: Grove Press, 1986.

———. Empire of the Senseless. NY: Grove Press, 1988.

Clute, John. Look at the Evidence: Essays and Reviews. Brooklyn, NY: Serconia Press, 1995.

Clute, John, and Peter Nicholls, eds. The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction. NY: St Martin's Press, 1993.

Csicsery-Ronay, Jr., Istvan. “An Elaborate Suggestion: Review of Brian McHale's Constructing Postmodernism.SFS 20: 457-64, #61, Nov 1993.

———. “Cyberpunk and Neuromanticism.” McCaffery, Storming, q.v. 182-93.

Fekete, John. “The Post-Liberal Mind/Body, Postmodern Fiction, and the Case of Cyberpunk SF.” SFS 19: 395-402, #58, Nov 1992.

Friedman, Ellen. “A Conversation with Kathy Acker.” Special Issue on Acker. Review of Contemporary Fiction. Ed. Ellen Friedman and Miriam Fuchs. 9.3: 12-22, Fall 1989.

Gibson, William. Neuromancer. NY: Ace Books, 1984.

Glazer, Miriyam. “‘What Is Within Nor Seen Without’: Romanticism, Neuromanticism, and the Death of Imagination in William Gibson's Fictive World.” Journal of Popular Culture 23.3: 155-64, Winter 1989.

Grant, Glenn. “Transcendence through Detournement in William Gibson's Neuromancer,SFS 17: 41-49, #50, March 1990.

Hollinger, Veronica. “Cybernetic Deconstructions: Cyberpunk and Postmodernism.” McCaffery, Storming, q.v. 203-18.

Hutcheon, Linda. The Politics of Postmodernism. London and NY: Methuen, 1989.

Jameson, Fredric. Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Durham, NC: Duke UP, 1991.

Luckhurst, Roger. “Border Policing: Postmodernism and Science Fiction.” SFS 18: 358-66, #55, Nov 1991.

———. “The Many Deaths of Science Fiction: A Polemic.” SFS 21: 38-50, #62, March 1994.

McCaffery, Larry. “An Interview with William Gibson.” McCaffery, Storming, q.v. 263-85.

———. “Introduction: the Desert of the Real.” McCaffery, Storming, q.v. 1-16.

———, ed. Storming the Reality Studio: A Casebook of Cyberpunk and Postmodern Fiction. Durham and London: Duke UP, 1991.

McHale, Brian. Constructing Postmodernism. London: Routledge, 1992.

———. “POSTcyberMODERNpunkISM.” McCaffery, Storming, q.v. 308-23.

Schroeder, Randy. “Determinacy, Indeterminacy, and the Romantic in William Gibson.” SFS 21: 155-63, #63, July 1994.

Sponsler, Claire. “Cyberpunk and the Dilemmas of Postmodern Narrative: The Example of William Gibson.” Contemporary Literature 33: 625-44, Winter 1992.

Kevin Concannon (essay date winter 1998)

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SOURCE: Concannon, Kevin. “The Contemporary Space of the Border: Gloria Anzaldúa's Borderlands and William Gibson's Neuromancer.Textual Practice 12, no. 3 (winter 1998): 429-42.

[In the following essay, Concannon discusses the thematic motif of the border and how it relates to self-identity in Neuromancer and Gloria Anzaldúa's Borderlands/La Frontera.]


When Charles Edwards and a female passenger stopped at a Barstow gas station on a late September day in 1992, little did they know that two hours later they would be just north of Burbank, almost 122 miles from Barstow, and far from alone. In fact, as they sped along the California freeways, they were being followed by at least seven police cars and four helicopters, numerous television and radio trucks, countless spectators, and an even larger television and radio audience, who watched and listened as the spectacle unfolded.

According to news reports, Edwards had kidnapped his female passenger in Barstow, where he picked up the police escort. As the pursuit continued, criss-crossing city and county boundaries at speeds upwards of seventy to eighty miles an hour, the chase pack grew as spectators lined overpasses and civilians followed behind. Television and radio stations interrupted their normal broadcasting to follow the image of police cars, television trucks and interested bystanders heedlessly speeding up and down the LA freeways.

The disorganized and seemingly chaotic chase group proved a perfect match for Edwards' chaotic driving, as he would unexpectedly drive on to the freeway shoulder and into emergency lanes, or would haphazardly jump from freeway to freeway in a futile attempt to escape. Trying to anticipate his helter-skelter movements and to prevent injury, the police blocked on-ramps and diverted traffic, carving an inviting path of open space for Edwards within the larger commuter gridlock of the late afternoon rush-hour.

Even though this corridor proved as much a prison as an escape route, as news and police helicopters followed overhead and officers and reporters tailed close behind on the ground, Edwards continued through this spaciousness as fast as his car would carry him. The plan was to give Edwards just enough freedom, just enough ‘open’ space, so that he would run out of gas before killing himself or someone else. Edwards wished never to do so, of course, not wanting to relinquish his celebrity status or these perks of unrestricted movement. Celebrity, however, was truly fleeting in this case, even on the Hollywood freeway, and almost as soon as his path was blocked by a plumber's truck, Edwards surrendered peacefully. What was seemingly already a foregone conclusion to every spectator had finally come to pass: Edwards' car was surrounded and he was taken into custody.

The spectacle ended with his capture, diminishing popular interest quickly, and little was heard of Charles Edwards ever again, save for a few incoherent comments from the back of a police car on the evening news. The rapid shift by the news stations from this foiled escape to an analysis of how fast the freeway could return to normal only quickened Edwards' disappearance from popular consciousness. The chase pack of police cars, concerned citizens and news vans evaporated in less than twenty minutes, themselves in an Edwards-like rush to broadcast the pictures of his flight along the circuitous path of the airwaves.

Though not chased by the police, the narrator, in Italo Calvino's aptly titled story, ‘The Chase’, is also attempting to escape.1 The narrator is pursued by a single gunman who is trying to kill him, and as he considers his options for escape in the slowdown of rush-hour gridlock, he grows to realize the sympathetic bond between himself and his pursuer. He recognizes that his movements are tied to those of the gunman; that in fact his movements are themselves held by the movements and actions of his pursuer. The narrator's safety, it would seem, is found only by recognizing his own involvement in the chase, that he himself is both the pursued and the pursuer. For the narrator, even after turning down a cross street and leaving the gunman behind, to escape means also to recognize that ‘nothing has changed: the line moves in little, irregular shifts of position, [and] I am still prisoner of the general system of moving cars, where neither pursuers nor pursued can be distinguished’.2

The freedom the narrator achieves in terms of containment compares favourably with that experienced by Edwards. The difference is that Edwards' flight and capture points to a less totalizing image of control, presenting instead a more fluid structure, one that actually allows him the physical freedom to move to the left or the right, but still not allowing him the freedom to escape. It seems that no matter how fast Edwards drives, there is no space beyond for him to go where the police cannot; he is forced to try to escape within the police perimeter rather than trying to find a space beyond. Instead of making a ‘run for the border’ like the narrator in Calvino's story, then cutting a logical and unidirectional path away he has to rely upon the illogical and the multidirectional, to traverse the space of the known in an unexpected way, jumping from freeway to freeway, turning around abruptly, speeding up and slowing down, and even putting innocent lives at risk, so as to disappear without ever really leaving. The space of sanctuary is not beyond a boundary here, not found by driving as far or as fast as possible, even if Edwards still seems to search for it; it is within the space of capture itself. To borrow from Lech Witkowski, a ‘sanctuary of ambivalence’3 has replaced a vision of the separateness of a space beyond, where Edwards' freedom is only to be found in terms of control.

This double meaning of escape, as the search by Edwards to access a space beyond the border, and the escape as containment that Edwards experiences within the police boundary, draws on the complex etymology of the term ‘border’. As John T. Juricek has noted, the border, at once, can mark the limit of space (as a borderline) and the crossing or merging across this limit (as a border territory).4 The border, therefore, is the line of separation as it is the space of merging; it is the line of escape as it is the spaciousness of involvement. This ambivalence, as marked by Witkowski, complicates our perception of the spaciousness ‘beyond’ the border, rendering nationalist and subject identities (we vs. other) uncertain and distorted.5 The border as zone complicates difference even as it promotes separation, creating the ‘space’ for oppositional strategies even as it renders uncertain the separation these strategies seek to create.

D. Emily Hicks, in her book Border Writing, speaks of the attempt of border writers to develop this ambiguity, to ‘undermine the distinction between the original and alien culture … [giving] the reader the opportunity to practice multidimensional perception and nonsynchronous memory’.6 To Hicks, the border and border writing speaks to a disruption of meaning, of a referential crossing that joins the compatible with the incompatible. The result can be a nonsynchronous textuality, as exemplified by Hicks in Gabriel Garcia Marquez's A Hundred Years of Solitude. The uncertain distinction between the past and the future in the novel causes objects to ‘take on additional meaning’ and frees characters ‘from a single ordering or sequencing of reality’ (p. 4). Border texts write the supplement, creating a plurality of meaning that expresses the hybrid experiences of those who exist in terms of the merging in-between.

Drawing on the experiences of the pollo as an example, Hicks argues that border writing prevents one from referring to ‘a clearly defined “subjective” or “objective” meaning. Rather, there is a refusal of the metonymic reduction in which a white, male, Western “subject” dominates an “object”’ (p. xxv). There is no way to distinguish, creating a pollo writing that problematizes those oppositions which frame gender and colonial issues. Ultimately a literature of resistance that refuses to resist in oppositional terms, then, border writing looks instead to create a hybrid spaciousness that questions how difference is determined.

The hope this writing provides, both in its attention to those who are displaced and in its recalibrating our more abstract conceptions of identity and place, however, must be balanced with the concern which Edwards' car chase raises over the border space as boundary. By this I mean the potential that Hicks sees in border writing to heal the global body or to calm ‘the storm of progress blowing from Paradise’ (p. xxxi) glosses over the possibility of the border as a spaciousness of control, the spaciousness of merging rethinking and re-creating difference. Border writing is presented only as critical of authority, as ‘refusing’ or ‘subverting’ what is limited to Western thought. Hicks never considers how merging the border figures could itself have another ‘side’, that the freedom of crossing could also be seen in terms of the containment of the boundary line.

Part of the problem results from Hicks' introduction of the border in terms of the crossing of two referential codes (p. xxiii). The space of crossing becomes perceived in crucible-like terms, where two different codes are mixed and a different combinative code emerges. The danger with this description is that little attention is paid to the more complex structure of the border, of the many levels that can be involved in its construction and the ways in which this different, combinative code could already be anticipated. The ‘new form of knowledge’ (p. xxxi) that Hicks claims border writing offers presents this writing as separate from the codes that produce it, as both emerging from their joining and at the same time unaffected by them. This production allows her to speak of border writing as able to represent ‘another side where capital has not yet reduced the object to a commodity’ (p. xxxi), even as, at the same time, it leaves one to wonder if a border can have only one side.

Even if Hicks overemphasizes the potential of border writing, she rightly emphasizes, I believe, the influence which geographic, economic and gender crossings have on the production of Latin American literature. The question that one must ask, though, is whether her focus on these types of crossings tends to essentialize the definition of the border. The border seems always there, only to be talked about in terms of being crossed or inhabited, rarely as to be constructed or in the process of becoming. This more fluid definition is supported by the ever-changing direction of Edwards' flight and forces one to confront the ‘in-betweenness’ of borders themselves, of their appearance and disappearance, of their complexity as real world and imaginary points of passage and control, and of their production and reproduction.

Gloria Anzaldúa's novel, Borderlands/La Frontera, examines the fragile status of borders and highlights the political strategies involved in their construction.7 She speaks, for instance, of the formation of ethnic, sexual, linguistic and religious borders against which she struggles as attempts by those in power to separate and divide, the border produced as boundary in the name of the status quo. Her work should be seen as more than an attempt to expose the political nature of borders, though, for Anzaldúa draws on their constructedness as a means to speak of her own constructions, of the formation of a border consciousness for those who resist division. She speaks of ‘an “alien” consciousness [that] is presently in the making—a new mestiza consciousness’ that favours the making of a ‘mixture’ and of a ‘hybrid’ identity (p. 77). This ‘cross-pollinization’ defines difference in terms of involvement; the borderland that develops, or is developing, is a product of the separation that resists crossing and the merging that resists difference. To Anzaldúa, one's border consciousness is to be understood as forming in terms of this ambivalence.

Similar concerns over strategizing borders, over their appearance and disappearance and the impact they have in defining identity and community, have been raised in contemporary writings about cyberspace. A comparison to William Gibson's Neuromancer adds an extra level of complexity to the cultural and religious ‘betweenness’ Anzaldúa describes, as Gibson speaks of the impact which burgeoning technology and capital have on our capacity to understand, navigate and control space.8 Anzaldúa's struggle is presented against an even harsher background as a result of the comparison, as the cyberspace world of Gibson is one of hidden conspiracies, of the secreting and exchange of information and capital, and ultimately of the fragmentation and loss of the individual. The result is an increasing indeterminacy over the agency responsible for the creation of what Anzaldúa describes as the ‘rigidly defined roles’ (p. 17) that limit the formation of a mestiza culture. The broad categories that Anzaldúa uses (‘Western culture’, ‘males’, or ‘America’) to identify those opposed to a border consciousness are complicated by Gibson's cyberworld, where advances in technology and science make any attempt to identify agency, even in such broad terms, seemingly impossible.

This uncertainty is indicative of the larger difficulty of constructing difference in cyberspace. With the Panther Moderns' ability to blend into the background like chameleons in the future world of Neuromancer and with the relatively common occurrence of cyberspace cowboys ‘flatlining’, boundaries separating man and nature or life and death are not easy to determine. It would be a mistake, however, to assume that Gibson's cyberspace is only to be understood in terms of movement and access. Gibson's narrative, for instance, is focused around the success and failure of a ‘cowboy’ and ‘rustler’ protagonist named Case, who, like a number of other male ‘console jockeys’, makes clear that this new space is also the ‘old’ space of a male-dominated Western frontier. And though women do hold positions of power, as Marie-France helps lay the groundwork for the eventual union of the two artificial intellegences and Molly provides the ‘muscle’, both characters ultimately rely upon Case and his capacity to navigate the life and death experiences of cyberspace.

The division along gender lines that is created means that Gibson's science fiction future world folds back upon Anzaldúa's past and present, Neuromancer participating in the same rigid codifying that forces Anzaldúa and others into exile. This separation, combined with the prevalence of barriers or ‘ice’ in cyberspace, underscores the borders of Gibson's cyberworld, structuring the novel as much in terms of cyberspace's seeming infinity as in terms of its limits. Gibson's theorizing of the edges that make up infinity means, ultimately, that his focus is on the interplay of separation and connection that constructs space, about how one is to navigate and exist in terms of the limits of the future, drawing one again to Anzaldúa's Borderlands. Through the comparison, it becomes clear that Gibson is also concerned about the construction and defence of borders and the impact they have on the formation of one's identity. More specifically, the characters in Neuromancer reflect Anzaldúa's thinking about both the potential and dangers that face the hybrid; they are aware of the access available, and possibly even dream about using it, but, at the same time, they are also aware of the larger sense of structure and control within which they must exist.


In looking at this book that I'm almost finished writing, I see a mosaic pattern (Aztec-like) emerging, a weaving pattern, thin here, thick there. … I see a hybridization of metaphor, different species of ideas popping up here, popping up there, full of variations and seeming contradictions, though I believe in an ordered, structured universe where all phenomena are interrelated and imbued with spirit. This almost finished product seems an assemblage, a montage, a beaded work with several leitmotifs and with a central core, now appearing, now disappearing in a crazy dance. The whole thing has had a mind of its own, escaping me and insisting on putting together the pieces of its own puzzle with minimal direction from my will.

(Borderlands, p. 66)

The act of writing for Anzaldúa is the act of driving for Edwards; his sudden turns or shifts of speed become, for her, ideas ‘popping up here, popping up there’, all organized by a ‘central core, now appearing, now disappearing’. The freedom Edwards finds in his contained flight is translated by Anzaldúa into the freedom that stylistic and linguistic uncertainty provides within the containment of her ‘story’; the disorder that ‘variations and seeming contradictions’ give point to the presence of a structure, even as the text struggles to maintain this frame. This ordered—disordered writing of Borderlands becomes writing life on the border, border writing born not solely out of the mixing of ideas or the crossing of difference, but out of a sense of structure as well.

The repetition of terms like ‘pattern’, ‘ordered’ and ‘structure’ in the above passage, which speaks ultimately of the author's loss of control and the willfulness of the work itself, makes clear this polarity between structure and chaos that is played out in the text. Even within this context, though, any reference to the need of structure seems surprising given that border writing or the border writer is precisely what is left out of political and cultural ‘structures’. Not surprisingly, then, Anzaldúa is always quick to qualify her use of the terms. She refers to patterns in terms of a ‘mosaic’ or a ‘weaving’, and her definition of structure emphasizes not the difference or separation between ideas but how ‘all phenomena are interrelated’.

Though a mosaic is still a ‘pattern’ as much as weaving is, by using the terms, Anzaldúa emphasizes the inclusiveness and combination found in patterns rather than their exclusiveness. To Anzaldúa, it is the variety in combination that defines her text, the ways in which structure or patterns can show the connection between different objects or ideas. The pattern of her border voice is found in the weaving of this difference and one can see this weaving throughout her work. The opening chapter, entitled ‘The Homeland, Aztlan’, presents the history of Chicano ancestry in America, Anzaldúa beginning with the discovery of Indian bones in Texas from as far back as 35000 BC and then moving forward to the present day (pp. 4-13). Though presented in chronological order, Anzaldúa intersperses the narrative with poetry, songs and personal stories in an attempt to show the impact of migration, exploitation and imprisonment on the lives of Indians, Chicanos and Mexicans. The result is a history of migration and movement written in migratory terms, the narrative voice shifting back and forth from the public to the personal, from discussing race hatred against Chicanos in the early twentieth century to stories of how Anzaldúa's family coped during years of consecutive droughts.

As Inderpal Grewal argues, within this plural voice of inclusiveness, Anzaldúa represents the formation of a mestiza consciousness in active, changing terms.9 In Anzaldúa's text, the border self is never settled, coming into view only to disappear ‘in a crazy dance’, the mestiza self developing in terms of an Edwards-like flight. To Grewal, a fixed border subjectivity is as elusive for Anzaldúa as escape is for Edwards; the loss of a central core and the writing of this ‘beaded work’ is a sign that identity is defined for Anzaldúa in terms of flux and transition. The writing of Borderlands as a montage, then, reflects, at both the level of style and content, the border existence of those who live in between, giving voice to the uncertainty of life along or within the border.

By doing so, the text reveals both the ‘pain and strength of living in the borderlands’.10 To Yvonne Yarbro-Bejarano, this combination reflects a contradictory movement in the text, one which makes difference difficult to determine. Borderlands is seen as unwilling to construct clear divisions, challenging a Western philosophy founded upon binary opposition.11 The text refuses to oppose history to fiction, prose to poetry, even if the cost is a loss of the work's ‘deep structure’ or a fear that the work is ‘escaping’ Anzaldúa and becoming a ‘rebellious, willful entity’ (p. 66).

This loss of control reflects a larger concern of Anzaldúa over the ways in which institutions exploit the uncertainty of border writing to silence those who live in between. Anzaldúa points, for example, to the Catholic Church's exploitation of the complicated history of la Virgen de Guadalupe. To the ‘mestizo true to his or her Indian values’, Guadalupe is a guide, drawing worshippers back to the Indian past, to the Aztec god Tonnantsi. The god joins the old and new to become a border image, and through this hybrid past represents tolerance for ‘people of mixed race[s]’, acting as a mediator between different cultures (p. 30). To the Church, however, drawing upon this ambiguous history, she becomes a means to ‘mete out institutionalized oppression: to placate the Indians and mexicanos and Chicanos’ (p. 31). From the Church's perspective, the uncertainty of the border image is a means to render certain the obedience of its flock, the border crossers always in danger of being crossed out.

This push and pull of the border experience is emphasized by the mestizo language in which the text is written, Anzaldúa drawing on English, Castillian Spanish, Chicano and Tex-Mex to highlight the cross-cultural nature of border life, even as the multiple tongues speak of the difficulty of translating or understanding the experience. At one level, the different languages break down the concept of regional dialects, replacing it with a futuristic, Western esperanto. As a consequence, the narrator seems to exist within a nomadic plurality, moving back and forth in an Edwards-like disorder within different languages. At another level, this hybrid language underscores the Chicano struggle for political and social presence. The multiple languages speak of the complexity of the struggle and the numbers involved, just as the number of languages used and the occasional translation reveals Anzaldúa's recognition of others' unwillingness to cross over, to understand. In this way, the mixing of languages represents the plurality of the border experience even as it speaks of an alienation, of a loss of voice, and the realization that many will never understand.

Anzaldúa's experience is caught within this silence that is part of her plural voice, her difference on the border resulting not from her being an ‘outsider’ but from her being in between: between experiences, between languages, exiled within. She is a part of ‘all countries’, yet has ‘no country’; she is part of ‘all races’, yet a member of none, separated by her own involvement (p. 80). She is present as absent within this ‘ambivalent sanctuary’, engaging oppositions that underscore the strategies of power and control that define life on the border. The resulting irony is that Chicanos/as are caught by their crossing of boundaries, caught within a spaciousness that connects them to everyone and to no one.


Because, in some weird and very approximate way, it was like a run in the matrix. Get just wasted enough, find yourself in some desperate but strangely arbitrary kind of trouble, and it was possible to see Ninsei as a field of data, the way the matrix had once reminded him of proteins linking to distinguish cell specialties. Then you could throw yourself into a highspeed drift and skid, totally engaged but set apart from it all, and all around you the dance of biz, information interacting, data made flesh in the mazes of the black market.

(Neuromancer, p. 16)

The sense of flux which Anzaldúa describes in Borderlands results in part from the lack of recognition of the border subject. In this way her text can be seen as an attempt to make the absent present, a calling forth that finds its contrast in Case and others' seeming desire to disappear in Gibson's Neuromancer. The Panther Moderns, for example, wear clothing that allows them to merge into the background and in the city of Ninsei surgically created flesh is an important commodity. In the above quote, moreover, Case is introduced on the run, trying to lose a ‘tail’ sent by the powerful Tessier-Ashpool corporation. He experiences this chase in ways that carry him back to the matrix, an analogy that speaks of reduction and anonymity in terms of the expanse of information; he sees Ninsei as ‘a field of data’, or the matrix in terms of proteins. Rather than hoping to escape from his ‘tail’, as Edwards attempts to do from the police, though, Case is invigorated by the prospect of the flight itself, of losing himself in the larger flow of information, participating in the ‘dance of biz’. Case hopes to disappear in the interface of capture and escape, and to exist in between, a border experience that speaks of the interplay of the corporate and the individual, of Case finding himself only in flight.

At the same time, it is the special talent that Case possesses to access cyberspace that creates an interest in him, and results in his being followed. His desire to disappear, whether it be from some person or into the ‘bodiless exultation’ of the matrix, is countered by the significance of his presence, of his ability to access this space, ‘to be totally engaged but set apart from it all’. Case's ability to be both here and beyond makes him a valuable commodity; it raises the potential to access data ‘anonymously’, to gain information or capital without anyone or any corporation knowing of it. This capacity to counter the walls of ‘ice’ that protect corporate secrets and capital in cyberspace speaks to the power of anonymity in this future world as it does to the significance and construction of borders within the matrix.

The corporate investment by Tessier-Ashpool to recreate Case as a cowboy—their sponsoring of the operations that will allow him to access cyberspace again—defines the borders of this future world in terms of a corporate—techno interface. Case is remade as a cyberspace mestiza, his border self a corporate dream and his anonymity a corporate strength. His border experience is emphasized by his role as a cowboy; his job is to gain access beyond the ‘borders’ of cyberspace, to break down the ‘ice’ that protects corporate information. These borders are to be seen as positions of power, both in their ability to repel attackers, as well as in their capacity to store massive amounts of data, information and capital. The ever-expanding cyberspace, as it is represented by scientists today, is tempered within Gibson's texts by a more traditional grid-like spaciousness as a result; the data border becomes the locus of control, the battleground where corporations strive to retain their individual hegemony. In fact, the emphasis, in Gibson's work, is as much concerned with the expansive possibilities of this space, and its unifying drive, as it is in searching and exploring the finitude of this space, either metaphorically in the border encounters, or through Gentry's attempt, in Mona Lisa Overdrive, to discover the shape of the matrix—to see its ‘overall total form’.12

As a consequence, I would argue that Gibson's trilogy, of which Neuromancer is a part, must be read as a sequence of border texts rather than only as texts of openness and accessibility. They are texts that examine the contemporary border problematic of accessibility as control, applying Anzaldúa's geographic, sexual and psychological border concerns to a cyber-geographic and economic spaciousness. As with Borderlands, the cyber border adopts the past characteristics and exclusionism of the border understood as boundary, storing information or capital beyond public access. The result is a representation of space in terms of simplistic binaries of public and private. The stability of these binaries, however, is problematized by the cowboy's capacity to access that which is beyond the border, to merge different geographic and informational spaces here and beyond. The cowboy's crossing over creates a hybridization of space which problematizes the separation that the singular definition of the border seen only as boundary represents. Instead, a cyberspace organized in contradictory terms of security and access, separation and transgression is created, a corporate and technological geography whose uncertainty is only underscored by the fluidity of being of those, like Case, who access it or are accessed by it.

This complex relationship of control and access that organizes Gibson's cyberspace is not limited to a science fictional future world beyond, but, according to Donna Haraway, can be applied to our own ‘mythic’ world of today, where ‘we are [all] cyborgs’.13 Haraway's edict is appropriate not only to our own present-day merging with machines, but as she argues, to the transgression of other more or less abstract binaries of real and imaginary, public and private, or male and female. According to Haraway, the ‘cyborg world’ that results can be divided into two contrasting perspectives:

a cyborg world is about the final imposition of a grid of control on the planet, about the final abstraction embodied in a Star War apocalypse waged in the name of defense, about the final appropriation of women's bodies in a masculinist orgy of war. From another perspective, a cyborg world might be about lived social and bodily realities in which people are not afraid of their joint kinship with animals and machines, not afraid of permanently partial identities and contradictory standpoints.14

Clearly, the second perspective is more attractive, almost utopian in its vision compared to the first, and yet Haraway's diction (‘is’ as opposed to ‘might’) makes the utopian only a possibility in terms of the final apocalyptic imposition. I would argue that Gibson's representation of the cyborg and of the cyborg world exists along this confusing border that Haraway presents, explicitly interfacing this ‘grid of control’ where women are dominated by men, with the transgression of boundaries that defines the cyborg. This transgression becomes a method of confusion in Neuromancer as much as a strategy of control, the crossing over destabilizing Western binary logic, but only by re-creating the domination of these binaries with a different, hybridized structure. Much as Edwards' freedom of movement is involved with his own capture and Anzaldúa's exile is involved with her ability to speak in many voices but not be heard, Gibson's cyborg world also interfaces accessibility with restriction. Gibson's future merges human with machine, as it separates male from female, creating a merging or crossing that allows one only a miscarried, Edwards-like sense of escape. It is this combination that creates the hesitancy on Haraway's part, the ‘might’ rather than the ‘is’, as the freedom the cyborg world allows, from the singular unity of Western phallocentrism, is necessarily balanced by the different methods of domination the cyborg world produces, ones that work as much through accessibility as resist it.

Through Haraway's definition of the cyborg in terms of the transgression across boundaries, the transgressive border self of Anzaldúa's novel, who is part of all and yet nowhere, becomes the cyborg of our present and of Gibson's future. Case, in fact, can only cross the border to the other side (from physical space to cyberspace) by means of the surgical repairs done to his body (by his becoming cyborg). While empowered by this capacity to live along the border, to cross over, Case lacks unlimited freedom. He is forced to work against the clock, since his retrofitted organs also come with toxic sacs that slowly poison his nervous system which, if left untreated, will eventually render him incapable of accessing cyberspace. Case as a cowboy is both alive and dead, representing his cyber flight in Edwards-like terms of control; Case can only ‘flee’ in terms of limits and edges, because of the presence of limits and edges, his freedom overdetermined by control.

In other words, complete accessibility carries with it its own impossibility, the corporate-dominated social being dependent upon the access these cowboys provide to steal from others, while at the same time in need of the privacy and separation that the poison sacs in Case help assure. The consequence for Case is a tenuous existence, where his freedom of movement is balanced by the recognition that he is only free to move where he is told to do so. Borders appear and disappear, therefore, as Case enters the seemingly unlimited expanse of cyberspace, only to be used by the artificial intelligences for their own gain. Accessibility is equated with control and division; the exclusion Anzaldúa experiences as a Chicana, Case experiences in technological terms. He is everywhere only when he is understood as no one, on a cyber border space where access and movement are defined in terms of control and destruction.

Just as the geographic borders Edwards traverses involve him in a more and more involved and unending spaciousness, moving him from a local criminal to a global attraction, Case's access also involves him in a ‘larger’ and more diffuse spaciousness, where limitations are clearly without limit. In this way, the space beyond becomes that which exists within, accessible, but, at the same time, always distant and limiting. Case's access to cyberspace carries with it its own impossibility, his freedom to move coming at the price of exploitation and control. His flight, as a result, creates a border space of movement as control, of freedom as capture, an existence with which Edwards and Anzaldúa are all too familiar.


The recent advances in virtual reality have made the cyberspace Case experiences seem more and more a possibility, giving these literary texts their scientific counterparts, and I want to conclude by outlining the way in which the border identifying scientific and literary space is itself constructed in terms of cyberspace. Coined by Gibson to describe the space of ‘consensual hallucination’ and adopted by scientists to describe their ongoing work in the production of a computer-generated reality, the term ‘cyberspace’ itself straddles the borderline, symptomatic of the borrowing and merging that occurs across borders. At this point, however, it would seem that the scientific community is struggling at a deficit rate, since the cyberspace seen in Gibson is far from a ‘reality’. Essentially in the developmental stages, with only rudimentary virtual reality machines available (itself only a small part of cyberspace), the ‘actual’ space of cyberspace is absent, to be replaced by images presented in the many cyber punk texts and by various conferences and articles on the topic. It would seem, in fact, that the term has taken on a life of its own, its science fictionalization overcome by its real world possibility. Twisting Plato's claim that space can only be understood in terms of matter, then, it is the ‘matter’ of its representation—the articles, novels and conferences—which brings this non-existent space to light, it being seen only by those texts which attempt to see over the border and beyond into the future.

Even though advances are being made on the scientific front, it is not that science is ‘catching up’ with fiction, creating the referent after the sign (as, for example, with the [Arthur C.] Clarke belt of geosynchronous satellites that surround Earth); rather, science is creating an alternate space of possibility that at once diverges and reinforces its fictional representation. The result is that the critical border does not evaporate with each advance, as if the impossible is removed by the possible; instead, it is reconstituted. The border not only divides the two but also draws them together, making any distinction between the fiction of cyberspace and its fact impossible to determine: all seems fact and fiction. Cyberspace is the contemporary border space (of the future). As a consequence, at a conference concerning cyberspace, Nicole Stenger can argue that ‘cyberspace grafts a new nature of reality in our everyday life’, and ‘can be seen as the new bomb, a pacific blaze that will project the imprint of our disembodied selves on the walls of eternity’,15 while Michael Benedikt can state simply that cyberspace ‘does not exist.’16

The trope of cyberspace thus reflects a balancing of impossibility and possibility, an uncertainty that draws on and figures the hybrid experiences of Anzaldúa, recognized yet unknown. Less an attempt to point to cyberspace as the spaciousness of the present and future, however, as the space to ‘come’, I would argue that it is the very play of presence as absence of the cyberworld, of the joining of the possible with the impossible that represents the complex problematics of those who cross over. To emphasize these contradictions of cyberspace means to underscore the politics of the border, to show how the crossing of referential codes or the crossing of fences or oceans carries with it a control and exploitation, and often a disappearance that defines the ‘(e)merging’ existence of those in between. The attempt by Anzaldúa and Gibson to map out the possibility of a hybrid world is always understood in terms of its impossibility, a contradiction of what is and what is not that speaks of the cyberworld as it points to a border space as present and always emerging, here and beyond.


  1. Italo Calvino, T-Zero, trans. William Weaver (New York: Harcourt Brace & Co, 1969).

  2. Ibid., p. 127.

  3. Lech Witkowski, ‘The Paradox of Borders: Ambivalence at Home’, Common Knowledge (Winter 1994), pp. 100-8.

  4. John T. Juricek, ‘American Usage of the Word “Frontier” from Colonial Times to Frederick Jackson Turner’, Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 110 (1966), pp. 10-34.

  5. Witkowski, p. 108.

  6. D. Emily Hicks, Border Writing: The Multidimensional Text (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1991), p. xxii; hereafter cited in the text.

  7. Gloria Anzaldúa, Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza (San Francisco: Spinsters/Aunt Lute, 1987); hereafter cited in the text.

  8. William Gibson, Neuromancer (New York: Ace Books, 1984); hereafter cited in the text.

  9. Inderpal Grewal, ‘Autobiographic Subjects and Diasporic Locations: Meatless Days and Borderlands’, in Inderpal Grewal and Caren Kaplan (eds) Scattered Hegemonies: Postmodernity and Transnational Feminist Practices (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1994), p. 250.

  10. Yvonne Yarbro-Bejarano, ‘Gloria Anzaldúa's Borderlands/La Frontera: Cultural Studies, “Difference,” and the Non-Unitary Subject’, Cultural Critique 28 (Fall 1994), p. 16; emphasis in original.

  11. Ibid., p. 17.

  12. William Gibson, Mona Lisa Overdrive (New York: Bantam Books, 1988), p. 75.

  13. Donna Haraway, ‘A Manifesto for Cyborgs: Science, Technology, and Socialist Feminism in the 1980's’, Socialist Review 80 (1985), p. 66.

  14. Ibid., p. 72.

  15. Nicole Stenger, ‘The Mind Is a Leaking Rainbow’, in Michael Benedikt (ed.) Cyberspace: First Steps (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1992), p. 51.

  16. Michael Benedikt, Introduction, in Cyberspace: First Steps, p. 3.

Carla Freccero (essay date 1999)

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SOURCE: Freccero, Carla. “Technocultures.” In Popular Culture: An Introduction, pp. 99-129. New York: New York University Press, 1999.

[In the following essay, Freccero contrasts the representations of technology-driven societies in Neuromancer and the Alien film series.]


In this chapter I would like to explore cultural productions that ambivalently represent postindustrial society's romance and disillusionment with advanced technological developments. The representations examined here present technoculture as an important dimension of both the present and the future, and construct a variety of responses, both utopian and dystopian, to that culture. Technology is the defining mark of late-twentieth-century First World existence in the popular imagination, and thus it is a particularly fruitful terrain for social and political analysis.

The texts I am discussing, in their disillusionment with the promises of industrial society and better living through advanced technology, engage in some form or another with the question of the postmodern. Postmodernism suffers from a surfeit of definition, and my characterization here simplifies the range of meanings the concept encompasses. For the purposes of this survey of technocultural fantasies, the postmodern can be thought of as a historical designator, referring temporally to the period following World War II in Northwestern Europe and the United States. In the wake of the Holocaust, Enlightenment notions of the power of rationality to achieve social good are seen to have failed utterly; this includes the realization that not only can reason not save us from self-destruction and evil, but that reason itself can be harnessed in the service of diabolical goals. Added to this sense of the failure of reason and the triumph of destructive irrationality are fears of a nuclear apocalypse, so that the threat of imminent self-destruction becomes part of the failure of Enlightenment ideals to save the world.

The postmodern also refers to the postindustrial, the turn away from industrial optimism and visions of infinite prosperity through production, to the industrial decay of late capitalist urban centers. The confrontation with ecological disaster also contributes to the atmosphere of postmodernism. “Next to high-tech, its waste,” writes Giuliana Bruno of the postmodern Los Angeles city landscape represented in Ridley Scott's Blade Runner (1982).1 Postmodernism also refers to an aesthetic, one that has to do in part with reactions to this deeply pessimistic, nearly apocalyptic and dystopian vision of the postindustrial world.

MTV is often cited as an illustration of postmodernist aesthetics: fragmented images (pastiche) and a sense of disjuncture in time and space (time is no longer linear, it jumps around between past, present, and future, it speeds up, slows down).2 The present does not follow the past; rather, everything is on one flat simultaneous plane, and past, present, and future all appear in the present as a collection of images. There is no sense of history as that which came before; instead, history is treated as a set of images, a collection of representations without context. Thus, for example, Frederic Jameson and others use “schizophrenia” to characterize postmodern consciousness.3 Bruno adds, “The industrial machine was one of production, the postindustrial machine, one of reproduction. A major shift occurs: the alienation of the subject is replaced by the fragmentation of the subject, its dispersal in representation” (69).

The postmodern aesthetic involves the dominance of the notion of representation. The visual predominates in a society of the spectacle.4 The postmodern dismantles the notion of a real behind the copy; it is the age of the copy, or what is called the simulacrum, a copy that has no real as its referent, no real as that from which it originated. It is simulation. Scott's film Blade Runner features the Replicants, the better-than-people copies of people who never existed, copies that do not originate in the real but are pure and perfect reproductions, without a past, without a history, without a future, existing in a schizophrenic present (Bruno, 68).5

Another way to think about postmodernism, which I simplify here, is as the projection of symptomatic anxieties on the part of Western intellectuals. These are anxieties about the waning role of the postindustrial West in the future narrative of the earth, especially if the role was once conceived as that of the bearer of civilization, improvement, and progress. Postmodernism reflects the sense that what the West contributes to the future is destruction and decay, and that history, as a process of positive transformation, will no longer be in Western hands.6 The response to such disillusionment with the promises of postindustrial culture is a kind of despair, a withdrawal into the self-contemplation of self-destruction. This is the dystopic aspect of postmodern cultural production. The replacement of history and narrative with representation, fragments of images all in the present; the reveling in the accumulation of commodities and representations without trying to connect them to stories of production or histories of how they got there may be thought of as aspects of the denial involved in the West's postmodern consciousness.

However, in this postmodern aesthetic of denial or despair there hovers the trace of “real” history and the reluctant acknowledgment that a future that may have nothing to do with us exists out there, accompanied by a powerful nostalgia for the way things used to be. In William Gibson's novel Neuromancer, as we shall see, this takes the form of the occasional nostalgia for nature that is linked to woman, to sexual difference, and to desire.7 In Blade Runner history is all-important, for history is what ultimately distinguishes human from replicant.

In Neuromancer the recognition of the future as taking place “elsewhere” is figured by the release of the AI (Artificial Intelligence). The AI returns to the protagonist, Case, at the end of the novel to say, “I'm not Wintermute now. I'm the matrix” (269); it has merged with and talks to other AIs in the net. In Neuromancer, then, the future, even the future of the virtual no-place that is cyberspace, does not lie in the hands of “meat” (the term used to refer to human beings) at all, but in the minds of artificial intelligences, that is, in personality, and in mind without body. Blade Runner, on the other hand, seems to question the very notion of what constitutes the human and suggests, through the romance between the protagonist (a human) and the beautiful replicant Rachel, that the future may involve a hybridization of the biological and the technological. In this respect, Blade Runner shares the more optimistic vision of the future described by Butler's trilogy; humans have indeed exhausted their time, but that does not mean that humanity will disappear. Instead, what is understood to constitute humanity will change, adapt, and transform itself. These narratives might be said to be posthumanist in their visions of the future and, as posthumanist, they find a way beyond the impasses of postmodern despair and denial.

One of the predominant themes in this discussion of technocultures will be the relationship between technoculture and feminist thinking. Technology has been and is viewed as a predominantly masculine domain, indeed, as defining late-twentieth-century advanced capitalist Western masculinity. Yet much of the commentary about technology and its social consequences is coming from feminist camps, and many popular cultural representations of technoculture involve some attempt to talk about women and technology, or women and science. This can be in part attributed to two factors. First, as Zoë Sofia argues in her essay “Exterminating Fetuses,” technoculture constructs itself in relation to the world according to the dichotomy “culture-man/nature-woman.”8 The second factor is that some of the most consistent critiques of technoculture and organized protests against it have come from women's movements. The antinuclear and peace movements have been articulated in feminist terms, and ecological movements have privileged a feminine, if not feminist, relationship to the world: love your mother. Accepting, in part, the dichotomies set up by technoculture—perhaps for strategic purposes—women's movements have promoted what is viewed as a distinctly “female” relationship to life, involving nurturance; respect for life; caring; symbiosis rather than conquest; peace rather than war; emotional warmth rather than cold rationality; heart over mind. A whole series of values associated with the feminine and the maternal are enlisted to argue for the preservation of the earth. The degree to which some of the discourse of ecological responsibility relies on stereotypical notions of the relation between woman and nature suggests, even more strongly, how “woman” becomes inevitably entangled with discourses of technology in our culture.

Sofia outlines the influential paradigm of technoculture that is set up in Stanley Kubrick's 1968 science fiction film 2001: A Space Odyssey. She understands current popular fantasies about technology in representation as masculine appropriations of (women's) biological capacity to reproduce, and connects these to the myth of Zeus devouring the Titan Methis. Methis is pregnant at the time; Zeus, after devouring her, gives birth to Athena, the goddess of wisdom and technology, through his head (she is his brainchild). The myth thus enacts a displacement, in the domain of reproduction, from the female uterus to the male belly to the paternal brain (“Exterminating Fetuses,” 51); technological birthing then replaces biological birthing. Sofia invokes the “sexo-semiotics” of technology to describe a representational system where all technology is reproductive technology. Technology, she argues, is about reproduction. As such, and as the product of a specifically masculine technology of reproduction, technoculture also carries within it a certain ambivalence: an awareness of its appropriative gesture and a fear that nature will seek revenge (48-49).


It is impossible to overestimate the importance of William Gibson's Neuromancer, both for the history of imaginings of cyberspace and VR (virtual reality) research, and for the SF genre of cyberpunk. As both Allucquere Stone and Peter Fitting note, Gibson's work represents crossover science fiction, that is, work that circulates outside the traditional science fiction readership and introduces a much larger constituency of readers to the genre.9 Stone argues that Gibson's importance for “epoch four” of virtual communities, the one she calls virtual space and cyberpunk, is that he crystallized a new community through the publication of his book. Neuromancer constructs or creates a subculture, including a slang appropriate to that subculture, a style, a stance, a mode of relating to and rebelling against the dominant culture. How does Neuromancer work to set up recognition codes for its constituency? How would we go about describing the subculture that it creates?

In “The Lessons of Cyberpunk,” Fitting argues that cyberpunk's defiance lies in its reaction against science fiction's increasing commercial success and the repetitive reliance on profitable formulas. But he also points out that “the very rejection of the mainstream has been converted into a merchandising label that suggests a trendy, on-the-edge lifestyle.” “It is not punk,” he says, “but an image of punk, a fashion emptied of any oppositional content that has become a signifier to be used in a countertrend marketing strategy. The outlaw stance of some of cyberpunk's early champions corresponds primarily to images of rebellion as mediated by MTV” (297). This characterization points to an important cautionary perspective for students of cultural studies: rebellion and defiance do not necessarily signal subversion or revolution. Resistance is not necessarily progressive in its oppositional stance. I want to use Gibson's Neuromancer as a way of meditating on the problematic politics of “resistive” subcultural communities as they are imagined by technoculture.

Stone raises the question of community in relation to electronic communication and makes the observation that

Many of the engineers currently debating the form and nature of cyberspace are the young turks of computer engineering, men in their late teens and twenties, and they are preoccupied with the things with which postpubescent men have always been preoccupied. This rather steamy group will generate the codes and descriptors by which bodies in cyberspace are represented.


The developers of cyberspace and the cyberpunk readership may be said to constitute a kind of “cyberfraternity,” a fraternity of adolescent and postadolescent boys in virtual space. Such communities might be said to resemble, in some ways, the more familiar community of the college campus fraternity. The convergences between the two communities suggest a rethinking of the masculine vision of the cyberworld as represented by Neuromancer. What are the implications for our socially lived future in virtual communities, given what Stone says about the ways real-life young men in the industry are envisioning and fashioning the social world of cyberspace and the bodily world of the agents and surrogates of “the meat”?

One might want to think about this in the psychoanalytic terms of oedipal rebellion, the rebellion of sons against their fathers. Fraternities, in a certain way, represent the defiance of sons against the authority of fathers. Paternal authority is represented by the institution of the school, the university, the rules and regulations of sober, severe, paternal, and responsible conduct dictated to the university community. Campus fraternities rebel against these by consciously or semiconsciously enacting a “bad boy, I-don't-wanna-grow-up-and-be-responsible” answer to the responsibilities of patriarchal culture that they will have to assume in their turn. Paternal authority and paternal calls to duty are oppressive; they are, in fact, the law. Thus fraternities celebrate fraternal bonding rather than patriarchal bonding; they celebrate communities of male peers rather than communities defined by the patriarchal household. They also celebrate a defiance of the law, through illegal or excessive intoxication, rowdiness, and other forms of socially proscribed behavior. So far, this is what Andrew Ross calls the “protopolitical” potential of any subcultural formation, that is, a subculture's potential to resist the dominant social order and its imposed ideology.10

However, in fraternities this resistive energy does not, it seems, get translated into a progressive political program, a community that organizes itself to transform the social order by harnessing those resistive energies and channeling them into analyses and visions of social change. Psychoanalytically and politically described, we might say that fraternities serve a containment function for the potentially oppositional energies of adolescent males. Boys are permitted (by the patriarchy) to rebel (and this is why institutions often seem quite hypocritical in their simultaneous opposition to and sanction or approval of fraternity conduct), on the condition that after their four years of “letting off steam,” they will accept their symbolic castration (which means their obedience to paternal dictates and laws) and grow up to assume those responsible patriarchal functions that, in fact, paternal law is preparing them for. In other words, they grow up to become and replace the patriarchs, the very same patriarchs they were rebelling against in college; thus their oppositional energy has been contained. One of the ways the patriarchy guarantees its reproduction and replacement, even from within the resistive and oppositional moment of fraternal bonding, is through a certain relation to women, the female body, and femininity.

The exercise of privilege over women, in the form of sexual violence, degradation, parody, and selective exclusion, guarantees an important mediation between and among the men, a mediation that will keep them from turning toward and loving each other, a mediation that will prevent homoeroticism and produce homosociality instead. Homosociality guarantees the control of social space by men only, while it also ensures that the fiction of a competitive structure (men competing for women) will persist and eventually take over once the men themselves become patriarchs.11

Hierarchy among men is necessary because without it, the fable goes, we would have anarchy; or, to put it differently, without hierarchy, patriarchy would not have a leg to stand on, because patriarchy depends on respect for paternal law, leaders, and commanders. This is one of the important and explicit reasons that the military persists in its proscription of homosexuals. According to the military, to permit homosexuality would undermine the chain of command, because the bonds of love between and among men would disregard the hierarchical arrangement, the “necessity” for some men to learn to command and others to learn to obey, even when obedience goes against any reasonable calculation of self-interest or survival (in other words, even when one knows that to obey means to be killed). The bonds of love between and among men would also mean that men would reject the philosophy of dying for the patriarchy (for the nation-state, the law of the land, the fathers who started the wars that the sons always have to fight and die for).

Another reason the abuse and/or degradation of women is necessary to the subcultural construction of fraternities is one that brings me back to the topic of technocultural science fiction. Stone writes,

In psychoanalytic terms, for the young male, unlimited power first suggests the mother. The experience of unlimited power is both gendered, and, for the male, fraught with the need for control, producing an unresolvable need for reconciliation with an always absent structure of personality. An absent structure of personality is also another way of describing the peculiarly seductive character of the computer … as a second self. Both also constitute a constellation of responses to the simulation that deeply engage fear, desire, pleasure, and the need for domination, subjugation, and control.


The technocultural world that cyberpunk and other recent science fiction narratives represent engages with the feminine in a peculiar way. There is the oedipalized relation to the mother as the first all-powerful female figure who dominates the infant boy (some examples include the computer in Alien [MU TH UR], the maternal drama in Aliens, and the matrix in Neuromancer). In the oedipal narrative, the mother is the boy's object of desire, an object of desire he is prevented from merging with by the law of the father, or by paternal interdiction. In the homosocial fraternal space of the fraternity, the delay between adolescence and adulthood involves a drama of the feminine; the mother haunts the space of fraternal bonding as the forbidden object of desire and also as the powerful force that once controlled the life of the boy. She is simultaneously desired and feared, feared not only because the father promises to punish the son for desiring the mother, but also because the mother once controlled the son. In the space of the fraternity, the forbidden figure of the mother is feminine difference, the feminine, women.

The feminine is constituted as a threat and an object of desire in the space of fraternal bonding; fraternal bonding in turn “eliminates” the woman as principle of division, by creating all-male peer bonding where the woman is the object (of conversation that goes on among men). On the other hand, because of the mother's perceived power over the son, she serves as the object of displacement for the patriarchal or paternal function; once again we have a situation where women, rather than fathers, patriarchy, or the state, are blamed for the young man's feelings of oppression. The mother, or the feminine, is blamed because she is what is different: there is not the same degree of identification with the mother as with the father. Further, to blame the father is dangerous because one might be harmed (“castrated,” in psychoanalytic terms, but more literally harmed if we think of the paternal as the state). To blame the father is also to refuse to be a man, according to the terms in which masculinity is constructed in our social order. The woman thus fulfills the function of scapegoat in the homosocial culture of the fraternity (and, one might argue, in the homosocial culture of patriarchy itself).

Does Neuromancer adopt this mythology of masculinity or does it subvert it? One might argue that this question is important to answer if, as Stone claims, it is primarily young men who are configuring the social space of VR and the bodies of the future communities of cyberspace (103-4). If, as she argues, “Cyberspace can be viewed as a tool kit for refiguring consciousness in order to permit things to go on in much the same way” (110); and if cyberspace and virtual communities are “flexible, lively, and practical adaptations to the real circumstances that confront persons seeking community—part of the range of innovative solutions to the drive for sociality … complex and ingenious strategies for survival” (110-11), then it seems that it would be important to determine whether the virtual communities that will structure the future will indeed be a projection and/or realization of adolescent masculine visions of fraternal community. Will this be a community that enacts its ambivalence about the feminine and, in practice, tends on the one hand to idealize the feminine (Ripley from the Alien films) and, on the other, to demonize her (the alien, the computer)? In either case, will the cyberspace community of the future include feminine or female subjectivity at all? Will there be room for sexualities and beings that do not adhere to Freudian family romances? Will there be room for revolutionary ways of interacting socially and bodily not only between men and women but also among men and among women?

Gibson's depiction of the relationship between Case, the protagonist, and Molly, the “razor girl,” does offer hope for a progressive vision of the relationship between the sexes. Molly's femininity, like that of Ripley in the Alien films, is unusual. She is a killer, and she is stronger than Case; her body is described as machine-like, perfect in its musculature and functionality. She is tough and heroic, like Ripley. At a certain point in the novel, Case is forced to “inhabit” her through the simstim (simulated stimulation). He takes on the feeling of her physical being and her consciousness, but there inside her, he is powerless to control either her thoughts, her body, or her actions.

This might be an illustration of what Stone means when she says, “To become the cyborg, to put on the seductive and dangerous cybernetic space like a garment, is to put on the female” (109), and it also suggests the feminization of the male in relation to technocultures, that is, the observation that the new technocultural man is feminized by his relation to the prosthetic device. In Neuromancer this feminization is positively, not negatively, valorized. Thus we have what seems to be a progressive reimagining of the feminine in this world; masculine and feminine are brought into closer contact.12 However, might we not also ask whether these female characters bear any relation to “women” at all, or do they enact precisely a masculine feminization, which would make of them, instead, men in disguise? Would this then constitute a progressive vision?

Relative to the question of a progressive vision, Gibson demystifies adolescent masculinity to a certain extent, and thus opens it up to the possibility of change. This occurs when it is revealed that Case's energy, his risk-taking, his thrill, and finally what gives him the power to break through the final “ice” is self-hatred. “You gotta hate somebody before this is over,” the Finn's voice says (261). Case keeps trying on different kinds of hatred, but when it comes to the final moment, the motivation is self-hatred (262). This is one of the cynical and profound truths of adolescent philosophy: the way self-hatred motivates thought, feeling, and action. This self-hatred, suggests Gibson, can be used to do great things. It can be harnessed for the purposes of liberation; it is, in other words, protopolitical, if and only if it is recognized as such and channeled in a certain way.

And yet certain aspects of the text entrench it within old ideologies of nature, culture, and the body in ways that seem unable to offer an alternative to the binarisms that structure Western thought. There is a persistent nostalgia in Neuromancer for nature and the natural, even as the body is that which is spurned and rejected as mere “meat.” This nostalgia surfaces, as I noted above, in relation to romantic love and in relation to sexual difference, not vis-à-vis Molly, but in relation to Linda, the lost and mourned love object of the novel. This is not surprising if we think of Neuromancer as a cultural map of the new, computer-literate, adolescent masculine psychic formation. But what does this nostalgia do? Does it keep “woman” in the realm of nature? Does it promise salvation or redemption? Does it fatally idealize and pedestalize the feminine?

Stone makes the point that cyberspace expresses a desire for “freedom from the body, freedom from the sense of loss of control that accompanies adolescent male embodiment. Cyberspace is surely also a concretization of the psychoanalytically framed desire of the male to achieve freedom” (107). She warns about the danger of forgetting about the body, and its implications for the rest of us in the virtual reality future (113). However, it is clear that cyberpunk does not eliminate the body from its representations; even the presence of being in cyberspace is marked by “icons,” which stand in for bodies. Transactions, negotiations, and communication take place between and among various representatives of bodies, however differently configured they might be from what we know as the biological body.

Furthermore, Neuromancer figures racialization, as it does gender to a certain extent and sexuality, in ways that do not depart radically from the entrenched dichotomies of present-day social relations. Asian-ness, in the novel, is configured in terms of U.S. popular cultural fantasies of orientalism in relation to Japan. Finally, the only consistent political and theological philosophy expressed in the book is represented by the Rastafarian community (note the names: Maelcom, and his tugboat, the Marcus Garvey). The Rastafarians reject the company and industrial technology and adopt Case and Molly as the beings who will go into Babylon, liberate it, and usher in the new Zion. Here we see that what is Black, or “African,” comes to be idealized and exoticized as that which is natural, authentic, and true, much as, Frith argues, Africa and African music function in the domain of (white) rock to lend exoticism and authenticity to its aesthetic energies.13 Thus the rejection of the technocultural and the longing for the natural also come to be “embodied” in the most traditional (white) symbol of the natural, the primitive, and the body in Western culture.



Alien, directed by Ridley Scott (1979); Aliens, directed by James Cameron and produced by Gale Ann Hurd, his wife (1986); and Alien3, directed by David Fincher and coproduced by Sigourney Weaver (1992), can be called trickle-up horror/science fiction movies, films that have high production value, have garnered an expansive market, and thus have been treated as less disreputable than (what are called) grade B or exploitation horror movies.14 Their hybrid genre, both horror and science fiction, makes them particularly sensitive registers of the psychic and the sociopolitical. The horror genre typically deals with (more or less unconscious) nightmares involving sexuality (specifically, sexual undifferentiation), where, as Robin Wood puts it, “normality [defined as conformity to the dominant social norms] is threatened by the Monster.”15 Horror films thus invite psychoanalytic interpretations that explore unconscious desires and fantasy. Science fiction most explicitly addresses the political, representing political fantasies through the imagining of alternative worlds, and thus invites the reading of ideologemes, or ideological critique.16

The film titles indicate an encounter with the other in its most generic form, less readily visible in films where the name of the other is “thing” or “fly.” The titles also invoke nationalism: “alien” is the term used to designate those on the other side of national borders. These films, then, one might assume, deal in overt ways with questions of sexual alterity and nationalism. Furthermore, as a series that extends over thirteen years, each installment appearing in a different decade (1979, 1986, 1992), the first three Alien films permit a contextual as well as intertextual political/sexual reading, whereby ideologemes specific to a historical moment become more readable for being variations of the “same” story. Finally, these films have been variously taken up by feminists and queers as emblems of progressive political representation, and thus have functioned ideologically as symptoms of some of the liberal democratic dilemmas I have been exploring.

Ridley Scott's Alien (1979) refers to 2001 as the paradigmatic science fiction film emerging in the context of nuclear panic, and the concomitant fear that technology carries with it a moralized promise of extermination. I say “moralized” because there has always been a sense in Western cultures that the technological is fascinating, useful, helpful, and dangerous (the story of Prometheus stealing fire from the gods comes to mind). A residual guilt persists concerning the conquest of nature, as in the aphorism “It's not nice to fool Mother Nature!” or Laurie Anderson's song (and the fable from which the song's title is taken) “The Monkey's Paw,” where she mockingly admonishes, “Nature's got rules and nature's got laws, and if you go too far it's the monkey's paws.”17 Is this guilt about “man's” mistreatment of Mother Nature guilt about the son's incestuous rape of Mother Nature? Given the metaphor of reproduction, one might speculate that the conquest of nature is likened to a sexual act—perhaps violent—that engenders technology. The very act of naming the computer in Alien “mother” (MU TH UR) suggests the displacement of birth through the need to reconstruct the mother as a product of men's brains. This imagined, artificial male birth functions to mitigate, in some sense, fears about the hostility (revenge) of the mother (Mother Nature).

Alien also quotes 2001 directly, in the embryonic birth scenes of the ship's crew, in the chamber music that plays inside the command room, in the look of the ship's computer, and especially in the scenes of Ripley's hallucinogenic orgasm as she watches Nostromo blow up, with the colors and shapes that are reflected on her helmet. How then, does Alien change the terms of 2001?

Alien is born at an interesting moment in the United States: 1979. It is the peak, climax, or end of the second wave of the women's movement. It is also the period of the oil crisis in the United States, the beginning of the realization that the high-tech, land of plenty empire that is the United States is ruining its resources and is fatally flawed in its radical dependence on oil that is not controlled by the United States but by OPEC in the Middle East. Thus the ship is called Nostromo (the title of Conrad's novel that signals the dream of empire and also the decline of imperialist and colonialist Great Britain), and the ship is a refinery that transports or tows mineral ore from interplanetary space back to earth.18 It even looks like an offshore oil rig: dirty, dark, greasy, dank, its metal oily and rusted. The ambivalence about technological progress is expressed in this image of the commercial and messy business of acquiring our most used and needed resource for the maintenance of our glossy, high-tech existence.

Sofia discusses this ambivalent representation of technology by referring to the “bad slimy by-product” that is always a consequence of our shiny new objects. (This is repressed or suppressed in cyberspace science fiction, which retreats from this view of technology, taking refuge in the high-tech, clean, and glossy planes of the inner technological space of the computer; although there too there is the return of the repressed in the form of chaotic behavior within cyberspace.) The film interestingly figures our culture's fears about technology and the nature/culture ambivalence at the heart of the discourse of better living through technology. Several figures in the movie connect its anxieties historically to the question of the oil shortage and the consequent reevaluation of U.S. economic dependence on “foreign” supplies: (1) the creature changes organic matter into inorganic matter: it transforms human blood into a kind of silicon plastic that makes a perfect protective case of the human body for the new creatures to gestate in; (2) when the crew go into the abandoned ship on the planet, they see the captain of that ship fused to the ship, and they say that he has been fossilized. The linkage of fossilization of an organic body to high tech transformations alludes to oil (the detritus of organic matter compressed into petroleum), which is then used to construct technologically advanced civilizations. Both of these images or figurations of the anxiety about technology express an ambivalent attitude toward that technology and its relationship to the human body, organic matter, or nature. Oil is, of course, the perfect metaphor for the expression of such disease, because it brings together the organic and the inorganic, nature and technology.

The beginning of the film portrays humans as weak and helpless as they emerge from their womblike and dormant state inside the ship's uterine capsules. They complain. At the same time, the complaints of the mechanics of the ship, who point to the inequity of wage distribution and threaten to strike, produce a discourse about the failure of manufacturing. The movie conveys a certain despair and cynicism about industrial America and its failures to make a shiny sleek machine that works perfectly: the workers, the mechanical keys to the functioning of the entire military-industrial complex, will not cooperate (note that the film adopts the popular ideological stance that labor is to blame for the failure of industry in the United States). The humans are imperfect because, in part, they impede the smooth operation of technological efficiency and industrial growth. But the technology is imperfect too. When members of the crew go into the abandoned spaceship, the video monitor fails; MU TH UR cannot decode the warning signal; and voices speaking over the intercom sound deeply distorted.

The alien, on the other hand, is a powerful figure of the natural; and it is no accident that praise for the alien comes from a being who is an imperfect welding of the human and the technological: the cyborg Ash (“dust to dust, ashes to ashes”), who admires its perfection. “I admire its purity,” he says (and we might wonder about the racial subtext here). It has a perfect defense system, it is flawless, and it is untroubled by human emotions, which always clutter up the project of rational technological progress. The alien is thus the revenge of nature: the perfect killing machine that is not a machine, the perfect organism that can make even inorganic substances become part of itself. It is both a parasite and a carnivore (we learn primarily about its reproductive functioning, another instance of Sofia's point that fantasies about technology are reproductive fantasies). And what it really excels at is reproducing itself using human bodies. Alien is thus a nightmare fantasy about biological reproduction, which culminates in the bizarre cesarean birth of the alien from the chest cavity of Cain (Abel's brother, and thus a scapegoat, Cain is the most “feminine” man of the crew, and he speaks with a British accent).

Ultimately Alien, unlike its successors, can be read as a kind of parable about the revenge of Mother Nature against mankind's audacious claim to conquer her through technological perfection, although the ending nevertheless celebrates the triumph of humanism over the alienness of nature, albeit after demonstrating technocracy's failure to do so through scientific means. The humanism that triumphs is no longer the heroic male technocrat, but a woman.

Science fiction often repeats medieval romance quest motifs—the story of the lone, heroic (but flawed) individual protagonist who must test himself against supernatural or magical natural forces that are malignant, evil, and dangerous and emerge triumphant into the world once again. Here that heroic individual is Sigourney Weaver's Ripley (note the pun on the director's name, Ridley Scott, in the character of the protagonist Ripley). Alien thus inscribes the women's movement into its medieval plot about the hero's conquest of the monstrous dragon.

How does this film engage the question of feminism? One could argue that Ripley is the hero for commercial reasons, that the movie industry is marketing to the “new woman” consumer, a middle-class liberal feminist professional woman. She may represent the triumph of humanistic values in the film—a feat that requires overcompensating gestures, since the film takes such delight in its antihumanistic technology: the alien and the cyborg. Furthermore, because Ripley has to be a hero, we also see the film overcompensating in its attempt to feminize her. For example, her anger and aggression are staged as a typically feminine “catfight” in the scene where she calls MU TH UR a bitch. Ash's attack on Ripley also feminizes her in that it resembles an attempted rape, and this fight brings into play the medieval motif that signals the presence of the lady—blood drops on the snow—with a twist: the blood is Ripley's and the snow is the “milk” of Ash's android-sustaining substance. The presence of Jones, Ripley's cat, as sidekick also works to feminize the heroine: there is a silent pun on “pussy,” while Ripley's concern for Jones demonstrates her maternal feelings. At the same time, however, the film also pokes fun at these values, by making Ripley's attempts to save the cat border on the absurd. Finally, the confrontation between Ripley and the alien also genders her as feminine by awkwardly invoking the traditional “tits and ass” stuff of movies (she is in her underwear), likening the scene once again to a near-rape. Alien thus simultaneously acknowledges the appeal of the tough female/feminist heroine and feels some unease about it by making overcompensating gestures to return her to her “proper” gender.


By 1986 things have changed. Hollywood films in the eighties seem to conduct a steady retreat from social commentary. In the seventies, most films commented on the social, usually in ominous tones. Nuclear destruction, vanishing resources, increasing surveillance of civilian life, multinational corporations' greed and power—such was the stuff of many films, even when the subject matter appeared to be unrelated.

In the eighties, however, the personal, the private, the individual took over with a vengeance. In some ways this development parallels the ideology or ethos Andrew Ross refers to in his discussion of New Age technocultures and New Age philosophies as voluntarist individualism, exemplified in statements like “We are participating, however unconsciously, in the process of disease,” and “We can choose health instead.”19 In the eighties social disorders are likened to illnesses brought on in part by the victims of those illnesses themselves. According to Ross,

When personal consciousness is the single determining factor in social change, then all social problems, including the specters raised by racism, imperialism, sexism, and homophobia, are seen as the result of personal failures and shortcomings. Individual consciousness becomes the source, rather than a major site of socially oppressive structures, and opportunities for a radical humanism are lost.

(“New Age Technoculture,” 546)

This description of New Age philosophies could apply in many ways to the mainstream descriptions we hear about phenomena such as racism, sexism, homophobia, poverty, and violence, and illustrates how much New Age thinking has become part of the mainstream social outlook of the eighties.

Films of the eighties, by and large, subscribe to these forms of individualism and voluntarism. Whereas Alien was centrally and anxiously about technophilia, the destruction wrought on the world by corporate greed and unrestrained technofetishism, and the unlikelihood of a redemptive humanism that would restore the ecosystem, Aliens is untroubled by earthly pollution or the power of technology's reign. Instead there is an adoration of technology at work and a more thorough recognition that the boundaries between nature and technology, between biology and technology, have been definitively blurred (in the way that both Haraway and Ross talk about).20 Like Gibson's Neuromancer,Aliens recognizes that there is no going back and that it is ultimately impossible to separate the technological from the humanistic or the natural.

Alien was horrified by the blurring of the boundaries between nature and technology, further suggesting that nature might actually win out in the end in revenge for humanity's audacity at having dreamed that technology would bring transcendence. Alien constructed an opposition between the technological and the biological, the technological and the natural. Aliens, instead, revels in the technological and in the cyborg mix of human and machine. As spectators of the film, we often look through video monitors (with the names of the “bio beings” displayed in the lower left-hand corner of the screen). Whereas in the first film we witnessed the failure of the monitors when the crew entered the alien spacecraft where the creature was living, here there are glitches (as when Drake has to adjust his monitor, and when it temporarily stops working inside the incubation room), but for the most part, technology works beautifully. In addition, we learn that the marines are dead when their monitors stop working and display television “snow” (a reconception of death as a blank [but turned on] TV screen); thus technology becomes the primary—and reliable—source of knowledge. This use of video must also be commenting on the medium of film itself, here no longer ambivalently regarded as a technology that threatens the human director's supremacy over his product. In Aliens, it would seem, director and camera meld into one smooth and invisible visual field, uninterrupted by quirky shots that draw attention to the virtuosity of a director/“artiste” behind the scene.

This use of video monitoring also says something about the perfection of technological surveillance mechanisms in the eighties. Whereas Alien was anxious about surveillance tactics, Aliens assumes their existence and, indeed, sides with the technological optimism of the military. Paul Virilio observes that Aliens celebrates high-tech military weaponry; indeed, after the Gulf War, this film resembles nothing so much as a proleptic television commercial for the war (including what could be called the new gender equality of the military; this film even looks forward to the time when it will be acceptable for gays to be in the military).21

Technophilia abounds in Aliens: the android, Bishop, is a good guy; the cargoloader, Ripley's metallic armature, is a good thing; the marines are armed with state-of-the-art weapons that function efficiently. The spaceship is brighter and cleaner; it has everything, and even though the crew still complains about the food, it is clear that this is a more comfortable ride than the Nostromo. What causes damage to people is not so much the malfunctioning of the machines as the deliberate corruption of the CIA-like company, whose disregard for human life has reached new heights of diabolical intensity. There are some technological failures, of course, and these primarily concern the eighties' recognition of nuclear power plants as faulty technology (yet there is still an optimism that they can be fixed): the plant as a whole has problems that will result in a nuclear reaction, but Bishop (the android) and the others can solve them. There is a final meltdown of the plant, recalling once again the ultimate threat of nuclear power plants, but the film reworks its significance so that the meltdown turns out to be beneficial rather than harmful.

I said that Aliens, like many films of the eighties, moves away from social commentary into the realm of the personal, the private, the individual. This is a story about a domestic quarrel, not between husband and wife or parent and child, but between two women, two mothers. The motivating force of the film now comes from Ripley's single-minded rage against the aliens and her desire to destroy them. The fiction used to personalize this rage is the fiction of maternal ferocity, the fabled notion that a mother will do anything and everything to protect her young. Indeed, there are moments in the film where Ripley's disregard for the lives and safety of the crew members is striking in comparison with her obsessive and single-minded concern for her adoptive “daughter,” Newt. Rather than a kind of protofeminist humanism, as was displayed in Alien, what characterizes Ripley in Aliens is a private, personal, and selfish concern for one being: the girl. Aliens thus becomes a story about maternal jealousy. There is a link between the maternal feminine—or the virile feminine as maternal—portrayed here and the discourse of nationalism, for in the discourse of nationalism, women are primarily and positively constructed as ferocious and protective mothers.

It is precisely around questions of nationalism and imperialism that the film's ideological confusion seems most apparent and works to enshrine political denial. What is the political situation on the planet where Ripley, Burke, Bishop, and the marines go to inspect the colony? We learn that a colony of “terraformers” has settled there; earth has colonized this planet, and, in an apt metaphor, is proceeding to transform its “hostile” atmosphere into one that will be terra-friendly. The colonists tame the wilderness, transforming the “uninhabitable” land into one that will host its terraform settlers with ease and comfort. In the interrogation scene where Ripley is asked to report to the company about what she knows of the planet, the female scientist says to Ripley, “You're telling us that there is this indigenous alien life form there that has been totally unrecorded and unnoticed?” Ripley, at this point, hyperbolically stresses that the life form is not indigenous; in fact, she ridicules the woman for her stupidity (notice that there are many hostile exchanges between Ripley and other women in this movie, and that these hostile exchanges are always at the expense of the other woman in the encounter, another indication that this movie is replete with backlash). The aliens arrived, supposedly, in an alien spaceship; that is where they were originally found. This alien spaceship, which, in the first movie, looked like the ruins of some kind of ancient civilization, arrived on the planet before the terraformers settled their colony there, and thus the aliens are not indigenous to the planet, which is terribly important in Ripley's view.

This argument sounds like nothing so much as the self-justifying rhetoric of imperialist or colonial ventures. There is both an argument about who has the right to settle on land and a defensive argument about how no one is indigenous to that land. No one has a prior, more compelling claim, and therefore the colonists have a right to colonize it and to settle there. (Here the motif of cannibalism associated with the aliens is probably more tightly linked to the political unconscious of the film text than it was in the first film, in the sense that the rhetoric of the film evokes arguments for the colonization of the Americas as well.) This argument conceals what might otherwise seem obvious in this film: that the aliens have destroyed the human terraformers who invaded their planet and restored it to its “rightful” occupants, the aliens, who were there first.

This is the structural situation that persists throughout the movie and is also continually denied: the alien is fighting for survival against an enemy, humanity, that wants to destroy it and its offspring. Ripley and the marines (is the use of the marines a sign of bad conscience about Vietnam, Grenada, or Nicaragua?) are involved in a genocidal campaign against these aliens, who fight back in order to survive as a species. And how does one fight back? Kill the mother! Ripley is the one who starts the war to decide whose offspring dies, when she maliciously—we see the glint in her eye—torches the mother alien's eggs and then her eggsac. It is only after this offensive maneuver that the mother alien goes after Ripley and also after Ripley's adoptive daughter. Geopolitics is translated into a drama about two mothers fighting over the respective lives of their offspring. The future of the globe is transformed into a deadly battle between two women, two mothers duking it out over whose kids get to live. This is what I mean by the personalization of the social, the individualizing of the political in the eighties.

Aliens is replete with bad faith. Under the guise of feminism and multiculturalism, the film enacts intense backlash and antifeminism.22 First, it displaces geopolitics onto a catfight (interesting that Jones disappears in this film). The women are the problem in this story; they are the truly fierce ones of the species. However, Aliens seems feminist on the surface, and has become a cult film among feminists and lesbians. It seems to portray lesbians in quite a favorable light (the medic, Ferro, and Vasquez), although, of course, the marine Vasquez has to “be” a man (and a woman of color, who can thus be more easily masculinized in popular culture representations than a white woman). Some might argue that there is no explicit indication of lesbianism, but I think the film inserts recognition codes that signal to its subcultural audience that the women are lesbians. Recognition codes are, of course, stereotypical, and so you have the short hair, the musculature, the joke about being a man, and the bonding between Vasquez and Ferro.23

Ripley is tougher in this film than she was in Alien (she has shorter hair; in Alien3 her head is shaved). She is a macho female hero, and her bonding with Hicks turns out to resemble more of a brotherhood than a marriage, though the nuclear family does, nevertheless, get reconstructed through mutual and equal admiration between “husband” and “wife”: there is the joke about the tracking bracelet that Hicks gives to Ripley as a mock gift, which seems to poke fun at heterosexual bonding arrangements. Ripley, in turn, gives the bracelet to Newt, thus cementing the familial bond. The director's restored version of the film seems anxious about the feminism and the lesbianism of the film, because scenes have been inserted that bring it into line with a kind of compulsory heterosexuality. Ripley is excessively maternalized and thus feminized: we find out that she had a biological daughter. (Being female in this film is primarily about motherhood; is this related to the abortion debate?) Meanwhile, a scene is inserted where Hicks and Ripley exchange first names, which also further genders Ripley—now Ellen—as feminine and “straight.”

On the surface, the film appears to be feminist, even as it seems to be anxious about that appearance. Elsewhere, however, the message moves in another direction. The bad guy is a woman too, and a mother. The scenes of hostile confrontation between Ripley and other women—culminating in the gratuitous “Get away from her, you bitch!”—seem to say that the only way one can have a feminist woman is if she is a lone individual heroine who explicitly does not bond with other women.

What are the racial politics of the film? Vasquez dies a noble death the way Parker did in Alien, invoking the theme of ultimate self-sacrifice as the mark of “good” people of color in the nation. One indicator that racial politics is indeed at issue in Aliens is the moment when Ferro says to Vasquez, “Hey, mira, who's Snow White?” Racialism and racial hostilities in this film also take place in the domain of the feminine; they are seen as hostilities between women. Here again we have the phenomenon of class conflict (or racial conflict) being figured as an attack on women of the upper class, a displacement of the problems of racial strife away from men and onto women.24

The complex ideological contradictoriness of the film reveals itself on the terrain of race as well as gender. There is the admission that people of color, white women, and working-class white men are the ones who have to go into the military and perform on the front lines, place themselves in harm's way. As Sister Souljah puts it, this nation economically forces Black people to go into the military in order to go overseas and kill “other black people” for the United States; here the “aliens” are recruited to go out and destroy the alien (“she thought they said illegal aliens and signed up,” says Hudson, the “insensitive white guy,” of Vasquez). The compensation for being among those who have to die for the nation is the nation's recognition of Black patriotism. Economic necessity is reinterpreted as fervent loyalty and as the enlightened race politics of the Marine Corps. Perhaps the most pernicious, because “concealed,” race politics of the movie involves the use of “alien” to mean both xenomorph and “immigrant” (e.g., the comment about “illegal aliens”; the quips in Spanish, as when the sergeant calls the marines “tough hombres” and Vasquez's Spanish motto; the processing center, which is reminiscent of the U.S./Mexico border). In addition, the comparison between Ripley and the alien mother suggests a racialized discourse of motherhood that centers this time on the infamous ideological image of the “welfare queen”: the bad (black) alien mother lays tons of eggs, creates teeming masses of baby aliens that will take over the world by devouring the rest of us, while the good white mom has just one—adopted—child.

Finally, the android situation in this movie seems to comment on the perceived state of white masculinity in the culture. Why does the film wound the male hero and make the android Bishop the co-rescuer with Ripley? Bishop, the only truly good and competent man in the film, is not a man at all, but an artificial person (note that the film plays on political correctness with the scene where Bishop asks to be called an artificial person rather than an android). Aliens seems to suggest that the only good man, the only kind that can be counted on, is an android. This situation, and the staging of the drama of rival mothers, as well as the drama of the mother/daughter bond, are the signs that Aliens is trying in some deep ways to connect with the American middle-class female (and feminist) psyche, that is, to recognize and acknowledge her fears, concerns, and anxieties. In this sense the film caters to a female audience and shows the extent to which the cultural imagination has grasped some notions of women's discontent in America, although I think it is important to remember that discourses of nationalism (and this film is, I would argue, quite a rabid discourse of nationalism) always pass, both metaphorically and literally, through the figure and person of motherhood, mothers, and the maternal.


After such a frightening and brilliant construction of the “illusion of a seamless reality” that indicates “the potential allure, power, invisibility of humanist ideological semes” (“even for the radical critic,” notes James Kavanaugh, 99), I can only rejoice that David Fincher ended up directing Alien3, with Sigourney Weaver as coproducer.25 If Alien can be said to have interpellated (primarily) a straight male spectatorship, and Aliens extended that interpellation to include most markedly a straight female, feminist, and lesbian spectatorship, then Alien3, I would argue, reaches most markedly toward a gay male spectator. I want to conduct a tentative defense of this movie for several reasons: it was a box office flop, too depressing. The cheery eighties film-goers were unprepared to see the mood of the turn of the decade reflected before their eyes: economic disaster, AIDS, the end of the Reagan-Bush era, wars in Europe, the Gulf War, the Clarence Thomas hearings, and the approaching millennium. The beginning of 1992 was not a happy time. The film does not have a happy ending. It is, politically, an improvement. Furthermore, the film is directed by a video director, a relative outsider in the industry whose traffic in the more pedestrian, populist medium of video makes him the object of many film directors' scorn. And, finally, with its algorithmic marker as the third in the series, Alien3 critically suggests the infinite exponentiality of the othering we are capable of, while killing off this particular series of sequels by obliterating its protagonist.26

Reviewers have pointed out that Alien3 is obviously about AIDS.27 My students have remarked, however, that this is equally if not more true of the second film, and there the absolutely alien as contagion (from elsewhere) is horrifying, terrible, threatening to the rest of us, the good, innocent ones. In the second film, whether intentional or not, the discourse of AIDS proliferates in its most homophobic form. In Alien3, such is not the case. If AIDS is among us, it is among all of us, and what it produces as reaction is not so much horror as sorrow.

The film takes place on Fiorina (“Fury”) 161, a YY chromosome work correctional facility.28 There are twenty-five male prisoners who remain there voluntarily, since Weyland-Yutani's mineral ore refinery no longer functions. They are bound together by an “apocalyptic millenarian Christian fundamentalism,” according to Clemens, the doctor, and they have taken a vow of celibacy (“and that includes women,” says one of the men). They all have shaved heads and wear punkish fatigues and boots. Clemens is an ex-junkie who still “fetishizes the ritual,” for we see him lovingly shoot up Ripley twice in the space of fifteen minutes. These, along with some lines of dialogue and what Amy Taubin points out is a relentless foregrounding and probing of the body, set up the AIDS discourse in the film.29

There is a Foucauldian cast to the description of this social order. The YY also signals this discursive encoding, for a medicalized link has been made between identity (symbolized by the biological reference, YY) and criminal behavior. The planet is a bathhouse, a hospital, and a prison, a company prison at that, suggesting a total melding of state and capital in this new world order. The phrases initially used to describe the problem of contagion—“in the interest of public health,” “communicable infection,” and “unwelcome virus”—signal the discursive technologies of medicine and the state, while an autopsy performed on Newt early in the film visually reinforces those discursive technologies. Against this backdrop, the film introduces us to a group of outcasts: male criminals, an ex-junkie doctor, and a sole surviving flight officer who is also the only woman on the planet. The film also elaborates a discourse of resistance around these characters, a populist bricolage of religious fundamentalism and political analysis. Several lines in the movie signal this resistance as belonging to communities of activism such as ACT UP: “They think we're crud and they don't give a fuck about one friend of yours that's died!” says Ripley. Funeral rites are ceremonialized and turned into community rituals replete with significance. The film foregrounds community: the group is what counts, not the lone individual, for the nature of the problem is such that only the group members' commitment to each other will solve it.30 There is no “proper” leader, either, for the doctor and the jailer (as the state's proxy) are killed off early on. Ripley becomes nominal leader, but only nominal, and Dillon (Charles Dutton), the spiritual leader of the group, firmly refuses the role.

Alien3 elaborates a discourse of AIDS, ACT UP resistance, and gay community that is queer-sympathetic, to a certain degree. The most powerful argument for the film's gay sympathies is suggested by Stephen Scobie, who argues that the deeply elegiac tone and mood of this film stem from its elaboration of the mourning produced by survivor's guilt.31 He reads the guilt as Ripley's, and the mourning as maternal and centered specifically on Newt, but it does not take much to extend the sense of this mourning so that it simultaneously speaks to the mourning of gay men for their friends and lovers, mothers for their sons, activist sisters for their brothers, and the survivor's guilt an entire community might share.

Unlike a discourse of nationalism, which would heroize the surviving mother's mourning for her war-destroyed sons, Alien3 reworks the image of pregnancy to signal, instead, incorporation, the failure of the mourner's introjection, which would assimilate the death of the loved one into the ongoing life of the mourner. Scobie, following Abraham and Torok, points out that “incorporation is at once more drastic and more paradoxical, in that the ‘other’ which is assimilated remains other” (88).32 This incorporation of a queen, another mother, and the suicide that will destroy both the mourner and the doppelgänger within shut off the future and condemn it. There is no redemption for Alien3. Death produces not future life (as we are told it does by the nation-states that send us to war and that attempt to console the rest of us for our losses), but the end of the story. The final scene in the film is deeply ironic: a roll call of the recorded voice of Ripley and text on the screen tell the viewer that the planet was sealed. Ripley's death is all the more ironic for being futile: she does not destroy the company. One of the reasons, then, that audiences found this film depressing is precisely this exposure of the production of death as cruel, involuntary, and senseless. As Taubin remarks, “More pessimistic and unsparing than Thelma and Louise, Fincher's Alien3 suggests that Ripley knows that the odds are against there being anyone left in the world for whom her myth will have meaning” (10).

But what of Dillon, the Parker-Vasquez sacrificial heroic Black character of this version of the alien allegory? Like Parker and Brett in Alien, he refuses the humanistic role offered him when Ripley tries to make friendly contact. He refuses, in other words, to be rescripted as sacrificial humanist by insisting, when questioned by Ripley, that he is “a murderer and a rapist of women.” The couple Dillon/Ripley in this film resembles, finally, the partnership Vasquez/Drake of Aliens: a heroic, ironic, unsentimentalized, nonsexual (but erotic) partnership of outcast comrades. We might, nevertheless, ask whether the narrative logic of the film ultimately appropriates Dillon for the humanist cause, because he too finally goes the way of Parker and Vasquez, a good Black man who heroically sacrifices himself for the community by keeping the alien penned where it can be killed off.33

Ripley asks, in fact, that Dillon kill her, presuming him capable, given his former career. Another logic, more unsettling, appears in this moment of would-be heroic sacrifice. When Dillon and Ripley trap the alien—which, in this film, is lifted out of the discourse of anthropomorphic sexual difference by being born of a dog—in the lead mold, they argue about who will stay to die as the hot lead falls. Ripley says, “I'm staying—I want to die,” but Dillon says they made a deal that he would kill her later on. She climbs out of the mold but he remains there. She says, “What about me?” and he responds, “God'll take care of you now, sister,” thus breaking the promise he had just invoked to her in order to achieve his own jouissance in death-grappling with the other. Could this doubly negative gesture be doubly ironic, and thus critical of the sacrificial narrative set up in the previous two films? Rather than the redemption of the racial/sexual outcast through heroic self-sacrifice in the service of the preservation of the nation (figured as white womanhood), the scene mimes the sacrificial act but ironizes it by making it a refusal to “save” the woman. However, “saving” her also involves killing her, so the refusal is also a refusal of the typical (negative) role assigned to the racial outcast. A second irony involves the turning of “sacrifice” into narcissism, in that Dillon chooses his own desire over the wishes of Ripley. But that narcissism also involves suicide. Choosing himself means killing himself, just as choosing her would have meant killing her. Thus Dillon redeems himself from the taint of “rapist and murderer of women,” but not for the sake of another. The question, then, might be, is it possible to reconfigure the meaning of redemptive self-sacrifice such that it does not shore up the nation? This question becomes also a question about whether it is ever possible to valorize the death drive as oppositional resistance.34

If we read this as a film about survivor's guilt, then indeed it is no wonder it did not bring audiences rushing to it, for how can one simply come to the conclusion that willed death, suicide, might be what the subject desires? Is this not then the film's humanist weakness as well, its existentialist solution to overwhelming odds? (Dillon's message to the reluctant prisoners is “You're all gonna die, the only question is how you're gonna check out. … Do you want it on your feet or on your knees, begging?”) Could one not imagine leaving the monster as legacy behind for the company to discover and deal with? Would this not constitute a means of fighting back? This would perhaps be the only message more horrifying to its audience than the spectacle of Ripley's demise. The deaths of the prisoners, however futile, confer upon them honor and dignity, and thus redeem them, if not the world. The eerie roll-call roster at the end of the film that reads like the names of the dead at the Names Project exhibitions does just this, and does what the Names recital does as well: heroizes the dead for those who have lost them and confers dignity and honor on their lives. The conferral of such dignity, and anger at the company that is the cause of all this slaughter, may thus elicit our humanist sympathies for a film whose message also includes an incitement to bash Japan, for the barrels in the basement of the facility are covered in Japanese writing, and the scientist who accompanies the company representative at the end of the film is Japanese.

And yet a metatextual moment governs this film, performs a mise-en-abîme via an ironic allusion to the genre of horror films. When she discovers that she is carrying an alien fetus, Ripley decides to go find the (adult) alien. The assistant warden asks her where it is; she says, “It's just down there, in the basement.” He replies, “This whole place is a basement,” to which Ripley responds, “It's a metaphor,” signaling the genre of horror as that which talks about “the thing in the basement.” But then she does descend to the basement, to the dream place, to the unconscious, and literally enacts the moment of misrecognition psychoanalysis accords to such confrontations. In what is the most moving, uncanny, and sexy speech of the entire film, she says to the alien, “Where are you when I need you?” and, picking up a pipe as she hunts it down, “Don't be afraid, I'm part of the family.” As she thinks she sees it cowering on the floor, she says, “You've been in my life so long, I can't remember anything else. Now do something for me. It's easy, just do what you do.” At this point she brings the pipe crashing down, only to discover that she has hit another pipe, and not the creature, who is hiding in the rafters.35 Is Ripley here speaking to the alien, to herself? Is this Sigourney speaking to the alien, to us, her audience of thirteen years? And what is she saying? The seduction, the intimacy, the desire of this moment, its uncanny elegiac resonances seem to move it out of the absurd and rather ridiculous space of a woman talking to a creature that does not understand and may not even be there. Might the “you” be death itself? The death of Sigourney Weaver as Ripley, principal character of the Alien trilogy? The signing-off not only of Ripley, last surviving officer of the Nostromo, but also of Weaver herself? And is the desire uncanny because, while we all know that the literal death is a metaphorical one, it also speaks to a desire for death as other, as alien, in the space of the basement, the topographical space of the unconscious?

The film thus explores the subject's death drive, explores desire as the desire to die. And it marks the subject's relation to the social (the company and the loss of others) as resistance and refusal: “no” is repeated several dramatic times toward the end. In the penultimate scene the sole survivor turns around, as he is being herded out, for one last look at the prison and begins to laugh. The company men shove him out and he retorts, “Fuck you.” What this film leaves its survivors (viewers) with is a space for mourning.

Recent psychoanalytic discussions of AIDS and “homo-sex” suggest that a rejection of the “culture of redemption” (Leo Bersani's phrase) and the valorization of the death drive might constitute an oppositional negativity that is not so much antihumanist as posthumanist in its critique.36 Tim Dean has suggested that the theorization of the death drive as the (homosexual) jouissance of the Other—“that death itself is actually something one might, at some radical level, want—if not desire” (105)—makes possible the project of a “cure for sociosymbolic ills” (115) around the question of our culture's response to AIDS. Dean's bold if problematic formulation of his argument that “in a psychotic society we are all PWAs” (116) may have found a figure in this film.37 I want to suggest that Alien3 may at least offer a way of imagining resistance (as absolute refusal) to a narrative of redemption that valorizes self-sacrifice for the good of the nation and that attempts to enlist outcast recruits for a national project of imperialism.38


  1. Bruno, “Ramble City,” 63.

  2. Bruno, “Ramble City”:

    Jameson suggests that the postmodern condition is characterized by a schizophrenic temporality and a spatial pastiche … schizophrenia is basically a breakdown of the relationship between signifiers, linked to the failure of access to the Symbolic. With pastiche there is an effacement of key boundaries and separations, a process of erosion of distinctions. Pastiche is intended as an aesthetic of quotations pushed to the limit; it is an incorporation of forms, an imitation of dead styles deprived of any satirical impulse.


  3. See Jameson, “Postmodernism and Consumer Society”: “The schizophrenic does not have our sense of temporal continuity but is condemned to live a perpetual present with which the various moments of his or her past have little connection and for which there is no conceivable future on the horizon” (119). See also Jameson, “Postmodernism, or The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism”; Baudrillard, “The Ecstasy of Communication”; Deleuze and Guattari, Anti-Oedipus.

  4. Debord, The Society of the Spectacle.

  5. See also Baudrillard, Simulations.

  6. See, among others, Godzich, “Foreword: The Further Possibility of Knowledge.”

  7. “It belonged, he knew—he remembered—as she pulled him down, to the meat, the flesh the cowboys mocked. It was a vast thing, beyond knowing, a sea of information coded in spiral and pheromone, infinite intricacy that only the body, in its strong blind way, could ever read,” Neuromancer, 239.

  8. Sofia, “Exterminating Fetuses.”

  9. Fitting, “The Lessons of Cyberpunk”; Stone, “Will the Real Body Please Stand Up?”

  10. Ross, “Hacking Away at the Counterculture”:

    Studies of youth subcultures … have taught us that the political meaning of certain forms of cultural “resistance” is notoriously difficult to read. … If cultural studies of this sort have proved anything, it is that the often symbolic, not wholly articulate, expressivity of a youth culture can seldom be translated directly into an articulate political philosophy. The significance of these cultures lies in their embryonic or protopolitical languages and technologies of opposition to dominant or parent systems of rules.


  11. On homosociality, see Sedgwick, Between Men.

  12. For another discussion of the potentially progressive aspects of a technocultural reconfiguration, see Haraway, “A Cyborg Manifesto.”

  13. See Frith, “The Cultural Study of Popular Music.”

  14. I treat the Alien films here as a trilogy because at the time, the fourth film had not yet appeared. At the same time, these three films mark themselves as a trilogy by the third film, which uses “to the third power” as a way of connecting itself to the other two. The fourth, Alien: Resurrection, announces itself as a belated arrival by the term “resurrection.” Nevertheless, its thematics also engage current popular and public meditations on reproduction, technology (including reproductive technology and genetic engineering), and the question of the in/human and posthuman futures for the world.

  15. Wood, “Return of the Repressed,” 26. For issues involving generic hybridization, see Wood, “Cross Talk.”

  16. See Jameson, The Political Unconscious, 76, 115-18.

  17. Anderson, “Monkey's Paw,” from Strange Angels.

  18. See Said, Culture and Imperialism:

    if it is true that Conrad ironically sees the imperialism of the San Tomé silver mine's British and American owners as doomed by its own pretentious and impossible ambitions, it is also true that he writes as a man whose Western view of the non-Western world is so ingrained as to blind him to other histories, other cultures, other aspirations. All Conrad can see is a world totally dominated by the Atlantic West, in which every opposition to the West only confirms the West's wicked power.


    Since Conrad's Nostromo is located in Central America, it is perhaps no accident that the second film of the trilogy, Aliens, will pun incessantly on the question of illegal aliens through the marine Vasquez, her occasional exclamations in Spanish, and her locker room motto, El riesgo siempre vive. In Alien,Nostromo (our man/boatswain) is the cargo ship that ultimately and unwittingly becomes the dramatic vehicle where the battle of values between the female/feminist hero Ripley and the company/computer “MU TH UR” gets played out.

  19. Ross, “New Age Technoculture,” 531.

  20. See Haraway, “The Promises of Monsters”; and Ross, “New Age Technoculture.”

  21. Virilio, “Aliens.”

  22. Curiously, Aliens recognizes the changed identity formations of the United States and explicitly addresses feminism. These features of the film, argues Christine Holmlund, are typical of what she calls the New Cold War sequels of the eighties, where

    economic fears become rewritten as sexual dilemmas, and white subcultures and racial minorities become subsumed within or behind the white middle class family. Yet the presence of strong female, non-white and/or counter-cultural characters does indicate that social change has occurred and is occurring. Like a thread that runs throughout their fictions, … [these] films depict a resurgent United States' posture of strength, yet the films also refer constantly to fear of weakness. Memories about both Vietnam and social protest coexist and collide as cinematic fictions use the past and future to shore up, disguise or replace the present.

    (“Down and Out in Beverly Hills,Rocky IV,Aliens: New Cold War Sequels and Remakes,” 86)

  23. On recognition codes, see Lewis, Gender Politics and MTV; also Fiske, Television Culture.

  24. In this connection, see Kipnis, “(Male) Desire and (Female) Disgust.”

  25. Kavanaugh, “‘Son of a Bitch’: Feminism, Humanism, and Science in Alien.

  26. At the time of this writing, the fourth Alien film was being prepared. Alien: Resurrection featured Ripley as a genetic mutant.

  27. See, in particular, Dargis, “Alien3 and Its Metaphors”; and Taubin, “Invading Bodies,” 9-10.

  28. The YY can function as a gay encoding device; it resembles more the drawing of two male symbols together, ubiquitous graffiti signifier of gay love.

  29. Taubin, “Invading Bodies”: “AIDS is everywhere in the film. It's in the danger surrounding sex and drugs. It's in the metaphor of a mysterious deadly organism attacking an all-male community. It's in the iconography of shaven heads” (10).

  30. I wish to thank Daniel Selden of UCSC for pointing out this aspect of the film to me, and for first suggesting to me that Alien3 had progressive political potential.

  31. Scobie, “What's the Story, Mother?”

  32. Scobie is citing Abraham and Torok's works The Wolfman's Magic Word and The Shell and the Kernel.

  33. Perhaps this is a sign of continued unease with the meaning of “race” in a country that sends to state-sanctioned death a disproportionate number of specifically Black murderers and rapists. Surely the film distances Dillon from his murderer/rapist identity in order to elicit a middle-class and predominantly white empathy for his heroic, if useless, death.

  34. Suicide does, in fact, have a history of oppositional valorization: examples include the Buddhist monks in Vietnam, whose self-immolation spoke in eloquent protest of the war, and numerous recent deployments of the hunger strike, where the consent to death is read as directly confrontational to the state. See also Malcolmsin, “Socialism or Death?”

  35. This recalls another sexy moment in the film, so sexy it serves as its advertising trailer: when the alien slides up to Ripley after possessively killing off her sex partner, but does not touch her. We are puzzled then, but we later learn it is because she carries “its” child.

  36. Bersani, The Culture of Redemption. I am thinking of Crimp, “How to Have Promiscuity in an Epidemic”; Bersani, “Is the Rectum a Grave?”; and Dean's remarkable article “The Psychoanalysis of AIDS,” which all suggest a rejection of the culture of redemption and a theorization of the death drive as the (homosexual) jouissance of the Other.

  37. Diamanda Galas, for example, promotes a T-shirt that reads, “We are all HIV+.”

  38. I also want to suggest that the use of nationalistic rhetoric for the queer cause, as in the Lesbian Avengers' motto, “Lesbian Avengers: We Recruit,” and in the term “Queer Nation,” though it is an example of what Foucault terms “counter-discourse,” becomes problematic in its parodic intent when it converges with the current debate on gays in the military and with the “gay menace” response. For a discussion that problematizes queer nationalism, see Kalin, “Slant: Tom Kalin on Queer Nation.”


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Daniel Punday (essay date November 2000)

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SOURCE: Punday, Daniel. “The Narrative Construction of Cyberspace: Reading Neuromancer, Reading Cyberspace Debates.” College English 63, no. 2 (November 2000): 194-213.

[In the following essay, Punday explores the relationship between cyberspace and narrative form in Neuromancer, arguing that the novel “offers us a way to negotiate the conventional discursive elements used within online communication.”]

The Internet seems to have spawned a community with fundamentally new conditions for social interaction. As Shawn Wilbur notes,

“Virtual community” is certainly among the most used, and perhaps abused phrases in the literature of computer-mediated communication. This should come as no surprise. An increasing number of people are finding their lives touched by collectivities which have nothing to do with physical proximity. A space has opened up for something like community on computer networks, at a time when so many forms of “real life” community seem under attack.


Where traditionally individuals have interacted with each other using face-to-face verbal and physical cues limited by their own physical and material conditions, cyberspace's conditions of interaction are much more constructed. Individuals can leave their physical characteristics undefined in some types of online communication or can create virtual identities for themselves in others. Many critics have seen this fluidity of identity as an inherent part of the value and power of this new communal space. In an influential early article about online culture, for example, Pavel Curtis describes men who adopt female identities online: “to some degree, they are interested in seeing ‘how the other half lives,’ what it feels like to be perceived as female in a community. From what I can tell, they can be quite successful at this” (273).

We have come recently to recognize, however, how profoundly conventional social practices shape this new noncorporeal space. When individuals define new identities in an online environment, they frequently rely on stereotypes built up in the real world or learned through mass media. Even when they seem to be experimenting with identities, critics have charged, individuals online most often are actually playing out conventional stories with easily recognizable roles for men and women, whites and minorities. Although many critics take this as a sign that the claims made about the liberatory potential of cyberdiscourse are mistaken, I argue in this article that precisely this intertextuality is what gives online discourse its radical potential. The concept of cyberspace itself, after all, is novelistic in origin. William Gibson has noted that when he invented the term “cyberspace” for his 1984 novel Neuromancer he did so as a way to solve specific narrative problems. Gibson remarks in an interview with Larry McCaffery, “When I arrived at the cy[b]erspace concept while I was writing ‘Burning Chrome,’ I could see right away it was resonant in a lot of different ways. By the time I was into Neuromancer, I recognized that it allowed for a lot of moves, because characters can be sucked into apparent realities—which means you can place them in any sort of setting or against any backdrop you want” (226). According to Gibson, the concept of cyberspace developed as a way of manipulating traditional narrative elements to produce new effects. In this essay I suggest that Gibson offers us a way to negotiate the conventional discursive elements used within online communication. Ultimately cyberspace discourse appears to be at its best not when it tries to minimize the effects of the conventional narratives out of which it is built, but instead when it exploits those discourses most fully to reveal their sources and conflicts.


To see why cyberspace raises the hope of a fundamentally new kind of social space and very different ways of understanding human identity, let us consider the most extreme and perhaps most typically “cyberspatial” form of online interaction as an example: the participation of individuals in a MUD (multi-user dungeon) and MOO (MUD, object oriented). A MUD or a MOO is a computer program that allows many individuals, connected to that program through the Internet, to create “characters” and move simultaneously through a virtual “place.” (Environments are usually called MUDs when they have a fantasy adventure theme and allow characters to become stronger and richer through virtual battles; MOOs are more open-ended, social MUDs that lack such concern for combat and power.) Such places may be as large as a galaxy of many worlds or as small as an individual house and essentially comprise a series of room descriptions. Here, for example, is a central room in the LambdaMOO:


It is very bright, open, and airy here, with large plate-glass windows looking southward over the pool to the gardens beyond. On the north wall, there is a rough stonework fireplace. The east and west walls are almost completely covered with large, well-stocked bookcases. An exit in the northwest corner leads to the kitchen and, in a more northerly direction, to the entrance hall. The door into the coat closet is at the north end of the east wall, and at the south end is a sliding glass door leading out onto a wooden deck. There are two sets of couches, one clustered around the fireplace and one with a view out the windows.

Individuals can move through this space through simple commands like “west” or “south” and can also “look” at objects that exist within those rooms. Moving to a new room or looking at an object calls up a programmed description. “Looking” at the fireplace in the living room, for example, calls up the following:

An old fireplace taken from an Irish castle that was destroyed in the 16th century. Kindling and logs are piled high along side it. Its mantel is nearly ten feet off of the ground and is supported by two stone gargoyles. On the mantel are several familiar portraits and the unusual sort of bricabrac that you have come to expect, including a cuckoo clock, Graffiti, a compass, Player Database, An Atlas (1999 Edition), LambdaMOO Central Clearinghouse, and the key to the Pearly Gates. The fireplace is filled with cold ashes.

Individuals moving through such spaces not only see rooms and objects, however; they also see other “players” who happen to be moving through these rooms. The appearance and name by which a player will be represented within the world—his or her “avatar”—are defined by the individual and often reflect some role or identity that the individual wishes to take on in this virtual world. Although in some MUDs individuals can have quasi-material effects on other characters—MUDs based on fantasy worlds often allow characters to fight each other, to give each other objects, and so on—the majority of time on a MUD or MOO is spent in conversation. Individuals have a variety of communicational commands available depending on the site they are visiting. The most universal commands are “say” and “emote.” When a user gives the command “say hello,” every individual within the “room” occupied by that user sees the message tagged to the character's name: “Dan says ‘hello.’” (The user himself or herself will see “You say ‘hello.’”) In addition to “saying” things, characters can also “emote,” or express themselves physically. Sending the command “emote smiles” causes all others in the room to see the message “Dan smiles.” As I discuss at the end of this article, emotes can be used for many very nuanced forms of communication, from indirectly expressing one's opinion about other characters or the things that they are saying (“Dan looks troubled and confused by what John is saying” or “Dan moves warily away from Mary”) to offering explicit information or even narration (“Dan just wants everyone to know that he'll be going in a moment”).1

Because MUDs and MOOs provide real-time social interaction that can be continued over many visits to the same computer-generated “place” and because individuals almost always interact in such spaces through created identities and descriptions, MUDs and MOOs provide the most autonomous and otherworldly instance of online communication. When “mudding” culture first became a subject of serious discussion, the social space and identities it created were often treated in exaggerated, idealistic terms. Mark Dery has noted how recent virtual reality technology in general has fostered the belief that human reality and community are on the verge of undergoing a fundamental transformation. This mixture of technophilia and 1960s idealism is exemplified by Douglas Rushkoff's Cyberia, which describes a new generation of computer hackers as creating “a whole new reality, which they can enter and change.” This networked reality hints at a fundamentally different relation among individuals for Rushkoff: “our world is entirely more interdependent than we have previously understood. What goes on inside any one person's head is reflected, in some manner, on every other level of reality. So any individual being, through feedback and iteration, has the ability to redesign reality at large” (qtd. in Dery 43). Other critics have been tamer in the claims that they have made about MUD interaction, but many early writers saw such activity as providing fundamentally new modes of social interaction. Sherry Turkle, for example, claims that in chat rooms “we enter another reality and have the opportunity to develop new dimensions of self-mastery” (204) that would otherwise be very difficult to foster. As a consequence, individuals who operate within such virtual environments play out a multitude of roles, leading to an increased fragmentation of identity and suggesting a fundamental change in the relations among individuals:

Now, in postmodern times, multiple identities are no longer so much at the margins of things. Many more people experience identity as a set of roles that can be mixed and matched, whose diverse demands need to be negotiated. A wide range of social and psychological theorists have tried to capture the new experience of identity. Robert Jay Lifton has called it protean. Kenneth Gergen describes its multiplication of masks as a saturated self. Emily Martin talks of the flexible self as a contemporary virtue of organisms, persons, and organizations.


Even when critics avoid Turkle's rather sweeping claims about changes in identity, quite a number have pointed out ways in which cyberspace seems to promise to rework fundamentally the basic conditions of human interaction. Howard Rheingold's influential early study, The Virtual Community: Homesteading on the Electronic Frontier, reflects the image of cyberspace as a place free from the socio-physical limitations on human interaction: “Because we cannot see one another in cyberspace, gender, age, national origin, and physical appearance are not apparent unless a person wants to make such characteristics public. People whose physical handicaps make it difficult to form new friendships find that virtual communities treat them as they always wanted to be treated—as thinkers and transmitters of ideas and feeling beings, not carnal vessels with a certain appearance and way of walking and talking (or not walking and not talking)” (26). Other critics have hailed MUD environments as promising to give individuals the chance to experience life from different social, racial, and gendered positions. Amy Bruckman, who helped to develop MediaMOO, a site for research into computer-mediated communication, reflects something of this optimism: “Without makeup, special clothing, or risk of social stigma, gender becomes malleable in MUDs. When gender becomes a property that can be set with a line of code, one bit in a data structure, it becomes an ‘object to think with,’ to use Seymour Papert's terminology” (EFC5). Cyberspace here seems to be a space that allows a fundamentally new and considerably freer form of social contact.

While such idealistic talk of the revolutionary potential of virtual identities dominated early writing about cyberspace, more recent critics have pointed out the ways in which a multitude of real-life biases and limitations are imported into cyberspace. Critics such as Lynn Cherney have studied the speech patterns of men and women in cyberspace and found that real-life gender affects how this new medium is used (Cherney, “Gender Differences”). More importantly, a number of feminist theorists have questioned the ways in which online communication itself, with its fondness for abstract claims about freedom from the body and real-life entanglements, repeats gendered styles of speaking. Anne Balsamo describes an online “discussion list” exchange in which a female participant was the first to raise “imminently practical concerns” about an imagined utopia: these concerns were not

raised until the female participant emerged from the silence she was lurking in. Her original point was passed over quickly, even as it was enacted in the course of the subsequent discussion: electronic discussion lists are governed by gendered codes of discursive interchange that often are not hospitable to female participants. This suggests that on-line communication is structured similarly to communication in other settings, and is overtly subjected to forms of gender, status, age, and race determinations.


In contrast to Bruckman's suggestion that online communication gives participants perspective on conventional gender roles, Balsamo suggests that this method of communication itself is carried out using such gender roles. If this is the case, the very claim that online communication can offer some kind of escape from previous forms of social interaction may be gendered (male) and itself repeat the traditional, patriarchal metaphysical striving towards disembodied intellectual exchange.2 In this sense, online communication of all sorts seems to be not an alternative to traditional forms of exchange, but rather merely a product of those forms and the assumptions behind them.

The persistence of real-world communicational assumptions and roles in online communication is frequently described as a kind of narrative in order to emphasize its ultimately textual nature. An example is Lisa Nakamura's critique of racial stereotypes in MUD and MOO discourse. Nakamura notes that characters described as Asian in sites like the LambdaMOO tend to “fit into familiar stereotypes from popular electronic media such as video games, television, and film, and popular literary genres such as science fiction and historical romance” (184).3 Nakamura goes on to explain why the presence of these stereotypes is so damaging to the upbeat reading of online activity that critics such as Turkle offer:

The choice to enact oneself as a samurai warrior in LambdaMOO constitutes a form of identity tourism which allows a player to appropriate an Asian racial identity without any of the risks associated with being a racial minority in real life. While this might seem to offer a promising venue for non-Asian characters to see through the eyes of the Other by performing themselves as Asian through on-line textual interaction, in fact the personae chosen are overwhelmingly Asian stereotypes blocks this possibility by reinforcing these stereotypes.


Nakamura's critique challenges the belief that cyberspace is a new mode of social interaction capable of producing independent identities that users engage in. It especially suggests that online discourse is above all text imported from other, socially and politically charged sources. It is not new, of course, to suggest that online discourse is not only textual (it obviously is) but also a kind of “story” being told by the participants. Rheingold suggests this even in his more optimistic study of cyberspace: “Narrative is the stuff of which MUDworlds are made. Everyone and everything and every place has a story. Every object in a MUD, from your character's identity to the chair your character is sitting in, has a written description that is revealed when you choose to look at the object” (155). It is a significant leap from Rheingold's suggestion that cyberspace is a kind of story to Nakamura's claim that it is made up of popular cultural narratives and mass-media stereotypes. Nakamura suggests specifically that cyberdiscourse is intertextual in the specific sense that it draws on those texts that are most familiar, even cliché, in mass culture. Shannon McRae observes such clichés at work in the online performance of gender:

In order to enact “female” and hope to attract partners, one must not only assume the pronouns, but craft a description that falls within the realm of what is considered attractive. Most people do not stretch their imaginations, much beyond the usual categorizations.


The result, as Stephen Shaviro says, is a “monotonously self-referential” loop in which men act like they think women act when they act the way that men want them to act (qtd. in McRae 79). Quite in contrast to the early belief that cyberspace offers a way to escape gender, race, and class as conditions of social interaction, these recent critics suggest that online discourse is woven of stereotypical cultural narratives that reinstall precisely these conditions.


Online communication creates, then, a space of social contact out of intertextual materials that may end up relying on the very conventional social narratives that many participants hope to escape when they turn to this new medium. These hidden, insidiously conventional structures within social interaction are the subject of the novel that gave us the term “cyberspace”—William Gibson's Neuromancer. A discussion of Gibson's novel not only provides a glimpse of the very different understanding of identity that results from this intertextuality, but also suggests how best to negotiate these narratives.

At the most general level Neuromancer is the story of Case's quest to be re-integrated with cyberspace and the information that it possesses. The story opens with Case's nervous system intentionally harmed in subtle ways by a past employer so that he is unable to access cyberspace and perform his past role as a “cowboy” who infiltrates computer networks and steals information. Case is mysteriously offered surgery to repair his system if he participates in a complicated scheme to free an artificial intelligence named Wintermute from the limitations placed on it by its creator. Gibson describes Case's experience of cyberspace in terms of the pleasure of reintegration:

Found the ridged face of the power stud.

And in the bloodlit dark behind his eyes, silver phosphenes boiling in from the edge of space, hypnagogic images jerking past like film compiled from random frames. Symbols, figures, faces, a blurred, fragmented mandala of visual information.

Please, he prayed, now

A gray disk, the color of Chiba sky.


Disk beginning to rotate, faster, becoming a sphere of paler gray. Expanding—

And flowed, flowering for him, fluid neon origami trick, the unfolding of his distanceless home, his country, transparent 3D chessboard extending to infinity. Inner eye opening to the stepped scarlet pyramid of the Easter Seaboard Fission Authority burning beyond the green cubes of Mitsubishi Bank of America, and high and very far away he saw the spiral arms of military systems, forever beyond his reach.

And somewhere he was laughing, in a white-painted loft, distant fingers caressing the deck, tears of release streaking his face.


In this passage, Case's movement into cyberspace is a kind of homecoming that brings him back into contact with a network of human information. Given the lyrical tone of this passage, it is not surprising that interpreters of Neuromancer have concluded that the connection to networks of human information that Case pursues is a uniformly positive thing. As we have seen, cyberspace subculture frequently takes the disembodied integration into electronic information systems quite literally as a next stage in human evolution. The connections between individuals are more obviously ambivalent, however, in a short story that Gibson wrote with John Shirley, “The Belonging Kind.” This is the story of a socially awkward academic, Michael Coretti, who becomes fascinated by a woman who is able to fit into social circumstances perfectly. Coretti follows this woman as she moves from bar to bar, her clothes, appearance, and manner changing mysteriously en route. In the end, Coretti discovers that this woman is part of a species of creatures that have evolved to mimic human social behavior perfectly:

A kind of animal that lives only on alcoholic beverages. With peculiar metabolisms they convert the alcohol and the various proteins from mixed drinks and wine and beers into everything they need. And they can change outwardly, like a chameleon or a rockfish, for protection.


In particular, the story describes how the introvert Coretti gradually realizes the power of this species that constantly transforms to fit into any situation; it is the “belonging kind.” The integration that Coretti experiences at the end of the story, as he joins these creatures and undergoes physical changes, is ambivalent. Rather than asserting the value of social integration for its own sake, this story treats such connections as a matter of protection and evolution—nothing more.

The links between individuals are similarly ambivalent in Neuromancer. Probably the novel's clearest statement of the ambivalence of social connection comes late in the novel when Case reflects on his involvement with unseen “bosses.” Case has been hired by the mysterious Armitage, who turns out to work for Wintermute. As Case realizes the degree to which Armitage is a puppet or even a construction of Wintermute, he reflects on his involvement with larger political and social powers:

Case had always taken it for granted that the real bosses, the kingpins in a given industry, would be more and less than people. He'd seen it in the men who'd crippled him in Memphis, he'd seen Wage affect the semblance of it in Night City, and it had allowed him to accept Armitage's flatness and lack of feeling. He'd always imagined it as a gradual and willing accommodation of the machine, the system, the parent organism. It was the root of street cool, too, the knowing posture that implied connection, invisible lines up to hidden levels of influence.


Case's reflections about the nature of social connection suggest both its positive and negative qualities from the perspective of the individual. Positively, these connections position the individual as a kind of parasite within the “parent organism,” sheltering the individual who may not share the goals of the larger system to which he or she belongs. This positive connotation of connection is evident in perhaps Gibson's best-known single comment, from his story “Burning Chrome”: “the street finds its own uses for things” (186). In one sense, Gibson's narrative seems to celebrate the ways that individuals marginalized by corporate culture retain freedom by virtue of their very position on the margins. There is, however, another implication to Case's description of “the accommodation of the machine.” The very urge to appear “street cool” seems to drive individuals to these larger power systems. Like the “belonging kind” of Gibson's story, individuals have an urge to become connected to others and to larger social patterns, even though that urge changes them and seems to make them less than human. Just as we have seen critics such as Balsamo and Nakamura worry that the seemingly liberatory space of online communication is based on conventionalized social narratives, so too characters driven to maintain distance from conventional social links in Gibson's novel may simply fall into other power relations of which they are unaware.

This understanding of dangerously “connected” identity arises naturally from the kinds of indirect power relations that we have already characterized as a concern of critics of cyberspace. Such connections are the basis for the novel's characterization of people as mechanical “assemblages” of disparate elements. The best example of the “assembled” quality of Gibson's characters is Wintermute's agent Armitage, who Case discovers has been “reassembled” from Willis Corto. Corto was an American Colonel who was shot down in a military assault on Russia designed to fail. He is reassembled surgically so that he can participate in a Congressional probe into the CIA's and Pentagon's involvement in the failed raid: “He'd need eyes, legs, and extensive cosmetic work, the aid said, but that could be arranged. New plumbing, the man added” (83). Corto provides evidence for these hearings, but later becomes schizophrenic and is cured and shaped through Wintermute's indirect involvement:

But where have you been, man? he silently asked the anguished eyes. Wintermute had built something called Armitage into a catatonic fortress named Corto. Had convinced Corto that Armitage was the real thing, and Armitage had walked, talked, schemed, bartered data for capital, fronted for Wintermute in that room in the Chiba Hilton. … And now Armitage was gone, blown away by the winds of Corto's madness. But where had Corto been, those years?

(193-94; ellipsis in original)

Corto is described as a space inhabited by many, potentially conflicting, entities—he is called a “fortress” and asked “where have you been?” The novel continually returns to the uneven spaces where the parts of individuals are assembled into some whole. Early in the novel Case's friend, Linda Lee, is described using the same language of parts: “He'd watched her personality fragment, calving like an iceberg, splinters drifting away, and finally he's seen the raw need, the hungry armature of addiction” (8). Likewise Case is described as “coming apart at the seams” (29). Treating individuals as made up of parts echoes the novel's claim that political systems create gaps where their power is uneven or unpredictable. Case's marginal existence is described in terms of the larger “outlaw zone” that he occupies:

There were countless theories explaining why Chiba City tolerated the Ninsei enclave, but Case tended toward the idea that the Yakuza might be preserving the place as a kind of historical park, a reminder of humble origins. But he also saw a certain sense in the notion that burgeoning technologies require outlaw zones, that Night City wasn't there for its inhabitants, but as a deliberately unsupervised playground for technology itself.


Gibson describes a kind of space that, while ultimately functioning in the service of larger corporate powers, remains relatively free of their direct control. The same thing seems to be true of the characters themselves, who are likewise assembled from many different elements in ways that make the whole unstable and partially free from direct control. Critics often note that Gibson's own writing is characterized by extensive lists of specific, often brand-name, objects. If Gibson's prose seems to be a mixture of consumer objects, his characters also seem to be assembled out of many parts, each of which has its relations to larger systems of power and which coexist in uneasy ways.

The conflict between Molly and Peter Riviera, both of whom work for Wintermute, makes clear the implications of thinking about individuals as made up of parts. Molly is a cybernetically enhanced bodyguard, with lenses that allow her to see in the dark and retractable razor blades hidden in her fingernails. Riviera is a holographic artist, who has an amazing visual memory and is able to project and modify those memories for anyone present:

Case had seen the medium before; when he'd been a teenager in the Sprawl, they'd called it, “dreaming real.” He remembered thin Puerto Ricans under East Side streetlights, dreaming real to the quick beat of a salsa, dreamgirls shuddering and turning, the onlookers clapping in time. But that had needed a van full of gear and a clumsy [elec]trode helmet. What Riviera dreamed, you got.


Riviera puts on a kind of holographic performance art piece, in which he acts out the creation of a dreamgirl part by part: “I decided that if I could visualize some part of her, only a small part, if I could see that part perfectly, in the most perfect detail …” (139; ellipsis in original). Riviera builds up an image of what turns out to be Molly, “Molly as Riviera imagined her” (140), by imaging one part at a time. Once complete, “Riviera and the Molly image began to couple with renewed intensity. Then the image slowly extended a clawed hand and extruded its five blades. With a languorous, dreamlike deliberation, it raked Riviera's bare back. Case caught a glimpse of exposed spine” (140-41). The logic of the performance piece, Case reflects, is obvious: “Riviera puts the dreamgirl together, the dreamgirl takes him apart” (141). This scene not only makes clear how individuals are understood to be assembled from distinct parts, but also suggests that this process of assemblage depends on a fundamental tension between the physical and the imaginative. Riviera's act of construction is imaginative, but Molly can quite literally deconstruct Riviera because she is able to see the physical elements that make up the whole body image. In a broader sense, we can say that assemblage is always imaginative and that some physical quality works against this unity. This relation is particularly clear in the case of Armitage, whose created consciousness holds his constituent parts together until the tensions within them become too strong and he collapses psychologically at the end of the novel. Cynthia Davidson sees the clash between Riviera and Molly as based on the degree to which each foregrounds their material tensions:

Both Peter and Molly pervert expectations generated by their initial appearances. Molly sports external technological enhancements—her lenses and razor-nails—which distort her natural (organic) appearance, making her appear boldly transgressive. … Riviera's image is nearly the opposite of Molly's. He looks organically natural, with a classically “beautiful” appearance and riveting blue-gray eyes. However, this calm demeanor masks seething and contradictory impulses exercised with a gleeful disdain for their effect on humanity.


Riviera's striving toward unity, then, is dangerous because it makes invisible the disunities that exist at a material level.

Imagining people as “assemblages” whose subjectivity is constructed from sources of which they are rarely aware and whose elements do not necessarily cohere certainly seems unappealing at first glimpse, since it works against traditional ideas of self-consciousness and personal coherence. But Neuromancer also suggests that much more dangerous than this disunified subjectivity is the attempt to deny multiplicity and to hide behind some apparent unity. Precisely this tension between unity and incoherence is at issue in debates between critics who praise cyberdiscourse for its ability to raise our consciousness about our own identity—to “develop new dimensions of self mastery,” to use Turkle's phrase—and those critics who see this discourse as nothing more than an intertextual mélange of mass media clichés and stereotypes. These critics are debating whether participants in online discourse are constructing coherent identities that shed light on the real world or whether they are merely tacking together an identity from media sources. As critics have gradually begun to accept the latter, they have lost confidence in the socially transformative possibilities of online discourse. In many ways, this debate about the power or danger of online discourse has become a site in which broader arguments within the academy about the nature of language have been staged all over again. Idealistic claims about the power of online discourse to lift participants out of everyday roles and to give them an appreciation for other identities echo traditional humanist belief in the power of literature to expand human understanding; recognition of the intertextual construction of this same language has led other critics to embrace or reject cyberspace because it appears to deconstruct subjectivity.

Because these identities are so obviously constructed and because this discourse continues to have such obvious power for participants, online discourse is a perfect place to challenge the opposition between social engagement and intertextuality. Indeed, Neuromancer offers precisely this: a narrative in which “assembled” subjectivity nonetheless creates spaces that can be inhabited effectively by characters. In other words, Neuromancer offers a partial answer to the question of how best to negotiate these conventional social relations in online discourse. Neuromancer does this precisely by exploring the problem that Nakamura sees at the core of online discourse—the relation between cyberspace and narrative forms. Nakamura characterizes online discourse as narrative more to emphasize its intertextual qualities, I think, than to suggest that these stories script the actions of the participants within this virtual world. When Gibson represents identity in cyberspace, however, it becomes clear that the concept of narrative is especially effective in describing the latter issue, in capturing the ambiguities of agency in this online discourse. Gibson suggests that cyberspace can exploit fundamental ambiguities in the agency implied by these narratives to complicate stereotypes and to contextualize discourse.

Critics have, in fact, vigorously debated Neuromancer's own treatment of narrative. Some critics have suggested that, while the novel raises narrative issues, its own methods are very conventional. Brian McHale, for example, has suggested that cyberpunk fiction in general translates the formal experimentation of postmodernist fiction into speculation about narrative and meaning at the level of theme. Claire Sponsler takes this to signal a fundamental flaw in Gibson's writing:

Cyberpunk would have us believe that the selves it posits are indeterminate and fragmented, no longer unique, autonomous individuals, but this is not the case for Gibson's protagonists. In seeming contradiction to the decentering of the subject that occurs with many of his minor characters, Gibson's protagonists still fit the well-known mold of the free-willed, self-aware, humanist subject.


Other critics have argued quite the opposite—that cyberpunk in general and Neuromancer in particular deploy characters in fundamentally new ways. Katherine Hayles, for example, claims that Gibson's characterization emphasizes not the traditional metaphysical opposition between presence and absence, but instead the tension developed in contemporary information theory between pattern and randomness:

Like the landscapes they negotiate, the subjectivities who operate within cyberspace also become patterns rather than physical entities. Case, the computer cowboy who is the novel's protagonist, still has a physical presence, although he regards his body as so much “meat” that exists primarily to sustain his consciousness until the next time he can enter cyberspace.


Resolving this critical disagreement about Gibson's writing is not as simple as it might seem and reveals an ambiguity that is important to the novel's treatment of identity and power. When Hayles claims that Case and other characters in the novel are really simply “patterns,” is she speaking at the level of theme or praxis? Clearly she cannot simply be speaking thematically, since her claims are part of a larger argument about how contemporary novels' “corporeal anxiety” affects their construction. At the same time, however, her reading of narrative praxis proceeds by examining what the novel has to say about its characters, rather than how it is actually organized and how it develops. This is not, I think, critical sloppiness on Hayles's part so much as a reflection of the fundamental problem of speaking about narrative issues in this novel. Consider, for example, one of the typical exchanges in which Gibson raises issues of subjectivity and characterization. Case is forced to work for Armitage (and Wintermute) because the surgery that repaired his nervous system also inserted sacs, which after a certain period will undo the repair unless he is given the appropriate antidote. Case asks what keeps Molly working for Armitage, and she responds, “I'm an easy make. … Anybody any good at what they do, that's what they are, right? You gotta jack, I gotta tussle” (50). This passage suggests a broader way in which characters are defined by their roles. Is this definition a transformation of the nature of the characters, or simply an opinion about subjectivity? Clearly, the answer to this question depends on our perspective. From a certain perspective, Molly is a free-willed character self-consciously choosing to associate herself with Wintermute because it gives her the opportunity to do what she is good at. From another perspective, however, she is simply the tool of an economic system that has created her. Early in the novel, she remarks about her potential for violence, “I guess it's just the way I'm wired” (25)—a line that certainly suggests a recognition that she has been wired by someone for some purpose. The ambiguity that critics encounter when they describe the narrative construction of Gibson's novels is precisely the ambiguity that Gibson's characters face when trying to understand their own degree of self-control. Critics such as Sponsler, who take the gap between these two definitions of character in Gibson's work to be unintentional, tend to find in Neuromancer a narrative that conceptually overreaches Gibson's novelistic ability. Critics who excuse this gap for the sake of emphasizing Gibson's radical redefinition of character, conversely, seem less worried about the novelistic execution of these radical narrative ideas.

This point of debate is ultimately, then, a matter of knowing the proper perspective from which to interpret the characters' actions. This perspective in turn depends on who we believe to be the real agent in the novel. In many ways, this ambiguity is inherent to narrative in general, since in stories we are frequently aware both of the action of the events retold and the act of retelling them.5 When critics describe online discourse as a “narrative,” then, they are not only pointing out its intertextual or conventional qualities; they are also noting an ambiguity of agency—a vague line between our free creation of a story with other participants online and our interpellation into a conventional narrative script. Neuromancer uses this ambiguity to create a degree of interpretive indeterminacy. This indeterminacy is similar to the space of relative freedom in the “outlaw zones” of Chiba City and suggests that Gibson's way of writing may work to replicate this limited freedom through such ambiguities. We get a glimpse of life without this indeterminacy in the self-replicating urge of the Tessier-Ashpool corporation. Case describes Tessier-Ashpool's corporate aspiration as the “human equivalent” of a wasp's nest that he saw years ago and that filled him with horror (171). Case describes the nest itself in the following passage:

He saw the thing the shell of gray paper had concealed.

Horror. The spiral birth factory, stepped terraces of the hatching cells, blind jaws of the unborn moving ceaselessly, the staged progress from egg to larva, near-wasp, wasp. In his mind's eye, a kind of time-lapse photography took place, revealing the thing as the biological equivalent of a machine gun, hideous in its perfection.


Case recalls this image in the context of a dream, which ends “just before he'd drenched the nest with fuel, he's seen the T-A logo of Tessier-Ashpool neatly embossed into its side, as though the wasps themselves had worked it there” (127). This passage defines the hive as self-replicating and inwardly oriented. What seems to horrify Case about the hive is the way that it creates a complete continuum of production: each stage of the wasp is present without break.6 In contrast to other systems that create “outlaw zones” of relative freedom as part of their very functioning, the hive image describes a corporation that has no gaps and whose control is complete. As a narrative, these actions are unambiguous: all the elements of the hive not only work to one end, but are reducible to stages within that production. There is, in other words, no question about the perspective from which we should read the hive—indeed, the hive literally spells out its message in the Tessier-Ashpool logo. Gibson's method of writing, which draws our attention to the inherently ambiguous status of characters, can be seen as a way of not allowing his narrative to be a seamless hive. When we become aware of the ambiguous status of Gibson's characters, they appear to be assemblages in the sense that I have just described and walk the fine line between being independent agents and dupes of conventional power relations.


Having recognized the conventionalized, narrative quality of online discourse, but having also missed the radical potential of the “assembled” intertextual subjectivity to which Neuromancer alerts us, social critics seem to have soured on cyberspace as a vehicle for challenging conventional identities and empowering new forms of social interaction. Partially for practical and legal reasons, but also because of a loss of confidence in the revolutionary potential of online discourse, recent MOOs often emphasize the link between one's online character and one's real-world identity.7 The anonymity that used to be provided by MUDs and MOOs is limited on many sites; most MOOs, for example, now reveal the site, at least, from which guest players are connected to the MOO. Partially this is a simple, practical way to discourage irresponsible behavior by players who are not seriously involved in the MUD or MOO. But this identification probably also reflects an awareness that the real world does intrude on the MUD, like it or not. Recognizing that such virtual identities are not independent of the real world has also probably been influenced by the migration of the medium towards more “serious” applications. Such applications include Internet research sites such as MediaMOO, a forum for system administrators and discourse critics to discuss computer-mediated communication. Other serious uses of online communication also include special interest MOOs such as BioMOO, a virtual meeting place for biologists, and JennyMUSH, a MOO dedicated to counseling survivors of sexual trauma. Likewise, MOOs are beginning to be used for online conferencing, potentially alleviating the need for participants to travel across the country or overseas to participate in business or research meetings. MOOs are also being tested by many universities as a component of online distance learning. In general, MOOs seem to have developed from the adventure games of early MUDs to the open-ended structure of social MOOs towards more serious business and educational applications.

In this migration towards taking MOO identities more seriously and seeing more firm links between real-life and virtual personas, critics and researchers in online communication are missing, I think, the positive potential of cyberspace intertextuality. The interpretational ambiguity of narratives in cyberspace is important not because it can lead us to some non-narrative identity or some position free from these systems of power, but because making ambiguous one's location within narratives offers a temporary perspective from which these systems can be understood. Although critics such as Nakamura show that we cannot treat cyberspace as a place where individuals simply try on identities and learn about themselves free from the stories and clichés that circulate through popular culture, cyberspace may well represent a different way of manipulating these real-world elements. Because it is so obviously only discourse and cut off from the physical basis upon which conventional narratives of gender and racial identity are traditionally built, online discourse draws our attention to how these narratives are constructed and manipulated. This possibility of using narratives imported from the real world to achieve effects that would be more difficult to accomplish in the real world is precisely what Gibson's notion of cyberspace captures. Cyberspace in this sense does not represent a place of otherworldly identities, but rather a way of manipulating texts.

Some critics have noted, in fact, that the hypertextual format of much online discourse implies just such a linking between many source texts. Hypertext linking is frequently used in Internet Web pages, where individual words or phrases can be selected to load other documents or sites with information about that particular term. As critics have noted, such hypertextual links make the intertextual nature of communication more explicit. In his well-known book on the subject, George Landow describes hypertext as “a fundamentally intertextual system [that] has the capacity to emphasize intertextuality in a way that page-bound text in books cannot” (35). Landow argues that hypertext represents a transformation in the nature of writing in which texts become “borderless” and all discourse is seen as collaborative. Hypertext need not, of course, be online or have any connection to the Internet. Indeed, some of the most successful and widely distributed hypertext documents—especially research tools such as interactive encyclopedias—have appeared first on CD-ROM rather than online. And, of course, not all online discourse is hyperlinked. Most MUD and MOO programs, for example, lack any sort of such links. Nonetheless, we can say that along with the explosive popularity of the networked communicational linkages embodied in the Internet has come a growing recognition of the collaborative, intertextual nature of communication. Like Landow, Gibson suggests that rather than denying or resisting this intertextuality, we would be best to embrace it and seek the most effective ways to use it. For Gibson, this adjustment means seeking out the representational ambiguities in cyberspace in order to interrogate the sources of the narratives out of which we are constructing identities.

We can see cyberspace discourse creating representational ambiguities in the mechanics of MUD and MOO conversations. Commentators on the Internet often focus on the conditions of online interaction (the construction of MUD or MOO characters, the anonymity of communication, and so on) without sufficiently appreciating the communicational tools available to online users. Lynn Cherney is an important exception to this generalization, and her detailed analysis of online behavior provides rich examples of how online communication departs from other forms of communication. In particular, Cherney is interested in how the particular forms of MUD discourse can be and are used in a way that we might not expect if we view these forms merely as a parasitical imitation of real-life discourse. For example, Cherney observes how emote commands are used by MUD players to provide information that would seem more naturally to be “spoken” within the MUD room (through the “say” command). Cherney provides the following example of how an emote can be used to provide such exposition:

1. lynn [to Damon]: so Kit thinks you and I would be a cute couple.

2. Damon says, “um”

3. Damon says, “how nice”

4. lynn laughs.

5. Damon hasn't, well, met you, lynn

(“Modal Complexity”)

The last line here (line 5) is produced through an emote. It reads somewhat like the voice of a narrator does in fiction, even though it is quite obviously inserted by the person controlling “Damon.” The nuanced choice of providing information through a say or emote has only the loosest equivalent outside of a MUD and suggests that such communication can develop a fundamentally different set of protocols and restrictions than we would expect if we think of it merely as an imitation of real-world dialog. Cherney is not only providing a list of techniques by which writers can express themselves in online communication—although her research is a rich store of such information. She is also showing how online communication can work specifically to destabilize our normal ways of thinking and to make us aware of the textual basis of this communication. Although the use of emotes for narration is obviously a particular way of expressing oneself in a MUD, it also draws a great deal of its effectiveness from the fact that it looks like a type of textual information—omniscient narration—that is obviously impossible within this immediate, dialogic context. In other words, such narration flirts with the idea that this dialog is just a story, that is entirely a textual construction. Another, somewhat more directly challenging form of online communication that Cherney notes is what she calls a “null-emote.” Since an emote command sends the name of the character followed by whatever the user types in—thus typing “emote sits down” shows all other players “Dan sits down”—typing an emote without anything after it merely sends the name of the player to everyone in the MUD room. Although seemingly a pointless exercise likely to be mistaken for a typo, such null-emotes, Cherney shows, can be used to make an ironic comment on discourse in general or the subject matter being discussed at the moment in particular:

lynn wonders what she came here for.


George psst, “I think Penfold has something hanging from his nose.”


(“Objectifying” 156)

The joke in both cases is not wildly funny, but it does point to a way in which the emote function can be used to insinuate an answer to an implied question: “The null emote is fundamentally a joke; a null-emoter, through her null-emote response to a question intended to evoke an informative response, subverts the discourse in a playful manner” (155). Implicit in the null-emote is the same use of MUD discourse that we see in the use of emoted narration—the tendency to exploit the particular qualities of the MUD medium to draw attention to the way that language is being used. In particular, like the emoted narration, the null-emote flirts with the agency of this response, since in emotes the player's act of “saying” or providing information is not immediately evident. In other words, MUD discourse at its most extreme and playful seems to have rich tools to question the language brought to this space and the way that it is being constructed narratively.

That cyberspace works against the grain of traditional communication, rather than merely offering a different means of social interaction or a chance for identity freeplay, is also evident in the structure of many MOOs and, especially, MUDs. The kind of verbal play that Cherney describes is most typical of social MOOs, especially those in which many members are themselves interested in exploring language within cyberspace. Adventure-style and role-playing MUDs are naturally less conducive to this kind of verbal free play. Indeed, many role-playing MUDs explicitly frown on stepping out of character to make the kind of verbal references or puns that Cherney describes. If the exploitation of the medium for the sake of destabilizing traditional narratives is part and parcel of cyberspace, then such MUDs would seem initially to be quite anti-cyberspatial in their insistence on a rather literal use of language and their willingness to ignore the special qualities of this medium. These MUDs find it difficult, however, to maintain such a homogeneous use of language. One obvious and important instance where we can see narrative ambiguities making themselves evident in such MUDs is the very common use of some kind of “out-of-character” (OOC) channel within the game. Channels within a MUD or MOO are means of speaking “above” or “outside” the particular room in which one's character is located. An OOC channel allows players within a MUD to carry on conversations inappropriate to the milieu or role of their characters. In practice, many MUD sessions can produce a dizzying mixture of in-character conversations located within a particular MUD room and ongoing out-of-character dialogues with players elsewhere in the MUD—or even, more confusingly, with the same players operating the characters one is speaking to in-character within that room. The reason that most MUDs have OOC channels is partially practical—they allow players to ask technical questions about the operation of the game or to make suggestions that have nothing to do with the role they may be playing. More generally the OOC channel is a means of establishing player community. Often players will voice congratulations about other players' accomplishments, gripe about real-world events, and joke about MUD-related mistakes or conundrums. Without an OOC channel such MUDs become very different places and particularly background the distinction between players and the characters that they operate. An OOC channel constantly reminds the players of the act of role-play. What is significant in the prevalence of such channels is that the community that develops in these MUDs depends precisely on the ability to break the illusion of role-play through such channels. Gibson's writing allowed us to discover a surprising truth about cyberspace's original conception: as a means of social interaction it does not exist to create new identities or simply to destabilize all identity. Likewise these MUDs neither simply immerse players in a fantasy world—although they do this to some degree—nor simply encourage players to move fluidly between many identities. Rather, like Gibson's cyberspace, these MUDs constantly direct our attention back to the narrative construction of the social interaction in this space and to the fact that this play arises from the duality between player and character. Although most adventure MUDs fail to use this duality to critique the narratives inherited from popular culture and fantasy writing, many players sense that such gaps and dualities are important to the online medium in which this game is being played.

Neuromancer helps us to see, then, that an essential component of online, cyberspace discourse is an ability to reveal how this dialogue is being constructed as and from narrative. This recognition should send us back to reconsider the best uses of this discourse. While no doubt online conferences and other “serious” uses of cyberspace will continue to become more popular, we need to foster an appreciation of the kind of narrative play that Gibson describes. Such play, at its best, can be extremely effective in revealing stereotypes and bringing cultural narratives into conflict with each other. Such intertextual narrative play within cyberspace has the potential to revitalize social and educational uses of MOOs and MUDs, as well as online discourse of all types.


  1. On emoted narration, see Cherney (“Modal Complexity”), which is also discussed in this article.

  2. The issue of gender in online discourse is further complicated by the fact that it is also part of a much larger difference in how men and women respond to technology. For an excellent overview of access to cyberspace in the context of gendered attitudes towards technology, see Dale Spender, Nattering on the Net: Women, Power and Cyberspace. For discussions of how gender is “performed” online see influential essay collections by Lynn Cherney and Elizabeth Weise, Wired_Women: Gender and New Realities in Cyberspace, and Susan Herring, Computer-Mediated Communication: Linguistic, Social, and Cross-Cultural Perspectives. For a recent essay that provides an overview of debates about gender online, see Sean Zdenek, “Rising up from the MUD: Inscribing Gender in Software Design.”

  3. In contrast to gender issues, race online has received considerably less attention. When critics do address such issues, the emphasis is usually on access to the Internet rather than on how race is represented. An example of this approach is the recent collection of essays edited by Bosah Ebo, Cyberghetto or Cybertopia?, which focuses on class, race, and gender. But only in the section on gender do we find discussions of “communicational style” and extended reflections on the forms of representation. For one recent discussion of the representation of race online, see Lori Kendall's “Meaning and Identity in ‘Cyberspace’: The Performance of Gender, Class, and Race Online.”

  4. Other critics suggest that cyberpunk narrative is innovative for other reasons. Istavan Csicsery-Ronay Jr. claims that Neuromancer rejects the excess that we normally associate with well-rounded characters and thus transforms the economy of the text: “Like Wintermute, Gibson sets up a plot in which his characters have no excessive reality; they have nothing that is not a functional part of the program” (231). David Brande similarly sees the novel as transforming characters into functions, “While these characters' narrow self-definitions and lack of psychological depth could be taken as weak characterization … I would suggest that Molly and Case make explicit the form of subjectivity conditioned by the triumph of exchange-value” (520).

  5. Jonathan Culler's discussion of the story/discourse distinction in The Pursuit of Signs brings out this problem clearly. The distinction between story and discourse is fundamental to narrative theory and claims that the individual events of a narrative (the “story”) can be presented in many different ways in the “discourse” or actual narration of the story. Although narratologists have usually understood this distinction to be relatively stable and unproblematic, Culler brings out a perspective from which these two elements form not a complex unity, but rather an indeterminacy (186). Culler's analysis, which claims to be deconstructive, has drawn some criticism as overstating the contradiction between these two narrative elements. Christopher Norris, for example, complains that although it is obvious that narrative has two distinct logics, the claim that these logics are at odds seems contrived (134). While Norris is right in suggesting that Culler may be overeager to discover fundamental logical conflicts, Culler does draw our attention to how these two elements of narrative demand very different types of attention to the text.

  6. Sharon Stockton argues that this image of the corporate hive is specifically feminine: “The feminized corporation (as opposed to some absent other type of corporation) is thus about closed and entropic systems. … Rebellious feminine power thus becomes a stand-in for worldwide systems failure and heat death generally” (599). While Stockton is right to draw our attention to the closed nature of this system, little in the passage cited suggests entropy.

  7. Typical of some of these problems is the responsibility of individuals for the online behavior of their avatars. See Julian Dibbell's essay on a MUD “rape” for a discussion of the problem and the difficulty that online communities have in dealing with these responsibilities.

Works Cited

Balsamo, Anne. “Feminism for the Incurably Informed.” Flame Wars: The Discourse of Cyberculture. Ed. Mark Dery. Durham: Duke UP, 1994. 125-56.

Brande, David. “The Business of Cyberpunk: Symbolic Economy and Ideology in William Gibson.” Configurations 3 (1994): 509-36.

Bruckman, Amy S. “Gender Swapping on the Internet.” Proceedings of INET '93. Reston, VA: Internet Society, 1993. EFC1-EFC6.

Cherney, Lynn. “Gender Differences in Text-Based Virtual Reality.” Proceedings of the Berkeley Conference on Women and Language. Ed. Mary Bucholtz, A. C. Liang, Laurel A. Sutton, and Caitlin Hines. Berkeley: Berkeley Women and Language Group, 1994. 102-15.

———. “The Modal Complexity of Speech Events in a Social MUD.” Electronic Journal of Communication 5.4 (1995).

———. “‘Objectifying’ the Body in the Discourse of an Object-Oriented MUD.” Works and Days 25/26 (1995): 151-73.

Cherney, Lynn, and Elizabeth Reba Weise, eds. Wired Women: Gender and New Realities in Cyberspace. Seattle: Seal P, 1996.

Csicsery-Ronay, Istvan Jr. “The Sentimental Futurist: Cybernetics and Art in William Gibson's Neuromancer.Critique 33 (1992): 221-40.

Culler, Jonathan. “Story and Discourse in the Analysis of Narrative.” The Pursuit of Signs: Semiotics, Literature, Deconstruction. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1981. 169-87.

Curtis, Pavel. “Mudding: Social Phenomena in Text-Based Virtual Realities.” Internet Dreams: Archetypes, Myths, Metaphors. Ed. Mark Stefik. Cambridge: MIT P, 1996. 265-90.

Davidson, Cynthia. “Riviera's Golem, Haraway's Cyborg: Reading Neuromancer as Baudrillard's Simulation of Crisis.” Science Fiction Studies 23 (1996): 188-98.

Dery, Mark. Escape Velocity: Cyberculture at the End of the Century. New York: Grove, 1996.

Dibbell, Julian. “A Rape in Cyberspace: or, How an Evil Clown, a Haitian Trickster Spirit, Two Wizards, and a Cast of Dozens Turned a Database into a Society.” Flame Wars. 237-61.

Ebo, Bosah, ed. Cyberghetto or Cybertopia? Race, Class, and Gender on the Internet. Westport: Praeger, 1998.

Gibson, William. “Burning Chrome.” Burning Chrome. New York: Ace, 1986. 168-91.

———. Neuromancer. New York: Ace, 1984.

Hayles, N. Katherine. “Virtual Bodies and Flickering Signifiers.” Electronic Culture: Technology and Visual Representation. Ed. Timothy Druckrey. New York: Aperture, 1997. 259-77.

Herring, Susan C., ed. Computer-Mediated Communication: Linguistic, Social and Cross-Cultural Perspectives. Amsterdam: John Benjamins, 1996.

Kendall, Lori. “Meaning and Identity in ‘Cyberspace’: The Performance of Gender, Class, and Race Online.” Symbolic Interaction 21.2 (1998): 129-53.

Landow, George P. Hypertext 2.0: The Convergence of Contemporary Critical Theory and Technology. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1997.

McCaffery, Larry. “An Interview with William Gibson.” Mississippi Review 47/48 (1988): 7-15.

McHale, Brian. “Elements of a Poetics of Cyberpunk.” Critique 23 (1992): 149-75.

McRae, Shannon. “Flesh Made Word: Sex, Text and the Virtual Body.” Internet Culture. Ed. David Porter. New York: Routledge, 1997. 73-86.

Nakamura, Lisa. “Race In/For Cyberspace: Identity Tourism and Racial Passing on the Internet.” Works and Days 25/26 (1995): 181-93.

Norris, Christopher. Deconstruction: Theory and Practice. London: Methuen, 1982.

Rheingold, Howard. The Virtual Community: Homesteading on the Electronic Frontier. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley, 1993.

Rushkoff, Douglas. Cyberia: Life in the Trenches of Hyperspace. New York: Harper, 1994.

Shirley, John, and William Gibson. “The Belonging Kind.” Burning Chrome. 43-57.

Spender, Dale. Nattering on the Net: Women, Power and Cyberspace. Melbourne: Spinifex, 1995.

Sponsler, Claire. “Cyberpunk and the Dilemmas of Postmodern Narrative: The Example of William Gibson.” Contemporary Literature 33 (1992): 625-44.

Stockton, Sharon. “‘The Self Regained’: Cyberpunk's Retreat to the Imperium.” Contemporary Literature 36 (1995): 588-612.

Turkle, Sherry. Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995.

Wilbur, Shawn P. “An Archaeology of Cyberspaces: Virtuality, Community, Identity.” Internet Culture. Ed. David Porter. New York: Routledge, 1997. 5-22.

Zdenek, Sean. “Rising up from the MUD: Inscribing Gender in Software Design.” Discourse and Society 10 (1999): 379-409.

Tony Myers (essay date winter 2001)

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SOURCE: Myers, Tony. “The Postmodern Imaginary in William Gibson's Neuromancer.Modern Fiction Studies 47, no. 4 (winter 2001): 887-909.

[In the following essay, Myers examines how Gibson utilizes the concept of cyberspace in Neuromancer to create a postmodern narrative setting.]

Much of William Gibson's novel Neuromancer is centered around cyberspace, or the matrix as it is alternatively called, the representational innovation for which his work has become famous. It is first defined for the reader via the narration of a children's educational program: “Cyberspace. A consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators, in every nation, by children being taught mathematical concepts. … A graphic representation of data abstracted from the banks of every computer in the human system. Unthinkable complexity. Lines of light ranged in the nonspace of the mind, clusters and constellations of data. Like city lights receding …” (67). The concept of cyberspace is valuable as a narrative strategy because it is able to represent “unthinkable complexity,” to gain a cognitive purchase upon the welter of data. It is a response to what Fredric Jameson has called “the incapacity of our minds, at least at present, to map the great global multinational and decentered communicational network in which we find ourselves caught as individual subjects” (Postmodernism 44). Pointing toward his troubled call for cognitive mapping, the spatial metaphor Jameson invokes here is richly suggestive; for, in trying to think the totality, the postmodern novelist encounters a more immediate problematic, which, as Jameson notes, operates as an analogue of the totality, and that is the metamorphosis of space itself. This metamorphosis “has finally succeeded in transcending the capacities of the human body to locate itself, to organize its immediate surroundings perceptually, and cognitively to map its position in a mappable external world.”1

In this respect, we may see cyberspace as an attempt at a postmodern cartography; that is, as a representational strategy for domesticating what Jameson terms “postmodern hyperspace” (Postmodernism 44). Central to this enterprise is, as Gibson's reference to the “city lights” above suggests, a recognition of the change in, and thus a recodification of, contemporary urban experience. As Paul Patton notes, “Images of the city play a crucial role in accounts of the postmodern condition. As a matter of course, these accounts include as one of their essential moments a description of the experience of contemporary urban life” (112). Indeed, the individual's relationship with, and navigation of, metropolitan space has, as Raymond Williams argues, occupied a privileged position in the thematic hierarchy of literary materials since the Romantic era. In Williams's reading, the city always presents itself as a space of sublimity—from the literal strangeness of crowds in Wordsworth to the impenetrable fogs of Dickens and the dark and dizzying streets of Conrad—the metropolis is never completely knowable, and therefore the individual's relationship to it is always monadic and alienated, even as it revels in a certain vital exoticism produced by this estrangement. Literary attempts to tame the concrete jungle vary, but one worth noting in this context is, as Williams observes, “the new figure of the urban detective”:

In Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories there is a recurrent image of the penetration by an isolated rational intelligence of a dark area of crime which is to be found in the otherwise (for specific physical reasons, as in the London fogs, but also for social reasons, in that teeming, mazelike, often alien area) impenetrable city. This figure has persisted in the urban “private eye” (as it happens, an exact idiom for the basic position in consciousness) in cities without the fogs.


The very name of Neuromancer's protagonist—Case—signposts an inheritance from this tradition of urban rationalism that Scott Bukatman, among others, has located as a specific relationship with “the alienated spatialities of Chandler” (142). Echoing Friedrich Engels's comments about Manchester crowds. Jameson proposes that the work of Raymond Chandler is subtended by a sense of spatial disjunction:

[T]he form of Chandler's books reflects an initial American separation of people from each other, their need to be linked by some external force (in this case the detective) if they are ever to be fitted together as parts of the same picture puzzle. And this separation is projected out onto space itself: no matter how crowded the street in question, the various solitudes never really merge into a collective experience, there is always distance between them. Each dingy office is separated from the next; each room in the rooming house from the one next to it; each dwelling from the pavement beyond it. This is why the most characteristic leitmotif of Chandler's books is the figure standing, looking out of one world, peering vaguely or attentively across into another.

(“On Raymond Chandler” 131)

We may note a certain equivocation in the social status of detectives, from Sherlock Holmes to Philip Marlowe, which stems from an involvement with marginalized activities and characters (opium and femmes fatales, for example) that is seemingly at odds with a more respectable pursuit of justice and the law. This can be seen as the expression of an affinity with, and therefore of an ability to negotiate, just those urban spaces that are occluded from the “normal” social gaze. If we plot this affinity as a trajectory, then its logical end-point might well be found in a character like Case who, being a thief, is, in every sense of the word, streetwise.

In Neuromancer, as Claire Sponsler avers, “although the dominant culture always looms in the background—in the multinational corporations (the Maas-Biolabs and Hosakas) as well as in the form of a few powerful individuals (the Tessier-Ashpools and Josef Vireks of the world)—the surface attention is all on the counterculture, from orbiting Rastafarians to punk street gangs to mincome Project voodoo worshipers” (629). For Case the “outlaw zones” (Gibson, Neuromancer 19) that provide the topography of Neuromancer are readily navigable, throwing up certain understandable patterns as long as you know what you are looking for, such as in this description of the apparently aleatory mobilities of the street mob: “Groups of sailors up from the port, tense solitary tourists hunting pleasures no guidebook listed, Sprawl heavies showing off grafts and implants, and a dozen distinct species of hustler, all swarming the street in an intricate dance of desire and commerce” (18-19). The taxonomic specificity of the expert gaze here obviates the unknown terror of the urban crowd and replaces it with cognizance of an otherwise invisible concatenation of distinct purposes that unite in the collective experience of “desire and commerce.” We may note then that, as with Jameson's Chandler, the metropolitan populace's “need to be linked by some external force” is fulfilled by what, following Williams, we may term the “private eye” of Case. At one level, this example of Case's all-knowing gaze operates as a rehearsal of the larger problematic of point of view in the novel and in the postmodern generally; for, as Bukatman observes of the latter, there has “arisen a new and boundless urbanism, one that escapes the power of vision through its very dispersal” (122-23).

We may take this “boundless urbanism” to register both a geographical and a metaphorical metropolitan incontinence. The former finds its instantiation in the topography of Neuromancer, where Case's hometown, “the Boston-Atlanta Metropolitan Axis,” is suitably indexed, for a city overflowing the measure, by the sobriquet “the Sprawl” (57). The sheer material expansiveness of the metropolis, which in Neuromancer extends even into the extra-terrestrial orbit of Freeside, the space-station town that is “brothel and banking nexus, pleasure dome and free port, border town and spa” (125), is matched in another sense by the ubiquity of urban experience. It is this that Jameson has in mind when he remarks upon the complementary “disappearance of Nature”:

Where the world system today tends toward one enormous urban system […] the very conception of the city itself and the classically urban loses its significance and no longer seems to offer any precisely delimited objects of study, any specifically differentiated realities. Rather, the urban becomes the social in general, and both of them constitute and lose themselves in a global that is not really their opposite either (as it was in the older dispensation) but something like their outer reach, their prolongation into a new kind of infinity.

(Seeds 28-29)

We may perhaps discern in this global imperative of the urban the broad outline of a dynamic that finds one of its most instructive delineations in Jacques Lacan's concept of the imaginary. Specifically, it is what Lacan means in referring to the imaginary “vertigo of the domination of space” (28). For the city, like the ego, pursues its other in “Nature” only insofar as it then subsumes that difference within the identity of itself. As Teresa Brennan points out: “The ego […] is opposed to the history of anything different from itself. It is interested in difference only in so far as everything different from it provides it with a mirror for itself. In this respect, it will reduce all difference to sameness” (37). If “difference” is continually being chewed up and swallowed in the territorializing maw of the ego, then this, as Mikkel Borch-Jacobsen reflects, makes of its world a space “strangely petrified and static, a sort of immense museum peopled with immobile ‘statues,’ and ‘images’ of stone, and hieratic forms” (59).2

We can find something of this unregeneracy in the character of the postmodern city, for, as Sharon Zukin contends, “Despite local variations, […] the major influence on urban form derives from the internationalization of investment, production and consumption. In socio-spatial terms […] internationalization is associated with the concentration of investment, the decentralization of production, and the standardization of consumption” (436). Zukin cites McDonald's and Benetton as examples of this standardization and notes that “[t]heir shops are ubiquitous in cities around the world,” and therefore help to make those cities over in the image of each other (436). Such a process, however, occasions a problematic definition of otherness, for if urbanicity has achieved such a ubiquity that even the most bucolic of backwoodsmen can simultaneously assume the position of streetwise urbanite, how can urban experience be characterized with any sense of singularity? For Jameson the answer to this question can be found in the global sweep of representation. Instead of drawing upon national images of provincial and rural boredom to counterpoint and thus characterize the excitement of the city, he argues that this contrast is preserved, “but simply transferred to a different kind of social reality, namely the Second World city and the social realities of a nonmarket or planned economy” (Seeds 29-30). As adductions for his argument Jameson calls upon the now classic images of “meager shelves of consumer goods in empty centrals from which the points of light of advertising are absent, streets from which small stores and shops are missing, [and the] standardization of clothing fashion (as most emblematically in Maoist China)” (30).

In Neuromancer, Turkey occupies the position of other in capitalism's cultural imaginary; it is, the narrative assures us, “a sluggish country” (108). Such sluggishness is due, in no small part, to the antiquated technologies still operating in Turkey: a Citroen sedan is only “a primitive hydrogen-cell conversion” (108), “the left hand of John the Baptist” is merely kept “inside this brass hand thing” rather than “in a support vat” (116), and even “the written word still enjoy[s] a certain prestige here” (108). More tellingly, however, it is the superannuated architecture, with its “crazy walls of patchwork wooden tenements” (107) and “soot-stained sheets of plastic and green-painted ironwork out of the age of steam” (112), that provides the most pressing sense of otherness. It is, the narrator comments, “an old place, too old” (113). Indeed, without the seclusion of a “dome,” the Finn, who traffics in stolen goods, feels “agoraphobic” (108), and it is only upon entering the bazaar that he is “comforted by the crowd density and the sense of enclosure” (112). The irony of this architecture is that it constitutes a kind of return to origins, for as Jameson points out, postmodern buildings “which are open emporia in which one finds food markets, theaters, bookstores, and all kind of other specialized services, run together in a fashion that surely derives ultimately and historically from the great open-air markets or bazaars of the East and of precapitalist modes of production” (Seeds 156-57).

What is striking about this observation and its relation to the representation of Turkish space in Neuromancer is how it articulates the dynamic of capitalism's cultural imaginary. If the Finn feels “comfortable” in a bazaar, it is because his indigenous topography has already subsumed that archaic spatial form within itself. The otherness of Turkey here is thus merely a property of its separation from the other spatial and technological forms that constitute the postmodern in its unity.3 Indeed, for Jameson, the form of cyberpunk develops from “the evaporation of a certain Otherness” (Seeds 151). Such a process of “evaporation” perhaps finds its most salient expression in an economy of enclosure or fortressing.4 An example of this is, of course, the bazaar, which stands as such an emblematic postmodern form because of “the sense of enclosure” (112) it affords. This sense of envelopment proceeds from what Jameson terms “a logic specific to Imaginary space, whose dominant category proves to be the opposition of container and contained” and “the fundamental relationship of inside to outside” (Ideologies 86). Without explicitly making the connection himself, Jameson has, in later publications, linked these relationships to both postmodern architecture and science fiction in general. Of the former he notes that it is subject to what he designates “the Blade Runner syndrome” in which “the interfusion of crowds of people among a high technological bazaar with its multitudinous nodal points, all of it sealed into an inside without an outside, … thereby intensifies the formerly urban to the point of becoming the unmappable system of late capitalism itself” (Seeds 157). Of the latter, Jameson proposes that “all SF of the more ‘classical’ type is ‘about’ containment, closure, the dialectic of inside and outside” (“Science Fiction” 58). Above and beyond the spaces we have already been looking at, then, it is perhaps not fortuitous that the mise en scène of much of Neuromancer is cyberspace or, more pertinently, the matrix, a word that finds its etymology in “womb”—the paradigmatic topos of container and contained. In this respect, of course, the name of Case himself is a not insignificant reference to such a spatial formation.

There is, then, a contradiction at work in the postmodern metropolis. It is, in its boundlessness, what Jameson terms a “total space” (Postmodernism 40); it is also, in its replication at the micro-level, a totalizing space, one whose very boundedness aspires to “some new category of closure” (39). This “imploded urbanism” (126), as Bukatman describes it, may be more readily understood by reference to Jameson's celebrated analysis of the Bonaventure Hotel. Jameson detects a certain modality of hermeticism at work in the overtly discreet construction of the entrances to the Bonaventure, which serve to seal its occupants into the total space of the hotel: “[I]deally the minicity of Portman's Bonaventure ought not to have entrances at all, since the entryway is always the seam that links the building to the rest of the city that surrounds it: for it does not wish to be part of the city, but rather its equivalent and its replacement or substitute. That is obviously not possible, whence the downplaying of the entrance to its bare minimum” (Postmodernism 40-41). We can find a similar thematic at work in the architecture of Neuromancer, for example in Cheap Hotel, where “the courtyard that served the place as some combination of lobby and lawn” (30) is located on some unspecified level above the fifth floor; or in Straylight where “the entrance to the elevator had been concealed beside the stairs to the corridor” (299).

In a second moment the difficulty of locating an entrance to postmodern buildings is joined by an active repulsion in the form of the building's very materiality, which in the case of the Bonaventure is its “great glass reflective skin”:

[T]he glass skin repels the city outside, a repulsion for which we have analogies in those reflector sunglasses which make it impossible for your interlocutor to see your own eyes and thereby achieve a certain aggressivity toward and power over the Other. In a similar way, the glass skin achieves a peculiar and placeless dissociation of the Bonaventure from its neighbourhood: it is not even an exterior, inasmuch as when you seek to look at the hotel's outer walls you cannot see the hotel itself but only the distorted images of everything that surrounds it.

(Postmodernism 42)

As Bukatman argues, “The new monument is no longer the substantiality of the building, but the depthless surface of the screen. This is a transformation literalized in Blade Runner by the proliferation of walls which are screens, sites of projection now rather than inhabitation” (32). The city, in other words, maintains an extimate relation with itself; it is, to recall Borch-Jacobsen's memorable phrase “ex-posing itself, exactly as the eye can see itself only by exorbiting itself in a mirror” (52).

The move from the opacity of walls, with all their connotations of density, solidity and substantiality, to the reflectiveness of screens is realized as something of a leitmotif in Neuromancer. Indeed, according to Gibson, mirror/silver is clearly the color of the future. For example, the Jarre is “walled with mirrors” (14), the Sense/Net building is “mirror-sheathed” (80), the Chinese virus program has “black mirrors” on its flanks “reflecting faint distant lights that [bear] no relationship to the matrix around it” (216), boots are “sheathed in bright Mexican silver” (4), “the beach [is] silver-gray” (281) and even the aftershave has a “metallic edge” (111). It is little wonder, then, that with so many reflective surfaces, one of the paradigmatic topoi of Neuromancer is the mise-en-abyme. For example, when Molly, who has “twin mirrors” of “empty quicksilver” for the lenses of her sunglasses (42), meets Terzibashjain, similarly attired with “silver glasses” (36), the reflections cause them to make, as he points out, “the tunel infinity, mirror into mirror” (109). This is equally a problem at the level of built space, for example, in Freeside: “The glass wall of the balcony clicked in with its view of Desiderata, but the street scene blurred, twisted, became the interior of the Jarre de Thé, Chiba, empty, red neon replicated to scratched infinity in the mirrored walls” (172). Traditional architectural notions of exteriority and interiority are thus suspended in this new reflective space. People and buildings are absented from their actual place by projection, only to return in the phenomenologically vertiginous non-space of the mise-en-abyme in which location is never fixed. It is a problem compounded by the autotelic spatiality of postmodern interiors, that total space which, like the Villa Straylight, the labyrinthine house on Freeside, “is a body grown in upon itself” (206) and which replicates its traditional exterior within itself in the connotative form of street lights and road signs and, most obviously, plants which for Case on Freeside are “too cute, too entirely and definitively treelike” (154).

Whilst, on one level, there is something uncanny about this environment, something too unfamiliarly familiar, where even the random forms of nature itself betray a degree of calibration in the “too cleverly irregular slopes of sweet green grass” (154), we may also take this as an instance, at another level, of the larger problematic of coordination that is so pointedly emblematized in the mise-en-abyme. For Bukatman, “[t]he new urban space is directionless—coordinates are literally valueless when all directions lead to more of the same” (126). Such a sublime topography is precisely what is adumbrated in Neuromancer. On Freeside, for example, “[i]f you turned right, off Desiderata, and followed Jules Verne far enough, you'd find yourself approaching Desiderata from the left” (180). Molly sums up the problem with admirable terseness when she points out to Case that “[t]he perspective's a bitch”:

They were standing in a broad street that seemed to be the floor of a deep slot or canyon, its either end concealed by subtle angles in the shops and buildings that formed its walls. […] There was a brilliant slash of white somewhere above them, too bright, and the recorded blue of a Cannes sky. He knew that sunlight was pumped in with a Lado-Acheson system whose two-millimeter armature ran the length of the spindle, that they generated a rotating library of sky effects around it, that if the sky were turned off, he'd stare up past the armature of light to the curves of lakes, rooftops of casinos, other streets—But it made no sense to his body.


If this metropolitan simulacrum, in which even the sky can be “turned off,” makes no sense to Case's body it is because, as Jameson declares, “[w]e do not yet possess the perceptual equipment to match this new hyperspace […,] in part because our perceptual habits were formed in that older kind of space I have called the space of high modernism” (Postmodernism 38-39). Absented from itself, this imaginary space finds its most succinct and troubling definition in Mona Lisa Overdrive when one of the characters recalls the fundamental lesson of the new geography: “There's no there, there” (55).5

What strikes the reader about this concatenation of spatial motifs is how the logic of the topographical content in Neuromancer finds its expression in the form of the novel itself. We may note, for example, how the postmodern building's impediments to entry and its rebarbative exterior are realized formally by the novel's opening, as it were, in medias res. Furthermore, the reader's difficulty in coordinating her/himself in the reading space of Neuromancer is exacerbated by the genuinely forbidding nomenclature and technical innovations it portrays. The novel is, in effect, a total space that repels the cyberspace ingénue. As Bukatman observes, its difficulty rehearses a certain elitism, for “[n]ot everyone can read Neuromancer; its neologisms alienate the uninitiated reader” (152). Such assertions beg the question of how one joins the privileged ranks of the initiates. In this respect we may profitably attend to the construction of metaphors in the text, which replicate at the level of the sentence the topeme we have already identified as the mise-en-abyme. Nowhere is this metaphorical incest more clearly expressed than in cyberspace itself, operating as both vehicle and tenor of a series of tropological substitutions that ultimately dissolve the very saliency of such distinctions. For example, early on in the novel, the narrative recounts Case's experience of being followed in the street:

[I]n some weird and very approximate way, it was like a run in the matrix. Get just wasted enough, find yourself in some desperate but strangely arbitrary kind of trouble, and it was possible to see Ninsei as field of data, the way the matrix had once reminded him of proteins linking to cell specialities. Then you could throw yourself into a high speed drift and skid, totally engaged but set apart from it all, all around you the dance of biz, information interacting, data made flesh in the mazes of the black market. …


The macro- and microscopic are conflated here in a process of equivalence that finds being chased through the city comparable to programming a computer, the content of which is subsequently compared to the metropolis itself and that, in turn, to bio-chemical systems in the body, which is then an image of bodies themselves, and, finally, an analogy of cyberspace data. Similarly, in the penultimate run of the novel, Case's sensory experience is described as “receding, as the cityscape recedes: city as Chiba, as the ranked data of Tessier-Ashpool SA, as the roads and crossroads scribed on the face of a microchip, the sweat-stained pattern on a folded, knotted scarf” (310). What is disclosed by this collocation of images is how, throughout Neuromancer, the metropolis is troped by cyberspace, and vice versa, in a series of substitutions that finds each element operating as the deep structure and regulatory frame of the other. In other words, we can understand cyberspace by reference to the city and we can understand the city by reference to cyberspace.

It will be unsurprising, then, to learn that the work of dedifferentiation can also be detected in the generic form of the novel itself. Apart from the chronotope of science fiction, to which, as Gibson admits, Neuromancer stands in something of an antagonistic relationship, the whole novel finds its matrix in various pulp fictions, including those of the cowboy-frontier, spy, private detective, and gangster genres, as well as in a more specific relationship to Thomas Pynchon. Such mongrelization extends through Neuromancer down to the primacy of the neologism itself, which is, perhaps, most clearly represented in the compound “cyberspace.”6 We are, then, in a sense returned to the issue of coordination, for, in its aggregation of forms, Neuromancer fails to afford a single generic point, other than itself, from which to establish its meaning. For Jameson this is symptomatic of a wider problem:

From the generic standpoint, what interests us here is the way in which the former genres (thrillers, spy films, social exposés, science fiction, and so on) now conflate in a movement that re-enacts the dedifferentiation of the social levels, and by way of their own allegorization: so that the new post-generic genre [works] are allegories of each other, and of the impossible representation of the social totality itself.

(Geopolitical Aesthetic 5)

The irony of reading the form of Neuromancer as a symptom of the impossibility of negotiating the overdetermined social spaces of late capitalism is that cyberspace represents an attempt to overcome just such an impossibility in the first place. Indeed, it is, as we shall see, the supreme example of a machinery of de-differentiation.

This feature of the novel proceeds in large measure from the fact that Neuromancer's primary register is a visual one, a characteristic that finds a particular resonance in the fact that it is also a “visionary” text. As the suffix “-mancer” suggests (from the Greek manteia, meaning “sooth-saying”), the novel proclaims its divinatory project from the title onwards, one that shows Gibson sketching an intuitively suasive portrait of the near future. Part of the suasiveness of this account lies in the content-level detail he has picked up from postmodernity and recast, like geomantic earth, within another configuration that is, nevertheless, recognizably cognate with our own period. Features, such as the company names and the hegemony of Japanese-American culture, right up to the obsession with the technologization of nature itself, are granted a sanction of plausibility from the reader precisely because they are extensions of existing practices. Indeed, anticipation in its own right is just such a practice, if not the dominant one of late capitalism, as the necessity of accelerating turnover time has occasioned a wholesale discounting of the future into the present. This, in turn, has spawned a mass expectancy industry concerned with forecasting and forging market trends, and using, more often than not, the very computer technology that forms the subject matter of Neuromancer.

Speculation is also a defining characteristic of the imaginary mode. As Lacan comments, “The mirror stage is a drama whose internal thrust is precipitated from insufficiency to anticipation” (4), for the anaclitic child prefigures in an image the full development of its motor-nervous system and thus achieves a kind of self-mastery. Such a child, in other words, is something of a neuro (nerves)—mancer (of the future). In terms strikingly akin to these, Marshall McLuhan has famously written of humanity's progress toward self-mastery by way of the annihilation of space-time: “After three thousand years of explosion, by means of fragmentary and mechanical technologies, the Western World is imploding. During the mechanical ages we had extended our bodies in space. Today, after more than a century of electronic technology, we have extended our central nervous system itself in a global embrace, abolishing both space and time as far as our planet is concerned” (3-4).7 In this image of the extension of our central nervous system we can witness the problems of the imaginary amplified to global proportions. Once again the task of self-mastery is imperiled by its own success, exposing itself to the Kantian jeopardy of a boundless subjectivity that is pure self and that thereby fails to secure its own objective conditions of existence. In this respect, the “consensual hallucination” of cyberspace can be understood as a kind of collective solipsism in which the aspirations of bourgeois individualism are given free reign and end up being strangled on the leash. For Terry Eagleton these temporal and spatial projections are of a piece with each other:

The fantasy of total technological omnipotence conceals a nightmare; in appropriating Nature you risk eradicating it, appropriating nothing but your own acts of consciousness. There is a similar problem with predictability, which in surrendering phenomena into the hands of the sociological priests threatens to abolish history. Predictive science founds the great progressive narratives of middle-class history, but by the same stroke offers to undermine them, converting all diachrony to a secret synchrony.

(Ideology 74)

The tension that Eagleton alights upon here between the diachronic and the synchronic is endemic to all anticipatory projects and, as such, it enables us to read them in two seemingly contradictory ways.

While conceding with Eagleton that the imaginary mode fosters a secret synchronization, I maintain that it equally expedites a form of diachronization by affording the nascent subject the possibility of narrativization. The anticipation of the mirrored infant enables it to impute to its current position a teleology it would otherwise lack, “decisively project[ing],” as Lacan remarks, “the formation of the individual into history” (4). We may understand this to mean resituating our own present as cause rather than effect, which is to say as “history.” For Jameson, this is the generic function of science fiction, which, in presenting us with its possible futures, thereby “transform[s] our own present into the determinate past of something yet to come. It is this present moment […] that upon our return from the imaginary constructs of SF is offered to us in the form of some future world's remote past, as if posthumous and as though collectively remembered” (Jameson, “Progress Versus Utopia” 152). In Neuromancer it may be argued that this historicizing process offers itself up more clearly in the guise of redemption, or at least (given the dystopian qualities of Gibson's near future) the cool comforts of survival after the mutually assured destruction of the Cold War, which was threatening to heat up at the time of the novel's production.

In the light of this, as Steven Connor notes, anticipation has come to acquire a regenerative potency as a narrative strategy: “If one form of the novel of history is concerned with investigating the new relations to the past required by the dramatic changes of the late twentieth century, another form is concerned with the possibility of narrating a future, and with the assailed potential of narrative as such in a world in which absolute finality and closure, which had hitherto been available to human life through narratives, now threatened to bring to an end the narrative of human history” (199-200).

There is a sense in which the speculative novel does run the risk of effecting closure upon the narrative of history, and, as Eagleton points out above, of smuggling in synchrony under the assumption of diachrony. For, like the narcissistic infant captivated by its own image, there is a danger of imagining the future in terms of the present and thereby of forming a closed circuit of representation. Neuromancer's all too persuasive future would seem to attest to this predicament, but in doing so it also bears testament to a collective enfeeblement of the utopian imagination. We are so thoroughly immersed in the here-and-now, that we are, as it were, inured to the future as much as we are inoculated against the past. For Jameson, science fiction's function is to disclose this limited horizon, because in “setting forth for the unknown, [it] finds itself irrevocably mired in the all-too-familiar, and thereby becomes unexpectedly transformed into a contemplation of our own absolute limits” (“Progress Versus Utopia” 153). The limits of the postmodern imaginary are always those of the “self.”” One of the more notable expressions of this predicament is, for Eagleton, the triumphal pronouncements of the end of history—pronouncements that he takes to task in a suitably speculative register:

It is not out of the question that, in the apparent absence of any “other” to the prevailing system, any utopic space beyond it, some of the more desperate theoreticians of the day might come to find the other of the system in itself. They might, in other words, come to project utopia onto what we actually have, finding in, say, the mobilities and transgressions of the capitalist order, the hedonism and pluralities of the marketplace, the circulation of intensities in media and disco, a freedom and fulfilment which the more puritanical politicos among us still grimly defer to some ever-receding future. They might fold the future into the present and thus bring history slithering abruptly to a halt.

(Illusions 18-19)

One of the more curious manifestations of the temporal folds that have been produced by Neuromancer is its effects on the development of technology. The novel's central innovation is, for example, discussed as if it were actually in existence, as Julian Stallabrass points out: “[C]yberspace as a technological development has a strange status, not only because it has not been realized, but also because it is a concept that has its origins in fiction, particularly in the cyberpunk novels of William Gibson” (5). So persuasive is Gibson's vision that the first virtual reality machine was named after cyberspace, British Telecom are developing a “neuro-camera” under the label “Soul Catcher” (from the title of Chapter 37 in Mona Lisa Overdrive), and Timothy Leary (self-proclaimed virtual technology guru before his death) described Gibson as the author of the “underlying myth, the core legend, of the next stage of human evolution” (Woolley 36-37).8 The new machines of virtuality are, in other words, in an analogous position relative to Neuromancer, as the imaginary infant is to the image in the mirror.

The enfeeblement of the utopic faculty may itself be read as a symptom of the encroachment of immediacy upon the postmodern subject. The geographies of enclosure, which are already at work in the contemporary metropolis, are emblematic of this condition, and it is one that, as Jameson remarks, threatens the very practice of symptomology in the first place: “The new space that emerges involves the suppression of distance (in the sense of Benjamin's aura) and the relentless saturation of any remaining voids and empty places, to the point where the postmodern body […] is now exposed to a perceptual barrage of immediacy from which all sheltering layers and intervening mediations have been removed” (Postmodernism 412-13). Such a “suppression of distance,” of course, is precisely the organizing principle of cyberspace, whose topeme is, as we have already noted, the container. Indeed, according to Gibson, cyberspace as a concept was intended to suggest: “the point at which media [flow] together and surround us. It's the ultimate extension of the exclusion of daily life. With cyberspace as I describe it you can literally wrap yourself in media and not have to see what's really going on around you” (qtd. in Woolley 122).

We may read this statement as an acknowledgement of the function of cyberspace as an imaginary resolution of the real problems of coordination that have been identified as so perplexing to the postmodern subject. For Bukatman this is a reason for celebration, because, in its “open acknowledgement of the supersession of individual bodily experience” (149), cyberspace offsets the impoverishment of the self with a kind of cognitive compensation: “[C]yberspace certainly hyperbolizes the space of the city, projecting the metroscape into an exaggerated representation that accentuates its bodiless vertigo, but it permits the existence of a powerful and controlling gaze” (150). The power of this gaze lies in its ability to unify and thereby domesticate the city's heterogeneous spatial practices. In this respect, we might concede that it is cyberspace, and not Case, that assumes the mantle of the “private eye” which for Raymond Williams is the emblem of urban rationalism.

Nowhere is the status of the cyberspace subject more clearly realized as what Bukatman terms a “pure gaze” (151) than in the climactic run of the novel when Case employs a program called Kuang to hack into an Artificial Intelligence: “The Kuang program spurted from a tarnished cloud. Case's consciousness divided like beads of mercury, arcing above an endless beach the color of the dark silver clouds. His vision was spherical, as though a single retina lined the inner surface of a globe that contained all things, if all things could be counted” (304). Perhaps the most significant part of this astounding image is the subjunctive mood of the last clause and its qualification of the totalizing claim made in the previous statement. The one “thing” that cannot be counted in this scenario is, of course, Case himself, reduced as he is to the status of a pure gaze. For Z̆iZ̆ek this situation is exemplary of both the fantasy-gaze and, in a final irony for a postmodern text, the Cartesian cogito:

Cogito designates [the] very point at which the “I” loses its support in the symbolic network of tradition and thus, in a sense which is far from metaphorical, ceases to exist. And the crucial point is that this pure cogito corresponds perfectly to the fantasy-gaze: in it, I find myself reduced to a non-existent gaze, i.e., after losing all my effective predicates, I am nothing but a gaze paradoxically entitled to observe the world in which I do not exist (like, say, the fantasy of parental coitus where I am reduced to a gaze which observes my own conception, prior to my actual existence, or the fantasy of witnessing my own funeral).

(Tarrying 64)

In this respect, cyberspace, we might say, is a computerized cogito; a fantasy construct in which the “I” is absorbed by the “eye” and the subject is reduced to observing reality from behind his/her retina. Looking at everything from all sides, the cyberspace gaze embodies what Miran BoZ̆ovic̆ describes as “the unbearable experience of the absolute point of view” (166).9 Such an experience remains, however, an ideological one, because of the manner in which, as Stallabrass argues, “[a] number of old bourgeois dreams are encompassed in the promise of this technology: to survey the world from one's living room, to grasp the totality of all data within a single frame, and to recapture a unified knowledge and experience” (4). Stallabrass here reminds us that if cyberspace serves as a kind of cognitive map of the city (that is as a way of representing and reordering the relationship between the subject and the metropolis), then this is merely a level of mediation; it is, to recall Jameson, a “representational shorthand for grasping a network of power and control even more difficult for our minds and imaginations to grasp: the whole new decentred global network of the third stage of capital itself” (Postmodernism 38).

We may understand this assertion more clearly by reference to one of the most graphic descriptions of cyberspace in Neuromancer:

Program a map to display frequency of data exchange, every thousand megabytes a single pixel on a very large screen. Manhattan and Atlanta burn solid white. Then they start to pulse, the rate of traffic threatening to overload your simulation. Your map is about to go nova. Cool it down. Up your scale. Each pixel a million megabytes. At a hundred million megabytes per second, you begin to make out certain blocks in midtown Manhattan, outlines of hundred-year-old industrial parks ringing the old core of Atlanta. …


Like capital itself, all qualities are transmuted into quantities here, recalibrated as a universal form of data and thus domesticated within “a single frame.” The recodification of data as absolutes, what Stallabrass affirms as “its transformation into readily understood visual forms” (8), is what finally betrays the imaginary provenance of cyberspace. At the time of Neuromancer's production, that is before 1984, computers were still essentially a literary technology, documenting data in terms of figures and words. On Gibson's screens, however, data is represented pictorially and, as such, it represents a retreat from the differential values of the symbolic into the absolutism of the imaginary. For Stallabrass this amounts to a utopian gesture: “Such quantitative modes of thought presuppose an identity between concept and object, word and thing, and privilege mathematical logic as alone capable of grasping the essence of things. The invention of cyberspace is, then, the attempt to create a world where to perceive is the same as to understand, where ‘objects’ are entirely adequate to their concepts, and are even, through their dematerialization, identical with them” (31). What such a space ultimately represents, however, is a world without lack, a “Shangri-da” we might say, in which the constitutive insufficiency of the symbolic is fatally replenished by the transparency of the image. Lacking any point of mediation, representation thus collapses back into reality and the subject disappears from the signifying chain, finally failing to enjoy the ostensive paradise that it has dreamt about for so long. For it is lack, this challenge to the empire of the self, that indexes and expedites the constitution of subjectivity in the first place. As Ernesto Laclau argues, “I am a subject precisely because I cannot be an absolute consciousness, because something constitutively alien confronts me” (21).

The realization of Gibson's cyberspace, then, has devastating effects. In trying to concatenate the relationships between the individual and the totality, cyberspace subjects the latter to the imaginary dynamic of the former. The operations of this dynamic result in the subjectification of the totality, and both it and the individual subject merge into an absolute. The consequence of this is that, lacking any point of opacity in the signifying chain, the subject also disappears. All that is left is the existing symbolic network, a kind of imaginary symbolic, petrified and no longer subject to change. Of course, this fact has a deeply ideological force. For if we accept that cyberspace functions as a form of cognitive mapping, it does so only insofar as it fixes the relationship between the individual and the totality of late capitalism in a permanent embrace. The imbrication of Case and the technologies of the matrix may be said to represent something of this outcome, one in which subjectivity is reduced to a function of the system in a manner reminiscent of the most pessimistic critiques of capitalism. Indeed, at one level, the novel seeks to elaborate just this recuperation of Case to a socially acceptable status. Whilst he starts Neuromancer as “just another hustler, trying to make it through” (11), he ends it by having his criminal record erased, undergoing a “complete flush out” (134) of his blood, and being in possession of a valid passport, as well as a large sum of legal money. Such a fairy-tale ending represents nothing more than the inscription of Case within the social imaginary of late capitalism. He becomes, quite literally (in the last image of the novel), part of the system. What remains to be seen is whether the cyber-technologies that scientists are developing in line with those of Neuromancer produce the same effects. If they do, of course, then like the human population in the film The Matrix (which is also a minor allegory on the same theme), we will never know.


  1. Of all Jameson's analyses of postmodernity his comments on space have been subject to the most trenchant critiques. On Jameson's conception of cognitive mapping, Doreen Massey, for example, remarks that “while space is posed as unrepresentable, time is thereby, at least implicitly and at those moments, counterposed as the comforting security of a story it is possible to tell. This of course clearly reflects a notion of the difference between time and space in which time has a coherence and logic to its telling, while space does not” (83). Echoing this point, Steve Pile suspects “that the lack of dynamism in Jameson's model stems from his underlying sense of space as being a passive backdrop to social relationships” (247). Similarly, Sean Homer finds that ‘[d]espite [Jameson's] ostensible intentions, space has once more become defined negatively in relation to time’ (145). While it is undoubtedly true that Jameson proposes a certain level of difficulty in coordinating oneself in postmodern space, it by no means follows that this is an implicit valorization of time. Indeed, as he states explicitly in Postmodernism, there is no easy way to separate the two categories and what he therefore means by the “spatial turn” of postmodernism is the distinction “between two forms of interrelationship between time and space rather than between those two inseparable categories themselves” (154). Jameson's critique of postmodern space is thus bound to a critique of a postmodern temporality that “has forgotten how to think historically” (ix). In the light of this, we may understand Jameson's call for cognitive mapping as an attempt to produce a form of representation that is able to articulate the relationship between the individual and the general, the particular and the universal, as they are mediated by the socio-economic and cultural productions of both space and time. It is an attempt, in other words, to think the totality, and therefore its “representational failure” does not stand for a willful castigation of space; indeed, as Jameson points out, “once you knew what ‘cognitive mapping’ was driving at, you were to dismiss all figures of maps and mapping from your mind and try to imagine something else” (Postmodernism 409).

  2. Perhaps the most salient manifestation of such inertia can be found in the form of the computer. For Jameson, “this new machine” does not, unlike “the older machinery of the locomotive or the airplane, represent motion,” rather it “can only be represented in motion” (Postmodernism 45). This is exactly how Neuromancer portrays the new technology, often by recourse to the kinetic idiom of older machinery, such as, for example, when Case has “the strange impression of being in the pilot's seat in a small plane.” Speed, under such conditions, is merely experienced as “the sensation of speed,” thereby giving rise to the paradoxically “worrying impression of solid fluidity” (302) that troubles Case on one of his runs.

  3. Neuromancer, however, does hint that Turkey will soon succumb to the capitalist imaginary and the homogenization of space. Perhaps the most obvious example of this is the hotel where the protagonists stay here: “Their 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” (108).

  4. Lacan notes that “the formation of the I is symbolized in dreams by a fortress, or a stadium—its inner area and enclosure, surrounded by marshes and rubbish tips, dividing it into two opposed fields of contest” (5).

  5. A lesson first learned, of course, by Gertrude Stein who described Oakland in the same terms.

  6. Gibson's explanation of the incipience of “cyberspace” is suitably inflected within the indeterminate rubric of irony: “Assembled word cyberspace from small and readily available components of language. Neologic spasm: the primal act of pop poetics. Preceded any concept whatever. Slick and hollow—awaiting received meaning” (qtd. in Stallabrass 5). What, of course, is not ironic about this description is how it attests to the value of the signifier in the market place. It is perhaps only the plasticity of “postmodernism” that can compare in this respect for sheer marketing success.

  7. McLuhan's triumphalism is poignantly undercut some twenty years later by Jameson's befuddlement: “The newer architecture therefore—like many of the other cultural products I have evoked […]—stands as something like an imperative to grow new organs, to expand our sensorium and our body to some new, yet unimaginable, perhaps ultimately impossible, dimensions” (Postmodernism 39). Of course, just as Jameson was making this plea, Gibson was refining his own response to this crisis in the form of the reticulated networks of cyberspace, which, in one of its definitions, is “actually a drastic simplification of the human sensorium” (Mona Lisa 71).

  8. Gibson has registered his unease at this proclivity for epochal astrology, stating that “I sometimes get the feeling that technical people who like my work miss several layers of irony” (qtd. in Woolley 37). Critics of cyberspace technology tend, like Mark Slouka, to be alarmed by it because it helps to accentuate “our growing separation from reality” (1). For Z̆iZ̆ek, however, this alarm merely indexes an over-proximity to the “secret” of reality, which is its very virtuality:

    [T]he experience of virtual reality should […] make us sensitive to how the “reality” with which we were dealing always-already was virtualized. The most elementary procedure of symbolic identification, identification with an Ego Ideal, involves […] an identification with a virtual image: the place in the Big Other from which I see myself in the form in which I find myself likeable (the definition of Ego Ideal) is by definition virtual. Is not virtuality, therefore, the trademark of every, even the most elementary, ideological identification? When I see myself as a “democrat,” a “communist,” an “American,” a “Christian,” and so on, what I see is not directly “me”: I identify with a virtual place in the discourse. And in so far as such an identification is constitutive of a community, every community is also stricto sensu always-already virtual.

    (Indivisible 194)

  9. It is unbearable because, as Z̆iZ̆ek notes elsewhere, “self-consciousness is the very opposite of self-transparency: I am aware of myself only insofar as outside of me a place exists where the truth about me is articulated” (Tarrying 67). The “absolute point of view,” in other words, occasions the disappearance of the subject. In this respect, Z̆iZ̆ek argues that

    what brings about the “loss of reality” in cyberspace is not its emptiness (the fact that it is lacking with respect to the fullness of the real presence) but, on the contrary, its very excessive fullness (the potential abolition of the dimension of symbolic virtuality). Is not one of the possible reactions to the excessive filling-in of the voids of cyberspace therefore informational anorexia, the desperate refusal to accept information, in so far as it occludes the presence of the Real?

    (Plague 155)

Works Cited

Borch-Jacobsen, Mikkel. Lacan: The Absolute Master. Trans. Douglas Brick. Stanford: Stanford UP, 1991.

BoZ̆ovic̆, Miran. “The Man Behind His Own Retina.” Everything You Always Wanted to Know about Lacan (But Were Afraid to Ask Hitchcock). Ed. Slavoj Z̆iZ̆ek. London: Verso, 1992. 161-77.

Brennan, Teresa. History after Lacan. London: Routledge, 1993.

Bukatman, Scott. Terminal Identity: The Virtual Subject in Postmodernist Science Fiction. Durham: Duke UP, 1993.

Connor, Steven. The English Novel in History: 1950-1995. London: Routledge, 1996.

Eagleton, Terry. The Ideology of the Aesthetic. Oxford: Blackwell, 1990.

———. The Illusions of Postmodernism. Oxford: Blackwell, 1996.

Gibson, William. Mona Lisa Overdrive. London: Harper, 1994.

———. Neuromancer. London: Harper, 1993.

Homer, Sean. Fredric Jameson: Marxism, Hermeneutics, Postmodernism. Cambridge: Polity, 1998.

Jameson, Fredric. The Geopolitical Aesthetic: Cinema and Space in the World System. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1992.

———. The Ideologies of Theory, 1971-1986: Volume 1—Situations of Theory. London: Routledge, 1988.

———. “On Raymond Chandler.” The Poetics of Murder: Detective Fiction and Literary Theory. Eds. Glen W. Most and William W. Stone. San Diego: Harcourt, 1983. 122-48.

———. Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. London: Verso, 1991.

———. “Progress Versus Utopia; or, Can We Imagine the Future?” Science Fiction Studies 9:2 (1982): 147-58.

———. “Science Fiction as a Spatial Genre: Generic Discontinuities and the Problem of Figuration in Vonda McIntyre's The Exile Waiting.Science-Fiction Studies 14 (1987): 44-59.

———. The Seeds of Time. New York: Columbia UP, 1994.

Lacan, Jacques. Écrits: A Selection. Trans. Alan Sheridan. London: Routledge, 1977.

Laclau, Ernesto. Emancipations. London:Verso, 1996.

Massey, Doreen. “Politics and Space/Time.” New Left Review, 196 (1992): 65-84.

McLuhan, Marshall. Understanding Media. London: Routledge, 1964.

Patton, Paul. “Imaginary Cities: Images of Postmodernity” Postmodern Cities and Spaces. Eds. Sophie Watson and Katherine Gibson. Oxford: Blackwell, 1995. 112-21.

Pile, Steve. The Body and the City: Psychoanalysis, Space and Subjectivity. London: Routledge, 1996.

Slouka, Mark. War of the Worlds: Cyberspace and the High-Tech Assault on Reality. London: Abacus, 1996.

Sponsler, Claire. “Cyberpunk and the Dilemmas of Postmodern Narrative: The Example of William Gibson.” Contemporary Literature 33:4 (1992): 625-44.

Stallabrass, Julian. “Empowering Technology: The Exploration of Cyberspace.” New Left Review 211 (1995): 3-32.

Williams, Raymond. The Politics of Modernism: Against the New Conformists. London: Verso, 1996.

Woolley, Benjamin. Virtual Worlds: A Journey in Hype and Hyperreality. London: Penguin, 1993.

Z̆iZ̆ek, Slavoj. The Indivisible Remainder: Essays on Schelling and Related Matters. London: Verso, 1996.

———. The Plague of Fantasies. London: Verso, 1997.

———. Tarrying with the Negative: Kant, Hegel, and the Critique of Ideology. Durham: Duke UP, 1993.

Zukin, Sharon. “The Postmodern Debate Over Urban Form.” Theory, Culture and Society 5:2-3 (1988): 431-46.

Sarah Brouillette (essay date 2002)

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SOURCE: Brouillette, Sarah. “Corporate Publishing and Canonization: Neuromancer and Science-Fiction Publishing in the 1970s and early 1980s.” In Book History, edited by Ezra Greenspan and Jonathan Rose, pp. 187-208. University Park, Penn.: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2002.

[In the following essay, Brouillette presents an analysis of the 1984 publication of Neuromancer in terms of the relationship between the corporate publishing industry and the science fiction subculture.]

Since its initial publication as an Ace Science Fiction Special in 1984, William Gibson's Neuromancer has been established as one of the most influential and respected novels in the history of its genre, as well as in mainstream literary culture. It won the three major awards in the science-fiction field that year—the Nebula, the Hugo, and the Philip K. Dick awards—and has since gone on to receive critical treatment rarely accorded to novels that were initially marketed as genre science fiction. Indeed, it is ostensibly responsible for spawning an entire subgenre—cyberpunk—and has become standard fare on syllabuses for literature courses of all varieties.1 It has been translated into languages from Magyar to Japanese to Danish, and has been published in numerous printings and editions—from a Gollancz hardcover published in London in 1984 to a Phantasia Press limited hardcover “collector” edition in 1986, from a tenth-anniversary deluxe edition to a graphic novel.

A partial explanation for this attention is the skill with which Gibson maps the dystopic spatial scenes of a late capitalist culture increasingly familiar to the audience that received and continues to receive his work. Neuromancer is often read as a potent example of the kind of postmodern fiction that attempts to address late capitalism and the increasing presence of corporate power within our global landscape.2 In fact, in his influential description of his vision of the postmodern cultural scene, Fredric Jameson calls Gibson's cyberpunk fiction “the supreme literary expression, if not of postmodernism, then of late capitalism itself.”3 The novel's plot involves Case, a strung-out computer hacker who is hired to perform a task he does not understand for a force he is not allowed to identify. He hooks up with Molly, a gunslinger with optical implants and retractable talons, and together they embroil themselves in a monumental hack of the Tessier-Ashpool corporate enclave, involving Molly's physical might and Case's fearless travels through “cyberspace.” The complex machinations of the plot pose a challenge to even the most astute reader, yet Gibson's map of a future determined by corporate power continues to be a major draw for those interested in his articulation of a rift between corporate monopoly culture and the criminal underclass that is forced to position itself both within and against it. Indeed, critical readings of Neuromancer continually explore the ambiguous relationship between the book's corporate upper culture and its deviant, displaced subcultures.

What I will argue here is that the general championing of Gibson's text is intimately related to its situation within a particular print environment. Specifically, the initial critical success and continuing interest of Neuromancer have much to do with the situation of science-fiction publishing in 1984, when the novel was first released by Ace Books as part of editor Terry Carr's Science Fiction Specials Series. I want to explore the relationship between Carr's series, the ethos of Gibson's novel, and the complex world of science-fiction publishing in which both the series and the novel were situated, in order to argue that the science-fiction community that initially received Neuromancer with high praise was particularly ready to embrace the sort of underclass, subcultural challenge to corporate might that it evokes. I hope to show that the relationship between the corporate book marketplace and the subculture made up by science-fiction writers and readers is analogous to the relationship within the novel between the world of Case and his deviant companions, and the corporate world of the dystopian cityscape and the Tessier-Ashpool monolith that vies to control it. Throughout the 1980s, the science-fiction subculture articulated itself both as aware of increasingly stratified divisions between its own self-identification and the demands of corporate culture, and as ironically incapable of resisting the necessity of strapping itself into the machine matrix and publishing mainstream that its members saw as feeding on the creativity and fashionability of cultures such as their own. In describing the concerns and interests of the science-fiction community during a particularly troubled and contentious period in its history, I hope to suggest the extent to which attention paid to particular publishing environments can supplement our understanding of the processes that influence, and to varying degrees determine, literary canonization.

The North American publishing scene has been overwhelmed by the corporate conglomerization that has dominated the globalized economic climate in the later half of the twentieth century and the initial moments of the twenty-first. Critics of media concentration, such as Leo Bogart and Ben Bagdikian, have noted the increasing control that major media conglomerates have over the book publishing industry. Bogart cites “the growth of huge bookselling chains” as the major factor influencing the “process of concentration” within the field, and notes that by 1995, 62 percent of the total retail volume of book sales was controlled by major chains.4 Bagdikian similarly traces the history of the concentration of media in major conglomerates that increasingly control the larger part of book production around the world.5 Science-fiction publishing has had a special relationship with such corporatization, given what its practitioners and proponents depict as their status as producers of a subcultural or “ghetto” literature that is of interest to only a particular segment of the reading public. Yet while acknowledging science fiction's ghetto status, it is important to also recognize the way in which science-fiction publishing has always been intimately connected to trends within the general market for popular literature.6

Like much contemporary genre fiction, science fiction had its print origins in the pulp magazines of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. After pulps became successful enough to challenge the popularity of the dime novel, many of their producers saw the benefits of establishing specialty presses designed to cater to the specific niche interests of various consumers. Hugo Gernsback thus established science fiction's first pulp magazine, Amazing Stories, in 1926. The world of science-fiction fandom spent the following thirty years developing itself. Specialty presses devoted to science-fiction pulps flourished by fostering strong communities of fans, writers, and editors who saw themselves as participants in a general sub-cultural movement that was controlled by them and run in accordance with their own interests. Moreover, fans, writers, and editors could not be strictly separated from one another in the world of specialty publication—those who started out in one category often ended up in another.7 With the development of the paperback market after World War II, commercial publishers entered the field and looked to specialty presses for the sort of talent that could guarantee success for specific genres within a commercial publishing operation.8 Often, those talented people were fans formerly associated with specialty presses and heavily invested in the history of science-fiction culture.

Indeed, as a ghetto literature, science fiction is often said to be continuously reliant on the specialty publishers and the small press ethos that marked its origins.9 In their critical bibliography of specialty science-fiction publishers, Jack L. Chalker and Mark Owings make a compelling argument for the essential importance of just that ethos to the world of science-fiction fandom. They detail the relationship between the culture of the North American amateur press in the late nineteenth century and a burgeoning culture of science-fiction fans who communicated with one another through amateur press associations (APAs) and the magazines (or “apazines”) they produced.10 In fact, Chalker and Owings cite changing print technologies as the dominant factor in the composition of the science-fiction field throughout the twentieth century. They mark the growth of the mass-market paperback after Penguin's intrusion into the U.S. market in 1939 as responsible for the initial demise of specialty science-fiction presses. Between 1955 and 1965, Chalker and Owings argue, many of the great amateur magazines and specialty book presses were forced to fold. Amazing Stories and Wonder Stories passed away, as did Gnome Press, Fantasy Press, and Shasta Publishers. They were ostensibly “done in” by their own “success in proving the market.”11 Developments such as the high-speed lithographic press and the revolving wire paperback rack made the mass-market paperback omnipresent, available in “supermarkets, convenience stores, truck stops [and] gasoline stations,” and seemed to make the sort of communities developed by APAs obsolete. Chalker and Owings write: “There had been an unmet need out there and the SF specialty publishers had filled it and showed what a gold mine it could be—and the mainstream boys looked, watched in amazement, then moved in with their superior capital, distribution, and resources, and took over.”12 This sense of an opposition between the “mainstream boys” manipulating an available audience and a group of specialty publishers fulfilling the unmet needs of an interested community is present throughout a vast array of printed matter produced by commentators on and practitioners of the art of science fiction throughout the 1970s and 1980s.

The amount of print published alongside the novels and short stories produced during this period seems to exist largely as a means for the genre to explore its history as a “ghetto” literature forced to negotiate with its own increasing relevance and mainstream popularity. The mainstreaming of science-fiction culture that concerns Chalker and Owings is thus a subject of much interest in all the major journals and magazines produced by the science-fiction community. Such concern is particularly apparent in those publications most allied with the publishing industry itself, such as Locus,Science Fiction Chronicle, and Science Fiction Writers of America (SFWA) Bulletin. The 1970s and early 1980s prove themselves an era of special concern, as the science-fiction publishing field in general experienced unprecedented growth in all areas—books and magazines, general and specialty presses—before a lapse in the early 1980s provoked many writers to wonder what might have gone wrong. Most important, science fiction became more relevant to the culture at large, as television programs such as Star Trek and films such as ET and Star Wars captured the public's attention, directing a formerly uninterested portion of the North American populace toward the concomitant textual offerings of science-fiction publishers.

In a 1991 article in Science-Fiction Studies, Christina Sedgewick summarizes a number of the concerns that had been articulated by science-fiction fans and writers throughout the previous two decades, claiming that “the industry to which the fortunes of SF have traditionally been linked has evolved and altered over the last few decades such that its raison d'être has become irrelevant—perhaps even inimical—to the interests and desires of SF readers and writers.”13 The kinds of corporate mergers that were taking place in the later part of the 1980s—as “nonpublishers” such as Rupert Murdoch acquired large shares in companies such as Penguin, or as MCA acquired Putnam, Berkley, Ace, and Avon Books14—struck Sedgewick as particularly insidious, though such mergers had been taking place on a smaller scale since at least the 1950s. Science-fiction writers were being professionalized long before the 1980s, but Sedgewick is right to point out the increasing rapidity of such change during her own period of interest. She writes: “[T]he concern for publishability—itself increasingly determined by the unstated criteria for ‘safe’ publishing by mass-market driven publishers—manacles both the ‘pro’ and ‘non-pro’ SF writer to the fears, whims, and prejudices of the publishing establishment.”15 That “establishment” is, for Sedgewick, intimately related to the increasing power and undeniable prominence of major bookstore chains in the United States in the early 1990s, when B. Dalton Booksellers and Waldenbooks came to have an unprecedented and highly detrimental effect on the willingness of publishers to accept challenging and “unsafe” material.

This effect was highlighted in the later 1980s by an affair involving Samuel R. Delany's series of Neveryon novels, when major bookstore chains were thought to have played an important role in suppressing the third and fourth books in the series, on the basis of their homoerotic content. Bantam published the first book in the series, Tales from Neveryon, as a paperback original in 1979. It sold 250,000 copies. The second book sold just as well. When the third book was ready for press, Bantam printed only seventy thousand copies, which caused Delany to “wonder why, in a series where the books are packaged in the same way, they sold a quarter-million of volumes one and two, then suddenly decided to cut the print order of the third volume in half. It wasn't because the editor didn't like the book.”16 Delany later discovered that before executives at Barnes and Noble had ordered the book, they had heard that it contained a number of explicitly homoerotic scenes. They decided to order only five thousand copies and to stock them only at their eight largest East Coast stores. The publisher could not justify a larger print run when a major distributor was not willing to stock the book in the usual way. Return to Neveryon, the fourth book in the series—and the one in which homoeroticism plays the biggest part—was rejected by Bantam entirely. When Delany then took the book to Tor Books, their interest in the novel was also undermined by bookstore intervention. B. Dalton and Waldenbooks, then the two largest bookstore chains in America, are said to have refused to carry any novel Delany had written. These events lead Charles Platt, among others, to proclaim that “[t]wo enormous bookstore chains now control which kinds of books will be published in America.”17

Bookstore chains were also seen as playing an essential role in what Platt calls the “vanishing midlist” of science-fiction novels—that midlist that constitutes, for Platt and many of his peers, the essential basis of all science-fiction publishing. He writes that science fiction is largely made up of “reasonably thoughtful novels for reasonably thoughtful readers … too adult or complex to be sold as downmarket trash, too non-conformist to make it as bestseller material.”18 He criticizes the sort of “low-budget science fiction” packaged by publishing giants as a component of a “Hollywoodized … profit-driven personality-oriented mass-entertainment industry.”19 For Platt it is precisely the marketing of “mass-entertainment” that allows major bookstore chains to neglect and even stigmatize such novels as Delany's—the midlist novels for “thoughtful readers” on which science-fiction culture likes to establish itself. Donald Maass, agent to a number of science-fiction writers, expressed similar fears about the industry in Science Fiction Chronicle in 1990. Provoked by Penguin's 1990 wipeout of subsidiary E. P. Dutton, Maass writes: “Of the nine publishers who are experienced enough, big enough, stable enough, honest enough and committed enough to SF/fantasy for me to place my clients' work with them, all nine are either owned by, affiliated with or distributed by a huge publishing, media or entertainment conglomerate.”20

While the concerns articulated by Maass, Platt, Sedgewick, and many others not accounted for here were perhaps particularly well founded in the late 1980s, it nonetheless remains the case that the changing science-fiction publishing industry caused anxiety for numerous writers throughout the 1970s and early 1980s. Maass's anxious sentiments were predicted by a long history of commentary on the state of science-fiction publishing by both fans of the industry and people directly involved in its creation. Indeed, as mentioned earlier, during the 1970s and 1980s such anxiety became a constituting point of discussion and contention for the science-fiction community as a whole.

A glance at the statistics provided by Locus's book publishing summaries between 1978 and 1985 gives some indication of the extent of the changes about which various commentators expressed such concern. These summaries—published every February and reviewing the statistics for the previous year—are very useful as a means of tracking the state of the industry as a whole and of Ace Books within that industry. Locus's summary of the 1978 science-fiction book trade shows that since 1972 total book production was up 272 percent; add to that a sense of the increase in book prices (up approximately 200 percent for paperbacks since 1972, and 100 percent for hardcovers) and it is easy to get an inkling of the seriousness of the boom in the field. From 1977 alone, production was up 21 percent to a total of 1,189 titles. Ace's own position was strong, the press having published 104 paperback titles in 1978 (32 new titles and 72 reprints)—the second-highest number in the field. In 1979 the total number of titles published was 1,288, up 8 percent from the previous year, with a shift in the balance between new and reprinted titles. There were 685 new titles and 603 reprints—a rare balance in an industry often reliant on reprints and backlists. Ace dominated the field with 140 titles, more than ten per month. The statisticians claimed to expect 1980 to show a decrease in the total number of science-fiction titles published, stating: “It's likely that the SF field will begin to take on some of the characteristics of mainstream publishing, with a greater emphasis on ‘bestsellers.’ The end result may be less attention paid to marginal ventures, such as first novels and some of the less popular critical favorites.”21 They were right, as both 1981 and 1982 showed lower sales in the field in general, while the New York Times hardcover bestseller lists—consulted as the statistics were compiled—were said to show, in both years, as many science-fiction or fantasy novels as works of other genres.

Charles N. Brown and Terry Carr provide critical synopses of these statistical results in their respective contributions to The Best Science Fiction of the Year anthologies. In the 1982 edition, Brown writes that 1981 was both “commercially and artistically a mediocre year,” claiming that very few “quality novels” were published.22 In the same year, Carl Sagan set a new record by receiving a two-million-dollar advance from Simon and Schuster for Contact. In his introduction to the 1983 anthology, Carr writes that science fiction was becoming “a major part of popular culture … crowding other forms of literature off of publishers' lists,” but that the “percentage of SF writers who are actually able to cash in on science fiction's wide popularity is astonishingly small.”23 He was echoed by the Locus statisticians in February 1984, who claim that “[i]t would be more surprising now if a new book by Herbert, Heinlein, Clarke, Asimov, etc., did not make the bestseller list.”24 Meanwhile, production was still down, at 1,085 titles for 1983—a far cry from the triumphant growth of the late 1970s. George R. R. Martin's preface to the John W. Campbell Awards also summarizes these statistics. He writes of a storm that hit the science-fiction world in the early 1980s: “Fawcett, Playboy, Popular Library, Jove, and even Ace—a genre mainstay for nearly thirty years—are gone in all but name, having been absorbed in various corporate mergers and buyouts.” He laments that “the publishers seem far more interested in buying other companies than in putting out good books,” and that they are all “shying away from unproven names.”25 He calls this, in an echo of Jack Chalker, “a consequence of the prosperity that SF experienced in the late seventies,” which ensured that it no longer had the luxury of a “small but loyal audience.”26

It is to this general volatility in science-fiction publishing in the late 1970s and early 1980s that the attendant community of supporters was set to respond. In a 1981 piece called “We Have Met the Mainstream …,” Ben Bova talks about the dream of American science-fiction authors to experience mainstream literary success and escape being “ghettoized into a narrow corner of the literary marketplace.”27 Bova claims that the successful fulfillment of this dream can cause as much harm as good, and he urges his fellow writers not to think of George Lucas as their messiah, since “prophet … can also be spelled p-r-o-f-i-t.” Bova's concern is that certain “blockbuster” authors will be marketed by greedy publishers who have no real interest in the content of science fiction, while the remaining numbers of science-fiction novels will suffer the fate of the publishing industry's “minimal success” books, which are “shipped off to the market like so many loaves of bread.” All of which leads him to worry that science-fiction writers are not “taking over the mainstream” at all, but rather being subsumed by its threatening logic, as the mainstream takes over them.28

In March 1983 a panel at the fourth International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts (ICFA) also focused on the impact of corporatization on the science-fiction and fantasy publishing industries. Professor Carl B. Yoke describes the panel as having “lambasted corporate publishing.” In particular, Yoke identifies esteemed writer Harlan Ellison as one of the conference's most vocal opponents to what he then perceived as the industry's efforts to push out good writing in favor of “merchandise.”29 Yoke draws a parallel with the newspaper business, stating that “[m]ost major cities today have only one major newspaper, and those newspapers are in fact owned by a very few, very powerful individuals.” He ends his piece with a dystopic vision of the end of science-fiction/fantasy publishing in “racks of Big Macs which pose as food for the mind.”30

In Science Fiction Dialogues, a book published in 1982 by the Science Fiction Research Association, James Gunn writes that “in the past few years science fiction has moved into the rarefied air of the bestseller and the blockbuster film,” becoming “big business.”31 While science fiction was once strictly ghetto literature—what Damon Knight called “the mass medium for the few”—in the early 1980s all that had changed, irrevocably. Gunn asks: “Why do I have the feeling that balance-sheet corporations, illiterate sales forces, and computerized mass market distributors have taken over, and that writers and editors have lost control?”32 Page Cuddy of Avon Books—a mainstay of science-fiction publishing at the time—joined the fray in Science Fiction Chronicle in July 1983, in her “Report from the Bunker.” Cuddy claims that her major concern as an employee in a troubled science-fiction marketplace is that “it often seems that writers and publishers have gone beyond their normal adversary relationship [and] now seem to occupy alternate universes.”33 Cuddy was writing at a time when the industry as a whole was perceived to be in a slump, as publishers realized that science fiction did not sell quite as well as they had hoped and that only certain blockbuster authors could be relied upon for steady sales. Unit sales of all books had not increased in the five years before 1983, according to Cuddy. In identifying contributing factors in the slump in public interest in science-fiction novels, Cuddy faults the “blockbuster complex”—“an increasing concentration on a smaller number of titles”—as well as faltering midlists and the increasing tendency of paperback houses to give up on acquiring rights to hardcover novels in favor of a focus on paperback originals.34

Finally, SFWA Bulletin's symposium for winter 1985, after the storm had seemingly calmed, asked several writers: “In what way has the marketplace, in your opinion, deformed, enhanced or helped your work? What kind of balance do you think should exist between art and commerce, or craft and commerce?”35 The answers of many major authors are a fitting indication of their sense of an essential rift between what science-fiction writing is about and the concerns of a general publishing marketplace increasingly controlled by corporate interests. While some authors attempted to suggest that they happily negotiated between the demands of the two spheres, most authors responded as Brian Aldiss and Michael Bishop did, expressing serious reservations about the possibility of any such negotiating. Aldiss writes: “Your editor is a parasite and—worse—probably a failed writer,” and gives details of his refusal to sign any contract for a novel before it was written. “Churn out the wordage!” he demands sarcastically. “It is not important to discuss what you might be writing about. The feel for the subject is dead.” Bishop gives details of his own experiences in trying to sell his innovative novel, Who Made Stevie Crye? to publishers. Editors claimed to admire his work while declaring themselves unable to imagine how to package anything that “defies genre classification or that is too different from work already being published.” The whole business conspires to “reinforce the notion that no readership for uncategorizable material exists,” Bishop claims.36 C. J. Cherryh agrees: “The Rubiyyat couldn't make it in today's market … first, it's not a novel, and second it's the wrong length, and if it weren't public domain and somewhat famous we'd never see it except in university press, whereby poor Omar would starve, though he might have a certain cachet with literary societies.”37

Corporate interests, then, were seen as subsuming the marketable aspects of the science-fiction subculture while subverting the common respect for artistry and experimentation for which it wanted to be known. The commentators I have cited here, from writers to fans to publishing industry employees, were all concerned with articulating an essential rift between the stories they wanted to tell within their own subcultural community, and the stories that corporate culture deemed marketable. I have engaged with some of the prominent concerns of these discussions in order to suggest the climate into which Ace's Science Fiction Specials, and Neuromancer, finally inserted themselves. That climate was one peopled by writers and readers profoundly interested both in distancing themselves from the process of corporatization they witnessed and in suggesting the extent to which that corporate culture relied upon and manipulated the marketable aspects of the creative offerings of their “ghetto.” It is precisely this climate of dissent and concern within the science-fiction community at large into which Terry Carr's Science Fiction Specials found their way.

The general belief in the existence of a split between corporate will and the genre as a whole—a split said to be causing a stasis in the field—is something within which Ace Books was very much embroiled. Ace's history as a science-fiction publisher, and the histories of the major figures involved in its success—Donald A. Wollheim, A. A. Wyn, and Terry Carr—mirror the general history of the field in important ways. Wollheim—Ace's chief editor for more than twenty years—was initially involved in the science-fiction community as a fan and then a pulp writer. He was instrumental in organizing the first World Science Fiction Convention—held in New York in 1939—before going on to work as an editor for over forty years within the world of commercial publishing. The connection between Wollheim and Ace founder A. A. Wyn is suggestive. Wyn began writing for pulp magazines in the 1920s and quickly became an editor for Dell Magazines. In 1932 he showed his entrepreneurial colors by purchasing and running the Ace magazine chain, a leading pulp company during the 1930s.38 Wollheim worked for Wyn at Ace magazines before leaving to become editor of Avon Books, where he stayed until 1952. It was Wollheim who then encouraged Wyn to found Ace Books in 1952, where he worked as chief editor until his death. There was tension in the relationship between Wollheim and Wyn—a man whom many accused of greed and mismanagement—but there was no essential conflict.39 Wyn was an entrepreneur, but he was primarily a publisher and a participant in the pulp culture from which science fiction arose. Ace was a commercial publisher, but before Wyn's death it took on some of the characteristics of a specialty press because it involved figures such as Wollheim and eventually Terry Carr—writers and editors of unquestionable standing within the science-fiction community. A. A. Wyn thus founded Ace during the boom in paperback fiction discussed by Chalker and Owings.40 It became one of the most important science-fiction publishers in the 1960s and 1970s, largely under the editorship of Wollheim, who was instrumental in instituting the initial series of Ace Specials. Wyn's death in the late 1960s threw Ace into a field that was rapidly changing under the weight of corporatization and concentration. It is the texture and relevance of these changes to which so many within the field, including Terry Carr, felt compelled to respond.

Carr's response was the Specials series, the impetus for which he discussed in a pair of interviews published in Luna. In these interviews, much of what he reveals about the early Specials, which ran from 1967 and 1971, applies also to their later counterparts, which appeared between 1984-89. Carr claims that from his earliest days at Ace in the 1960s his “idealistic fanself” felt that readers “had always been underestimated by science fiction publishers.”41 Noting that Ace's “better books” never seemed to sell as well as “the space operas,” Carr blames the packaging—a move in perfect accord with the logic of a field that, despite its opposition to the whims of the marketplace, could never afford to ignore its pull. Indeed, Carr's musings on the significance of the Specials shed light on some of the complexities of the tangled relationship between mainstream publishing and the subculture with which Carr aligns himself. Carr claims that Wyn's ideas about science fiction were formed in the 1920s, during the heyday of the pulps and their “garish titles, simpleminded action covers [and] sensationalistic blurbs.” After Ace spent three thousand dollars on the paperback rights for Dune in 1967—its highest advance until then—the house saw the importance of an “adult-oriented package,” that was “tasteful and appealing.” Carr took off from there, proposing a new series “aimed at adult tastes, with quality packaging, higher cover prices and higher payments for authors.”42 The series would be called the “Specials” on Wyn's conviction that television specials were precisely those programs designed for a more discerning audience. Carr was very careful in choosing a set of paratexts for his series. He wanted no blurbs on the back covers, other than quotes from the reviews, “to give the idea immediately that these books were to be taken seriously.”43 He decided to do, then, what only hardcover houses did at that point: he sent advance proofs of selected novels to established science-fiction writers and asked for their comments, which then replaced the usual blurbs on the novels' back covers. These strategies were precisely those that mainstream publishers had also been adopting in order to establish their products as worthy of sustained attention. The move toward sober covers, higher prices, and better pay for authors, and the pursuit of recommendations from established authors, were all strategies of interest to publishers hoping to distance their products from the general body of mass-market fiction. Carr's logic in adopting these strategies necessarily mimics the logic of the field in which he was situated. Marketing what Carr hoped to present as a less popular, more artistically viable sort of fiction could only mean choosing an alternate set of paratexts—paratexts that were simultaneously deployed by many commercial publishers seeking higher sales to those consumers who did not tend to purchase books marked by their status as mass culture. Carr thus sought to give his authors what they did not already have—the cultural legitimacy associated with mainstream success. In doing so he both participated in and resisted the market to which the Specials were offered. The series was, for him, an effort to raise the profile of a science-fiction culture debased by the constant churning out of new stories with no concern for presentation and quality. It was an attempt to challenge the market's reliance on what he saw as the mediocre offerings of second-rate popular fiction and easily consumable bestsellers.

Carr's adoption of such strategies was a success. The initial series of Specials was immensely popular both financially and critically, producing some of the most respected novels of the time, including Ursula Le Guin's The Left Hand of Darkness and several novels by Joanna Russ. After Wyn's death in the late 1960s the house changed hands a number of times before it was purchased by Grosset and Dunlop, then run by Tom Doherty. Left with a confusing horde of financial difficulties to straighten out,44 the new owners curtailed the budget for the Specials. Carr sensed that Ace's new management cared little about the quality of the books the house published. He says: “[W]hen Ace's management began to fret about their profits and hence to ‘tinker’ with my editorial prerogatives, the ‘editorial experience’ began to get fouled up, the creative waters were muddied by the silt of timid commercialism.”45 Carr was eventually let go, and his critically successful series went with him. A second series was started in the mid-1970s without Terry Carr, but it was short-lived and less successful. In February 1981, Locus notes that Ace had rehired Carr to edit another six titles in the same vein as the initial venture.46 Before those titles appeared, the ownership of Ace had changed significantly, as G. P. Putnam's Sons bought the publisher in 1982. Putnam's had owned Berkley since 1965 and was in turn owned by MCA. Berkley purchased Ace in 1983, causing much concern in the field, as two of the major mass-market publishers of science fiction were effectively merged. The new series of Science Fiction Specials emerged in this climate and began with six novels, with Kim Stanley Robinson's The Wild Shore, Lucius Shepard's Green Eyes, and Gibson's Neuromancer as the first three titles, all published in 1984.47 The new series looked much like the old, with sober front covers featuring work by respected science-fiction artists, and a generic blue box on the back with text urging readers to “meet the superstars of the future in the New Ace Science Fiction Specials!”—an urging highly indicative of the market necessity of selling future superstars by marketing not “new writers” per se, but eventual “blockbuster” authors and winners of large advances. As in the old series, the back covers featured quotes from reviews by noted authors. In Gibson's case, both Norman Spinrad and Bruce Sterling received advance copies of Neuromancer and reviewed it highly favorably (Fig. 3).

Terry Carr himself wrote a generic introduction to each title, adding a few individual comments for each separate book. In the introduction to Neuromancer he echoes the statements he made in an interview in 1976, claiming that the Specials were “new novels of high quality and imagination,” and that he chose them with a “rigorous insistence on literary quality.” He also notes their “strong underlying themes (but not Messages)” which are meant to oppose the proliferation of “hackneyed and familiar stories”48 in the science-fiction field at the time—all made particularly necessary by the perceived mainstreaming of interest in science fiction outlined earlier. In the introduction to Shepard's Green Eyes he similarly states that the Specials were meant then, as they were meant fifteen years before, to respond to a “period of creative doldrums” in science fiction.49 The “creative doldrums” were, for most science-fiction fans and writers, inseparable from the increasing presence of corporate power in the form of both large publishing and media conglomerates and major chain bookstores.

Terry Carr thus prided himself on publishing writers who might otherwise be ignored by the mainstream publishing environment. William Gibson was just such a figure. Born in South Carolina in 1948, Gibson moved to Vancouver, British Columbia, at age nineteen to avoid the draft for the Vietnam War. While earning an English degree from the University of British Columbia, he became seriously interested in science-fiction writing. He subsequently published two short stories—“Johnny Mnemonic” and “Burning Chrome”—in Omni magazine in the early 1980s, before stunning the science-fiction community by producing Neuromancer as a first-time novelist.50 Gibson had no ready manuscript when he and Carr initially discussed the possibility that a novel might follow those first shorter offerings. He prepared an outline for a novel then called Jacked In—this outline eventually became Neuromancer—with the Specials series in mind. He knew that writing for Carr's series meant writing for an editor and an audience trying to both manipulate and undermine the logic of a corporate marketplace that only understood the language of profitability. “Circa 1981,” Gibson has written, “there could be few more desirable starting slots in science fiction.”51Neuromancer, as part of a series of books recognized for their potential as utopian expressions of freed creativity in an industry increasingly closed to such possibilities, immediately entered a field of writers ready to receive its “strong underlying themes” of fear about the potential power of globalized megacorporations. Case experiences precisely what many science-fiction writers and editors—not the least Terry Carr himself—were experiencing at the time Gibson's work found its way into the public realm.

A closer analysis of the structural logic that pervades Gibson's text—a logic that pits corporate culture against common culture, and private interests against public—makes this comparison more obvious. Within the novel we encounter two polarized worlds. On one side we find the corporations and Freeside, an archipelago of wealth and leisure and a playground for tired employees. On the other side we find Case and his criminal companions, who must disguise themselves to gain access to the world that Freeside represents. A complex structural economy polices the existence of these simulated worlds and controls their dissemination and social functioning—an economy analogous to that which members of the science-fiction community have been so interested in identifying and questioning.

Case's environment is made up of reminders of his underclass, criminal status. The signs of corporate power are everywhere. We read: “Power, in Case's world, meant corporate power. The zaibatsues, the multinationals that shaped the course of human history, had transcended old barriers. Viewed as organisms, they had attained a kind of immortality … hives with cybernetic memories, vast single organisms, their DNA coded in silicon” (203). Indeed, in Ninsei, “you couldn't see the lights of Tokyo for the glare of the television sky, not even the towering hologram logo of the Fugi Electric Company, and Tokyo Bay was a black expanse where gulls wheeled above drifting shoals of white styrofoam” (6). Case's real home, the Sprawl of BAMA (the Boston-Atlanta Metropolitan Axis), offers little relief. “Program a map to display frequency of data exchange, every thousand megabytes a single pixel on a very large screen. Manhattan and Atlanta burn solid white,” (43) we are told. The corporation and its attendant technology are thus pervasive.

Importantly, Freeside and the corporate “ziabatsues” are the structural other to the world Case represents—the world of the Street, the Sprawl, Night City, Chiba, and Ninsei. In the novel's opening pages we are introduced to the bleak reality of Case's street life: “Synonymous with implants, nerve-splicing, and microbionics, Chiba was a magnet for the Sprawl's techno-criminal subcultures. … Ninsei wore him down until the street itself came to seem the externalization of some death wish, some secret poison he hadn't known he carried. … Night City was like a deranged experiment in Social Darwinism, designed by a bored researcher who kept one thumb permanently on the fast-forward button” (6-7). “Corporate arcologies” dominate these cityscapes. The word “arcology” is derived from Paulo Soleri's 1969 work Arcology: The City in the Image of Man, an architectural manifesto in which Soleri imagines the end of all natural topographies and their replacement by vast corporate and social complexes that embody the wholeness of biological organisms. Anything we might call outside would cease to exist in Soleri's future, to be replaced by neonature, a cybernetic city completely enclosed within itself. These arcologies exist in Neuromancer as a partner space to the tourist hub of Freeside. Case, as a person of the Street, should properly have physical access to neither; he should be relegated to the “outlaw zones” required by the “burgeoning technologies” that the novel revolves around. These technologies simultaneously benefit the corporate structural powers and allow Case access to cyberspace—the only space where he can earn the capital that equals the right to survive amid the Street's “deranged experiment in Social Darwinism” (7). Neuromancer's extensive narrative focus on the structural relations that define corporate culture cannot be overestimated. The cognitive map we are left with after reading the novel involves the structural opposition between the Freeside/corporate nexus and the nexus formed by the various street locales that Molly and Case traverse. Those street locales are what is left of public space, and they are little more than the breeding ground for new technological developments and the “meat” that is necessary to support them. They are not there for their inhabitants to prosper in or enjoy; they are, rather, “a deliberately unsupervised playground for technology itself” (11).

These two locales—which might be called the privatized space of corporate power and the public space of daily life—are thus structurally dependent on each other in crucial ways. In Case's world, corporate technologies disseminate among the criminal underclasses because the owners of those technologies can usurp the experimentation that ensues. Case and others like him can usurp the powers of the corporate elite only within the bounds of that elite's dependence on the bodies and minds of its underclass others. This relationship mirrors that which was so thoroughly characterized by the science-fiction community during the period with which I have been concerned. It is the relationship that Chalker and Owings detail when they speak of the “mainstream boys” gazing over the shoulders of science fiction's practitioners, and it is the relationship that so many of those practitioners blame for their own precarious status within the mainstream marketplace. It is, according to so many people concerned with the world of science fiction, the troubled relationship between the science-fiction ghetto and general corporate culture.

It is only fitting that Neuromancer too was appropriated by the mainstream publishing industry. A huge seller for Ace then and now, Neuromancer profoundly influenced the cyberpunk subgenre, which has itself been regimented and marketed in accordance with all the trends against which the science-fiction community, and cyberpunk itself, articulate themselves.52 It would seem that a corporate culture that can churn out an endless stream of saleable cyberpunk could effortlessly assimilate any creative intelligence that wants to critique it. It is precisely this assimilation that Gibson's text thematizes, by exploring the complex and always partially compromised relationship between subcultures and the corporate upper class. The world that it contains parallels the world that residents of the science-fiction ghetto have so diligently scrutinized. Their characterization of themselves encompasses their trumpeting of Neuromancer—a novel in which the ghetto they see themselves occupying is reflected in the literal spatial exclusion of Case and his cohorts from the arcologies that dominate the landscape. The science-fiction community's instant rallying around Neuromancer can be seen, then, as a further aspect of this community's effort at self-creation and self-identification—an effort that I have tried to locate within the profusion of words that members of that community have uttered about their relationship with corporatization. The novel is not a fantasy about an impossibly dystopic future. Science fiction never is. To the members of the science-fiction community, Neuromancer represents their own struggles and experiences. It shows them the future they are already living in. It is, finally, that community's canonical text, a text that explains and codifies what they see themselves as having lost at the hands of their corporate others.


  1. For a useful overview of the various links between Gibson and cyberpunk, see Dani Cavallaro, Cyberpunk and Cyberculture: Science Fiction and the Work of William Gibson (London: Athlone Press, 2000).

  2. Some exemplary instances of this critical tendency are David Brande's “The Business of Cyberpunk: Symbolic Economy and Ideology in William Gibson,” in Virtual Realities and Their Discontents, ed. Robert Markley (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996): 79-106; Pam Rosenthal's “Jacked In: Fordism, Cyberpunk, Marxism,” Socialist Review 21 (January-March 1991): 79-103; and Nicola Nixon's “Cyberpunk: Preparing the Ground for Revolution or Keeping the Boys Satisfied?” Science Fiction Studies 19, no. 2 (1992): 219-35.

  3. Fredric Jameson, Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late-Capitalism (Durham: Duke University Press, 1991): 419.

  4. Leo Bogart, Commercial Culture: The Media System and the Public Interest (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995): 56-58.

  5. Bagdikian notes that when the first edition of The Media Monopoly appeared in 1983, most major media control was in the hands of fifty national and multinational corporations. As the fourth edition went to press in 1992 that number had dropped to twenty. See The Media Monopoly, 4th ed. (Boston: Beacon Press, 1992), ix. See also Thomas Whiteside, The Blockbuster Complex (Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 1980), and Douglas Gomery, “The Book Publishing Industry,” in Benjamin M. Compaine and Douglas Gomery, Who Owns the Media? Competition and Concentration in the Mass Media Industry 3d ed. (Mahwah, N.J.: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2000): 61-145.

  6. For evidence of this connection, see James Gunn, Alternate Worlds: The Illustrated History of Science Fiction (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1975); and Janis Svilpis, “The Production and Reproduction of Pulp Fiction: The Case of Ace,” English Studies in Canada 25, no. 3/4 (1999): 325-45.

  7. For work on science-fiction fan cultures, see Joe Sanders, ed., Science Fiction Fandom (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1994); and Camille Bacon-Smith, Science Fiction Culture (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2000).

  8. Svilpis, “The Production and Reproduction of Pulp Fiction,” 331-35.

  9. Although specialty presses for science fiction still exist today—in fewer numbers—most of the science fiction available and promoted is published by a subsidiary of a major corporate publisher. The major source of interest for recent inquiries into science-fiction fandom is the Internet (see Camille Bacon-Smith, Science Fiction Culture). Although the Internet has notably changed the relationship between the genre and the publishing mainstream, those changes seem to me to represent further manifestations of the constant tension between the concerns of two opposing interests. It is certainly true that Internet fandom allows for the forging of stronger links between writers, small presses, and fans, and that it facilitates the promotion and discussion of writers not necessarily backed by major publishers. Nonetheless it has become—in notable accord with Case's experience in Neuromancer—a prime research site for niche marketers, who patrol fansites and market future products in accordance with the picks and pans of Internet audiences.

  10. Jack L. Chalker and Mark Owings, “The Science-Fantasy Publishers: An Introductory Critical History,” in The Science-Fantasy Publishers: A Critical and Bibliographic History (Westminster, Md.: Mirage Press, 1991): xvii-xxviii. The basic structure of the narrative offered by Chalker and Owings in their critical bibliography is suggested as early as February 1983, in Chalker's “On SF Publishing: Old Testament,” Fantasy 56 (February 1983): 5-7; and “On Specialty Publishers: Modern Times” Fantasy 57 (March 1983): 21-23.

  11. Chalker and Owings, “The Science-Fantasy Publishers,” xxii.

  12. Ibid., xxi-xxii.

  13. Christina Sedgewick, “The Fork in the Road: Can Science Fiction Survive in Postmodern, Megacorporate America?” Science Fiction Studies 18 (1991): 12.

  14. Tracking the actual details of these various mergers, acquisitions, and dissolutions is very difficult for even the most ardent followers of the corporatization process still dominating much of the publishing industry. Of interest to me here is the fate of Ace Books, which, though owned by MCA in 1991, is now owned by Putnam-Penguin, which is in turn owned by Pearsons. In 1989, Ben Bagdikian notes that Pearsons, in which Rupert Murdoch then had a 20 percent interest, owned what was Viking-Penguin. Putnam and Penguin merged in 1996, thus putting both major houses into the control of Pearsons, one of the world's largest multinational, multimedia corporations. The complicated history of Ace Books is something I will loosely detail later. See Ben Bagdikian, “The Lords of the Global Village,” Nation, 12 June 1989, 805-20.

  15. Sedgewick, “The Fork in the Road,” 29.

  16. Quoted in Charles Platt, “Two Kinds of Censorship,” Interzone, September-October 1988, 43-44.

  17. Ibid.

  18. Charles Platt, “The Vanishing Midlist,” Interzone, May-June 1989, 49.

  19. Ibid., 72.

  20. Donald Maass, “Mega-Mergers: Staying Alive in the Land of the Giants,” Science Fiction Chronicle, July 1990, 34.

  21. “1979 Book Summary,” Locus, February 1980, 9.

  22. Charles N. Brown, “The Science Fiction Year,” The Best Science Fiction of the Year 11, ed. Terry Carr (New York: Timescape Books, 1982): 429-30.

  23. Terry Carr, introduction to The Best Science Fiction of the Year 12, ed. Terry Carr (New York: Timescape Books, 1983): 1-2.

  24. “1983 Book Summary,” Locus, February 1984, 1.

  25. George R. R. Martin, preface to The John W. Campbell Awards, vol. 5, ed. George R. R. Martin (New York: Bluejay Books Inc., 1984): vii-viii.

  26. Ibid., ix.

  27. Ben Bova, “We Have Met the Mainstream …,” Nebula Winners Fifteen, ed. Frank Herbert (New York: Harper & Row, 1981): 175.

  28. Ibid., 179, 182.

  29. Carl B. Yoke, “ICFA Writers Lambast Corporate Publishing,” Fantasy Newsletter, May 1983, 5.

  30. Ibid., 6.

  31. James Gunn, “Science Fiction in the Eighties,” Science Fiction Dialogues (Chicago: Science Fiction Research Association, 1982): 2.

  32. Ibid., 6.

  33. Page Cuddy, “Report from the Bunker,” Science Fiction Chronicle, July 1983, 1.

  34. Ibid., 1, 18.

  35. “Bulletin Symposium,” SFWA Bulletin, Winter 1985, 7.

  36. Ibid., 8-9.

  37. Ibid., 11.

  38. Information on A. A. Wyn is scarce. Something can be gleaned from the obituary written by Wollheim in Nebula Award Stories Four (Richmond Hill, Ontario: Pocket Books, 1969): 227-28.

  39. In his obituary for Wyn, Wollheim writes: “He was a man to be respected, of high intelligence, undoubted literary ability within strict limits, but always a tough, opinionated businessman for whom few ever acquired a warm affection” (ibid.).

  40. Although Wyn always privileged science fiction as an interest, Ace was never a specialty publisher. One of Ace's most famous innovations was their Mystery Doubles series, which offered two novels in one book, with separate covers, but bound back-to-back. A brief early history of the house is offered in a loving tribute to those novels, Sheldon Jaffery's Double Trouble: A Bibliographic Chronicle of Ace Mystery Doubles (Mercer Island, Wash.: Starmont House, 1992).

  41. Terry Carr, “Interview,” Luna, Summer 1976, 2.

  42. Ibid., 2-3.

  43. Ibid., 6.

  44. The chaos that ensued when Wyn died left many writers fighting serious disputes with the company over royalties. The Science Fiction Writers of America stepped in after 1976, conducting an audit on the company and seemingly resolving the issues to the satisfaction of themselves and Doherty. However, these issues were not resolved as Carr's second series of Specials reached the market, as Leonore Fleischer reports in Publishers Weekly in early January 1984. See “A Report on the Ace Audit,” SFWA Bulletin, Fall 1977, 3-6; and Leonore Fleischer, “Talk of the Trade,” Publishers Weekly, 6 January 1984, 89.

  45. Terry Carr, “Interview,” Luna, Fall 1976, 3.

  46. “Ace Expands Schedule; Carr Revives Specials,” Locus, February 1981, 1.

  47. Another six Specials were commissioned as a result of the market success of the first series. Terry Carr died before all were published, and Ace asked writer and editor Damon Knight to edit the last three novels.

  48. Terry Carr, introduction to Neuromancer, by William Gibson (New York: Ace, 1986): vii-viii. Subsequent references to Gibson's text will be to this edition and will be included in the body of the essay.

  49. Terry Carr, introduction to Green Eyes, by Lucius Spehard (New York: Ace, 1984): ix.

  50. “Johnny Mnemonic,” “Burning Chrome” and other short stories are collected in Burning Chrome (New York: Arbor House, 1986). Neuromancer itself became part of a series and was followed by Count Zero (New York: Ace, 1987) and Mona Lisa Overdrive (New York: Bantam, 1988). Based on that initial series, Gibson is credited with coining the term cyberspace and envisioning with astonishing prescience both the Internet and virtual reality long before such notions had become part of common culture.

  51. William Gibson, afterword to Neuromancer, 10th anniversary ed. (New York: Ace, 1994): 275-78.

  52. Studies on the origins, ramifications, implications, or demise of cyberpunk are legion. They include Larry McCaffery's “The Desert of the Real: The Cyberpunk Controversy,” Mississippi Review 16, no. 47/48 (1988): 7-15, and Darko Suvin's “On Gibson and Cyberpunk SF,” Foundation 46 (Fall 1989): 40-51.


Critical Context