By D. R. Gayton
From the opening lines of William Gibson’s Neuromancer (1984), The very first thing that stands out about the narrative is the ubiquity of drug use and body modifications within the society, the milieu, in which the plot develops. In reference to the physical development of a drug deficiency, upon the second line of the text, a disembodied voice is immediately heard to say in street jargon, “It’s not like I’m using” (3). Then, only a few lines after the main character takes a seat at a bar, another disembodied voice is heard exclaiming that the Chinese not only invented nerve splicing, but they can “fix you right” (4). Announcing thusly the main character’s desire to have his nervous system surgically (or otherwise) altered so he may be able to once again “jack into” a cyberspace matrix, these two disembodied voices of the opening chapter help establish the novel’s vision of a future society in which the human body has become not only a commodity that may be bought and sold by the part, but as a container, or bearer of a consciousness that may exist independent of the body. Thereupon, in Neuromancer, Gibson envisions a universe in which the human body has become a tool whose social significance is dependent upon the rules of a “biz” (business) culture, that demands of the individual the efficiency of a computer, of a machine. To this end, the journey that the main character embarks upon in the novel is one that carries him from a struggle with his body and its needs, to an emotional detachment from those selfsame bodily needs.
To understand this journey, however, and the relationship between the main character and his body, the first thing that must be considered is the relationship between Case—as the main character is fittingly named—and the milieu he inhabits. Describing Case in the opening chapter as a washed up twenty-four year old who before his “fall” as a professional thief, a cyber-cowboy, had “operated [in the matrix] on an almost permanent adrenaline high, a by product of youth and proficiency” (5), the narrator immediately underscores the significance of Case’s job within the narrative. For although, Case’s initial hardships stem from his physical inability to connect to the matrix and work as a cowboy—as a thief—what makes this inability so devastating for him is that as a result of it he cannot experience that “adrenaline high,” which as the narrator specifies, stemmed from his “youth and proficiency.” This specification by the narrator is significant for it informs the reader that Case had been good at his job, and that the high he experienced had been as much a result of his zeal and youth as the result of a certain type of relish and awareness of his own proficiency, of his skills as a cowboy.
Emphasizing this latter aspect of Case’s characterization, at the opening scene at bar, Ratz, the bartender, seeing Case alone suggestively asks, “No girl? Nothing? Only biz, friend artiste?”(5). The obvious implication behind the question is that Case spends much more time tending to his “biz,’—to his black market work in this context—than to his personal life, his private life, his home life. However, by adding the appellative “artiste” to “friend,” within the question that makes a direct reference to Case’s relationship to “biz,” the idea that is expressed is that Case’s proficiency, and his awareness of that proficiency, is a type of skill that touches on artistry. In this manner, Case is presented as an artist in both the sense that he is highly skilled, or deft, at his criminal job, and in the sense that he deals with artifice, with man-made constructs, with man-made creations. Describing Case at “work,” playing a cat-and-mouse game with his supplier named Wage, the narrator states, “[y]our enjoying this, he thought…Because, in some weird…way it was like a run in the matrix. Get just wasted enough…and all around you the dance of biz, information interacting, data made flesh in the mazes of the black market…” (17). Recalling once again the relationship between the elation, and the sense of intoxication Case experiences while in the matrix or during biz, the narrator takes the artist analogy still further by indicating that biz appeals to Case because it is like a dance; an interaction between his every move and a world that ceases to signify anything beyond what the business-savvy-mind can read upon it. Thus, by linking Case’s sense of elation and intoxication to the matrix, to biz and to drugs, the narrative highlights the artificiality behind Case’s drive.
More than a personal drive, however, this artificiality seems to drive every strata of this society. As the narrator declares in an isolated paragraph of the novel, “[b]iz here was a constant subliminal hum, and death the accepted punishment for laziness, carelessness, lack of grace, the failure to heed demands of an intricate protocol” (7). What is specially of note here is that within the broader societal context of the passage, the narrator uses the psychological term “subliminal” to describe biz as a “hum;” for in doing so, the narrator presents “biz,” and all the stratagem and artificiality it entails, as the subconscious motor that drives this society. Stressing the idea of artificiality, moreover, by listing “lack of grace,” as a trait that is punishable by death, the narrator once again recalls the idea of “biz” as a type of dance, and then textually links it at the end of the sentence/paragraph to the “demands of an intricate protocol.” In this way, the social milieu Case inhabits is succinctly exposed as man-made construct that—beyond being fueled by biz—is regulated by a protocol that is described as “intricate,” underlining thereby the contrivance inherent to the social framework.
Once Case accepts the proverbial call to adventure, however, and his ability to connect to the matrix is restored, this idea of artificiality is interestingly exposed at one of the wealthy places his adventure takes him, called the “Rue Jules Verne.” Here, while breakfasting with his partner Molly in a luxury hotel named the Intercontinental, Case briefly contemplates the artificiality of almost everything around him. Noting the genetically enhanced vegetation around him, the imitation sun that shines above them, and lastly the hotel’s guests, the narrator states that, “their tans were uneven, a stencil effect produced by selective melanin boosting…They looked to Case like machines built for racing; they deserved decals for their hairdressers” (124). That is, more than simple physical embellishments, the artificial enhancements of the wealthy people depicted here are geared to imitate the proficiency of a machines “built for racing.” The power, the speed, and the efficiency of racing cars, of computer processors, are all at this point of the narrative presented as an aesthetic that permeates all walks of life.This type of artificiality is a fashion, a way of life that consequently reflects the subconscious motor, the “subliminal hum” of biz that the novel proposes from the very first chapter. More than mere men or women then, the individuals that inhabit the universe that the narrative presents, are, or aspire to be more like machines. It is this fact that allows Case to presuppose that the “real bosses, the kingpins, would be both more and less than people,” and that the transition from man to machine would have consisted of a “gradual and willing accommodation of the machine, the system, the parent organs” (196). The resulting image is one in which a biological body merges with the mechanical, with the digital, in order to enhance its own power, or strength, and efficiency.
This idea of efficiency and the merge between the biological and the mechanical is nowhere better exemplified than through the vision Case has in a dream of a beehive that carries the logo of Tessier-Ashpool; the corporation whose data mainframe Case is trying to hack. Describing the interior of the hive, the narrator states,“[h]orror…the stage progress from egg to larva, near-wasp, wasp. In his mind’s eye, a type of time lapse photography took place, revealing the thing as the biological equivalent of a machine gun, hideous in its perfection. Alien” (122). It is of particular interest in this passage the way the biological egg transforms not only into a mechanical object, but specifically onto a weapon that in its perfection, it becomes something alien, something completely new, something that is neither fully biological nor mechanical but in fact an enhancement of both. Explaining the significance of this vision to Case, Wintermute, the Artificial Intelligence (AI) created by Tessier-Ashpool, claims that the hive is “the closest thing you [Case] got to what Tessier-Ashpool would like to be. The human equivalent. Straylight’s like that nest, or anyway it was supposed to work out that way” (165). The use of the fragment “[t]he human equivalent” as an appositive referring back to the image, the memory, of the wasp’s nest, beyond highlighting the idea of the biological merging with the mechanical, puts a special emphasis on the idea of the human merging with the mechanical, or (what what amounts to the same thing) the idea of mechanical merging with the human and becoming thereby as proficient, and deadly, as a perfect weapon. And this image here is ultimately what Tessier-Ashpool—the corporate body that encapsules Straylight, Wintermute and its twin Neuromancer—would like to be.
Expanding this idea even further, the daughter of the founder of Tessier-Ashpool later on in the text explains (because explaining this complicated plot is necessary), that her mother had been the person who commissioned the construction of the AIs, and that before her death she had, “imagined us in a symbiotic relationship with the AI’s, our corporate decisions made for us. Our conscious decisions, I should say. Tessier-Ashpool would be immortal, a hive, each of us units of a larger entity” (220). Reviving the image of the hive to express the idea of Tessier-Ashpool as both a corporate body and a living unit, the use of the biological term “symbiotic” to describe its intended relationship with its members and its AIs, not only points once again towards the notion of the biological merging with the mechanical, but in fact it alters this notion significantly. In other words, what the term “symbiotic” here suggests is that each entity within this relationship would act as an independent living organism that interacts with the others, benefiting from each other, and enhancing each other’s efficiency as one corporate body instead of simply bodies merging into a single bio-mechanical unit. While the novel neither explains how this relationship actually works, nor how such differentiation (which in truth seems rather minimal) is to be carried out, the plot suggests that it is precisely to serve this purpose—to bring about this symbiotic relationship—that Wintermute has tasked Case with hacking Tessier-Ashpool’s data mainframe with a virus that will ultimately allow it to merge with its twin AI, Neuromancer; after all, the plot reminds us, that is what Wintermute was programed to do.
Before Case can accomplish this task, however, he must must first of all embrace his animal rage and the realization that “he’d been numb a long time…[that] now he [had] found this warm thing, this chip of murder. Meat, some part of him said. It’s the meat talking” (146). That is, he must come to the realization of the significance of the body despite of all the artificiality around him and his personal disdain of his own body, “his meat.” To this end, that “warm thing,” that “chip of murder” that the passage refers to is the rage that Case begins to feel after Wintermute reminds him of Linda Lee: the woman who had represented for him, “the simple animal promise of food, warmth, a place to sleep” (146), but whom he had lost because of his his callouses, his machine-like numbness, his coldness. That is, stemming from his “meat,” from his body, this rage—which is presented as somehow independent of the cognitive processes of the brain—is here linked directly to the flesh and to its most basic animal needs such as food, warmth, and sleep. Accordingly, this rage that Case senses along with its biological (or bodily) source are important to the theme of the novel because by demonstrating that it is through this rage that Case finds the motivation to complete the mission he has embarked upon, the novel applauds the unadulterated (or unaltered) human body for capacity to produce such powerful emotions that machines and computers are incapable of.
Once Case embraces this physical anger, however, the second thing he must do before he accomplishes his task is give up Linda Lee and thus give up “the simple animal promise of food, warmth, [and] a place to sleep” that she represents. That is to say, in spite of fact of that it is through the recognition of these basic human needs that Case finds the anger needed to say, “[f]uck Armitage, fuck Wintermute, and fuck you. I’m stayin’ right here” (186), when ordered by his boss to pull back from his mission, ultimately he must renounce Linda Lee and the possibility of fulfilling his basic animal needs if he is to fulfill his mission and return to his old life as a cyber cowboy. Although this sudden change from embracing basic animal needs to rejecting them may sound as contradictory as it most certainly is, this contradiction should be seen as a reflection of the symbiotic relationship between man and machine. That is, instead of merging into a machine or a computer program, Case first establishes his autonomy as an independent living organism, and maintains that autonomy by choosing with work, to live and benefit from machines rather merging totally and completely unto one of them. For if he would have remained with Linda Lee in the cyberspace created for her by Neuromancer, Case would have become all consciousness, a digital imprint of himself, and consequently given up on “real life.”
In this manner, Neuromancer presents to the reader the bleak image of a hyper-industrialized world where the rules of commerce not only permeate, but propel almost every aspect of the individual’s life. The alternative the novel then proposes, is one in which far from rejecting commerce in its totality, through the idea of a symbiotic existence with machines, it simply valorization (or re-valorizes) the body, and consequently the individual within an inescapable corporate body.
Gibson, William, Neuromancer, Ace Science Fiction, Penguin Publishing Group, 2008, Kindle Edition.