high tech / low life


1. Henry Dorsett Case.  “Case”.  Age 22.  “Console Cowboy”.  Alienated loner, drug addict, and genius.  Central protagonist in NEUROMANCER, science-fiction novel by William Gibson. Published 1984.  A novel often described as the genesis and holy grail of the “cyberpunk” subgenre–a label which Gibson himself reportedly dislikes.

2. NEUROMANCER is the first book in Gibson’s “Sprawl trilogy”.  “Sprawl” a reference to BAMA: Boston-Atlanta-Metropolitan Axis. The novel is set in an unspecified future, perhaps in the late 21st century.  In some ways NEUROMANCER is more hardboiled noir embellished with technobabble than plausible technological extrapolation envisioned in so-called hard science-fiction.  Yet profoundly prescient in at least one aspect: the novel describes virtual reality (simstim) and the world wide web (matrix) fourteen years before the incorporation of Google.

3. Technology of NEUROMANCER includes: (1) An gigantic space station called Freeside. Generates artificial gravity by centrifugal force as envisioned in the Bernal sphere. Large enough that it contains artifical mountains for rock-climbing at near-0g.  A luxury resort for the wealthy.  (2) Dermal patches which connect the user’s consciousness directly to the matrix, a global computer network which creates data as three-dimensional objects floating in an endless space.  The novel calls it “cyberspace”–a neologism coined by Gibson himself.  (3) The ability to upload one’s consciousness to a magnetic tape, essentially creating a copy of one’s mind–personality, memories, aptitudes, cognition.  This ghostly doppleganger is called a “ROM construct”.  At one point in the novel Case activates a ROM construct of a famous hacker to help him infiltrate a corporation’s data systems in cyberspace. (4) Genuine artificial intelligences, with their own personalities, motivations, and worldviews.  An organization called the Turing Registry monitors A.I.s and attempts to destroy them before they can become fully self-aware.

4. The novel’s plot hinges on two A.I.s, named Wintermute and Neuromancer, achieving self-awareness and merging to form a transcendent intelligence.  Unlike the chatty HAL 9000 of Stanley Kubrick’s masterful 2001: A Space Odyssey, Wintermute and Neuromancer are portrayed as genuinely alien and dispassionate.  HAL 9000 famously goes insane; his insanity can be described because his consciousness is similar enough to that of a human being that we can place his deranged mind alongside a sane human mind and see the contrast.  With Wintermute and Neuromancer such a juxtaposition would be meaningless.

5. Another key technology of NEUROMANCER is bodily augmentation, both genetic manipulation, bio-grafting enhancement (one character sports shark teeth), and bionic / mechanical implants and appendages.  Take your pick: bionic arms that can crush brick, surgically implanted lenses that give one night-vision and electronic targeting capability, or “microsofts”: small computer chips that can be implanted directly into the brain for a temporary cognitive boost, such as the ability to speak a new language or perform sophisticated mathematical calculations. Almost everyone has some form of plastic surgery, often to resemble celebrities.

6. The novel is not didactic.  We don’t know its perspective on the ethics or ontology of such meta-human enhancements.  In some respects the novel seems to suggest that as technology increasingly advances into the human body one may be increasingly alienated from one’s own humanity.  Yet in the character of Molly Millions, Case’s companion in the heist that functions as the novel’s central plot arc, the novel seems to almost fetishize bionic augmentation.  Molly’s permanently implanted computerized mirror lenses give her unspecified visual abilities and her surgically-grafted retractable finger-razors make her a deadly assassin. Case finds Molly irresistable; you can’t help but sense that Gibson does too.

7. Neither Case nor Molly nor even the plot itself are the novel’s central concern.  Instead, the novel is a exercise in imagery.  It creates a world through not only Gibson’s remarkable setting but through the prose itself.  His prose is the antithesis of workmanlike.  It is beautiful, but in the way that abandoned shopping malls are beautiful.  Bruce Sterling famously described the prose of NEUROMANCER as “high-tech electric poetry.”

8. I do, in fact, think that abandoned shopping malls are beautiful.  I would rather go for a walk in a deserted industrial park than a lush green forest.  If you’re the same way, read NEUROMANCER.