data rustlers, reptilian brains,
& other visionaries

lance olsen
© 1992

Gibson's characters have come under fire in several ways. Some argue that they are secondary to stylistic pyrotechnics, others that they are simply disagreeable. Gregory Benford writes that "Gibson has labored mightily on his style and uses it to carry scenes which could have worked better if he had a better understanding of both character and situation."(61) Frederick Pohl adds that "I have yet to find a character in any cyberpunk story that I can care about or indeed believe."(62) Brian Aldiss claims that what makes Neuromancer "a remarkable debut, rather than a remarkable novel, is Gibson's style." Gibson's protagonist, he continues, "lacks those qualities of character we need to engage us wholly in his fate, and surface colourings, however beautifully achieved, can only titillate, not satisfy."(63)

But such assertions fail to take Gibson's work on its own terms. Moreover, they display an ignorance both of postmodern characterization and literary-historical context. By this point in time, it has become a commonplace to observe that postmodern fiction (and much science fiction as well) often subverts the idea of fully-rounded character by presenting entities that are flat, insubstantial, and unstable. One need only think of Barthelme's cartoonish Snow White, Beckett's virtually nonexistent Unnamable, or Pynchon's self-deconstructive Slothrop. The intent behind adopting a narrative strategy that decomposes traditional characterization is to challenge traditional notions of selfhood and being by asking: what is "uniqueness"? what is "person"? what is a distinction among "selves"? what is "individual consciousness"? and what is "free will"?

Furthermore, Gibson's characters grow out of a literary tradition that tracks back at least as far as Natty Bumppo in American fiction. Speaking of James Fenimore Cooper's five Leatherstocking novels, D. H. Lawrence concludes by describing the archetypal American. "The essential American soul," he claims, "is hard, isolate, stoic, and a killer."(64) A cultural stereotype, to be sure, but one that has been admired and appropriated by Melville, Thoreau, Faulkner, Hemingway, Hammett, Chandler, film noir, and, of course, Gibson himself. Behind this stereotype rests two others, the American frontier and the American cowboy, with their connotations of freedom, ruggedness, discovery, and solitude. Gibson gives us a new frontier in the cyberspace matrix and the quintessential American cowboy in a series of data rustlers called "computer cowboys."

Most of his characters — and his cast is always large — are tough high-tech lowlifes who exist at the fringes of society, in a punk or criminal culture. They are outsiders, hustlers, anarchists, black marketeers, assassins. Like Deke, a drifter in "Dogfight," who cheats at a hyped-up video game in order to rob a handicapped vet of money and prestige, they are out for themselves rather than for any ideology. They want credit, not political change. Many, as George Slusser points out, function at the level of the Reptilian-Complex or R-Complex, the evolutionarily most ancient part of the forebrain which, as Paul D. MacLean has shown, "plays an important role in aggressive behavior, territoriality, ritual and the establishment of social hierarchies."(65) Devouring experience in the form of new drugs, new programs and new simstims, they feel old at twenty-eight, and are often scarred mentally and physically. An example is Molly. Her boyfriend has been brutally murdered, and she wears a scar that runs from just below her left nipple to the waistband of her jeans; external hurt forms an objective correlative for internal.

Although Molly has sex with Case in Neuromancer, Turner with Allison in Count Zero, and Mona with Eddy in Mona Lisa Overdrive, most of Gibson's characters prefer to make love to their machines rather than to each other. "I saw you stroking that Sendai," Molly tells Case. "Man, it was pornographic" (N chap. 3). Deke falls in love with his Spads and Fokkers game. Mona meets a man named Michael at a bar, and they go back to his place; before having sex, he sets her up in simstim recording gear so that when she is gone he can play back the episode for his own pleasure: "With the gear he had," Mona thinks, "he didn't really need anybody there" (MLO chap. 15). Again, Gibson provides an image of the animate and the inanimate fusing, suggesting here that sex is technology and technology sex, but he also underscores the isolation and pathos of dehumanization in a futureworld that is a metaphor for our present. When asked if people would have sex neuroelectronically if they could, Gibson answers: "Absolutely. People are almost trying to do it over the phone today. Phone sex didn't exist a couple of years ago, really, and it strikes me as horribly sad. They're going great guns."(66) In such a universe, egocentricism is rendered virtually complete. Characters are self-absorbed, sharing the assumption that private reality dominates public. They are routinely seclusive, disinterested in their surroundings except to the extent that those surroundings affect them, disturbed in their emotional responses. In other words, they exhibit a mild sort of autism.

If many of Gibson's characters have roots in the archetype of the American cowboy, then many also have roots in the archetype of the European romantic artist. This figure tracks back at least as far as Goethe's Werther and the Byronic hero; it takes the form of an isolated, self-reliant, gloomy, questing, visionary rebel. While as much a stereotype as the cowboy, it too has been admired and appropriated by many, including Brontë, Melville, Pushkin, Nietzsche, and Kesey. Bobby Newmark, whose body decays while his mind exists solely in the infinite magical world of the aleph, and Gentry, a crazed prophet searching for the unifying Shape, are only two fictional manifestations of this figure in Gibson's work, but Gibson also makes mention of real modern romantic artists like Dali, Kandinsky, Pollock, Ernst, and Cornell, as well as proto-romantic artists like Leonardo and Piranesi. Each in his own way is a visionary. Several (Dali, Ernst, Cornell) share sensibilities with Dada. Several (Kandinsky, Pollock, Piranesi) harmonize with expressionism. All except, perhaps, Leonardo embrace a surreal imagination which asserts, along with André Breton, that "the real process of thought" lies in "the omnipotence of dream," that "the poet must turn seer," and that "it is time to have done with the provoking insanities of 'realism.'"(67) Riviera in Neuromancer embodies this type. A walking surrealist painting, he possesses implants that project holograms of what he imagines onto reality, be it a giant human spermatozoon swimming in Case's Bourbon and water, or a trout darting out of a man's mouth. Of course, the cyberspace matrix itself becomes a surrealist offering in this context as well. Yet art in Gibson's universe is not simply a liberating visionary expression. It is also, as Virek and Marly well know, a lucrative if dangerous business too.

Looking for a moment at several of the artist figures that appear in Gibson's work, one can begin to piece together Gibson's sense of the artist's role in society. The artist, like Lise in "The Winter Market" and computer cowboys such as Case, probes the unknown, the Jungian depths of the unconscious, and brings back something he or she then shapes into story, sound, or form. True artists, the narrator of "The Winter Market" knows, "are able to break the surface tension, dive down deep, down and out, out into Jung's sea, and bring back — well, dreams." These dreams are then "structured, balanced, turned into art." Moreover the artist, like Angie the simstim queen in Mona Lisa Overdrive, allows the world to live through his or her heightened sensations. Traditional notions of realism do not play into this, as Sandii in "New Rose Hotel" understands; she writes and rights her past, making her history (mimesis) into fiction (poesis). Usually the act of creation doesn't occur, however, without taking its toll. While Slick Henry finds a certain amount of "pleasure" in building the Judge, in getting the Judge "out where [Slick] could see him and keep track of him and finally, sort of, be free of the idea of him," he admits he ultimately hates his creation (MLO chap. 10). Usually the artist is self-destructive (Mona, Angie), or diseased (Lise, Bobby).

When Molly passes through Tessier-Ashpool's library and gallery in their high orbit space station, she notices "a shattered, dust-stenciled sheet of glass" below which is a brass plaque that reads: "La mariée mise à nu par ses célibataires, même" (N chap. 17). This identifies the work as Duchamp's assemblage, "The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors, Even." Whereas the collage is a modernist technique developed by Picasso and Braque during their Cubist phase, and typically involves adding fragments of newspaper or other printed matter to one's composition, the assemblage is a postmodernist technique developed by the Dadaists and celebrated by the Dadaist revival of the 1950s by creators like Rauschenberg, Cornell, and (in literature) Burroughs, and typically involves adding three-dimensional found material to one's composition. The result of the assemblage is commonly the creation of spatial disharmony and incongruity that often evinces itself in readerly or viewerly disorientation. Art, then, becomes bricolage — literally a collection of garbage — and bricoleurs frequent Gibson's work. One thinks of the manipulator that makes quasi-Cornell boxes in Count Zero, and, of course, Slick Henry in Mona Lisa Overdrive. Rubin, Slick's literary cousin who appears in "The Winter Market," calls himself a gomi no sensei, Japanese for a master of junk. "What he's the master of, really," the reader is told, "is garbage, kipple, refuse, the sea of cast-off goods our century floats on."

Gibson makes the same claim for himself: "I see myself as a kind of literary collage-artist [though perhaps assemblage-artist would be more appropriate here], and SF as a marketing framework that allows me to gleefully ransack the whole fat supermarket of 20th century cultural symbols."(68) The artists in his work are manifestations of Gibson-as-artist. He looks around himself and gathers together a massive amount of cultural material from the last part of the twentieth century as though it were so much waste. He builds from the detritus of our culture. By doing so, he implies that our culture is simply so much detritus, garbage, a heterogeneous mixture of leftovers from the pop hypermart, literature, film, history, science, and so on. He embraces postmodern polyphony, adores the idea of undifferentiation, and becomes — like so many of his characters following in the tradition of Burroughs, Barthelme, and Pynchon — a visionary gomi no sensei.


61 Benford, 20.

62 Frederick Pohl, untitled essay, in Mississippi Review 16.2 & 3 (1988), 46.

63 Brian Aldiss, Trillion Year Spree: The History of Science Fiction (London: Victor Gallancz, 1986), 412-13.

64 D. H. Lawrence, "Fenimore Cooper's Leatherstocking Novels," in Studies in Classic American Literature (New York: Doubleday, 1953), 73.

65 Carl Sagan discusses Paul D. MacLean in The Dragons of Eden: Speculations on the Evolution of Human Intelligence (New York: Random House, 1977), 60.

George Slusser's paper on the R-Complex and cyberpunk was delivered at the Fiction 2000 conference at the University of Leeds, June 28-July 1, 1989. See, too, Tom Maddox's story, "Snake-Eyes," which enacts the image, Mirrorshades: The Cyberpunk Anthology, ed. Bruce Sterling (New York: Arbor House, 1986), 13-34.

66 Hamburg, 84.

67 André Breton, "Surrealism," in The Modern Tradition, ed. Richard Ellmann and Charles Feidelson, Jr. (New York: Oxford UP, 1965), 602, 605, 613.

68 Nicholas and Hanna, 17.