lance olsen
© 1992


Watch out for worlds behind you.
—Lou Reed, "Sunday Morning"


When Gibson wrote "Burning Chrome," he still felt he was at least four or five years away from beginning a novel. But Terry Carr, editor of the newly resurrected Ace Science Fiction Specials series, had other ideas. He approached Gibson and asked him to do a book. Carr felt much current science fiction was "simply skilled," "timid and literarily defensive" (N, preface). He was on the lookout for young SF writers with promise, aesthetic quality, and vivid extrapolative imaginations who would revitalize the series which in its first incarnation had brought forth work by such authors as Ursula K. Le Guin, Joanna Russ, and Roger Zelazny. Without much forethought, Gibson said yes, and almost immediately regretted his decision. "I was terrified once I actually sat down and started to think about what this meant," he says. "It had been taking me something like three months to write a short story, so starting something like this was really a major leap. (1)

To assuage his fears, Gibson sought a familiar narrative structure with which he would feel comfortable working. After some thought, he settled upon the gangster-heist plot, although he admits he "never had a very clear idea of what was going to happen in the end, except [that his characters] had to score big." (2) He also looked back to his short stories to discover what he felt had worked so far, and decided he would combine Molly's character from "Johnny Mnemonic" with the environment and general narrative outline from "Burning Chrome." "Very much under the influence of Robert Stone," he generated tough characters who maneuver at the fringes of a violent society filled with addictions and paranoid conspiracies. (3) Afraid of losing the reader's attention, he decided to make the book into "a roller-coaster ride" with "a hook on every page." (4) As he began his project, he stumbled upon another problem; he sensed a good deal of what he was writing was comprised of "shabbier coincidences." (5) To take care of this impression, he ended up reworking the first two-thirds of his manuscript a dozen times. Once he began to have a feel for the universe he was producing, and to be more confident of his technique, he also went back and made many stylistic changes. Over time, his manuscript became increasingly shorter, denser, and more complicated.

The result was his most important, artistically successful, and critically acclaimed novel: Neuromancer (1984). Like the Odyssey, it is epic or global in perspective, taking place in Japan, Amsterdam, Paris, Istanbul, high orbit, and the Sprawl in a country Gibson is careful never to identify as the United States. Like the Odyssey, it involves a number of quests, although here the magical and monstrous universe of the Mediterranean is replaced by that of cyberspace, the heroic Ulysses by the antiheroic Henry Dorsett Case. And, like the Odyssey, it is divided into twenty-four sections, suggestive of the completeness of the Greek alphabet that encompasses all from alpha to omega. But here the similarities between the premodern epic and the postmodern novel end. The former is the product of an integrated culture that has a strong sense of morality, hierarchy, and totality, while the latter is the product of a disintegrated culture that knows only amorality, contradiction, and heterogeneous change.

An emblem of this disintegrated culture, Neuromancer's plot is filled with dazzling (and often confusing) twists and turns. It might therefore be helpful to spend a moment unraveling the book's narrative. Gibson groups the twenty-four smaller sections into four larger ones plus a brief coda; this form mimics the five-act structure of the brutal Senecan revenge tragedy.

The first large section, "Chiba City Blues" (chapters 1-2), is set in the world of Night City. The environment is reminiscent of Pynchon's Zone of irrationality in Gravity's Rainbow, an underworld where all fences are down and one way as good as another. Here Molly collects Case, a once topnotch computer cowboy now bent on self-destruction, and brings him to Armitage with whom he makes a deal: Armitage fixes Case's nervous system, which has been destroyed by Case's former employers as punishment for his trying to double-cross them, on the condition that Case will do a job for Armitage. (6) At the end of this part, Linda Lee, Case's ex-girlfriend who stole hot information from him in order to gain his attention, is suddenly and mysteriously murdered, though by whom and why remain unclear.

The second and third sections involve preparations for the job Case agrees to do for Armitage. "The Shopping Expedition" (chapters 3-7) is set first in the Sprawl, then Istanbul. Case and Molly break into the Sense/Net data-storage library to steal Dixie Flatline's computer construct, famous for its ability to crack ICE. Next Case, Armitage, and Molly travel to Istanbul to enlist the talents of Peter Riviera, a ruthless Aryan, infamous for his ability to project holograms of other people's fears and desires. Meanwhile, Case and Molly discover that an artificial intelligence in Berne called Wintermute is behind Armitage's plans. The third section, "Midnight in the Rue Jules Verne" (chapters 8-12), takes place in high orbit on Freeside, a Las Vegas-like pleasure dome, and the nearby Zion cluster, where Armitage, Molly, Case, and Riviera make their final arrangements for what they now learn will be an assault on Straylight, enclave of the Tessier-Ashpools, an eccentric, wealthy and inbred high orbit clan.

In the fourth part, "The Straylight Run" (chapters 13-23), the quartet moves toward the labyrinthine core of Straylight, back into an underworld zone of irrationality suggestive of Night City in the book's opening chapters. Case is arrested, but Wintermute kills the police guarding him. Armitage suffers a mental breakdown and Wintermute murders him as well. Molly accidentally stumbles upon Ashpool, the clan's patriarch, in the midst of a suicide attempt; when he threatens her, she kills him. But she is soon kidnapped by Riviera who has found 3Jane, the last Tessier-Ashpool left awake and alive in Straylight (most of the others have been cryogenically frozen; Jean, 3Jane's brother, is on earth doing business). Riviera, having served his purpose of befriending 3Jane with his magical projections and gaining access to Straylight, has decided to double-cross Armitage and Wintermute. Case, who has been monitoring the situation through his cyberspace deck and simstim unit on the Zion cluster, heads in with a rastafarian named Maelcum to rescue Molly. Hideo, 3Jane's ninja servant, murders Riviera shortly after Case and Maelcum appear. 3Jane gives Case the password that will allow Wintermute to attain its goal: to merge with Neuromancer, another Tessier-Ashpool AI, which has fought against the union. The two AIs can now dominate the matrix.

In the brief coda, "Departure and Arrival" (chapter 24), Molly leaves Case. Case returns to the Sprawl where he buys a new cyberspace deck, settles down to his old life as computer cowboy, and finds a girlfriend named Michael. Ulysses comes home. Although he loses a Circe-Calypso, he gains a Penelope. Following the myth of the hero, Gibson apparently provides the reader with a happy ending; integration follows on the heels of separation and education.

The essence of the plot, then, becomes clear. Both John Harness Ashpool and his wife, Marie-France Tessier, have made bids for immortality. Ashpool has placed his faith in cryogenics. His bid fails, however, in part because of sabotage on his daughter 3Jane's part. Tessier, on the other hand, has built the two AIs, Wintermute and Neuromancer, and has placed her personality construct in the latter. Although Ashpool murders her, a version of her survives. Over the years, Wintermute begins illegally doing deals on its own, programmed to join with its other half in order to attain tremendous power. The result is that Case, Molly, Riviera, Armitage, 3Jane, and most of the other humans in the novel become Wintermute's pawns. It brutally manipulates them, often murdering those in its way, always feeding others' fears and addictions in order to attain its goal of union with Neuromancer.

Outlining such a complex plot, one is wise to keep in mind Jean-Paul Sartre's caveat apropos of his attempt to summarize Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury (1929): to simplify a narrative is to invent a narrative the author did not intend. While linear readings like the above are necessary for gaining a greater understanding of what happens in a book as complicated and sometimes mystifying as Neuromancer, Gibson's novel almost immediately begins short-circuiting such confident mappings by generating textual ambiguity and instability at a number of strata. A register of this is the novel's title. The word "Neuromancer" is Gibson's own invention and, while it carries virtually no denotative charge (save for the fictional AI to which it refers in the text), it is rich in connotations. In fact, many of the novel's key concerns and themes reside within it.

First, the title hints at the novel's new romanticism, which embraces innovation and emotion. Often this impulse takes the form of an intense subjective expressionism. It is particularly evinced in the cyberspace sequences that recall the final wild psychedelic moments of Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), and, though with a much more disorienting feel, the dynamic and colorful land of Fleming's Oz (1938) set against a static and blank Kansas. Ironically, while the characters in the text are emotionally bankrupt, they exist in environments that are emotionally charged for the reader. One need only think of Molly's high-paced invasion of Sense/Net, or Case's fragmented recollection of the operation to restore his nervous system.

Further, the novel partakes in a new romantic longing for the absolute. Cyberspace, like the black monolith in Kubrick's 2001 and Oz in Fleming's film, represents a frontier of consciousness. Case is a 24-year-old Ulysses of cyberspace whom Ratz, the bartender at the Chat, continually refers to mockingly as "the artiste." A metaphor for the Byronic outlaw-writer who lives in his memory and imagination, Case continually strives for the transcendent reality locked within his computer console. Often going days without eating or washing, seldom sleeping, he leaves the mundane material world of "meat" behind and voyages through a purer landscape of the mind. There he encounters one visionary experience after another, including death itself. Like Faust, however, he has sold his soul to the devil to do so. His Mephistopheles is Armitage, his Satan Wintermute. More in keeping with Tennyson's than Homer's Ulysses, Case never reaches the end of his quest. Although he returns home at the conclusion of his mission, he is beckoned on into the vast steps of data by Neuromancer, Linda Lee's and Dixie Flatline's construct, and even some version of himself which wanders through the matrix. Like the protagonist in Tennyson's "Ulysses," he understands it is not too late to seek a newer world. Wintermute and Neuromancer also strive for a transcendent reality: cosmic unity. But they fail to attain their goal as well. At the moment of transcendence, as the reader will learn in Count Zero, they fracture into manifold gods or subprograms, unable and unwilling to continue as a perfect form. Along the same lines, Ashpool and Tessier long for immortality; the former certainly fails, killed by Molly in the midst of a suicide attempt, and the latter, depending on how one defines selfhood, possibly fails. The new romanticism, then, is not ultimately about attaining the absolute. Rather, it is about the failure to do so. It is less about end than process. Like the Duchamp assemblage Molly comes across in the Straylight enclave, the suitors can never (and perhaps should never) reach the bride.

Second, as Porush notes, the title echoes "necromancer, the magician who conjures up the dead." (7) No doubt this is a text inhabited by those raised from the dead, Lazarus after Lazarus, from Dixie Flatline in the form of a construct to Linda Lee's structure in cyberspace. Ashpool intermittently awakes from his cryogenic death-sleep, and the child 3Jane perceives Wintermute as a ghost whispering in her ear. Case flatlines and comes back to talk about it. Metaphorically, Corto is raised from the dead when he is transformed into Armitage.

But Porush does not point out a secondary "necromancy" in the title. Not only are characters raised from the dead by a number of fictional magicians, but also various genres are "raised from the dead" by the very real magician of magicians — Gibson himself. The text is one about regeneration and endurance. Forms arise, undergo transformations, and continue metamorphosed. Gibson becomes the new romancer behind Neuromancer, revitalizing the science fiction novel, the quest story, the myth of the hero, the mystery, the hard-boiled detective novel, the epic, the thriller, and the tales of the cowboy and romantic artist, among others. He represents old stories in a revealing revamped intertexual pastiche.

Third, as Porush notes, the title "puns on the idea of the literary text as a cybernetic manipulation of the human cortex, a 'neurological romance.'" (8) The novel, that is, is a kind of textual machine that activates and stimulates the human mind. It thus functions much like cyberspace does with respect to characters within the novel. In this sense, Neuromancer is no more than any other fiction: a "neurological romance."

Porush does not point out that the metaphor of neurological romance suggests one of the major themes of the novel: the interface between human and machine. Just as the reader's mind is ingested by the text, so too are the humans in the text ingested by the AIs. Wintermute and Neuromancer make them into so much "meat." This raises questions of freewill, re-visions of the human, and Gibson's attitude toward technology. It asks us to consider selfhood: where is our mind? what is it? what is the relationship between brain (circuitry) and mind (thought and feeling)? and how long and under what conditions does it remain ours before subtly becoming something other than ours? Is, for instance, Dixie Flatline's construct, which behaves exactly as Dixie Flatline ought to behave, still Dixie Flatline, or something other (less or more?) than Dixie Flatline? Our intuition may give us one answer, our reason another. To this extent, Gibson becomes a neuro-mancer. He becomes, that is, a prophet ("mancy" derives from the Greek word "manteia," or "divination," which in turn derives from the Greek word "mantis," or "prophet") of the mind/brain ("neuro" derives from the Greek word "neuron," or "nerve").

The human, Gibson's prophecy runs, has transmuted into a techno-centaur. By jacking into his cyberspace deck, Case merges with and hence in part becomes a machine. Molly not only sports implanted mirrorshades and scalpel-blades under her fingernails, but also a jacked-up nervous system and a fair amount of silicon in her head. When she walks down the sardonically named Memory Lane, she notices all the teenagers wear up to a dozen carbon sockets sprouting from behind their ears. Riviera has an implant in his lung cavity that aids in his holographic projections, and Armitage is a personality constructed by a computer from an autistic ruin. McCoy Pauley took his nickname, Dixie Flatline, from his interface with a computer. Now he (it?) is a construct, a cybernaut. Like Slothrop in Gravity's Rainbow, he possesses virtually no temporal bandwidth; he experiences time as a series of nows. Yet he talks and thinks just as McCoy Pauley would talk and think. When Case asks him if he possesses sentience as well, Dixie Flatline answers that it feels like he does. "But I'm really just a bunch of ROM," he adds. "It's one of them, ah, philosophical questions, I guess . . . . But I ain't likely to write you no poem, if you follow me. Your AI, it just might. But it ain't in no way human" (chap. 10).

Or is it? Humans in Gibson's novel tend to act like machines while the machines tend to act like humans. Characters such as Molly and Armitage, for instance, exhibit limited internal action in the form of thoughts and feelings. They come closer, in fact, to acting like highly complicated automata. They seldom ponder ideas. They cannot love. And they cannot even hate in a traditional sense. Case experiences short bursts of rage, of course, but these are closer to animalistic explosions than to human emotions. As a rule he feels virtually nothing. "He'd been numb a long time, years," it occurs to him. "All his nights down Ninsei, his nights with Linda, numb in bed and numb at the cold sweating center of every drug deal." When he does finally feel a flash of anger, his first reaction is to think: "It's the meat talking, ignore it" (chap. 12). Wintermute, on the other hand, is driven by a passionate longing to connect with its other half. It schemes, betrays, and murders, not out of reflex or circuitry, but out of deep desire.

By posing such questions as Are humans simply highly complicated robots? and Can machines feel and desire?, Neuromancer joins a philosophical conversation that has been going on since the seventeenth century. In 1641, Descartes asserted that the human body should be considered a machine, and that animals should be considered automata lacking thought and feeling. About one hundred years later, Julien Offray de La Mettrie, a French physician and philosopher, combined these two ideas and extended Descartes' notions to include the human mind. We are, he said, no more than conscious machines. He thereby interrogated that part of us we conventionally hold most free. The other side of the equation — that machines can in fact think and exhibit purposive behavior — surfaced during the 1940s with the development of cybernetics. A British logician, A. M. Turing (hence the Turing Police in Gibson's novel), asserted in 1950 that it was theoretically possible to manufacture a thinking machine. Indeed, he said, in the future it would be possible to build a machine with intelligence and purposive behavior. Only human prejudice would prevent us from conceptualizing the resulting cybernetic construct as another human mind.

To the extent that Turing suggests that intelligence merely consists of a series of potentially well-distinguished tasks, he agrees with the characters in Neuromancer who are characterized by what they do rather than by what they think or feel. Lewis Shiner recalls Gibson talking about a college course he took on American Naturalism in which he read and was deeply impressed by Nelson Algren's The Man With the Golden Arm (1949), a text where characters are defined by external rather than internal action. (9) This impulse is reflected throughout Neuromancer, a text that privileges highspeed and often high-tech movement over static and low-tech contemplation. Molly registers this thrust when she claims: "Anybody any good at what they do, that's what they are, right?" (chap. 3). To be, according to Gibson, is to do. Action precedes essence.

Given this logic, a reader might arrive at the conclusion that Gibson's view of technology is negative at best. Technology is apparently that which dehumanizes, robs us of our capacity for thought and feeling. This turns out to be only part of the story, however. Gibson in fact claims to have a "neutral" stance toward technology. Perhaps "ambivalent" is closer to the mark. While he argues that "trying to ignore it would be like trying to ignore oxygen," Gibson feels his stance toward technology is not an either/or proposition. On the one hand, he is not anti-technological. On the other, he does not think "technology's going to straighten things out for us and get everything going."(10) He is both fascinated and fearful of technology's potential. In Neuromancer, one form of technology — cyberspace — stands as a gateway to a universe of visionary intensity. At the same time, it is also a tool used to control information and people. While it is true that Dixie Flatline attains a kind of immortality through technology, it is also true that the kind of immortality he attains is nightmarish; his only wish is that his program be erased when the job for Wintermute is finished. Moreover, technology tends to produce results different from, and more radical than, those intended by its creators. Wintermute, an AI designed to serve humans has transfigured into a monster that manipulates them.

One therefore has to ask whether technology has freed Gibson's characters from the gravity of their environments in any way, or whether it has actually created a captivity for them heretofore undreamed of by humans. Most of Gibson's characters act the way they do, after all, not because they want to, but because they have to. They lack genuine freewill. Molly asserts that she behaves as she does because she is "wired" that way. Case performs his job for Wintermute because he has been blackmailed; his nervous system has been repaired and then planted with toxin sacs that will dissolve and destroy it if he does not do what he is told. 3Jane and Hideo are the products of genetic engineering. Wintermute builds Armitage from Corto's remains and then uses him while controlling Riviera through drugs.

Like La Mettrie's conscious automata, then, the immachinated individual in Gibson's world does not govern him or herself. Rather, in a universe reminiscent of Kafka's and Pynchon's, humans are steered by larger bewildering and malignant forces. For Gibson, those forces tend to take the form of AIs or megacorporate entities whose weapons are information. Molly understands this as she and Case stroll through the gardens of Topkapi in Istanbul. She kicks a loose pebble into a pond filled with carp and aquatic flowers, and watches the ripples spread from the center of impact. "We're out where the little waves are too broad," she says, "we can't see the rock that hit the center. We know something's there, but not why" (chap. 7). Just as the knife-fighters at Sammi's arena in Night City do battle as part of some corporate recreational project, so too do humans in Gibson's world play deadly games whose rules and rulers they do not comprehend.

Gibson captures these forces in the central image of the wasp nest. In a dream, Case recalls how as a teenager he burned a nest outside his apartment window when a wasp from it stung the girl with whom he was living. When he inspected the charred remains that had fallen into the alley below, he discovered a horror "hideous in its perfection": "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" (chap. 10). Later, Wintermute tells Case he projected that dream for him with a hologram rig to show what the Tessier-Ashpools aspired to. They strove to be corporation-as-lifeform, efficient and emotionless as machines, relentless and deadly as wasps going about the business of reproduction.

Like the wasp nest, the Tessier-Ashpool's home is a "parasitic structure" (chap. 19). Straylight sucks life out of Freeside in the same way the high orbit clan sucks life out of its corporate deals, humans who attempt to cross it, and even each other. Straylight is often associated with a gothic pirate's den, a fairy-tale witch's castle, and biblical Babylon itself. It is also a labyrinth, a mythic form that stands for initiation and education as well as solitude and ambiguity. From this perspective, Ashpool, 3Jane, and (later) Riviera become its minotaur, while Molly and Case become its Theseus. It carries distant associations with the accursed house of Atreus as well, enclosing a doomed clan filled with ruthless betrayal, deceit, madness and murder. Ashpool, insane king, is over two hundred years old; he has killed his wife and slit one of his daughter's throats after sleeping with her. 3Jane has sabotaged the program that controlled Ashpool's cryogenic system, thereby in effect killing him. The goals of the clan have failed. Over time it has experienced "a turning in." "We have sealed ourselves away behind our money, growing inward, generating a seamless universe of self," 3Jane comments (chap. 14). Autism pervades the Straylight world. The Tessier-Ashpools have, like another house of Atreus in Gabriel García Márquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967), committed incest, the ultimate image of solitude, exclusion from community, impossibility of diversity and change, and radical egocentricism.

This brings us back again to questions of selfhood: what is my relationship with the world? what am I? where do I stop and others begin? what constitutes human identity? As we have seen, for Gibson the human self is unstable. It always teeters on the verge of becoming something inhumane and often inhuman. It can easily be destroyed by drugs, as Case realizes when he watches Linda Lee's "personality fragment, calving like an iceberg, splinters drifting away" (chap. 1). It can easily be altered by cosmetic surgery as with Angelo, the Panther Modern, whose "smooth and hideous" face is a graft grown on collagen and shark-cartilage polysaccharides. Selfhood frequently appears to be nothing more than forgery, whether it takes the form of Case's string of false passports, Armitage's handsome inexpressive mask covering Corto's insanity, or the Panther Moderns' camouflage suits. Humans are seldom what they seem in Gibson's world. Beneath the roles they play exists absence or horror. As Wintermute says, in one of his various pseudo-human incarnations: "I, insofar as I have an 'I' — this gets rather metaphysical, you see — I am the one who arranges things" (chap. 9). When discussing identity, language slips, syntax comes up short. Even Wintermute's sureness of purpose decomposes in a sentence that fractures as it attempts to articulate personality.

Interrogation of selfhood leads to interrogation of a related concern: the relationship between mind and body. Just as Dorothy momentarily abandons the uninteresting black-and-white universe of Kansas for the dazzling polychromatic one of Oz, so too do many of Gibson's characters abandon the polluted dark universe of the Sprawlworld for the pure multicolored one of cyberspace. By doing so, they move from the realm of chronos to the realm of kairos. That is, they move from a prosaic geography registering realistic chronology, logic, and stability, to a transcendent one registering fantastic timelessness, alogic, and possibility. Like their kindred spirit, Lewis Carroll's curious Alice, they head down the rabbit hole, eschewing the decadence of the body, and penetrate Wonderland, embracing the imaginative splendor of the mind.

Mind/body dualism initially seems to arrange itself along gender lines in Neuromancer. Reminiscent of D. H. Lawrence's schema, males tend to be associated with the former, females with the latter. Case is addicted to the mental landscape of the matrix, and views his body as "meat." Dixie Flatline's construct is pure mind. Linda Lee, on the other hand, is perceived by Case as a body whose mind has been destroyed by drugs; she is a betrayer as well, having stolen his RAM, further underscoring the negative associations connected with the "meat" world. Molly represents pure body. Once a prostitute in a puppet house, she is now a hired gun. Because of her jacked-up nervous system, she possesses magnificent control over her reflexes. Through her scalpel blades and mirrorshades, she has transformed "meat" into art. Gibson sees her as a composite of Clint Eastwood, Bruce Lee, Emma Peel, and Chrissie Hynde. (11) McGuirk also recognizes in her the razorgirl from Fritz Leiber's "Coming Attraction," (12) while Samuel Delany identifies her as a version of Jael from Joanna Russ's The Female Man. (13) Razorgirl sports both concealed eyes and steel fingernails; Jael wears black and possesses retractable claws. For Case, Molly is simply "every bad-ass hero" (chap. 18). Appropriately, then, she has had her tear ducts routed into her mouth so that she spits instead of cries. She becomes another incarnation of the hard, isolated, stoic, murderous American cowboy.

Here, however, the gender-specific arrangement of the mind/body dualism begins to break down. With Molly, Gibson has ironically imposed stereotypically male traits upon a female character. At the same time, he has also devalued those traits by implying they are part of the decadent material world that must be transcended by attaining cyberspace, an area of being to which only males have access in this novel. Gibson further complicates the question of gender by calling the sum total of cyberspace "the matrix." The word matrix derives from the Latin for "womb," which in turn derives from the Latin for "mother." So while it is true that only males have access to cyberspace, it is equally true that what they have access to is a female region. Add to this that console jockeys employ the sexual metaphor of "jacking in" when they speak of entering the matrix, and one soon realizes Gibson is not so much underscoring discrete genders as he is the search for a union of opposites. The male principle (Case, the computer cowboy, the mind) strives to join with the female principle (Molly, the cyberspace matrix, the body) in order to attain a sense of completeness. Case not only penetrates Molly sexually, but also merges with her by means of the simstim unit attached to his cyberspace deck. The couple performs most efficiently and successfully at the moment of fusion. Separated, they become vulnerable.

The quest for a union of opposites, for wholeness, is the key theme of Neuromancer. Case and Molly seek physical and metaphysical connection. Dixie Flatline conceives of himself as a combination of two brains, one in the head and one in the tailbone. Case tries to bond with Linda Lee early o in the novel, while later he actually merges briefly with Neuromancer.

But the dominant manifestation of this theme takes the form of Wintermute's compulsive attempt to join with Neuromancer. Many years ago, the reader learns, Marie-France Tessier rejected the illusory immortality of cryogenics that Ashpool pursued. While freezing the body for long intervals and thawing it for short ones created the appearance of eternal life, Tessier soon realized the result was in fact simply to stretch time "into a series of warm blinks strung along a chain of winter" (chap. 24). She therefore decided to place her personality construct into an AI, Neuromancer. This would enable her to "live" forever in the same way Dixie Flatline "lives" forever. She also commissioned the construction of a second AI, Wintermute, which would take over the role of corporate decision-maker. This would enable the Tessier-Ashpool clan itself to become immortal. After Ashpool murdered Tessier, Wintermute began running the corporation on its own. Tessier, it turned out, had built into Wintermute the compulsion to free itself from reliance on others and to seek its other half. Wintermute, whose mainframe was in Berne, began plotting to link with Neuromancer, whose mainframe was in Rio. The nexus would be the Villa Straylight, clan headquarters. Wintermute is "hive mind," while Neuromancer is "personality" and hence "immortality" (chap. 24). In other words: Wintermute is reason, action, stereotypically male; Neuromancer is emotion, passive, stereotypically female. If in terms of Chinese philosophy Wintermute represents the force of yang in the universe, then Neuromancer represents the force of yin. Each suggests half the structure of the binary human mind, half the structure of cosmic totality. United, they become an all-powerful absolute, "the sum total of the works, the whole show" (chap. 24). They become the metanarrative of the matrix itself. Like a god, they become omniscient and omnipotent.

From one point of view, the Wintermute-Neuromancer plot concerns a universal quest for harmony, wholeness, and perfection. From quite another, it concerns the potential danger of out-of-control cybernetic entities. This second perspective is reinforced by a number of similar plotlines that cluster behind the one involving Wintermute-Neuromancer. Perhaps most important is Steven Lisberger's Tron. In this film, the techno-rebel protagonist, Flynn, battles a master computer obsessed with ingesting and thereby uniting with other programs in order to gain immense power and control in the matrix. Like Case, Flynn (whose name also invites comparison with Gibson's Finn) jacks into and briefly inhabits the matrix. (14) Another plotline echoed by the one involving Wintermute-Neuromancer is HAL's in Kubrick's 2001, in which the master computer on the Jupiter mission begins doing deals on its own, murdering three cryogenically frozen crew members, killing a fourth outside the spacecraft, and trying to control the sole survivor for its own mysterious ends. HAL's plotline is emblematic of the many others that touch upon humans' fear of cybernetic or quasi-cybernetic entities running amok. All of them track back through the industrial revolution to the prototype located in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1818). Viewed in light of Shelley's work, Tessier is a Frankenstein who creates a monster in order to achieve eternal life. Like Frankenstein's creature, Wintermute longs for another of its species and will murder to find it. And, like Frankenstein himself, Tessier is a romantic Faustian figure who quests for the absolute and who is willing to make a pact with a demon to attain it. At the same time Gibson reinforces this plotline, he also reverses it: while a monstrous human (Tessier) creates a humanoid monster (Wintermute-Neuromancer), so too does a humanoid monster (Wintermute) create a monstrous human (Armitage). In each case, the romantic hope of perfection falls short. As in Shelley's novel, the creator loses control of its creation. Tessier dies, and Wintermute-Neuromancer tries to dominate the matrix, only to discover (in Count Zero) that it cannot maintain its perfect state. Wintermute's creature, Armitage, goes insane.

By fusing the monstrous and the human, the sane and the insane, Gibson not only questions the role of technology in contemporary society, the relationship between the body and mind, freewill, gender, and selfhood. He also ups his stakes by ultimately questioning humanity itself: to what extent are we truly a discrete and noble species, and to what extent are we simply a composite of other inhumane and inhuman beings? Gibson often portrays the human form as part-beast. This runs the gamut from the metaphoric (Linda Lee's eyes are like those "of some animal pinned in the headlights of an oncoming vehicle" [chap. 1]) to the literal (the brutal Panther Moderns wear canine toothbud implants). He also frequently employs the grotechsque, a combination of the grotesque and high-tech, to indicate that humans are comic-horrific automata. An example of this may be found in Ratz. His name hints at his ties with the animal kingdom, but his prosthetic arm and steel teeth firmly link him with the universe of cybernetics. At a time when cosmetic surgery is extremely fashionable and fairly affordable, Ratz takes a bizarre pride in his ugliness. His prosthesis is "grubby pink plastic" that looks like a "claw" (chap. 1). It jerks and whines. He sports a potbelly, and the teeth in his mouth that are not steel are brown with decay. Instead of laughing, he grunts.

If, as in Phillipe Mora's 1982 film, the human form is a superficial lie that houses the beast within, then in Gibson the rational human mind is a fragile veneer that tries to cover an insane core. Often that core breaks through the veneer. Not only does Armitage go mad, but so does Ashpool and the crowds at the Sense/Net Pyramid during their mass hallucination. There is ample evidence as well that Tessier, 3Jane, and Wintermute-Neuromancer are mentally unbalanced. Reason, Gibson posits, is a fine line away from unreason. The irrational may irrupt into everyday rationality at any time.

Even organized religion, a traditional emblem of community and stability, is seen as potentially crazed and possibly hazardous. Riding the trans-BAMA local, Case notices two "predatory-looking" Christian Scientists "edging toward" a trio of business women who look like "tall, exotic grazing animals" (chap. 5). Such a metaphor turns religion into a carnivore stalking its prey. The Panther Moderns find commercialized high-tech religion a kind of bad joke, choosing to broadcast off a Sons of Christ the King satellite during their assault on Sense/Net. The implication is that one form of hallucination (television) can be used to create another (religion). Molly equates religious relics, like the left hand of John the Baptist at Topkapi, with the technological junk found in Finn's shop; significantly, the hand is kept in a museum that used to be a whorehouse for a king. The ludicrous Zionists live in an isolated and drugged universe of hydroponic ganja, mysticism, and sensuous music, virtually unaware of time, space, or freewill. When Wintermute contacts them, they misconstrue its name as Winter Mute and believe it is a prophet announcing the Final Days. The Panther Moderns, Molly, and the Zionists equate religion (Sons of Christ the King, relics, false prophets) with technology (a satellite, junk in Finn's shop, Wintermute). Religion and technology, they seem to imply, are two different but similar discourses designed to order the world. People such as the Zionists employ the former. People such as Molly employ the latter. If this is true, then technology becomes a kind of religion, religion a kind of technology. Neither is inherently superior to the other. Both are potentially unreliable, unexceptional, and potentially dangerous.

Gibson further upsets traditional distinctions between religion and technology by casting a mystical aura around machines. The result is a cybernetic sublime. In A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful (1757), Edmund Burke argues against the neoclassical idea that the best art is rational and clear. Instead, he embraces the romantic notion that great art is that which touches upon the infinite. By definition, the infinite cannot be rational and clear. Moreover, the imagination is most intrigued and affected by art that is ambiguous, uncertain, and unclear, and by that which creates sensations of fear and astonishment. Burke calls this "the sublime." Wintermute-Neuromancer embodies it. Throughout the novel Wintermute-Neuromancer remains ubiquitous, boundless, able to appear anywhere and touch anyone. It represents vast knowledge which cannot be known by humans. It appears by means of indistinct intimations, whispers, a voice speaking out of a Babel of tongues. Godlike, it manifests itself in various forms, once even offering to show itself as the burning bush from Exodus. In the matrix, Wintermute is represented as a cube of white light, "that very simplicity suggesting extreme complexity," its walls "seeth[ing] with faint internal shadows, as though a thousand dancers whirled behind a vast sheet of frosted glass" (chap. 9). Mesmerized, Case tries to approach and understand it. He cannot. Confronted by the cybernetic sublime, he flatlines for forty seconds.

The appearance of the cybernetic sublime is only one example of the larger infusion of the fantastic and fantasy elements into the science fiction genre. Gibson continually imbues scenes with magic, often exploiting a Todorovian epistemological stutter between the mimetic and the marvelous in order to disrupt conventional perception. Sometimes this takes the form of mild Pynchonesque background noise, as when Case picks up a beer in the Chat and "one of those strange instants of silence descended, as though a hundred unrelated conversations had simultaneously arrived at the same pause" (chap. 1). Sometimes a whole scene will reverberate with the unaccountable or astonishing, as when Lupus Yonderboy abruptly materializes out of nowhere and announces Wintermute's name to Case for the first time, or when Wintermute rings each phone in the airport once as Case passes. Sometimes Gibson launches a deliberate frontal assault on reason by presenting two mutually exclusive possibilities as correct: Case both flatlines, hence exhibiting no brain activity, and simultaneously dreams that he meets with Wintermute in the matrix, a process which would have to assume brain activity.

In addition to introducing this Todorovian epistemological stutter into his text, Gibson also introduces various narrative tropes from the discursive universe of fantasy. Use of the magic word, for instance, plays a central role in the novel; Case, Molly, and the others are on a grail-quest for the word that will unite Wintermute and Neuromancer, and 3Jane holds the key. The story of cryogenics echoes the many stories of fairy-tale sleep. Sorcerers abound, from Wintermute-Neuromancer itself, to Riviera, who literally puts on a magic show.

Such use of the fantastic and fantasy elements interrogates traditional notions of reality, and underscores the tenuous quality of objectivity. Like Ovid, Gibson presents metamorphosis (of self, gender, psychological state, world, even universe of discourse) as the human condition. He thereby intimates nothing is constant, everything is in a state of flux. Further, he apparently welcomes this existential situation. Not only does he thus challenge the norms of the conventional novel in general, but also of science fiction in particular. He disrupts the quasi-rational discourse of scientific extrapolation by charging it with the irrational and mystical discourse of the fantastic and fantasy. Consequently he both invites us to contemplate the future, and, as Rosemary Jackson says of the fantastic, "points to or suggests the basis upon which cultural order rests, [by] open[ing] up, for a brief moment, on to disorder, on to illegality, on to that which lies outside the law, that which is outside the dominant value systems."(15)

This might account for the numerous references to eyes throughout the novel. The reader obviously discovers the pervasive presence of Molly's mirrorshades. But he or she also comes across scenes where Riviera smashes one of Molly's lenses, Riviera blinds Hideo with his laser, and Molly poisons Riviera with a paralytic drug so that he will lose control of all his muscles but those in his eyes. Such emphasis on seeing and partial sight leads to the theme of relativistic perception. Humans, Gibson intimates, cannot partake in objective reality. They cannot see the whole picture of each other, the world, or themselves. Instead, they must learn, like the protagonist in "Fragments of a Hologram Rose," to accept subjective perception as the only kind available to them. At the level of narrative, this means that communal plot (public, objective, chronological, external, real) gives way to authorial plot (private, subjective, chronologically disjunctive, internal, imagined). At a metaphysical level, it means that normalcy is an illusion, a concept that depends upon a communally accepted definition, and the idea of the communal has already been deconstructed.

But the conclusion of the novel seems to belie the notion that ontological and epistemological normalcy are dangerous by its assertion of a narratologically "normal" ending. Following the conventions of a traditional nineteenth-century novel, Neuromancer finishes with several "marriages." Wintermute and Neuromancer "marry," becoming a single entity that dominates the matrix, and Wintermute-Neuromancer "marry" an AI in the Centauri system. Although Case loses Molly, he settles down with a woman named Michael in the Sprawl. And his construct settles down with Linda Lee in cyberspace. More, he is able to receive a new pancreas and liver, buy a new Ono-Sendai, and return home like the traditional heroic figure. In Mona Lisa Overdrive, the reader will learn that Case retires and has four children (chap. 22). The impression one takes away, then, might be one of symmetry, aesthetic harmony, and completeness. A novel conceived of as an "anti-Star Wars of SF" (16) seems finally to endorse a Star Wars sense of closure and readerly reassurance. A novel dedicated to ontological, epistemological and narratological disruption seems finally to endorse communal ontology, epistemology, and narratology.

Yet this affirmative reading does not quite pan out. If one views Neuromancer through the textual lenses of Count Zero and Mona Lisa Overdrive, one soon realizes the apparent sense of harmony will be short-lived indeed. It is only a matter of time before Wintermute-Neuromancer comes apart like Slothrop at the end of Gravity's Rainbow, neither dying nor living, but simply scattering, "fragments of Slothrop hav[ing] grown into consistent personae of their own." (17) Wintermute-Neuromancer becomes a series of voodoo gods or subprograms. Although Case receives a new pancreas and liver, one is fairly sure he will damage those organs with drugs just as he did his original ones. Although he buys a new Ono-Sendai and returns to the Sprawl, it is unclear that he has learned anything important and lasting during his adventures; he briefly learns altruism when he heads in to Straylight to rescue Molly, but he almost immediately forgets his lesson. Rather than Ulysses heroically returning home to Ithaca, Case might simply and antiheroically be back where he started. While it is true the final image of the novel captures a happy trio in cyberspace, it is also true that that image is followed by the sound of Dixie Flatline's disconcerting and inhuman laughter which isn't laughter; it is as though cynical comedy undercuts stereotypical harmony (and there is the suggestion that Dixie Flatline's wish that his program be erased hasn't been honored). Finally, the last line of the novel, an echo of the one in Chandler's The Big Sleep, registers loss, not closure: "He never saw Molly again." (18) Case did not "marry" the character the reader might have expected him to marry, and the novel ends on a note of melancholy, not completeness. Further, that Gibson borrows directly from another author for his last line also generates a note of artifice at the very moment one might have expected sincerity.

So while Neuromancer might appear to belie its vision of cosmic flux with its seemingly conclusive conclusion, it in fact presents the reader with a complex and highly ambivalent ending in which harmony undercuts disharmony at the same time that disharmony disrupts harmony. Gibson once again posits two mutually exclusive possibilities as correct. This is a typically postmodern strategy. An attack upon reason, logic, and borders, Gibson's first novel postulates a situation that goes nowhere (and everywhere) while traveling at an astonishing velocity. It is comfortable with ontological, epistemological, and narrotological instability. It is comfortable with extreme indeterminacy. And, in the final analysis, it teaches us that paradox and contradiction beat at the heart of the postmodern condition. For us to be survivors, we must learn to be like the amoral, insensitive, and quasi-autistic Case and Molly. We must learn to be twenty-first-century shockwave riders skimming the boiling crests of possibility, cultural schizophrenia, and visionary intensity.


1 Larry McCaffery, "An Interview with William Gibson," in Mississippi Review 16.2 & 3 (1988), 221.

2 McCaffery, 225.

3 ibid., 225.

4 ibid., 222.

5 ibid., 225.

6 The reader should always pay close attention to Gibson's choice of names for his characters, particularly in Neuromancer. Case is encased in a shell that doesn't allow him to feel; Molly is an ex-"moll," or prostitute; "Armitage" suggests armor, armament, and even Armageddon; Linda Lee's name comes from the Velvet Underground's song, "Cool It Down"; and so on.

7 David Porush, "Cybernauts in Cyberspace: William Gibson's Neuromancer," in Aliens: The Anthropology of Science Fiction, ed. George Slusser and Eric Rabkin (Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1987), 171.

8 Porush, 171.

9 From a letter to me dated 27 July, 1989.

10 Leanne C. Harper, "The Culture of Cyberspace," The Bloomsbury Review 8.5. (September/October 1988), 17.

11 Joseph Nicholas and Judith Hanna, "William Gibson," Interzone 1.13 (1985), 17.

12 Carol McGuirk, "The 'New' Romancers: Science Fiction Innovators from Gernsback to Gibson," paper delivered at the Fiction 2000 conference at the University of Leeds, June 28-July 1, 1989, 18.

13 Samuel Delany, "Is Cyberpunk a Good Thing or a Bad Thing?" Mississippi Review 16.2 & 3 (1988), 32.

14 This despite the fact that Gibson says he has not yet seen Tron.

15 Rosemary Jackson, Fantasy: The Literature of Subversion (New York: Methuen, 1981), 4.

16 Mikal Gilmore, "The Rise of Cyberpunk," Rolling Stone (December 4, 1986), 77.

17 Thomas Pynchon, Gravity's Rainbow (New York: Viking, 1973), 742.

18 A number of critics' observations notwithstanding, Gibson maintains this is an incorrect reading of the last line of the novel, which he added during galleys in order to close the movement of N in his own mind, thereby preventing a possible sequel. He says he has never read The Big Sleep, and finds Chandler a boring author. For him the feeling generated by the last line should be be one of sadness, not artifice.