Neuromancer: Heist Movie / Creation Myth

2009 May 5
tags: , ,
by Zachary McCune

I have come back to William Gibson’s Neuromancer after reading Count Zero, Mona Lisa Overdrive and Johnny Mnemonic with the hope that I will find it new and altered, shifted by Gibson’s subsequent development of  The Sprawl and its denizens.

A few things leapt to mind:

Neuromancer the Cinematic Heist

Neuromancer is essentially a hollywood heist movie written as a computer caper. We have our fallen protagonist Case, who is characterized as despondent and somehow socially broken (he has no use for society, and society has no use for him). Like all classic cinematic criminals, Case has a history he doesn’t care to discuss directly. The symptoms of this suppressed history are all around us though, and with a little detective work we begin to piece it together. This guy has fallen from grace. He used to be something, but now he hasn’t got the money nor the connections nor the talent (as a result of the secret history and its repurcussions) to be something ever again. Then along comes a girl, a femme fatale for sure, who offers to redeem our protagonist. Behind her, we know as well as Case, is some powerful organization that sees him as a pawn. It’s a tought decision: become someone’s pawn and redeem yourself, or take the moral high road and remain an average joe- for Case, we know, its an easy decision. He takes it without thinking, confirming our understanding of him as someone who is both adventurous and somehow who does what is best for himself, which will be the prevailing mantra of the story: everyone is out for themselves.

neuromancer-brOur cinematic computer caper gains dimensions through its twists and turns. New characters are brought in, characters with exotic skills, and alongside them, exotic locations (Turkey, Freeside, Zion) further spice up the adventure. Yet there remains a hard, virtually impenetrable core around which the story revolves. Like the Villa Straylight itself (its central roomed locked with an antique key), there is something secret and vital at the center of this story, something grave, mysterious, and dangerous. Unable to ascertain the motivational details for his mission (who is behind this project) Case remains suspicious of the entire project. He (like the reader) is waiting for the revelation, but he’d prefer to figure out the conspiracy before it determines him expendable. So the stakes are high and the pressure is building. Suspense, mixed with intrigue and fascination propels the reader through the story.

Neuromancer vs. The Sprawl Trilogy

Looking at Neuromancer in this way reveals the separatedness of Neuromancer from the rest of the Sprawl Trilogy. Unlike Count Zero or Mona Lisa Overdrive, whic are interested in a cyberpunk cosmology, the overarching sense of cyberpunk reality experienced by each of its characters, Neuromancer is interested in a single individual, Case. Bound as the story is to the this single character, Gibson makes this story much more focused of a narrative than his subsequent novels. Like the difference between J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit when compared to the Lord of the Rings trilogy, I think it is fair to evaluate Neuromancer as a prequel. It may set up the next two episodes, but only in the sense that it introduces a setting and a spirit: the world of the Sprawl, Chiba, and the Orbital, and the hyper-capitalistic, computerized, technomystical spirit we find running through it.

Creation Myth

It may be best to evaluate Neuromancer as a cyberpunk creation myth. In this one text we have the narration of a major technological event- a rupture really- that will set up the narrative concerns of later Sprawl literature. It is here that matrix becomes a site for the post-human (3Jane Tessier-Ashpool) and it is here that artifical intelligence achieves liberation by meeting its other. It is fascinating but rather perfect that Gibson’s artificial intelligence (Wintermute and Neuromancer) are a split subject, szchizophrenic to some degree. Like a Cartesian binary, they are body and mind of AI divided from one another and thus unable to achieve their desired unity. Only through hacking “the head” can Case bring them back together, which reflects a metaphor of human anatomy- only the head of the human body is both mind and body.

Neuro + Mancer // Neu + Mancer

When case finally meets Neuromancer, he says that “personality is my medium” (250). His name Neuro + Mancer can also be read as Neu + Romancer, offering two possible ways for the reader to evaluate the clue Gibson has hidden in his name. On the one hand, Neuromancer is an amalgam of Neuro and Mancer, which blends the Greek “Neuro” for tendon, or body system, and the Greek “Mancer” for one who intreprets signs, or divines. This reading makes “Neuromancer” an intrpreter of the body system, or perhaps something intrepreted from parts of the body, as Neuromancer tells Case that he took Rivieria’s eyes, like he absorbed Linda (Case’s love) because the can survive in him. In the other reading of Neu(+)Romancer, we find the name to be a suggestion of “Neu” (New) and Romancer, suggesting more the plot of this novel than anything else. In this novel, our protagonist finds new love, and the world order itself finds two beings (’Mute and ‘Mancer) absorbed into a unity. Additionally, a “romance” is a European (via French) term for novels so perhaps this work of cyberpunk is the “New Novel.”

The Three Symbols of the Matrix

And 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 Rivieria’s. Linda still wore his jacket; she waved, as he passed. But the third figure, close behind her, arm across her shoulders, was himself.

This is the complete paragraph of the novel. In it we find the transition of this ‘creation myth’ to the larger cosmic questions Gibson’s later Sprawl installments will ponder. For instance, at this moment we might wonder about the status of these “figures” as viable living spirits. Already, Dix Flatline has told Case that “he doesn’t feel nothing” in his pseudo-life, and that’s what’s wrong with it. But here, with everyone looking so happy in their electronic lives, we might re-open the question: what’s wrong with an electronic afterlife?

We know that each of these figures is present because of Neuromancer. Case already knew that the first two individuals had been taken up by the AI into the digital heaven his technology provides. But I think we (as well as Case) are supposed to be shocked that Case sees himself as the third member of that party. After all, isn’t Case still alive?

It’s hard to tell, and that ambiguity is the point. Either the third symbol in this vision is some sort of metaphorical reflection of Case- perhaps his instrumentality in the binding of Wintermute and Neuromancer has made him an icon imprinted into the system? - or it demonstrates the possibility (embedded in the Film “The Matrix”) that Case is no londer “alive” but is just a part of the construct. This self-realization might be the reason why Molly suddenly leaves Case. It’s not that she’s sick of him, it’s that she’s not really there.

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