Cultural Gutter: Neuromancin’ with Myself
This article originally appeared on the Cultural Gutter, May 12, 2016.
Back in the 1990s, I did a fanzine that was about as successful as I could hope for given my lack of financial resources. With nowhere to print it but an all-night copy shop manned by a guy named Fred the Bastard, I couldn’t really achieve any impressive sort of circulation. A couple hundred though. Not bad at the time, at least by my standards. I didn’t get much free stuff to review. Occasionally, something would trickle in and my PO Box would surprise me with something besides another packet of Paul Weinman poetry. Once it was an envelope full of someone’s hair — which was still more welcome than more Paul Weinman poetry. And once, it was a promotional kit for the latest Billy Idol album: a bizarre experiment called Cyberpunk.
The early 1990s was also when I read Neuromancer. I read it enthusiastically, devoured every word, and fell in love not so much with the story but with William Gibson’s proficiency with the written word. With his style. Above all, with his ability to articulately describe sensations and scenes in ways no one had ever thought of and yet made perfect sense. And yet, despite my unbridled passion for the book, when I started talking about it to someone a little while back, I discovered that all I had were vague impressions. Besides the names of a couple characters and a thing about space Rastafarians, I remembered nothing about the book. I began to reflect on how much there was in my life that I’d read or watched but failed to remember or simply let slip through the cracks in my mind to become lost somewhere amid the winding crevasses of twisted synaptic gaps. I realized there was a whole body of work that was of great importance to me but that I could not remember in the slightest. I read each of these books at an impressionable period in a person’s life: the first year of college. My first year away from home, first year living on my own, first year exposed to a vast amount of new concepts and ideas I’d never heard of nor indeed even had the capacity to know existed.
I think that because of the state of flux one is in during this period, with one identity being burned away while a new one is formed and grafted onto the remnants of the previous self that have remained, the things you experience become less a collection of detailed memories and recollections, and more a sort of gestalt movement. A collection of revelations and changes that meld into a single life-altering mass that continues to exert itself, but whose individual parts become blended and half-remembered at best. Neuromancer, for example, became less a book to me and more a symbol of a particular time. I wouldn’t think of the book itself. I would think instead of the moments that surrounded the time I read it.
But as much as I loved Gibson, my relationship with the concept of cyberpunk was touchy. On the one hand, there was a lot about it that appealed to me. On the other hand, most of the people who considered themselves part of it (as people, not as writers) were just a bunch of folks in trench coats being dicks to one another in usenet groups. Which I guess is a problem one faces when identifying with a subculture where many of the basic tenets of it do not exist. Using tin to read alt.cyberpunk wasn’t quite as thrilling as “jacking in.” Wearing a black overcoat and mirror shades ended up not looking as cool as the people wearing it thought. As for the much-coveted body modifications and cybernetics, well, unless you lost a hand in a car accident and got it replaced with a hook, about the most functional techno-enhancement for the human body was still glasses and artificial hips.
But still, there was something that always kept me attracted to the whole ridiculous idea, even if I only hovered on the periphery. I both religiously read and made fun of Mondo 2000. I “researched” smart drugs and all the other stuff that was going to catapult me into the future. I wrote articles about virtual reality and morality, about black-clad federal agents armed with automatic weapons storming the bedrooms of fifteen-year-old hackers, about FidoNet and how this whole internet thing was going to change us all. Most of it was a load of nonsense, though the internet did pan out, so at least I have that going for my futurist consultation career.
Somewhere in all that dangling, ripped-out circuitry and over-stimulated, jittery insanity was Neuromancer. It represented the moment the nascent movement — or style, if you prefer not to be so grandiose — gelled. It’s the moment that cyberpunk broke the surface and entered the public consciousness. It’s the book that gave us the term cyberspace, that channeled the rebel energy and insanity of the technological 1980s into a story that was epic yet intimate. Famously written by an author who had never touched a computer and banged the whole thing out on a manual typewriter, it became a self-fulfilling prophecy of the near future. Here was a book so firmly rooted in a layman’s impression of technology and the direction of the future that we could all earnestly believe that the future had a pretty decent chance of turning out this way.
Into this maelstrom of personal evolution and conflicting feelings came Billy Idol’s Cyberpunk, which seemed to confirm my most dismissive impressions of cyberpunk as a social tribe. However, fascinated as I was with such claptrap, I kind of understood where Billy Idol was coming from when he made Cyberpunk. Cyberpunk really was a record made by a man taking a huge gamble. He could have crapped out another Billy Idol record of melodic rock and done OK for himself. Instead he decided to go crazy and record an album full of electronic music. And he decided to learn how to do it all (or at least a lot of it) himself, using his own computer and whatever skills he picked up along the way. Sure he had help, but whatever. We’re talking 1993. Most people hadn’t even heard of email or the internet. The World Wide Web was only just being launched. And there at the forefront was Billy Idol, perhaps not doing the best job of being one of the earliest big-name artists to turn to the cyber medium to promote himself, but giving it a go nevertheless.
Pretty much everyone dismissed the album. Idol fans didn’t want to hear a bunch of computerized crap. Electronica and industrial fans thought Idol was jumping on a bandwagon, latching on to a word and a vague concept that had recently been discovered by the media. I was firmly with the latter, rolling my eyes and thinking to myself, “Oh brother.” It was quite a shock when the damn thing showed up in my mail one day. And it was a generous package, too: the CD, the album on vinyl, a remix album also on vinyl, and a 3.5″ floppy disk full of Macromedia Director nonsense that was doing its best to look all Blade Runnery or whatever. I wasn’t that big a fan of Billy Idol anyway, so an album that was Billy Idol sitting at his Mac, imitating Front Line Assembly and writing goofy lyrics about the future instantly got the record thrown in my “don’t care” pile. I sold the CD and vinyl back to a record store. A few months later, I saw the same CD I’d sold them now sitting in the dollar bin, so I bought it, took it across the parking lot to a different record store, and sold it a second time for a few more bucks. On the merit of that alone, I was mildly positive about the CD.
A Self-Fulfilling Future
People have commented on how time and technology have passed Neuromancer behind, dated it somewhat and made it appear quaint in some respects, but it turns out, upon rereading, Neuromancer has weathered the past twenty-plus years remarkably – perhaps frighteningly – well. It’s main character, Case, is a hotshot computer cracker who has found himself down on his luck on the streets of Tokyo after crossing some gangsters during a job. As a form of retribution, the yakuza thugs fried the parts of Case’s brain that made him exceptionally adept as a cowboy. Neuromancer is set in a world where computer interface, at least on an advanced level, takes place in a virtual reality construct – a tired and overused idea now, often applied gratuitously to situations where it makes no sense (think virtual Michael Douglas virtually flipping through virtual office file cabinets before virtual Demi Moore virtually attacks him), but a fairly new and intriguing idea at the time. Stripped of his ability to navigate this cybernetic ether, Case has taken to drugs and peddling bits of black market tech, managing to eke out an existence in a Japanese pod-hotel with his sometimes-girlfriend. All things seem to be directing him down the path of self-destruction, and he’s not much interested in altering the course.
The course is altered for him, however, when cybernetically-enhanced female assassin Molly approaches him with a job offer from mysterious businessman Armitage, who says that, among the form of payments Case will receive, will be the seemingly-impossible repair of his nervous system to once again allow him to “jack in” to the matrix and reclaim the impressive level of proficiency he once possessed. Seeing no better opportunity, but keen to have his head repaired, Case decides to take the job, even though he isn’t sure what the job actually is. Things get weird pretty quickly. Their first step is to steal a “construct,” the downloaded skill set of the same man who trained Case to be a console cowboy, now dead but with parts of his relevant memory stored in a ROM module. With the construct to assist him, Case eventually begins to unwind the enigma surrounding the job, learning along the way that Molly doesn’t know any more than he does, and indeed that Armitage himself isn’t the man in charge and seems largely in the dark as to the actual point of the series of tasks they must complete.
Case learns that an artificial intelligence system is actually calling the shots and pulling the strings. AIs are strictly governed by an organization called the Turing Police, but this particular AI, called Wintermute and ostensibly owned by a crackpot billionaire industrialist family named the Tessier-Ashpools, has decided that it no longer wants to operate within the oppressive confines of the Turing regulations, and so is seeking to interface with a second Tessier-Ashpool AI, about which everyone knows almost nothing. Even Wintermute doesn’t know exactly what will happen when the two separate AIs join together, and it needs Case, Molly, and a mutant con man named Riviera to help it pull off the scheme. Oh, and a couple Rastafarians who live in a clunky old space station dubbed Zion.
Gibson’s plot is serviceable, leaving a number of questions obliquely answered at best, or not answered at all, but the plot is really just a rack upon which Gibson can hang his wild (at the time) vision of the near-future and flex his skill with prose. It’s not a triumph of style over substance — there is plenty of substance here that makes Neuromancer a classic example of speculative fiction, not just sci-fi — but rather, an example of style and substance being equally important, two halves that are seamlessly brought together to create what was, and remains, a fresh way of telling a story. The Wintermute and Neuromancer AIs coming together, if you will. Gibson’s gift for description is sublime. Every smell, every sight, comes through crystal clear. His ability to paint a picture of a world choked in a tangled mess of technologies is astounding. Old, archaic machines and chaotic systems intermingle with sleek, organized modern systems in a world where information technology has been integrated into nearly every aspect of life.
At points, it’s eerie just how much of Neuromancer is still applicable to the modern situation. Part of this would be because, aside from simply being a top notch science fiction novel, Neuromancer became a template for the future, adopted by the Silicon Valley and Silicon Alley visionaries who would use its future as a blueprint for the future they were building. As such, Neuromancer doesn’t exactly predict the future as much as it does shape it. Technical specs may be inaccurate, but RAM configurations, storage mediums, and monitor types seem far less important against the greater backdrop, which remains highly relevant and, despite what some may say, not the least bit “left behind” by the advance of the real world. If some of the revolutionary ideas in Neuromancer seem commonplace, it’s only because people looked at Neuromancer as a way to do these things. We haven’t passed Neuromancer by; we’ve simply become it, more and more with each passing day, because it is our guide.
The idea of “the net” wasn’t new when Neuromancer was published. But the idea of a global computer network in which not dozens, but millions of people met, wasted time, and conducted business was original. That these people were not just computer hackers, technicians, and businessmen, but normal everyday people doing normal, everyday things, is an idea that has helped shaped the online world from a series of remotely connected terminals at universities and government computing centers to the World Wide Web. Much of the terminology used in Neuromancer was adopted by the real-world. It seems at first somewhat fantastical that an author who had never touched a computer could so accurately establish the philosophical blueprint under which so many people would operate. But first of all, Gibson may not have ever used a computer, but he was by no means writing in a void. The 70s and 80s created a monumental body of essays and books on computers and the role of technology – not just technical manuals, but philosophical musings, diatribes, treatises, manifestos, and so on, in which both tech-savvy programmers, wide-eyed visionaries, and curious laymen exchanged ideas and opinions. What Gibson was able to do, one assumes, is explore these many realms of thought and forge them into a cohesive, at least within the terms of a work of fiction, vision of the future.
Second, and perhaps more importantly, Gibson’s lack of hardwired computer knowledge is exactly why he was able to write so much of what he did. Someone who knows a lot about computers is going to be hamstrung, whether they realize it or not, by their knowledge, and more specifically, by their knowledge of what is and is not possible given the current limitations and realities of technology. If, given what you know, something can’t be done, then there’s a good chance you’re not gong to write it. What this doesn’t take into account is that advances in technology often yield startling results, and things that were once thought to be impossible become commonplace. A good science fiction writer knows just enough to make him dangerous. He has the gist of things but is unfettered by an intricate and detailed knowledge that would make him second-guess some of the wilder concepts that can make for a good story. Free from detailed computer experience, William Gibson is able to make up a whole host of crazy ideas. And once again, many of them became reality, even though they seemed far-fetched at the time. Now, if we could just replace those Russians on board the ISS with a couple Rastafarians playing King Tubby CDs, then we’d been set.
At the heart of Neuromancer is not just speculation on the eventual state of human-versus-technology affairs. The root theme is far more organic and basic: in short, it’s a book about freedom. Freedom finds several representations in the book, and many initial examples of freedom are soon subjugated and revealed to be nothing more than tethers in disguise. Case would seem to be living a free, devil-may-care existence when we meet him, self-destructive but free never the less. We quickly learn this is not the case. His strings are pulled by buyers, sellers, pretty much anyone that wants to use him. The businessman Armitage would also seem to be free, dreaming up some nefarious scheme that showcases a complete disregard for authority. But he, too, is simply a puppet. Even Wintermute, the AI behind it all, is a prisoner motivated primarily by a desire to be free. It doesn’t know what the consequences or responsibilities of that freedom will be, and it doesn’t matter. Freedom is worth enduring ambiguity and hardship. Above the AI is the Tessier-Ashpool industrial clan, and once again when we see them we see a group of people who, despite their wealth and despite their power, and no more free than the AI they keep chained like an insane relative in a castle tower. They are victims of their own web, cocooned and so far gone that they have lost touch with reality.
If anyone in the story is remotely free, it’s the denizens of Zion, the orbiting Rastafarians who smoke pot, listen to dub, and don’t get overly concerned about anything around them. But Neuromancer isn’t a cautionary tale of how “we are all slaves to our technology.” Technology is window dressing, but it is never the reason any of the people in the story lack freedom. In each person, it is something organic, something biological, something within themselves, that keeps them locked up. And in the end, even if you want to force a “technology enslaves us” theme onto the book, which I think would be wrong, you’re still faced with the fact that there really isn’t such thing as “technology,” not as a sentient and separate entity. Technology is just an extension of humanity, and if it has enslaved us, it’s only because we made it that way. Technology can represent the physical presence of a prison, but we’re the ones who lock ourselves in. In the end, what freedom means for Wintermute/Neuromancer isn’t clear, but a crystalline resolution or explanation isn’t the point. It’s the fight for, not the attainment of, freedom that is the key to this story.
Once More Into the Wasteland
Reflecting on Neuromancer made me think that perhaps I’d been too rash and prejudiced against Cyberpunk back in 1993. If I was going to reread and reassess my Gibson, maybe it was also time to give it another listen and see if time and evolving taste hadn’t altered my opinion of Cyberpunk. And it started like this:
The future has imploded into the present. With no nuclear war, the new battlefields are people’s minds and souls. Megacorporations are the new government. The computer generated info-domains are the new frontiers. Though there is better living through science and chemistry, we are all becoming cyborgs.
The computer is the new cool tool, and though we say “all information should be free,” it is not. Information is power and currency in the virtual world we inhabit, so mistrust authority.
Cyberpunks are the true rebels. Cyberculture is coming in under the radar of ordinary society. An unholy alliance of the tech world, and the world of organized dissent.
Welcome to the cybercorporation.
Now that sounds exactly like the sort of absurd crap I would have been writing at the time, and if you ever go back and poke through old cyberpunk fanfic, most of the people who were flaming Idol for writing such drivel were, at the same time, writing their own drivel that was just as bad or worse. And anyway, what follows the narration is a weirdly catchy blend of electronica and Billy Idol punk-pop. It lacks the aggressiveness of more “authentic” industrial and electronic outfits like Front 242, Front Line Assembly, and so on, but it’s still as listenable as it is silly. The rest of the album continues to be a generally enjoyable mish-mash of Idol’s trademark style layered with synthesized computer music, dance beats, and occasionally more aggressive industrial splashes. Plus lots of samples, naturally.
The second song, “Shock to the System” is purer Billy Idol, still working in some loops and sound effects but mostly being one of those middle-of-the-road punk-pop songs on which Idol build his solo career. “Tomorrow People” sees the bleach blond rocker back into the territory charted by “Wasteland.” He stays there for most of the rest of the album. He ruffled cyberpunk feathers not just by calling the album Cyberpunk, but also by naming one of the songs “Neuromancer.” And then he pissed off regular old alternative rock fans by doing a freaky electronic cover of Lou Reed’s “Heroin.” “Adam in Chains” is almost ambient electronica, and the last song on the album, “Mother Dawn,” could pass for someone’s catchy dance tune. Sure, it’s not really on the level of some of the better industrial bands of the time, but if nothing else, it is to electronic music what Billy Idol’s regular music was to punk. Respectable? Who cares? Listenable? Even adept at setting a mood? Most definitely.
Billy Idol, I stand before you a humbled man. Like the rest of the world in 1993, I scoffed and wrote nasty things about Cyberpunk. I was wrong. You really were ahead of your time. I guess it won’t exactly soothe Idol’s soul if I tell him Cyberpunk is actually now the only Billy Idol album I own (besides some Gen X stuff). But my life can’t revolve around making Billy Idol feel good. That’s what dancing with oneself is for.
Most of the cyberpunk subculture didn’t work out, and these days it’s almost totally forgotten. VR turned out to be a colossal wash-out. No one wanted to put on a helmet and log into a virtual office to look for a file when they could just point with a mouse and open the file. Even the modern version, Google Glass, was a flop. Nootropic smart drugs ended up being mostly a load of bollocks, and “better living through chemistry” just ended up being “I’m putting my kid on Ritalin.” I guess we got the Internet, though that didn’t work out quite as the visionaries and dreamers thought. And although you can’t cruise down to the body part shop and get a camera implanted in your eyeball or replace your hand with a metal hand where the fingers open up to reveal five tiny hands holding Derringers, we are making some incredible breakthroughs in the field of prosthetic limbs.
But Billy Idol’s Cyberpunk? You know what? That one, like Neuromancer, aged all right. Even if William Gibson doesn’t agree.
“I just don’t get what he’s on about. I don’t see the connection. A London journalist told me when Billy did his Cyberpunk press junket over there, he made it a condition of getting an interview with him, that every journalist had to have read Neuromancer. They all did but when they met with Billy, the first thing that became really apparent was that Billy hadn’t read it. So they called him on it, and he said he didn’t need to…he just absorbed it through a kinda osmosis. I don’t know.” — William Gibson