Nex of Vis: The Death of Nature in Neuromancer

Posted by on July 24, 2012 
Filed under Essays

On the surface, William Gibson’s Neuromancer appears to equate humanity with a need to establish a tangible connection with its technological advancements as seen through the idea of the body being just “meat” (Gibson 6) when not jacked into cyberspace. In other words, humanity is nothing without the power of technology to back it up. The central character Case, “a cyberspace cowboy” (Gibson 5), “just another hustler, trying to make it through…trying to reach the console that wasn’t there” (5) had once been a professional thief in the cyberspace world. However, his own greed causes his employers to poison him, rendering him unable to establish a connection with cyberspace:

He’d made the classic mistake, he one he’d sworn he’d never make. He stole from his employers. They damaged his nervous system with a wartime Russian mycotoxin. The damage was minute, subtle, and utterly effective. For Case, who’d lived for the bodiless exultation of cyberspace, it was the Fall. (6)

After Case is banished from cyberspace he tries to re-establish his connection to this world by any means necessary. His primary motivation in this quest is to escape “the prison of his own flesh” (6).

“The prison of his own flesh” (6). Case’s fear of being imprisoned in his own flesh results from his realization that his poisoned body has trapped him into only experiencing consciousness in the synthetic world of cyberspace, “the street itself came to seem the externalization of some death wish, some secret poison he hadn’t known he carried” (7). The body in Case’s view distorts his experience of the “almost permanent adrenaline high…jacked into a custom cyberspace deck that projected his disembodied consciousness into the consensual hallucination that was the matrix” (5). One point of this essay is to explore how Case’s rejection of the body and his connection to the natural world function in this novel. The other is to determine what Gibson is saying in this novel about how the technological advances that enable increasingly large numbers of people to project their disembodied consciousnesses into the artificial reality of cyberspace is altering their relationship to the natural world.

From the outset of Neuromancer, Gibson describes nature as if it were a relic, an after-thought, a worn out segment of reality. He describes the sky in the first section of the novel as being “the color of television, tuned to a dead channel” (3). The suggestion that the sky is a dead channel devoid of information implies a pattern of disconnection with the natural world.

Gibson furthers the disconnection of the sky from the tech reality when he writes that “the bars down Ninsei were shuttered and featureless, the neon dead, the holograms inert, waiting under the poisoned silver sky.” The sky in this view is a dead background void of information in a featureless world that will be useless until the “neon” and “holograms’ are reactivated.

Gibson then writes, “Beyond the neon shudder of Ninsei. The sky was that mean shade of gray. The air had gotten worse; it seemed to have teeth tonight, and half the crowd wore filtration masks” (16). This passage suggests that the poisoned sky has “teeth” and is a danger to humanity. In contrast, the sky on board the space-world of the Rue Jules Verne is a “hologram glittered with fanciful constellations suggesting playing cards, the faces of dice, a top hat, a martini glass” (145). While the artificial sky of the Rue Jules Verne is “glittered” and “fanciful” (145), the real sky is “poisoned” (7) and “dead” (3).

Case’s preference for, and prior experience with the artificial inorganic world is apparent in his description of his body as “meat” (6), which is subject to decay and death.  In Case’s view, his body is merely a means of entering the “bright lattices of logic unfolding across the colorless void” (4-5) that is the matrix.

Later in the novel, Case jacks into Molly’s consciousness through his use of a “simstim” (53) machine while he is also able to enter the matrix. He can feel Molly’s movements, and experience her thoughts while he is jacked into her consciousness, but he is unable to communicate with her and feel any intimate connection to her. He is merely “a passenger behind her eyes” (55). This lack of connection infers that the artificial consciousness of the matrix disallows any embodied center of intimacy with another. Case transitions instantly to an artificial disembodied consciousness via Molly, but he never enters any relationship with the embodied Molly.

Gibson suggests that the communication between Case and Molly in cyberspace is as impersonal as the exchange of data between servers. When he awakens after the trip into cyberspace in the hotel room he shares with Molly, a machine-printed letter in all capitals appears which read: “HEY ITS OKAY BUT ITS TAKING THE EDGE OFF MY GAME. I PAID THE BILL ALREADY. IT’S THE WAY IM WIRED I GUESS, WATCH YOUR ASS OKAY? XXX MOLLY [sic]” (257). This letter is significant on three levels. First Molly is communicating via her disembodied consciousness with the disembodied consciousness of Case and there is no suggestion of intimacy or strong feelings. Second, Molly values her role as a technologically advanced “Steppin’ Razor” (107) assassin. She is a cold-hearted killer that cannot afford to have the edge taken off her game (257) by a tangible relationship with Case. And third, the phrase “IT’S THE WAY IM WIRED I GUESS” (257) suggests that Molly views herself in cyberspace as a machine that must protect and preserve its ability to function as a “Steppin’ Razor” (107) assassin. Molly is like Case in that she prefers to exist in a disembodied consciousness in cyberspace to existing in a tangible reality.

Gibson’s descriptions of the world of cyberspace explain why this world is so seductive. At one point, the computer tells Case and Molly that the matrix is “Lines of light ranged in the nonspace [sic] of the mind, clusters and constellations of data. Like city lights, receding…” (51). The image of “Lines of light arranged in the nonspace of the mind” (51) suggests that the world in cyberspace is outside of the physical space where the natural world exists. And the comparison of “city lights, receding” (51) evokes a sense of ethereal beauty that is reminiscent of, but not connected with the real world of the city. Gibson’s poetic descriptions of this artificial world provide a basis for understanding why the characters prefer to inhabit this world and to escape a world where the heart of nature has been destroyed by technological developments and industrial activities.

After Case is cured of the poison that prevents his immersion into cyberspace and re-enters the matrix, it “flowed, flowered for him, fluid neon origami trick, the unfolding of his distanceless home, his country, transparent 3D chessboard extending to infinity” (52). The image of the “fluid neon origami trick” (52) unfolding into “his distanceless home, his country” (52) like a “transparent 3D chessboard unfolding into infinity” (52) describes a simulated world that exists nowhere, but seems infinite in variety and extent.

Also consider similar descriptions of Case’s experience in the matrix after he merges his virtual self with that of the Artificial Intelligence (AI) Neuromancer; “The Kuang program spurted from the tarnished cloud, Case’s consciousness divided like beads of mercury, arcing above an endless beach the color of the dark silver clouds” (249). The “tarnished cloud” (249), from which the construct of Case and Neuromancer emerge is reminiscent of the earlier description of the sky as “the color of television, tuned to a dead channel” (3). It is as if the program has arisen out of the ashes of what was the natural world. The hybridization of technology with humanity is the preferred future for Neuromancer’s world. A future of technology eclipsing the relevance what was once the natural world.

Neuromancer is Gibson’s warning to those who choose to value the disembodied consciousness of cyberspace over the real and dangerous problems of the physical world. We live on a planet ravaged over time by a wide range of pollutants. These pollutants have poisoned our planet to such a high degree that our continued anti-environmental trends have brought us perilously close to the point of an imminent ecological disaster on a massive scale. Yet people choose to ignore the very real threat of our planet’s demise in favor of jacking their consciousness’ into cyberspace. Neuromancer is a cautionary tale to those who prefer escaping reality in the midst of an imminent global meltdown. Neuromancer illustrates the plague that is a world that chooses to lose touch with its very essence.

Works Cited

Gibson, William. Neuromancer. New York: Penguin, 2000. Print.

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