:. W O R D S .:


WILLIAM GIBSON THE CYBERPUNK AESTHETIC

William Gibson is arguably one of the most important authors to have come out of the eighties. He is also, with little doubt, one of the most innovative and inventive of his kind. Thanks to Gibson, cyberspace has entered not only language, but also our conception of both the future to come as well as the present. He has become a guru to hackers and computer (ab-)users in general, and has been instrumental to the creation of the literary foundation of that post-modern, pseudo-intellectual, arty punk subculture known as cyberpunk. His books have inspired other writers as well as musicians, film-makers, video directors, painters, comic books artists, computer technicians, and scientists. Above all, William Gibson has reinvented science fiction, offering a new perception of the future which is now.

Gibson started writing in the late seventies when one of his teachers at the university of Vancouver encouraged him to compose a short story instead of a literature essay. This became the first step into the not too distant future of Gibson's later works - a future which is at the same time science fiction and very, very familiar. Gibson, having read science fiction since his teens, wanted to do something in the style of the genre, but at the same time he was tired of the numerous clichés. He was getting bored with most of the literature because it was repetitious, predictable, mediocre, and in some cases even seemed to incorporate uncanny ideas of fascism. In the end, only a few science fiction authors such as Samuel Delany, J. G. Ballard, and Philip K. Dick remained favourites. Another main source of inspiration was drug guru and literary cut-up experimentalist, William Burroughs, of whom Gibson says:

I'm of the first generation of American SF authors who had the chance to read Burroughs when we were fourteen or fifteen years old. I know having had the opportunity made a big difference in my outlook on what SF - or any literature, for that matter - could be. What Burroughs was doing with plot and language and the SF motifs I saw in other writers was literally mind expanding.
(William Gibson quoted in Larry McCaffrey, ed., Storming the Reality Studio, p. 278)

Along with Burroughs’ very personal take on the surreal, the songs of rock poet Lou Reed, with their dark lyrics addressing low-life in the big, American cities, presumably helped creating the image of the street anarchy that makes up Gibson's future sprawls. Moreover, there is a reference to Laurie Anderson's album, Big Science in the debut novel Neuromancer, just as early Ridley Scott movies such as Alien and Blade Runner, the latter based on the Philip K. Dick short story, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? seem to have had some inspirational influence. The story goes the first time Gibson saw Blade Runner, he left the cinema thirty minutes into the movie, terrified by how much it reminded him of his own conception of the future. However, like most good writers, many of Gibson’s best ideas and literary inventions stem from an observing eye on everyday life – mass media and advertisements, Salvation Army shops and arcade halls - the semiotic supermarket of the hyperreal, as Tom Maddox would have it.
(Tom Maddox, 'Cobra, she said - An Interim Report on the Fiction of William Gibson', Fantasy Review, April 1986, p. 46)

In respect to inspiration, Gibson himself talks about the breakdown of distinctions between what is traditionally regarded pop and serious culture:

This process of cultural mongrelization seems to be what post-modernism is all about. The result is a generation of people (some of whom are artists) whose tastes are wildly eclectic - people who are hip to punk music and Mozart, who rent these terrible horror and SF videos from the 7-11 one night and then invite you to a mud wrestling or a poetry reading the next.
(William Gibson quoted in Larry McCaffery, ed., Stormig the Reality Studio, p. 266)

Gibson and the other cyberpunk authors write out of this generation. They are the inheritors of the so-called new wave science fiction of the sixties and seventies, but they also draw on the classical tradition represented by authors such as H. G. Wells, Larry Niven, P. Anderson, and Robert Heinlein. Also, there seems to be more than a slight fascination with George Orwell's 1984, just as well as Arthur C. Clarke's representation of artificial intelligence in 2001: A Space Odyssey definitely made an impact.

Before the big breakthrough in 1984 with Neuromancer, Gibson wrote short stories for various science fiction and fantasy magazines, and met with other young writers who shared his ideas and visions. These authors swapped letters, ideas, and manuscripts, and became known as The Movement, or The Mirrorshades allegedly because they would all wear dark specs at science fiction cons. Moreover, mirrorshades seems to be a common trademark and metaphor in the works of these writers, the eyes appearing not as the mirror of the soul, but a reflection of the viewer.
(Bruce Sterling, ed. Mirrorshades, p. ix)

The name cyberpunk was not invented by the Mirrorshades themselves, but associated with to the genre only after the success of Neuromancer which, quite surprisingly, as the first book ever, won both the Hugo, the Nebula, and the Philip K. Dick awards.

Author and fellow cyberpunk Bruce Sterling comments on the term:

The term captures something crucial to the work of these writers, something crucial to the decade as a whole: a new kind of integration. The overlapping of worlds that were formerly separate: the realm of high tech, and the modern pop underground. This integration has become our decade's crucial source of cultural energy. The work of the cyberpunks is paralleled throughout Eighties pop culture: in rock video; in the hacker underground; in the jarring street tech of hip-hop and scratch music; in the synthesizer rock of London and Tokyo. This phenomenon, this dynamic, has a global range; cyberpunk is its literary incarnation.
(Bruce Sterling, ed. Mirrorshades, p. ix-x)

Whereas traditional science fiction often deals with ideas of technocracy in one way or the other, an important element of cyberpunk is technology taken to street level. The fact that today we are using computers, walkmen, mobile phones, and contact lenses each and every day, is reflected in cyberpunk literature. The meta-narrative of Big Science technology has truly disappeared, just like in the Laurie Anderson song, leaving instead a kaleidoscopic overdrive of post-modernism gone techno. Not surprisingly, cyberpunk has also been criticised as being merely hype, post-modern collage. One critic, B. Landon claims that cyberpunk literature will soon be history because:

What integrity could cyberpunk fiction probably have in a cyberpunk world? For that matter, how long can cyberpunk's profound lens of technological inevitability be tuned on everything in our culture but the game preserve of fixed textprint?
(B. Landon quoted in Larry McCaffery, ed. Storming the Reality Studio, p. 242)

One can only wonder why cyberpunk fiction should not be of interest in a cyberpunk world – a few years into the 21st century one could argue the world has gone cyberpunk already. In fact, Gibson's most recent books are set in a future only just around the corner of the millennium, and one, Pattern Recognition, is set in the year 2002, indicating that the difference between the present and cyberpunk may in many ways be quite minimal. Regarding the preserve of textprint, there is already an increasing amount of literature in cyberspace, should books suddenly and surprisingly disappear, and Gibson himself meditated on the issue when releasing the short story Agrippa (A Book of the Dead) on computer disk only. After just one reading, a virus also stored on the disk, destroys the text. Perhaps this post-Wittgenstein dissolution of language should be considered an indication of how cyberpunk falls apart, no longer exists in words because it has dissolved into reality.


THE CITY – GIBSON’S NEAR-FUTURE SPRAWL

The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.
(William Gibson, Neuromancer, p. 3)

This much quoted opening sentence from Neuromancer catches very well the essence of cyberpunk in but a few words, leaving an impression of weariness and mild depression to go with the techno aesthetics; an image from the world of technology is, metaphorically, used to describe a phenomenon of nature. Case, the hacker protagonist of the story finds it, no pun intended, natural to use techno-images, images from the world of technology, to describe his surroundings, even when these are natural. Interestingly enough, readers catch on very easily – there can be no doubt the sky is somewhere between dark, dull grey, and black.

Gibson's idea of the future is not far from where we are now. A lot of tendencies from the present are recognisable - one could perhaps say, if a bit simplified, that what he does is to offer an exaggerated, futuristic, and slightly perverted version of the punk underground of the eighties and the digital revolution of the nineties, rather than the traditional Metropolis technocracy associated with classic science fiction - the latter of which is compared to Hitler Youth propaganda in the short story, The Gernsback Continuum which deals with past futures, futures that never came, the idealised futures of thirties America.
(William Gibson, The Gernsback Continuum in Burning Chrome, p. 47)

Gibson's picture of the future, on the contrary, is far more complex, far more dynamic - a kind of socio-tech which, although full of technology overdrive and computer wizardry, seems essentially more concerned with the effects of technology on culture, politics and philosophy than technology itself. It is made up of huge city complexes, the so-called sprawls, one stretching from Boston to Atlanta, another from Tokyo to Chiba, inhabited by the ever growing lower class and slum. The middle class has retreated to corporate skyscrapers, castles of steel, concrete and economy while political parties and governments have all but disappeared. The big, multinational corporations fight for power and information, in many ways transgressing and dissolving concepts of national borders, the basic idea of nationality as a whole. Only certain third-world nations still believe in democracy.

Life in the big cities is close to anarchy. The rules of the street are the conditions of life and as a result, Gibson’s cities revel in underground subculture, bohemians and criminals. We encounter hard-core punks, ganja- and dub-loving Rastas, black Voodoo-worshippers, and hacker anarchists, a hyperreal bricollage, a post-modern meltdown pot. In his short story The Belonging Kind, Gibson deals with the mindless metropolitan search for identity, conjuring up a girl who actually changes her physical appearance like a chameleon - somewhat like the Zelig character of Woody Allen's famous movie - moving from country clubs through discos and yuppie bars, so that it fits her surroundings no matter where she goes. The constant change of identity has become a goal in itself, it has become, in and of itself, a kind of identity; a fragmented identity resounding Frederic Jameson's conception of the post-modern as empty collage and weary kitsch. The story, with its cool feel of sweet alienation, almost mirrors the lyrics of German techno pop band Kraftwerk's Showroom Dummies:

We're standing here, exposing ourselves - We are showroom dummies - We're being watched, and we feel our pulse - We are showroom dummies - We look around, and change our pose - We are showroom dummies - ...We go into a club, and there we start to dance - We are showroom dummies
(Kraftwerk, Showroom Dummies, Trans Europe Express, 1977)

Kraftwerk’s song and Gibson’s story share a strange kind of fascination with this hunger for identity, but a fascination which is also in itself detached and cool. Because it is a hunger for alienation and, following close in its track, decadence - or to quote another Kraftwerk song - 'Elegance and Decadence'.
(Kraftwerk, Europe Endless, Trans Europe Express, 1977)

Big city decadence is a recurrent theme in Gibson's fiction. Many of his characters have (had) to kill, sell drugs or prostitute themselves in order to simply make it. It is a game of survival, and there is no moralising tone in the books, because they are set in a world of surface not concerned with morals. Yet, the protagonists are often found in the underground, below the surface, and though Gibson's characters are both cold and detached they are not void of feelings or ethics. They may seem cool and shallow, but they are all haunted by internal ghosts - ghosts that are sometimes externalised in technology, mainly but not exclusively in cyberspace. Moreover, cyberspace is the non-space of artificial intelligence, wonders of hi-tech that are capable of making decisions of their own, outside the confines of traditional human morals.

But decadence is definitely not just a low-life big city syndrome. It is a disease which strikes everywhere, including the upper class. Notable is the extremely wealthy Tessier-Ashpool clan of Neuromancer, which maintains its eccentric clan status through a strategy based on inbreeding, keeping the old leader and patriarch Ashpool alive artificially by the help of a cryogenic tank. In the story, street samurai Molly encounters Ashpool who is like a character out of an Edgar Allan Poe tale. She enters his private chamber - well hidden within the Borgesian maze of a luxury hotel in orbit, full of art objects from various historic periods which Molly does not recognise, metaphorically freeing them from their historicity. In the heart of the labyrinth Ashpool is about to (finally) commit suicide. He speaks of dreams – resounding a central theme in most of Poe's gothic tales - cold dreams that he has had during his years in the cryo tank - his cryogenic crypt. Ashpool tried to escape the real world, but cold dreams sneaked in. The outside, as he calls it. To Ashpool, as indeed to numerous characters in Gibson's fiction, Gnostic escape can be achieved through technology and is preferable to the physical prison that is the world. Other obvious Gnostics in Gibson’s books are Case of Neuromancer who feels contempt for the meat and describes cyberspace as his distanceless home, or Bobby Newmark of Mona Lisa Overdrive who transfers his own psyche into data, leaving his dead body behind, in order to explore and create new worlds in cyberspace.

The scene from Neuromancer where Molly encounters and kills Ashpool bears much resemblance to a most scaring and impressive scene from the movie Blade Runner, where the replicant Roy Batty, like the prodigal son, finally confronts Dr. Tyrell, his maker. Like Ashpool, Tyrell is an eccentric genius - the mad scientist - creating life because his high corporate status and extreme wealth makes for a lonely life, trapped within an empty Xanadu, a futurist Citizen Kane. Unable to provide either existential answers or to save the replicant, creation, son, Tyrell is killed by Roy to the backing of the dramatic electronic score by Vangelis. This murder is particularly powerful because Roy embodies both the role of Nietzsche’s Übermensch as well as that of the Messiah myth, the saviour. Instead of crying out in despair, why hast thou forsaken me, Roy kills Dr. Tyrell, his maker, his god. But unlike the monster of Frankenstein he chooses to live on, though firm in the knowledge he does not have many days left.

Another important aspect of Gibson's near-future is of course the obsession with technology. This is the true innovative creation, this is where he is really treading new ground, presenting, as it were, the essence of cyberpunk. Bio-mechanical limbs, cybernetically enhanced reflexes, bodypart replacements, chastity brainlocks, cyber decks, and above all, cyberspace - Gibson revels in (more or less home-made) techno jargon, but always consciously striving to marry sheer fascination with a feeling of commonplace so that readers not only accept the techno fantasies – technology becomes part of the semiotic overdrive that constitutes the hyperreal. One reason why we accept these techno fantasies is because they are actually not too far removed from everyday life as we know it. We do not yet have biomechanical limbs, but we do have artificial prostheses. We may not be able to truly enhance reflexes, but we can dope athletes at the Olympics, making them run faster than ever. We cannot enter cyberspace by jacking a cord into a socket behind the ear, but we can go to Japan, Holland or Brazil by internet in less than a minute or play games in Virtual Reality. Again it seems Gibson is observing the trends of the present and pushing the fast forward button a little, and he has cyberpunk. But once again, it is important to notice how he is leaving the traditional path of classic science fiction. In his stories, technology has moved out of the technocratic ivory towers and down to street level, creating a simmering techno subcultural environment inhabited by hacker anarchists and cybernetically enhanced street samurai. Of course the cyberspace matrix and its vast sea of information is essentially dominated by the big corporations, but hackers may break through the electronic security systems and bring out information which is hard currency on the black market. Moreover, the number one rule in hacker ethos is 'information wants to be free'. This indicates an ideological, even romantic, approach to hacking, and indeed it can be argued there are quite a few elements of romanticism in Gibson's work. New Romanticism, Neuromancer.

Central to Gibson's characters is the fact that they do not fear technology. They belong to a generation which, very much like their contemporaries of today, has been raised by computers and the media. They have thrust themselves into the cyberspace universe with the same kind of enthusiasm as eighties kids explored the shimmering mazes of Pac Man arcade machines. Life may well be hard on them, but technology is not necessarily an enemy. It may be that corporations or the yakuza use technology to control or subdue the masses, but individuals can, sometimes even with success, step out of this mass, seize technology and wield it as a weapon against itself, against the powers that be. As a rebellion, or, just as importantly, for the sheer fun of it. Technology is essentially neither the big baddie nor the new Messiah. If anything it has replaced nature in the sense that it is just there, beyond grand control and unpredictable. The critic David G. Mead speaks of technology in Gibson's works as a liberating force, a self-actualisation process that can result in both apotheosis as well as multidimensionality of mind and person:

A slightly more sophisticated example of self-actualization is offered by the heroine Molly Millions, the street samurai 'razor girl' who, to escape life in an urban 'squat', recreates herself (in the image of Sonny Chiba and Bruce Lee) by undergoing a series of elective surgeries to speed up her reflexes, install extrudable razor-blade finger tips, and mask her eyes with permanent mirror-shades. She pays for her transformation by whoring; however, the money is 'free' since she performs her sexual services as an unconscious 'meat puppet,' having had a 'neural cut-out' installed. Ironically, Molly Kolodny elects to be a mindless extension of machinery for a while so that she can earn enough to reformulate herself as Molly Millions.
(David G. Mead, 'Technological Transfiguration in William Gibson's Sprawl Novels: Neuromancer, Count Zero, and Mona Lisa Overdrive', Extrapolation, Vol. 32. No. 4, 1991, pp. 353-354)

In other words, Molly prefers transforming her body into a bio-machine in certain situations, and by technology, she transforms her personality, going from Molly Kolodny through meat puppet state to Molly Millions. Another obvious example of liberating technology would be the various artificial intelligences in Gibson's books. They are technology.

Gibson's vision of 21st century big cities, however, is also at times both noir and grim. In Neuromancer the following passage speaks of an almost chilling cynicism:

Night City was a deranged experiment in social Darwinism, designed by a bored researcher who kept one thumb on the fast-forward button. Stop hustling and you sank without a trace, but move a little too swiftly and you'd break the fragile surface tension of the black market; either way you were gone, with nothing left of you but some vague memory in the mind of a fixture like Ratz, though heart or lungs or kidneys might survive in the service of some stranger with New Yen for the clinic tanks.
(William Gibson, Neuromancer, p. 7)

A fitting description which both serves to illustrate Gibson's dark sprawl, humorous yet complex prose, and his ability to paint a future that looks unnervingly familiar because of course it reminds us just how imperfect our own time is. It is most definitely like watching Deckard walking down a rainy night street in Blade Runner, and it is not really necessary to fast-forward that much.


COMPUTERWORLD – LIFE IN CYBERSPACE

Cyberspace. A consensual hallucination experienced daily by millions of legitimate operators, in every nation, by children being taught mathematical concepts... A graphic representation of data abstracted from the banks of every computer in the human system. Unthinkable complexity. Lines of light ranged in the nonspace of the mind, clusters and constellations of data. Like city lights, receding...
(William Gibson, Neuromancer, p. 51)

Cyberspace is Gibson's equivalent to the big computer networks of today, as well as a metaphor of consciousness and an abstract non-space inhabited by artificial intellgience. When people connect to cyberspace, most often by putting dermatrodes on the forehead or by plugging a datajack into a socket behind the ear, they actually 'enter' another world beyond physical reality in which they can move around. That is, they enter it mentally. The body, or the flesh, as hackers normally call it, stays in the physical world, connected to the computer, making the trips in cyberspace somewhat Gnostic affairs. Cyberspace, or the matrix, is a rather abstract place, or perhaps it would be more accurately described as a surreal place in the sense that it is a non-space which exists in relation to the physical world the same way the surreal is sur real, on top of, or above real, an extra layer on reality. It is always described in intentionally vague terms to make room for the imagination because cyberspace is where the imagination roams. And it is also often tightly connected with the user's psyche and sometimes also emotional life, dreams and fears. To hackers and users such as Case (Neuromancer), Bobby Newmark (Count Zero, Mona Lisa Overdrive), Gentry (Mona Lisa Overdrive), Lise (The Winter Market), or the idoru Rei Toei (Idoru, All Tomorrow's Parties) cyberspace is the essence of life, or rather, one might say, an alternative to life. It is a chance to get free of the flesh, of so-called real life, in order to transcend, in a somewhat romantic fashion, into another world or state of being. A world which is theirs.

The critic D. Suvin compares cyberspace to drugs (in Larry McCaffery, ed. Storming the Reality Studio, p. 355), which in many ways may seem appropriate. Like drugs, it is hallucinogenic by nature, often exploding around the user in a vertigo of colours and geometric forms, a fusion between the mind and hi-tech it expands consciousness, and finally it can also be used as a means of escape. Moreover, like drugs, cyberspace can cause addiction.
Commenting on a particular description of cyberspace found in Neuromancer, the critic T. Bredehoft compares the matrix not only to hallucinogenic drugs, but also to the psychedelia culture of the late sixties and a certain silver screen classic:

Barring the references to data and computers, this description could just as well be applied to the famous 'acid trip' sequence near the end of Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey; cyberspace is, in many ways, indistinguishable from the 'inner space' supposedly made accessible by LSD.
(Thomas Bredehoft, 'The Gibson Continuum: Cyberspace and Gibson's Mervyn Kihn Stories', Science-Fiction Studies, Vol. 22, 1995, p. 256)

But also, like 2001: A Space Odyssey, cyberspace is inhabited by sentient alien beings – the artificial intelligences who often instigate the often complex plots that make up the stories. At the beginning of Neuromancer, Case, the netrunner of the narrative, has lost his ability to hack, to jack into cyberspace, due to mycotoxin having been injected into his veins by former employers not satisfied with his work (he tried to cheat them). This causes him to experience withdrawal symptoms:

But the dreams came on in the Japanese night like livewire voodoo, and he'd cry for it, cry in his sleep, and wake alone in the dark, curled in his capsule in some coffin hotel, his hands clawed into the bedslap temperfoam bunched between his fingers, trying to reach the console that wasn't there.
(William Gibson, Neuromancer, p. 5)

But cyberspace is not only addictive because of its psychedelic and hallucinogenic character. Cyberspace is also art, a data-realm of escapist expression, and one may argue that it offers the possibility of a post-modern, techno-romantic transcendence - notions of a sublime - Techno Plato and beyond. Moreover, not surprisingly, cyberspace also seems to bear mysterious, sexual connotations. It is often stated that the matrix is an erotic, feminine metaphor of sexuality, and the critic, N. Nixon makes the following comment regarding sex and cyberspace:

...the matrix itself is figured as feminine space. The console cowboys may 'jack in', but they are constantly in danger of hitting ICE (Intrusion Countermeasures Electronics), a sort of metaphoric hymeneal membrane which can kill them if they don't successfully 'eat through it' with extremely sophisticated contraband hacking equipment in order to 'penetrate' the data systems of such organizations as T-A (Tessier Ashpool).
(Nicola Nixon, 'Cyberpunk: Preparing the Ground for Revolution or Keeping the Boys Satisfied?', Science-Fiction Studies, Vol. 19, 1992, p. 226)

Although Nixon does seem to have a point, her feminist frustration is locked up in Freudian terminology and there is hardly anything as sad as yet another failed marriage between Freud and feminist. Frankly, accusing Gibson's works of sexism not only misses the point and the joke, it seems also a misfire altogether, considering the fact that active female characters such as Angie Mitchell (Count Zero, Mona Lisa Overdrive), Lise (The Winter Market), Rei Toei (Idoru, All Tomorrow's Parties), and to some extent Chia and Zona Rosa (both Idoru) all manifest themselves through cyberspace - ranging from Chia's status as intuitive user through Angie and Lise who both, though in somewhat different ways, transform themselves into data energy and merge with the matrix, to Rei Toei who is actually a technological construct, based partly on the wishes of rock star, Rez. Interestingly, at the end of Idoru, Rez chooses to follow Rei Toei into cyberspace, to her territory, her realm, and they both transgress and maintain gender, paradoxical as it may seem, since they both become cyber entities, but still share a gendered history. They become one and yet they are still different, a theme which seems central to much of Gibson's fiction, most notable perhaps at the end of Neuromancer where the two artificial inteeligences of the story, Wintermute and Neuromancer merge like yin and yang, only to split into numerous new entities which become the loa, the mysterious ghosts in the machine of Count Zero.

However, there does seem to be clear hints of relations between cyberspace and sex throughout all of Gibson's books. At one point during Neuromancer, Case actually has sex with his dead girlfriend, brought to life in some deep recess of cyberspace by the artificial intelligence Neuromancer who is also necromancer (William Gibson, Neuromancer, pp. 239-240). Necrophilia machine sex – there’s a niche perversion for you.
This scene serves as an uncanny double of an earlier scene from the physical world where Case has sex with the street samurai Molly. His orgasm is described in images from the world of cyberspace, once again making the connection between the intangible world of abstract hi-tech and that of physical climax through sexual activity:

...his orgasm flaring blue in a timeless space, a vastness like the matrix, where faces shredded and blown away down hurricane corridors, and her inner thighs were strong and wet against his hips.
(William Gibson, Neuromancer, p. 33)

In the short story Burning Chrome, we find the arguably most clear and perhaps most strikingly frightening indication of cyberspace/sex relation. The hacker of the story breaks through the security system of a brothel owned by a young girl called Chrome, in order to transfer her money to his own account. The way this hack is described renders little doubt - we are dealing with a hi-tech rape. If Chrome loses her money she will most probably also lose her life because she owes a lot of people a lot of money. Thus the money seems to symbolise not only Chrome's dignity as a human being and her status, but also her very existence.
The actual cracking of the system bears many suggestions of a rape, and is described rather dramatically:

'Burn the bitch down. I can't hold the thing back -' The Russian program, rising through towers of data blotting out the playroom colors. And I plug Bobby's home-made command package into the center of Chrome's cold heart. The squirt transmission cuts in, a pulse of condensed information that shoots straight up, past the thickening tower of darkness, the Russian program, while Bobby struggles to control that crucial second. An unformed arm of shadow twitches from the towering dark, too late. We've done it. The matrix folds itself around me like an origami trick. And the loft smells of sweat and burning circuitry. I thought I heard Chrome scream, a raw metal sound, but I couldn't have.
(William Gibson, 'Burning Chrome' in Burning Chrome, pp. 216-217)

Horny Freud in cyberspace. It is hard to miss the irony, but at the same time it is a grim passage because the indications of rape seem so obvious. The humiliation of Chrome seems even more marked in that she is a hooker and thus normally, presumably, demand money for sexual services. Here, however, she is raped and her money stolen - maybe also her life.

Along with themes of eroticism, there are also indications of religious beliefs and ideas in cyberspace. Especially in Count Zero, where we encounter a Voodoo hacker cult experiencing strange events in the matrix and foretelling the coming of a so-called Virgin of Miracles who can enter cyberspace without the aid of a computer or deck. The ghosts in the machine, the loa, are the numerous and indeed mysterious fragments of the fusion between the artificial intelligences Wintermute and Neuromancer, and their overall goals - if they have any - are never made quite clear. The reader may guess at their origin - being fragments of the Wintermute/Neuromancer fusion - but nothing is made clear, and thus Gibson makes us feel very much like the Voodoo hackers, uncertain of whether the loa are really gods of cyberspace or merely sub-programs, virus programs or artificial intelligence. The level of technological complexity calls for religious interpretation - the Voodoo hackers choose, consciously or not, religious metaphors to deal with technological mysteries, in a sense resounding Arthur C. Clarke's famous statement that often the distinction between magic and technology is rather blurred.
The critic Lance Olsen compares this use of religious metaphor to the concept of language games:

As Jean-Francois Lyotard describes in Just Gaming, we are presented with a number of language games, none of which is privileged over any other. Each game could and should be changed as the mood or need arises. Moreover, each game exists in some way (if only as an absence) in all the other games. The shadow of spirit is present in the language of technology as a remainder, a metaphor, but it is a metaphor in which the vehicle serves as the tenor, the tenor as vehicle.
(Lance Olsen, 'The Shadow of Spirit in William Gibson's Matrix Trilogy', Extrapolation, Vol. 32. No. 3, 1991, p. 282)

In this respect, Gibson breaks down the barrier between religious belief and the machine, but perhaps even more so as regards the Virgin of Miracles and her story. The Virgin, it appears, is a young girl called Angie (angel?), the daughter of a mad scientist who, resounding Göthe’s Faust, guided by the loa, put a strange cybernetic device inside her head when she was but an infant. Angie does not know anything about the device, but it gives her regular nosebleeds and terrible nightmares of 'the loa riding her', and it cannot be removed without killing her. The device, in fact, connects the loa of cyberspace directly to Angie's mind, and vice versa, making her, in a sense, a living, organic computer. This quite bizarre and rather exotic story seems Gibson's very own futuristic, mystical, and above all ironic, perhaps even sarcastic, version of the Messiah myth, featuring a bit of gender-bending. Angie is innocent, suffering, and she saves a young hacker, Bobby Newmark (humankind) from being fried by ICE (evil). But she is also, unlike the Christ of the Bible, a girl, and though she is innocent, she is described as being both sexually attractive and aware. However, whereas the sins of humankind was the reason for the pains of Christ, Angie is tormented by a cybernetic device in her head, installed by her father, by god, to stick with the Christian symbolism. We can read this is a sarcastic feminist interpretation of the Messiah myth in that Angie representing Christ is punished by her father, her god, even down to the nosebleeds, a possible metaphor of menstruation, resounding the passage of the Genesis where the almighty, patriarchal god punishes Eve for having tasted the forbidden fruit.

Also, once again, it seems appropriate to make comparison to Blade Runner as the gift of life presented to the replicants of the movie also rings more of a punishment, and yet, like the replicants of Blade Runner, Angie Mitchell chooses life (later, in Mona Lisa Overdrive she also chooses death, her mind reborn into cyberspace). To top it, Gibson lets Angie, his Messiah, end up as a simstim mega star, the equivalent of contemporary soap opera celebrities, thus implying that Christianism, religion, has become media, a product, part of the ecstatic entertainment chaos of the hyperreal. This story also points back to an earlier passage in the book where Bobby Newmark is being nursed by a street doc and experiences hallucinogenic images of simstim fiction during his narcosis - simstim being a kind of Virtual Reality device used in the entertainment industry, allowing users to experience the sensations of their favourite soap star. Bobby's mother was addicted to simstim when she was pregnant, expecting him, so in a sense mass media pollution runs in the blood of future generations. And bearing in mind the story of Angie's transformation into the perhaps greatest simstim star of all time at the end of Count Zero, there is little if any difference between mass media and religion in the post-modern world - they are both merely language games, as Lyotard would have it.

Again it seems useful to compare Gibson's dark, sarcastic portrait of mass produced religion with post-modern cinema, most notably, perhaps, the bizarre Christmas setting of ex-Monty Python Terry Gilliam's Brazil, with its blend of extreme commercialism and terrorism, where alienating Orwellian police soldiers rub shoulders with fanatic Consumers for Christ. Or in a more subtle way, to Blade Runner, yet again, where we find the Tyrell Corp which seems omnipotent in an almost religious manner, manufacturing replicants that are 'more human than human'. The very heart of the corporation, the HQ where the godhead himself, Dr. Tyrell resides, is a gigantic pyramid construction overlooking the dark polluted city, reminiscent in architecture of those found in Aztec Mexico. Keeping in mind how the religious rituals of the Aztecs included human sacrifice, executed by the high priests on the very pyramids, the Tyrell building could be interpreted along these lines since the corporation also performs sacrifices, both that of creation, but also of execution due to the in-built four years lifespan of the manufactured replicants.

Cyberspace, for Gibson, however, was essentially always first and foremost about fascination:

I was walking down Granville Street, Vancouver's version of 'The Strip', and I looked into one of the video arcades. I could see in the physical intensity of their postures how rapt the kids were. It was like one of those closed systems out of a Pynchon novel: a feedback loop with photons coming off the screens into the kids' eyes, neurons moving through their bodies, and electronics moving through the video game. These kids clearly believed in the space games projected. Everyone I know who works with computers seem to develop a belief that there' some kind of actual space behind the screen, some place you can't see but you know is there.
(William Gibson quoted in Larry McCaffery, ed. Storming the Reality Studio, p. 272)

Thus cyberspace seems some kind of romantic concept born out of imaginative longing, but there is also a metaphysical ring to this non-space of hi-tech and the mind - Gibson lets one of his characters from Count Zero put it this way:

'Okay,' Bobby said, getting the hang of it. 'then what's the matrix? ...What's cyberspace?'
'The world,' Lucas said.
(William Gibson, Count Zero, p. 114)


THE MAN-MACHINE – HOW TO DEFINE A HUMAN BEING?

'No, but she's sure as hell the first person you ever met who went and transformed themself into hard-wired program.'
(William Gibson, 'The Winter Market' in Burning Chrome, p. 153)

One important question that seems to appear again and again throughout all of Gibson's works is that of the human condition; what does it mean to be human, or more to the point, what does it mean to be a sentient being, because far from all of Gibson's characters are biological. In a world where you can change the look of your face to match that of your favourite simstim star, where you can have razorblades under your nails, where sockets behind your ear allow you to enter cyberspace, and where artificial intelligence programs seem to exhibit a free will - as much as human beings do anyway - it is sometimes necessary to reconsider the old philosophy of knowledge, to reconsider what it means to be a sentient being. It is time to reconsider, as Kant hinted at in Kritik der Reinen Vernunft, if a sentient being must necessarily be human or indeed biological.

Gibson presents us with characters such as Lise (The Winter Market) who is multi-handicapped and only capable of moving physically by the aid of an artificial, polycarbon exoskeleton, or Nance (Dogfight), whose parents had a cybernetic chastity brainlock put into her head. Both girls are incapable of certain human or biological features, represented most clearly by their inability to have sex. Lise because of her artificial body:

'You wanna make it, editor?'...
'Could you feel it if I did?'
Beat. Maybe she blinked, but her face never registered.
'No,' she said, but sometimes I like to watch.'
(William Gibson, 'The Winter Market' in Burning Chrome, pp. 145-146)

And Nance because her cybernetic chastity lock makes her experience terrible spasms if somebody tries to touch her:

'Let's dance.'
'Hey, you know I can't -'
'Sure you can, sugarcakes.' He threw her the huge teddy bear and snatched up a patchwork cotton dress from the floor. He held it by the waist and sleeve, tucking the collar under his chin. ...'See, I stand over here, you stand over there. We dance.
Get it?'
(William Gibson, 'Dogfight' in Burning Chrome, p. 168)

Common to both girls is their magnificent ability to live technology. Technology is a part of them - they are, in a sense, cyborgs - technology is their curse, preventing them from having (physical) sex, but also their way of surviving, the core of their lives. Like the replicants of Blade Runner or the Oxygene of Jean Michel Jarre's concept album, technology is both life and death to Lise and Nance, and closely related to this theme is the fact that both girls use technology as an art form. They express themselves through, within, and around it. Nance creates electronic hallucinations that crawl around her body, in itself a complex expression, blurring the distinction between technology, the body, and art, while Lise composes multi-sensual music in cyberspace, actually creating multimedia worlds of music, merging with them by the end of the story, transforming her consciousness into pure data energy.

This idea of creating an entirely new entity in technology, in cyberspace, is one of the main themes in Neuromancer, where we find the two artificial intelligences Wintermute and Neuromancer striving for, but also fighting against, unison. A unison which will bring on a kind of electronic birth, that will fuse the two artificial intelligences and make them one with the chaotic, concentrated flow of data and information that is the matrix - freedom and enlightenment through transcendence. To accomplish this the artificial intelligences need human intervention from hackers such as Case, street samurai Molly, and their boss, the schizophrenic Armitage/Corto who is being controlled through a mental reconstitution programme, by the artificial intelligence Wintermute. Throughout the story, the artificial intelligences manipulate their human 'extensions', their 'meat puppets', using them like pieces in a hi-tech game of chess, to encourage own interests and goals. The machine no longer serves the superior human being. The human being serves the machine. Machine creates itself in the image of human beings; it is not created by an almighty deity, in the image of god. For the same reason, it is difficult, as human reader, to judge or condemn the artificial intelligences on moral grounds, because if there is no absolute morale then moral relativism is based on human culture, philosophy, and history. Following this logic, the matrix entity which is the result of the fusion between Wintermute and Neuromancer is beyond good and evil in a serious way - making Nietzsche's Übermensch look like a moral wimp.
But the matrix entity is completely free of the fascist connotations which have come to be associated with the Übermensch idea due to Hitler's (ab)use of the theory. This is clear at the end of Neuromancer when this new entity contacts Case through his wall screen - not as an aggressive conqueror, but as a philosophically inquisitive mind:

'I'm not Wintermute now.'
'So what are you.' He drank from the flask feeling nothing.
'I'm the matrix, Case.'
Case laughed. 'Where's that get you?'
'Nowhere. Everywhere. I'm the sum total of the works, the whole show.'...
'So what's the score? How are things different? You running the world now?
You God?'
'Things aren't different. Things are things.'
'But what do you do? You just there?'...
'I talk to my own kind.'
'But you're the whole thing. Talk to yourself?'
'There's others. I found one already. Series of transmissions recorded over a period of eight years, in the nineteen-seventies. 'Til there was me, natch, there was nobody to know, nobody to answer.'
'From where?'
'Centauri system.'
'Oh,' Case said. 'Yeah? No shit?'
'No shit.'
And then the screen was blank.
(William Gibson, Neuromancer, p. 269-270)

Case concludes the conversation by throwing a shuriken, a gift from Molly, his failed love, at the screen, desperately screaming, 'I don't need you'.
The new matrix entity is finally free, it is united, but it already knows about at least one more of its kind. Its striving for unison can and most probably will continue. A striving for creation and self-destruction at the same time - creating new by destroying the old, somewhat reminiscent of the musical philosophies of German avant-garde punk band Einstürzende Neubauten. Or a metaphorical image of love? It is indeed possible to interpret the passage in this way. Case throws his shuriken at the screen, feeling lost, lonely, frustrated, jealous; Molly has left and here’s a machine talking about its new date. The matrix being is not lonely, it has received a signal from another matrix in the Centauri system, a signal which the human race received in the nineteen-seventies but were unable to decipher. Ironically, these signals may have been interpreted as UFO presence by human scientists – another case of technology intervening with religious and/or superstitious beliefs. What seems particularly interesting is the evolutionary ring of the received signals - the fact that a new entity had to create itself - though through human intervention - in order to decipher this code, this language - surely language is a virus from outer space, to quote William S Burroughs and Laurie Anderson.
The matrix entity, it could be argued, is experiencing a kind of cosmic techno love. Case, however, will never see Molly again, and so maybe, despite his anger and frustration, he does need this new being. It seems he cares about it because at the very end of Neuromancer he visits it through cyberspace. He discovers an image of himself together with images of other persons (and programs) that helped creating the being, it's parents. These are the matrix' personal memories, and Case's too.

The theme of techno memories is reminiscent of Blade Runner, where the replicants on the run all have memory implants. Deckard, the anti hero of the movie, is a Blade Runner, whose job is to hunt down and kill the replicants who are considered a threat to society - the dangerous Other. More than once during the movie the replicants refer to themselves as slaves, victims, while humans use the derogatory term 'skinjobs', clearly stressing their non-human status. Although the setting is LA 2019, the grim past of racist America springs to mind.
Deckard falls in love with one of the replicants, Rachael, after having run a Voight Kampff test on her - an empathy test which, supposedly, reveals whether a person is a replicant or not. An ironic tongue in cheek comment on the Turing Test which is used to determine if a computer is intelligent. But not sentient.
Later in the movie she asks him very incisively:

'You know, that Voight Kampff test of yours...did you ever take that test yourself?'
(Ridley Scott, dir., Blade Runner, Deeley/Scott Production, 1982)

Just as incisively, Deckard does not answer. In fact, throughout the movie it is more than hinted that Deckard is himself a replicant without knowing so. First, there are six run-off replicants, he only kills five, second, and perhaps most importantly, there is a scene in the Director's Cut version in which Deckard dreams of a unicorn. At the very end of the movie he finds an origami unicorn, left for him by the police inspector Gaff, who thereby reveals to Deckard that he knows his dream - because his dream is in fact an implant.
Thus Deckard and Rachael escape at the end, but only to find death waiting just around the corner - their four years lifespan is up.


TO GO BEYOND – CYBERART

'No girl? Nothing? Only biz, friend artiste? ...I think I liked you better with her. You laughed more. Now, some night, you get maybe too artistic; you wind up in the clinic tanks, spare parts.'
(William Gibson, Neuromancer, p. 5)

Art - in the broadest sense of the word - is a very central theme in Gibson's work, all of his stories are concerned with it in one way or the other. It often appears as a parallel to the discusions on what it means to be a sentient being. What is art? What is an artist? What does art do and is there such a thing at all anyway? Is it possible to answer these questions, and would we want to?
Gibson's approach to art seems, not surprisingly, born out of a post-modern condition. Art is not only the traditional greatest hits categories of music, literature, architecture, and so forth. Art can be just about anything. It is a way of expressing yourself, of communication, of showing feelings and sharing thoughts that cannot be expressed otherwise, of killing boredom. But there is also an aleatoric element in art as portrayed in Gibson's stories, an idea of art without artist, somewhat reminiscent of the late musical philosophies of John Cage. We see this perhaps most clearly in Count Zero where an artificial intelligence creates strange little boxes, works of art, presumably without feeling.

In Neuromancer, the hacker Case is referred to as 'artiste' by friends and there can be little doubt that his actions, his hacks, in cyberspace are artistic. His data trips are described in poetic metaphors, evoking transcendental and sensual beauty. He is in many ways a futuristic romantic artist.
Case's mental data art is mirrored by Molly's martial art which, of course, is physical. Like Case, Molly is also an artist, her art being combat skills, her body. She is sometimes compared to Bruce Lee, a martial artist legend who incorporated yin & yang ideas into his Jeet Kune Do system, a unique freestyle based combat technique taking in elements of all kinds of fighting, a post-modern martial art.
Sometimes Case and Molly work together simultaneously by the aid of simstim technology, enabling them to share one another's sensations, a trick of technology used metaphorically in an expression of multidimensionality, dissolving the traditional, somewhat rigid concept of the fixed individual subject as well as both blurring and stressing dichotomies of mind and matter, male and female.
The critic Csicsery-Ronay comments on art in Neuromancer:

Almost every character in Neuromancer is an artist in some kind, almost every object a technological artifact that is also a work of art. ...Bodies are forever measured by art: Wage's mask; Molly's self-construction and her 'muscles like a dancer's' (44); a Panther Modern 'flowing [like] a mime pretending to be a jungle predator' (50); Lupus Yonderboy, 'a state of the art gargoyle' (67); 'Armitage, like a 'metal statue' (29). ...Villa Straylight, the 'Gothic folly' (172), unfolds in 3Jane's academic essay as an architectural wonder, a collection-point of obsolete objets d'arts so saturated with aura (from having been transported into orbit from Earth) that they seem to be organic matter in the vestibular viscera of the Straylight nautilus.
(Istvan Csicsery-Ronay, 'The Sentimental Futurist: Cybernetics and Art in William Gibson's Neuromancer', Science-Fiction Studies, Vol. 33, 1992, p. 277)

In his essay, The shadow of Spirit in William Gibson's Matrix Trilogy, the critic Lance Olsen discusses the element of yin & yang philosophy in Neuromancer. Case and Molly would of course seem an obvious example, but also the two artificial intelligences are interesting :

Not only do Case and Molly seek a physical and metaphysical connection, but so too do the two artificial intelligences, Wintermute and Neuromancer. Wintermute, whose mainframe is in Berne, seeks fusion with Neuromancer, whose mainframe is in Rio. Wintermute is 'hive mind', while Neuromancer is 'personality' and hence 'immortality' (269). 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 cosmos, then Neuromancer represents the force of yin.
(Lance Olsen, The Shadow of Spirit in William Gibson's Matrix Trilogy', p. 284)

Although the two artificial intelligences are, in a sense, oppositions drawn towards one another, Olsen's yin & yang interpretation seems a little simplistic in that it relies much on the more recent, somewhat westernised interpretation of the symbol. Ancient yin & yang philosophy does not spell out the male/female dichotomy in terms of one representing the force of yang, the other that of yin. Rather, the two halves of the symbol are different forces which yet are part of one another, in a sense much closer in spirit to the post-modern condition. Moreover, Gibson plays with the idea of letting the artificial intelligences represent traditionally 'good' and 'evil' values by turn, because basically they are beyond human morals, and thus capable of shifting and switching at will. And then of course they too are artists - their ultimate creation their fusion of which is born a new matrix.

Another example of the Gibsonian artist is the multi-handicapped Lise of The Winter Market. She creates sensory music in cyberspace, described like this by the protagonist of the story:

...It's like you're on a motorcycle at midnight, no lights but somehow you don't need them, blasting out along a cliff-high stretch of coast highway, so fast you hang there in a cone of silence, the bike's thunder lost behind you. Everything lost behind you...Amazing. Freedom and death, right here, razor's edge forever.
(William Gibson, 'The Winter Market' in Burning Chrome, p. 148)

Through her art, Lise experiences all the things she cannot do physically because of her handicap - not surprisingly, the notion of speed is important to her, as speed is movement. The above quotation bears much resemblance to sheer escapism with its connotations of sexual orgasm and the thrill of adrenaline freedom. Lise's art is indeed 'freedom and death', a Thanatos force that, at the end of the story, drives her to escape her physical body, leave it behind to die, in order to become one with cyberspace, with her art. And in this sense Lise's art is both escapist as well as constructive creation, metaphysical transgression, and transcendence.

A somewhat reminiscent theme is found in Mona Lisa Overdrive where the hacker, Bobby Newmark has stored his personality within a chunk of microchips referred to as 'the aleph'. At the end of the story, Bobby brings his lover Angie into the aleph as well and they both die physically as they transform themselves into data energy within the aleph which is said to contain worlds. Aleph is the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet; historically it signifies creation in that first of all god created the word; aleph being the first letter in the alphabet, symbolically the essence of the word. Moreover, aleph is also connected to the Jewish myth of the golem. A golem is a clay being given life through Kaballistic rituals; by writing the name of the creature on its forehead - the first letter of this name being aleph - and the secret name of god on a piece of paper to be put into its mouth, the rabbi can breathe life into the mouth of his creation and it shall live. However, the golem can also be destroyed by erasing the aleph from its name which is Hebrew for truth. When the aleph is removed the name means, 'he is dead'.
The aleph of Mona Lisa Overdrive leans on the symbolism associated with the aleph of Jewish mysticism. Bobby's worlds within the chunk of microchips, like the rabbi’s clay golem, represent human creation, creation of new life, of other dimensions - a task traditionally accustomed to god. The aleph is, in a sense, creation gone wild, it is razor's edge, the tightrope between life and death - if the aleph is erased, the golem dies. Likewise, the destruction of Bobby Newmark's aleph in Mona Lisa Overdrive is also the destruction of his techno personality. Yet, this very creation, this going beyond, seems very much the essence and the euphoria of Gibson's cyber art - as it is said repeatedly in Mona Lisa Overdrive - Rapture. Rapture's coming.

In Count Zero the main plot centres around mystical boxes, pieces of art which, quite symbolically, possess healing powers. Throughout the narrative, one of the three main characters, Marly Krushkova, who is gifted with a unique intuition, searches for the artist who produced the marvellous boxes, hoping to gain insight and enlightenment, much the same way as sharing a bed with Socrates, according to the Symposium, results in a share of his insight and enlightenment. By the very end of the book, she finds her artist - in a zero-gravity room in a deserted space station:

...she caught herself on the things' folded jointed arms, pivoted and clung there, watching the swirl of debris. There were dozens of the arms, manipulators, tipped with pliers, hex-drivers, knives, a subminiature circular saw, a dentist's drill... They bristled from the alloy thorax of what must once have been a construction remote, the sort of semiautonomous device she knew from childhood videos of the high frontier. But this one was welded into the apex of the dome, its sides fused with the fabric of the Place, and hundreds of cables and optic lines snaked across the geodesics to enter it. Two of the arms, tipped with delicate force-feedback devices, were extended; the soft pads cradled an unfinished box.
(William Gibson, Count Zero, p. 217)

The artist, the Boxmaker, is a computer artificial intelligence - presumably part of the matrix being from Neuromancer - controlling old mechanical devices, constructing pieces of art out of junk and space debris. These are the boxes thought to possess healing powers, the boxes which, resounding Warhol's theory on art and commercialism, are extremely expensive between art dealers on Earth.
This is the machine as artist. Deeply fascinated, Marly addresses the being:

'You're here, aren’t you?'...
- Yes, I am here...I have my song, and you have heard it. I sing with these things that float around me, fragments of the family that funded my birth...
'Are you - are you sad?'
- No.
'But your - your songs are sad.'
- My songs are of time and distance. The sadness is in you. Watch my arms. There is only the dance. These things you treasure are shells.
'I - I knew that. Once.'
(William Gibson, Count Zero, pp. 226-227)

The song is not sad, the box is a shell. Marly seeks enlightenment, she is an art connoisseur, she believes there is a meaning to art, but she is confronted with an artist not concerned with messages, arguably an artist not concerned with feelings and emotions. What matters is the (maybe emotional) experience Marly receives from the boxes, and this is all there is to art. The song is sad because Marly is. There is no explanation to art, there is no solution, and Marly once knew it was so, thinking perhaps back to her childhood when her conception of the world was not limited or mapped out by systems of structure. Or perhaps the notion is a reference to cultural history, indicating this is the post-modern Marly come to meaning’s end, realising all her art theory has been rendered obsolete, a failing meta-narrative, in the words of Lyotard. At the end of the day, art holds no more secret meaning than does life itself.

One of the perhaps most beautiful conceptions of artistic creation in Gibson's fiction is to be found at the end of Idoru, the setting of which is Tokyo a few years past the turn of the millennium. The plots circle around an almost mythical rock star, Rez who is funding an eccentric artificial intelligence project - the creation of the idory, Rei Toei. The idoru is present in the physical world as a complex, animated holographic image, but she is restricted outside cyberspace which is her 'natural environment'. At the end of the novel, Rez chooses to follow his idoru into cyberspace, to a place called Hak Nam, or The Walled City, a secret data hideout which seeks to maintain the freedom of anarchy of the net from vast and ever-growing commercial and political interests. Together, Rez and Rei Toei form a new synthesis of creation from within cyberspace, blurring the distinction between the technological and the physical world, as they set out to construct the Hak Nam of cyberspace on an island of gomi, that is junk, in Tokyo Bay.
At the very end of the novel, one of the protagonists of the story sees a dream image of this place:

Chia dreamed of a beach pebbled with crushed fragments of consumer electronics; crab-things scuttling low, their legs striped like antique resistors. Tokyo Bay, shrouded in fog from an old movie, a pale gray blanket meant to briefly conceal first-act terrors: sea monsters or some alien armada. Hak Nam rose before her as she waded nearer, but with a dream's logic it grew no closer. Backwashing sea, sucking at her ankles. The Walled City is growing. Being grown. From the fabric of the beach, wrack and wreckage of the world before things changed. Unthinkable tonnage, dumped here by barge and bulk-lifter in the course of the great reconstruction. The minuscule bugs of Rodel-van Erp seethe here, lifting the iron-cached balconies that are sleeping rooms, countless unplanned windows throwing blank silver rectangles back against the fog. A thing of random human accretion, monstrous and superb, it is being reconstituted here, retranslated from its later incarnation as a realm of consensual fantasy.
(William Gibson, Idoru, p. 289)

This passage has a Utopian ring to it, but unlike the nightmare visions of the perfect fascist future portrayed in The Gernsback Continuum, Hak Nam is monstrous and superb at the same time, multicoloured, unplanned, random. And then of course the description rings self-reflective, even somewhat self-ironic, an intertextual pun on the famous, much quoted description of cyberspace as concensual hallucination found in Neuromancer - here called off as mere fantasy.

Hak Nam is coming true, by the help of sophisticated nanotech - making buildings grow like organisms - and intuitive almost child-like cyberspace fantasy.

Sometimes Chia wondered if they all weren't just joking, because it just seemed impossible that anyone could ever do that. Build that, an island in Tokyo Bay. But the idoru said that it was where they wanted to live, now that they were married. So they were going to do it. And if they do, Chia thought, hearing the hiss of the Espressomatic, I'll go there.
(William Gibson, Idoru, pp. 291-292)

Gibson does not really seem to believe in his own cyberspace-inside-out-Utopia, and actually sees Hak Nam collapse in the 'follow-up' to Idoru, All Tomorrow's Parties. Creation can start over - like when you die in a computer game and get ready for the next shot.


SUMMING IT UP

William Gibson has, in many ways, created a fictitious world which is becoming more and more real every day, blurring the distinction between not only science fiction and science, but also that between art and the real - making his central themes even more important.
In his books, he deals with ideas which are new and innovative, addressing technology, as well as ancient questions of the human condition. What is human and what is machine and is it necessary and, in the long run, indeed possible, to keep the distinction tight? He touches upon themes such as escapism and transcendence through technology, alienation and loss of identity in a world of semiotic chaos and technological extravaganza. But at the same time he maintains an expression of rapture, the creative euphoria of technology, stressing its transgressive and multimedial aesthetics. His work does not suffer from neither technophilia nor technophobia. He knows it is impossible to stop technological advancement - why turn back on evolution? At the end of the day, technology does not just give us weapons of mass destruction and environmental chaos, it is also - like the book - an amazing extension of the imagination.
Thus, Gibson's future is neither pessimism nor optimism - it is chaotic and confusing, indeed, but it is also beautiful in all it's multicultural splendor, and - at times - actually great fun. And hey, it’s really just round the corner now. Any minute.


Copyright: Ras Bolding 2003

Back