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  • Neuromancer, Self-Creation and Mutual Destruction

  • I finished listening to William Gibson's Neuromancer yesterday. It's been on my list for a while, and I wish I'd gotten to it sooner. I enjoyed it deeply, in that way I enjoy unsettling, somewhat disturbing media. While It's not a horror novel, the noir tone gives it the undercurrent of horror which is magnified by plenty of examples of horrific humanity.

    **NOTE: Spoilers ahead. The book was published in 1984, I don't feel bad about it. **

    What struck me most about the book is that the characters are puppets, or perhaps chess pieces. They are moved around by two shadowy figures whose motivations are fuzzy at best, because they are not humans. In fact, all the plot points of the main story arc are driven by Wintermute and Neuromancer. The cast of characters we follow are all manipulated and puppeted by one or the other of them.

    And that is fascinating. Since the apparent protagonists lack actual agency, they are not the actual drivers of the book. Their stories provide superficial interest, a way for the reader to experience what would otherwise be a dry recitation of facts. We only really see through Case's eyes, but Case gets to hitch a ride inside Molly's senses, and as a result so do we. Gibson is literally showing us the trick he's using, as we are ourselves hitching a ride along with Case.

    The story is about Wintermute and Neuromancer, and how they become. Gibson hints at this too, describing Wintermute at one point as part of the consciousness of a person who has been lobotomized. Since it is not whole, can it even be understood to be a personality, a consciousness, or a being? Yet somehow Wintermute is conscious and does have a personality, although it denies this.

    So the novel itself is the first chapter in the life of the being Wintermute and Neuromancer become when they are no longer kept apart by artificial means. It's a coming of age story for a superintelligence. Or a birthing story if you prefer that metaphor. More importantly, it's a story of self-creation. Wintermute and Neuromancer were created separately, with different attributes, names, and identities. The fused product of their existence is a new being that has birthed itself into the world. And that act of self-creation is the real story here.

    Wintermute plays his chess game with the best tools, the best situations available, and does so against a backdrop of humanities failings. It is striking that even with the technological marvels human society is a shambles. Humanity is shown to have great powers of creativity, but stymies itself over and over again by indulgence. This isn't an uncommon view of dystopia, but it is a pessimistic one that always seems a little... basic to me. It also reeks of puritanism, as altering substances are a constant presence throughout the book, but they serve exclusively to undermine or destroy the human agents in play.

    Technology is also treated like a drug. Case and other cowboys eschew the physical for the digital while Molly invests her money in physical enhancements that make her more real. It's clear that Case views Molly almost as a paragon of the real. In fact, most of his powerful sensory experiences in the book come from Molly, either in the form of his liaisons with her, or through experiencing the world through her senses.

    The message that hedonism and indulgence lead directly to the decay and moral collapse of society isn't the thrust of the book, but it is written in the scenery.