Science Fiction Studies

#58 = Volume 19, Part 3 = November 1992

Neil Easterbrook

The Arc of Our Destruction:Reversal and Erasure in Cyberpunk

What is unspoken in the world, in our gestures, in the whole enigmatic heraldry of our behavior, our dreams, our sicknesses—does not all that speak, and if so in what language, and in obedience to what grammar?  —Michel Foucault (306)

the semblance of freedom makes reflection upon one’s own unfreedom incomparably more difficult than formerly when such reflection stood in manifest contradiction to manifest unfreedom, thus strengthening dependence. —Theodor Adorno (21)

Cyberpunk is dead. Or at least, most of its early proponents and practitioners have jumped ship, swimming back toward the mainstream. Those writers still aboard appear blocked. But in 1984, cyberpunk was SF’s avant-garde, its newest, hardest new wave. In the movement’s manifesto and most widely disseminated polemic, an introduction to the Mirrorshades anthology, Bruce Sterling wrote that cyberpunk is a "cultural Petri dish where writhing gene lines splice"; it is, he said, a reaction against both a withered, atrophied hard SF and a docile, friable New Wave: "the careless technophilia of those days belongs to a vanished, sluggish era, when authority still had a comfortable margin of control" (xiii). In other words, cyberpunk envisioned itself as a site of distinctive cultural interrogation and as a subversive genre that no longer deferred to the clear boundary marking the possession and distribution of power within society.1

By 1989 these pretensions had become embarrassments, a balloon popped even by the accomplished novels most indebted to cyberpunk’s innovations. For example, in Hyperion and The Fall of Hyperion, Dan Simmons renames console cowboys "cyberpukes" (Hyperion §5:341) and depicts them as slightly ridiculous substance-abusers, corporate nerds whose access to the "Gibsonian matrix" (§5:382) must be regulated to keep them from falling victim to "uplink anorexia" (Fall §32:266).

But the gap between cyberpunk’s self-promotion and its textual performance didn’t simply appear in the five years between Sterling’s and Simmons’ remarks. And it didn’t derive from advertising hype, financial success, or hacks exploiting the style, as so often happens in any aesthetic market. This gap is immediately apparent even in cursory readings of the fiction, especially in the text Sterling identifies as "surely the quintessential cyberpunk novel" (xiv), William Gibson’s remarkable Neuromancer. While attempting to present an analysis that usefully identifies a cyberpunk topos (and so commenting on a number of cyberpunk texts), I will focus on Neuromancer’s understanding of technology, its images, its tropes, and finally its own semiotic self-analysis.

1. The Cyberpunk Mythos. As in most SF novels, almost all the action in Neuromancer is predicated on how various technological changes have become quotidian. In mainstream SF, it is almost axiomatic that technology remains disinterested, like the NRA’s argument for the "degree zero" neutrality of plastic handguns and teflon-coated bullets: "good" technology cures human suffering, makes life easier or cleaner, makes experience more profound; "bad" technology develops from misapplication, from human weakness, avarice, and despair. Worried about such a reductive understanding, some powerful but marginal ("literary") writers (Vonnegut, Le Guin, Lem) have consistently imagined unrestricted R&D as the primary determinant of world catastrophe precisely because it allows the eclipse of human responsibility, allows the social consequences of burgeoning technologies to be denied, ignored, subtly concealed within the purportedly non-ideological discourse of science.2

Neuromancer differs from both formulas in its recuperation of Romanticism’s alternating fascination and horror with technology itself—not specific technologies, applications, or creators. Gibson’s narrative world flows from the reification of Japanese corporate ideology: governments have been supplanted by fiercely competitive zaibatsus, multinationals organized more like clans, and national allegiance replaced by loyalty to the firm. The dissolution of the boundary between nation and corporation, like the gradually elided boundary between man and machine, results from the decadence of a "soiled humanity" (§17:203), which produces its most extreme examples in aristocrats wealthy enough to purchase whatever technocrats can craft. Leaders of these corporations exist in biological/cybernetic ambivalence, as something more and something less than human:

He’d always imagined it as a gradual and willing accommodation of the machine, the system, the parent organization. It was the root of street cool, too, the knowing posture that implied connection, invisible lines up to hidden levels of influence. (§17:203)

Here technology is the product and medium of the ideological transformation of society, where the ideology secures the privileged position of those already in power, radiating invisible lines of influence which can be traced back to the sinecures of a comfortably ensconced hegemony.

This metamorphic, transformational technology is paradoxical in that it simultaneously provides the vehicle of subversion for groups marginalized or repressed by corporate culture. Molly, Case, The Finn, and later Bobby (the "Count" of Count Zero) and Mona (of Mona Lisa Overdrive) are all characters with working-class or underclass backgrounds, characters who exploit threshold technologies to escape from the dead-end despair of tenements and mind-numbing boredom of television; however, escape is possible only by following those traces of influence, by remaining within the way power is structured, by climbing the ladder it occasionally leaves hanging. Molly, for example, has had a number of physical changes, the most notable of which is that her eyes have been walled off by implanted lenses—those totems of cyberpunk, mirrorshades—which mimetically reflect the diegetic world while walling off the wearer.3 These mirrorshades reflect Molly’s world so well, including an identification of the only social ladder available to her, that when she meets the most decadent corporate patriarch (the "mad king" [203]), he approves of the change. He asks, "How would you cry, if someone made you cry?" and she replies, "I spit. The ducts are routed back into my mouth." "Then you’ve already learned an important lesson," he concludes (§15:183). Three pages later, Molly murders him by shooting a toxic dart into his eye. Molly herself will later have a lens broken, nearly causing her death.

What is signified here remains unironic, precisely the opposite of the resonance traditionally associated with ocular metaphors. A superior modern example is the famous moment in the Odessa Steps sequence of Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin (1926) when a peasant, who had appealed to the state militia to stop firing, is shot through the eye; this image, and the extraordinary montage throughout the scene, signals an awakening proletarian consciousness, a consciousness that will reject the Czar’s authoritarian rule. In Oedipus the King, that Ur-text for eye-imagery, Oedipus blinds himself precisely because he has achieved self-awareness, because he cannot stand the luminosity of insight which ridicules his previous pretensions to usurp Apollo’s authority. Oedipus the King establishes a certain irony marking all such claims to existence outside the realm of conventional powers.

However, unlike modern and ancient precedents, the imagery in Neuromancer simply reinforces corporate power and the technology structuring it; in this case, it signals Molly’s union with the decadence of the corporate clan she nevertheless despises. Molly, of course, is an industrial mercenary, whose individual industry derives only from her implants: lenses, software, and retractable razor-blade nails. She is, it turns out, actually in the employ of machines owned by the corporate patriarch she kills. In another instance (for the novel is full of specular and ocular images), when Neuromancer appropriates Peter de Riviera’s grey eyes (§21:243) because they are "beautiful" (§23:259), no one recognizes the irony that these eyes are empty, hollow—they are the counterpart of the "grey void" (§20:233).

There is a literal blindness here: the narrative’s. While everyone in the novel is literally or figurally wounded (Ratz, no arm; Armitage, no mind; Case, no nerves; Coro and Hideo, no eyes; Molly, no past), the narrative is itself increasingly blind, refusing to face its mythos of self and culture. Neuromancer’s "ghost hieroglyphs, translucent lines of symbols" (§21:241) combine street cool with an appeal to occult technologies and form, as Gibson says in an interview, a "mythology of computers like Springsteen’s mythology of cars" (Interview 107). By his own admission, Gibson has little specific knowledge of computer programming, gene splicing, or industrial engineering; most of his keener insights originated as pieces of conversation overheard in bars (McCaffery 223-24). His celebrated conjectures about technological change—such as his introduction of the term "computer virus" —are therefore the products not just of blind luck but of open mythologizing: "My ignorance allowed me to romanticize it" (224). The net effect is that while cyberpunk offers itself as a subversion of corporate culture, its images deny such an interpretation. "Cultural criticism," according to Theodor Adorno, "shares the blindness of its object," and this blindness is produced by ideology (27). Ideology is not reducible to mere partiality or bias; rather, it is central to all it considers—it is the very grammar that both structures cyberpunk’s critique and renders it inauthentic.

That cyberpunk’s blindness is coextensive with its insight is supported by the Gothic inconsequence of Neuromancer’s expressionistic style, dominated by hard-edged, glitzy, gratuitous detail; denying depth, the narrative style creates a mythos of surface. The novel’s cinematography develops by "flickering montage" (§2:31), which accurately describes the patterns of imagery invoked. Like Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, its visual references are colorized revisions of hard-boiled film noir, itself a digitized sampling4 of a literary genre developed by Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. Each scene is structured like an expensive television soap opera; filled with wretched excess, including romanticized debauchery, and ending with a cliff-hanger, each scene duplicates the rhetoric of desire within commercial promotion, manipulating viewers to tune in again, to buy more tires and soap, buy the sequel, buy the sequel’s sequel, perfectly tracing the spiral of consumption: "the dance of desire and commerce" (§1:11).

Some of the novel’s fundamental tropes are familiar to us from countless other speculations on utopias and dystopias, extrapolations of paradise and apocalypse, yet with significant differences: Neuromancer’s "outlaw zones" exist as a "deliberately unsupervised playground for technology itself" (§1: 11)—the wild west of an expanding information economy. The action alternates between seedy low-lifes looking for a buck and corporate "joe-boys" acting like seedy low-lifes, both operating under the mysterious shadow of captains of industry. As is frequently the case in SF, thematic parallels between microcosm and macrocosm are represented through the protagonist. Case is a "self-loathing" (§23:262) cybernetic terrorist, hijacking information or stealing it from magnetic safes. Just as Case is addicted to amphetamines, so the society is addicted to technology and data transference; its street punks are "nihilistic technofetishists" (§4:59). Gibson’s conceit is to make Case a synecdoche for T-A (the Tessier-Ashpool conglomerate) and T-A a synecdoche for the culture: all are manipulated by exterior pulsions beyond their control.

Two particular sorts of tropes inform the narrative’s manipulation of technology. The first is an SF topos, a pattern of tropological displacement common since Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818): a neat reversal of the natural/artificial opposition. In Neuromancer all natural/artificial images are reversed from their conventional priority: techne now precedes physis. The famous opening line compares the (natural) sky to a (contrived) technology in an idealization of Enlightenment mechanistic metaphor by implicitly positing technology as primary, that ground upon which nature is to be understood: "The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel." Case’s recurrent nightmare of a wasp’s nest again demonstrates this tendency: "In his mind’s eye, a kind of time lapse photography took place, revealing the [nest] as the biological equivalent of the machine gun, hideous in its perfection. Alien" (§10:126; see also §14:171). Human bodies become the canvas for technological inscriptions (§10:128); the mind is reduced completely to brain, to a mechanical box suitable for programming, or ultimately (in Mona Lisa Overdrive) for storage in a holographic, hardwired memory.

Indeed, in Neuromancer the only place for the curiosities of human consciousness, the conundrums of spirit, is "cyberspace," a "consensual hallucination" (5), a "matrix" of information exchange, a "graphic representation of data abstracted from the banks of every human system" (§3:51). Hence, in a perfect reversal of empirical and transcendental space, Case only feels complete when wandering within the matrix, only when his consciousness is manifested as data. The implied responsibility of accommodation in Neuromancer vanishes in the later novels; transcendental desire encloses human beings altogether in Mona Lisa Overdrive, where Bobby eagerly sacrifices his corporeal body for complete psychic absorption into the Aleph, a portable "approximation of the matrix...a model of cyberspace" (§45:259).

A curious second reversal follows from this digital conception of mind: these memories aren’t Read-Only-Memory, like that of the Dixie Flatline in Neuromancer, but open-ended, permitting human psyches all the cybernetic freedoms of the AIs—although here they duplicate artificial intelligence: thus the Aleph is, of course, not the matrix itself, but openly only a model, a duplicate, a simulacrum. While these images aggressively reverse orthodox conventions, they lack irony, especially in the Romantics’ sense of parabasis, frequently found elsewhere in speculative fiction, as in Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris (in English 1970), where the human confrontation with alien intelligence shows our inability to understand ourselves; or in Italo Calvino’s "The Soft Moon" (in his T-Zero, in English 1969), where the moon must slaver primordial glop over an Earth originally covered by formica and naugahyde, concrete and teflon.

Neuromancer does contain lucid spiritual metaphors, but they are always linked to a technological base. Gibson treats the Vodou religion as a kind of technology of consciousness, and its followers as technofetishists analogous to dedicated users of any technology. In Count Zero and Mona Lisa Overdrive the AIs manifest themselves in the matrix as Vodou gods, or loa, and eventually "ride" human beings in the empirical world—perfectly analogous to any "live" Simstim hookup, such as Case experiences while "riding" Molly (§4:56-57). These religious metaphors always involve a corporeal technology; in Count Zero AI-loa ride Angie not from spiritual ecstasy but because her brain has been structurally altered by her father, who is, we are repeatedly informed, the star engineer for "Maas Biolabs North America" (§14:88). Count Zero’s plot is driven by corporate espionage—the attempt to secure lucrative patents. In the same manner, Neuromancer’s transcendental tropes aren’t of Logos, but of logo: no longer the word made flesh, cyberspace is "data made flesh" (§1:16, §20:239).

The few conventionally "natural" images are all of urban violence, nocturnal instinct: murder or sex. So Molly’s "ecstatic feral intensity" (§2:36) connects only to aboriginal blood lust, the urge to better opponents in war. These carefully placed markers of Freudian "pulsions" in Neuromancer have all but disappeared in Mona Lisa Overdrive, but similar thematics remain.5

The second trope ordering cyberpunk’s techn‘ is not a reversal but an erasure implied by the reversal. Just as the Aleph will erase human corporeality and transform a body into a corpse, advanced technology erases human morality: Molly is hard "wired" (§24:267), not high strung, inconstant, mercenary, or sadistic, and is therefore beyond the need of ethical justifications. And yet both Case and Molly are given psychological "excuses": they have been abused as children and have matured in a society whose human values have been eclipsed by technology’s power (see especially §12:155). Similarly, Count Zero’s pedigree includes a mother addicted to various narcotics (especially to a technology: Simstim, TV which operates on the complete sublation of human psyche as an active principle to the re-produced simulacrum of another’s sensation), providing readers with a reason to sympathize with Bobby’s desire to escape wretched public-housing projects in Barrytown, New Jersey. This emotional sleight-of-hand, this pathos for underdogs, asks us to forget that Case and Molly are murderers (§1:7).

The two circular loops traced in the text—that hallucinatory space is more "real" than empirical space and that while Case and Molly’s exercise of the "will to power" puts them beyond explanation, an ethical sentimentality remains necessary—support and structure the novel’s rhetorical patterns. The fundamental opposition supported by these reversals and erasures is an old one, here given a rather crude formulation: meat vs. mind (extension vs. information). Blood is merely "thick brown sauce" (§2:37) adorning "cooked" meat (§2:38). Such descriptions are underscored both by a tough-guy stoicism to all things worldly and a high tolerance for fatuous metaphors: "the amount of blood in the average human body is roughly equivalent to a case of beer" (§10:125). Yet within the dynamics of Neuromancer the mind is meat too (§11:147), which precipitates a bizarre set of contradictions. Case wants to transcend the meat of the body for the meat of the mind by entering the meat of cyberspace, which is only a "consensual hallucination."

Another curious but familiar reversal follows, for as Case tries to transcend his human limits, so too the machine intelligences strive to pass beyond their material restrictions and develop human qualities of consciousness and personality (§23:259). Appearing as The Finn, Wintermute ridicules Case while explaining why anthropomorphic models, which remain necessary to human understanding, are insufficient to describe machine consciousness (§14:169-71). This is the "desire" of AIs to humanize themselves—not simply to deploy anthropomorphic models, human templates. But the AIs model their own evolution anthropomorphically—for it is only the addition of Neuromancer, who can create "personality," that can transform Wintermute into something new. And this desire is a human drive, derived from Marie-France Tessier’s ideal vision (§19:229, §15:180), which I shall return to below.

If reversal and erasure define Neuromancer’s rhetoric of technology, what images and tropes show what it means to be "human"? Throughout the novel, humans are valued by their relation to objects, by their associations with and access to consumer products. Brand names are the stylish accessories to complete the fashionable outfit of future technology—people and objects valorized by their brands, like cattle: "The Ono-Sendai, Cyberspace year’s most expensive Hosaka computer; a Sony monitor; a Braun coffeemaker" (§3:46, my emphasis). But everything that is fashionable in Neuromancer is fashionable to the fashionable now: Danish vodka, imported cigarettes, Carlsberg beer, sushi, Porsche sunglasses. And so fashionable that it is next-year’s fashion.

Even descriptions of nondescript bits of clothing always inscribe the thrust of fashion: "She wore a dark mesh t-shirt tucked into baggy pants" (§3:45); or, "Case gulped the last of his coffee, settled the trodes in place, and scratched his chest beneath his black t-shirt" (§4:60). Isolating bits of the sensorium is a well-know technique of expressionism; normally, the technique transcends the flat exterior by probing interior depths; for example, in Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying (1930) descriptions of eyes dominate the other character’s perceptions of the main narrator, forcing readers to question his rhetoric, to look within his motivations. Gibson also focuses our attention on the transcendence of the quotidian, but in this case not to penetrate to any deeper significance but to revel in the surface. In this case the device of transversal, the transcendental pivot, is the corporate logo, sigil, or product name. Especially revealing is that even Case’s dreamwork is commodified: the wasp’s nest is inscribed with the logo of Tessier-Ashpool (§10:127).

Given Gibson’s focus, given the desire of those characters we invest our sympathy in, the only authentically human response is also determined by the machine culture, itself dependent on its dialectical tension with the zaibatsus. Despite repeated attempts by these characters to transcend their social position, only the authority of the logo can permit transcendental traversal. Even the truly transcendent moments (e.g., the union of Wintermute and Neuromancer, the transfiguration of Bobby and Angie) reinscribe the authority of the machine-corporation; such moments are wholly predicated on the deus ex machina operation of some consumer product (no matter how technologically sophisticated, restricted, or expensive). As Gibson’s conception of technology depends on appropriating religious metaphors, here too the metaphors turn on capitalism’s seizure of theology: the moral and corporeal are replaced by the mordant and the corporate, Logos replaced by logo. What is a logo if not the signature of authenticity, the inscription of authority? This is cyberpunk’s colophon: the logo of simulated, manufactured transcendence.

The ultimate fashionable sensibility is the narrative’s. Gibson isolates logos and brand names like publicity for Calvin Klein jeans. In Neuromancer’s world, Kirin and Carlsberg will always be hipper than Heineken or Beck’s, Braun always above and beyond Krupps, Sony always preferable to Pioneer.6 In fact, to be without a fashionable name is to be without market value: the "dated, nameless style" (§1:9) of the past is dated precisely because it is nameless. "The crystalline essence of discarded technology" (§5:72) fills slums with its fuzzy detritus, since fashion requires that function be secondary, and since surface is all, obsolescence is guaranteed. This virtual apotheosis of consumer culture is revealed in a curiously antithetical combination: Yuppie values distilled through avant-garde hip (Lou Reed Jeans?), absolute lust for the newest consumer product modified only by the street cool needed to appear ambivalent: rendering inconsequential all but the authority of the logo. Indeed, if we were to redescribe this desire, Molly’s "ecstatic feral intensity" becomes logo-lust: technology here is product, never neutral application, never process of scientific discovery. That an individual logo’s authority may be transitory or temporary does nothing to diminish the power The Logo exercises; instead, it vests its possessor with the sigil of success, position, and taste, reveals its owner as one who already owns next year’s fashion.7

2. Meet the New Boss, Same as the Old Boss. That the pattern of reversal and erasure is played out in other novels by other writers associated with cyberpunk, and not simply the singular product of Gibson’s corrosive lyricism, can be demonstrated by brief reflections on Sterling’s The Artificial Kid and Schismatrix. The latter, often considered the second most representative cyberpunk novel, actually is among the least innovative books cyberpunk has produced. In its simplistic dialectical struggle between Shapers, Mechanists, and their synthesis as "posthumanity," it is as reductive as the orthodox SF it would supplant. In the story of the two young idealists, Philip and Lindsay —both male—one goes mad and tries to rule the universe, the other facelessly fights oppression. (Guess who wins; guess how their conflict is resolved; guess what it means to throw off the yoke of oppression.) Philip’s heavy-handed vulgarity issues from his proletarian genes, but Lindsay’s subtle machinations derive from the fact that he was born into the hegemony, "ancient aristocrats" (§2:57) who conserve political power through controlling the keiretsus. The novel’s vision of ideal government is "corporate republic" or "people’s zaibatsu"; responsibly managed, it shares profit equitably, which does not mean equally. Also present is a species of alien traders, middlemen sardonically named "The Investors" (though this irony is never reinscribed into Lindsay’s behavior). Investors profit only where traditional, "natural" social hierarchies are maintained; when they are debased, business goes bust (§7:206).

The plot’s tensions concern "gene politics" (§7:212), the struggles of various factions for control of the future, of human evolution. While there are several ingenious twists in the story, the characters lack subtlety of any sort. For instance, the Shapers’ manipulation of the "biosciences" (§2:57) and the Mechanists’ of the cybernetic sciences (§5:139) eventually produce a monstrous parody of a human being; with her flesh covering the entire surface area of a city, Kitsune dryly comments "Being God is better" (§10: 256) than physical ecstacy (cf §2:43). (It is almost impossible to read this passage without recalling how Donna Haraway reflects that "I would rather be a cyborg than a goddess" [181].) Lindsay finally meets "the Presence," a "mirror-colored thing" (§10:264) and also evolves to that god-like status (§11:287). It is no mere accident that transcendence for women is to become a god of flesh but for men is to ascend to pure spirit, for the novel is orthodox in virtually every respect. Darko Suvin points out that as

a somewhat updated space opera flitting from colony to colony, in a rather forced derivation from something like the Italian Renaissance city-states and their different systems with internal intrigues of little significance, [Schismatrix contains] the hoariest cliches of 1940s-50s sf. (47)

This nostalgia for non-ironical solutions is particularly surprising since although the novel was written in the midst of the Reagan presidency, it was published just after Neuromancer and just before Sterling’s preface to Mirrorshades. Unlike Neuromancer, Schismatrix does contain some self-aware satire (§2:37 or §4:90), but perhaps The Artificial Kid is more revealing, both because Neuromancer clearly owes many of its innovations to Sterling’s earlier book, and because it offers another striking description of the cyberpunk mythos.

The Artificial Kid tells the tale of its eponymous protagonist, first "the Kid" then simply "Arti," a "combat artist" (§1:2) who accidentally meets one Moses Moses, the planet Reverie’s political patriarch recently thawed from his concealed cryocrypt. Like Jimmy Stewart in a Hitchcock film, Arti is swept up in events beyond his control, first fleeing from the city of Telset, subsequently traversing the great open wilderness called "the Mass," later returning to help lead a revolution against Reverie’s "invisible plutocracy" (§2:15), the Cabal, which has usurped the corporate authority of "the Reverid Board of Directors" (§2:20). Just like Case, Arti has unique attributes suitable to the task at hand.

Combat artistry is literally the apotheosis of the street rumble; blood feuds become "the major art events of the year" (§4:57). It is a theater of horrific violence supported by wealthy patrons who sponsor battles and help market videos of the stars’ performances. Naturally, they also share profits with the actors, who fight to "accumulate a few more shares of stock"—hoping eventually to own a video channel and "become a patron" (§10:164). Individual "artists" must have "gimmicks," and Arti’s conceit is "my childishness and wild artificiality" (§1:2)—the latter effected by plasticized hair (et cetera) and the former by hormone suppressants which render Arti eternally prepubescent. On the trip through the Mass, the Kid becomes a kid in fact:

Arti exhausts his supply of suppressants and grows through a "forced adolescence" (§11:187) to maturity.

So of course the novel parodies the Künstlerroman, since here the infantile artist matures physically, not aesthetically, reversing the conventions of the genre. Each of the form’s generic conventions receives some satiric attention, in the manner of Voltaire’s parody of the Bildungsroman in Candide (1759). Indeed, the plot of The Artificial Kid depends on coincidences too fantastic for any fiction outside the generic conventions of satire. The Kid matures to embrace and resemble his "previous" self—Rominuald Tanglin—supposedly erased by a "memory wipe" (§1:3) but still present as a palimpsest. Coincidentally, Tanglin was the former tyrant of the planet Niwlind, whose missionary Saint Anne Twiceborn has come to Reverie to proselytize but instead meets the inchoate Arti, and as he (oxymoronically) reverts to his new (former) self, she too abandons her old self (i.e., her celibacy and pacifism) to the metamorphosed tyrant she once loved on Niwlind; together, they spend five months in their own Eden beside the sea (§12:212), reborn into innocence, making love "like gods" (§12:213).

The (again literally) self-effacing "memory-wipe" was effected by Tanglin’s compatriot, the absurdly optimistic biologist Professor Crossbow, a neuter whom Arti meets again after escaping from Telset with Saint Anne and Moses Moses. Since all the characters are sought by the Cabal’s bloodthirsty agents, Arti and Anne go into hiding while Moses Moses and Professor Crossbow affect a rejuvenating personality "amalgamation" (§11:176), so that Crossbow can enter politics and Moses Moses can continue the Professor’s research on the Mass’s remarkable "Crossbow Body." As Moses Crossbow and Crossbow Moses, they symmetrically share a variety of the "uncanny" (§10:171) reversal and erasure brought about by the metamorphosis of Arti and Anne.

Only Moses Moses fails to find a parallel in the Candide intertext, and this asymmetry signals one difficulty of treating The Artificial Kid as political parody. Instead, the novel exploits a "bathetic rush of mixed emotions" and styles (§8:123) that consistently inscribes the tropological patterns that mark Neuromancer. The repetition of Moses Moses’ name, his crossing with Professor Crossbow, the recrudescence of Tanglin, the Cabal that is replaced by the same Cabal, the "reincarnation" of Molly Maines—all of these are chiasmic reversals structured on dialectical erasures. The syllepsis within Arti’s name is one example—for it plays/puns on the tension between two radically different meanings. On the one hand, it suggests "artistic,"—the ideal of pure transparency that has traditionally measured techn‘ in the arts. On the other hand, it suggests just the opposite, "arty," artificiality, or the revelation of art as a signifying system. As a proper name "Arti" signifies neither: instead, it must be positioned somewhere between the two, as the one displaces the other, and so on to infinity. But this pattern of chiasmic reversal may best be revealed by examining how "Nature" is understood on Reverie.

Where Neuromancer offers only a cybernetic model of cyberpunk, The Artificial Kid, containing more punk and less cyber than either Neuromancer or Schismatrix, may offer an equally illuminating biological model. The professor’s discovery—one that as we finally discover compels more of the Cabal’s fear than the reemergence of Moses Moses—concerns isolating the specific genetic body responsible for the Mass’s unique botany. Reverids regard the Mass not just as untamed Nature but as untamable, as the wild gone wild, as death itself, reducing all life forms to a dull white mold, "wrinkled as the surface of the brain" (§12:197). However, Crossbow sees this "nightmare landscape" as one "not of death but of fervid, fetid life" (§10:155). Or rather, Crossbow sees the Mass as the transcendence of death, as an immutable gene bank, since the Crossbow Body genetically assimilates and reorganizes (§12:199) every form of life it encounters: "The Crossbow Body destroys the motive for competition between species. It destroys the competition between the old and the new" (§10:157). Crossbow conceives it as the end of evolution and history; human telos, cyberpunk’s eskhaton, is investment in a gene bank that never offers dividends to depositors.

Crossing the Mass means risking contamination. Contaminated by the Crossbow Body, Crossbow Moses metamorphoses into a beautiful tree.8 Only partially contaminated, Arti victoriously sprouts a living crown of green ivy (§12:211). Anne’s transformation by the Crossbow Body is metaleptic; "newborn," she steps out from the foam of Reverie’s sea as Botticelli’s Venus (§12:212).9 The trip through the Mass is a rite of passage through the Natural World, and within its confines all of our protagonists are revitalized. But much as Nature restores the technologically altered humans to their "natural" condition, Nature is presented as the next techn‘, the final evolutionary stage: it adopts "camouflage, not mimicry proper" (§12:192), which is reversed for the techn‘-toting Crossbow Moses and Moses Crossbow—whose symbiotic mimicry of each other proves the single, pivotal, catalytic transformation prefiguring and predicating all the others. Arti and Anne complete a similar personality alloy; Arti learns to care for others’ welfare while Anne becomes capable of violence (§13:232).

Every instance of Nature is clothed by metaphors of techne. Reverie’s "magnificent" mountains are actually man-made ridges of "big craters" created by "big bombs" (§6:85). All of "one’s natural advantages" are in fact the technological offspring of human ingenuity (§12:196). To be blind is to be without one’s video cameras (§12:207). To be simply tired is to be without amphetamines, to "violate our natural circadian rhythms" and live "as if dosed with depressants" (§12:193). Indeed, the moment in the novel that simply escapes the narrative’s techne is Arti and Anne’s five months naked and alone. This period is presented as a simple double-spaced gap—a blank or a hole in the text itself (§12:213). To be without a pervasive technology, to live without predicating one’s entire existence on contemporary technological artifacts is the one thing that cyberpunk cannot read.

In Crossbow Moses’ hermeneutic axiom, "everything is connected to everything else" (§12:192). And so it is. When the novel ends, this aesthetic-cum-biological-cum-cybernetic model quickly dissolves into something akin to the Mass’s "corrosive pools" (§12:207) of "white pudding" (§12:200), a morass of a political model articulated in Money Maines’s "Chemical Analogue Theory of the Body Politic" (§13:226-27). In it, humans are mere molecules in the hegemonic ideology that assimilates and subverts individuals. Just as the Crossbow Body preserves genes (but destroys consciousness), so too the Cabal’s ideology completes the double-cross, destroys political difference—it merely "affect[s] bits of egalitarianism" (§13:219). The Artificial Kid ends both with a total hegemonic victory and with the disingenuous promise that the next chapter, the sequel, will finally displace this authority (§13:233). As Arti earlier admits, "it’ll take an editor of genius to present this fiasco as the soul-stirring adventure I mean it to be" (§12:196).

3. Gothic Inconsequence. My rhetorical critique is openly offered by the fiction itself, for the most part implicitly but occasionally explicitly. In Neuromancer the cloned daughter of Tessier and Ashpool, 3Jane, analyzes the T-A clan as a Gothic construct suffering all the decrepitude associated with traditional conceptions of the Gothic romance (§14:172-73); T-A references always involve architectural metaphors of structure and containment, and 3Jane’s semiotic vivisection considers the Gothic consequences of the Great House, and analogically the Gothic inconsequence of individual will.10 Written for a semiotics course taken when she was 12 but never completed, 3Jane’s analysis of their "hive" provides us with the model for understanding the organization and significance of the great technological arcologies which have replaced national governments and individual wills with hierarchal, feudal, hive mentalities; the essay identifies the architectonics of a clan structure built around an autotelic yet hollow core (§19:229, §22:253).

Tessier-Ashpool S.A. has turned in on itself like a Klein bottle, Moebius strip, or origami sculpture. No longer like the "cultural Petri dish" Sterling praised, T-A becomes a dynasty of Plantagenets. The clan is now fully cloned, with endlessly iterable Janes and Jeans replacing the fresh blood of outsiders. To preserve the family’s fortunes and the company’s competitive position, day to day operations have been turned over to the AIs (the "cores"), monitored by whatever Jane or Jean remains awake, while the patriarch (Ashpool) and matriarch (Tessier) rest in cryogenic slumbers, roused only to resolve occasional crises. We soon discover that years ago the patriarch murdered the matriarch, and that the increasingly unstable clones (specifically 3Jane) have altered the cryogenic software, accelerating Ashpool’s own madness. It is Ashpool whom Molly murders with a shot through the eye, though his stated intention is suicide; Molly shoots him first, responding to the horror of yet another way the family has turned inward: before Molly "intrude[s] on my suicide" (§15:183), Ashpool awakes another Jane as a "meat puppet," rapes her, and then slits her throat.

This immoral, immortal industrial clan—composed of the AI cores, clones, and remnants of the dead queen’s vision—houses itself in orbit, in the Villa Straylight, itself a monstrous (§15:179) pastiche of styles, shapes, and secret enclosures: "if Straylight was an expression of the corporate identity of Tessier-Ashpool, then T-A was as crazy as the old man had been. The same ragged tangle of fears, the same sense of aimlessness" (§17:203). The focal point of the clan, coextensive with the exact center of the Villa, is a room housing an "intricately worked bust" (§5:74), actually a computer terminal formed from a "forgotten purpose" (§15:176). This "baroque... perverse thing," "cloisonné over platinum, studded with seedpearls and lapis" (§5:74), was once stolen from Straylight; T-A has gone to elaborate expense to retrieve it, returning it to the nucleus of the Villa. The ornate head’s "forgotten purpose" concerns Tessier’s vision of some sort of symbiotic union with the AIs (§19:229); not as progressive as his wife, Ashpool murders her, and rather than actually becoming immortal, "all direction was lost, and we began to burrow into ourselves." Neuromancer’s plot is produced by this loss, for the AIs have not forgotten the vision, and they want their release in order to fuse with one another, which turns out to be possible only if a secret code is fed to the ceremonial terminal.

3Jane’s semiotic reading of the Gothic Villa clarifies all of these entropic turns as Gothic infirmities. The allegory does not end with the description of the family’s aimless corruption, but extends to every element of the book. Just as "the entrance to 3Jane’s world had no door" (§17:210), so too the boundary between the outside and the inside is erased; despite a vague nostalgia, the Villa demonstrates a "denial of the bright void beyond the hull" (§14:173) and the clan’s ultimate purposelessness. As Straylight is a "random...patchwork" (§15:176), so too is Case’s personality a product of "countless random impacts (§1:9). Even the book itself possesses such an eclectic structure—a mad paratactical montage of styles, genres, images. Like 3Jane’s unfinished analysis of an incomplete corporate Xanadu, the novel’s attempts to purge itself from comfortable conceptions of authority ultimately invoke precisely the conception of decadent power it tries to reject.

4. Terminal Overdrive. Sterling’s claim had been that cyberpunk deals with characters outside the mainstream of corporate culture, outside the hegemony’s power; that its technological revolutions were based "not in hierarchy but in decentralization, not in rigidity but in fluidity" (xii); that Gibson carefully tried to place his politically dangerous, socially subversive characters in the "narrow borderland" (§1:6), the "interzone" (§3:44) in between the sinecured powers and hapless proletariat. Yet their very existence, their goals, aspirations, and every action are in accord with the largesse of a hegemonic power. Like Bobby’s helpless mother, addicted to Simstim (simulated stimulation) they are dupes whose vitality and individual integrity is fully invested in products produced by a corporate culture that maintains power only for itself; like the AIs or the dream Marie-France held for the T-A clan, this autotelic power pursues its own political, social, and evolutionary schemes, one which consciously aspires to contiguity—mechanical contiguity without self-awareness (§18:217). Ironically, Angie’s AI is named "Continuity."

Rather than breaking free of its addiction to the corporate universe, Neuromancer reinscribes its dependence on corporate hegemony in several ways. The easiest examples again concern plot. Our hero Case has gone along on this ride only under threat of death, but the first thing he does when released from the manipulations of Wintermute is to have his pancreas replaced so that he might, once again, consciously bind himself to his amphetamine addiction (§24:270).

Less obvious but equally revealing is the fact that the literary analog of Simstim—that addiction for the unwashed masses incapable of breaking free and lacking the imagination (or capital) to invest in a new pancreas or liver every now and then—is the novel. In the absolutely perfect simstim, we do not vicariously experience another psyche’s emotion recollected in tranquillity; instead, we make-believe, pretend that the simulated reality is sufficiently stimulating, willingly participate in the "seamless" fantasy (§20:238).11 As Case rides Molly through a Simstim hookup, readers are the loa who ride Neuromancer. And readers who enter this diegetic realm, "hermetically sealed" (§20:234) against the world of human weal and human woe, return only reluctantly. Just recently, a journalist casually but pointedly remarked, "When we first read William Gibson’s Neuromancer, we couldn’t wait to dip our wicks into the electronic astral plane of cyberspace..." ("Cybertunes," Village Voice, July 30, 1991: 80). For both Case and Gibson’s audience, jacking-in is better than sex.

Cyberpunk’s mythos is instantly appealing precisely because it promises a transcendence of the quotidian by making cyberspace into "the natural." This mythos would transgress the limits of the mimetic for total absorption into the diegetic, into the total, pure freedom promised by the release of self from the limits of body. Though the diegetic world operates by its own rules, these rules operate only with the permission of its inhabitants; cyberspace, you’ll recall, is a "consensual hallucination" (§§3:51). Even at the level of narrative, total absorption is possible only if readers permit it, and there exists no algorithm to describe why readers will or will not grant their consent. Yet if readers behave like Case or like Molly, simply assert that things happen because they are fated so ("You gotta jack, I gotta tussle" [§3:50]), if they stop asking questions and willingly give up their freedom to resist authority, then they replicate Case’s inauthenticity, fail to evade the restrictions of the narrative’s general economy.

Neuromancer’s is a thoroughly romanticized view of the world, but unlike Mary Shelley’s, it is a view wed to exploitive technologies, obeisance to authority, and the effluence of fashion. Within that world Case is a pawn not only of the AIs’ machinations (as they force him to discover the gnostic secret, the code that will permit Wintermute’s union with Neuromancer and the evolution of a new species), but a pawn of the way power is apportioned and preserved within that world: it’s not just that he is one man, and consequently cannot dismantle the hegemony of zaibatsu and keiretsu, for in their turn they too are driven by a "terminal overdrive" (§1:7). In cyberpunk tears become spit, love becomes decadence, body collapses into an amalgam of hormones, blood vanishes altogether, or becomes barbecue sauce or beer suds. Despite the rhetoric of resistance, Case loves the ecstatic feral intensity of treating the mind as meat; he openly prefers the way things are, prefers to live parasitically as a criminal stealing data as opportunities permit, prefers to exist in a way possible only by offering obeisance to the status quo. Case exists less as parasite than as symbiot: learning to love himself as a metonym, he completes "the arc of his self-destruction" (§1:7). Like the ambiguously emancipated AIs, Case is commodity par excellence: the evolutionary product of Tessier-Ashpool’s all-too-corporate dream.


1. Sterling’s sterling appraisal of cyberpunk has been repeatedly echoed in critical responses to the subgenre. For examples, see the grandiose claims advanced by Timothy Leary (Mississippi Review, 47/48:252-65, 1988) or the catalogue of praise recited by Suvin (40), who himself remains much more skeptical (50). Andrew Ross recently praised cyberpunk for experiments in gen(r)e politics (although this is my phrase): see his "Getting Out of the Gernsback Continuum," Critical Inquiry 17:411-33, Winter 1991. A convenient anthology of this praise is available in Larry McCaffery’s Storming the Reality Studio: A Casebook of Cyberpunk and Postmodern Science Fiction (Durham, NC, 1991). See also Fredric Jameson, who quotes Mona Lisa Overdrive on the very first page of his recent magnum opus, Postmodernism, or The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (Durham, NC, 1991) and later argues that "cyberpunk" is "the supreme literary expression if not of postmodernism, then of late capitalism itself" (419n1; cf 38, 321). Jameson’s last qualification reveals exactly why cyberpunk is not a postmodern genre, unless if by postmodern we merely mean a style, a set of thematic preoccupations. If it is "postmodern," it is so as is Lacanian psychoanalysis: distinctly, emphatically not poststructural. Both Sterling’s and Gibson’s absolute dedication to dialectical models—of reasoning, of evolution, of political struggle—reveals cyberpunk as the apotheosis of the Modern.

2. For discussions of the ideological character of scientific discourse, see Paul Feyerabend’s Against Method: Outline of an Anarchistic Theory of Knowledge (1975), G. Nigel Gilbert and Michael Mulkay’s Opening Pandora’s Box: A Sociological Analysis of Scientists’ Discourse (1984); Richard Rorty’s Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (1979); Steven Toulmin’s "The Construing of Reality: Criticism in Modern and Postmodern Science," pp 99-117 in The Politics of Interpretation, ed. W.J.T. Mitchell (Chicago, 1983); Hayden White’s "The Fictions of Factual Representation," pp 121-34 in his Tropics of Discourse (Baltimore, 1978), and "The Value of Narrativity in the Representation of Reality," pp 1-25 in his The Content of the Form (Baltimore, 1987). For a compact and careful discussion of the ideological character of technological artifacts, see Technology and Politics, ed. Michael E Kraft and Norman J. Vig (1988).

3. While mim‘sis means "imitation" either of the empirical world or of human action (and connotes representation and realism), diegesis simply denotes the constructed world of the text’s narrative. It does not suggest some concomitant inauthenticity by falsifying the "real" universe; in literary studies, the term echoes Suzanne Langer’s "virtual image"as expounded in "Poetic Creation" in her Problems in Art (1957), although it has a much broader application. For a discussion of its classical significance and contemporary uses, see Gerard Genette’s "Frontiers of Narrative," pp 127-44 in his Figures of Literary Discourse, trans. Allan Sheridan (NY, 1982). The term might also be applied to mark ontological distinctions within individual texts, as we might say that Case’s experience of "riding" Molly through a Simstim hookup is mimetic, whereas his experience of cyberspace, which operates on its own rules even while modeled on empirical space, is diegetic.

4. Gibson himself used this analogy when interviewed about The Difference Engine, co-written with Sterling. The two writers exchanged diskettes by mail, employing an on-line lexicon of Victorian slang (of which they previously knew nothing), using search-and-replace functions to create a pastiche or montage effect in their writing: "We use computers to write in the same way musicians use sampling technology" (National Public Radio, May 14, 1991).

5. Gibson’s characters are becoming progressively younger—which I read in several ways: as an explicit appeal to the conventions of the SF market; as an extension of the desire for pure surface (since adults have vastly more complex pathologies, which are difficult to account for in a narrative glorifying lack of psychological depth); and as evidence of an increasingly simplified view of life, countering Gibson’s claim that his world gets more complex, more subtle: "People have children and dead parents in Count Zero, and that makes for different emotional territory" than in Neuromancer (Interview 108).

6. Presumably, the next step would be for Gibson’s agent to contact Whittle Communications, sell space for particular commercial inscriptions, as is currently the practice for films like Paul Verhoeven’s Total Recall (1990), where the only recall audiences are asked to have is the subliminal desire for Pepsi, Miller Lite, Hilton Hotels, Jack in the Box, et cetera. Certainly audiences are not asked to remember to struggle to affirm one’s identity while it is threatened by irrational but institutionally vested powers.

7. One of the most perceptive essays on cyberpunk published so far—Istvan Csicsery-Ronay’s "Cyberpunk and Neuroromanticism," Mississippi Review 47/48:266-78 (1988)—provides an analysis of cyberpunk’s contextual origins, a catalog of its obsessions, and a sympathetic critique of its essential inauthenticity, which Csicsery-Ronay equates with its "apotheosis of the postmodern" (277). He discusses several of the issues I consider here, such as cyberpunk’s compulsive consumption and its concern with fashion (269).

8. Readers of Orson Scott Card’s Speaker for the Dead (1986) and Xenocide (1991) will recognize a parallel between the Crossbow Body and Card’s conception of the "descolada virus" (or later, the "recolada"), including the remarkable coincidence of the transformation of sentient beings ("the Pequinos") into trees.

9. As the piling up of tropes on one another, as in the deconstructive chain of substitutions (the net effect of which is the effacement of cause and effect), metalepsis is the general figure describing the Crossbow Body’s recombinant function. One might extend this point in any of several directions—that cyberpunk is a metaleptic image-bank (preserving the past but erasing its history) or that cyberpunk’s proper names are catachrestic (as in the substitution of The Logo for logos).

10. This is the issue confronted with acute vigor and great authenticity by Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep—a text whose appropriation by commercial interests is graphically depicted by its new cover, which gives the title as "BLADE RUNNERTM."

11. Simmons’ inversion of "Simstim" into "Stimsim" then embeds another ironic comment on cyberpunk’s imagery.


Adorno, Theodor W. "Cultural Criticism and Society." Prisms. By Adorno. Trans. Samuel Weber and Shierry Weber. Cambridge, MA, 1982. 17-34.

Foucault, Michel. The Order of Things. Trans. Alan Sheridan. NY, 1972.

Gibson, William. Count Zero. NY: Ace, 1986.

—————. Interview. Rolling Stone 488:77-78, 107-08, Dec. 4, 1986.

—————. Mona Lisa Overdrive. NY: Bantam, 1988.

—————. Neuromancer. NY: Ace, 1984.

Gibson, William, and Bruce Sterling. The Difference Engine. NY: Ace, 1984.

Haraway, Donna J. Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature. NY, 1991.

McCaffery, Larry. Interview with William Gibson. Mississippi Review 47/48:217-36, 1988.

Simmons, Dan. The Fall of Hyperion. NY: Doubleday, 1990.

—————. Hyperion. 1989. NY: Bantam, 1990.

Sterling, Bruce. The Artificial Kid. 1980. NY: Ace, 1987.

—————. Islands in the Net. 1988. NY: Ace, 1989.

—————. Preface to Mirrorshades: The Cyberpunk Anthology. 1986. NY: Ace, 1988. ix-xvi.

—————. Schismatrix. 1985. NY: Ace, 1986.

Suvin, Darko. "On Gibson and Cyberpunk SF." Foundation 46:40-51, Autumn 1989.

Abstract.Though cyberpunk’s proponents embrace it as a subversion of corporate culture, its images suggest exactly the opposite. In the work of William Gibson and Bruce Sterling, most particularly Neuromancer and The Artificial Kid, two specific sorts of tropes inform the narrative—a neat reversal of the natural/artificial opposition and an erasure implied by that reversal: advanced technology erases human morality. The rhetorical figures in each of the novels turn on an appropriation of theology; the moral and corporeal are replaced by the mordant and the corporate: Logos is replaced by logo, an affirmation of great corporate houses that ushers in the inconsequence of individual will. Despite otherwise brilliant innovations, cyberpunk is most notable for its tropological evasions of ethical questions, its "virtual morality." If only it were parody.



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