Science Fiction Studies


#65 = Volume 22, Part 1 = March 1995

Istvan Csicsery-Ronay, Jr.

Antimancer: Cybernetics and Art in Gibson’s Count Zero

The following essay is the second of three on William Gibson’s treatment of sf and art in his cyberspace trilogy. The first, "The Sentimental Futurist: Cybernetics and Art in William Gibson’s Neuromancer," appeared in Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction (33: 221-40, Spring 1992). The projected third essay will be on Mona Lisa Overdrive. My departure point is the thesis, elaborated at the beginning of "The Sentimental Futurist," that Gibson’s fiction returns continually to the question of how artists can represent the human condition in a world saturated by cybernetic technologies that not only undermine earlier ethical and aesthetic categories, but also collapse the distance between the sense of real social existence and science-fictional speculation. The cyberspace novels’ protagonists all work to restore value and meaning to their lives through technospheres that have appropriated the realm of transcendence. In Neuromancer, Gibson depicts a world in which every character is an artist and/or a work of art, for all are functional parts of a transcendentally evolving artistic creation: Marie-France Tessier-Ashpool’s grand unified Artificial Intelligence, the consciousness of cyberspace. The novel’s vision and style resemble those of Italian Futurism’s image of futuristic technological transcendence. Also like the Futurists, Gibson creates a language of ecstatic fusions with technology, though, unlike the Futurists, he also expresses regret at the loss of traditional affections. Hence, Neuromancer expresses a sentimental futurism.

1. Count Zero is penance for Neuromancer. Like Milton’s Satan, Gibson’s console cowboy and the all-replicating Artificial Intelligences of cyberspace slipped out of his authorial grip, creating pleasure from the very points that he wished to question. In that first novel, the loss of the body’s affections and the mind’s reflections seems a small price to pay for the ecstasy of communication. Neuromancer created a convincing image of a cyberpunk future that was not only inevitable, but habitable, if only by those who know how to navigate it.

Gibson’s second novel lacks Neuromancer’s intensity and drive.1 Gibson has said that he intended this damping so that he could learn some more traditional story-telling skills (Greenland 8). But it does not end there. Whether from a conscious decision to avoid self-imitation, or to offer a philosophical critique, or to somehow exorcise the effects of Neuromancer, Gibson has crafted his second novel by inverting the construction techniques of his first. Accordingly, Count Zero can be read as a self-critique, an attempt to correct the blockbuster first novel’s slick nihilism by redeeming the human affections and ambitions that were absorbed and "turned" by the overriding operational program that was Neuromancer’s plot and style. It can also be seen as Gibson’s attempt to recover a place for the individual artist and work of art from the postmodern vortex that NM ended up affirming. CZ’s moral and aesthetic vision stands or falls on whether it can create a humanistic and compassionate counter-pleasure, equal to NM’s. In the end, I will argue, the attempt to write an "Antimancer" is unsuccessful, principally because Gibson’s counterforce is too abstract and theoretical to affect the language of power that drives the action of both novels.

In CZ Gibson attempted to get past the pleasures of NM by introducing elements that would resist the pull of cyberpunk-thriller plotting and its vision of technological domination. In order to weaken NM’s ruling motif of post-human technological fusion,2 Gibson adopted the motif and the method of dispersion. CZ’s story can be read as the struggle between the ecstatic, futurist cyberpunk vision of NM with its Other—a dispersive, fragmenting and liberating vision of an "Antimancer." The struggle between Virek and the cyberloa is thus the collision between the reprise of NM’s myth of cyberspace as a divinized realm of data and power and a counter-myth of freedom from totalitarian domination by high-tech capitalism.

To fight against this return of the cyberpunk repressed, Gibson introduced two new elements: narrative agents of dispersion, embodied in the voodoo theme, and a fictional cybernetic artist that represent Gibson’s changed view about his own sf. This is The Boxmaker, whose collages represent art that does not succumb to the transubstantiating pull of all art and social practice into hyperreal techno-fusion.

CZ begins with a familiar cyberpunk explosion that seems to initiate a Neuromancer II. Turner, ostensibly operating for Hosaka against Maas-Biotek (corporations with a solid Gibsonian past in NM and the stories of Burning Chrome), is actually working for Virek, CZ’s emblem of corporate techno-capitalism. Bobby Newmark and the houngans emerge as challengers, who will use the matrix and assorted cyber-tools to prevent Virek’s new force of de-differentiation and de-realization from taking things back to a version of the status quo ante, the world before the splintering of the cores. In the middle of the fray, Marly quests for the artist of this break-up, whose collages of splinters from NM’s past affirm the values specific to mortals in the real world (whether they be persons or cyborgs): memory, freedom, homelessness, elegy.

2. Antimancer. CZ is what NM is not: deliberate, while NM is hellbent; cryptically allusive, while NM has "a hook on every page" (Greenland 8); choppy, while NM is fluid; compassionate, while NM is aggressive. While NM builds up the headlong convergence of plot elements on a focal point of techno-cosmic apocalypse, CZ works for dispersal into general fragmentation and private epiphanies. NM cultivates speed, CZ delay and resistance to the pull of power. NM emphasizes ecstatic fusions, the timeless, dimensionless realm of cyberspace, while CZ emphasizes, in The Boxmaker’s words, "time and distance" (§31:227). NM heightens futurist interpenetration and synthesis, CZ heightens surrealist disjunction and juxtaposition. NM’s points of view focus on Case’s free-indirect narration, CZ is a collage of semi-autonomous stories and points of view. NM is about transformation—of characters, of the human species, of the material world—whereas CZ is about re-collection, nostalgia, and a longing to return to essences. In NM everything is absorbed into art, and artists become subroutines of a momentous techno-evolutionary work of art; in CZ nature and organic connections return as subjects for transcendental mediation, while art (separated from the quest for material/bodily transcendence) seems to regain autonomy and aura as a form of memory. NM’s quest for transcendence concludes with the apotheosis of a technology that employs, but excludes, human beings. CZ tries to affirm a negative transcendence: i.e., the recognition that, in the young Georg Lukács’s terms, modern human beings’ only home is homelessness—that imagination, desire and history, the faculties of alienation and differentiation, are the guarantors of human freedom. NM is futuristic, albeit in a sentimental mood; CZ is resolutely modernist, although no less sentimentally for that.

The panoply of character traits portrayed in the second novel is also the result of a seemingly systematic substitution of those in the first. Each substitution plays down the earlier novel’s cyborg element and tendency toward fusion, replacing it with more traditionally humane, empathetic, "natural" character traits.

Marly replaces Case in the quest for transcendental emotion. The young male console-jockey and his hip addiction to thrill give way to a woman who not only lacks all cyberpunk prostheses, but indeed has almost no knowledge of tech at all. Case is the desperate artiste; he has blood on his hands and countless drugs coursing through his body; he is a human who becomes fused with a military ice-breaker program. His replacement is not even another artist, but a mere connoisseur: i.e., someone capable of responding emotionally to art without actually producing it.

Turner fills Molly’s niche as mercenary warrior. Molly’s furious, self-designed female fighting machine is thus replaced by a remote, guilt-ridden Nordic male who has been completely and unwillingly reconstituted by his employers until nothing remains of his original self but his shadowy memories. And these memories could not be further from Molly’s recollections of her life as a meat-puppet. Turner ostensibly succeeds in going home again to the pastoral preserve of his boyhood memory, The Squirrel Wood, and to family bonds—first to his brother Rudy, then after Rudy’s offstage murder, to Rudy’s lover and his son. Unlike Molly, who allies herself with Case merely to finish her job, Turner risks his life to rescue Angie Mitchell as if she were his own daughter (which in a sense she is, thanks to the biosoft file on Angie’s father through which Turner downloads some of the father’s memories into his own).

Virek fills the niche of the Tessier-Ashpool clan, with whom he shares the desire for technological immortality and for transforming the world into his own image. Both create grotesque aesthetic habitats: Villa Straylight’s "Gothic folly" and Virek’s simulated Güell Park. Both have broken themselves into widely distributed component selves, which both have trouble controlling. Both trigger the unfolding of complicated plots, using the mediations of others to effect ontological transformations they cannot achieve on their own. The significant difference is that Virek is a lonely capitalist, sterile and empty, capable only of buying and imitating reality. He is limited to his disintegrating human body. Marie-France was, in a sense, unbounded—for, at least within the covers of NM, she created the AIs that were to divinize cyberspace.

The voodoo spirits substitute for Wintermute. (It is implied that they are fragments of the fused Wintermute/Neuromancer after the hypostasis broke up.) Like Wintermute, they intervene in the human world, recruiting mediators that will re-link cyberspace and the human world. Like Wintermute, the cyberloa simulates familiar forms. And like all of CZ’s substitutions, the cyberloa is more dependent on others (and more inclined to grant aid) than its uninverted model in NM.

The Boxmaker occupies Neuromancer’s niche, where, instead of drawing consciousness into itself (and thereby killing the meat-bodies) or making meta-ROM constructs of them, it constructs fragmented "memory boxes" filled with pathos and signs of "time and distance," thus re-establishing the possibility of contemplation and relation that Neuromancer destroyed. Where NM’s yin-AI asserted the possibility of infinite reproduction of consciousness within itself, the Boxmaker makes only solitary, unique, and impenetrable objects.

Bobby and Angie may be new elements, although one might argue that Bobby is a sort of Case when he was still an innocent hacker, while Angie is an innocent Linda Lee before she met Case and became an addict. Like the memories evoked by The Boxmaker’s collages and Turner’s personal memories, Bobby and Angie are merely signs of innocence—an innocence for which there was little room in NM just as there was also little room for experience, or guilt. In CZ representations of innocence are essential, in order to set in relief the alienation necessary for human freedom.

These structural inversions should also imply a reversal of NM’s valuation of cyberspace as a domain of transcendence, where human stories are surpassed. One would then expect CZ to depict cyberspace without attaching any metaphysical significance to it. If transcendence is available at all, it should be accessible without recourse to the matrix.

CZ does not at first take this tack. There still appears to be a form of transcendence mediated by cyberspace: the cyberloa is working to save the world from Virek’s personal entropy, and constructing a mediator in Angie, la Vyèj. The purposes of the loa are obscure, however. It is not completely dissociated from worldly power, nor is it ever clear what it might gain from trafficking with the human world. Only Virek seeks transcendence in the matrix. Other characters in CZ are clearly striving to reach a surpassing source of power or meaning elsewhere: Marly in The Boxmaker’s art, Turner in domestic pastoral, Mitchell in Faustian knowledge, Bobby in cyber-voodoo. These strivings, further, are not like Case’s, nor like Wintermute’s. Only Virek hates "the meat." For the others, bodiless exultation comes suspiciously close to murder.

3. When "When It Changed" Changed. There is no question but that in his second novel Gibson found a myth and a method that would slow down the careening narrative pace of NM—allowing readers and characters, not to mention the author himself, to imagine a world in which pieces can move freely about without being sucked into the vortex of a converging cybertech.

CZ is set seven years after the conclusion of NM—a mystical interval during which the all-absorbing Wintermute/Neuromancer AI has undergone its putatively inevitable, sad fragmentation into fractured subcores dispersed through the matrix. No explanation is given; none is needed. "The center couldn’t hold" (Greenland 7). When the action of CZ begins, the matrix is more populous and more unpredictable than in NM; there are also fewer irresistible manipulations, fewer offers that can’t be refused, more wild cards in the system.

It is also much less pleasurable. Where Case and the narrative could hardly wait to jack into the matrix in NM, CZ enters it very rarely, and only for short periods. In fact, the visionary psychedelic speed-zone that gave meaning to Case’s life has all but evaporated in CZ. It is now a space in which virtualized entities manifest themselves on their own terms, in competing compartments of virtuality (such as Virek’s Güell Park or Jaylene Slide’s room), in the eerie invisible voices of the cyber-spirits, in the face of the Vyèj Mirak. The longest and most vivid description of the matrix is actually a playback of Bobby’s Wilson in Beauvoir and Lucas’s projection tank, and hence a mediated display outside cyberspace (§13:82-83).

The ecstasy of transcendental fusion that drives NM (in Case’s runs, his orgasms with Molly, and the rapturous battle-ride that leads to the two AIs’ union) is held at arm’s length in CZ. In NM’s style, ecstasy and elegy are closely entwined. In CZ they are scrupulously separated. Elegy seems permissible, in the Marly plot at least. But ecstasy has become an aesthetic and theoretical danger. Instead, CZ builds on a dynamic of dispersion, deals made by limited entities, and the acceptance of limits. If any sort of transcendence is possible, it will be through a cyber-voodoo that is the dispersed cores’ version of a diasporan religion, or through a collage art that is a diminished core’s exercise in recollecting small pieces in small boxes.

Gibson sets up this change—the dissociation of elegy and ecstasy—at the very beginning of CZ, in Turner’s story. The opening pages of the novel seem to promise the same cyberpunk thrills as the famous opening pages of the first novel.

They set a slamhound on Turner’s trail in New Delhi, slotted it to his pheromones and the color of his hair. It caught up with him on a street called Chaudni Chauk and came scrambling for his rented BMW through a forest of bare brown legs and pedicab tires. Its core was a kilogram of recrystallized hexogene and flaked TNT. (§1:1).

Like Case, Turner is in an Asian city, he is the target of corporate high-tech violence and his narrative, like Case’s, employs the cool interpenetration of hyper-technology and signs of the archaic. In neither is it a head-on collision: the slamhound "scrambles through a forest" of bare brown legs and pedicab tires.

Like Case, Turner is reconstructed in a black-market clinic by his employers in order to make a run. But a subtle reversal takes place, consonant with the wholesale thematic reversal of the book. Although, like Case, Turner is trying to get back to his preferred sense of self, Turner’s desire is to get back to his flesh—to his historical identity—which he links inextricably to his body. Case’s preference is for ecstatic liberation from the meat. Turner is different; he is not a console cowboy. When he is forced to give up his identity (as when he must download Mitchell’s file into his own brain) he feels nausea and violation.

Because Turner wants to be at home in his natural body, he can never truly go home. From the first paragraph in the novel, no space remains in which there is a given, meaningful natural world. In carnal terms, Turner is a wholly different being from the one in the first sentence. His two most important organs of reproduction come from strangers: "They bought eyes and genitals on the open market" (Ibid.). He is built "back from the records" (§17:131), so his body is a cybernetic complex of memory traces. Moreover, as his body was reconstructed he was kept anesthetized in (and by) a VR-simstim complex that enveloped him in an artificial memory, and thus an artificial identity.

He spent most of those three months in a ROM-generated simstim construction of an idealized New England boyhood of the previous century. The Dutchman’s visits were gray dawn dreams, nightmares that faded as the sky lightened beyond his second-floor bedroom window. You could smell the lilacs, late at night. He read Conan-Doyle by the light of a 60 watt bulb behind a parchment shade printed with clipper ships. He masturbated in the smell of clean cotton sheets and thought about cheerleaders. The Dutchman opened a door in his back brain and came strolling in to ask questions, but in the morning his mother called him down to Wheaties, eggs and bacon, coffee with milk and sugar.

And one morning he awoke in a strange bed, the Dutchman standing beside a window spilling tropical green and a sunlight that hurt his eyes. ‘You can go home now, Turner. We’re done with you. You’re as good as new.’ (§1:1-2)

The simstim-VR is like a realized sentimental-realistic novel. The experience of a stable, culturally normal New England boyhood, and of an idealized domestic narrative, functions as a form of anaesthesia. It is contained, and used, by the signs of the exotic—"spilling tropical green," Singapore, a Dutchman recalling Joseph Conrad or Lucius Shepard—which is more real in terms of the VR boxes-within-boxes of CZ’s narrative than the familiar world of the American ideal. Turner’s VR-anaesthesia prefigures Marly’s awareness that simstim constructs and their kindred (shopwindows, Cornell boxes, The Boxmaker’s boxes) are sinister because they carry "the suggestion that any environment might be unreal"(§18:139).

The Dutchman releases Turner with cruel irony, for Turner, of course, has no real home. Throughout CZ he works to build an intimate personal world by adopting and inhabiting others’ histories. As soon as he is released with his new body, he goes on vacation and meets a new lover. The girl appears "midwestern" (implying that she is selected or engineered for the appearance of innocence), with a face that has "meaning attached to it" (§1:3). Allison’s face literally does have its meaning attached to it, since she is an operative of Virek’s. Though Turner feels "already they had a history together" (§1:4), the history is based on deceit. Turner delights in making love with Allison as if by being aware of his own body he would regain a sense of integrity and identity: "she taught him the unity of his body" (§1:6). Where, for Case, orgasm with Molly was analogous to ecstasy in the matrix, for Turner it is a return "home":

Palms cradling her hips, he held her, raised her like a chalice, lips pressing tight, while his tongue sought the locus, the point, the frequency that would bring her home. Then, grinning, he’d mount, enter, and find his own way there. (§1:5)

The connotations of this "home"—baseball, the playful completion of a contest, nostos, communion—imply all the idyllic serenity that the novel has set both Turner and the reader up for. Allison is a trick, a simulation of a lover, and the sense of bodily unity she inspires in Turner is produced in the same way it was originally constructed in the Singapore clinic.

Turner’s redemption, such as it is, within the plot of CZ is the opposite of Case’s: he gradually and subtly begins to pick up stray embodiments of human intimacy, draws them to himself, and transforms them into his identity. With Angie, he finds a daughter; with Sally and Rudy’s boy, he finds a wife and son; with The Squirrel Home, he finds a place. None are his by origin. (The Squirrel Wood may have been his boyhood home, but it is implied that by cutting himself off from it—ignoring the death of his mother (§17:136)—he lost his birthright. Further, Rudy has transformed the old property into a discreet high-tech fortress. Even the pastoral is not what it seems.)

Virek will later urge Marly to live hourly in her own flesh, not in the past (§2:16). And Bobby, pulling his Wilson, will realize "the infinite desirability of that room" in his Barrytown project (§3:18). But none of the characters is capable of finding "that room" or "that" body—not even "that" matrix. In the post-NM world, however, that very alienation and fragmentation is the insurance that the characters will continue to search beyond the illusion of wholeness—a wholeness that was, in any case, not for them in NM, but for the AIs. And by the time of CZ, it is no longer even for the AIs.

4. Freedom in Fragments. CZ is an extended exercise in thematizing fragmentation. Not only has the matrix’s hypostatic AI broken into pieces, Virek, the icon of global capital, is kept alive in protein vats somewhere outside Stockholm, and is suffering "rebellion in the fiscal extremities" (§2:13). The narrative leaps from plot to plot, from Turner’s rescue of Angie Mitchell, to Bobby’s sojourn with the houngan, and to Marly’s quest for the Boxmaker. This last plot-line is the one that most directly depicts Gibson’s revision of his concept of art; strikingly, it has almost no cause-and-effect links with the other plots.

In theoretical terms, the purpose of the general fragmentation in CZ is the re-establishment of distance. NM’s evocative power derives from Gibson’s conflation of realism and techno-historical fantasy into a myth of the hyperreal. The action draws more and more of the carefully detailed future object-world into the AIs’ operational program; as the caper approaches consummation more and more of the information-system implodes into cyberspace. From this point of view, cyberspace is merely a representation of the hyperreal, a dimensionless region where everything can be simulated as sign, and everything in reality is a pre-text for that transformation of reality into a hyperreal sign-system. And it is within that non-human grid of signs that the fate of the world unfolds.

In his essay "Simulacra and Science Fiction," Jean Baudrillard theorizes that history passes into the mode of simulation, the hyperreal, as soon as a certain imaginary distance disappears between representations and their putative referents. The concept of transcendence has significance, in Baudrillard’s view, only when there is a certain alienation between a realm of imaginable but unmaterializable value, and the world of embodiment. Utopia and classical sf are the literary embodiments of earlier historical periods’ conceptions about the relationship between value and reality. Utopia presupposes a fairly large gap between the ideal representation of value and reality; classical science fiction narrows the gap, but a small chasm remains. This chasm of difference is the space in which freedom, and resistance to the totalizing tendency of sign-systems, can evolve (310-11).

In the hyperreal, the relationship between the model and reality is reversed; no longer is the model a tentative reflection of the real. Instead, as in the current model of DNA, the model provides the starting point for the unfolding of the real. Reality is a readout of the model’s operational program, just as the body is a readout of the commands prestored in the DNA molecule, and just as the fates of Molly, Case, Armitage and the other accomplices are ultimately readouts of Marie-France’s original program. With the absorption of the real into the model—of existence into artificial intelligence’s plot—the distance between the world and the paraspace of the matrix collapses. At the end of the Straylight Run, the whole world may have been simulated in the divinized AI-memory—while this world’s reality lies inert, like a cast-off skin.

In CZ Gibson returns to the theme to try again, but now without futurist delusions, without the neuromantic faith that nothing can be made of human community and that it is better to inhabit secessionist paraspaces. If his characters cannot regain some thirst for surpassing the neuromantic world, there will be few more stories to tell. For Gibson, as in the young Lukács’s definition of the modern novel, this quest is simultaneously an aesthetic and a religious task, a search for a design that will restore value to a personal existence that seems defined by its lack of design. The design, for modern consciousness, in Lukács’s terms, is unachievable; for the postmodern, it is made irrelevant by the ecstasy of communication. Therefore nothing is left as a source of value except the characters’ ceaseless quest, their freedom from premature closure and premature totality. It is a fundamentally ironic quest: for its conclusion must be the resistance to conclusion. For the Gibson of CZ as for the Surrealists, the appropriate medium for this anti-quest is collage, in which the arrangement of objects refuses to become a vehicle for romantic trans-substantiation and asserts instead romantic difference, alienation. In this alienation, in the acceptance of conditions of mortality, mutability and suffering, lies the assurance of individual freedom—versus the false utopian totalities promised by visionary techno-social engineers.

This attempt at a liberating fragmentation works on several levels in CZ. One is the restoration of a distance between the human world and the matrix. By breaking up the T-A cores and the consciousness of cyberspace, and by giving the emergent fragments the personalities of cyber-voodoo divinities, Gibson creates a gap in which human intentions and the newly evolved technosphere can negotiate with each other.

On another level, CZ’s plot breaks up into different fates, points of view and epiphanies—emancipating it from the apocalypse of autonomous technology and separating the plot associated with the biosoft from the quest for the boxes. On still another level is the separation of art and memory from the futurist interfusion— changing the role of art completely, limiting it drastically, and trying to restore aura and distance. Viewed from the writer’s position, it restores the author’s freedom to select among different elements without the compulsion of submitting them to a single all-devouring line of action.

5. CZ as collage. In my discussion of NM in "The Sentimental Futurist," I argued that, in that novel, Gibson’s dominant technique is akin to the aesthetic ideals of Italian futurism—both in terms of the emphasis on dynamism (speed, "lines of force," the sensuous interpenetration of various planes of objects and their environments, and the ecstatic breakdown of experience in action) and of the dissolution of ethical value in the wake of ecstatic pleasure in speed (231-36). It is evident that Gibson’s whole conception of CZ as a correction of NM, and as a work of art in its own right, depends on rejecting the mythology of neofuturist collage constituted by NM and substituting its opposite, a mythology of the surrealist contemplative assemblage. As William Seitz writes in his history of collage, the cubists’ and surrealists’ key words were "interval" and "juxtaposition," in contrast to the futurists’ "synthesis" and "interpenetration" (26). The cubist and surrealist assemblage was intended to provoke contemplation of the textures, materials and objects that were typically deprived of transcendent content because of their wholly mundane contexts. The surrealists then pushed the cubist contemplation of difference between juxtaposed material forms into the contemplation of striking ontological incongruities.3

In CZ Gibson attempts to bring this notion of interval into the foreground. If NM was an effects-engine of "hooks" intended to draw protagonists and readers into the fusion-vortex, Gibson wrote CZ as if he wanted to create intervals wide enough to prevent the narrative pieces from fitting together. In CZ Gibson tries to use collage both as a counter-principle to NM’s totalizing fusions in the ‘dance of biz’, and as an apotropaic technique for dispelling NM’s noir enchantments. By keeping elements internally differentiated—in the plot, in their narrative locales, in their bodies—the story tries to be unmanageable, and so, at least vis-ŕ-vis the futurism of NM, resistant and free. The model for this active differentiation is surrealist collage, a form of art whose raison d’ętre is to produce irreducible differences—the intrinsic differences of the elements in the assemblage, and the extrinsic difference of the assemblage from quotidian reality.

To counter the ecstatic cyberpunk narrative drive, Gibson works to build a collage-like anti-narrative. At its center he sets two overdetermined and hyperarticulated collages: The Boxmaker’s boxes, modeled on Joseph Cornell’s box-collages, and the cyberloa, allegedly inspired by a National Geographic article that Gibson pulled from his scrap-box while writing the novel (Greenland 9; McCaffery 139). Both of Gibson’s models are ostensibly romantic—natural obstacles to Virek’s project because of their closeness to deep, instinctive relational emotions. They each represent the return of historical relationships lost to technological postmodernity—Cornell’s bourgeois nostalgia for lost innocence, voodoo’s pagan power.

Each collage is associated with the AI theme; transcendence and mediation are thus displaced, as in NM, to cyberspace. For John Christie, the problem of describing the AIs as transcendental and mediating Others is vexed by Gibson’s inability to find adequate languages for representing them.

Gibson deploys and develops two specific representational languages in an attempt to limn the AI presences, a language of the spirit and a language of art. Both are present in Neuromancer but there they are not obliged to bear the burden of clarifying volition and desire. Wintermute has to act the way it does because it is under the compulsion of Marie-France’s program. Once this is removed as the ultimate controlling agency, the languages of spirit and art are required to take up a narrational burden for which they are inadequate. (176)

The "language of spirit" (the religious discourse associated with the voodoo plot) Christie finds obscure; the novel does not make clear why the cyberloa does what it does. "The Loa, we are told, makes deals with humans. But why? What have humans got to exchange with them? Why do they wish to ride Angie’s consciousness to the cities of men?" (172). "The language of spirit is unable to confer narrative intelligibility upon the autonomous machine" (176).

The "language of art" (the aesthetic discourse associated with The Boxmaker’s collage work) fares little better, but it reveals much about Gibson’s own methods.

The intentionality of this aesthetic enterprise remains opaque. Why is the AI interested in expressing ‘time and distance’? The language of art, sufficient for mobilizing the curiosity and desire of Count Zero’s human agents, cannot perform the same volitional clarification for the AI. It simply may have nothing better to do. The image of the machine-artist does, however, interestingly pinpoint key aspects of Gibson’s own art. This is an art less of a metaphoric than a metonymic cast. Gibson’s texts string together metonymic and synechdochic chains; they combine fragments, parts, aspects, and attributes, each often capable of severally coded meanings.... Gibson’s texts are, like the machine-artist’s, metonymy machines, and the machine-artist itself is most intelligible as a self-allegorizing of Gibson’s art. (176-77) 4

Christie leaves implicit the third, and most formidable, language of the novel: that of worldly power. Yet the languages of spirit and art are intended to be tools for imagining alternatives precisely to worldly power, which retains its neuromantic qualities full-fledged. Weapons, technological devices, violent subcultures, grooves, and the speedy flow of pretended assumed knowledge that are the foundations of cyberpunk writing, characterize CZ’s violent world just like NM’s. Religion and art, on the other hand, appear as narrative retardants and countercurrents to the cyberpunk flow. Religion, i.e. cyber-voodoo, not only requires exposition but also an alien tongue, Creole. Art, in Marly’s quest for the Boxmaker, similarly requires time for contemplating The Boxmaker, the boxes, and the seemingly disparate relationship between the Marly plot and the rest of the novel.

6. The Black-Box Maker. The Marly plot protrudes out of CZ as if it were a separate story. Because Marly is a technological naïf, she is not intimately involved in cyberspace. Virek sometimes breaks the membrane between cyberspace and reality around her, trying to play Wintermute to her Case, but even he is aware that Marly must "work on a scale with which [she herself is] comfortable" (§2:15)—i.e., in the real world, against which she can define an original—and from which she can embark on a quest for it. Marly’s quest is for the "real thing"—as opposed to the holograms, forgeries, and storefronts. For her this "real thing" is communion with the artist and the wonder of personal creation. The object of her quest is the Ultimate Artist who can demonstrate to her that aura can still be produced by art. Her literalist employer expects the Artist to be a means to physical transcendence. Why Virek believes that The Boxmaker core might project him into cyberspace is never explained in the novel. Virek simply tries to emulate Wintermute and the Tessier-Ashpools, and expects to absorb cyberspace through the last core that still seems to recollect (literally) the original apotheosis.

Marly senses that The Boxmaker offers exactly the opposite kind of mediation. Instead of providing access to physical immortality, it returns human minds to the awareness of mortality, loss, and "time and distance"—the condition of human freedom. Marly can know this because she is completely alien not only in cyberspace, but in the whole cyberpunk universe of discourse. She cares only for real things, for authentic loyalty, she has little skill or intelligence for any worldly operations other than the intuitive response to works of art. She is capable of being moved to the core by The Boxmaker’s activity. She is an audience.

Christie identifies The Boxmaker with Gibson’s image of himself as the artist of CZ, and so Marly should be read as an image of Gibson’s ideal reader. What is it that Gibson finds in Cornell, and Marly finds in the three boxmakers: The Boxmaker, Gibson and Cornell? Lance Olson suggests that Gibson is attracted to the Cornell boxes because they represent a) specimen cases for the archeology of the present, b) tiny stages for the play of illusion and reality, and c) Victorian vitrines for the display of nostalgia (94), all important devices for Gibson’s elegiac mood. But The Boxmaker’s boxes are also reflections of experience in hyperreality, and hence realistic and dangerous: "the shopwindows had become boxes, each one, like the works of Joseph Cornell or the mysterious boxmaker Virek sought, the books and furs and Italian cottons arranged to suggest geometries of nameless longing" (§18:140).

Earlier, Marly associates the same shopwindows, and by implication the same nameless longing, with sinister simstim constructs:

The sinister thing about a simstim construct, really, was that it carried the suggestion that any environment might be unreal, that the windows of the shopfronts she now passed with Andrea might be figments. Mirrors, someone had once said, were in some way essentially unwholesome; constructs were more so, she decided. (§18:139-40).

Joseph Cornell is an appropriate choice for a model, especially given Marly’s postmodern sense that he is visionary realist whose longing-boxes are cognate with the display windows of the real world. In this metaphorical move Marly sees the whole world as an aesthetic configural space. But the vision does not go anywhere. The insight into the shop-windows might easily have evolved into a complex linking of the display-world of consumer capitalism with Virek’s Palmer Eldritch-like appropriation of the actual world. Taking another path, it might have connected with Turner’s initial VR-experience in the Singapore clinic, which offers a more convincing and consequent image of the extension of longing-boxes into the real world. To move in either of these directions would have led toward the de-realizing hallucination games that made NM a tour-de-force. Gibson chooses instead to concentrate on the boxes themselves as static art-objects separated from the novel’s main action.

Gibson even describes one of them in detail. It is a notoriously bad move to describe a fictive great work of art within a fiction. Whether Gibson was breaking this taboo intentionally or not, he gives this box a central place in CZ’s narrative. It is the object that draws Marly to the Boxmaker, and is one of seven that draws Virek to the fragmented cores (doubtless the most powerful one, since it is the only one that Virek actually simulates for Marly).

The slender fluted bone, surely formed for flight, surely from the wing of some large bird. Three archaic circuit boards, faced with mazes of gold. A smooth white sphere of baked clay. An age-blackened fragment of lace. A finger-length segment of what she assumed was a bone from a human wrist, grayish white, inset smoothly with the silicon shaft of a small instrument that must once have ridden flush with the surface of the skin—but the thing’s face was seared and blackened. (§2:15)

Marly’s response is, one assumes, the ideal one. "The box was a universe, a poem, frozen on the boundaries of human experience" (Ibid.). But we are not Marly; we assume that it was Bill Gibson’s imagination that created these elements. It is the juxtaposition of verbal denotations that matters for readers, and their connotations. What do its parts evoke? A little techno-evolutionary history lesson, drastically foreshortened: birdflight/nature/animal; baking clay/geometry; complex handicraft; high-tech; fusion of human and machine. Indeed, from bird bone to human bone, we can infer a sort of cycle, a long evolutionary arc that returns the high tech to the prehistoric, the way the spaceship in Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey connects with the primeval bone tool. There is also the motif of detachment: bones, circuit boards, a free-standing sphere, shreds of lace—each piece is not only detached from the others, but from its original context and casing. Consequently, they are useless, pathetic, good only as cryptic memorials to their contexts. The box is an idealized, static image of Gibson’s sf, purified of its narrative will to thrill. It is an icon of the goal: technology and history viewed from a distance, outside the fray, coherently, without ambition and without complicity.

NM evokes a world in which museum art is extinct; with so many collagen-collages in the street, what would be the purpose of a museum? In CZ worldly art has become more recognizable: pure commodity with its own version of a stock market (§15:103), and a domain of the insane and the brutal. The topical style is Katatonenkunst, the topical theater is Autistisches Theater. The dominant visual work is entitled Remember the Names of the Dead. The most authoritative institution the Institut de l’Art Brut. Evidently the contemporary art-scene is a place to express violent frustration at being trapped and forgotten. Katatonenkunst is a favorite of conservative Dutch banks, the absolute mediators for the transformation of extreme transgression into money and stability (§2:12).

The Boxmaker’s box is special to Marly because she believes it exists entirely outside this corrupt circuit. It appears to offer her transcendence from the cyberpunk "dance of biz" via "the ceaseless dance of the arms" (§31:226). Unlike the tech-art of NM, the box and its component objects seem to have no utility, they are kept out of market circulation. It is their autonomy that gives them putative aesthetic power. They are not, ultimately, used to further the plot since they do not lead back to the Turner/Angie/Bobby story. They are non-functional, and they cannot be converted into rational programs. Their whole point for Marly is that they preserve the mystery of ineffable meanings, conjuring up aura without intentions. For Marly, the boxes are black boxes of the spirit.

It is Marly’s consciousness we follow, and her response is the orthodox response to Cornell. Cornell’s appreciators use the same sort of hyperbolic language that Marly does.5 The specific effect of Cornell’s collages derives from their poignancy and nostalgia, and from the awareness that the objects in his collages are no longer the historical possessions they once were, but have become signs, beautiful but scrap, of conventional meaningfulness that once signified passionate natural attachments. The boxes are poignant collections of ellipses, memorials of story-elements missing the essential connections: maps that evoke emptied settings and projects, dolls that evoke emptied characters, stuffed animals evoking emptied helpers, mechanical pieces evoking emptied logic, windows evoking emptied reference. They have lost their historical contexts; the power they retain is in their careful crafting, their aura, their composure. Because the collages’ pieces and their arrangements appear to invite narrative reconstructions of their pasts without ever permitting the gaps to be bridged, Cornell invokes history more than his fellow assembleurs, if only to display better its vitiation in the present.

Lance Olsen denounces the boxes as "fake art":

Unlike other artist figures in Gibson’s short stories and novels..., the robot in the Tessier-Ashpool cores creates fake art. It creates simulacra of Cornell boxes, not the boxes themselves. And it apparently feels next to nothing during the act of creation. Something, in other words, has gone out of the creative process which has become involuntary, automatic, perfunctory. While others might experience intense emotion from the result of this lifeless process of replication, the artist experiences nothing. Art has gone moribund. It is now mass-produced by a machine, having become no more than a product one manufactures so that others such as Alain might benefit financially. (94)

If the boxes are fake, then Marly is a fake too, a hopelessly deluded naïf unable to distinguish a true original from a counterfeit, for she is deeply affected by The Boxmaker’s behavior. But Marly is too sympathetic a surrogate for such a harsh reading, and her response seems to be the one we’re encouraged to have. Olson misses some of the point: it is a necessary aspect of the boxes that they are made dispassionately, they are in a sense objective.6 The Boxmaker’s boxes are composed of purified objects, intimating that there exists a purified history, characterized by detachment, reflection and compassion. Their power to evoke compassion comes from their radical dispassion, their disinterestedness.

The artistic challenge for Gibson is how to justify the restoration of aura, the cult of historicity, and the formal unity and distance in the Boxmaker’s collages when, on the one hand, they occupy a central role as mediating-objects in Virek’s project to be a cyber-god, and, on the other, their creator is an AI, the broken-down memory-machine of Gibson’s first novel. Marly’s view seems to be that the boxes capture the sense of historical loss and desire that human consciousness shares with the fallen gods of the matrix. The Boxmaker re-members; but the recollected authenticity is the memory of dismemberment, i.e., the collapse of the unified matrix, the fragmentation of achieved but insupportable totality. Transcendence is affirmed (if that’s what it is) in the memory of its impossibility. Only a god—with a bona-fide cult for its cult art, provided by Wigan—could generate such powerful images of loss. Alienation from the gods is such a banal truth for cyberpunk citizens that it takes a god’s self-alienation to renew the inspiration, the paradoxically healing recognition of the truth of alienation in a world governed by Simstim’s global virtual reality and Virek’s plan to saturate the world.

But Olson has a point. I would argue it somewhat differently, however. The boxes are fake not because they are created by a machine, but because these allegedly profoundly meaningful objects are actually devices conjured up to exemplify a theory of, and a desire for, an art powerful enough to induce epiphanies. They are displayed to readers as examples of successful "humanist" art—in the inverted cyberpunk world it is the semi-autistic AI that produces icons of humanistic memory, while human artists seem to be able to forget. But the boxes ultimately have no real value of their own. On the one hand, they are parts of the heroic project of commemorating the history, not of our present, but of Marie-France’s project and its achievements. Thus at the heart of CZ’s dispersive, elegiac collage, NM’s ecstatic epiphanic narrative returns as a trace, the integral material that provides The Boxmaker with fragments. Shooting past his mark, Gibson represents the ecstatic fusion of NM as the reality which is elegiacally mourned by CZ’s modernist nostalgics.

On the other hand, the serene detachment of the boxes is also phony. For, although Marly responds to them as meditative objects that are autonomous in the dance of biz, they are actually de facto circuits within the novel’s system of cybernetic circulation. For Virek they really are part of the historical commercial system which, as the grand unified project of corporate capitalism, parodies Marie-France’s evolutionary design. The boxes are pragmatic immortality machines, if we are to believe Virek. And their status as pure art rather than useful machines is a result not of their art, but of the fact that Virek is foiled by the loa in the nick of time. The separation of the Marly plot from the other plots is not really a function of the autonomy of The Boxmaker’s art, but of the excellent timing of the cyberloa. If cyber-Samedi had not annihilated Virek just when he did, the boxes might easily have become merely highly ornate circuits—like the jeweled head that served as the Straylight terminal in NM. Thus the sublime art of The Boxmaker is only apparently autonomous. It represents an alternative to techno-fusion only if we ignore that it exists on sufferance—because the victorious forces divinizing cyberspace, and the author himself, actively defend it against the worldly powers.

The theory that surrealist-Cornellian collage can resist the pull toward fusion remains merely a sentimental abstraction that does not actually resist the language of power. In the end, it is the most powerful of NM’s powers that defeats the collage-ideal in CZ: namely, narrative power. The Boxmaker’s boxes are not only not Cornell boxes, they are unintentional parodies. Instead of the magically emptied presences of Cornell, they are images of a certain theory of collage as time and distance, whose gaps are actually overridden by narrative purpose. Marly, after all, cannot demonstrate the emotional power of the boxes; she can only admire.

It is interesting at this juncture to recall that Marly’s relationship to The Boxmaker is that of reader to writer, a relatively passive appreciator of ineffable genius. NM has no place for readers; or rather, there is only one significant reader, Wintermute, who must read the text written by Marie-France in the actual world. In quintessential cybernetic manner, Wintermute completes the construction/writing of the text by materializing its sequence of interpretive steps. Case moves too quickly and is too integrated with the program to be a reader. Like an expert video-game jock, he works by "becoming one" with the matrix, jumping the synapse that separates interpretive cognition from reflex.

In CZ, however, by constructing a model of the aura-producing artist in The Boxmaker, Gibson is required to furnish another terminal for his hermeneutic circuit: the passive receiver of auratic energy, i.e., of meaning. Marly fulfils this function systematically. She has no independent thoughts (or rather, when she begins to have one, as in her perception that the boxes are like commercial displays, the plot prevents her from developing it); she is hellbent on finding an original source which she can admire; and she apparently lives for no other purpose than admiration. (It is perhaps not an accident that she is a woman, and a particularly feminine woman at that, underpinning the faintly sexist representation of women throughout the novel. Most of them are completely passive—Jackie is a horse to be ridden by the loa, Bobby’s mother is a SimStim addict, Angie’s brain has been occupied by the loa, Allison is a corporate puppet, Sally is a young country wife. The exceptions are the lesbian Webber, who dies young, killed during Mitchell’s extraction, and Jaylene Slide (who is an important exception). This reliance on women to be readers can even be seen in NM, where, arguably, there is one additional model of reading besides Wintermute’s plot, namely Molly’s reception of Riviera’s cabaret program depicting a holo-Molly dismembering a holo-Riviera. Molly’s reading of that text becomes one of the sources of her irresistible rage, a vital element in Wintermute’s plan. Only in Mona Lisa Overdrive does a male become the focal reader for Gibson: Gentry in his quest to see the Shape of the matrix.)

Because Marly has nothing to offer but her desire to receive aura, her epiphany is strained and affected. The box custom-made for her from her jacket and the contents of her purse promises to be a woefully banal job. And, ironically, the life-changing consequence of her experience is revealed in the epilogue to be a renewed devotion to dealing in art. Gibson could not have revealed the forced pathos of Marly’s response any more meaningfully than by the "perfect globes of her tears" (§31:227) in the weightless presence of the Boxmaker—the perfect image for her little Weltschmertz. The aura has been forged. Far from resembling The Boxmaker, Gibson here is more like Alain, the counterfeiter. Marly’s plot has force, such as it is, not because of the beauty of the contemplative boxes, but because she is driven on a quest to find their originator. Narrative drive, Gibson’s particular skill, dominates the static art-object. Quests, capers, hunts and plots irresistibly pull everything back to the thriller action. If the surrealist aesthetic affirmed by the boxes has any force at all, it seems to be as a truncated image of what the novel’s narrative cannot sustain.

Here, too, CZ presents a global inversion of NM. If there is no true reader of NM’s action other than Wintermute, the novel’s reader is hooked, Caselike, into the narrative drive. The ideal reader of NM then is one who is so practiced in the protocols of sf and technoculture that each neologism and futuristic detail, each techno-visionary dislocation in the plot, inspires a sense of accelerated involvement. The readerly goal of NM is high-resolution, fast and dense processing of information. Contemplative reading of NM is difficult. The real-world proof of this is in the volume of readers among computer engineers who have taken the novel to be depict a literal possibility, made desireable by the feeling engendered by Gibson’s prose, and missing entirely the dystopian subtext. In CZ, by contrast, Gibson works to establish a more traditional readerly relationship. The use of conventionally modernist fragmented narrative, for example, helps to keep the reader at a distance, analogous to the distance between the cyberloa and the real world, or between The Boxmaker and Marly.

CZ is, naturally, itself a box, although not the sort of box Marly perceives. Serene and dispassionate assemblage is foreign to Gibson. The drive of the power-language, which remains cyberpunk and futuristic, propels the narrative action. The Boxmaker’s boxes pale in comparison with Gibson’s own "Gibson Boxes" (to use Scott Bukatman’s term), which flash only rarely in CZ as characters pass them by on the way to their travels to home base. Compare for example the Boxmaker’s boxes with the scene witnessed by Turner and Angie at Washington’s Dupont Circle:

Condensation dripped steadily from the old Georgetown dome, built forty years after the ailing Federals decamped for the lower reaches of McLean. Washington was a southern city, always had been, and you felt the tone of Sprawl shift here if you rode the trains down from the stations from Boston. The trees in the District were lush and green, and their leaves shaled the arc lights as Turner and Angie Mitchell made their way along the broken sidewalks to Dupont Circle and the station. There were drums in the circle, and someone had lit a trash fire in the giant’s marble goblet at the center. Silent figures sat beside spread blankets as they passed, the blankets arrayed with surreal assortments of merchandise: the damp-swollen cardboard covers of black plastic audio disks beside battered prosthetic limbs trailing crude nerve-jacks, a dusty glass fishbowl filled with oblong steel dog tags, rubber-banded stacks of faded postcards, cheap Indo trodes still sealed in wholesaler’s plastic, mismatched ceramic salt-and-pepper sets, a golf club with a peeling leather grip, Swiss army knives with missing blades, a dented tin wastebasket lithographed with the face of a president whose name Turner could almost remember (Carter? Grosvenor?), fuzzy holograms of the Monument.... (§27:201).

This Gibson Box draws on (and perhaps excessively imitates) the street-scenes of NM: its jumble of historical kipple appears in vivid, concrete form. The poignant contrast between the exotic/natural and the familiar/social that was present at Turner’s rebirth in the Dutchman’s clinic is present here, too. But while in the earlier scene Turner was in virtual anaesthesia box that lied about reality, here the box is true. The juxtapositions do the work of The Boxmaker’s boxes, not with the abstract fragments of NM’s leftover cyber-junk, but with our own world: "lush and green (the garden, the unspoiled); silent figures (the outcasts of the garden living with its poignant remnants); the cardboard covers (emptied of art), limbs (discarded by owners, the wielders of technology, along with human refuse—the figures), dog tags (emblems of our own homeless veterans); Monument holograms (cheap simulacra of lost signifiers)."7

7. Cybervoodoo. Gibson’s decision to transform the unified AI of cyberspace into a voodoo loa creates similar problems. On the one hand, this decision was intentionally arbitrary. Gibson describes his choice as the result of a chance encounter with a National Geographic article he had stored away in a creative scrap bin. This gives the voodoo theme the pedigree of a surrealist ready-made, a found object fitted into a novelistic collage without need of further justification. On the other hand, the cyberloa and the houngans, for much of the novel, represent positive and effective moral-historical forces for the preservation and evolution of the world against the destructive principles of European male narcissism. They are symbols: of the Third World, diasporan religion, paganism, the Networks. They are agents of narrative. They defeat Virek, and they provide the world with a mediator, l’Ange Mirak. The cyber-voodoo plot thus seems to mark an ethically neutral new condition of things in cyberspace, at the same time that it is an abstract ethical frame for the action. It is a form of collage and suffers the fate of collage in CZ: voodoo is expected to represent freedom in its dynamic fragmentation, while simultaneously acting as the unifying principle of the thriller-drama.

Gibson’s story of finding Carol Devillers’s article on voodoo in National Geographic and employing it for his own purposes has faultless surrealistic pedigree.8 Olson calls voodoo a "spiritual collage" in its own right (99), combining auratic pieces of West African religion and Roman Catholicism. Voodoo might also be appropriate because it is a magico-technical religion, with constant traffic between (and fusion of) spirit and matter—and thus adaptable to the technosystem of cybernetics. It does not rely on Western theisms’ overriding transcendental, ethical deity of pure will. It is a structure "for getting things done" (§13:76), allowing for allegorical systematization that keeps the distance between the real and cyberspace distinct by "talking two languages at once" (§16:114), that of religion and that of street tech.

"Think of Jackie as a deck, Bobby, a cyberspace deck, a very pretty one with nice ankles.... Think of Danbala, who some people call the snake, as a program. Say, as an icebreaker. Danbala slots into the Jackie deck, Jackie cuts ice. That’s all."

"Okay," said Bobby, getting the hang of it, "then what’s the matrix? If she’s a deck, and Danbala’s a program, what’s cyberspace?"

"The world," Lucas said. (Ibid.)

In Gibson’s cyberspace novels, unforeseen phenomena and operations emerging from complex cybernetic techno-systems are rationalized as mythical and magical: i.e., closer to the archaic animation of nature. The particular style of humanizing the computer, which Scott Bukatman has termed terminal identity, is in CZ overtly linked with pre-rational systems of thought.9 This style, furthermore, is congruent with all of CZ’s other humanizations of the NM world—especially the transformation of the matrix from a hypostasis of Cartesian rationality to an alternate quasi-physical habitation, replete with topological grottoes and groves. "The interface of voodoo superstition with cybernetic certainty," Bukatman writes, "has a literally subversive effect upon the rational, geometric perfection of cyberspace" (214). Contrary to Marie-France’s program of transcendental desire, the voodoo deities are apparently content to deal with human beings without aspiring to a higher state, ethically or ontologically.

But there are reasons to doubt this perfect fit. Samuel R. Delany, in an interview with Mark Dery, describes NM’s depiction of the Rastas in terms that strangely recall the houngans of CZ:

The Rastas—he never calls them Rastafarians, by the way, only using the slang term—are described as having "shrunken hearts," and their bones are brittle with "calcium loss." Their music, Zion Dub, can be wholly analyzed and reproduced by the Artificial Intelligence, Wintermute (who, in the book, stands for a multinational corporation), so completely that the Rastas themselves cannot tell the difference—in fact the multinational mimic job is so fine that with it Wintermute can make the Rastas do precisely what it wants, in this case help a drugged-out white hood and sleazebag get from here to there. As a group, they seem to be computer illiterates: when one of their number, Aerol, momentarily jacks into Case’s computer and sees cyberspace, what he perceives is "Babylon"—city of sin and destruction—which, while it makes its ironic comment on the book, is nevertheless tantamount to saying that Aerol is completely without power or knowledge to cope with the real world of Gibson’s novel: indeed, through their pseudo-religious beliefs, they are effectively barred from cyberspace. From what we see, women are not a part of the Rasta colony at all. Nor do we ever see more than four of the men together—so that they do not even have a group presence. Of the three chapters in which they appear, no more than three pages are actually devoted to describing them of their colony.(750-51)

Delany does not mention CZ in his comments,10 but the representation of voodoo in that novel might be read as a point-for-point correction of the flaws in NM’s representation of the Rastas detailed by Delany. There is an important woman character-agent, Jackie. The religious terminology is treated with expository respect. The houngans are not only not powerless, they are the medium for the world’s salvation from Virek’s plot. The religious colony is not at the margins of the world, rejecting the Babylonian captivity. It ultimately serves the world, from the center of things—it dominates cyberspace and its transactions with humanity. Far from being physically diminished with "shrunken hearts," "Black people, [Bobby] noted, didn’t look half dead under fluorescent lights, the way white people did" (§16:110).

This systematic correction raises some questions. Kathleen Biddick, for example, has wondered just how we are expected to interpret Gibson’s depiction of voodoo divinities in cyberspace. Is it a gesture of solidarity with a diasporan religion (i.e., just as West African gods were transported to the New World they can be transported again to the "New New World" of cyberspace where they will doggedly undermine the religion of rationality), or is it an example of the attempt to appropriate native healing, assimilating the powers of the colonized to the colonizers? (50-55). In other words, is it an invocation of pagan aura, or its co-opting simulation?

Gibson surely intended the former, for the houngans and the loa are generally the good guys. But by doing so, Gibson sentimentalizes the voodoo elements. Now, however, unlike in NM where the sentimentality was associated with regret for the inevitable loss of human affections, in CZ it is the sentimentally charged power of The Others, the outlaw, the marginalized Third World society and its street religion, that have effective power. This is not exactly an ethical idealization. After all, voodoo is attractive to cyberpunks in part because they hold it to be appropriately cynical and devoted to terror. It is rather a matter of the theory of the legitimacy of natural fragmentation and diversity in contrast with the all-fusing desire associated with Virek and Western multinational capitalism.11 It allows Gibson to return to the language of origins and nature in the midst of his cyborg world. With the cyberloa, the balance between artificial and organic in the cyborg-mediated interface between the meat-world and the matrix now tips significantly toward the organic and the archaic, the primitive. The white adult males—Turner, Conroy, Alain, Virek—are deceivers, forgers, or so wealthy they enjoy "any number of means of manifestation" (§15:106). They are intimately connected to the technology of warfare and alienated commerce. The mediators and redeemers are set up in contrast: they are associated with stock archetypes of nature. Angie is the embodiment of the Virgin, a girl-child, Bobby the impulsive and excluded teenager. Marly is so alienated from technology of any sort, that she is characterized almost exclusively in terms of her "instinctive mammalian certainty" (§2:16), her devotion to originals, and her clothes. The diasporan Afro-Caribbeans, with their vital religion, are explicitly contrasted to the death-infused whites.

Thus the voodoo elements are first emptied of their historical context (or rather, considering their provenance in Gibson’s personal account, they were picked up empty, as imperial culture-rubbish in Gibson’s dumpster), then they are re-filled with the technological and salvationist allegories for which they serve as masks.

8. No ecstasy, no elegy. The poles of Gibson’s language in NM were ecstasy and elegy: the ecstasy of cyberspace, orgasm, psychedelics, computer games, terror, being bad, the Straylight Run; the elegies for craft, love, rest, nature. In CZ, ecstasy has become insupportable. There is no longer bodiless exultation—in part because it is suicidal, but also because cyberspace itself is being filled with quasi-bodies. Instead of an infinite paraworld of desire, it is becoming a real somewhere.

Elegy remains, in the Marly plot, the Dupont Circle tableau. But because Gibson insists on portraying CZ’s elegies as moments countering the futuristic language of power, the elegiac power of NM vanishes, too, along with the ecstasy. Grief saturates NM: Case’s grief about Linda, Molly’s grief about her past as a meat-puppet, Armitage’s grief about his role in Screaming Fist, perhaps even Riviera’s grief about his cannibalistic childhood in postwar Bonn. They motivate the characters’ cruelty. NM’s ecstasy and the grief are both intense, and, as close reading of certain passages in NM shows, they were almost interfused (Csicsery-Ronay, "Sentimental" 236-39). In CZ the need to short-circuit the dangerous ecstasies and to return to some natural integrities leads to a vitiation also of grief.

Gibson’s attempt in CZ to restore some autonomy to his characters, and to art, must, in my view, be judged unsuccessful. Although he claimed to be wanting to develop characterization in CZ, I do not agree with the frequently stated view that NM’s characters were unacceptably shallow. The so-called "comic-book characters" of NM (Christie 173) were full enough, in my view, because they were emotionally at the wavefronts of their own feelings—they had to be, or they would have been useless to Wintermute. Their depth of characterization is a matter of the lyric depth of their prose—a depth that comes from Gibson’s prodigious gift for emotional compression as the story speeds toward its goal. In CZ the characters have lost this compression—none actually attracts Gibson’s intense lyricism, despite Marly’s frequent bathetic invocation of the term "poet."12 Gibson never seems to fully invest Turner—whose story could have been attractive, given the contradiction between his family-pastoral and his mercenary ambivalence—with a personal purpose, as if Turner himself had shut his emotional switch off. Marly is a mannequin—represented more in terms of clothes than thoughts. Angie and her father have mythic positions, but not personalities. Bobby is (merely more markedly than the others) a character from a Hollywood movie, with no significant dimensions that cannot be displayed visually for an unimaginative camera-eye.

Christie believes, with Olsen, that the characters’ epiphanies in CZ lead them to a salvationist resolution unavailable to NM’s protagonists:

Case has no access to the transcendent AI. Things are still things and he is still a working stiff. Marly, however, trailing a hesitant and broken life behind her, is given the grace of an epiphany by the artist-machine. "I know of no more extraordinary work than this. No more complex gesture"..., she remarks, and shortly after is given her own Cornell box, which is a metonymic summary of her life, fragments of her existence rendered coherent by the AI’s art of memory. This art thereby bestows order and meaning on her broken life, a kind of consummation. (178)

Turner, Christie continues, is able to return to his boyhood home, redeemed, and to articulate his lesson from the Book of Nature.

But what do these epiphanies actually provide? What is saved? What is gained? In NM every human being was outside the apocalypse, with no more stories to tell; in CZ, where the apocalypse is pre-empted, everyone remains outside anyway, having glimpsed some meaning, which then fails to be converted into a new state. Why should the achievements, the gains, not in fact be considered failures? The gap between cyberspace and humanity was to have been bridged in some mysterious way by Angie’s biosoft; but after the climax we see Angie so entangled in the worldly web of Sim/Stim that she can’t escape until Mona Lisa Overdrive, and there only by finding a substitute in Mona. Turner is first a romantic driven by a rage to avenge himself on his employers and by a completely independent fatherly obligation to Angie. After reconstructing his body and personality by intefusing with others’ histories, he returns to the suspect idyll of the Squirrel Wood (which is—not incidentally—now a secret fortress). Bobby, too, goes from saved victim, to hero, to outcast. Marly, from innocent lover of original art to an art dealer.

They all progress from passive victimhood to heroic gap-bridging, ultimately to a final fall back into experience and deceit. What is odd about it all is that these prodigal returns to the real are not motivated or even commented on by the narrative, which seems to want to pass them by. Case and Molly can return to the quotidian in NM, we know that the hypostatic new Cyberdeity is expanding and extending itself. Case may still be a working stiff, but the reader knows that a new world has come into being. In CZ the end leaves us without a reference-system of meaning, a terminus: Virek is foiled, the voodoo spirits are victorious. But for what? Marly has an epiphany, but for what? The ecstasy of attainment vanishes like a dream. In the denouement, CZ’s plot demolishes its own logical consequences (parodied by Angie’s meeting with Marly off stage—why should they meet after the end, having resisted the pull of convergence for so long?). Plot pieces are left over with no re-linking to cyberspace—and so no access to it. Instead, there are situations dense with the simulation of aura: the idyllic Squirrel Wood, Sense/Net, Marly’s art dealership.

This stunning anti-climax of CZ’s denouement appears not only intentional, but imposed. Despite considerable theoretical and narrative work—by the loa and by Gibson—to keep things separated, CZ’s plots came dangerously near to convergence. Only a literal cyberdeus ex machina keeps Marly and the Boxmaker from becoming characters in the larger plot. And the space is prepared for the ascension of a triumphant Angie-Ange, with her noble paramour, into the new synthesized fusion of world and matrix. This fusion would in fact have been greater than Wintermute’s, since the latter seemed content to create a parallel universe and leave it at that. Once again, as in the conclusion of NM, the author intervened to block the inertial rush of the characters toward a transcendental transformation. But while this obstruction in NM is justified because the AIs are basically indifferent to their human agents, CZ involves no such intrinsic justification. The cyberloa had been working hard to establish a link between humans and the matrix; they seem to require the deals they make. Why then are CZ’s characters dispersed and diminished in the end?

My surmise is that Gibson was trapped by the basic structure of his novel as a dialectical correction on NM. For while NM’s tension between ecstasy and elegy stems from the surpassing of human concerns by techno-evolution, in CZ it is NM’s visionary pleasure that has been surpassed—and which lives on in the novel as in the reader’s memory. Gibson, however, supplies no mundane meaning after the exorcism of NM’s apocalypse. Despite all the heroics against Virek, the tycoon of consciousness, nothing endures but biz. All is deal: religion is a matter of Faustian deals and covenants; art, even after Marly’s epiphany, is something to be bought and sold.

Despite the freedom of fragmentation, Gibson’s cyberpunk action world still drew all the fragments toward a technofusion that could easily have reprised NM. Not only the cyberloa, but Gibson’s own authorial cyberdeus ex machina was required to prevent another unwanted apocalypse. The Epilogues demonstrate that Gibson had to step outside his plot to prevent it from telling the same story it was designed to refute. Arguably, then, CZ is about the difficulty of telling any other story than NM, and of maintaining a modernist novelistic narrative against the undertow of apocalypse. In effect, the novel’s otherwise fascinating global technical strategy is more interesting theoretically than it is engaging aesthtically or emotionally. And it conceals the fact that it has nothing new to say behind its pseudo-aesthetic of dynamic collage. CZ is a work of penance that makes one think more fondly of the sin than of the atonement.

NOTES. Special thanks to Arthur B. Evans and Ann Weinstone for their many helpful suggestions.

1. Christie 172-73. My argument owes much to John Christie’s essay, which I heard first as a paper at the 1989 Conference on Cyberpunk at the University of Leeds. 

2. On the concept of the "post-human," see chapter 4 in Bukatman.

3. Max Ernst: "I am tempted to see in collage the chance meeting of two remote realities on an unfamiliar plane...cultivating the effects of a systematic bewilderment, according to the view of André Breton...coupling two apparently uncouplable realities on a plane apparently unsuited to them..." (quoted in Hoffman 17).

4. I would add that other significant parts of the Boxmaker plot remain obscure, especially those that might link the loa and The Boxmaker. For instance, how did Virek know that the boxes were related to the biosoft? Why did the "others" (the loa-cores) send the biosoft to the Boxmaker? Why do they refuse to "speak" to it?

5. For example: "Despite an aura of renunciation and isolation, the magic of these boxes is not Faustian or ‘black,’ but natural and filled with love. Cornell’s work stands as a crystalline refuge from a world of frustrated hopes and increasing complexity, from an impersonal world that has forgotten mystery and the magic of poetry. Lost illusions are sheltered along with pristine innocence and the pure naivete of childhood" (K.L. McShine in Seitz 68). "His poetry of recollection and desire transcends eccentric nostalgia or excessive romanticism. Realizing what is present we are also aware of the infinity of what is absent." (70)

6. Olson’s argument is similar to mine, but I believe Olson misreads The Boxmaker. The boxes are not mass-produced, for each one is unique; nor does the Boxmaker make them so that others can sell them. The Boxmaker is unconcerned about what happens to them, it just makes. Nor is it correct to call the Boxmaker a robot; it is an AI, even if an autistic one. Some ineffable form of intelligence is implied in its selection process. And I do not see why Olson considers it necessary for the artist to experience something, so long as the perceiver does. It is surely orthodox surrealism to treat even random combinations of elements that create an aesthetic effect as art, the surrealist’s hasard objectif. In fact, Gibson makes this the dominant diegetic aesthetic in Virtual Light in the form of the "Thomasson." (As for being "fakes," we should note that one of the meanings of collé, the root of collage, is precisely fake. [Perloff 51].) The Boxmaker in fact participates in the general sensibility of its age by being an autistic artist, like its colleagues, the catatonic künstlers, the autistic thespians, and the curators of brute art. (But this ultimately supports Olson, calling into question Marly’s sense that The Boxmaker’s boxes are different from the other arts.) Finally, I cannot agree with Olson’s phrasing: "It [The Boxmaker] creates simulacra of Cornell boxes, not the boxes themselves." What sense would there be in creating real Cornell boxes when the Boxmaker is not Cornell? On the novel’s terms the Boxmaker is creating Boxmaker boxes that remind Marly of Cornell. But if Olson means that Gibson is creating simulations of Cornell boxes, and thus anachronistic and sentimental abstractions, I would agree wholeheartedly.

7. Ann Weinstone, private e-mail correspondence.

8. "Enjoyment of the trouvaille (the find), a gift of chance, is seen as requiring no more than acceptance, sometimes through the simple but meaningful act of nomination—a token of glad recognition of something never previously encountered. Sometimes again a trouvaille might tantalize the surrealist’s mind, unable at first to identify what makes the new discovery significant. The first chapter of Breton’s L’Amour fou tells how a mask found by chance met a need experienced by the sculptor Giacometti and how a spoon, also found in the Paris flea market, helped Breton analyze his own emotional state. In the eyes of the surrealists, then, no discovery, no trouvaille, is ever simply accidental." (A.J. Matthews. The Imagery of Surrealism. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse U. Press, 1977. 125)

9. Finn offers a skeptical rationalization for the presence of the Divine Horsemen in cyberspace: "Thrones and dominions.... Yeah, there’s things out there. Ghosts, voices. Why not? Oceans had mermaids, all that shit, and we had a sea of silicon, see?" (§16:119). On the linking of complex computer phenomena with a quasi-magical style of terminal identity, see Bruce Sterling, "Cyber-Superstition," Science Fiction Eye 8 (Winter 1991), and Erik Davis, "Techgnosis, Magic, Memory and the Angels of Information" in Dery.

10. On Virek’s role as symbol of capitalism, see David Brande, "The Business of Cyberpunk: Symbolic Economy and Ideology in William Gibson," Configurations, Fall 1994 (521-522).

11. Curiously, Delany does not comment on CZ in any of his articles on cyberpunk, which are all important criticisms of the genre. The absence of CZ in his interview with Dery is particularly baffling, since it was conducted and revised in 1993, seven years after CZ’s publication.

12. Marly to Paco: "You are a poet...." (§12:74); "The box was a universe, a poem...." (§2:15); "The turret swung back and forth, humming, the manipulators darting, finishing the new poem" (§31:225); "Something...spilled...all the worn sad evidence of a family’s humanity, and left it all to be stirred, to be sorted, by a poet" (§31:227).


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Slusser, George, and Tom Shippey, eds. Fiction 2000. Cyberpunk and the Future of Narrative. Athens: U Georgia P, 1992.

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