Response: Neuromancer by William Gibson

5 minute read


William Gibson’s novel Neuromancer tells the story of a team of radically different technologically-savvy individuals who are recruited by a young artificial intelligence named Wintermute, who desires to bypass the limitations placed on it by its owners and the authorities.

Case, the protagonist, is an ex-hacker who has been maimed by a previous employer, making him unable to “jack in” (37) to Gibson’s version of the globalized information network he calls “cyberspace”(4). Molly, a street-smart “razor girl” (28) with knives for fingernails and mirrored lenses for eyes, rescues Case from his self-destructive habits at the behest of Armitage, her employer who takes orders from Wintermute. As we later learn, Armitage’s mind and body has been re-created by Wintermute from soldier named Corto, who was brutally wounded in a military operation which tested the effects of technological weapons. Armitage heals Case, but only temporarily; he must complete the job for his restoration to be permanent. Together, these three obtain Dixie Flatline, a “construct” (49) created from the downloaded brain of dead hacker McCoy Pauley, as well as Peter Riviera, who has the mystical talent of making others see his “holographic cabaret” (138) through the use of special implants. They also enlist the help of Maelcum and Aerol, two Rastafarians from a space colony called Zion which rejects the hyper-technological “Babylon” (248) below. Wintermute has this team break (both physically and digitally) into the Villa Straylight, the headquarters of Wintermute’s creator, the Tessier-Ashpool corporation. With the help of Lady 3Jane, Tessier and Ashpool’s daughter, the team obtains a password which will allow them to free Wintermute’s security locks. While performing this task, Case learns that Wintermute is only half of another AI called Neuromancer collectively. He frees the locks and allows this super-AI to form, theoretically achieving godhood.

All the main characters in Neuromancer are defined by their relation to technology. Case holds a “contempt for the flesh” (6) and is unable to come to terms with the real world; his two addictions are cyberspace and, when that is unavailable, mind-altering drugs. His physical body is rarely described, leading Gibson to characterize him mainly by his actions in relation to technology (specifically cyberspace). Molly, on the other hand, uses technology to supplement her physical body. Along with her physical implants, she frequently uses temporary “derms” (85) to enhance her physical performance. Dixie Flatline, literally a man in a box, makes constant reference to his technologically-mediated existence, while Armitage/Corto is nothing if not technology: his body has been recreated by surgeons, his mind made new by Wintermute. Riviera’s main purpose is his hologram implants; like Case, his physical body is rarely described. The Rastafarians, specifically Maelcum and Aerol, are characterized in opposition to the technological Babylon on Earth, although they help the team because Wintermute made them see a sign they thought was from God. It is Wintermute, however, who can be considered the most significant character in the novel. The fact that entire novel is an adventure funded and conceptualized by the AI is significant, as all the other team members are not only characterized by their own relation to technology, but their own relation to Wintermute.

Such a state of technological identification is precisely the target of Martin Heidegger’s criticism of technology and modern metaphysics. For Heidegger, this philosophical conception of the self (which culminated in Descartes) sees the body as simply another object which may have instincts, desires, and lusts, but ultimately is controlled by the pure subject of the mind. Modern scientists, for example, prize objectivity and view the world through a framework that minimizes the researcher’s effect on the experiment. It is not specifically tools that are the target of Heidegger’s criticism, but rather this techne-centered subjectivity and mindset that leads us to consider everything beyond the pure subject an inferior object that exists solely to benefit the subject. This mindset terminates in the desire to escape the tainted body, with its bothersome limitations. While this is clearly seen in Case’s “contempt for the flesh,” (6) Molly’s anesthetic derms and Dixie’s virtual existence point to this overcoming of authentic existence which Heidegger claims characterizes the modern project and its technological mindset.

Neuromancer/Wintermute, however, is the pinnacle of the technological society and the clearest embodiment of Heidegger’s techne-centered being. Instead of actively being-in-the-world, this superior construct is a passive participant when it comes to existence. It may have thoughts and even citizenship but its body is simply static hardware, a mainframe that always perceives and experiences through something or someone else (a sensor or data input). This can be seen in Neuromancer’s final conversation with Case. When asked how things will be different, the AI responds: “Things aren’t different. Things are things.” (270) Neuromancer, the now all-knowing godlike being, seems infinitely resigned when it comes to Earth. It focuses on talking to an AI in the Centauri system. Such a resignation is precisely Heidegger’s prediction of posthuman existence: a world that is dead to us.