Thursday, January 30, 2014

A Definition of Humanity in Neuromancer

               It is a fundamental aspect of science fiction literature to make a statement about how humanity will stand “in our advanced but confused state of knowledge”. Neuromancer by William Gibson makes an attempt to define humanity in an age of technology that blurs the classic definition, while “Cast in the Gothic or post-Gothic mode” for a majority of the high-conflict and revealing scenes (Aldiss). With the conflict surrounding a fundamentally anti-human Alternative Intelligence, the inherent differences between the AI and humans reveals Gibson’s attempt at defining humanity.

               The interplay of the nefarious company of characters that the first half of the novel follows is one of the ways that Gibson tries to define humanity. Case, the console cowboy (hacker) and severe addict, and Molly, a post-Gothic heroine, are in conflict with the Wintermute AI and its puppet, Armitage.  While Case, Molly, and, to an extent, Riviera, are the hero-villains, Armitage (the AI personality in Corto’s body) is an entity that is the foil to humanity. Their identities as hero-villains provide a more Gothic mode to the narrative (The Gothic Experience). Armitage's introduction alludes to his AI control when Case says he looked as if, “he were carved of metal; inert, enormously heavy” (Gibson, 38). The more human characters, especially Molly, note the inhuman nature of Armitage; Molly informs Case that, outside of the mission, Armitage has no other desires. This foils Case and Molly, who take pleasure in their vices and are in a constant struggle to survive. This struggle  is the most superficial, fundamental definition for humanity. Both the surfs and the elite in this society are battling against technology for the sake of survival.

               Perhaps the most revealing scene for the definition of humanity occurs when Case “flatlines” and it appears that the AI has infiltrated his mind. Firstly, Case’s brain death symbolized the anti-humanity, as having an EEG signal is an essential attribute to living. In this Gothic scene in which Case meets the AI mastermind, the Wintermute has complete control and appears as Deane. More importantly, Wintermute reveals that Corto, the suppressed humanity, still remains and will resurface (Gibson, 158). This scene shows the control that anti-humanity is beginning to take over, and the Gothic development of the scene through Julius “emerging from the shadow” (Gibson, 155) as an example of “supernatural manifestations, or the suggestion of the supernatural,” and more blatant Gothic tones (Melani). More evidence for the definition of humanity arises from Dixie (McCoy Pauley) explaining that as soon as an AI begins to learn, the founding company will destroy it out of fear of the AI gaining autonomy (Gibson, 172). It seems likely then that learning and autonomy, capabilities classically unique to humans, are keys to the definition of humanity.

               Significant expansion on the definition of humanity comes from the entities that readers will identify as non-human, like Dixie and Wintermute. Dixie, after identifying himself as “Just a bunch of ROM (computer simulated memories), says “I ain’t likely to write you no poem, if you follow me. Your AI, it just might” (Gibson, 171). From this, humanity is described as something that has ingenuity, while non-humanity is creatively sterile. Wintermute, nearing the capability of creativity, shows that AI is approximately able to simulate humanity. But along with the ability to create, non-humanity also lacks, and is torn over, the ability to feel. Dixie describes the lack for feeling through a metaphor of a ghost limb; limbs that imply feeling, but have no ability to realistically feel (Gibson, 139). Continuing with the possibility that Wintermute is an anti-human that is edging toward full human capabilities, he mentions his strength at improvising and sorting information quickly (Gibson, 157). This is, in present day, something that computers are entirely unable to match in human capability. Wintermute is showing its capabilities of approximating humanity, providing deeper insight to the definition of humanity and the discomfort Wintermute instills upon Case and Molly. Man’s place in the universe is meant to be in control of technology, but the potential to be usurped is the source of the conflict between the Gothic hero-villains and the anti-humanity.

               The ability to feel, the ability to quickly react and learn, autonomy, and pleasure are all fundamentally unique to humanity, but Wintermute in Gibson’s Neuromancer is beginning to approximate and surpass these capabilities. It is the conflict that arises that helps to solidify the definition and place for humanity in this world of human-like technologies, while casting it all in unease and mystery to provide a typical Gothic mode to the whole narrative.

11.)     Aldiss, Brian. Trillion Year Spree. Print.
22.)    Gibson, William. Neuromancer. New York: The Berkley Publishing Group, 2004. Print.
33.)    Melani, The Gothic Experience. N.p., 24 Oct 2002. Web. 30 Jan 2014.


Jake Stambaugh said...

I think you are subtly off-prompt here, and it makes you split your focus between showing how Gibson defines humanity and showing that Neuromancer is a piece of science fiction cast in the Gothic mode.

The argument about the definition of humanity is foundationally good; I feel like your thesis could better establish what the definition of humanity that you're defending, but by the end of the essay the argument is clear and well supported.

The topics concerning the Gothic mode in Neuromancer don't seem to reinforce your argument and only confuse the point that you are trying to make.

I think it would help if you structured your thesis closer to what the prompt is asking, which is argue for or against Aldiss' definition based on how important it is to define humanity. I think many of your proofs could be refocused to a more singular argument by adjusting the thesis.

Adam said...

I'd like the introduction to try to articulate what the difference between humanity and the AIs *is*. I know you'll get to it, but why delay?

I'd like to see you work through the claim that Molly & Case are in conflict with Armitage and Wintermute. It's not an absurd idea, but it does require some work to get there. The discussion of hero-villains is abbreviated but good.

The next paragraph does some smart things and some things that could use revision. I like your discussion of the gothic character of Wintermute (because it is almost supernatural in its power and attributes). I wonder, though, whether you're really showing the inhumanity of Wintermute here - what does it mean that it speaks through human "templates"? At the least, I feel like this could do with some further explanation.

I think your discussion of the Dixie Flatline and Wintermute conflates the two. Saying that Wintermute lacks feeling is questionable; saying that it lacks creativity is absurd - "I prefer situations to plans, you see" (pg 118 in the Kindle edition - a few pages later in the print edition). It's a very understandable mistake, but I think you're lettering yourself be fooled by the conventionally robotic character of the Dixie Flatline into thinking that Wintermute is similar. I think you even get that point, when you write about how Wintermute is beginning to "approximate and surpass" - but that dances around the question, I think. If Wintermute is in the process of surpassing humanity, does that make it inhuman? Or is it more human than us, or simply a better version of us?

Overall: You're trying to do a lot in a little bit of space. You have a strong sense of the gothic, and your reading is perfectly good, even if I think you oversimplify Wintermute (but then, a revision would need to tackle the whole novel, which would help). Your writing is a little choppy - I'd like to have a clearer understanding of how one point feeds into another. Everything is overly separate in this essay, except at the moments when you begin to write about how the more-than-human characteristics of Wintermute *are* gothic (maybe that's your clarified topic if you revise?)

Jake isn't wrong that you're off prompt a little, although I think it's mostly a matter of not being done with bringing all the pieces of your essay together.