Thursday, January 30, 2014

Defining Cyberpunk Through Neuromancer (Research Prompt)

The categorization of the “cyberpunk” genre within science fiction literature provides context for many of the themes underlying William Gibson’s Neuromancer.  Popularized in the 1980s, with the specific term coined by Bruce Bethke in 1983 (Featherly 2), cyberpunk brings together a futuristic take on technology with a rebellious undertone notably rooted from the rock-music boom. Deconstruction the term, “The “cyber-” prefix derives from cybernetics … [and] reveals the literary movement's permeating technological underpinnings” (Featherly 2) while the -punk suffix describes the outcast-like tendencies as displayed in many of the genre’s main characters. William Gibson’s Neuromancer is the embodiment of the “cyberpunk” subgenre of science fiction. Neuromancer exhibits many of the defining characteristics (as academically outlined) of cyberpunk such as: an increased role of technology in society counterbalanced with a decreased importance of nature, and the main character(s) as rebelling against an increasingly exclusive corporate system. However, these trending themes all manifest in the significance of the setting being a satirical and exaggerated extension of the present to execute the intended purpose of prompting self-reflection.
Valerie Renegar argues in her article, “The Dream Of A Cyberpunk Future? Entelechy, Dialectical Tension, And the Comic Corrective In William Gibson’s Neuromancer”, that the world in Gibson’s Neuromancer serves to significantly foster social criticism because it is presented specifically as a satirical extension of the present. She articulates that the cyberpunk genre is marked by a portrayal of the a trajectory of the near future for our present society that  is “simultaneously familiar and strange” (Renegar 324). She says that “these extrapolations… serve as a vehicle to help foster a comic perspective on the present” (Renegar 329). A world depicting the anticipated future directly evolved from our familiar present, she argues, has a very specific purpose. These situations are important to stimulate critical examination of contemporary society by showing a potential scenario depicting furthering of social trends, specifically those relating to technology in the subgenre of cyberpunk.
However, K. Featherly explains in The Encyclopedia of New Media that cyberpunk pieces “do not involve cautionary tales to illuminate the modern reader” (Featherly 110). He, in combination with Renegar’s article, presents a distinction between what a cautionary tale is and what cyberpunk is meant to express.  Featherly describes the cyberpunk society as being too late to moralize, meaning that a cautionary tale would do no good in the situation because society as a whole has embraced amorality and technology to a high degree. The stories of this genre are not framed as cautionary tales either. As being encapsulated by the science fiction genre as a whole, cyberpunk tales are meant to take place as a potential scenario without the self-awareness to be brought out as a specific cautionary tale.
Straying from a traditional “cautionary tale” is where Renegar’s ideas return. She describes the cyberpunk genre, and Neuromancer specifically, as having a comic quality to it, a satirical playing out of society’s obsession with technology. In Neuromancer, she notes, technology is integrated into everyday life of these characters as a more extreme variation of the way it is presently used. Renegar describes multiple instances where the integration of technology has been made more extreme in this projected future: increased technology in physical human aesthetic, increased technology in the career of the individual, and increased technology quite literally in the form of independent beings of technology existing in this world. While these examples become increasingly serious, many of the differences between the people of Gibson’s world and the people of the current world have a hint of superficial hilarity. She points to plastic surgery in the novel as an extension of it in contemporary society, with an increased importance of personal aesthetics being integrated with technology. Renegar references a specific quote regarding one of the Panther Moderns, ‘‘His hair was pink. A rainbow of microsofts bristled behind his left ear, the ear was pointed, tufted with more pink hair. His pupils had been modified to catch the lights like a cat’s’’ (Gibson 67). She goes on to justify the ridiculousness of the image by saying, “the subcultures [in the novel]  are no longer satisfied with piercings, plastic surgery, or wildly colored hair but have moved on to more invasive and alarming aesthetic changes. These illustrations encourage the audience to think more critically about contemporary practices such as plastic surgery, tattooing, and other body modifications” (Renegar 330). While this analysis alludes to another defining theme of cyberpunk, the devaluing of the natural human body, the point she makes in this passage is that the outlandishness of the imagery and culture of this futuristic world is meant to be a commentary on a trend of today taken to an illogical extreme. This carries through to the rest of the novel, as all of these strange-seeming images of culture are purposefully jarring to provoke self-reflection and social criticism.
Cyberpunk as a genre contains common underlying themes, many of which are found in Gibson’s iconic Neuromancer. The idea that supersedes them all centers around the environment of these novels being an extended trajectory of modern society and the trends it values. Specific aspects are extended and exaggerated until they become the unrecognizable  norm in the new society, and Renegar argues that they serve a specific purpose to ignite a motion for social criticism on current obsessions. While not quite a cautionary tale, cyberpunk, and specifically Neuromancer, offers a more satirical view on the issues at hand through this exaggerated extension.

Works Cited

  1. Featherly, K. (2003). Cyberpunk. In S. Jones (Ed.), Encyclopedia of New Media. (pp. 110-112). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, Inc.
  2. Gibson, William. Neuromancer. New York: Ace, 1984. Print.
  3. Renegar, Valerie R., and George N. Dionisopoulos. “The Dream Of A Cyberpunk Future? Entelechy, Dialectical Tension, And the Comic Corrective In William Gibson’s Neuromancer.” Southern Communication Journal 76.4 (2011): 323-341. Communication & Mass Media Complete. Web. 29 Jan. 2014.

2 comments:

Alec Brace said...

Courtney,

Having the novel evaluated under the definition of Cyberpunk helped me to realize why Gibson would have written the story in the way that he does. The argument that states Neuromancer is not meant to be a cautionary tale is strong and I like it, but if you were to revise I would really expand upon it with details from the book. Other expansions if you choose to revise this essay should rely on adding comparisons that expose more of the underlying themes. The example between the plastic surgery and how absurd it has become in Gibson’s world was a take I had not considered and I am intrigued as to whether or not there are more themes like it throughout the novel. You mention very briefly in your introduction and towards the end about Cyberpunk also involving the “decreased importance of nature” but I don’t see it taking off anywhere in your essay. I know it doesn’t exactly fit with your argument of self-reflection but it might work to define Neuromancer as Cyberpunk more. It could also give way to its connection to your argument that people care more about themselves and their own image than they do about nature in this futuristic world Gibson has created.

-Alec

Adam said...


It's a long introduction, especially for a research-based prompt. This could have been trimmed. As an observation (almost a criticism, but I'm criticizing a common habit which you are accidentally participating in) - few people bother to look up what cybernetics actually means. It's really interesting, and not quite the same as we expect it to mean. Reading *Neuromancer* through a more correct/historical definition of cybernetics takes in rather different directions than a reading which (mis)reads cybernetics as basically meaning "cyborgs."

Your research & your presentation of it is good. I like the tension between cyberpunk as comedy and cyberpunk as cautionary tale, although I certainly don't see the two as inherently contradictory. Satire *can* have a corrective purpose, and the depiction of an amoral society does not necessarily mean that the satirical work is itself amoral (these are all very relevant issues when trying to understand Gibson).

If you were to expand this, I think the obvious direction to take it is toward figuring out what *your* take on Gibson's comedy is - is it moral, amoral, or something else entirely?

For my part, I'd want to really address Wintermute in order to answer that question.