Thursday, January 30, 2014

Defining Science Fiction in Neuromancer

                Humanity in Gibson’s Neuromancer is defined as a society which has achieved a status of advanced technological capabilities.  Even though the society has become extremely intelligent it is still structured in a similar way as it is today.  From reading the first half of the novel I have to agree with Brian Aldiss’s definition of what science fiction is.  Gibson is attempting to define the status of mankind in his fictional world and how people are functioning in their lives.  Although Gibson has not explicitly stated mankind’s place in relation to the universe as a whole, some inferences can be made to fill in the gaps.
                To define what mankind has become in the world of Neuromancer Gibson starts the novel by describing a few things about the main character, Case.  Case has had his mind altered, functions in society as a smuggler, and possesses the qualities we would associate with the lower class citizens.  Things such as drug use and illegal purchases of firearms are present in the beginning of the story.  We also learn about some upper class people like Armitage, who has seemingly unlimited resources to provide necessary travel and equipment to Case and the team.  This is representative of a structured society of mankind existing in the world.
                Mankind is also defined in the novel by its intellectual capabilities and in Neuromancer, technology has become extremely advanced.  There are ROM constructs that hold computer representations of people, computers like the one Case uses for his hacking, and the artificial intelligence known as Wintermute.  Here, Gibson is defining mankind as more developed in the field of technology and intellectually more complex and capable.
                Towards the end of the first half of the novel we find that Case, Molly, the Finn, Armitage, and the rest of the crew board a shuttle.  From the context of zero gravity and later the mention of their destination generating its own gravity, we know they are commercially flying in space to a location holding a human population.  This action is definitive of mankind’s exploration and expansion into the universe.  Although there is not mention of encountering extraterrestrials or other civilizations, mankind is reaching out into the universe.  Social structure, intelligence, and space exploration cover defining mankind and its relation to the universe.
                However, Aldiss’s definition adds more to the requirement of being considered a work of science fiction.  He states that science fiction must also be characteristically cast in the Gothic or post-Gothic mode.  In order for a work of literature to be considered Gothic, typically that means it needs to contain a mix of romance and horror.  It is obvious from the first half of the novel that this definition absolutely applies to Neuromancer.  Early in the novel, after Case’s surgery to repair his pancreas and prevent drugs from affecting him, there is a rather explicit sexual scene involving him and Molly.  This scene is short but gets the romance feeling across very strongly.  Later, when Case is a “rider” in Molly’s head, as Larry referred to their connection, there is a quick scene of her teasing him by touching her own nipple so he could feel the sensation.  A quick scene, but it still pokes at the recurring tone of romance between Case and Molly in the novel.
                Moving on to horror, remember the novel was published in 1984, where horror was not quite as terrifying as it is today.  There are several scenes that could be considered horrific in the first half of the novel.  In the very beginning when Case is being tailed by people and hides in the office cubicle with the Cobra, I found to be a little frightening because he did not know whether he was going to live or die.  Where true horror lies in the first half of the novel is with Wintermute.  “… [Case] had to walk the length of the ranked phones.  Each rang in turn, but only once, as he passed.” (Gibson).  This scene is full of terror.  Wintermute, an AI computer, knows where Case is down to the very steps he is taking.  Wintermute can talk and wants to talk with Case through the telephone which is even more disturbing.  The horror doesn’t end there either.  When Case is “jacked in” to the Matrix, he is taken over by Wintermute who uses Case’s own memories to depict a world to him and communicate with him.  Case is so disoriented he’s not even sure he’s still “jacked in” or not.  A computer has taken over his mind and is preventing him from discerning reality, an utterly horrific situation for him to be in.
                Gibson’s work of science fiction, Neuromancer, is characteristic of Gothic literature, containing romance and horror, and also defines the state of mankind in his fictional world.  Brian Aldiss defines science fiction by these qualities, therefore Neuromancer can be declared as a work of science fiction by his definition.  Gibson’s introduction states that his goal was to make a science fiction novel unlike any before it.  He writes in a different tone and structure than most, but he still kept his story within the realm of science fiction novels.     


Gibson, W. (1984). Neuromancer. New York: The Berkley Publishing Group.

Aldiss, Brian and David Wingrove. Trillion Year Spree: The History of Science Fiction. London: Victor-  Gollancz Ltd., 1986. Page 26.


Jessica Merrill said...

You're argument directly answers the prompt -- "Is Neromancer science fiction", but there's a lot of ideas you touch on briefly that could be expanded. You make a lot of points, but don't give many explanations or implications. An example of this is when you discussed the romance aspect of the novel. You focus on the sexual scenes between Case and Molly, but their relationship has more romance than that. The obsessiveness of Case and Molly could also be considered a sort of romance: a romance with their aspirations, or maybe with themselves. This point could definitely be expanded.
The entire point about defining mankind could be condensed into one paragraph. They are all separate examples, but you don't make an argument about them until the end of the third body paragraph. It would be easier to follow your thinking if you merged them together somehow.
Overall, I think this essay is just skimming the top of how Neuromancer is science fiction. If you were to revise this essay, I would suggest focusing on one of your ideas about how it fits Aldiss's definition (defining mankind, romance, or horror) and expanding on it. Your ideas would really benefit from further development.
Just one more housekeeping thing -- your first few sentences could use some commas. It might be my style to use too many commas, so take it or leave it.

Adam said...

Your introductory paragraph could be boiled down into a sentence - it's all rather vague and circular. When you find yourself doing that, just trim it down a little.

The next several paragraphs read, to me, more like a description of the position of humanity in the novel. You emphasize the continuity with our own historical position. To me, this reads more like plot summary than analysis. It may be that humanity is defined through hierarchical power struggle (I think that's what you're getting at), but you're not really making that argument - instead, you're summarizing relevant parts of the story and *implying* that.

Why do you define gothic as mix of romance and horror? It's not an absurd definition (in fact, it works for many popular works), but it's also far from a technical definition. My point is - why do you think this is what Aldiss has in mind? I'm grumbling a little about the definition, but I do want to point out that your discussion of Wintermute & horror is good. I certainly wouldn't be opposed to seeing an essay organized around this topic.

Overall: There isn't enough true argument here. I need to understand how you move from the observation that (for instance) hierarchical power struggle is everywhere in the novel to the claim that Gibson *defines* humanity, including in an advanced technological state, through that hierarchical power struggle. There's a missing leap here, which would move from observation to analysis or meaning.

Despite my grumbling about your definition of the gothic, you use it effectively to contextualize the novel. But again, you don't tie everything together: I want to understand how your understanding of the novel as Gothic helps you understand how humanity is being defined here.

Jessica's ideas are great. I'm especially impressed by her comment on obsessiveness - there's a lot of potential there.