Thursday, January 30, 2014

Week 3: Refusing to Define Humanity

        An old question of philosophy regards the ship of Theseus, asking that if all the original parts of the ship are replaced over time, is the end ship still Theseus’s ship? Nothing on the boat is an original part, so does it deserve to take the same name? To this same effect, the novel Neuromancer by William Gibson, challenges the nature of humanity by removing aspects of individual people or separating an aspect of humanity and having it stand alone, and questioning if the character remains human. Brian Aldiss, a science fiction author, critic, and historian writes:
"Science fiction is the search for a definition of mankind and his status in the universe which will stand in our advanced but confused state of knowledge (science), and is characteristically cast in the Gothic or post-Gothic mode" (Aldiss, 1).
Aldiss sees science fiction as writing attempting to define humanity in a new technological setting, a sentiment that Gibson echoes. Gibson affirms the definition of science fiction that Aldiss provides in Neuromancer by never clearly defining the boundaries of “humanity”, leaving that definition for the reader to contemplate, and by establishing a definite Gothic setting for the novel.

        One major challenge to the standard concept humanity in Neuromancer is through the introduction of artificial intelligence. Within the world of the novel, artificial intelligence (AI) is strictly regulated in order to prevent artificial intelligences from becoming too intelligent and begin thinking for themselves, and any AI that becomes too intelligent is terminated immediately by the Turing Cops, named after the defender of artificial intelligence and the inventor of an artificial intelligence test, Alan Turing (Gibson, 132). Yet, from the introduction of Wintermute, it is apparent that this AI has become more intelligent and independent than originally intended, and has begun to operate independently of normal humans. Wintermute has orchestrated the events of the entire novel to its own design, showing that the AI has its own desires. It even establishes emotions when it talks about how Case’s actions surprised it, and being displeased with the current state of the operation (Gibson, 142). If the readers did not know that Wintermute was explicitly an artificial intelligence, most readers would assume that he was another human. By allowing the AI to take on human characteristics, he blurs the definition of humanity. The AI has human goals, participates in human activities, and allows the reader to question if the AI constitutes as “humanity”.  The actions of Wintermute and the mystery surrounding the construct also allow Gibson to place the construct into the realm of Gothic literature. Gothic literature is known for the distinct dark atmosphere, madness, superstition, and mystery it contains (Britannica), and the machinations of Wintermute fit in perfectly. The AI remains mysterious during the story, and yet takes on forms that frighten and scare Case, such as calling him through the airport (Gibson, 98), or the conversation they have in the matrix (Gibson, 116). 

        Following the introduction of Wintermute, another questioning of humanity is the character of Armitage. The character of Armitage is the opposite of what the readers learned about Wintermute, as initially, Armitage is his own person, and later, the reader learns he is completely controlled by the AI Wintermute (Neuromancer, 120). The question posed to the reader is if Armitage counts as a human anymore. The actions, motives, and feelings of Armitage are not necessarily the same as the individual who previously controlled the corporal form of the man, and yet, he counts as a human character. He is currently controlled by an AI, a construct of undefined humanity, and Corto, the individual who previously owned the body, is completely suppressed. Gibson even calls this to question, by having Wintermute, through the appearance of Deane, say “Difficult to say if you’re dealing with a man at all…”  (Neuromancer, 120). Once again, the line between the traditional definition of human and not-human are blurred, as the AI controls a body that is no longer under the control of its original owner. The Gothic nature of the novel is apparent as well, as the suppression of Corto for the mind of Wintermute is horrific and strange, both characteristics of Gothic novels.

        The definition of humanity also blurs with the characters of Case, Molly, and Deane. Case has been artificially upgraded, a procedure that restored his mental facilities, removed his narcotics addiction, and made it impossible for him to get high from certain substances (Gibson, 36). For him, an activity that made him an equal of all other humans (the ability to become inebriated) was removed, and he is, biologically at least, superior. Molly has a different artificial modification. Her memory implants allowed her to completely block out her actions from being remembered whilst prostituting herself, allowing herself to avoid any emotional trauma associated with her work (Gibson, 147). Molly is able to selectively divorce her mind from her actions, and is able to take no emotional responsibility for them, making more like emotionless robotics than an actual human. Similarly, Deane is able to avoid death by having his DNA reset yearly (Gibson, 12). Deane, through medical advances, may never die, which separates him from humanity, as death is one of the few constants in an individual’s life. In all three cases, the characters have an aspect of themselves that separates them from normal characteristics of humanity. They are not as drastic as an artificial intelligence, but they represent a large change from the modern norm. With these changes, Gibson’s asks the reader to see if humanity is preserved through changes that remove normal aspects of humanity, such as death, emotional guilt, or the ability to metabolize narcotics. The transformative power of science, and the strange effects upon the lives of its subjects, is another characteristic of a Gothic setting.

        A very large challenge to the definition of humanity, on par with the emergence of fully realized artificial intelligence, is the process of saving a person’s consciousness onto tape, allowing a dead individual to continue to interface with modern electronics, with its own consciousness. Flatline died a physical death, and yet, is able to converse with Case intelligently (Gibson, 77). The construct has no short term memory when taken out of a deck (computer), but the individual’s personality, skills, and talents are still present, and usable. The construct, devoid of a physical form, is able to do meaningful work. The construct even maintains the emotions of the deceased.  Once again, the definition of humanity is blurred, as this new construct was once human, and continues to interact with humans, do meaningful work, and yet, does not have a physical body.

        The definition of humanity is in question, as artificial intelligences make decisions that run the plot of the novel, human consciousness are preserved outside of the physical bodies, and physical consciousness are suppressed for an artificial mind. Through these changes, the reader is forced to make new definitions that may or may not include a natural birth and a physical form for humanity. The reader is forced to reconcile his or her traditional understanding of humanity into the new world of technology with non-living intelligence, or must reevaluate the definition of humanity to include the presence of intelligence and emotion outside of a physical form. In either situation, the severe contemplation of the relationship of humanity and technology must take place by the reader due to Gibson’s choice to not explicitly define humanity. Similarly, the book’s Gothic setting is exemplified through the nature of the AI construct, the preservation of life outside of a body, and even in the dismal settings the novel takes place in. Chiba is described has dark, dirty, and dismal, including the “coffins” that count as temporary housing, the television-static colored sky, and the grime pervading the city. Even the Sprawl is not above decay, due to the gang violence, illegal activity, and the brutality of the police and security forces. The AI construct is as enigmatic as any Gothic villain, and the preservation of Flatline’s consciousness and Corto’s mental suppression are both examples the twisted work science can do in a Gothic novel. Gibson’s work of science fiction exemplifies a Gothic setting through characterization and setting. 

        Much like Theseus’s ship, Gibson asks the reader of his novel Neuromancer to examine the definition of humanity as essential parts of the definition are removed or replaced. The reader is forced to question if humanity can exist without a body, if it was derived from artificial means, or if it exists when aspects of a human are modified to great effect. Furthermore, he does this in a world of Gothic characteristics, through both the setting and the actions or descriptions of the character. By not explicitly defining humanity, and by choosing his setting, characterization and tone in a particular manner, Gibson affirms the definition of science fiction provided by Aldiss. 

Works Cited:

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

Gibson, William. Neuromancer. New York: Ace, 1984. Print.

"Gothic novel." Encyclopaedia Britannica. Encyclopaedia Britannica Online Academic Edition. Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., 2014. Web. 29 Jan. 2014. <>.

1 comment:

Adam said...

I love the beginning with Theseus's ship, although you could have clarified how that relates to Gibson's understanding of humanity.

At one level, your initial discussion of Wintermute is very good. At another level, I'd really like to see your argument clarified a little bit. The central theme of interchangeability and how that relates to Wintermute is reasonably clear, but still I'd like to see it more explicitly argued. Like with Frankenstein's monster, one question we can ask about Wintermute is: is it human, monster, god, or something else? You are approaching those questions in an interesting way, but not as clearly as you could be.

Good discussion of Armitage/Corto. Myself, I'd ask whether Armitage is more human in his extreme mental illness, or in his puppet-of-Wintermute state. I also wonder if you want to return explicitly to the theme of interchangeability here.

"With these changes, Gibson’s asks the reader to see if humanity is preserved through changes that remove normal aspects of humanity, such as death, emotional guilt, or the ability to metabolize narcotics." -- You are arguing that Gibson poses a question. How does he answer it? Or better, how to *you* answer it? I'm fine with you not having an answer in an early draft, but actually providing an articulate *answer* to this question is one way could organizing a revision (a more systemic discussion of the problem of interchangeability and how the novel ultimately deals with it would be another way of focusing a revision).

The 2nd and 3rd to last paragraphs are perfectly intelligent but don't really advance the essay. Your discussion of the Dixie Flatline is fine, and could fit into a longer version of the essay, but it would have been better to focus more on topics you had already started. The 2nd to last paragraph reads too much like a restatement of things you've already said. I might be missing something here, but I think most of it could be productively cut.

The conclusion returns to Theseus, which really makes me want to see a version of this essay more explicitly and continuously making an *argument* about interchangeability. You do a good job raising the right questions about the right characters and the right parts of the book - but for the essay to advance, you need to clarify what *your* point of view is. What do *you* have to say about the problem of Theseus' ship within the context of *Neuromancer*? You hold back from having a point of view - that's what I want to see change.