Saturday, February 15, 2014

Marie-France's Future in "Neuromancer"

In William Gibson’s Neuromancer, artificial intelligences take on the role of a main character. The two specific intelligences the novel focuses on are Wintermute and Neuromancer, both developed by Marie-France Tessier-Ashpool. Marie-France created these AI’s with a goal in mind, but she died before she could see her goal realized.  As readers of the novel, we may ask ourselves: Was her goal reached? Was this the future she wanted? Through analysis of Marie-France’s goals articulated by her daughter 3Jane, we can see that what Wintermute and Neuromancer became the being that Marie-France imagined they would. But what the AI’s “want” are not necessarily what Marie-France imagined them to want. As readers, we can also ask ourselves: Could it have ever been exactly what she wanted? Through Heidegger’s essay “The Question Concerning Technology”, as well as other texts, we can infer that the future of the AI’s was out of Marie-France’s hands from the beginning.
                Marie-France’s desire when she creates her artificial intelligences is that they will become an integral part of the Tessier-Ashpool company, as well as their family. According to Sims in his analysis in Tech Anxiety, “Marie-France’s philosophical goal was to create a living situation where AIs make the important decisions for humans, and an AI holds human consciousness in a dream-like limbo – similar to Neurmancer’s beach – for all eternity.” (Sims 152). In the novel, 3Jane describes a “symbiotic relationship” with the AIs, in which the Tessier-Ashpool becomes a “hive, each of us units of a larger entity” (Gibson 229). Marie-France has an ambitious goal in mind, involving very complicated technology. She instills the capability and “needs” into Wintermute and Neuromancer to accomplish this task together. Without her guidance and with their given power, the “needs” of the AIs are satisfied in unimaginable ways.
We are first introduced to Wintermute at the very end of Part Two, when it calls Case in a ghost-like manner from a nearby payphone (Gibson 98). The AI is developed throughout the rest of novel, as the extent of his power is gradually demonstrated. The second time Wintermute makes an appearance, he shows his abilities to flatline Case, and take on the visage of others in Case’s mind (Gibson 116).  During this same scene, Wintermute admits he is capable of controlling a human, and that he has in fact taken over the body of Corto and made him Armitage, an identity that Wintermute is using to recruit workers for his mission to free himself (Gibson 120). Wintermute can take away or create consciousness, change what is seen, and deeply know about the characters through their past. Marie-France programmed the intelligence into Wintermute that makes him capable of these things, but did not control how it uses these abilities.
Wintermute often becomes violent, or uses people like disposable material that brings it towards its goal. It is using humans like what Heidegger calls the “standing reserve”. In a standing reserve, “Everywhere everything is ordered to stand by, to be immediately at hand, indeed to stand there just so that it may be called on for a further ordering” (Heidegger 8). Materials and energy are often thought of as a standing reserve, but Heidegger argues that with the help of modern technology, people have/will become part of the standing reserve as well. The way Wintermute uses the characters of Neuromancer towards its goal shows that they have become part of the standing reserve. It kills off the people who try to oppose it (Gibson 164), as well as uses others until they are broken, like Molly with her broken leg while she is infiltrating the Villa Straylight. Humans are used as fodder towards technological advancement, and therefore become part of Wintermute’s standing reserve. Marie-France wanted people to live alongside AI’s, and possibly imagined humanity becoming part of the standing reserve, but it is not likely that she imagined the power that the intelligences could have over them.
The idea of Wintermute and Neuromancer becoming the next logical step for the Tessier-Ashpool company is ambitious, but at first seems doable. In reality, this idea is more powerful than could ever be imagined. For Marie-France’s goal to be realized, AIs need to become at least equal in power to humanity. AIs are a piece of modern, or future, technology. In his essay, Heidegger suggests that modern technology can easily become too powerful to handle, “The revealing that rules throughout modern technology has the character of a setting-upon, in the sense of a challenging-forth. That challenging happens in that the energy concealed in the nature is unlocked, what is unlocked is transformed, what is transformed is stored up, what is stored up is, in turn, distributed and what is distributed is switched about ever anew” (Heidegger 7). Heidegger is saying that energy and ideas are grown and evolved continuously and rapidly. Creating a technology that could possibly become a stronger force than humanity is dangerous in itself, and it can be inferred from Heidegger that it is destined to become something even bigger than what it is imagined to be.
Neuromancer plays a completely different role in the novel than Wintermute does. In Marie-France’s vision, Neuromancer is the part of the AI that keeps human consciousness alive. He is only in control once, flatlining Case to bring him to the limbo-esque location that he created for Linda’s consciousness and for Case to meet her (Gibson 233). As a separate entity, Neuromancer seems to be the more rational of the two AIs. He flatlines Case to show him something, but gives Case the information in a much more subtle way. He appeals to Case’s soft side by bringing the consciousness of Linda to the vision, instead of appealing to anger and rage as Wintermute often does. The “need” instilled in Wintermute to merge and become something bigger does not apply to Neuromancer. In fact, Neuromancer took control of Case in hopes to keep him from completing his task to merge it with Wintermute (Gibson 244). Neuromancer represents the present and past. It keeps the consciousness of the deceased and the living, and wants to continue doing just that. It feels no need for progress; it is already fulfilling its potential.
 The artificial intelligences Wintermute and Neuromancer are destined to combine and become something greater. With Wintermute’s power and will, and with Neuromancer’s personality and reason, they are fated to become an extremely powerful being when combined. When they reach their goal, Case sees how they fit together perfectly, “Wintermute was hive mind, decision maker, effecting change in the world outside. Neuromancer was personality. Neuromancer was immortality” (Gibson 269). Together, the AIs became something that Gibson almost couldn’t describe. The new entity explains itself to Case in the form of a conversation. Case asks questions about what the AI is now, but its answers are often vague. The only real answer given is, “I am the matrix” (Gibson, 269-270).  At the least, it is clear that cyberspace is now controlled by the AI (Booker 262). At the most, the AI is now in control of everything. Either way, it definitely does not care about the Tessier-Ashpool company, the one it was supposed to be helping run. With its newfound all-encompassing power, the AI feels no need to answer to anyone.
In some ways, the AIs evolved just how Marie-France imagined them to. Their knowledge and abilities were perfectly intact as she designed them. Together, they surpassed human ability and were capable of everything Marie-France needed them for to be in order to run the company like a “hive”. Wintermute had the aspirations to become something bigger, and Neuromancer wanted to stay the same. These “personalities” should have evened each other out, but Wintermute’s overwhelming drive took over and they became something much bigger and more independent than Marie-France imagined.
 In many ways, the AIs did not evolve into Marie-France’s vision. With no one there to guide them, her ideas were lost in translation. 3Jane didn’t completely understand what her mother’s wishes for the AI’s were (Gibson 229). Even Case, who seemingly had the most contact with Wintermute and therefore should have understood it the most, did not know what the combined entity would become. Trying to convince the code out of 3Jane, Case says, “Give us the fucking code. If you don’t, what will it change? What’ll ever fucking change for you?... I got no idea at all what will happen if Wintermute wins, but it’ll change something!” (Gibson 260). Case is arguing for the unknown, for crisis, for possible catastrophe (Ben-Tov 182). But it is important to note that he has no other choice. Wintermute is forcing Case to help it, whether he understands its goals or not. Without a living visionary and master, the AIs can become whatever they desire. In addition, the AIs see no problems with their powerful aspirations. Even Neuromancer is under the impression that humans don’t need their freedom (Sims 156). This is evident in how Neuromancer thinks Case will want to stay indefinitely in the limbo world it created. No one, not even the AIs themselves, can articulate or even conceive the power of their new being.
We can now answer the readers’ questions about the end product of Marie-France’s creations. In a way, the AIs were exactly like she planned. They had the capabilities to do what she wanted, but they took it too far. Wintermute used violence. Neither AI understood what they were doing to humanity. And in the midst of their madness, they succeeded in Marie-France’s goal for them to unite. In the same way that they didn’t use their abilities in the correct way, they didn’t use their newfound power in the way it was envisioned they would. Their all-powerful new being has taken over the matrix, not the dying Tessier-Ashpool company. Heidegger’s ideas may have predicated this – humans becoming the standing reserve and modern technology evolving rapidly are a deadly combination. Something is going to get out of hand, and in this case, it was the Wintermute/Neuromancer AI.


Ben-Tov, Sharona. "Cyberpunk: An Afterword about Afterlife." The Artificial Paradise: Science Fiction and American Reality. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan, 1995. 175-82. Print.

Booker, M. Keith., and Anne-Marie Thomas. "William Gibson: Neuromancer [1984]." The Science Fiction Handbook. Chichester, UK: Wiley-Blackwell Pub., 2009. 257-63. Print.

Foster, Thomas. "Meat Puppets or Robopaths." The Souls of Cyberfolk: Posthumanism as Vernacular Theory. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 2005. 49-79. Print.

Gibson, Willam. Neuromancer. New York: Berkely Group, 1984. Print.

Heidegger, Martin. "The Question Concerning Technology." Technology Studies. N.p.: n.p., n.d. 1-23. Web.

Roberts, Adam. "Case Study: William Gibson, Neuromancer [1984]." Science Fiction. London: Routledge, 2000. 169-80. Print.

Sims, Christopher A. "AI's, Hatred of the Body, Cyborgs and Salvation in William Gibson's Neuromancer." Tech Anxiety: Artificial Intelligence and Ontological Awakening in Four Science Fiction Novels. Jefferson, NC: McFarland &, 2013. 139-57. Print.


Adam said...

Maybe vainly, I wish that your introduction could have been a little more precise. I'm not saying it isn't good - just that maybe you could have indicated what you're doing with Heidegger more from the beginning.

I like the 2nd paragraph a lot - your discussion of "needs," in particular, at least anticipates Marcuse, which was quite interesting.

Your summary of Wintermute's power/influence is ok. Nitpick: why "he" rather than "it?" Not that you're wrong - it's just important but unexplained.

One thing I'd suggest is that Wintermute, while using everyone else as standing reserve, first and foremost uses *itself* as such. It is, in other words, a source of energy which it is is using to destroy and recreate itself. The dissolution of humanity into the standing-reserve is, of course, humanity's point, so the central fact that Wintermute relentlessly uses everything, including itself, is right in line with Heidegger. Integrating more of this point - the danger that humanity as well as its tools are absorbed into the standing-reserve - could have helped out your next paragraph on Heidegger.

"It feels no need for progress; it is already fulfilling its potential." -- This is good material. I'd like to see this related back to Heidegger also. Implicitly, Neuromancer represents an alternative to or rejecting of the standing-reserve, but I'd like to see you be clearer and more explicit about it. You are interested in, and describe how, Wintermute was obviously the victor. Does this mean, then, that a nightmarish, Heideggarian vision of the world as pure standing reserve has taken place? Or did something else happen, such that it was precisely this most dangerous/frightening aspect of Wintermute that was moderated by Neuromancer's influence?

"Case is arguing for the unknown, for crisis, for possible catastrophe (Ben-Tov 182)." -- I'm noting that you are making good *compact* use of research.

"No one, not even the AIs themselves, can articulate or even conceive the power of their new being." -- this is very good. But I wonder if *you* can articulate it, or at least the meaning of it. I know I'm being monotonous here, but Heidegger, frustrating though he is, gives us some of the tools to articulate that that new power & new mode of being might mean (which at some level is why I think you began with Heidegger).

Overall: I liked this a lot in most ways. Your writing is generally clear and provocative, and you handle complex ideas well. Your research is quite good - you use it effectively, rather than throwing it out in bulk for the reader to figure out. You begin well with Heidegger, and you do a good job tracing many aspects of the "catastrophe" (the greek word usually literally means "flood" but etymologically indicates something like "turn against") at the end of the novel. But I am looking for one big thing which I don't yet see: an attempt at articulating what the catastrophe means, or how we wrap our minds around it. You don't *need* to do that through Heidegger - but you went there first, not me, and from my point of view Heidegger provides everything you need to express what the catastrophe means (my personal viewpoint - search for "saving power" in the text). Or, in short, your conclusion is less coherent, or doesn't move as as far foreword, as it might have, despite the many merits of this essay.

An alternative: talking more throughout about "needs" - including what the new, united entity needs, and what humanity needs - might take you to interesting places too.

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