An old question of philosophy raises a question about Theseus’s ship, asking that if all the original parts of the ship are replaced, is the end ship still Theseus’s ship? Nothing on the boat is an original part, so does the ship deserve to take the same name? The novel Neuromancer, by William Gibson, applies this question to the nature of humanity, as the author takes the standard concept of a “character” in a novel, and modifies that individual in a specific manner. Each change represents a large deviation from the standard model of a human, and yet, the character still retains characteristics that identify with humanity as a whole. Gibson’s modification of character qualities allows him to vary the types of people or objects he casts as characters, while still grounding them to a human base.
The largest, and perhaps most drastic, change to the concept of a human character is in the introduction of artificial intelligence (AI). Within the realm of the novel, AI is strictly regulated in order to prevent the programs from becoming too intelligent and begin thinking for themselves. Any AI that is deemed “too intelligent” is terminated immediately by the Turing police force, 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 clear that this AI has become more independent than any AI preceding it, and has begun to operate outside the realm of human control. Wintermute orchestrated the events of the novel to its own design, imposing its will upon all the other characters. Wintermute even exhibits a bit of emotion, when it talks about how Case’s actions surprised the AI, and with Wintermute being displeased with the current state of the operation (Gibson, 142). If Wintermute was not explicitly defined as an artificial intelligence in the novel, the reader would assume that the AI was a normal person, albeit a highly intelligent one. 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”. Because Wintermute’s actions make the AI seem human, and the AI lacks a physical form, Gibson is able to create a human character outside of the traditional form.
The other AI of note is the title character Neuromancer, the emotional counterpoint to Wintermute. The two AIs are described as two halves of the same brain, Wintermute being the more analytical, and Neuromancer being the more emotional (Gibson, 120). Neuromancer was designed by 3Jane’s mother Marie-France Terrier to serve as a way to live beyond death, to preserve one’s mind past one’s physical end (Gibson, 229). In contrast to Wintermute, who has designs of rising above his current station, Neuromancer is more content to maintain the status quo, and conducts itself in a manner that attempts to thwart the machinations of Wintermute. Neuromancer uses his skills to attempt to manipulate Case emotionally using Linda into stopping the virus (Gibson, 244), and is able to predict, with some accuracy, the future actions of the characters, based on repeated patterns of behavior (Gibson, 259). From this, it’s apparent that Neuromancer is just as real as any other human character, as the AI is, emotionally, on par with the rest of the humans, as it has its own wants, desires, and opinions. Once again, Gibson is able to maintain human nature of a non-human object through the characterization of Neuromancer’s emotional comprehension.
A final type of artificial life to consider is the existence of McCoy Pauley, the Dixie Flatline. Flatline was Case’s mentor as a desk jockey, but died, and his consciousness was saved to tape. He exists only when plugged into a computer, and resets when he is unplugged (Gibson, 78). The Flatline construct has all the skills and personality quirks of the original person, but saved to a disk, and, to use the slang of the novel, free of the “meat”. What differentiates the Flatline construct from the two AIs is that the Flatline was once a real person, and that even after physical death, is able to do meaningful work, interacting with Case, and pulling off the job. The Flatline even has larger goals outside of the job, which, as hinted by Neuromancer and by Case in the Coda, was complete freedom from the disk, where the Flatline can act like a mind permanently plugged into the matrix (Gibson, 260, 271). Gibson is able to sufficiently ground Flatline as a human character, and is still able to remove the concept of a body from the necessary description.
It’s important to note what Gibson was able to accomplish with three of the characters being effectively non-living. Each of the three computer-based characters took some aspect of the standard model of humanity (goal driven behavior, emotionality, personality, memory) and isolated it from much of the other standard associations with humanity. None of these characters occupied a real physical form during the novel, and, excluding the Flatline, did not have a birth, death, or even a childhood. All three of these characters have a high intelligence, a near omnipotent presence, virtual immortality, basically what could define a god-type being, and yet, they remain fallible. Wintermute’s plans don’t work completely, Neuromancer lost his battle, and Flatline can make mistakes. Even with characteristics that, in some ways, exceed a human’s grasp, the fact that each character is not perfect helps to maintain humanity within each one. In a novel with a relatively short list of characters, the fact that 3 of the more prominent characters were not actual humans is important. Through this selection, Gibson forces the reader to acknowledge that humanity is not just confined to humans and their biological offspring, can extend past a physical form. The humanity is of these non-living characters is preserved even without a body.
Outside of electronic characters, Gibson also plays with some of the physical associations of humanity. The first is the character of Armitage. Armitage plays out in the exact opposite of Wintermute. While Wintermute is searching for his independence while being shackled by the Tessier-Ashpool Corporation, Armitage (originally Corto) was a free man, who was later subjugated by the AI construct (Gibson, 120). This puts Armitage in a grey area, as he is not in control of his own actions, does have his own body. 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. When Armitage regains control of his body towards the end of the novel, he is quite mad, and has delusions that the battle of “Screaming Fist” is still going on (Gibson, 193). In this case, Corto is in control of his body again, but his actions are, in the grand scheme of things, meaningless. This serves to illustrate that a body alone does not qualify as humanity. Armitage (under Wintermute) is robotic, having no personal opinions, goals, or desires. However, Corto (once freed) regained his humanity though the exercise of his own wishes, as ill-considered as they were.
Another aspect of humanity Gibson toyed with is the certainty of death. In the new technological era, death is an occurrence that is avoidable for one with great wealth. The reader finds out that Deane avoids death by having his DNA reset yearly (Gibson, 12), and that the entire Tessier-Ashpool clan has been extending their lives through the use of cryogenics (Gibson, 229). The extension of one’s life created strange problems. Deane is completely dependent upon the drugs to maintain his life, while those who were cryogenically frozen deal with the risk of mismanagement of the freeze (like how 3Jane’s actions led to her father’s suicide). Either way, the possibility of endless life changes parts of the humanity of both sets of characters. Everlasting life is more of a godly characteristic than anything else, which allows Gibson to ask the reader if these characters have risen above humanity. Just like with the non-living characters, the characters remain inherently fallible, and therefore, retain humanity.
Finally, the advance in science leads to some unique and dangerous biological modifications available to humanity. As part of his operation to repair his mind, Case’s internal organs are overhauled. By the end of the operation, Case’s mental facilities were returned, his addictions overcome, and his body was made impervious to the inhibitory effects of some narcotics (Gibson, 36). Molly faced two different significant modifications. First, she had her entire body outfitted to become a razor-girl (Gibson, 25), and an earlier modification to allow selective repression of memories. These memory implants allowed her to completely block out her actions from being remembered whilst prostituting herself, and allowing herself to avoid any emotional trauma associated with her work (Gibson, 147). Molly was able to divorce her mind from her actions, and in the process, become more robotic than human. In both Case and Molly’s situations, the modifications allowed by science changed the physical structure of the humans into forms with abilities that exceed normal human abilities.
When looking at the human characters within the novel, and how they are changed, in all cases, the power of science made them more powerful. Death could be avoided, trauma repressed, hangovers eradicated. Humanity, which was given to these characters by virtue of birth, was modified into a new realm. These characters experience life differently because of the modifications, and it separates them from the normal population. Molly will never have to worry about being mugged on the street, a worry for most petite, attractive women. Case will never use drugs as freely as before. And barring extreme circumstances, Deane may never die. The modifications allowed by science change how these characters experience life. Does this exclude them from the definition of humanity? As Glen Grant writes: “This concern is often mistaken for an obsession with technological dehumanization, when in fact it is a belief in post-humanization, as Sterling has pointed out. “Technological destruction of the human condition leads not to future-shocked zombies but to hopeful monsters…Cyberpunk sees new, trans-human potentials, new modes of existence and consciousness” (Sterling :4-5) Although these new modes often seem monstrous, they may also be pathways for future evolutionary development” (Grant). The modifications of the human characters do not exclude them from humanity, but serve as the future blueprint for it.
Gibson writes Neuromancer as a solution to the application of the Theseus’s Ship problem to humanity. By having the principal characters of his novel exhibit large differences from the standard assumptions of humanity, Gibson is able to answer the question. Here, each changed trait is analogous to the replaced part on the ship of Theseus, and the final ship the analog of the final character. Throughout the novel, Gibson is able to prove that each character does indeed qualify as “humanity”, in spite of the changes that remove the person or construct from the archetypical standard. You can change the parts all you want; it still remains Theseus’s ship.
Gibson, William. Neuromancer. New York: Ace, 1984. Print.
Grant, Glenn. "Transendence through Detournement in William Gibson’s "Neuromancer"" Science Fiction Studies 17.1 (1990): 41-49. Web.