Zork and Neuromancer both involve unfamiliar worlds. In these worlds, identity and death are re-imagined, and as such, it is often difficult to relate to our present-day perceptions of them. By comparing these two narratives, the player or reader is better able to understand how and why these new natures of identity and death exist in their otherworldly environments.
First, identity plays an important role in both Zork and Neuromancer. In Zork you are playing the game through your character. Though you cannot see him, you are in dialogue with him and experience things through his eyes. In many more modern day video games, a player can create his character; he has the ability to choose gender, physical features, skills and weapons, etc. to make his character unique. Likewise, in Neuromancer there is the concept of the body as artwork. Characters, like Molly and Case, alter their bodies as they so desire. More specifically, they transform themselves to be better at their professions because in the novel identity and profession are compressed together: “Anybody any good at what they do, that’s what they are, right? You gotta jack, I gotta tussle” (Gibson 50).
Another illustration of the body in Neuromancer is as a piece of meat. Though at first art and meat might seem like contrasting depictions, Case’s relationship with his body is a good example of the connection between these two images. An article by Glenn Grant about the transcendence of detournement in Neuromancer explains:
So here’s Case, a product of the sprawl, a cyber jockey, who identifies himself completely with what he does…But his nerves have been damaged by toxins, so that cyberspace—the matrix gives his life meaning—has been stolen from him. He tries to recreate cyberspace with drugs…But drugs cannot duplicate the disembodiment of cyber space, which is the freedom he craves; and the encumbrance of “the meat,” his “case” of flesh, leaves him with only his self-loathing. Death is the last remaining escape hatch. (41-42)
In Neuromancer Gibson is illustrating what the future of identity might look like if technology becomes so integrated into our lives that it becomes a physical part of us. Although a person can illustrate his or her body and make it stronger and smarter than ever before, because it has become something to manipulate and transform people are not very connected to their bodies; in a sense the body is disposable.
Furthermore, in Zork and other video games the player experiences the world of the game through his character. When you type a command to your character in Zork, he responds and illustrates the world of the game for you, telling you where you can and cannot go and about your surroundings. In visual video games, you watch your character explore his surroundings, and though you can control him, ultimately his experiences (encounters, obstacles, injuries, etc.) are not your own. This is much like simstim. Grant gives a depiction, “Simstim. Surrogate bodies for the masses; escape from your own meat, your own dreadful life, into perfect flesh and lifestyle….” (46). Although in simstim you cannot control the person’s thoughts and actions, like video games you experience the world through his eyes. You gain a perspective unique from your own, while maintaining immunity. If your character is hurt in the video game, you do not hurt. If the person whose mind/body you are inhabiting is hurt in simstim, you might feel the pain while you are ‘in’ him, but when you return to yourself you are not hurt. Pain and even death become inconsequential your physical well-being. Grant calls this, “…ekstasis (as the Greeks called ‘the flight of the soul from the body’)” (42).
This all relates back to the re-imagined concept of identity. As a razorgirl, Molly is good at killing. She designed her body to be skilled at such. Because her body helps her to be good at her profession she feels a close connection to it. However Case, whose body has been damaged and no longer allows him to do what he was once quite skilled at, feels that his body is an imprisonment. Even after he receives surgery to correct the damage, there is constant nagging thought that the special sacs- which will supposedly reverse the correction- are slowly getting ready to burst. Grant’s article suggests, “How does one transcend one’s human limitations? Through religion? Meditation? Community action? These have been ruled out, apparently by the nature of Gibson’s society, which is too fast, brutal, and fragmented for these methods. In Gibson’s world, the preferred method of transcendence is through technology” (43). Technology is embedded in one’s identity and profession in both video games and Neuromancer, so when it fails or falters a character’s identity can be lost.
Second, like identity death is re-imagined in the worlds of Zork and Neuromancer. When a player dies in Zork, he is simply revived and transported to another location; he could also just restart the game. When a grue killed me while playing Zork, it actually allowed me to escape obstacles that were before inhibiting my progression. My death placed me somewhere I had not yet been able to reach and allowed me to think differently about the commands I was giving my character. Death advances the game. Similarly, in Neuromancer the nature of death is abnormal. For example, at the start of the novel Case is suicidal. He discusses his death as something quite trivial: “‘He want to kill me, Julie?’ ‘Not that I know of.’ Deane shrugged. They might have been discussing the price of ginger” (Gibson 13). In the beginning of the story, because he essentially has nothing to live for, Case takes risks that he might not have otherwise had he been more concerned for his life. In a video game, a player might risk his character’s life more than he would his own because death has no consequence apart from the restart of play, and might actually be beneficial. There is further evidence of the curious character of death in Neuromancer in its terminology for hotel rooms, “The coffins were three meters long, the oval hatches a meter wide and just under a meter and a half tall…[there was a] brown temperfoam slab that was both floor and bed…” (Gibson 20). Illustrating the hotel room, a place where people stay all the time, as a coffin desensitizes the significance of death in the novel. Death is no longer something to be avoided at all costs but almost a joke; it takes on a new meaning than the one we are familiar with. Connecting the experience of death when playing video games to the way that the novel characterizes death allows readers to better grasp why characters have such uncommon relationships with death.
The re-imagining of identity and death, exemplified in both Zork and Neuromancer, are interrelated. Because you can transform your body, preserve your body, and also in a way live without your body, death no longer has the same significance. Grant writes, “There is a constant tension between these permanent traces, the “en-grams” that shape one’s being, and the desire to change that being, or to escape it. This seems to be an innate (programmed) drive in each of Gibson’s characters, the drive to transcend the self” (42). Furthermore, the re-imagination of identity and death are connected by the possible capabilities of technology. 3Jane’s mom programmed Wintermute and Neuromancer to have the desire to combined and become a more advanced technology. We discussed the idea of the combination of these two AI’s birthing basically a god, which would make 3Jane’s mom the mother of god. If the combined Wintermute/Neuromancer were god and with Wintermute as the motivator and Neuromancer as essentially an immortality machine, this god-machine’s existence would entirely reshape the definition of life and death. Death is no longer the end. Your conscience can exist forever. The body is already seen as a disposable piece of meat but now it is even more unimportant because you don’t need a body to live forever. You can be eternal. Conflicting ideas about the morality of this suggestion of eternity are certain to spring up and are perhaps the exact purpose of Gibson’s novel; he is questioning where technology might take us and if we want to go there. Grant asks us to consider this:
This concern is often mistaken for an obsession with technological dehumanization when in fact it is a belief in post-humanization, Sterling has pointed out. ‘Technological destruction of the human condition leads not to future-shocked zombies but to hopeful monsters…Cyberpunk sees new, transhuman 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. (45)
Zork and Neuromancer are comparable narratives that help to contextualize one another. Though both explore unfamiliar worlds, their unusual relationship with identity and death help each to be better understood. Identity and death are not the same in video games as in real life, and likewise in Neuromancer both take on unfamiliar roles to that of which we are accustomed. Relating these two attitudes helps the reader better understand this generally un-relatable perspective of identity and death. These two narratives elucidate each other’s otherworldly environments.
Gibson, William. Neuromancer. New York: Ace, 1986.
Grant, Glenn. “Transcendence through Detournement in William Gibson’s ‘Neuromancer’.” Science Fiction Studies. Vol. 17, No. 1. (March, 1990). pp. 41-49. SF-TH Inc.