Saturday, January 18, 2014

On Neuromancer (a rant)

(Note: this is actually from a thread on Tumblr. After I wrote it, I liked it so much that I figured it should stand on its own. The context was that someone was comparing Neuromancer unfavorably to 1984 and Brave New World, which appears to be a fundamental misreading of its genre and its place in history. Neuromancer's setting is only accidentally dystopian, as Count Zero and Mona Lisa Override demonstrate by focusing on characters of different social status.)

Neuromancer isn’t notable for its depiction of a dystopian future, but instead for its depiction of a socially realistic future wherein intent is just as meaningless as it is in reality. In both 1984 and Brave New World, the dystopias depicted are perfectly functional: dissent is systematically squashed or subverted by a mechanism that basically never fails, and the people in power are of one mind; the failure of both is that they cease to be realistic by way of being too tidy (the same way that conspiracy theories fail). In Neuromancer (and other elements of the Cyberspace Trilogy & its shared universe), obsolete future technology is being used for purposes other than that for which it was designed (something that happens in reality but rarely in science fiction, because science fiction historically has very often been about wanking over the author’s designs for a technically-driven world rather than taking into account the diversity of human desires and social circumstances), and the elites and antagonists remain in their positions despite being realistically dysfunctional.
As an example, in Johnny Mnemonic (which takes place in the same universe, set before Neuromancer by a few years), a group of primarily-black anarchoprimitivists called the Lo-Teks use the availability of cheap medical equipment to replace their own teeth with dog teeth as a fashion statement and signifier of cultural identity. In the end, nothing the Lo-Teks did had a fundamental effect on the state of the universe — they were, canonically, a failed revolutionary group with some interesting cultural attributes who in a minor way helped a naiive rich white dude once to escape an unpleasant corporation, then faded into obscurity never to be mentioned again. This kind of texture violates Poe’s rules for writing — everything is supposed to support the main plot, either thematically or materially — but Gibson re-popularized a kind of non-Poe-based science fiction as social realism (and this is the punk aspect of cyberpunk — the punk sensibility is one brimming with awareness of corruption and dysfunctionality but that nevertheless would rather succumb to pragmatism and absurdism than to nihilism). Gibson writes science fiction as future history, but he writes it as a future history of regular people and he does so with full awareness of the importance of cultural texture and the tendency of human beings to expend personal resources on social posturing. Gibson himself would probably agree that Neuromancer is overrated — he considers it to be an ‘adolescent attempt’, and says that he merely took the standard caper storyline and dropped it into the universe in which several of his short stories were set. Plot-wise, it wasn’t anything special. In terms of prediction of the internet — bullshit; Gibson doesn’t really care about the internet, and didn’t know anything about it when he wrote the book. The real draw of Neuromancer (which would be all the more potent for readers who have been choking on Asimov, Heinlein, and other Golden Age writers where everything is smooth and metallic and nothing ever breaks) is the depiction of a universe that has dirt in the corners and scratches on the silverware, where there are prostitutes and drug dealers and suburban kids and soap operas, and where the protagonists and antagonists alike are fundamentally understandable people with selfish motivations and embarrassing gaps in their knowledge and secret crushes and hang-nails. The Cyberspace Trilogy is full of non-humans or semi-humans (Wintermute, Josef Virek, the Dixie Flatline) with these same flaws and obsessions.
Second- and third-generation cyberpunk loses this; fundamentally, everyone in Neuromancer is at some level a loser and a poseur, and to the extent that there’s a lack of outwardly shown emotion there’s clearly a seething rage or cynicism clearly related to the crapsack world and crapsack circumstances they live in. When second-generation cyberpunk shows a ‘hacker’ in a black leather jacket, a blank mask of a face, and carefully bleached hair, it shows an empty shell (or at best an archetype of competence — no different fundamentally than the worst of the golden-age heroes and less interesting than the ones Heinlein wrote); the same character in first generation cyberpunk would have an inferiority complex, rips in his leather jacket, and secretly fear that he was incompetent. First generation cyberpunk is first generation NetRunner, complete with hand-drawn cards and jokes about weasels; second-generation cyberpunk is the Battleship movie: too much budget, not enough content, everything focus-grouped to hell.
Gibson didn’t invent this punk angle of cyberpunk. An obsession with social and cultural ephemera and the perversions thereof is the calling card of J. G. Ballard, to which Gibson attributes some of his early style; a tendency toward vignette for the sake of texture may well have come out of W. S. Burroughs, although it’s fundamentally part of both normal speech and real life; a focus on the texture of ordinary reality was very popular in the socially conscious writing of early twentieth century realists, and arguably came back into vogue with the ‘new wave’ of science fiction in the 1960s. Fundamentally, all of the attributes I’ve mentioned for Gibson apply to PKD’s writing as well, and so there’s a good reason that whenever PKD’s writing gets adapted to the screen it resembles cyberpunk. But, on a certain level. PKD just wasn’t a good stylist and rarely wrote a book whose prose flowed. Other first-generation cyberpunk authors had similar problems: Rudy Rucker peppers his writing with hippie-ish neologisms even sillier than PKD’s (where PKD stopped at ‘kipple’, Rucker’s proto-cyberpunk novel Software has a brain-eating cult called the Little Kidders, calls robots ‘boppers’, and he now edits a magazine named ‘flurb’); John Shirley’s arguably-not-cyberpunk-but-definitely-punk series A Song Called Youth goes in the opposite direction and borders on golden-age-style moral clarity (while not succumbing to the tendency for golden age science fiction to be always either economically or socially conservative but never both at the same time). Where Gibson succeeded is to take PKD’s proto-punk sensibilities and give them the smoothness of beat poetry and the obsessiveness with minutiae that has dominated contemporary art since the end of the second world war. Gibson made a socially conscious, realistic, pop-art science fiction with a subversive edge, that nevertheless went down like honey. It had all the humor of the best situationist manifestos, all the intricacy of an episode of The Simpsons, and all the professionalism of a book on typography for professional photolithographic technicians. That is why Neuromancer deserves respect.
(Pedantic note: Neuromancer came out in 1982, not 1984)


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