Neuromancer by William Gibson

Neuromancer first HBRe-reading Neuromancer, I still feel the excitement of the first time I read it — the whole surprising, new-thing-ness of it — though it always makes me wonder if someone coming to it for the first time might wonder what the fuss is about. Its major impact comes from ideas that have been so subsumed into the culture, they’re almost invisible as ideas — much in the way the artificial intelligence Wintermute ends the novel breaking free of its bonds as an AI to expand and in some way become one with the whole matrix of cyberspace itself, “the sum total of the works, the whole show.” Gibson’s conception of cyberspace came just in time both to prepare us, imaginatively and conceptually, for the rise into daily life of computers and (some time after) the internet, and to give us a constant reminder of how naff what we actually ended up with is, compared to what he imagined (by combining the way kids got totally immersed in the low-res graphics of arcade video games, and the way the then-new Sony Walkman provided an immersive, portable otherworld you could plug yourself into): the “consensual hallucination” and “graphic representation of data abstracted from banks of every computer in the human system” (full quote here), data and software you could experience sensually, directly. The strange thing is how much of Neuromancer is so rooted in old culture: how it’s basically a hard-boiled noir take on SF (just as is Blade Runner — seeing which while writing Neuromancer almost made Gibson give up on the novel), and a re-imagining of Faerie/the land of the dead as a TRON-like world of bright, primary-coloured geometric shapes: “Lines of light ranged in the nonspace of the mind, clusters and constellations of data. Like city lights, receding…” But then again, this seems to be true of all the great, game-changing works of imaginative fiction — the way they can be seen, on the one hand, as incredibly new, but on the other as “why didn’t I think of that?” recombinations of what went before.

Cyberspace, from 1995's Johnny Mnemonic

Cyberspace, from 1995’s Johnny Mnemonic

What always feels so life-affirming, to me, about Gibson’s works, even though (particularly with the Sprawl trilogy of Neuromancer, Count Zero and Mona Lisa Overdrive) they’re so mired in the relentlessly downbeat, rusted-with-cynicism worldview of noir, is how his human beings are always finding ways of asserting their individuality not just in the face of a highly technologised world, but thanks to it. Case, Neuromancer‘s protagonist, would arguably be a nobody at any date prior to the invention of the technologies that allow him to jack into cyberspace and manipulate what he finds there with a seat-of-the-pants, intuitive skill; and where would Molly Millions be without her surgically implanted mirror shades and razorgirl claws? New technology, in Gibson’s world, becomes one more way of expressing essential human individuality. He’s interested in how people take up a new thing and use it not for its intended purpose. (From Count Zero: “The street tries to find its own uses for things, Mr Turner.”) But his is also a very dark, very 1980s world with a huge divide between those who have and those who don’t — and in this case the “have” refers not so much to money as power, and a specific type of power at that: “Power, in Case’s world, meant corporate power.” It is power, not technology, that is the chief dehumanising factor in this world:

“Case had always taken it for granted that the real bosses, the kingpins in a given industry, would be both more and less than people… He’d always imagined it as a gradual and willing accommodation of the machine, the system, the parent organism…”

Or, from the followup novel, Count Zero:

“…she stared directly into those soft blue eyes and knew, with an instinctive mammalian certainty, that the exceedingly rich were no longer even remotely human.”

So here’s a theory. In the 1970s, technology was perceived as part of the structure of power. They had the cabinet-sized mainframes with their whirling, eye-like pairs of tape reels, just as they had the nuclear weapons. Look at all those wonderful seventies dystopias and you’ll find that, if technology isn’t implicitly inimical to humankind (as in Westworld and Futureworld and 1980’s Saturn 3), then it is certainly inseparable from the oppressive, controlling state (Logan’s Run, THX1138, Rollerball). In the 1980s, though, technology — the computer part of it, not the nuclear weapons — became cheaper, and suddenly everyone could have a home video recorder, an electronic calculator, a digital watch, even their very own computer. And so technology, available to everyone, became part of popular culture, where it was thoroughly explored for its use in entertainment and self-expression, and no longer seen as a symbol of oppression. (You could even say that 1983’s WarGames, which is for me the archetypal home-computer revolution movie, is the point at which everything turns, as we see our hero teach a computer not to start a nuclear war.) Neuromancer was part of the reclamation of technology for the masses. And to me, this aspect of the novel — that humankind can endlessly take on board new technologies and make them (sometimes literally) part of itself while expanding, not narrowing, the bounds of what it means to be human — still feels new.

Neuromancer PBThis isn’t to say Neuromancer denies the dangers of technological dehumanisation. Rather, it acknowledges dehumanisation as an ever-present threat — just one of those things people do to themselves — with technology merely one of its means. As the novel opens, Case is deadened to his own feelings, to the extent that he’s goading the lowlifes of Chiba City into completing his unconscious suicide. When he finally manages to feel, it’s at the crucial halfway point of the novel, and even the unpleasant feeling of rage is like a “new thing”, a “treasure” compared to the emotional paralysis that went before:

“He’d been numb a long time, years… But now he’d found this warm thing, this chip of murder. Meat, some part of him said. It’s the meat talking, ignore it.”

“Meat” is the cyber-cowboy’s disparaging term for the body, and technology is certainly one of the ways that the divorce of mind and body can occur. But so are, in the novel, drug addiction and cynicism. And this is exactly the thing that feels so old-school in Neuromancer — it’s the same atmosphere that pervades Raymond Chandler‘s fiction. (Though Gibson, apparently, dislikes Chandler, preferring Dashiell Hammett — see this excellent Paris Review interview, for instance.) The hero, whether Philip Marlowe or Henry Dorsett Case, is battered to numbness by an unfeeling, dehumanised world, but makes the breakthrough back to feeling, back to an ideal or a recovered morality. The return to full humanity is the first, vital step to becoming a hero.

In the end, it’s power that dehumanises the most. And the powerful can be dehumanised by power alone, without any need for technology. (Though it does, of course, help. I particularly like Gibson’s description of the Tessier-Ashpool clan’s approximation to immortality through cryogenics as “a series of warm blinks strung along a chain of winter.” Plus, they can afford their very own vat-grown ninja…)

Neuromancer PB2Gibson’s protagonists use tech with such style. This — so much more than its current use with “steam” — justifies the “punk” in cyberpunk. These really are people with the hi-tech equivalent of a safety pin stuck through their nose; crude conglomerations of tech and flesh, welded together with hi-end surgery and micopore tape, brushing up against the massive data structures of zaibatsu megacorporations then bedding down in a cheap, run-down coffin hotel.

Reading Neuromancer is all about dipping into a writer’s sensibility and pool of ideas, his way of looking at the world and thinking about how it might become. Our world still might become like this. And though I’m not sure I’d elect to live in Gibson’s world, I’d certainly be happy to do so if I could take Neuromancer with me, and use it as a how-to guide.


Hawkwind 1976-1979: The Calvert Years

Astounding Sounds, Amazing MusicAfter Warrior on the Edge of Time, Hawkwind shed its psychedelically-scaled skin. Lemmy, the Doom Lord of Bass, was jettisoned; Stacia, the Dream Lady of Dance — shock! — got married; the band changed management and switched record company (to the Charisma label — an appropriate name, considering this era was so much about Robert Calvert’s highly theatrical presence). After their next album, the wonderfully-titled Astounding Sounds, Amazing Music (so wonderfully titled, the band members sometimes have trouble remembering it), Nik Turner was ejected like a roller-skated shooting star honking saxophonic free jazz (he went on to play flute in the Great Pyramids of Egypt), and this beast of a band morphed — or perhaps burst from its previous incarnation’s chest to slide squealing through the blood-spattered remains of the sixties love-feast — into a very different entity. A community-binding collective of tribal shamans no more, Hawkwind became, for the next three studio albums, something like a normal band.

Back cover to Astounding SoundsAt its core were the Morecambe & Wise of Space Rock, Dave Brock and Robert Calvert. (They didn’t so much bring you sunshine as send you hurtling towards the heart of the nearest star, Nova Drive blazing.) But it’s Calvert who really defines this era of Hawkwind’s output. He’d been in the band before, as poet and sometimes singer during the Space Ritual tour, but had left to produce some quirky concept albums (consisting of Hawkwind-ish rock, musical pastiches, and mostly unfunny comedy routines). Now he became what Hawkwind hadn’t till this point had — a front man. I mean, you need a manic depressive in charge of your spaceship, don’t you?

Quark, Strangeness and CharmI can’t speak for Calvert’s attitude towards, or involvement with, the sort of community-oriented feel of Hawkwind’s early years, but his artistic attitude is very much about the individual — the blazing individual, reaching for the heights and gleefully crashing into the wreckage of its own manic drive. Calvert’s lyrics are all about freedom, flight, falling and flame. Icarus gets name-checked in “The Only Ones”, along with the other “daredevil angels” of the sky, but Calvert’s songs are full of people achieving freedom only through a death-risking plummet (“Free Fall”: “You’ve cut the puppet’s strings/In free fall”; or the more coercive need for freedom from the “human zoo” in “High Rise”: “Well somebody said that he jumped/But we know he was pushed”) or the earth-bound alternative in the vehicular crash-and-burn of “Death Trap”‘s “fiery crucifixion”, and “Damnation Alley”‘s “Diving through the burning hoop of doom”. There are more subtle means of gleeful self-destruction bubbling inside the misanthropic, self-consuming “Steppenwolf” (Calvert’s finest moment, for me), the Cold-War Kid (“In a town by the wall the machine gunners wait/To type out the orders that seal his fate”), or the anonymous sky-diver in “Free Fall” (“While destiny is on your case/the gods look up your file”). So much fate, doom and destiny, too.

Robert CalvertCalvert didn’t just sing about these heroes, he became them. In this era, Hawkwind, still trying to create the full experience for its listeners, switched from its earlier attempts at a sort of trance-and-psychosis-led initiation, to something more theatrical, more something to be watched than actively participated in. Calvert dressed up like a WWII pilot or Lawrence of Arabia. He wielded a starter pistol and a sword. (At one point, he tried to attack one of his fellow band members with that sword, on stage. At another, he chased his frightened band-mates through a Paris traffic jam, wearing jodhpurs and a pistol belt; they were so scared they ordered their driver to mount the pavement to escape.)

Calvert could do vitriolic satire (in “Uncle Sam’s On Mars”, which takes its form and feel from Gil-Scott Heron’s “Whitey on the Moon”), and silly humour (“Quark, Strangeness and Charm”, with its frankly inaccurate portrayal of Einstein’s love-life), but his most mordant diatribes were reserved for that monotone set of non-individuals who least embodied his ideal — the mediocrities, the button-pushers, the “tiny creeps”, the clones, drones and “insect men”, from the “good morning machine” of “Robot”, to the archetypal “Micro-Man” “who sees the detail but never the plan”.

PXR5Despite this being, to my ears, the most musically successful era of the band’s output, Hawkwind itself seemed to be suffering some sort of psychosis, unsure of its identity (masquerading at times as its split-personalities the Sonic Assassins and the Hawklords), releasing albums in the wrong order (PXR5, recorded after Quark, Strangeness and Charm, was released after the Hawklords album, 25 Years On) before the band made a suicide attempt when, after a US tour, Dave Brock sold his guitar to a fan and decided to give up on Hawkwind altogether. (And Dave Brock giving up on Hawkwind means no Hawkwind.)

Of course, this wasn’t the end. But, for the rest of its life, Hawkwind would continue to switch freely between two identities — the straight-ahead rock band, and the community-binding musical shamans, in an almost polarised division in the next era’s alternations between straight-ahead guitar riffery (thanks to the fabulous Huw Lloyd-Langton) and electronic trippyness.