by Satyajit Sarna | December 09, 2010
Image above and on article thumbnail is from the Wikimedia Commons here.
Julian Assange is under arrest, for unrelated crimes. Sweden wants him. The Americans want him even more. Demagogues on the floor of the Senate of the United States want to hang him. Wikileaks itself is moving from server to server, as the gates of once-friendly states shut behind it. In the meanwhile, the diplomatic cables leak continues to turn up surprises, from the hilariously petty to the shocking. Move all the petitions you want, thump the rostrum, pound the gavel; it will not help. The cat is out of the bag; the shine is off the apple.
For the cynical, the only surprise is the extent to which the world’s governments had underestimated the power of information and the Internet. The comfort and ease of life on the islands has lulled everyone into the belief that the sea is shallow and empty; that the Internet is benign and safe and regulated.
The truth is that the titans of the binary who established the foundations of the Internet and defined its parameters did not set out to create a world that could be policed or regulated easily. They are libertarians, so far to the right that they have gone left, or conversely, liberal radicals of such a deep dye that they sleep with guns under their pillows. If they could choose to make a world, they would make it free and lawless, a world where each atomised individual could forge his own glory or plunge to his doom.
That was the world Neuromancer turned me on to.
When William Gibson’s Neuromancer opens, Case is in Chiba City, sleeping in a capsule hotel in Tokyo, out above the bay. Case is a cowboy – a hacker – who once made the mistake he’d sworn he wouldn’t make; he stole from his employers. They crippled him, burnt out his talent for connecting to cyberspace and left him unfit to work. When he was a hotshot cowboy, “the elite stance involved a certain relaxed contempt for the flesh. The body was meat. Case fell into the prison of his own flesh”. Now, he is reduced to being one more down-on-his-luck gaijin in the neon madness of Chiba’s Night City, moving like a pinball between dealers, bars, and all-night game parlours. He hallucinates and hustles, running himself perilously close to the edge, owing money to the wrong people, tempting fate. Then, just as Case is spiralling inevitably to an anonymous death in an alley, the mysterious Armitage appears in his crisp suit and throws him a line; a chance to work again- for a price.
'The sky above the port was the colour of television, tuned to a dead channel.'
Image above is from Coso Blues' photostream on Flickr.
From the famous opening line, “The sky above the port was the colour of television, tuned to a dead channel” to the climax, in earth orbit, falling through the defences of the hostile Artificial Intelligence,Neuromancer is the word made flesh. Writing is called visceral all the time, but rarely does it mimic the reactions and methods of the body as much as Gibson’s does. In the same way that Case jacks into theMatrix, the reader enters Case’s world completely, in the flesh.
The world has changed, but not beyond recognition. The most dangerous kind of science fiction to write is that set in the near future, because it could so easily be proved wrong, so easily turn comically optimistic or gawd-help-us. Just think of how freely the golden age of sci-fi dated itself; flying cars by 1970, robot cooks and surgeons by 1980, bases on the moon by 1995. What a crock.
William Gibson got it right. Writing in 1984, he predicted the Internet, video technology, widely available and functional plastic surgery, net banking, underground lifestyle cults and twenty-four-seven celebrities. But this is not your dad’s future. Gibson’s Sprawl and Chiba City are godless synthetic urban jungles. The nation-state is defunct, horses are extinct, the metalwork is rusting and decaying, the plastics are cheap and pink, the hustlers have biotechnology and neurosurgery, the dealers have derms and no one has a great deal of hope. Everyone is wired on different kinds of chemicals, except for the Rastas, who grow immense forests of ganja in a derelict space station. Life is cheap, data is expensive.
'William Gibson got it right.'
Image above is from Frederic Poirot's photostream on Flickr.
Armed with his newly-repaired neural system, a suddenly flush line of cash, next-year’s model of Ono-Sendai deck and a firmware construct of a dead hacker legend, Case returns to a world he had lost hope of ever seeing again:
“Cyberspace. A consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators, in every nation … A graphic representation of data abstracted from the banks of every computer in the human system. Unthinkable complexity. Lines of light ranged in the nonspace of the mind, clusters and constellations of data. Like city lights, receding…”
If the world of cyberspace fascinates Case, with its endless grids of light, the predatory “ice”, the danger of flatlining forever, it is the real world that fascinates the reader. Case’s travels with Armitage and his deadly mercenary sidekick, Molly Millions (who has mirrored implants inset over her eyes, and razors under her nails), take him from the old bazaar of Istanbul to the concrete wasteland of the Boston-Atlanta-Metropolitan-Axis. In this gritty dystopia, the characters they meet are sleazy and unsociable at best, from the Finn – a sort of twenty-first century Fagin, to 3Jane, the scion of an immensely rich family that has had themselves cryogenically frozen for eternity in a satellite in space. It is so rich and fertile a fictional universe that it spawned the entire genre of cyberpunk.
Oh, to be sixteen again, and to be reading Neuromancer for the first time! If it is beguiling to read now, imagine reading it when the Internet as we know it was still young, when operating systems were command-line-based and everyone wanted to learn how to write programs! In the time of Vanilla Ice, how much cooler was the black leather, dull chrome, thumping beats world of the Sprawl!
For the first time, I will admit these shameful truths in public. A lot of people suffer puberty. Unfortunately, I suffered puberty and read Neuromancer at the same time. Then I read everything else by Gibson. For a couple of years, his work became my world. So I taught myself how to program computers and how to Telnet into servers and set up (since abandoned) webpages. I got hold of an old trench coat and wore it all the time and listened to incomprehensible minimalist Japanese techno and drank litres of black coffee. If anyone had given me the access to the drugs or the weapons, I would have embraced them with a grateful whimper. I too cultivated a casual contempt for the flesh, especially where pretty girls were concerned, in part because none of them was one-tenth as awesome as Molly. Bizarrely, even though they had not read anything at all by Gibson, they reciprocated with a casual contempt of their own.
Now I am older. So is the Internet; the bones are covered in skin and flesh and smiles, but do not be fooled. If information does not necessarily want to be free, know that it has a life all of its own, that complex systems generate their own endemic forms of life. Know also that technology, the biggest mover of people and money in our time, is child to and slave of the imagination.
After all, Gibson wrote Neuromancer on a typewriter.