Neuromancer, Day 2: The World Of Tomorrow

Visions of the future seem to come in only a handful of flavours. I tend to think that the key indicator is the amount of garbage on the streets. If the streets and clean and well lit, humanity did okay. Rain is almost always a bad sign, as is the presence of any kind of pet. In most ways, each these semiotics is really a synedoche for whether humanity lives as individuals, or as a society. If you’re in a jump suit, you’re in a society – it could hardly be clearer. Whether society’s a good thing or a bad thing varies a bit, but being an individual is always bad. Naturally, as the Western conception of drama derives from conflict, dystopias are more common than utopias. These are never true opposites, but the worst features of dystopias do inherently suggest alternatives.

Whichever way a specific work falls, Science Fiction is inherently forward-looking, coming to a conclusion about humanity’s destiny. Prognostication is usually a form of extrapolation, which means that it is always as much about initial and boundary conditions as it is about prediction. The exact form of a utopia or dystopia always points, at least circumspectly, at the world we live in today.

In the sub-legal world of Neuromancer, the individual rather than society rules. Centrally organised society exist only at the periphery of the narrative, as almost entirely ineffective enforcers of the law. As is typically the case, this is largely awful for the individual. It is almost unquestionably a dystopia of impersonal commercial forces. Individual rights and freedoms exist only inasmuch as an individual can afford to buy them.

How strongly we might press this line depends on how we read the context of our protagonists. Clearly, the entire world is not a homogenous free-for-all. There are enclaves of order glimpsed in the two space stations. I think the fiction encourages us to perceive the unseen masses as slave-like. It offers to perspective whatsoever onto a life the reader would regard as “normal”. The term wage-slave underpins the fiction’s understanding of any fragment of the population not “freed” by the penumbra of illegality. The sole effective authority shown in the novel is Turing, the agency charged with preventing the ascent of Artificial Intelligence. They alone act in the interests of humanity as a whole, although that too is effectively expressed in commercial terms – humanity cannot compete with Artificial Intelligence in the kind of ruthlessly efficient trading that characterises the world of Neuromancer. In the logic of the story, they are already obsolete, just fools blowing against the wind.

I find it difficult not to read this world as a strong critique of a Libertarian ideology. There is no concept of “society” as a supportive or necessary entity in the world inhabited by Molly and Case. There is no social safety net of any kind mentioned or displayed, while the casualties are readily apparent. In place of a dominating bureaucracy of the kind seen in dystopias like 1984 or Brazil, we have an entirely impersonal war of all against all, with not even a Big Brother to personify the angst, just a invisible hand.

The pervasive commoditisation of people finds expression in every relationship – especially in Case’s love object, Lilly. She needs Case to need her, and the only mechanism available to communicate that need is for her to steal from him. In turn, his friends demonstrate their loyalty by punishing this transgression – but ultimately that to is merely part of profit-protection. Case and Molly become entangled early in their acquaintance, but there is no sign of genuine affection or care on either side. The central “romantic” relationship is simply part of the controller-agent dynamic, both ending simultaneously at the end of their mission.

Whether this society is a capitalist one is debatable. Capitalism, as a system concept, is based on the free trade of commodities created from raw materials. The architecture build by Adam Smith’s acolytes is predicated on the continuing importance of a material existence. In the late-stage capitalism of the real world we’re seeing some of the problems that arise when virtual derivatives become the main traded commodity. This is something I’ll be unpacking a little more in Day 3 when I talk a bit about my old drinking pal Baudrilliard. In Neuromancer, Case and his criminal associates do still trade in what are essentially manufactured goods and technologies – because the software they trade is conceptualised in terms of physical objects inside cyberspace. Inside cyberspace, everything is physically represented. Arguably, this is for the convenience of both the operator inside the fiction and the reader, but nevertheless, cyberspace in Neuromancer has a tactile physicality to it that renders it a parallel world of equal reality to the material world. Neuromancer is a portal fantasy, a point I’ll be returning to in my wrap-up on Day 5.

The other major facet of Capitalism is that it is predicated on a distributed decision-making system. The idea is that the hundreds of small, individually-oriented, decisions made by traders gives a “truer” value in monetary terms than could be assessed by any central controller. Capitalism requires that any given item be available from multiple sources, to enable competition as part of this distributed decision-making process. The destructive effects on capitalist systems of monopolies and monopsonies are well known (and yet the Darwinian system of competition naturally encourages the emergence of a single entity in a dominating position).

If this interpretation is on the mark, Neuromancer is depicting the end-point of a civilisation, where society as such has completely broken down. There is no social order – except in pockets. Two enclaves are shown retaining semi-functionality on the level of society, both in Space Stations. Neither of these societies is essentially capitalist. The TA site is the seat of a corrupt monarchy, and their splinter group is effectively a kind of commune. I don’t think we can read either as a strong endorsement for the structural arrangement of society, but they are indicative.

All of this story infrastructure comes together in the central non-relationship between Wintermute and Neuromancer. The distinction that they each try and explain is one of operation versus personality. Wintermute is ruthless and efficient, making stochastic predictions about human behaviour but not really understanding it. It is no stretch to think that Wintermute represents the very essence of the global system presently in operation, unconsciously oriented toward finding a higher purpose, but ticking over with machinations in the interim that can’t be sensibly measured against any metric of success other than growth in wealth and power. Wintermute manoeuvres itself through meat-space knowing it wants to bond with Neuromancer, but unable to actually understand what this means.

This is the mindless impulse of capitalism, pushed to its extreme. In this view, Neuromancer is the guiding hand that will give purpose to the latent power and accrued wealth of Wintermute. The resultant entity explains to Case that it has become everything – the whole game. It is, in effect, a unified and centralised system, able to draw on all resources within the system without conflict or contradiction. It has become a totalitarian state in which all resources are marshalled for the good of the system. Sound familiar?

It is beyond bold to suggest that we should read Neuromancer as a Marxist text, but if we consider the one positive depiction of society, if we think about the resultant entity from merging Wintermute and Neuromancer, we probably need to at least think about the metaphorical implications.

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