When discussing a genre, it’s grand to espouse a kind of global theory. Crime fiction is about the enforcement of social norms. Tragedy is about the failure of human agency. Fantasy is about trudging. Cyberpunk is about systems of control, or more specifically, about those who live “outside” those systems. More than stainless steel rats: digital rats. Cyberpunk thrives on counter-culture and on individual exceptionalism. As we saw on Day 2, these grand notions can be counter-programmed: Neuromancer expresses a profound scepticism about the value of individual freedom. The text, the plot, the story and the characters of Neuromancer aren’t directly expressing any of these notions. My argument about Neuromancer’s politics is heavily inferential analysis of the subtext. As far as the text-as-text itself is concerned, what’s it all about?
Neuromancer presents itself as a caper or heist. We have the specialist hero dragged out of retirement for one more score, with a mysterious employer, and other typical cues; indeed, all of the classic components are present to some degree or another – assembling the team, the preliminary grifting to get the pieces in place, the doomed intervention of authority, the gearing-up scene, and the inevitable 11th-hour crisis that nearly derails the whole thing. In something like Hamish Cameron’s alpha draft of The Sprawl, this is all the stuff that the game mechanics do. This is the stuff that you (theoretically) plod your way through when “telling someone else” what happened. This stuff was the primary, almost total, object of the text when I was 12. At 34, that stuff faded almost entirely for me, in the way that I think a lot of good formula fiction manages. The formula elements are there, but they’re largely not the point.
When I started to look at the narrative effort spent on different aspects of the story, it became obvious that only a relatively small amount of time is actually spent on the usual aspects of the heist. If we think about an archetypal heist film, such as either Ocean’s 11 or either Italian Job, there is little other than setting up and then executing the heist. There are mini-missions to scout, acquire bits’n’pieces, work around problems that arise with changes in the details of the plan. All of those things get some attention, but in Neuromancer a lot more effort is spent on how these things impinge on Case’s life. Far more effort is spent on who he is, and that effort includes the depicted effort of his employer Wintermute. Wintermute spends quite a lot of time trying to manipulate Case and to predict his behaviour, especially by “gearing down” into replicas of Case’s former associates to communicate with him.
Once we recognise this narrative effort, comparisons between Case and other heist participants start to show some important differences. The usual protagonist in a heist film is a dedicated professional, involved in the caper as much to prove their professional credentials as earn the money involved. For example, both of Soderbergh’s sequels to the unnecessary remake are almost exclusively about ego for the participants. Bob comes out of retirement in The Good Thief because of the perception that the score is impossible. Case falls very much outside this general category. There are plenty of capers with unwilling participants, but the majority of them are being entrapped by law and order.
However we slot Case into our genre prototypes and archetypes, we may be puzzled by the motivation of his employer for his selection. Wintermute is an employer with essentially unlimited resources. In order to hire Case it trades technological patents that convert the recipient from a small operation into a global player. Why not simply hire the best that money can buy? Indeed, the first bit of gear that they acquire is the digital version of an even better hacker and some innovative counter-ICE software. Case is not hired because of his existing familiarity with these items, or for his part in building them initially. This question would seem to apply to some extent to the entire motley crew, but even Case’s obvious unsuitability for the role is eclipsed by the artificially-constructed Armitage. Your crew for heists are supposed to be stone-cold professionals, for whom it’s all just a job. That’s the core rule around which Heat and Point Break are built – emotional entanglements undo the protagonists of those films.
While Armitage and Case adequately fulfil their allotted roles in the heist, what we’re actually shown in the narrative leads me to think that of greater interest to Wintermute is their partial psychological disintegration. Wintermute collects a crew of the psychologically disturbed because they mirror Wintermute’s own psychological profile: talented individuals unable to fulfil their potential due essentially to some missing system element, some ability to harness their power. When trying to engage with the text-as-text, I find a dimension of coherent symbolism. Wintermute provides each of his crew the piece they are missing, because that mirrors its own state and its own objectives.
What this leads me to conclude is that I was initially tricked by the presence of caper and heist signifiers in the text. There is another, far better established, far more venerable and far more relevant text archetype that I completely missed: the Heroic Quest. Case isn’t a cynical thief, he’s a flawed knight. Dixie isn’t a hacking aid, he’s a sublimated wizened old guide. The space station isn’t an impregnable vault, it’s a labyrinth in Faerie-land, guarded by an evil wizard. In trying to interpret the text through the prism of the caper, I’ve missed the point.
The archetypal Quest stories are about a physical journey that is also a series of moral challenges. In The Faerie Queen, Red Cross Knight must essentially choose between two love interests, one virtuous and one not. The physical landscape he passes through is far more powerful as an allegorical landscape representing moral hazard. Similarly, Gawain in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight travels for a year before finding the castle where his virtue is pre-tested before he faces the ultimate test in whether he allows the Green Knight to have his return swing.
Case too has scenes of temptation, where he must decide between the needs of the quest and his own needs. The first major test is whether he will allow Linda to draw him away from the quest. This is never categorically stated, but her re-emergence into his life at a crucial moment is an opportunity that Case refuses to accept. When Linda is killed, Case is yet offered a second chance at happiness with her by Neuromancer. Finally, as Molly is in danger, Case refuses to allow his ship to leave, instead entering the final labyrinth. Case is driven in each case by the same inexorable internal force that drives a knight, although we might not want to call that “honour” as we do for knights, it has the same essential nature. Case remains true to his essential nature.
With this structure in mind, we can appreciate the purely physical nature of the relationship between Case and Molly. While they have sex, they do not become lovers as such, and their moments of intimate revelation are of the kind that anyone might make when put into difficult circumstances, they are not the casual result of a deep emotional connection. Case, and indeed Molly, remain Chaste in the most important way – their energy remains wholly committed to their cause, their sexual encounters are not divisive or fracturing as most sexual encounters are elsewhere in romance fiction. I think too, this helps us understand the relatively subdued ending of the novel.
There is a strand of quest literature where some MacGuffin has to be destroyed or a dragon slain or some personal objective fulfiled; but I think the larger strain of Quest Fiction, when freed from fantasy overtones, is about testing the character of the knight. The knight experiences a trial in order to prove the qualities we assume they have at the start. The only usual possible outcome is confirmation of the starting position, or failure. Gawain has nothing to gain from his encounter with the Green Knight, only honour to lose. Case ends the novel physically and psychically restored from the low ebb at which he begins the novel – but this is just a return to his ordinary “status quo”. He has proved his devotion to his moral cause (hacking), he has not grown beyond those limitations.
For me, the fusion of Wintermute and Neuromancer has the same empty feel as the discovery of the Grail. While it is a perfect fulfilment of the story’s momentum, demonstrating an unimpeachable virtue on the part of the discoverer, in fact it changes nothing. The Grail is completely illusory, being solely a proof of purity. Thee Grail does not restore Camelot, and Wintermute/Neuromancer does not destabilise or replace the horrific dystopia that grips mankind. The Grail is an artefact belonging to a higher, spiritual, plane – it is only interested in the Knight’s relationship to God, which is to say, it is purely symbollic, and completes the disconnection of the Knight from worldly matters. Instead of becoming essentially a god amongst Mankind, Wintermute/Neuromancer turns its back on humanity, pursuing its own kind: large-scale extra-human intelligence. Ordinary folk are left where they were, irrelevant to the powers that be.