Sunday, March 15, 2009

Week 10: Gibson, Cyberpunk

Star Wars is often described as a Western set in a SF universe. Truth be told, I kept wondering whether Gibson's Neuromancer should be similarly interpreted.

My ponderings began with the early and recurrent use of the term "cowboy" to describe Case and his breed of freespirited cyberspatial frontiersmen. Gibson was invoking for his imagined world the enormous power that the frontier myth exerts on American culture.

I tried to imagine myself reading Neuromancer in 1984. Its references to carbon ribbon, computer paper and tape storage, and its assumption that all connections must be wired and the human-computer interface keyboarded, would not have seemed archaic as they do today.

So, yes, I can readily see how Gibson's vision of cyberspace and his move to situate an SF story not in outer space but in a computer matrix, would have appeared groundbreaking and full of new possibilities.

Yet for all that, I found Neuromancer to be rather conventional, a frontier narrative for the computer age. Yes, I understand why we, looking back, read our own preoccupations with postmodern identity, with cyborgs and simulacra, into Neuromancer. Nor do I deny that such readings have merit. Part of Gibson's influence is that he created a prototype world that still works as a canvas onto which we can project our concerns.

But despite the merits of Davidson's invocation of Baudrillardian simulation—and references by multiple commentators to Harraway's Cyborg Manifesto—neither should we miss how Gibson updated the frontier myth in a story with many cowboy Western elements:

> The "hired gun" (Molly) and "faithful sidekick" who is an ethnic Other and speaks pidgin (Maelcum)

> The beloved "horse" (Case's deck) to whom the hero is emotionally attached and that takes the cowboy on swift rides across fantastic frontier landscapes

> The saloon (Ratz's bar in Chiba City) which, of course, was sent up in the famous Mos Eisley scene in Star Wars

> The tension between frontier and border (ably described in Concannon's article) which in Western films (Shane is an arch example) is often played out as a conflict between cattlemen and settlers

> The High Noon shootout between hero and villain, and even the captured maiden who is freed when the hero rides to the rescue

> The ending where the good guys, having finished their task, go their separate ways and ride back to the wild country from whence they came ("Who was that masked man?")

If you fault my reading for not going gaga over simulations and cyborgs, consider that my reading finds some support in the articles we perused for this week:

> Concannon explores the salience of the borderland in Gibson. Cyberspace functions, he concludes, as a "trope" that "reflects a balancing of impossibility and possibility" (p. 441), which is simply another way of expressing the frontier myth.

> While Davidson (p. 192) only notes in the portmanteau "Neuromancer" a cross between neuro and necromancer, Jones points out that the AI of the novel also saw itself as a New Romancer. The SF works of Aldiss, Gibson, Sterling, and Powers have distinct romantic element, Jones argues, perhaps even updating the 19th century romantic tradition.

> Moylan (as quoted by Fair) pans Neuromancer for seeking "refuge in recognizable film noir plots and macho heroes already embedded in the dominant ideology" (p. 97) and—as I too immediately noticed—the instantiation of Maelcum as "basically a humorous sidekick in the ignoble popular culture tradition of Pancho and the Cisco Kid or Tonto and the Lone Ranger" (p. 100).

Young people today might miss these associations, but readers in 1984 would not. Perhaps the closest we come is the allegation that the Jar Jar Binks character introduced in Star Wars Episode 1 is a racist stereotype.

> Several commentators see Neuromancer as modernist, rather than postmodern, in its sensibilities. As quoted by Fair (p. 102 n4):

Scott Bukatman argues that cyberspace achieves the modern ideal of a body dissolved into pure motion and perfect mechanized efficiency. Tony Fabijancic argues that the architecture of both Gibson's cyberspace and nineteenth-century urban spaces "[contribute] fundamentally to a wider moern rhetoric of being and thinking." N. Katherine Hayles writes . . . [that Gibson's] "narrator characterizes the posthuman body as 'data made flesh.' To the extent that the posthuman constructs embodiment as the instantiation of thought/information, it continues the liberal tradition rather than disrupts it."

> In this vein, I was struck by Fernbach's suggestion that Neuromancer has a "conservative dynamic" that belies the "democratizing rhetoric that surrounds the new technology of the internet" and which "tells us that gender and race are not fixed in this space." Instead, she suggests, "The notion that online personas transcend social and cultural hierarchies remains a utopian myth" (p. 248). Thus,

Despite being hailed as the apotheosis of postmodernism, cyberpunk uses the familiar Freudian narrative of a return to the wholeness of the pre-oedipal to discuss the crisis of contemporary masculinity. In cyberpunk, fears about the intrusive potential of technology are displaced anxieties about changes in the social order both now and in future worlds--changes that have already begun to threaten a stable, unified masculine identity that presents itself as the universal subject (p. 249).

> Myers makes a fascinating comparison—which, again, I too picked up—between Neuromancer and detective fiction, especially the atomized urban spaces of Gibson's Sprawl and of Conan Doyle's fogbound London and Chandler's steamy Los Angeles. But I also saw in Neuromancer a connection with the spy thriller genre, a genre that in 1984 (after the 1960s spy genre mania and before Tom Clancy) seemed dated and quaint.

But whether we see elements of film noir, detective fiction or spy thriller in Neuromancer, to me the important point is the one element common to all three genres and to westerns and frontier narratives—namely the archetypal American hero, the loner who keeps going against all odds, all opposition, and finally wins victory and vindication by his/her ingenuity and will power.

> Nixon picks up on this aspect of the quintessential American loner-hero when she writes,

Cyberpunk's fascination with and energetic figuration of technology represents the American cowboy as simultaneously embattled and empowered. In '80s America the Japanese megacorporations did dominate the technological market, but the cowboy's freedom and ingenuity allow him to compete purely on the level of mastery . . . [pitting] pragmnatism and mass production versus American innovation and ingenuity (p. 225).

So far all these reasons, while I can see why Neuromancer is influential as the progenitor of the cyberpunk genre, the work itself impresses me as conventional.

P.S. I checked out Garrard's Ecocriticism and was surprised there appears (at least in the "Wilderness" chapter) to be no discussion of frontier myths. Did I miss something?

No comments: