Neuromancer: Material Reality in Science-Fiction

I’d been searching for an opportunity to read Neuromancer for several years. And while I think this is by far the best, clearest context to be reading it under, I still found myself responding coldly to the novel. I had to remind myself of a number of factors: historical context, literary intent, genre expectations, personal taste, etc. Ultimately, I wondered why the intense attention to physical detail shapes the novel. What about a highly material world makes it more real for some readers and less for others? Does the “world too much with us” imply that simulations are an escape from material reality or a means to connect with it?

From the genre perspective, there is a vast difference between Hard Science Fiction and Soft Science Fiction. They typically differ in formalist, with Hard representing Physical Sciences and Soft representing Social Sciences. Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke are seminal examples of Hard Sci-Fi, wherein a technical reality is more convincing. Tiptree and Dick might be examples of Soft Sci-Fi, wherein an emotionally evocative reality is more convincing. While there is great overlap between the two, but each places an emphasis on a different concept.

Literary tradition has a long history of esoteric materialism. In the 18th Century, writers tended to include lists embedded in prose. In the 19th century, Moby Dick includes long passages describing whaling tools. Incidentally, Gibson’s influences Thomas Pynchon often describes vehicle schematics, while William S. Burroughs, often describes narcotic schematics. For fans of Hard Sci-Fi, these are the “literary meat” in the sense that they make for a more heightened reality. For example, the difference between how Philip K. Dick and Gibson might convey the mood organ. To convey familiarity, Dick has his protagonists cite a continual emotional need for the mood organ, citing the conditions of its use. Gibson, however, would describe the sun bleached color, worn dials, how it worked, how it was modified, including nicknames and pseudonyms. Gibson’s implies the emotional need, simply by the frequency of action, the familiarity—much like drug use—detailing the human rituals behind the use of technology. Dick makes it convincing by showing what need it fills in a world; why it might be used rather than Gibson’s focus on how it might practically be used. Herein lies the main distinction between Hard and Soft Science Fiction: one genre’s affirming of a material reality over a conceptual one.

While somewhat transcendent, Gibson’s seems, in practice, to be Hard Sci-Fi. He places so much meaning on the physical because this is how he sees humans self-identify and, thusly, identify with others. These physical concepts appear most prevalently in character description and description of “the sublime” (ie: Cyberspace). Body modification is an example of overpowering physical qualities, whether it’s strangers on a bus (102) or close characters personal traumas (192-193), the disregard for “the meat” appears disconcerting for readers. Another example is physical description from a socioeconomic standpoint: status symbols. Numerous characters purvey an image of status—with status “projection” taking on a literal satiric form in Riviera— with minutely described clothing and accessories (people included). In greater detail the zaibatsu (multinationals) illustrate the value of status in Neuromancer, being “viewed as organisms…[and] they had attained a kind of immortality” (265). The use of sensual description, primarily visual, is the greatest example of where the heavily material, however abstract, appears in Neuromancer. With Riviera’s sex show, Gibson conveys the power of a hybridized reality, material and imaginary. “There was an inverted symmetry: Riviera puts the dreamgirl together, the dreamgirl takes him apart. With those hands. Dreamblood soaking the rotten lace” (183).

Gibson uses the technique of interpolating real and simulated stimuli to create human memory and connection. This occurs for Case in two separate ways: through simtim with Molly and through the matrix with the AIs (mainly Wintermute and Neuromancer). Molly and Case seem to develop the strongest bond, not through sex, but through simstim. Gibson cleverly links them through sensation, with Case connecting more directly to Molly’s senses the more he engages simstim. In essence, it isn’t until Molly’s pain materializes physically for Case that he truly connects to her. On the same plane, Wintermute must always “effect a spokesperson” and is “hoping to speak through Linda, but I’m generating this all out of your memories, and the emotional charge…well it’s tricky” (155-156). Case begins to realize that the AIs can stimulate his memories and emotions (197), ie: creating material from immaterial.

As with the simulations creation of reality, Gibson’s shift from a heavily material world to a highly abstract one becomes a stylistic choice, “simulating” the disjointed experience. Most of the “cyberspace” terminology evokes sensual qualities (“ice”, “black mirror”, etc.) to make a rounder world for readers. Cyberspace begins as an abstract concept; as a sort of “neural mapping”, Gibson systematically fills the “space”. The more Case enters into cyberspace, either simstim or the matrix, the more association the readers have with the setting. By the end of the novel, only the “simulated world” feels real to Case; in turn, it comforts readers with a visceral grounding. In many ways, we as readers “needed the world built for [us], this beach, this place…” (307) to make it more real. In a highly Romantic passage, Gibson shows why the physical is so important: “it belonged, he knew—he remembered—as she pulled him down, to the meat, the flesh the cowboys mocked. It was a vast thing, beyond knowing, a sea of information coded in spiral and pheramone, infinite intricacy only the body, in its strong blind way, could ever read” (314).

But does Gibson, like Case, lose himself in his own linguistic machinery? Gibson’s description is usually a physical one, stylized with an almost fetishistic precision. As well as Noir, the style evokes Neo-Realist fiction of the 1980’s, which tends to explore the material as it relates to “materialism” and emotional disconnect. However, Gibson’s descriptions appear to tell us little about a character other than “world building” or visual style. This heavy grounding in plot, description, and esoteric language is a common feature of Hard Sci-Fi, though it gives little room for character’s thought and subtle interaction.

The world of Neuromancer is moving faster than characters can comprehend; it is a sensation readers may be intended to share. One can go through a number of chapters and have difficulty explaining everything occurred; this evokes serialized fiction or video games. Characters are often numerous and less-developed, plots often Menippean and wandering, with numerous digressions and frame narratives. Simultaneously, sentences are packed with information and implication. In many ways, this density of writing typifies Surrealism of late-Modernism and Post-modernism; a chaotic sense of future shock that overwhelms natural human processes. It is a genre that seeks to simulate alienation and disconnect. As expected, it makes it all the harder for readers of literary fiction, who are used to characters driving a plot, to engage deeply with Hard Sci-fi, a genre where the plot drives the characters. The “mechanics” of both are so vastly different that one may seem incomprehensible to the other. But what can be shared between the two is a struggle with material reality, to either connect to it or evade it, both under the impetus of transcendence.


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2 Responses to Neuromancer: Material Reality in Science-Fiction

  1. fearthefin says:

    Hi, great post! It really struck me because the different between Hard and Soft Sci-Fi was a distinction I had been noticing in the back of my head all semester but for which hadn’t realized a school of thought existed. Thank you so much for this. The distinction between Gibson and Dick’s modes of conveyance, especially, was the biggest difference I had felt while reading. Though Dick does provide enough examples of science or technology, the novel is a slow burn that is always concerned not with the technology itself but with the emotional responses that human interaction with said technology evokes. It’s very enlightening for me to see this post and see this idea put into concise language.

    I guess the question that this most urgently raises for me is whether that makes Gibson’s work any less literary. Perhaps literary isn’t the right word. I mean whether Gibson, who seems to be the more esoteric writer, renders his work off-putting and therefore incapable of being received by a large audience — and whether he consciously or preferably does so.

    At this point I was reminded of some of the readings we did earlier in the semester — most notably the first few weeks’ assignments and lectures that dealt with the supposed tension between literature and science. How people like Dawkins sought to reconcile the two by proclaiming that science helps to emphasize rather than destroy natural beauty or even the sublime. Going off of that, yesterday on Tumblr I saw an illustration of a Richard Feynman quote (link: that attempts a similar reconciliation. Overall, I feel that this is what someone like Dick attempts to do — to unite the emotionally evocative aspects of literature with the wonder or fascination of science. I think you could say Gibson does the same, but his mode of conveyance might only reveal that on a deeper, closer reading.

  2. teithabess says:

    Echoing fearthefin, thank you for differentiating between Hard and Soft Sci-Fi so clearly. I’ve always wondered what really constitutes the difference between the two.

    In regards to reader alienation, I would say one point of Hard Sci-Fi is making up for the lack of character development with ideas, and, to some extent, style. Since you brought up Arthur C. Clarke, my mind jumped to him, for I am a fan. And while I usually prefer stories with interesting characters, “Childhood’s End” and “2001: A Space Odyssey” are amazing because of the ideas, images, and questions they inspire. The same mostly goes for Michael Crichton’s best work, I’d say — characters with thoughts and feelings don’t matter much when there are real live dinosaurs trying to eat everyone or killer nanobots (“Prey” might be better than “Jurassic Park,” so read it, sci-fi fans). I suppose this Hard vs. Soft, character development vs. ideas concept applies to other types of genre fiction. For example, J. R. R. Tolkien is not exactly adept at developing his characters, but the world he creates keeps people reading.

    What I’m saying is that Gibson is not alone in potentially alienating readers, at fearthefin ruminates, though I would argue that his style of writing and intentional lack of clarity are far more alienating than his subject matter, or even his ideas, which I think have the potential to rivet readers, if they could fully grasp them. If he were clearer (and, full disclosure, this is the reader in me whining), his ideas could reach a larger audience. That being said, Tolkien isn’t the most crystal-clear writer, though his problem is less clarity than dryness. But this all can be debated.

    Responding to fearthefin’s last paragraph: When I got to thinking about Philip Dick and his use of characters, particularly compared to Gibson’s, I thought that by including emotional responses and developments in his stories, Dick tries to present the reader with a more “real” reality. He attempts to answer the recurring question of “how would a person respond to this situation unfamiliar to the reader?” I think that is partially what can ultimately bother readers about Gibson. Even when they do respond, his characters aren’t relatable, which, admittedly, can be a result of most of them living in an unfamiliar, criminal underbelly of society (hence why people brought up in class that we don’t get a full sense of what Gibson’s world is like). To conclude, a story, in my opinion, can pull this off, if it has an idea or the clarity to make up for it.

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