Cyberspace Cowboy: How Neuromancer Defined Cyberpunk
“The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.
“‘It’s not like I’m using,’ Case heard someone say, as he shouldered his way through the crowd around the door of the Chat. ‘It’s like my body’s developed this massive drug deficiency.’ It was a Sprawl voice and a Sprawl joke. The Chatsubo was a bar for professional expatriates; you could drink there for a week and never hear two words in Japanese. Ratz was tending bar, his prosthetic arm jerking monotonously as he filled a tray of glasses with draft Kirin. He saw Case and smiled, his teeth a web work of East European steel and brown decay.” ~ William Gibson’s Neuromancer
Its birth was like a tetra-bit sized explosion in the still relatively young Science Fiction field. And while its social embrace was a slow, methodical boil, it had an almost immediate impact on the still-relatively unknown cyberpunk genre. In 1984, William Gibson’s novel Neuromancer introduced many to the precepts of cyberpunk. And its influence over thirty years later can still be felt today. Neuromancer was the first novel to ever win the “triple crown” of science fiction awards – The Hugo, The Nebula, and The Philip K. Dick awards respectively. It was lauded for its stunning techno-poetic prose, detailing the evolution of society now addicted to the vices of technological sublimes that connected a decaying, almost decadent humanity hiding in the neon glow of the future in a slummed-out corporate-infused global village with the specter of apathy towards their fellow man their only companion.
Prior to the publication of Neuromancer, Gibson dabbled gently with roughly a half dozen short stories – two of which (Johnny Mnemonic and Burning Chrome) introduced motifs and elements of cyberpunk that would later be expanded and elaborated upon in Neuromancer and would cement the imaginative whole of the subculture. It was a major imaginative leap forward for science fiction as a whole. Neuromancer depicts with almost hallucinatory verge the desperate, dense and nearly claustrophobic future of the Sprawl, a collection of fast-talking, punked-out, techno-junkies and synaptic-peddlers looking to score their next victim. Or their next fix.
What made Neuromancer so auspicious to the casual sci-fi reader, however, was its originality of vision. This startling cascading data stream of metaphoric sophistry drawn from computers and other technologies that paralleled the future that became our today – the utilization of cyberspace and the world wide web – where a constant barrage of data packs and ROM-ware interacts with, almost within, the human psyche. Where humanity’s histories have become literalized into coded abstraction, and corporate conglomerates dictate the passage of information to the users. Systems thrive, permeate and live in a sort of symbiotic relationship with the organic hive mind of our society until it becomes a neon superhighway both beautiful and complex as to almost be unimaginable, almost mystical, in design and function.
Many, if not all, of the basic tenets of cyberpunk blueprinted in Neuromancer set the pace for the genre as a whole; this dark vision of the 21st century ravaged by capitalism, enslaved by technologies, and teetering upon the razor’s edge of societal, economical, and ecological collapse. Gleaming skyscrapers reaching into the dirty, broken skies housing the decadently rich stand in stark contrast to a grimy urban-like sprawl of dirty souls and outdated tech. A vast global computer network is all that binds us together. The “cyberspace” of humanity, swarming with ghost hackers, lined with deadly neural viruses, and home to the occasional collected consciousness of the recent dead, living now in the vast swirl of cyberspace.
Cyberspace itself is accessed by ‘jacking in’ through neural implants, effectively forming a direct interface between the man and the machine. All of which is effectively controlled by the will and desire of mega-corporations so powerful that they have become the defacto shadow of our current governments. These mega-corps operate according to their own dictates, waging covert wars against one another, employing spies and private armies in an effort to control the dwindling natural resources or steal the latest and newest tech. Oddly, even in this space, the lame are made whole though cybernetic prosthesis, further blurring the line between man and the machine. Personal ambition, greed, and betrayal dominate this global monoculture as personalities and minds are steadily dehumanized by the assimilation of newer and more flashier tech. Capitalism becomes the keyword in every social relationship; every interaction reduced to a commodity, every political motivation and dictate ruled by personal gain.
Neuromancer’s vision captured upon the political and cultural turmoil of the early ’80’s; it implanted within the reader this idea of future plausibility. While the ineptitude of flaccid governments lambasted the inequities of modern society with the pointed tip of nuclear swords and shadow wars raged across lesser nations, the information age ascended to fill our wants and needs. The industrial bases of Apple, Microsoft and Genentech consolidated their powers on the sweat and backs of the working class stiffs and nihilistic-minded children passed over by Reaganomics took up punk rock and slam dancing and skateboarding.
Ultimately, videogames and the wildly popular arcade scene at the time played an important role in the formation of Gibson’s most profound idea of cyperpunk: cyberspace. The word ‘cyberspace’ was first used by Gibson in his short story Burning Chrome in 1982, but came to full prominence in Neuromancer. “I got the idea from watching kids in video arcades,” he says. “I was walking down Granville Street, Vancouver’s version of The Strip. Video games weren’t something I’d done much, and I’d have been embarrassed to actually go into these arcades because everyone was so much younger than I was, but when I looked into one, I could see in the physical intensity of their postures how rapt these kids were.
“It was like one of those closed systems out of a Pynchon novel: you had this feedback loop, with photons coming off the screen into the kids’ eyes, the neurons moving through their bodies, electrons moving through the computer. And these kids clearly believed in the space these games projected. Everyone who works with computers seems to develop an intuitive faith that there’s some kind of actual space behind the screen–when the words or images wrap around the screen you naturally wonder, ‘Where did they go?’ Well, they go around the back to some place you can’t see.
“The matrix has its roots in primitive arcade games,” Gibson wrote. “In early graphics programs and military experimentation with cranial jacks… Cyberspace. A consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators, in every nation, by children being taught mathematical concepts… 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…”
In 1988, Neuromancer’s popularity eventually garnered the attention of Interplay, who wanted to interpret its vision into an actual PC game. Though loosely based on the novel, Neuromancer was lauded for its rich narrative and cyberspace setting. Compute Gaming World gave Neuromancer a very favorable review, citing the game’s pacing and wit, as well as the use of Gibson’s setting. Combat was also praised, as was the reward of information for winning combat. The only complaints it had about the game were the predetermined responses in conversation, and the excessive need of swapping disks. The magazine awarded it “Adventure Game of the Year” and in 1996 included it on a list of the “150 Best Games of All Time.”
A graphic novel by Epic Comics was published in 1989, but only covered the first part of the story. It was, unfortunately, unsuccessful and further issues were canceled. In the 90s, attempts at making films based on Gibson’s work were largely unsuccessful. Johnny Mnemonic, starring both Keanu Reeves and Dolph Lundgren released in 1995 and was universally panned by both film critics and movie-goers alike. Even Gibson himself agrees the movie could have done considerably better with less meddling and deviation from the original story. “Basically what happened was it was taken away and re-cut by the American distributor in the last month of its pre-release life,” he laments. “it went from being a very funny, very alternative piece of work to being something that had been very unsuccessfully chopped and cut into something more mainstream.”
In 1988, Gibson’s work would have a profound influence on the role-playing scene when Mike Pondsmith and publisher R. Talsorian Games released Cyberpunk 2013 to table top gamers. “When I first read Neuromancer,” Pondsmith recalls, “I remember telling my wife, ‘this guy’s stuff is so good it makes my teeth hurt.’ But remember that cyberpunk-style writing shouldn’t be about ‘humanism and creation of new type of society.’ It should be about people facing the same human elements of today’s society — just framed and illuminated by the technology of the future and the way they use it.”
Cyberpunk 2013’s (and its later release, Cyberpunk 2020’s) success continues even today. As you read this, Polish developer CD Projekt Red is hard at work at adapting an open world version of the cyberpunk world, and Cyberpunk 2077 will release some time in the near future. “I’m actually pretty involved in 2077,” Pondsmith says. “I’ve been part of the story and dev conferences both on-site and via the net. I get over to Poland about every 5-6 months and spend at least a week there meeting and talking to the whole team. I see the updates when they get posted and I talk to the whole team at least once a week in long Skype meetings where we cover mechanics, concepts, plots, dumb ideas – you name it.
“My task has been to extrapolate what has happened since the 4th Corporate War in 2024 all the way up to the 2077 timeline. The biggest issue is explaining how the technology has not evolved far more than 50 years would actually allow. I’ve been working this out as a videogame for years, actually. I sometimes consider my time on Matrix Online as a good prep for this project, but [Cyberpunk owner] R.Tal was actually involved in an official Cyberpunk 2020 MMO back in the late 90′s, and we had to work out many of the issues back then. We have tons more tools to work with now, and the ability to make sandbox worlds that accurately reflect the elements of tabletop game play.”
What Pondsmith hopes the game will convey, ultimately, is the humanity that both evolves and devolves in the space of technological decadence, how we adapt to the world itself, how we adapt our habits, our societies, and how we gleam onto our current vices, rather than have the story focus on robots and rockets. “People tend to focus on the tech side of cyberpunk rather than the human side” he says. “They often think that cybertech and big guns make something cyberpunk. But you can have those elements in the framework of a rather nice transhumanist setting where life is good and people are full of hope. No, cyberpunk is more about how the human elements like greed and the lust of power; human weakness and flaws, play out in the context of new technology. Cyberpunk isn’t about the tech — it’s about how that tech is USED. Here’s an example. Cybernetics can be used to replace damaged or flawed body parts; to help people live better lives and to fix what nature has failed at. Or they can be used to create all powerful super soldier killers who crush less enhanced people in the name of powerful oligarchs.”
As to what the future holds for cyberpunk, well, that’s simple. There isn’t one. Now, before you bristle at the thought, consider for a moment. Cyberpunk isn’t simply an alternative to life, but rather, something that runs dangerously close to it as to almost be a reality. A future imperfect, but a plausible future for our modern age. In fact, the present day trickles the idea of a cyberpunked techno-organic lifestyle in more ways than you could possibly realize.
Thirty years later, Neuromancer’s future remains largely accurate and intact. Private militaries wage war for profit and dwindling natural resources, all the while rising corporations and global conglomerates manipulate governments to the point of obscenity. In America alone, the internet promises the notion that our government can (and will) electronically monitor citizens in the name of “homeland security” and vapid, over-hyped celebrities lobotomize the public hive mind to the idea of “reality” TV. The ideas of global warming and big oil seem distant and foggy premises to the fantasy of Virtual Reality meant to replace the broken one we currently inhabit.
We do not know it, be we are slaves to the machine now. Embedded into the world wide web like flies before the mechanized spider. And instead of recoiling in horror as we should, we simply salivate at the notion of newer and prettier tech. People line street corners to be the first to get their fingers on the latest iPod, the newest cellphone, the most recent gaming rig. We line the pockets of the rich, a wealth trading between fewer and fewer hands until being a millionaire is something of the recent past. Now we live in a world where the multi-billionaire is the commercial and social apex predator now. We live to surf the internet, reach deep into the cyberpsace of society, and seek to pin our own claim to it no matter how small or large.
For many of us, we cannot imagine life without the internet. So small our personal world would be without it. And so we slave to please the masters of the web. We lament and bemoan the precepts that funnel down to us from time to time, but ultimately we break our backs to have it. We are enslaved, addicted, to the ‘net. We need it. And sadly enough, the machine needs us. It needs us to need it. It tweets to us in the night, chirps and vibrates in our pockets, clamors to be heard, begging to be utilized to the point of obsession. We bleed for the machine, and it weeps for us, promising to soothe our wants. And in the end, we enslave our flesh to the tech. The only way we can ever truly be free is to simply unplug from it.
But that idea died a long time ago. Always on, always plugged in. An old echo of a past notion now haunts me as I write. Because we are experiencing a future that, sadly enough…..
……has no future.