Irvine Valley CollegeOnline Literature Study of the School of Humanities and Languages

Literature 110 - Popular Literature

Spring 2013 - Ticket #62740  // Marjorie Coverley Luesebrink, MFA, Instructor

Unit 8:  Science Fiction and The Future


Neuromancer, William Gibson



Computer Gaming - Digital Warfare in Future Worlds (or now)


Sci-Fi as a Genre usually refers to stories that involve speculation about science or technology.  This genre is often combined with some kinds of Fantasy; we saw in the previous unit that Fantasy Fiction usually involves the "creation of another world" and "time dislocation" - and we see these in Sci-Fi, too.  But we will focus here on the elements of science, technology, and the future.  

The Wiki on Science Fiction:  science fiction writer Robert A. Heinlein said, "a handy short definition of almost all science fiction might read: realistic speculation about possible future events, based solidly on adequate knowledge of the real world, past and present, and on a thorough understanding of the nature and significance of the scientific method."

 Rod Serling's definition is "fantasy is the impossible made probable. Science Fiction is the improbable made possible."

Science Fiction fans tend to have pretty specific tastes - but *Neuromancer* has been influential in many of the Cyborg (cf. also, Cyberpunk) and Post-Apocalyptic fiction groups as well as more mainstream Popular Science Fiction!

If you have a particular interest in Sci-Fi and Fantasy, here is the Website for the SFWA - Science Fiction and Fantasy Writer's Association!

The cultural conditions that informed our studies of Horror, War, and Cowboys and the West were significant in these genres of Popular Literature - and they were also related to the era in which the work was written.   

In contrast, our notions about what the Future might bring, in terms of science and technology, are a constant presence (although the specifics change decade by decade).  If you went to see the recent movie *The Watchmen* (made from the graphic novel), you would have seen that the big threat looming in that story was nuclear disaster.  But that work was written in the 1980's.

A funny thing, people worried about nuclear disaster for a long time.  We had bomb shelters and bomb drills in schools, hundreds of novels and stories about the threat.  Nowadays, hardly anyone worries about a nuclear disaster (although they do worry a bit about countries that have nuclear weapons), even though it is probably just as possible as it ever was (more countries have the technology).  

Instead, we are more concerned with national or world recession and global warming.  At the time that William Gibson was writing *Neuromancer,* one of the big questions was the sanctity of the human spirit and the human body.  Would our computer technology, we wondered, render us real people obsolete?  It is clear that this focus is still a strong issue in our culture - witness the success of *The Matrix* and other movies based upon Gibson's work.  Unit #8 is devoted to the way that contemporary Science Fiction Genre writers have depicted the Future.


Movie Characters in *The Matrix* - this movie revolutionized special effects, merged Hong Kong-style martial arts with cyberpunk science fiction, and injected video games with classical philosophy.

Mythological and Folk Referents - Science Fiction Staples and the Genre

As we saw when we studied Mary Shelley's *Frankenstein,* this novel is widely considered to be not only the first "Horror Genre" story, but also the first work to give modern shape to the "Science Fiction Genre."  In a sense, the novel initiated two different paths.  One path went off in the direction of horror, the other into considerations of the effect of science and technology on human activity.  The practitioners on both paths were legion - and we have a rich history of writers who followed Mary Shelley's lead into Sci-Fi.

While many motifs of folktale and legendstock persisted from classical times down through the modern horror novels, myth and folk referents are less common in Sci-Fi stories - although they are always present (sometimes in nearly unrecognizable form).  

However, many of the "mythic" elements of contemporary Sci-Fi can be called "public mythology" as they have arisen in the public arena in the past century -

From the Wikipedia History of Science Fiction:  Public mythology

Orson Welles' Mercury Theatre produced a radio version of The War of the Worlds which, famously, panicked large numbers of people who believed the program to be a real newscast. The idea of visitors or invaders from outer space became firmly part of the public mythology.

During World War II pilots speculated on the possible origins of the Foo fighters they saw around them in the air. The German flying bombs, V1s and V2s added to the growing wonder about the future of space travel. Jet planes and the atom bomb were developed. When a story of a flying saucer crash was circulated from Roswell, New Mexico in 1947, science fiction had become folklore.

Probably the best-known of the seminal Science Fiction writers - and an author who created his own cache of public mythology,  was Jules Verne.  His stories of adventure under the sea and on the moon captured the fancy of readers for decades.  Ideas about submarines and rockets to the moon had already become a shared myth through his writings long before they became scientific reality.

Jules Verne's stories of under the sea and on the moon are still popular.

Through his series of Les Voyages Extraordinaires and the fantastic and detailed illustrations which accompanied them, Verne predicted the use of hydrogen as an energy source (in From the Earth to the Moon) and many future modern conveniences and technological inventions such as skyscrapers, submarines, helicopters, and airplanes. The pioneering ways of travel and exploration which he wrote so much about are now common-place for us, such as exploration of the moon, the north and south poles, and the use of hot air balloons for long-distance voyages. In his time Verne was a true inventor and visionary; the names of his inventions and characters such as Captain Nemo, Phileas Fogg, and the submarine Nautilus have entered, and remain, a part of our popular culture.  [from The Literature Network on Jules Verne.]

If you like Sci-Fi, and you have not read Edwin A. Abbott, he was also an innovator in this genre.  He is best known for modeling analogies to show the "fourth dimension."  


E. A. Abbott's Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions by a Square (1884) has retained its appeal throughout the 20th century and into the 21st. When in the 1995 Halloween episode of The Simpsons Homer crossed into the third dimension, he was demonstrating for thousands of viewers one of the key points Abbott had made in 1884: the advantages gained by accessing a higher spatial dimension. Abbott's allegorical tale is set in a two-dimensional plane world that denies the existence of more dimensions than its own. A response to the popular fascination with a possible fourth dimension of space in this period, Flatland continues to offer lessons for us in the era of string theory in physics with its suggestion of a ten-dimensional universe.

Another early writer who is less well known as a Sci-Fi writer (best known as an early feminist writer) is Charlotte Perkins Gilman.  *Herland* takes as its subject a world of women-only characters.

Written in 1915, *Herland* is about a utopian female community where war, famine and other "man-made" disasters do not exist.


As the 20th Century moved on, Sci-Fi writers tended to get more sophisticated in their technology (necessarily so, since science was making incredible strides forward) - and also more political.  While Sci-Fi had always had a large stake in criticism of the present world - by the middle of the century, the fears of Communism, Fascism, and Nazism gave impetus to ideas of an unrecognizable world.   George Orwell's *1984* (which was written in 1948 and published in 1949 - so 1984 was the future, then!) is a landmark example. 

*Nineteen Eighty-Four* is a classic dystopian novel by English author George Orwell. Published in 1949, it focuses on a repressive, totalitarian regime. The story follows the life of one seemingly insignificant man, Winston Smith, a civil servant assigned the task of perpetuating the regime's propaganda by falsifying records and political literature. Smith grows disillusioned with his meager existence and so begins a rebellion against the system that leads to his arrest and torture.  

George Orwell and his worries about Big Brother, repressive government, and endless war are all part of the background worlds in many of the Sci-Fi works that followed.  

Bookcover for *1984* by George Orwell

In the decades following the publication of 1984, the growth of media technology brought a new kind of threat - the altering of reality through image manipulation and communication technologies.  This threat was often at the center of Science Fiction.  Writers such as Philip K. Dick and  J.G. Ballard did much to establish the outlines of such a future vision.  

The technology of the last twenty years, though, has really outstripped what anyone, even the most prescient writers, could imagine.  In Telecommunications, Robotics, Medicine, Nanotechnologies, and Computing we have made incredible progress and products - products that have changed the way we live.  Cell phones are in every country; the WWW is a source of instant graphic news (sometimes very grisly); when you call Sears to get your washer repaired, you talk to a voice synthesizer (yes!); and I was able to download the whole text of Neuromancer from the WWW in under 30 seconds.

The young are more adept and comfortable with this techno world than are the old.  Perhaps that was always true - my grandfather did not like the telephone and was said to "yell" at it from across the room.  My grandmother had her own pony and cart and drove from Whittier to Laurel Canyon to go camping in 1900.  Imagine the changes that she saw in a life that spanned much of the 20th Century!  

Writers, though, tend to be born "old" - and much Science Fiction is reactionary in that way - it often depicts the future in terms of a warning or cautionary tale.  In looking at Sci-Fi Popular Literature, especially, we see that a new breed of writers comes onto the scene about 1984 (ha-ha) - and this group of writers are more ambiguous about technology, illusion, and the future.  To a certain degree, they both accept and embrace the urban nightmare - and this literature is often termed Cyberpunk.

Character fitted out for the Cyberworld.

The origins of a unified cyberpunk community are closely linked to post-modern science fiction. William Gibson, science fiction writer and accidental cybercultural theorist, created much more than popular terminology when, in his benchmark novel Neuromancer, he described the World Wide Web as "Cyberspace. A consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators . . . A graphic representation of data abstracted from the banks of every computer in the human system. Unthinkable complexity." Gibson's descriptions of the geographical reaches of the internet were among the first and most influential; a veritable bank of others would follow, and by the end of the eighties, the subculture of "cyberpunk" would emerge, claiming as their adopted "homeland" the vast 4-dimensional grids, suspended helixes, floating text, and glowing matrices of Gibson. Cyberpunks, the children of the realization of science fiction, were formed of the belief that “technology can be a tool for the imagination, opening up new terrains of images, sounds, experiences and concepts.”  From the Cyberpunk site.

While Sci-Fi had not always been a part of the traditional canon for most of the 20th Century, in the last few decades, Science Fiction - and especially Cyberpunk -  has come into its own and became a legitimate subject for college literature studies.   So, while Sci-Fi continues to be thought of as a popular genre - increasingly it has moved "mainstream" and even "literary."  William Gibson's Neuromancer is a fine example of one that fits in all three categories.  It was and continues to be a big seller, it was read by many and influenced other writers, created its own "mythology", and profoundly influenced other writers.  


Neromancer is generally defined as Science Fiction - more specifically, it had been identified as one of the original (and best) Cyberpunk novels.  

Here is the novel that started it all, launching the cyberpunk
generation, and the first novel to win the holy trinity of science fiction:
the Hugo Award, the Nebula Award and the Philip K. Dick Award. With
Neuromancer, William Gibson introduced the world to cyberspace--and
science fiction has never been the same. <>

"The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel."


Intimacy of Style and Tone

One of the hallmarks of Cyberpunk is the city of the future - a grim and jangling place of illusory reality.  Gibson was not the first to portray a gritty urban future world (most of you probably have seen *Blade Runner*, a movie version of Do Androids Dream of Electronic Sheep? by Philip K. Dick.  Dick wrote the novel in 1968.  The movie *Blade Runner* came out in 1982, and Neuromancer was published in 1984).  

However, as you will notice in the first chapter of Neuromancer, Gibson does something slightly different with this world of the near future.  His characters are at home in this world in a way that Dick's are not - now we are here in this future, Gibson seems to say, and lots of folks will think it is just as good as any world.  [Egad!!]  

In the way that we have seen all of our Genre writers making an effort to establish an intimacy of style and tone, Gibson goes about this by creating a dystopic, seemingly unsettling place - and then setting about to make it feel like home.  We have the "neighborhood" hang-outs, the familiar friends, the ambience.  It is not really "Chiba", Japan - although it has definite resemblances.  Most of all, it is a place that, while it shocks us at the first, begins to feel more and more like a refuge when Case starts to be jacked into cyberspace.  In this way, we establish a feeling of intimacy with characters who are not fully human (in our biological terms) and who we otherwise might not identify with so closely.  After all, even in the cyber-world, we have to have a comfortable, cozy place to rest up!


Artist Barclay Shaw's illustrations for Neuromancer.

The compelling picture of Chiba City in the opening scenes of Gibson's novel is a perfect example of the Cyberpunk world - a place of horror and joy, broken yet lively.  [By the way, if you wish to see a good update of Gibson's work - I recommend Pattern Recognition, his latest novel.] 

Another aspect of the Tone is the use of body parts and objects in a familiar, close-to-the-material kind of way:

From Chapter 1

Ratz was tending bar, his prosthetic arm jerking monoto-
nously as he filled a tray of glasses with draft Kirin. He saw
Case and smiled, his teeth a webwork of East European steel
and brown decay. Case found a place at the bar, between the
unlikely tan on one of Lonny Zone's whores and the crisp naval
uniform of a tall African whose cheekbones were ridged with
precise rows of tribal scars. `Wage was in here early, with two
joeboys,' Ratz said, shoving a draft across the bar with his
good hand. `Maybe some business with you, Case?'
Case shrugged. The girl to his right giggled and nudged
The bartender's smile widened. His ugliness was the stuff
of legend. In an age of affordable beauty, there was something
heraldic about his lack of it. The antique arm whined as he
reached for another mug. It was a Russian military prosthesis,
a seven-function force-feedback manipulator, cased in grubby
pink plastic. 

The tone of Neuromancer is set by the Point of View of Case - even though the book is written in a third person pronoun, we have an almost continual sense of Case's consciousness at work.  The style is related to Case's POV, but is typical of Gibson, no matter who his narrator might be.  This style is aptly reflected in the excerpt from Chapter 1 quoted above.  

Note that we have an almost continual thread of references to products and manufactured items - especially body parts.  Ratz has as prosthetic arm (Russian-made, seven-function force-feedback, grubby pink plastic).  He is pouring Kirin beer (a Japanese favorite).  In the "age of affordable beauty," Ratz has "teeth a webwork of East European steel and brown decay" - but later we will see an array of characters who have taken advantage of "affordable" beauty, strength, and even mental function.  

Like the choice of beer, the body becomes a conglomeration of consumer choice.  You want it, you can pay for it, you can have it.  Writers have always used concrete imagery and specialized language to give flavor and authenticity to the tone of their stories - and this is especially conspicuous in Popular Genre Literature.  However, the constant "commodification" and monetizing of all aspects of the language constitutes a new kind of style in itself - one that brings us into a very material, and intimate world.  


"Readable" Characters

Case, the main character of Neuromancer, is a perfect example of a Cyber character.  His name suggests that his being is really no more than a container for the technology that courses through him.  His brain is not much more than the bits and bytes of a computer, and he is less than comfortable with his own body.  When we first meet him, the ultimate Computer Cowboy is in a bad way, and he will need an "operation."  But at least he is mainly human, still.  Other characters in the story, Linda Lee, Molly, and Dixie Flatline range from having significant cyber prosthesis parts to being entirely dependent upon computer representation.  The merging of characters into a computer-generated world - characters who are more or less dependent upon technology for their existence - has become a standard trope of Cyberpunk.  

Cover for *Neuromancer*

Nonetheless, Case, and his counterparts, become "readable" characters in the hands of the good Cyborg writers.  We can envy Case the unusual powers that technology has brought him - but these are not seen as supernatural powers.  They are the result of possible earthly science, and they take their toll.  Case is as much a victim of the technology that enables him as he is the beneficiary.  The fact that these characters are compromised at every turn by the technology and the society that supports it makes them seem vulnerable, human, and readable to us.

But Case also raises some interesting questions about our own being and dependence on technology.  Not so long ago, 40 years was considered a long life span.  It is not only the advances in medicine that have given us longer lives - we are assisted by better transportation, cleaner conditions, and better food distribution.  So, in many ways, we already owe our longer and more interesting existence to technology.  Advances, now, in cloning and robotics suggest that the future will hold many more instances of artificially extended and enhanced life.  

Yet, in the competitive world of Chiba City, we see that there is a dark side to the benefits we purchase with our technology.  [This notion, by the way, was a persistent theme of Philip K. Dick.]  Case, too, is a citizen of the globe - not really a city or a nation (this comes clearer near the end).  If we look at the effects of technology on human existence as a global phenomenon, we see that the technology sun does not shine equally bright on all lands.  In Africa, just recently, a number women who had sold a kidney to medical pirates (who then refused to pay them) went public.  In the US, the "kidney story" was widely assumed to be an Urban Myth.  But it seems someone thought it was a good business plan, too. 

All of these influences of technology are present in the creation of Gibson's characters.  They are contemporary constructs - tied to the technology that enables them, immersed in the culture of products and consumerism, and largely indifferent to the overwhelming "noise" of their environment.

At the same time, we have enough familiarity to be able to know and sympathize with Case.  His personality is low-key and methodical.  He seems almost to be a Raymond Chandler character - a gum-shoe detective's mind and sense of irony.  His trajectory through the plot, too, is one that brings a sympathetic read.

Moving in the Matrix



Continue to next page -  to Unit 8b

More about *Neuromancer*

Patterned Structure

Reassuring Plot

Clear-cut Value System


Return to Lecture Schedule

William Gibson:  <>

Philip K. Dick:  <>; <>

Jules Verne:  <>

Ursula K. Le Guin has a fantastic Web Site!

Ray Bradbury is a long-time favorite.  Although best known for The Martian Chronicles, Bradbury has been writing wonderful books for decades!

Actually, should we want to talk about Categories overlapping, we have the perfect example with Science Fiction - one of the reasons for this is that much "real literature" is science fiction in content - and many of the fantasy and mystery genre tropes can also be seen as SciFi.  Take a look at this list from Wikipedia of top SciFi Authors:

Top Science Fiction Authors

this list is a treasure in itself!  If you are having trouble finding an author for the Research Paper, it is a good place to start looking!


Marjorie Coverley Luesebrink:  write to me with questions!

Marjorie Coverley Luesebrink, MFA, your Instructor, is a Professor of English in the School of Humanities and Languages, Irvine Valley College, Irvine, California.

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