Author Archives: Hung Te Tjia

Neuromancer and the Unreal City

“[…] Oscillating between these two polar representations of urban space, the idea of the city as an urban utopia that gained prominence in the visual science fiction of the 20s (the film Metropolis presents a gleaming city inspired by New York City that does have its utopian side) gave way in the 50s, amidst the increasing alienation of American culture and the postwar white flight from urban centers, to “science fiction cities that were claustrophobic and isolating, outsized monadic structures sealed off from their surroundings” (Bukatman 43). It is this dark, suffocating vision of the city, seen from the street level and often at night, that Neuromancer takes its cues from and builds upon. What results are the disturbingly prophetic night cities that sprawl unbounded through the pages and into our imaginations.”

Neuromancer and the Unreal City in .PDF

Neuromancer and the City

Unreal City, /
Under the brown fog of a winter dawn, /
A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many, /
I had not thought death had undone so many […]
(T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland)

The Unreal Life

Like the biological, eroticized bodies of Case and Molly, the claustrophobic, choking cities that surround them embody the paradox of simultaneous materiality/immateriality. All the detritus and garbage of humanity piles up and threatens to subsume the future landscapes that peep through Gibson’s world. All the while, digital technology allows the signification of something more sublime in its overlaying of beautifully abstracted maps of data-traffic over-top of the ugly and, by extension, the real.

Program a map to display frequency of data exchange, every thousand megabytes a single pixel on a very large screen. Manhattan and Atlanta burn solid white. Then they start to pulse, the rate of traffic threatening to overload your simulation. Your map is about to go nova. (Gibson, p.43)

The disease and decay, mounting crime rate, and unmistakable nostalgia for times past (shurikens, in particular) all mark the corporeal, material cities of Neuromancer as dying. The unreal- the abstracted data being exchanged at the speed of light, gives the formerly dead a fresh pulse, breathing new life where there was none- an unreal life.

Escape Through the Unreal

Spiritual void. This is what all the technology junkies and cyberspace cowboys are trying so desperately to fill when they escape into the unreal. The body is only so much meat, to be treated with contempt and rebuilt when it fails to meet the tasks we set for it. While Case lives for the release that the Net provides, the readers live for the dystopian underpinnings of the cities that ground him in reality. Two things define the city as dystopian: ecocide and the sprawl of late-capitalism.

In Neuromancer, nature has been banished- too unwieldy, messy and random for future cities. Night City, Japan; the Sprawl, U.S.A.; and Freeside, all places of the entirely synthetic. Nature is gone, but the longing remains as the artificial ecology of Freeside demonstrates. Why? The city hurts your brain. ( It is telling that the humans who designed Freeside achieved the marvelous effect of being surrounded by a docile, flaccid, controlled nature that does absolutely nothing, according to contemporary neuroscientists and psychologists, for the brain in terms of calming it down from the sensory overload that is the city. Our brains need true, primal nature for its curative effects. This primal urge to return to the water and the trees of the past plays itself out in startling ways for Case. He finds himself for the first time in true nature, paradoxically, while flat-lining in the matrix:

There seemed to be a city, beyond the curve of beach, but it was far away. (Gibson, p. 233)

This is an unreal escape from the city. It is, for Case, most startlingly punctuated by the brand vacuum left by its de-corporatized space:

The sky was a different silver. Chiba. Like the Chiba sky. Tokyo Bay? He turned his head and stared out to sea, longing for the hologram logo of Fuji Electric, for the drone of a helicopter, anything at all. (Gibson, p.233)

The sprawl of Neuromancer is the sprawl of late-capitalism. The nightmare-future-dream, in which the bloated, monstrous, spider-bodies of the multinational corporations straddle the continents and sate themselves on the life-blood of the consumer, is terrifyingly realized. (Okay. Maybe this is a bit hyperbolic.) It is their brands that mark out the territory in these future-landscapes. And it is their brands that provide the stable points-of-reference/landmarks in a city wholly consumed by its own consumerism.

Gibson’s Neuromancer, as a collision point of reality and unreality, materiality and immateriality, and the natural and unnatural, provides a natural testing-grounds for our own near-future. The seeds of ecocide, late-capitalism, and the matrix/inter-network will play themselves out in our own technological playground of the 21st century. Is Gibson our very own noir-prophet? Or just another Toffler-futurist?

Works Cited:

Gibson, William. Neuromancer. New York: Ace, 1986.

Zamyatin’s We and The Power of Words

The formatting is wonky- it seems to me as if WordPress is conspiring with the digital gods to selectively copy+paste my elegant formatting from Microsoft Word. In any case, consider the long block quotes as extraneous material intended to refresh the reader’s memories regarding R-13’s relationship to D-503. I’ve abbreviated their names where appropriate for brevity. Page number citations are from my edition of We except where otherwise noted by author name.


“If they fail to understand that we bring them mathematically infallible happiness, it will be our duty to compel them to be happy. But before resorting to arms, we shall try the power of words.” (1)

                        For Zamyatin who would be exiled for his writings, the power of words in his own life was reflected most profoundly in his writing. It permeates the structure of We, giving it frantic momentum and a locus in which to pour energy in the form of the Integral. The mathematical inclination of D-503, who decides to comply with a state directive to compose poetry/propaganda for the Integral by keeping a diary, is important when considered alongside the poetical inclinations of his friend R-13.  D’s lament that “the music of assonances and rhymes” (2) are unfamiliar appears to set him firmly apart from the world of poesis. From D’s perspective, his reasoning is sound. If the One State is truly what it claims to embody: “mathematically infallible happiness” (1), then a record of life in such a perfect state should only serve to reflect its Utopian characteristics. That D’s intent should diverge so wildly from the final product is indicative of the true nature of the State. This avenue of inquiry regarding the format of D’s writing begs a further question. What is the function of the state-poet, R-13, in We?

Consider some conversation that passes between D and R:

“Fortunately, the antediluvian ages of all those Shakespeares and Dostoyevskys, or whatever you call them, are gone,” – D-503 (43)

“When R-13 entered, I was perfectly calm and normal. I spoke with sincere admiration of how splendidly he had succeeded in versifying the sentence, and told him that his trochees had been the most effective instrument of all in crushing and destroying that madman.” (60)

“It was again the old R: thick, sputtering lips, spraying saliva, and a fountain of words. ‘You see’ (‘s’-a spray) ‘… that ancient legend about paradise… Why, it’s about us, about today. Yes! Just think. Those two, in paradise, were given a choice: happiness without freedom, or freedom without happiness. There was no third alternative. Those idiots chose freedom, and what came of it? Of course, for ages afterward they longed for the chains. The chains-you understand? That’s what world sorrow was about. For ages! And only we have found the way of restoring happiness… No, wait, listen further! The ancient God and we-side by side, at the same table. Yes! We have helped God ultimately to conquer the devil- for it was he who had tempted men to break the ban and get a taste of ruinous freedom, he, the evil serpent. And we, we’ve brought down our boot over his little head, and-cr-runch! Now everything is fine-we have paradise again. Again we are as innocent and simple-hearted as Adam and Eve. No more of that confusion about good and evil. Everything is simple- heavenly, childishly simple. The Benefactor, the Machine, the Cube, the Gas Bell, the Guardians- all this is good, all this is sublime, magnificent, noble elevated, crystally pure. Because it protects our unfreedom-that is, our happiness. The ancients would begin to talk and think and break their heads-ethical, unethical.. Well, then. In short, what about such a paradisiac poem, eh? And, of course, in the most serious tone… You understand? Quite something eh?’” (62)

The nod to Dostoyevsky made by Zamyatin is not a careless one. Zamyatin is, here, consciously juxtaposing “Dostoyevsky’s eternal opposition of freedom and happiness” (Parrinder) to that of his own union of freedom and happiness- a fundamentally anti-socialist one. That D dismisses the author Dostoyevsky as an anachronism in their time while R speaks joyously of the composition of an epic poem that will espouse Dostoyevsky’s opposition is significant. In this, I find R’s role within We: to function as the ‘truth-creating’ mouthpiece of the One State when reality fails. Where necessary, R will divert his talents from the collective self-aggrandizing the One State demands in order to denounce fellow poets and ‘versify’ their death sentences. For the One State whose stability so fundamentally rests on a bed of lies (that no humans live beyond the walls of the city, the true function of the Integral as a reflexive propaganda tool, that unfreedom is the true state of happiness, etc.), it is vital that the collapse between fiction and reality be complete. In other words, poetry has become law.

            When we look at the attitude of D at the beginning of the novel towards R’s suggestion that he change his career from being a mathematician to a poet, the irony of D’s development over the course of the novel becomes clear:

“Certainly, certainly! By rights, my good friend, you should not be a mathematician; you ought to be a poet! Yes! Really, why not transfer to us poets, eh? How would you like that? I can arrange it in a moment, eh?” –R-13

“I have served and will continue to serve knowledge,” I frowned –D-503

“Oh, knowledge! This knowledge of yours is only cowardice. Don’t argue, it’s true. You’re simply trying to enclose infinity behind a wall, and you are terrified to glance outside the wall. Yes! Just try and take a look, and you will shut your eyes. Yes!” –R-13

“Walls are the foundation of all human…” –D-503 (41)

It is R at the start who labels the mathematics and precise rationality of D as cowardice, but it is D at the end who unflinchingly reveals the true nature of the state through his writing. Indeed, just as R accuses D of trying to enclose infinity behind a wall with his knowledge, R himself participates in the enclosing of his fellow citizens behind walls through the use of ‘state poetry’. Zamyatin, in his juxtaposition of R-13 and D-503, is taking, at once, a cautionary and optimistic stance towards the force of writing. It is when the power of words is harnessed and domesticated solely for the state that societies such as the One State are allowed to arise. Only those who set out to write to uphold the fundamental opposition between fiction and truth can reverse the damage done. In this way, one can conceive of Zamyatin’s We as a metanovel. D, in uncovering the true nature of the One State through his writing, is embedded within and references Zamyatin’s own literary struggles against the new socialist state of his own time.

            Consider what Zamyatin is doing by weaving this dialogue regarding the utility of poetry in the interest of the state into his own epic We. In this gesture of defiance towards the Communist government and their demands of their writers/propagandists, he refuses to submit his craft to the will of others. In doing so, he is exiled permanently. Just as D must inevitably and logically resist the One State by following the seemingly innocuous order he receives to glorify it if he writes literally and not figuratively about it, so too must Zamyatin inevitably resist by writing figuratively and not literally in the mode of propaganda. As Lev Lunts, one of the Serapion Brethren and writer friend of Zamyatin put it, “We reject Utilitarianism. We do not write for the sake of propaganda. Art is as real as life itself, and, as life itself, it has no goal or meaning, it exists because it must exist… Our one demand is that the writer’s voice must never be false.” (Ginsburg ix) For both D and Zamyatin, truth and fiction remain in flux relative to the societies in which they operate. What, however, remains a constant is the validity of their voices as writers. They are never false.

Works Cited

Ginsburg, Mirra. “Introduction.” Yevgeny, Zamyatin. We. New York: Avon Books, 1987. v-xx.

Parrinder, Patrick. “Patrick Parrinder-Imagining the Future: Zamyatin and Wells.” Science Fiction Studies. 22nd February 2009 <>.

Zamyatin, Yevgeny. We. Trans. Mirra Ginsburg. New York: Avon Books, 1987.

Gibson’s Cyberspace Visualized in JM

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If you guys are having some trouble visualizing Case navigating cyberspace in Neuromancer, have a look at this clip from an old movie based on Gibson’s short story ‘Johnny Mnemonic’. There’s actually continuity between the two novels, (they’re all set within his Sprawl universe) Johnny is Molly’s old love interest.

Some cool things that have drawn influence from Blade Runner.

m83’s album ‘Before the Dawn Heals Us’ is soaked in Vangelis’ aesthetic.

Here’s something about another of m83’s albums:

“I thought immediately of two different things when listening to Digital Shades, Vol. 1. The first is Vangelis’ soundtrack for Blade Runner. There is something in M83’s songs that was also inherent in Vangelis’, that being the theme of a machine striving to be human.”

Here’s a great song by them:

M83 – Teen Angst

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Blade Runner has also had quite a lot of influence on the fashion industry.

“You’ll Rent BladeRunner for Wardrobe Guidance.

Dolce & Gabbana looked to Judy Jetson for inspiration, while Balenciaga’s vibe was more Tron. Comme des Garçons played both sides (a plastic trench over a relatively old-fashioned suit), while Brit favorite Gareth Pugh’s fembots were dressed for Area 51. The future has arrived: Here’s what to wear.”

A couple of links:

Junko Shimada’s Bladerunner inspired Fall/Winter 08

A gallery of Bladerunner’s fashion

Post-Humanism and Ecocide in William Gibson’s Neuromancer and Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner