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. (http://www.boston.com/bostonglobe/ideas/articles/2009/01/04/how_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?
Gibson, William. Neuromancer. New York: Ace, 1986.