Utopias Module Week 9: William Gibson, Neuromancer (1984), Ursula K. Le Guin, The Dispossessed (1974)

* by Mr Andy Sawyer

William Gibson, Neuromancer (1984)

From the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction:
CYBERPUNK Term used to describe a school of sf writing that developed and became popular during the 1980s. The word was almost certainly coined by Bruce BETHKE in his story "Cyberpunk" (1983, AMZ), which had for some time before publication been circulating in manuscript. The term was picked up, either directly or indirectly, by writer and editor Gardner DOZOIS and used by him to characterize a literary movement whose main exponents, at first -- in stories from about 1981-2 onwards -- were seen as being Bruce STERLING and William GIBSON, along with Rudy RUCKER, Lewis SHINER and perhaps John SHIRLEY. It was not long after the publication of Gibson's first novel, NEUROMANCER (1984), that the term began to come into general use, and NEUROMANCER was the book that definitively shaped our sense of the subgenre to which "cyberpunk" refers.

1) How has Neuromancer shaped society?
* How far do we live in the world imagined by Gibson's novel?
* Coining of the term "cyberspace". The cyberpunk ethos.
* "Punk" as in 70s punk (as seen by Americans). A revolt against (but also into) style. Spinrad: (Science Fiction in the Real World: "The Neuromantic Cyberpunks"): "the nouvelle punks rebelled against the anti-technological esthetic of the Counterculture." (114) Marginal, outlaw figures -- street kids, semi-criminals.
* The genesis of the novel as an extrapolation of teenagers in arcade games. "The matrix has its root in primitive arcade games." (67) Cyberspace as the collective hallucination of those involved in data exploration and manipulation. The fantasy of being "inside" the virtual world of the computer. (Disney's Tron, see also Vernor Vinge's novella "True Names" and p. 310)
* The pun in Neuromancer: Spinrad's attempt to coin the term "Neuromantics".
* The transformation of computer obsession from geek to cool. "I saw you stroking that Sendai." (62) The lust for the object. The contempt Case and his fellows have for the "Meat". Case's fall into the "prison of his own flesh". (12)
* Look at the current Web and computer games. Can we see echoes of Neuromancer in them? How far is this Gibson having extrapolated the trends of the early '80s? How far is this people having read Neuromancer wanting to shape the developing technology into the image of what they read in the novel? (n. b. the technology is being developed anyway, but does style influence content?)
* The fusion of human/mechanical into the cyborg. Molly: "It is the way I'm wired." (37, 313) Her implanted mirrorshades and stilleto blades. Is Molly a feminist fantasy or a nerd's wet dream?
* Mirrorshades as an icon of cool. They reflect you back into yourself. Looking at someone wearing them you cannot see their eyes/identity: only your own.

2) Features of Gibon's world
* Urban -- the Sprawl.
* Collapse of national boundaries.
* At least one major international conflict involving Russia ("Screaming Fist") and destruction of Bonn.
* Fusion of transnational and crime syndicates (Yakuza). "Console jockeys" like Case on the boundaries between them.
* Drugs, software: software as drug. Body modifications. The "replications" of similar cults. (75)

3) Gibson's style
* Fusion of hardboiled detective and Burroughsian cut-up. See the descriptions of jacking-in. (68-69)
* The maguffin and the confusion of identity: is the Sprawl analogous to Burroughs's Interzone?
* First sentence: is this an image, a simile or a metaphor? Can we conceive of what Gibson is writing? Information overload -- "white noise". Shortly afterwards "You couldn't see the lights of Tokyo for the glare of the television sky." (13)
* Is there a genuine constructed fiction here or an artfully designed house of cards? Do the references, eg to the "Turing heat", the fact that horses have become extinct mean anything other than imagery?

4) Utopia or Dystopia?
* See comments about style and computer-geeks' wet dreams. What exactly is the nature of Case's glamour as the protagonist? He is mentally and emotionally damaged.
* Some of the results of the contempt for the "meat": Molly's life as a "meat puppet" described in 177-78.
* Does Gibson's world have an economy? Where are the people who get up and go to work?
* The apotheosis of the transhuman. The artificial intelligence.
* Dixie Flatline: the Ghost in the machine. "I'm dead ... erase this goddamn thing." (130): "It's one of them, ah, philosophical questions." (159)
* How far are his characters makers or shapers of the world they live in? How far do they react to or question it? Case is a pawn -- Molly's, Armitage's, Neuromancer's. In the end, he gets a job and settles down. It's a persona of himself which is free in cyberspace.
* Neuromancer and its successors "a manual for survival" (as Peter Nicholls puts it in Encyclopedia of Science Fiction) but not for control. Postmodern sf in the sense that the sf elements are unforegrounded, part of the natural environment of the story, subordinate to plot and character, and not -- as in traditional sf -- fantasies about how the world can be changed. Not the first time this sensibility has been part of sf (see Brunner) but perhaps its most stylish example.

David G. Mead, "Technological Transfiguration in William Gibson's Sprawl Novels" in Extrapolation 32 (winter 1991)
David Porush, "Cybernauts in Cyberspace: William Gibson's Neuromancer" in George Slusser & Eric S Rabkin, Aliens: The Anthropology of Science Fiction

Ursula K. Le Guin, The Dispossessed (1974)
Often subtitled "An Ambiguous Utopia" (What is the nature of the ambiguity?) Certainly, as Tom Moylan portrays it, a "critical utopia". A novel of utopian desire which interrogates the process of "constructing" a utopia.

Part of her "Hainish" sequence which includes The Left Hand of Darkness (1969) and her recent novels and short stories. (Although not the book which is perhaps her other most explicitly utopian text, Always Coming Home (1985) and her important story "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas" (1973)) Also note the short story "The Day Before the Revolution" (1974) which concerns the last memories of Odo, the founder-figure of the Annaristi revolution.
* Our Earth is a peripheral world in The Dispossessed. Nb reference in Ch 3 to "Ainsetain of Terra".

Indebted to the anarchist theories of, e.g. the Russian Petr Alekseevich Kropotkin (1842-1921) and the American Paul Goodman (1911-1972)

The first image of the wall: "an idea of boundary" which (symbolically) separates Urras and Annares: "enclosed the universe, leaving Anarres outside, free." "What was inside it and what was outside it depended on which side of it you were on."
* Does the wall protect the Revolution enclose it?

Nb the structure of the novel, starting with Shevek's departure and via alternate chapters moving back to the events which lead up to that departure, and the image of the circle (which can also separate "inner" from "outer".
* Also: the "ansible" both the sfnal plot-device goal of the narrative and a wider metaphor for communication.

If Urras represents our Earth, with A-Io = USA, Thu = Soviet Union and Benbili = Third World, what exactly does Annares represent?
* Kropotkin "mutual aid"?
* Anarcho-syndicalism?
* Modern "ecological" anarchism?
(But see also the reaction of the Terran ambassador.)

Le Guin interrogates the classical utopia in a number of ways:
* The "travelogue" structure is reversed: Shevek is a native of her utopia who undertakes a journey of discovery to what we might consider as a "normal" world.
* The actual nature of that utopia is presented both in its ideas and the way it falls short of them.
* Can a utopia exist separate from the society against which it reacts and to which it gave birth?
* To what extent is the Annaresti "utopia" formed by the need for self-reliance/co-operation caused by the planet's physical nature?
* Is the collective social conscience as oppressive as laws?
* Does a utopia need its own dissidents?
* Is utopia relative? The Terran ambassador: "To me and to all my fellow Terrans who have seen the planet, Urras is the kindest, most various, most beautiful of all the inhabited worlds. It is the world that comes as close as any could to Paradise."
* Is Annares a free utopia or a prison-world to which Urras has exiled its dissidents?

How ambiguous is her own stance?
* Annaresti sexual politics: how is Shevek's gay friend Bedap presented? Does the apparent marginalisation of homosexuality ("the pleasure of it would be mostly for Bedap") represented a feature of Annaresti life or is it a heterosexual woman author having problems with male homosexual characters? (See Samuel R. Delany, "To Read The Dispossessed"and Tom Moylan Demand the Impossible on how the American nuclear family slips through the gaps in Le Guin's writing.)

* Is the poverty of Annares a "good thing"? A disdain for possessions is certainly beneficial for inhabitants of this world, but is all that we are seeing people pulling together in adversity? Isn't the classic rejection of "wealth" by utopian societies (e.g. the mundane use of gold in More's Utopia) marked also by the fact that people live comfortable lives?

* Is the "wall" image one of spiritual as well as political boundaries? Note Le Guin's use of Tao imagery in The Left Hand of Darkness and the Cetian physics which combines physics and mysticism: Is this political quietism rather than revolutionary action? The novel ends not with a social change but with the Urras/Annares antithesis transcended through Shevek's development of the theory which leads to the ansible and instantaneous communication.

Samuel R. Delany, "To Read The Dispossessed" in The Jewel-Hinged Jaw.
Judah Bierman, "Ambiguity in Utopia: The Dispossessed" in Science-Fiction Studies, Jul 1979
John Fekete, "The Dispossessed and Triton: Act and System in Utopian Science Fiction" in Science-Fiction Studies, Jul 1979
Nadia Khouri, "The Dialectics of Power: Utopia in the sf of Le Guin, Jeury and Piercy" in Science-Fiction Studies, Mar 1980
George Turner, "Paradigm and Pattern: Form and Meaning in The Dispossessed" in SF Commentary 41/42 (Feb 1975)
George Woodcock, Anarchism

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