Friday, 1 August 2014

Unnaturalism

[The following contains major spoilers for William Gibson's Sprawl and Bridge trilogies.]
The first time I read William Gibson's Neuromancer (1984), I was 17. I remember reading sections of it, reverently putting it down like a holy hot potato, looking impressedly at its cover and thinking, 'Damn.' When I finished it, I wasn't totally sure what had happened, but I knew that it'd been intense and amazing and I'd never read anything else like it before.

The novel is a lot of things. It's essentially a narrative of attitude, the closest thing to literary punk rock short of two hundred pages of 'FUCK YOU', directed at its projected future of unrestrained, dehumanising technocapitalism. It's also an affirmative novel: this anger is how protagonist Case reconnects with his humanity, after unsuccessfully and destructively trying to deny his own bodily existence through a lethal cocktail of drugs and virtual reality (a rage facilitated and exploited by the AI Wintermute as part of its mysterious plan to merge with the AI Neuromancer).


Above all, it's a sensory onslaught, more effective a reminder of our own nervous reality than any manifesto could ever hope to be. Along with other works that got grouped as 'cyberpunk' in the years that followed, critics liked to describe Neuromancer as a kind of literary MTV—a stimulating rapid-cut of intense and exciting images, enhanced by the thriller structure and the cynical brutality of hard-boiled fiction. It's probably no coincidence that the matrix itself was inspired by video game arcades, then as now known for offering intense sensory experiences.

Gibson's style in Neuromancer is manic overdrive, methamphetamine intensity, information overload—stimulating, but also off-kilter, dangerous. It was meant to be unsettling on a textual level. As Gibson explained in a 2011 interview with the Paris Review, describing his title choice for the novel:

Coming up with a word like neuromancer is something that would earn you a really fine vacation if you worked in an ad agency. It was a kind of booby-trapped portmanteau that contained considerable potential for cognitive dissonance, that pleasurable buzz of feeling slightly unsettled.

I believed that this could be induced at a number of levels in a text—at the microlevel with neologisms and portmanteaus, or using a familiar word in completely unfamiliar ways. There are a number of well-known techniques for doing this—all of the classic surrealist techniques, for instance, especially the game called exquisite corpse, where you pass a folded piece of paper around the room and write a line of poetry or a single word and fold it again and then the next person blindly adds to it. Sometimes it produces total gibberish, but it can be spookily apt. A lot of what I had to learn to do was play a game of exquisite-corpse solitaire.

The original, neuroscientific meaning behind the term 'cognitive dissonance' is the idea that we experience discomfort when we hold, or are confronted by, two conflicting ideas or beliefs. We then seek to reduce this dissonance either by adjusting our beliefs or by rationalising and denying the conflict.


Gibson's take on it, twisted a little for his own purposes, focuses on the feelings of discomfort produced by his text, and the experience and novelty of losing our conceptual footing a little when familiar things are made somewhat strange and unfamiliar by new contexts. A word like 'neuromancer' blurs the lines between its composite linguistic parts and rolls around in a blending of several possible meanings, each part rendered strange and new by the others. It's an alien word that ambiguously evokes a lot of different stuff without ever settling on anything definite.

Likewise, the rest of the text unsettles by introducing the same instability, often a sense of paranoia and unease. It's a very gothic trick, in a way. The uncertain border between reality and virtual reality, the inhumanness of Wintermute, the madnesses of Corto and 3Jane and Riviera, the false skies of Freeside and the dreamlike abstraction of the Villa Straylight, to name just a few examples—disturbing ambiguity is found in every corner of the book.

Gibson's leap into the future mainly had to do with projecting the present into this realm of weirdness—heightening present reality and feeding back to us as sci-fi to convey the surrealism of our own world: the technology, the cities, the grotesquery of capitalism, etc. He's gone on record to say that each subsequent set of books has drawn closer and closer to the present because the present itself is getting weirder:

I found the material of the actual twenty-first century richer, stranger, more multiplex, than any imaginary twenty-first century could ever have been. And it could be unpacked with the toolkit of science fiction. I don't really see how it can be unpacked otherwise, as so much of it is so utterly akin to science fiction, complete with a workaday level of cognitive dissonance we now take utterly for granted.

I haven't yet read Gibson's latest trilogy to see how he manages the present-just-gone-by (as it was four to eleven years ago), but I did recently finish the Bridge trilogy—his second, which he wrote in the '90s. These weren't set in the present but in a future much nearer than Neuromancer's, so I guess at this point he might have been in a transitional phase.

But it's interesting to see how Gibson actually dealt with cognitive dissonance as he began to creep closer to the present. Part of what makes Virtual Light (1993), the first Bridge book, so different from Neuromancer is that it's relatively naturalistic. Gibson has used this word to describe Neuromancer too, saying of the novel's origins:

I also wanted science fiction to be more naturalistic. There had been a poverty of description in much of it. The technology depicted was so slick and clean that it was practically invisible. What would any given SF favorite look like if we could crank up the resolution? As it was then, much of it was like video games before the invention of fractal dirt. I wanted to see dirt in the corners.

Resolution, though, can be cranked up in a number of different ways, and Neuromancer's was very genre-fied. If genre is a toolkit for heightening reality in a specific way—whether that's sci-fi, thriller, or hard-boiled noir, all of which offer their own lenses and exaggerations—then Neuromancer depended on these combined intensities to deliver its peculiarly resonant world. It not only let us see the details, but it made them buzz; it made them edgy and unsettling and surreal.

Virtual Light, on the other hand, doesn't quite seem to trust these genre impulses; the high resolution is still there but it's less stylised, opting instead for a more ordinary sort of realism. I think this naturalism had already begun to creep in as the Sprawl trilogy went on, with two sequels that were progressively less drenched in gothic aspect than their predecessor—was the sky still the colour of television by Mona Lisa Overdrive?—but in Virtual Light the contrast is more pointed. After the alien frisson of insect-like gunships hovering over mirrored ziggurats in Mexico City in the opening pages (seriously, that first scene—phwoar), the novel gives way to a San Francisco that feels a lot more mundane.

One purpose of this naturalism seemed to be to slip beyond the trappings and limitations of the books that had preceded it, and some of the things that 'cyberpunk' more generally had come to be associated with. Virtual Light moves beyond the adolescent simplicity of the Sprawl books, Neuromancer in particular, to a world where characters are more than attitudinal vectors. I think a pretty good argument could be made that Neuromancer, despite its framing of capitalism, works better as a validation of adolescent angst than it does as social commentary.


It employs the age-old orphan trick, using characters without pesky mundane context like parents or family because they make better vessels for fantasy; and the extremes of Neuromancer's world render it abstract enough that such context is never implicated—you can be a 17-year-old middle-class kid, enjoying the ride and claiming the sentiment, without reflecting too much on all the ways that you're not, in fact, like the protagonist, grasping at the slippery bottom rung of society.

In Virtual Light, by contrast, characters have relationships, families, jobs, and day-to-day lives where, despite their struggles, they're not necessarily skating the existential edge. There's an inherent resistance in this realism to the tropier genre aspects of the novel, with regular people who accidentally stumble into something they don't really understand, ironising the somewhat hokey sci-fi thriller that frames the story.

I remember reading the blurb for Virtual Light and getting a kick out of the fact that the plot revolved around the theft of some super high-tech futuristic sunglasses. The concept was ridiculously 'cyberpunk', and Gibson could only have done that on purpose. In an early scene, bicycle courier Chevette, during her rounds, impulsively scams her way into a party full of rich people. She briefly boogies to the music of her favourite band, Chrome Koran, then vengefully swipes the shades from the pocket of a sleazy guy who harasses her. The shades turn out to be this hugely important device containing highly sensitive information: plans for rebuilding the city using nanotechnology.

Gibson's Sprawl books always had a sense of humour, but here he turns the dial up on the absurdity just enough that you notice he's doing it. As the novel unfolds, Chevette is pursued by a ridiculous hurricane of assassins, bounty hunters, hackers and police—all rendered cartoonish in a way they probably wouldn't have been in the world of Neuromancer and its countless imitators.


The title of the novel refers to the technology that allows these shades to transmit images to the wearer by zapping their optic nerves with EMPs, creating a kind of virtual reality using 'virtual light'. In addition to poking fun at what had become a cyberpunk emblem (a famous cyberpunk anthology in the '80s was named Mirrorshades), the deeper irony of the sunglasses is that they represent the novel's prophetic visions of the future (in the form of the obvious visual metaphor and the nanotechnology plans stored on them) and show them up as the essentially meaningless plot device that they are.

In this case, the device is a means to explore the more pertinent themes of class conflict, where the rich have the unfathomable resources to keep a hold of their power, and the poor, though resilient and endlessly adaptive, have to make do in the midst of forces much greater than themselves. Nanotechnology becomes the most macguffiny of macguffins, and the sunglasses borderline dead weight that exists only to keep everybody moving.

But the shades become a symbol of the novel in another way, in that they don't quite make good on that tantalising promise of self-reflexivity: Gibson winks at parody, but he doesn't follow through with it. He doesn't really commit to the thriller plot, which has a very loose, reluctant, lazy feel, but neither does he quite subvert it. The main characters simply fall into each other and their motivations are always hazy and impulsive; and antagonists like Warbaby, Loveless or the Russian police are two-dimensional caricatures in a way that sort of seems deliberate, but mostly ends up sketchy and unsatisfying. It's like the irony is always there but it never goes far enough, leaving the novel stranded in this liminal state, one that sometimes feels indecisive and self-defeating rather than productive and resonant.

The naturalistic side of things can also suffer from this aimlessness. Gibson's style has a drive that doesn't always find its mark: when a scene is light on concept but high on mundane details, there are times when the ultra-specific mechanical eye of description will bury itself in something irrelevant like breakfast cereal, motors whirring at milk and spoon and tabletop material while the clipped style tries to keep its rhythm and pace in meandering vernacular.


I think this is where the argument that Virtual Light is simply more subtle stumbles for me: Gibson can draw out his weirdness and his cognitive dissonance in subtle ways, but he needs something to latch onto, something that lends itself to being heightened, chemicals to blend to create potency. Too often in Virtual Light, it feels like there is too little that's volatile, too little weirdness brought out by the science fiction of it.

It has occurred to me that I might not have felt the dissonance so much because I'm looking at these '90s books with 21st-century eyes. Maybe a lot of stuff seems ordinary now that would have seemed very surreal then. Sinister reality television, for instance, has been around for at least the past fifteen years or so. Odd religious cults are American mainstream. There's no real way of exaggerating chain stores or gentrification or the rapid commodification of subcultures—representations which seem now to lack teeth in all of the Bridge books because the reality has become so much more extreme. And I guess that might support Gibson's claim that he needed 'a new yardstick for the weirdness' as the millennium turned.

On the other hand, there's the second book, Idoru (1996). While it still had its share of insubstantial characters and a loose, somewhat contrived plot—all in all, like the first book, it had maybe too light a touch—Idoru also had, during its best moments, an unsettling weirdness that resonated at every level of the text.

The one big unifying theme of the Bridge books seems to be 'nodal points', moments of change in history that are often unknowable, often traumatic, and represent forces much greater than any of the individuals involved: the San Francisco earthquake and the occupation of the Bay Bridge, for instance, or the burning of the Bridge at the end of the third book; the marriage of rockstar Rez and idoru Rei Toei; Rei's later material entry into the world via nanofax; the accidental martyrdom of J.D. Shapely.

Nodal points cropped up in the Sprawl books, too, going all the way back to the merging of Wintermute and Neuromancer and the fundamentally unknowable alien from Alpha Centauri, and continuing through to the aleph in Mona Lisa Overdrive. It's interesting to note that many of these big events, like the central mergings of Neuromancer and Idoru, don't have some big, obvious result, and in some ways might be considered failures, with consequences that are oblique at best.


Oblique is a pretty good word to use generally for the line of sight we get into Gibson's worlds. What the Bridge books deal with a lot is the perception of these events: most characters are disoriented and adrift among the forces at work; others look for patterns to make sense of them; some (usually the super rich) seek to co-opt and control them. But Idoru was the only one that seemed to tap into those perceptions directly and really play around with them on a textual level—possibly because, in the same way that the matrix lent itself to vivid sensory experience, the subject matter of Idoru was simply more conducive to dissonance and ambiguity.

This ambiguity: the idoru concept, of simulated and mediated personalities, which extended through to a human, Rez, who was in some ways more virtual than his simulated partner. Characters, from fan club member Chia to professional 'node spotter' Laney, who had to navigate PR, data, rumours and shell corporations to track down the real deal, and different corporate facets of the Lo/Rez entity who had to navigate each other. Slitscan, the interfering celebrity tabloid show. Avatars in cyberspace. Strange echoes of real-life celebrities like Bono, Dolly Parton and David Bowie. The surreal image, albeit somewhat stereotypical, of a thousand identical Japanese fangirls assembling.

As for the Tokyo setting: 'The overriding sense of Tokyo,' according to writer David Rakoff, 'is that it is a city devoted to the new, sped up in a subtle but profound way: a postmodern science-fiction story set ten minutes into the future'—more subtle in Idoru than the fictionalised Chiba of Neuromancer, but naturally exaggerated in certain ways that provide fertile ground for strangeness. Idoru is a fantastically unstable experience at times, but in a good way, where that instability and uncertainty resonates.

I think this explains why I was hoping for more from those Virtual Light sunglasses, which, as a visual metaphor, might have played around a lot more with perception and ironic future-vision, their significance connected more directly to the overall textual experience.


Idoru succeeded for me where I felt the weirdness, where I was unsettled in a deeper way than by what amounted to meta-narrative. All Tomorrow's Parties (1999), in returning to San Francisco and the Bridge, returned to its interesting themes of capitalism and class conflict, but again steered towards a naturalism which, though it had its charms, never arrived at a real sense of weirdness. It felt like Gibson's oblique angle only skimmed the surface, rather than burying itself deep in the truly unsettling.

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