Lit 80, Fall 2013

Neuromancer, Life, and Identity

September 6th, 2013 | Posted by Matt Hebert in Uncategorized - (0 Comments)

A recurrent theme within Neuromancer is the nature of life. Can a program be alive? What provides a being with its identity? Does identity demand a body?

Case resents his physical body, and is plagued by its shortcomings. He suffers from a physical dependency on stimulants, SAS when arriving in space, and all the natural limitations of a corporeal body. He resents this “meat” that he is contained within, suggesting that his identity is defined by his mind, and his body is an accessory. And yet, for most of the novel, Case cannot escape from his body. He is still affected by adrenaline, still feels the aftershocks of his stimulant hangovers, still risks critically damaging his brain. No matter how he dissociates, he remains tied to his body. It is, after all, the vessel his brain was built to fit.

But what about a being which has no body? Neuromancer exists only as a sea of information, yet he insists that he has developed his own identity. He and the personalities he cultivates are able to grow and develop, to think independent of the parameters established around them. They are certainly closer to human than the Dixie Flatline, who cannot create new ideas or store long term memory. Even the Flatline is on the cognitive level of some humans following serious injury. We dismiss him as a program because we know why he cannot create or remember, but he appears by all rights to have a sense of identity just as a human would. He thinks, he remembers, he even desires to be erased. Whether or not these things are human, it is obvious that they are cognizant entities, discrete from the world around them. That could be justification enough to call them life.

And indeed they appear to be as real within their world as the flesh of ours. It is while trapped in cyberspace with Neuromancer’s Linda that Case rekindles ties with “the meat” which he so often dismissed.

“It was a place he’d known before; not everyone could take him there, and somehow he always managed to forget it. Something he’d found and lost so many times. It belonged, he knew– he remembered–as she pulled him down, to the meat, the flesh the cowboys mocked. It was a vast thing, beyond know- ing, a sea of information coded in spiral and pheromone, infinite intricacy that only the body, in its strong blind way, could ever read.”

As he is rekindling these feelings, supposedly unique to flesh and bone, his physical body is in fact dead. It is unlikely, then, that Case’s physical body is reacting to this at all. Neuromancer built his world from people’s memories, so it stands to reason that what Case is feeling originates from something he once felt in the physical world. But if an AI can recreate even these most “human” aspects of life and emotion so convincingly that Case himself cannot tell the difference, then what, if anything, differentiates these entities from humans? Would an existence in that world be any less fulfilling than the physical world we inhabit? Perhaps the entities are simply new life, with new minds housed within new bodies of data. Who are we to judge?


Neuromancer: Novel Response

September 6th, 2013 | Posted by Mithun Shetty in Uncategorized - (0 Comments)

Aside from its bizarrely accurate foresight, Neuromancer is an interesting novel because of the questions and ideas that it brings up regarding the relationship between humans and technology. In a mere set of decades, our society has transformed from a largely disconnected, isolated set of communities to a thoroughly interconnected digital network; in some way or the other, we are constantly transmitting or receiving data in our daily lives. Whether it is the infrastructures of our cities (traffic, navigation, consumerism, etc.) or keeping ourselves updated on our array of electronic devices, urbanized areas are almost completely dependent on technology. Additionally, the technology we are using is tending towards a more profound integration into our biological systems; new inventions are changing the way we perceive information from our environments. The implementation of QR codes, “Google Glasses,” and other marvels that augment reality are steps toward the complete unification of man and machine.

This is an idea that Neuromancer focuses on for the majority of the novel. Where exactly is the delineation between human and technology?  As we become more dependent on our devices to orient ourselves in our changing environments, will we lose the characteristics that we currently consider makes us “human?” The characters in Gibson’s novel all feature some sort of technological miracle; they have been able to cure their drug addictions, develop veritable superpowers (fingernails, cybernetic implants), and even achieve immortality. Additionally, Gibson introduces characters who are able to willfully suspend their consciousness or jack into an alternate form of reality, “the matrix.” Such examples represent the extremes of technological integration – it is understandable that Gibson chooses to represent the characters’ reliance on technology similar to drug dependence.

The reader may find it very difficult to classify certain characters as human or technology. Most notably, Dixie Flatline – who is deceased but has his mind and consciousness stored onto a ROM – is able to interact with Case and Molly and the other characters of the novel. Would we consider him a human? Though he is not the physical manifestation of McCoy Pauley, he is still able to access his mind. Perhaps he is not human because he cannot create or learn new thoughts. This distinction could be a vital part of the definition of a human being. Additionally, characters that have serious prosthetics (Molly, for example) cause readers to wonder how much technological additions/replacements would be necessary to cross the threshold of man to machine. When does a character like Molly cease being human and become a super intelligent bio-computer?

We probably will not have such drastic technological advances as presented in Gibson’s novel in the foreseeable future. However, these examples illustrate important phenomena that are occurring in our present lives: we are co-evolving with the technology that we produce at an alarmingly fast rate, which has both useful benefits (such as increased perception and function) and dangerous risks of total dependence on technology and a lack of a separate, human identity.

We live in an age where technology that was once considered “futuristic” is now a reality. Computers have become extensions of our independent intelligence, allowing us to access the research of others, have questions answered, become educated, and perform a range of tasks within seconds. The division between mind and machine is also progressively shrinking. With the increasing usage of portable devices such as laptops, GPS systems, and particularly smartphones, we have access to outside sources of intelligence at nearly any place and any time. Dr. Ray Kurzweil, a director of engineering at Google, claims that we could be uploading our minds to computers in as little as thirty years. By doing so, we would be creating, as he calls it, “digital immortality”. We would essentially be extracting our minds, thus conserving all our knowledge and life experiences, allowing our “self” to live on past our biological life span. But would it really “live” on? Or is there more to “living” than just the information stored in our brains? Dr. Kurzweil also discusses creating “mindfiles” that would preserve our personalities as well, posing the question of whether it is possible to create an artificial human. And if so, where is the line between man and machine drawn?

In 1984, William Gibson contemplated the idea of splitting the mind and body through computers in his novel “Neuromancer”. He creates several characters that display human characteristics—such as having a sense of humor, laughing, problem solving, interacting with others, and even having desires—yet whose being is artificial, their intelligence contained within a ROM or computer algorithm. Dixie, for example, would be considered a friend of Cases, a being who he interacts with repeatedly, who relays sarcastic remarks–giving him a sense of personality–and who even has a dying wish. Yet, Dixie is not “human”. Though “he” had once lived, the information from his brain is separate from a body and exists in a ROM. This raises the question—what makes us truly human? Dixie and other characters such as Finn, Armitage, and Wintermute possess qualities that make them individualistic, that allow us to sympathize with them, and that give them depth. They are not just a voice spitting out data; they contain algorithms that allow them to theoretically “think”, to process interactions with humans and respond to them accordingly. Is this enough? Is it the brain, not the body, which makes us who we are? And if this were the case, where it is the information in our brain that makes us who we are, then would uploading that information to a computer—an artificial brain—subsequently maintain our humanistic traits? We become unsettled by the idea of living amongst machines in what could be the near future, but when it comes down to it—are we really that different?


Gibson, William. Neuromancer. New York: Berkley Publishing Group, 1984. Print.

Woollaston, Victoria. “We’ll be uploading our entire MINDS to computers by 2045 and our bodies will be replaced by machines within 90 years, Google expert claims.” Daily Mail. 19 Jun 2013: n. page. Web. 4 Sep. 2013. <>.