Gibson’s Neuromancer: An attempt at a brief summary

In a cyber-punk version of our world, an outlaw computer hacker is given the opportunity to get back into his field of expertise. Through a series of events, he discovers the true purpose of his mission: to unlawfully unite the two halves of a super-AI entity. The events that transpire are those that can only be described as a cybernetic rabbit hole of action.

That was my attempt, to the best of my ability, to summarize Neuromancer in my own words as concisely as I could  without trying to rewrite the Wikipedia summary. It was extremely difficult to nail (what I believe to be) the key points of the novel. In all honesty, I believe trying to describe the plot in full would deter some readers away. I only say this because it feels as if every detail of the novel seems to matter to over-arching story that is being told. It sounds absurd when you have names like Lady 3Jane Marie-France Tessier-Ashpool, but this is what made reading the novel so captivating. Trying to connect every dot that has been laid out by Gibson leaves a story that becomes almost like a puzzle. It’s not the kind of novel that one can finish reading, and then think nothing of it. Gibson provokes the continuation of thought long after you have finished the book by leaving the reader with the questions of what it all really means when Case has ended up becoming part of the super-AI’s design.

 

Neuromancer Summary

Henry Dorsett Case is a thief who was punished with damage to his central nervous system therefore becomes very depressed and without a job. He is saved by Molly Millions, a street samurai,  and Armitage, an ex military officer, who promise to fix his nervous system. Case becomes involved in more crime and violence while working with them, falls in love with Molly, finds out Armitage is actually Corto, and gets a new girlfriend after Molly leaves him but only continues getting into trouble. 

Gibson’s writing style in this book is jam packed with details. There is a lot of imagery presented to us within the descriptions of characters, scenery, and terms. This helps move the plot of the novel along because instead of having to try and figure things out or come up with my own ideas of how a world is or what a character may look like Gibson describes everything in such intense detail that I don’t have to do these things. It’s easier to see this world then say Le Guin because her descriptions and world she created was more vague.  I found it easier to understand the characters and their missions and motives in this novel. Every foreign name or concept was explained, maybe  not immediately but somewhere down the line in the book which made it a more enjoyable read for me. The plot moves along with the details because you need the details to help you follow the plot!  Some may classify that characteristic as not challenging enough on the mind and as an “easy” read however I don’t think by giving extra detail it took away from the complexities of the story. 

A (Brief) Glimpse At Neuromancer

In a vaguely dystopian, high-tech future, Case – who has a full name, it just doesn’t come up often – is offered the chance to return to his old profession as a master hacker, which he was surgically prevented from continuing, in exchange for his assistance on an enigmatic job. The offer comes from a cybernetically enhanced assassin named Molly on the behalf of her employer Armitage, a mysterious figure with extensive resources and a military past. Molly and Case embark on an extensive espionage-based tour of the future society, extensively sketched by author William Gibson, and uncover the behind-the-scenes machinations of a deeply troubled artificial intelligence, which they do nothing to stop and leave to its own ends as they go their separate ways.

When summarized in a manner that assumes no prior knowledge, a blurb-style plot synopsis can’t help but omit the texture of the world Gibson builds (at least not at the expense of communicating crucial story beats). So much of Gibson’s storytelling is about the way you learn about the differences in his world by the differences in his characters – to a degree that, I think, goes beyond the obvious level at which the actions and speech patterns of the cast can be used for exposition in science fiction, and into something that sort of hybridizes character and setting (appropriate for a story so occupied with the hybridization of humanity and technology – especially when both of the former map onto both of the latter). If his characters read as somewhat flat without a sense of that setting I think it should speak to how important he makes his world to the reader’s understanding of the people within it, not a failing of his characterization overall. The most obvious way I could think of improving my above plot summary is therefore by the addition of some text to give the flavor of (ie) the Sprawl as written by Gibson, rather than, say, detailed character profiles. That’s not to say character profiles are of less merit overall – actually I’d say the better part of the science fiction we’ve read in the class so far would benefit from it in a plot-summary challenge like this – but in the specific case of Gibson’s writing I think it’s secondary to understanding the setting he’s thrust his characters into.

Neuromancer & Plot

Neurally damaged cyberpunk junkie Henry Dorsett Case takes too many pills for temporary relief from the death spiral in which he is trapped. At the behest of ex-military officer Armitage, hired “razorgirl” and street samurai Molly Millions pulls Case from his miserable existence and repairs his nervous system, effectively indenturing Case to whatever cyberhacking missions Armitage wants him to complete. Cue lots of suspenseful action that ends with Case’s consciousness and that of his dead ex (from when he was a drug addict) forever floating through cyberspace.

Many posts have already commented on the level of sensory detail and its effect on the plot. Though distinctly futuristic, the physical space of the novel is not unfamiliar in the way Le Guin’s planet Winter is, allowing the reader to mentally map out Gibson’s world and follow the intricate visual details that drive the plot. Pistols, computers, bars, and violent crime are easier to relate to versus genderless aliens or humanoid robots, features that create terminology and circumstances that can slow a plot down. The high-speed nature of Neuromancer is enabled by Gibson’s apparent intent to provide a plot that requires little explanation of its surroundings. Even the characters themselves — their feelings, thoughts, pasts — are not as important to the plot as the actions they take, making Neuromancer a pretty quick read.

 

Gibson and Neuromancer

Case is suicidal and numb after losing his gifted ability to hack after stealing from his employer, and is now a drug addict and a low-level hustler.  He gets pulled back into the world of hacking and given new organs to reject the drugs and keep him clean, by Molly and Armitage, who need his help in hacking into digital networks in cyber-space. The three get intermingled in a world of crime, violence, sex, suspicion, discovery, and hacking, until many people die, Armitage is found to be Corto, Molly leaves Case, and Case spends the rest of his days continuing to hack with his new girlfriend, buying his way back into his old drug addictions.

Gibson’s plot is orchestrated through the delivery of incredibly intricate details and imagery. He sets the stage for every scene that we are placed into. We are given the ability to see every character and scenery and it enhances the plot, for we are given an overload of information. There really is no leaving anything up to the imagination. Unlike other authors we’ve read, like Dick or Le Guin, we have found ourselves to have a better understanding of the world that Case is journeying through and the people he’s with, and what they are doing, because of the detailed description of the plot. I found myself asking less questions because, even if I did not understand a term or a part of this new world, the amount of information I was being given on the subject helped me to see how the plot was advancing and what was going on. Most of the time you are just given the name of something and not any explanation. Such as in The Left Hand of Darkness, there were so many new terms to go on in that novel between the cycles and the months and years, and the technology used, and a lot of the time there was no explanation. You followed the plot and hoped that it revealed what you needed to know. With Gibson, the details and explanations are woven into the plot. His intricate imagery allows us to see and know everything that is going on whether we are really sure of what it is or not. Yet, sometimes there are so many details you have to wonder whether or not they are that important to the advancement of the plot. Basically, Gibson’s whole style of writing relies on the overload of details, and his plot is made up of it, as well.

Gibson Carries a Microscope Le Guin, a Map.

Emotional strained cyber hacker is “saved” by a cool warrior chick who takes him on an adventure back into his old life of crime and takes away his drug addiction. But . . . its not what he thinks and he’s dragged into a huge crazy mess of crime, drugs, fighting, old girlfriends, and ninjas. After its all over he gets paid, gets a new girlfriend, and does his best to become a drug addict again because that’s a good thing.

There are moments in Neuromancer that are so up close its as if Gibson is looking through a microscope at every object in the room and explaining to us what he sees.  I wonder if it is even important to know these small details and if the story would be the same without them, but because he is mentioning them, they seem important. For example, the moment he describes the gun he picks up from the black market and we find out the kind of gun it is a model of a model of. The plastic. The feel of the gun at night. It can be compared to Le Guin’s foray guns of which we are only briefly told shoot metal, like human guns, unlike the sonic guns that seem to just make you feel uncomfortable or pass out.  On that note, the guns in The left hand of darkness are less important it seems than the gun in Neuromancer.  Maybe they are just as important but they aren’t given as much thought and detail.  We don’t particularly know what any of Le Guin’s guns look like let alone feel like. The story is still just as interesting and has just as much that can be said about it.  What ends up happening is that we get an enormous sprawling and mystical landscape from Le Guin, or a map of a new world where we take in what is necessary, and from Gibson we are force fed sensory information that seems unnecessary but because we as readers generally trust that an author will only tell us what we need to know for the story to go on, we try to make meaning from sensory overload.

Details, Details, Details

Expert hacker Henry Dorsett Case is at the bottom of his luck when offered the opportunity to regain his lost purpose and livelihood in exchange for his services to a figure and cause shrouded in mystery and danger. Drug-infused and wildly suspenseful, Neuromancer follows Case and his fellow underworld insurgents as they navigate consciousness, cyberspace, and artificial intelligence that blurs the lines between riveting literature and borderline psychosis. Relentlessly driven by vivid details and captivating cerebral conflict, Case’s journey across the planes of reality ends in success, drugs, and hyperreal version of “happily ever after.”

 

One would think that summarizing a plot in three sentences would be fairly easy, but when the plot of the story is driven by drugs, violence, and cyberspace, three sentences becomes almost as deadly as a mycotoxin to the bloodstream. But despite it’s challenge, it made me really appreciate just how many conventions are being utilized by Gibson in his telling of Case’s adventures within the matrix and beyond. As pointed out by the other blog posts, most of our discussions in class, and most every scholar on the subject, it is the incredibly hyperspecific nature of detail within the story that gives it much of it’s charm. One can practically feel the story as it’s being described within the pages of the books, truly submerging a reader into everything- characters, plot, setting… even abstract consciousness.

I agree with my classmates in the Gibson’s plot is far more driven by details than perhaps that of Le Guin, who’s Left Hand of Darkness tracks more conceptual thematic elements that drive the plot rather than the incredibly descriptive nature of what the figures of the book are experiencing. Neuromancer truly is one of a kind.

style/content

Retired superhacker (“console cowboy”) that has fallen deep into depression/drug addiction and culture/unemployment, is located and is fixed on the condition that he complete a job that he is unaware of until much later, and the failure to complete it will result in the release of paralyzing toxins in his body that left his nervous system damaged.

The actions of the characters in the novel, with the (possible) exception of the romance emerging between two characters, are indirectly/directly controlled by one of two AIs—designed by an extremely wealthy family of elites—who use them as pawns in order to facilitate their amalgamation into a singular entity. 

Following lots of high-intensity action scenes, betrayal/drug-use/sex/killing, the two AI’s eventually merge due to the success of the protagonist and the other characters, and the console cowboy returns back to his normal life as a normal hacker and addict. 

I think that when you boil the plot down, which I attempted to do above, you don’t really see the message that Gibson was trying to convey (a push for the acceptance of the natural merging between humans and technology? like his fictional representation of the ideas explored in A Cyborg Manifesto?). His use of hyperdescriptive language and the abruptness in which he introduces high-intensity scenes, for me, was implemented to coincide with the drug-addicted nature of the characters; I kind of felt like I was on drugs when I was reading at certain times (a lot). If I were to compare Gibson to Le Guin I would say that Gibson doesn’t really tell a story or convey a message as explicitly as Le Guin did in The Left Hand of Darkness. I was definitely able to determine Gibson’s views on technology as conveyed through the posthuman/transhuman elements of the book, and enjoyed them especially considering my major is IT and I agree with the argument I think he was making, his style stuck a lot more with me than the message that he may have intended on conveying through the content. On the other hand, the content of The Left Hand of Darkness stuck with me a lot more than her style, although  it was definitely written very beautifully. When I was reading Neuromancer I found myself paying a lot more attention to the unfolding of events (trying not to miss any vital information/figure out what the heck is going on), but when reading the The Left Hand of Darkness I paid a lot of attention to the growth of Genly and the relationship he develops with Estraven.

The Eternal Return

Case is a cyberpunk with an existential crisis. He survives a breakneck globetrotting adventure of corporate intrigue and danger that (sort of) pulls him back from the depths of his despair, only to return to his ordinary life in the Sprawl. Life goes on.

Navigating the sci-fi tropes and events in “Neuromancer” creates a deliberate sensory overload. Even after Wintermute and Neuromancer fuse, and the endless conspirators come to rest at their final places in the plot, I think the odd feeling Gibson leaves the reader with is the sense that Case spent most of the book running, and hacking, and otherwise struggling, only to return to the life he was already living in the Sprawl. Obviously the finer details of the book this summary leaves out are worth experiencing, but still. It’s sort of related to Le Guin’s Taoist (I think) idea of everything happening at once. Gibson’s cyberspace and the matrix are in constant flux. Yet the action in “Neuromancer” keeps moving, faster and faster, only for the plot to fold in on itself. I know it’s a platitude, but what comes to mind is “The more things change, the more they stay the same.” I’m not sure if there’s a wider point to all these observations, but then again, neither is Case or Neuromancer.

Blogging prompt: Gibson and the plot (group 1)

A hard exercise for group 1 bloggers: summarize the plot of Neuromancer in three sentences or less. Now reflect, in a brief paragraph, on the significance of the plot, thinking particularly about the relationship between plot and the other kind of plot (conspiracy). What kinds of things get left out, when you boil down the story? What kind of plotter is Gibson, by comparison with other novelists we’ve read (for example, Le Guin)?

I can’t stop you from referring to the plot summary you’ll find on Wikipedia, but if you do so, I expect you to comment interpretively on that document as well as give your own much more concise summary. It is very characteristic of Wikipedia that the summary is very long—nine paragraphs!

Illness and Interconnectedness within Speech Sounds

“When the driver hit the brakes, she was ready and the combatants were not. They fell onto seats and onto screaming passengers, creating even more confusion.” Pg. 90
This moment in Speech Sounds represents the complex relationship between all individuals within the text. The etymology of confusion according to the OED, is the Latin confundĕre, which means “to mingle together or mix up”. This definition accurately depicts the broken-down society of Butler’s short story, because though individuals lack the ability to communicate verbally, they are still very much connected as a result of the illness. Each member is brought together through the larger organizing system of sickness and death, and each person’s role within this system can be easily substituted for—which we see at the end when Rye becomes a parent figure to the two children. This organizing system is in some ways similar to Mercerism within Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, in that both offer a way of linking individuals across time and space. Unlike Mercerism, however, individuals are capable of choosing whom to empathize with and when.

Abrupt Romance

No one had touched her for three years.  She had not wanted anyone to touch her…  Obsidian could not know how attractive he was to her- young, probably younger than she was, clean, asking for what he wanted rather than demanding it (100).

Within the context of a dystopia, a romance tends to provide some level of hope; the idea that human beings are still capable of loving one another, even in spite of whatever trials and tribulations they may be facing, is a tantalizing comfort.  Blade Runner and Speech Sounds both use this tactic, though the effects of the ways in which these relationships are started are incredibly different.  Whereas the quick coupling of Obsidian and Rye is described quite clearly as being consensual, as demonstrated by the scene in Obsidian’s car, the romance–if it could be described as such–between Rachael and Deckard is rather uncomfortable to watch.  The manner in which he forces her to kiss him is jarring, to say the least, and is so drastically different from Obsidian “asking…rather than demanding”.  Both relationships are abrupt in their inception, bringing about the sense that these people are desperate for the comfort that a romance can bring within their respective circumstances and settings.  However, Speech Sounds uses the quick creation and destruction of its romance to engender a sense of uncertainty–regarding in particular the ephemeral nature of happiness and security in Rye’s world–while Blade Runner uses Rachael and Deckard’s relationship to further blur the definition of what makes a human a human (for is it not inhuman, animalistic, to force oneself onto another person, or even an android?) and add to the sinister, gritty tone of the film.

Butler & Dick Comparison : Numb & Mechanical

As Rye sits in Obsidian’s car, the mentally crippling emotions of “growing hopelessness, purposelessness” and “jealousy” remind the reader of the enslaved android’s dilemma (99). Rye’s “powerful urge to kill another person” stems not only from her own personal issues, but from the idea that someone could have more ability and access to knowledge and expression (99). Rye nearly snaps when she realizes how she is inferior to Obsidian due to her illiteracy and how easily he may or may not take the ability for granted. The scale of the complaint seems arbitrary, but one more issue is enough to nearly set her over the edge. Her gun has the same killing power of a determined Android like Roy before his father & creator. The text places the smoking gun in the hands of a mentally polarizing character and seems to ask the reader whether or not he or she empathizes with her.  Butler seems to be forcing the reader into deciding whether or not one cares if Rye hurts herself, or someone else, or both.  Separately, Butler establishes a hyper-focalization on Rye and Rye’s thoughts, whereas Dick spreads some of the world-building into the thought-experiments and androids themselves. Not to hammer the nail too much, but an emotionally numb and unpredictable narrator has the qualities of an insensitive android, but reads as more real and possible. So although the decision remains on how one values the needs of a troubled human vs. a programmed android, the reader response effect develops similarly from a close narration of the darkest of emotional lows.

Interpreting and/or Being the Other

“The pendant attached to it was smooth, glassy, black rock. Obsidian. His name might be Rock or Peter or Black, but she decided to think of him as Obsidian. 

[…]

“Now she wore it, thinking it was as close as she was likely to come to Rye. People like Obsidian who had not known her before probably thought of her as Wheat. Not that it mattered. She would never hear her name spoken again.” (Butler 97). 

This encounter between Rye and Obsidian represents the inability to convey individuality in a world lacking speech and communication, as the act of providing one’s name is traditionally a way for humans to assert their individuality. However, names, thoughts, and interiority in general must be conveyed through symbols, which creates the need for a narrator who bears the duty of interpretation. In this case of naming we see that Rye is provided with a very liberal amount of space to interpret others, using her own creativity and predispositions to project identities and ideas upon others. This effect emphasizes the fact that the reader is completely reliant upon a first-person, familiar, and creative narrator as we cling to Rye’s perspective in order to understand this world. The imperative to interpret is similar to Deckard’s role in discerning humanity within androids, but it is different insofar as Deckard’s own sense of humanity, his interiority, and his own unique tools of interpretation are totally dispensable in DADoES, considering the replacement of communication with incredibly invasive technology. (What is more, we know that these things are dispensable because any sense of Deckard’s interiority is excluded from Blade Runner.) Even though both DADoES and “Speech Sounds” place a heavy importance on representing and interpreting the interior through exterior symbols, the different narrative situations make the reader depend on Rye’s interiority and familiarity to ourselves–as opposed to our suspicion that Deckard may even be an android.

The Foreward Advancement of Forward Advancement

For lack of materials, due to the circumstance of being stuck on a train, I’ll try my best to summarize my specific points. The first point of “Speech Sounds,” the moment in which Rye is attempting to catch a bus to Pasadena, in which she mentions that the driver of the bus only runs a completely autonomous business out of his bus to feed him family. That moment in stark contrast to the moment that Deckard takes his hover car over to the Rosen association, seems to be suggesting the fact that without human communication, there can be no technological forward advancement. Even the disconnected and overly controlled, by mood organ, social interactions within Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? serve as enough communication to promote technological advancement within that world. I think Butler is suggesting that what was most important and what was taken away was people ability to communicate which is in turn their ability to cooperate and coexist. Therefore they could not advance.

Singular Hopeful Incidents

“‘I’m Valrie Rye’ she said, savoring the words. ‘It’s all right for you to talk to me'” (Butler 108).

The last line of “Speech Sounds” and the ending of Bladerunner (1982) are quite similar in their hope for an optimistic future. Rye met two children who can speak and so can she which creates the feeling that things will get better (at least for her). In Bladerunner, Roy’s character is able to relay his message Deckard which suggests Roy was able to at least change one mind (hopefully) about the treatment of androids. They are both singular incidents that look towards an optimistic future. The only catch is that the person whose influenced in the end is left with an undetermined future that hinders on what they will do with new found information.

Human adaptability in Dick and Butler

“He gestured obscenely and several other men laughed. Loss of verbal language  had spawned a whole new set of obscene gestures. The man, with stark simplicity, had accused her of sex with the bearded man and had suggested she accommodate the other men present – beginning with him” – “Speech Sounds”

“The clerk said, “For a toad I’d suggest also a perpetually renewing puddle…I suggest you let our service department make a periodic tongue adjustment” – Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (244)

One of the major similarities between Butler and Dick is the implicit capacity for human ingenuity and reinvention of normality in response to fundamental changes in the composition of the ‘normal’ world. In “Speech Sounds,” the inability to speak produces immediate challenges and tensions (as seen in the opening fistfight on the bus) but it also showcases the ability of the human race to install a new order and system for ‘normal’ affairs of life. The quoted passage above is frankly brutal and loathsome, but there is also a strange admission of the ingenuity and adaptability required to implement a widespread, generic code of hand signals among strangers. Rye does not think of the complexity of the process required for dissemination of hand signals but rather notes the ‘stark simplicity’ of the action; in a world challenged by muteness, humans still maintain an ability to communicate and invent new methods of interpersonal connection. Likewise, the remarkable inventiveness of electronic animals in DADoES? speaks to the ability of humans to react to a challenging situation, in this case mediated through commercial forces. In the true spirit of capitalism, Dick’s world strives to produce the most satisfactory correction to its problems and demonstrates a certain (albeit limited) capacity to dull the pain of extinction. Both stories retain a clear sense of pain/tension in the loss of crucial details of reality but mitigate (or modify) the oppression of the world through the ability of humanity to evolve in response to conflict and difficulty.

Self-Interest, Circumstance, and Effect

Rye glanced at the murderer. To her shame, she thought she could understand some of the passions that must have driven him, whomever he was. Anger, frustration, hopelessness, insane jealousy… how many more of the were there-people willing to destroy what they could not have?

(Butler, 107)

Though both Octavia Butler’s “Speech Sounds” and Phillip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?  do utilize the post-disaster world, they figure self-interest within this world differently, thus producing different effects. The way in which self-interest is figured in “Speech Sounds” is best exemplified in the passage above. Though the man murders the woman, he does so in a fit of passion, “Anger, frustration, hopelessness, insane jealousy;” he wishes to perform basic cognitive functions as well (107). As such, self-interest is not a fundamental human characteristic in the text, it is merely circumstantial. This is furthered by Rye’s ability to empathize with the man, “she [being in such a situation when she learns that Obsidian can write] thought she could understand some of the passions that must have driven him” (107). Figuring self-interest like this produces an optimistic effect; humans mean well and as such, have the ability to thrive once more. Conversely, Phillip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? figures self-interest as a fundamental human characteristic; this is best exemplified by Rick Deckard. Regardless of the circumstance, Deckard acts self-interestedly; he hunts down the androids for economic gain; he purchases an animal for social prestige; he coerces Rachel into relations etc. This figuring of self-interest produces a bleak effect; fundamental human self-interest has and will continue to destroy all that it comes into contact with.

Ineffective Weapons

In comparing Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and “Speech Sounds,” I was interested in how the human characters respond to “otherness” as based on what is considered natural, as opposed to what is supernatural. In “Speech Sounds” we know that the illness affects all people, albeit in different ways, and the result of the ensuing “impairments” is a system of judgement and jealousy. This seems comparable to J.R. Isadore’s view of the world in Androids where he is impaired by the environment and is more interested in his relationship to other humans than he is concerned with the androids he encounters. It seems that the effect of “natural” borne illnesses and reactions creates the larger schism between humans than the presence of superhuman or supernatural enemies (ie. the androids). Perhaps this is related to control: unlike the androids, one cannot terminate an illness with a laser.

Authority and Anarchy

Although we classify Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and Speech and Sounds as dystopias, at the very least, Do Androids Dream still has a semblance of control and authority. While the police and bounty hunters have a strong presence in Do Android Dream, and even more so in Blade Runner, police are nearly imaginary in Speech and Sounds. As a policeman or bounty hunter in Do Androids Dream, you have respect and authority. People easily clear a path for you (533), you can live in a high-end apartment as a successful bounty hunter (453), Luba Luft follows Deckard’s instructions (506), people won’t question you if you’ve killed someone because they trust/are intimidated by you, and take custody of someone and have the ability to make sure they are jailed if they catch a murderer (513). The police in Speech and Sounds on the other hand don’t demand this kind of respect and intimidation. Rye points out that Obsidian “decided on his own to keep the LAPD alive” even though “he was sane enough otherwise”. Obsidian is one of the only policemen left and doesn’t have the power to judge and jail someone or even get paid. He doesn’t have the power to go against large groups and his only advantage is a car and a gun. His badge is a pretty decoration and Rye wonders why he doesn’t do something useful like “raising corn, rabbits, and children”. The only reason she obeyed his commands is “mainly out of curiosity” since a policeman is such an anomaly. To her, being a policeman in this dystopian setting is insane, useless, and asking for trouble.