Arts and Culture

Blade Runner on electro-steroids

Martin Walker

The cyber world of Neuromancer is brought to the big screen in Johnny Mnemonic. Martin Walker talks to author William Gibson.

The Hollywood launch of Johnny Mnemonic, William Gibson presided over the ultimate première: the first time in entertainment history when an author saw his book launched simultaneously as a movie and as a CD-ROM interactive video game.

Starring Keanu Reeves, Johnny Mnemonic (opening in South Africa today) is based on Gibson’s short story of a secure human courier, secure because gigabits of data and corporate research are sealed and coded inside his brain synapses. This is not just another sci-fi movie.

It’s the big experiment in synergy: to marry Sony’s hardware of consumer products with Hollywood’s software of dreams. Sony put $30-million into the movie, then spent another $3-million making another movie on Betacam for the CD-ROM game, and then even more money on the new interface system.

“It’s so sweet you don’t even know it’s an interface,” marvels Gibson. You can use a mouse, or a clunky old keyboard. The hero faces trouble. Hit numeral one, and he kicks. Numeral two to punch. Numeral three to block the enemy attack. The plot re-adjusts itself accordingly. Hit shift, and you control Jones, the cyber-dolphin, programmed by the US Navy to break codes in return for regular shots of pure heroin.

We are in Gibsonland, a place “like a deranged experiment in social Darwinism, designed by a bored researcher who kept one thumb permanently on the fast-forward button”.

As the man who coined the term cyberspace, Gibson can very nearly claim to have invented it. Not that he even owned a personal computer at the time.

“I wrote Neuromancer on an olive-green Hermes portable typewriter, a 1927 model, that looked to me as the kind of thing Hemingway would have used in the field. Even now, I write on an ancient Mac, and my son has the real powerboard, a Sentra with a 520C Powerbook on the side. When he trades up, that’ll go to my daughter, and her rig will go to my wife, and I’m at the bottom of the food chain.”

Gibson provided an aesthetic of nerdish

machismo, the computer jock as hero,

that suddenly offered a literature for a

technology still being invented.

Neuromancer was the first cyberpunk novel. It won the Hugo and Nebula Awards for 1984, which is the sci-fi writer’s version of winning the Goncourt, Booker and Pulitzer prizes in the same year. His short stories in Omni magazine had already begun to earn him a name, but Neuromancer invented a genre.

It begins in Japan, the seamy underside of Tokyo, with a loner called Case. He used to be a brilliant cowboy surfer of the data nets, a thief who stole corporate software for even richer thieves. When he tried to steal something for himself, they burned out his nervous system, and he is reduced to hustling.

From then on, it’s a cybernetic western, a solitary anti-hero who uses his contacts of the scum world to recover his skills, go up against the big, bad guys, confound their knavish tricks and survive.

But the vision was the dark new cyberworld itself, like Blade Runner on electronic steroids.

(When he first saw Blade Runner, Gibson staggered from the cinema in despair, fearing that someone else had already cornered his nightmare future. Slowly, he realised they had the street scenes and the landscape but not the mindscape, not the alternative sensory universe of the Net.)

Gibson saw a future where nation states rotted beneath a new triumph of corporate feudalism, where the matrix of the data banks and computer networks was the sharp reality. For his hero, Case, to lose his status on the computer networks was to lose the only reality that mattered.

“For Case, who’d lived for the bodiless exultation of cyberspace, it was the Fall. In the bars he’d frequented as a cowboy hotshot, the elite stance involved a certain relaxed contempt for the flesh. The body was meat. Case fell into the prison of his own flesh.”

Gibson provided an aesthetic of nerdish machismo, the computer-jock as hero, that suddenly offered a literature for a technology that was still in the process of being invented.

From Neuromancer and his next books to Virtual Light (1993), he began writing of the Internet and of virtual reality and of nerve-splicing that would merge and hardwire human synapses into the cyberworld, just as the computer labs began dreaming how to do it.

A collection of essays entitled Cyberspace, published by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, tried to map out the blueprints for Gibson’s vision. The scientists at the cutting edge of the software were starting from the assumption that the embryonic Internet of a decade ago had already been defined and its possibilities explored by Gibson’s imagination. Where would Gibson’s manic dreams take us next?

A bunch of hippy acid-heads invented the personal computer. I love this revenge of the hippies stuff.

define the way the interfaces and the software would need to be sculpted to create Gibson’s “consensual virtual hallucination”, in effect hard-wiring human sensory perceptions into the limitless eco-system of the datanet, using each individual human brain as its own central processing unit.

“What I love about this is the revenge of the hippies,” Gibson remarks. “A bunch of hippy acid-heads actually invented the personal computer. Then, think about the Internet, the idea of a free and accessible space for knowledge and communication that no central power could control. That really develops with the Well, which grew out of Bruce Sterling and that 1970 hippy bible, The Whole Earth Catalogue.”

Think back to what the computer was in 1970, Gibson goes on. It was the big brain, so expensive that only governments and huge corporations could afford one, a monopoly of computing power that reinforced centralised authority.

Along comes the PC, and, like an inchoate army of guerrillas, it becomes a subversive force, chipping away at big brain and big government too.

“Tired as I am with all the hype about the Internet and the info highway, I suspect that from a future perspective it will be on a par with the invention of the city as a force in human culture. People still don’t understand that the Internet is transnational. Cyberspace has no borders, and that’s fine with me because I had my fill of nationalism in the Vietnam war.

On the Internet now, you can see

corporations trying to extract maximum

profit from public cyberspace

He is no longer confident about the subversive role of the PC and the Internet. Watching the Los Angeles riots on TV, Gibson shrugged despondently when he saw the looters stripping a Radio Shack store of TV sets and tapedecks. Just next door, the windows were still unbroken on a computer store. Apple Powerbooks and laptops were stacked up for the taking, their electronic empowerment lurking inside their casings.

“I wanted to tell them they were looting the wrong store. I’m fondest of the idea that the minorities and the poor can be empowered by this technology, but I don’t see it happening in the real world.

“I guess what I see coming is what I wrote in Virtual Light, an end-stage capitalism, in which private enterprise and the profit motive are taken to their logical conclusion. You see it now on the Internet, corporations trying to find ways to impose private ownership and extract money from what should be a public cyberspace.

“The characters in my books live between the cracks of this kind of system. And there will always be misfits, the tenacious weeds in the cracks, people not wanting to be consumers, living on their own terms.”

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