Conclusions in “Pickup on South Street” and in Neuromancer

In the conclusion of “Pickup on South Street the chief-of-police character “Tiger” announces to Skip as he is leaving the police station with his now-femme-fatale girlfriend that Skip will soon be busted again and then sent to prison for good. The femme-fatale [her name is Candy] challenges “Tiger” with the final line of the movie: “wanna bet?” Then the door is closed and the police station and scene. This conclusion is sufficiently noir because it doesn’t end with certainty. The emphasis at the end of the movie is about playing the odds of life. Candy is placing her bet on going with Skip. She is not necessarily saying that she trusts the future will be good or happy. She has risked her life and almost died in order to protect Skip’s life, and she has taken the hardest punches of any character that is still standing at the end of of the film. There are no delusions regarding the fact that a life associated with Skip could mean violence and injury, but still she chooses to follow this path of life [that is, who knows if the characters will be together in the months that follow, but as far as the closing scene is concerned, they are together]. Candy’s choice at the conclusion of the film thus invites the viewer to consider what punches are worth pulling, and what bets are worth placing.

In William Gibson’s  Neuromancer, Molly and Case engaged in a high-stakes betting game to empower an AI. Case and Molly were risking their lives on account of the skills that made life worth living. Case risked his life to help the AI because the offered reward was returned use of his hacking skills. [As an aside, Skip in “Pickup on South Street” also bet his life on his hacking skills of pickpocketing.] Molly submitted that her reason for participation in venture was that it was her calling to use her physical skills. One highlight of Neuromancer, then in the same way as “Pickup on South Street,” emphasizes the bets one places in life to make life worth living.

Further justification of the importance of placing odds in Neuromancer over conventional societal romance ideals can be seen in the conclusion. In the last chapter of Neuromancer, entitled “Coda: Departure and Arrival,” Molly leaves a note to Case that says “HEY ITS OKAY BUT ITS TAKING THE EDGE OFF MY GAME, I PAID THE BILL ALREADY. ITS THE WAY IM WIRED I GUESS, WATCH YOUR ASS OKAY? XXX MOLLY” This style of speech and plot-development is at the same time brusque and glib; it interjects a surprising finality to the sappy desire to see the man and women ride off on a white horse [or two] with boxes full of treasure. In this way Gibson’s coda overturns the conventional ideal of the sunset with the girl and a happy ending, as seen in Western movies popular in the 1950s, and fortifies the conclusion with a sufficient noir twist–that is, neo-sci-fi-noir–that points to a life philosophy that doesn’t begin and end with the goal of being in a heterosexual relationship as the reasonable and satisfactory conclusion.

Molly’s departure in the coda primes the reader for a revelation of deeper meaning; by  taking away one happiness we are left floundering for finality and forced to reflect on what else is out there in the universe, just like one would after a “break-up” in one’s own personal life. Gibson then guides us to reflect on godlike beings that are unbound by space: the Wintermute/Rio AI that communicates with another like itself in the Centauri system. Somewhere and everywhere out floating in space this technologically superpowerful being that is reduced to imitating humans–i.e. The Finn–to communicate with Case and is capable of generating convincing replicas of humans e.g.:

he saw three figures, tiny, impossible, who stood at the very edge of one of the vast steps of data. […] Linda still wore his jacket; she waved, as he passed. But the third figure, close behind her, arms across her shoulders, was himself. Somewhere, very close, the laugh that wasn’t laughter (p270-271)

This AI is capable of populating the matrix with personalities that are as convincing as the original people–at least so far as the novel represents, the reader is open to speculate on how human these simulations can be. Certainly nothing betrays them as two-dimensional, except for the inhuman laugh of the dead Dixie Flatline. This conclusion offers opportunity for the question: what is the importance of a personality in itself? Is the distinction between Case and Linda really a significant distinction? Or does each personality come from the same fabric of existence, replicable by a powerful AI suggesting that the truly mysterious matter of life experience lies elsewhere, outside the realm of personality, beyond the distinctions between humans?

Tropological Displacement

According to academic critic Neil Easterbrook, in William Gibson’s Neuromancer, “all natural/artificial images are reversed from their conventional priority: techne now precedes physis” (Neil Easterbrook, “The Arc of Our Destruction: Reversal and Erasure in Cyberpunk SFStudies Vol. 19 (1992)). Given the example of the AIs Wintermute and Rio merging into one sentient being that travels to different solar systems and communicates with other beings, Easterbrook is correct. However, the rastafari elders at the center of Zion (end of chapter 8 p.111 in Penguin Ace edition) represent an ideal of peace and prophetic wisdom that shows human intelligence to be the center of a valuable experience that makes life worth continuing to explore from a human perspective.

The founders of Zion, described as “brittle with calcium loss, looked fragile […] They floated in the center of a painted jungle of rainbow foliage, a lurid communal mural that completely covered the hull of the spherical chamber. The air was thick with a resinous smoke” (109). This image of the founders shows them as wise old sages. They are floating just like any sage, and they are completely immersed in an environment that emanates the value of plants. The walls are painted with tributes to plants, and the air is filled with the smoke of plants. (an interesting question is why Gibson did not choose to use actual plants in his image of the Zion chamber. Was it part of his Sci-Fi environment that plants were scarce in space, or did he think that the Zionists did not want actual plants, preferring the painted image?). The value of these men’s bodies, and the value of plants in Zion evoke religious justifications for the interrelation of the sensory experience and the working of the mind. Smoke weed so you can get closer to “Jah love,” get closer to “Jah love” so you can reach into the deep mystery of existence and further the capacity for beauty and joy of humanity, which is to say Physis.

The physical weakness of the old men’s bodies highlights the value of their longevity from a perspective of their humanity. In contrast with Julius Deane, who is incredibly long lived and has the body of a much younger man, the Zionist elders are long lived and their bodies are broken down to the bare essentials for sustaining human life. Deane, on the one hand, is described as “inhumanly patient,” and he is also shown to be inhumanly cruel. Deane has Linda, Case’s lover, killed, proving that Deane has no regard for Case’s feelings.

The Zionist elders, on the other hand, represent nothing but humanity. Their bodies are simply vessels to contain their humanity. They show equivocation and fear when consulting with Case and Molly about helping them. “‘We have a certain involvement here with various traffics, and no regard for Babylon’s law. Our law is the word of Jah. But this time, it may be, we have been mistaken.’ Measure twice, cut once,’ said the other, softly” (111). Alexander Pope said “to err is human,” and these Zionist elders recognition of their capability for error shows that they are self aware in their humanity.

The Zionist elders have great capacity to effect change in the physical world and the world of cyberspace. Without the help of the Zionists, Case would not have succeeded in freeing Wintermute and Rio to the universe. In this way the AIs Wintermute and Rio needed the human element, in order to manifest itself as a free entity. The freeing of Wintermute seems to have parallels to the animal act of giving birth. For years Wintermute incubated in a white cube suspended in cyberspace. Then, Wintermute courted assistance from the outside to penetrate his AI incubator with a virus. Once the AI was breached, the human (Case) was then able to unlock the code which bound Wintermute to the incubator.

Once Wintermute was freed of the incubator, he became capable of exploring the universe, having conversations with others of his kind, and thus exploring the vast mystery that is sentient existence. This exploring of the mystery appears to be the highest order of freedom in Neuromancer. The Zionists explore the mystery by floating in space, smoking plants, and listening to dub, wherein dub is a metaphor or physical manifestation of the universal essence–a way of feeling and exploring the universe in the same way that navigating the matrix is a way of exploring the universe. It seems that the true natural order of existence–that is, Physis–purported in Gibson’s Neuromancer, is a force that transcends the bounds of Techne or Physis, and can be defined as sentience. Sentience is the freedom to explore the mystery of existence, and the natural way of life is to be born into sentience, which is what all hackers seek, and what all beings who truly want to live seek.

Hacking and Neuromancer

As explained by social philosopher McKenzie Wark, in his book A Hacker Manifesto, “To produce is to repeat; to hack, to differentiate.  If production is the hack captured by property and repeated, the hack is production produced as something other than itself. . . . The hack is at one and the same time the force that opens toward increasing the surplus, and something deeply threatening to any fixed, fast-frozen relations” [160, 162]. This statement by Wark plays out repeatedly in the science fiction-noir novel Neuromancer, written by William Gibson.

In Gibson’s novel, futuristic technology enables the human body to perform at physical and mental levels unheard of in modern day 21st century. Molly, the “street samurai” that helps the protagonist, has knives that extend and retract from each fingernail, and reprogrammed nervous-system reflexes that allow her to move at speeds other humans are not capable of. Julius Deane, a 135 year-old information broker, has his DNA reset once a year, so that he can maintain the vitality of a much younger person. Hideo, a “vat-grown” ninja assassin is a humanoid embodiment of death in Gibson’s novel. These three characters use technology to become something more than human. Molly hacks her nervous system and skeletal system to have superhuman fighting skills; Deane hacks his DNA so he can live longer than one life time; and Hideo, we can infer, is a synthetic human, grown and programmed entirely through technology to serve as a body-guard for the Tessier-Ashpoole clan.

Each of these three hacks serves a different purpose in the world of Neuromancer. Molly’s hack is a choice made out of free will, to increase capabilities of doing what she professes to love–fighting. The motive for Julius Deane’s hack for longevity is not explained in the novel, but the effects of his hack can be seen in Deane’s position as information broker. Deane has a first hand experience of histories beyond that of other humans in the novel, and has relationships with organizations that extend beyond others’ capabilities. By the depth of time that Deane has been engaged with the world he functions as a sort of network and library by which others interface with the past and present. Finally, Hideo is a human that acts like a computer. He is defined by the motive of his creators, which is to serve the Tessier-Ashpoole clan. He seems free of all human distractions outside of the one function he was made for–to fight other humans. These three characters, then, are examples of hacking the human body in order to achieve skills and power beyond what humans are ordinarily capable of.