Neuromancer: Counterpoint to 1980’s Popular Culture

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Neuromancer – Deliberately Counter to American Expectations

In the forward to the 2004 reprinting of Neuromancer, William Gibson says that he felt his book would never find an audience in the United States because he was writing deliberately counter to what he felt American audiences wanted, unlike something like the Rocky franchise. I always found that claim curious because, of course, Neuromancer became enormously popular; its dark, noir and technology inspired world went on to spawn a whole genre, cyberpunk, along with plenty of imitators. Ultimately consumed and co-opted by mainstream media, the remnants cyberpunk and Gibson’s book in particular remain. No one can say artificial intelligence or the matrix without recalling some heavy, Hollywood-inspired images that are, at best, adapted ideas from Neuromancer. Everything from the Avengers films to Ready Player One, to the recent live-action remake of Ghost in the Shell depend, at least in part, on many of the ideas in Gibson’s seminal book. Some writers, Jack Womack in particular, have even gone as far to suggest that our very own, real-life internet is heavily dependent on the world of Neuromancer. A true case of life imitating art.

Neuromancer by Josan Gonzalez

Yet, Gibson’s claim of writing counter to American tastes has, for me, at least some credence for two reasons and they both have to do with the man in the center of the action, Case. First, as a former console cowboy, or hacker, at the start of the novel, Case is in a drug-addicted death spiral. His nervous system being damaged as punishment for stealing from a former employer keeps him from accessing the matrix, Neuromancer’s internet-like network. Now he is simply a hustler who can see the end of his own life fast approaching while living in Chiba City, Japan. Case refers to his body as meat, numerous times: “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.” His derogatory stance against his own body is ironic because Case’s addiction to drugs is explicitly a meat thing; specifically, Case’s body craves methamphetamines. Of course, the derogatory stance against the human body seems perfectly logical in the world of Neuromancer. As a hacker, Case cherished his time in the matrix, a bodiless experience that depends on the mind, alone. The matrix privileges the mind over the body, it is a space where smart people can thrive regardless of the pudginess of their real-life bodies, a true meritocracy. In this sense, what is counter to American taste is the fact that the book exists in a world where physical strength and might, while still important, is not the only means of success. If you have enough brainpower, like Case, the matrix is a place where you can be very successful. Pop-culture of the 1980s in particular, as we shall shortly see, is obsessed with strong, powerful bodies. If the body is regarded simply as ‘meat’ in a book, that would certainly seem counter to American tastes.

Neuromancer painting by Juan Gimenez

The second reason I think why Gibson is writing counter to American tastes is the issue of change, or in Case’s particular example, the lack of change. From a plot analysis standpoint, Case’s adventure in Neuromancer fits the notion of the hero’s journey excellently (Christopher Vogler’s hero’s journey graph is useful here). He travels, experiences new things, even dies a few times, and lives to tell the tale at the book’s end. Nevertheless, these are all bodily experiences. Internally and morally, Case is as a stagnant protagonist. At the start of the book, he begins as a drug-addicted hustler, and while many interesting things happen to him, the story ends with Case using the money he’s earned to buy himself a new liver so that he can go back to enjoying his favorite methamphetamines. At the start of the novel, Case is a hustler and thief, and at the end, he is still a hustler and a thief. He has a few more stories to tell, but Case is essentially the same person throughout the book, unchanged, a moral flatline.

I find Case to be a well-written and likable character, cheering for him every step of the way. Nevertheless, as an example of the ways in which he never changes, let us consider the ending of the book. Neuromancer and Wintermute, the titular, but partial artificial intelligences join into one being, having for the first time in human history formed a true A.I. that is essentially capable of everything. If Case had read any Ray Kurzweil book, he would have realized he had just witnessed the singularity. In short order, the new A.I. finds extraterrestrial life, or at least an A.I. of extraterrestrial origins operating in deep space. Most people would realize the implications of this event and this discovery. Culturally the last ten pages of the book change the world in ways we can scarcely imagine, but not for Case. His objective was seemingly always to get back to the drugs. Gibson, therefore, seems to understand that American audiences, particular those of the mid-1980s, like their protagonists to change, to learn something from their adventures, and then apply that knowledge to their own lives. With Case, Gibson has instead deliberately written a story in which the protagonist does not change. This, in my opinion, is the second reason that Gibson is writing counter to what he considers American tastes, Neuromancer provides a story in which protagonist refuses to learn.

Rocky IV – The Anti-Cyberpunk Movie

Neuromancer is counter to American tastes of the 1980s because of the way the book regards bodies as secondary to brains and the refusal of the protagonist to change in any way. Rocky IV is another 1980s, pop-culture artifact that serves as a counterpoint to Neuromancer. I consider this film a kind of anti-cyberpunk text that does the opposite of what Neuromancer did and lends credence to Gibson’s claim. Released in 1985, Rocky IV comes just one year after Neuromancer. This is the film where Apollo Creed, Rocky’s former nemesis but now friend and trainer, attempts an ill-fated boxing comeback. As a boxer, Apollo’s profession is heavily dependent on his body. To get into boxing shape, a boxer must train, exercise, and diet, all difficult processes. No doubt, boxing requires some stringent mental processes too, but most people would agree that the boxer’s body is primarily the most important thing for the boxer. Like Case, Apollo too has a history of disparaging the body. Recall that in the first Rocky movie, Apollo gives an interview where he encourages children to “stay in school and use your brain. Be a doctor, be a lawyer, carry a leather briefcase. Forget about sports as a profession. Sports make ya grunt and smell. See, be a thinker, not a stinker.” This interview is highly ironic of course because the entire Rocky series is essentially about privileging the body over the brain.

By Rocky IV, however, Apollo is retired, and although in the film we see that he keeps in excellent shape (by swimming with his dogs, presumably) he is not in boxing shape any longer. Like many aging athletes, Apollo feels his body is still capable of high-level performance, despite having been away from the sport for an extended period. Against, Rocky’s advice Apollo stages an exhibition match with the current Russian Olympic heavyweight champion, Ivan Drago. Drago accepts because he is eager to break into the American heavyweight boxing circuit. At the fight, the real life James Brown sings his seminal number Living in America, which among other things, is about the belief that the American dream is possible due to the United States’ highway system (a kind of early 1950s network, or internet). Brown sings his number on a stage, overlooking the boxing ring that mechanically comes up out of the floor, with Drago bewilderingly already standing there. The performance and pageantry of the pre-fight celebration can only be described as an outlandish, hyper-commercialized, nightmarish display of American excess. Apollo wearing American flag boxing trousers stunningly punctuates this excess. In a sense, Apollo wraps his body in jingoistic patriotism, which he hopes will beat the Russian into submission.

Rocky IV

Of course, Apollo could not be more wrong. In the following violent boxing sequence, Drago quickly beats Apollo to death. His death is partly the result Rocky’s delay in throwing in the proverbial towel but also the sheer spectacle of the match. There are hundreds of paparazzi shoving cameras into Apollo’s dying face, but no ringside doctor. The implication is that no one hired a doctor, they were too busy attending to James Brown or making sure the giant mechanical ring worked correctly. Apollo figuratively drowns in the excess of his own spectacle. In other words, Apollo dies because of Drago’s savage beating, but also partly by his own outlandish display of American commodity fetishism. Drago, contrastingly, seems to have had a statement to make. In essence, Drago kills Apollo to say that American bodies are soft because American life is so full of excess, so easy; example number one is the pre-fight spectacle. Drago’s figurative statement goes on to say that, Russian life and thus Russian bodies are stronger and harder because Russian life lacks this fabulous excess. Rocky later pledges to fight Drago in what can only be described as a revenge bout. They fight on Christmas day in Moscow, a not-to-subtle jab at the American commercialization of the Christmas holiday. Rocky is badly beaten, but his persistence, in the end, spoiler alert, edges the Russian and he is able to triumph. You didn’t think Rocky would lose, did you?

There are many reasons why I enjoy this film, not the least of which is the paint-by-numbers simplicity of the portrayal of American-Russian relations in the mid-1980s, during the heart of the Cold War. While I intend to write a whole essay on the Cold War in Rocky IV one day, right now I am most interested in the notion of bodies within the film. Like almost every other Rocky movie, this film begins with some kind of loss at the beginning. Sometimes this loss is an actual loss in the boxing ring, other times the loss is figurative or economic. Usually this initial loss at provides the motivation for the final rematch at the end of the film, thus in almost every film we as the audience are treated to two fights. Right now, I want to look at the winners of the two matches we see in Rocky IV. Drago wins the first fight against Apollo and Rocky wins the second against Drago.

Rocky IV

Examining the film we can note that the boxer who has had the better training regimen wins each of the matches. We do not get to see Apollo’s training for the first fight, but we can surmise that if the training was anything like the pre-fight celebration scene that Apollo more than likely indulged in a training method that relied on flash theatrics rather than substance. (This version of Apollo is more like the Rocky I version, rather than the Rocky III version). Drago meanwhile likely trained at the training facility we see later in the film, a simple but dedicated and technologically sophisticated gymnasium. Drago’s gymnasium is sterile, but is also replete with state-of-the-art exercise equipment, computers providing a constant flow of biometric data and a small of army of doctors who presumably keep Drago’s supply of anabolic steroids fresh on hand. Drago’s sterile facility in comparison to Apollo’s theatrics, provide a superior training environment. The film implies that the better training environment better prepares the boxer’s body for the coming match and of course, Apollo’s death proves this implication.

Rocky somehow realizes that Apollo’s mistake was not that he was old, or the fact that he challenged a younger, stronger opponent. Instead, Rocky realizes that Apollo misunderstood how to train. The key to beating Drago, Rocky theorizes, is better training in a facility that emphasizes the natural world rather than the technological world that Drago represents. Drago and his gymnasium are cyberpunk; they use computers and information to make a better boxer. Throughout the film, there is an implication that Drago’s strength is somehow machine based. His imposing stature and strength recall another 1980’s staple, Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Terminator, both are tall, imposing figures whose dialogue is scarce but whose violent actions speak loudly for them. More importantly, both are cyborg figures, seeming mixtures of machine and man, but their creation is based on a privileging of the mind. They are made and trained by computers.

Drago – Rocky IV

Thus to beat Drago, Rocky needs to be the opposite of a cyborg, he needs to privilege the body in such a way that he becomes the ultimate human. Rocky creates the most human and by extension natural training environment that he can manage. Rocky chooses to train in the barren Russian tundra, in winter, away from any major cities in a log cabin, which has no running water or electricity. A wood-burning stove heats the cabin; Rocky co-opts the cutting of wood into his training regimen. His only neighbors are a few hearty Russian peasants that he seldom sees and the KGB agents assigned to monitor him. The cabin contains a hayloft that Rocky uses for power crunches. Of course, he must train in Russia because he believes Drago’s earlier assessment about American bodies. A place like northern Minnesota or Canada would make him too weak, is the implication. The most technology Rocky allows during his training is a rope, a saw, and a wheelbarrow. Notice here that the emphasis is on the humanness of the environment.

The cabin is also located running distance from a mountain, which Rocky climbs as he trains. In the final training montage, this mountain climbing mirrors Drago running on a treadmill. As Rocky climbs higher, Drago’s treadmill too increases inclination. At the end Rocky is at the top of the mountain and Drago is running on a treadmill that is almost at ninety degrees inclination. This training montage before the climatic ending boxing match is, in my opinion, the height of 1980s American cinema, because, in montage form, the director Sylvester Stallone is able to show what Gibson already knew in 1984, that Americans generally have a belief in bodily exceptionalism, physical might always trumps thought. Juxtaposed with Drago’s dark, cyberpunk gymnasium is the vibrant natural, sunlit outside world where Rocky is training. The two boxers are essentially doing the same training regimen, but Rocky’s is better because it is in the real world where our bodies actually exist. Drago’s training, in turn, uses technology and steroids, he cheats. Given this juxtaposition, there is no doubt who will win the final match. Further, this juxtaposition of the two spaces recalls the dual world motif in Neuromancer, on the one hand, you have the meat world, Rocky’s world where he trains and his beard grows, and he yells from the top of mountains. On the other hand, you have the technological space, the matrix, Drago’s world, where information and brainpower can help you succeed. However, unlike Neuromancer, the poles are reversed. What triumphs in Rocky is a belief in the superiority of the natural body; in other words, in Rocky IV the meat will always win.

Rocky – Rocky IV

Thus, when Gibson assumes that Neuromancer is written counter to American tastes, I ultimately believe he is right. American texts of the 1980s, for possibly a myriad of reasons, always seem to assume a superiority of the body. This belief in physical bodily superiority is usurped in Gibson’s book by characters like Case. In fact, many of the characters in Neuromancer do not even have bodies; they are wholly made up of mind. This conscience choice to subvert American bodily idealism is in my opinion what the punk in Gibson’s version of cyberpunk is all about. That is, Gibson is playing with a subversion of the 1980s, rugged, body conscious individual male who uses brute strength to knock out his opponents. Rocky is the anti-Case. Moreover, Gibson is also writing counter to American idealism because his hero does not change, does not learn from his experiences, does not experience an epiphany that foretells a change in his life. Consider how Rocky IV ends, after beating Drago, Rocky addresses the Russian crowd, through an interpreter, in the following speech, he recalls Adrian’s earlier assertion that he must change.

I came here tonight, I didn’t know what to expect. I seen a lot of people hate me and I didn’t know what to feel about that so I guess they didn’t like much nothin’ either. During this fight, I’ve seen a lot of changing, the way yous feel about me, and in the way I felt about you. In here, there were two guys killing each other, but I guess that’s better than 20 million. I guess what I’m trying to say, is that if I can change, and you can change, everybody can change!

Conclusion

If you are familiar with 1980s sitcoms, say Family Ties, you will know that change is an important part the narrative structure of these shows. Characters often internalize a lesson and then apply that lesson to their lives by the end of a half-hour show. Case refuses all change, and moreover re-emphasizes his bad decisions. We can almost say that he is proud of those bad decisions. This characterization, therefore, is certainly counter to American tastes in the 1980s, and I believe further asserts Gibson’s claims.

William Gibson

Rocky IV was an enormous success as was Neuromancer, albeit in presumably different social strata of American 1980s life. Yet, as we can see, they both rely on an ideology about bodies and change that seems diametrically opposed. Perhaps this opposition speaks to the realities of a contemporary world that is conflicted, fractured, and ultimately yearning for some kind of solution. In one text, we see the hopes and dreams of American society, in the other, we see the nightmare that is presumably always around the corner. Which text is which, is ultimately I believe the question we must all ask ourselves.

If you’d like to explore the arguments made here for yourself, you can get a copy of Neuromancer here, and/or a copy of Rocky IV here.

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9 Responses to “Neuromancer: Counterpoint to 1980’s Popular Culture”

  1. Chris Lites

    Case got a new liver because the liver Wintermute installed in him had toxin sacs in them, which Wintermute claimed he accessed while in Case’s brain. Case’s meth addiction was a surrogate for his cyber addiction. I agree he doesn’t change, but he gets back to his real drug of choice—cyberspace. I’m also fairly confident that Case’s lack of change was less counter cultural and more about Gibson’s relative lack of experience moving character around at the time. He’s spoken about this in several interviews. To me, Rocky IV is anti-Neuromancer because it posits the power of America overcoming all odds. In Neuromancer, America no longer exists as a coherent political entity. Armitage, after a fashion, is a throwback—gone mad by the loss of purposeful patriotism. The Soviet Union won the “war” in Neuromancer but it didn’t matter because the corporations took everything over and said, no more of this MAD foolishness, it hurts our bottom line. Go to your corner and think about what you’ve done. The great counter cultural point in Neuromancer, for an American, has to be the deconstruction of American exceptionalism and the revelation that America, too, could become a Third World if one hadn’t loads of money. That, to me, is as prophetic as anything about cyberspace. Look at where we’re at now….

    • Rogelio

      Wintermute does not install a liver in Case. Armitage has a new liver installed in Case at the start of the novel that cannot process speed. That’s why Case wants yet another liver, to get back to the speed. So in the novel he actually has three livers altogether with two changes. The toxin sacks are in all of Case’s major arteries and those get dissolved by Wintermute when they joined at the end of the novel.

      Gibson’s lack of experience writing as a reason for Case’s stagnation strikes me as an writer centered argument, sometimes called a “biographical explanation” for the novel, which while valid, I try to avoid. I like for my arguments and interpretations to be about the story, and be about the book itself. Otherwise, we get into interpretations of the book which rely on how the author may have been feeling on a particular day.
      I really appreciate the idea about American exceptionalism going out the window, a first draft of this was called “American Bodily Exceptionalism.”

  2. “I always found that claim curious because, of course, Neuromancer became enormously popular; its dark, noir and technology inspired world went on to spawn a whole genre, cyberpunk, along with plenty of imitators.”

    Bladerunner came first!

    • Chris Lites

      Gibson was already well into Neuromancer when Blade Runner came out. He was afraid it’d ruin his book as it looked exactly what he had in his head. Many years later, meeting Scott, they talked about it and it turned out they were both influenced by Metal Hurlant for their visions. So, that’s why they are similar.

    • Rogelio

      Indeed! Well not really first (Web of Angels, or Dr Adder or The Ware Tetrology, all came before it both of them. ) but certainly before Neuromancer.

  3. Isaac L. Wheeler (Veritas)

    Well, Software had come out and Shirely’s Transmaniacon and Sterling’s Artificial Kid also predate I think, but it was all part of the same zeitgeist.

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