Wednesday, April 18, 2012

The Uncertainty of Reality: William Gibson’s Sprawl Series

William Gibson’s Sprawl series stands as a landmark event, not only in science fiction, but in literature as a whole.  Rather than rehashing the thematic staples of realist literature: cultural relativism, post-colonialism, feminism, etc., he moves discussion to the next logical step. Humanity envisioned through the glass of technological saturation, trans/post-humanism takes center stage, instead.  His fictional technology seeing beyond the 90’s tech boom, advances in online virtual gaming, second-life applications, plastic surgery, designer drugs, web interfacing, simulated neuro stimuli, etc. have only moved society closer to rather than farther from his vision in the time since the four books were published, 1984-1989.  As humanity transitions, melding with its chemical, mechanical, and biological creations, the definitions of psychology, sociology, and existence itself have acquired previously unrealized levels of ambivalence.  This uncertainty is the nail at which Gibson aims his literary hammer.  With the free market paradigm integrating society and technology, what does it mean to be human?  This essay hopes to examine this question.

“Sprawl” is a term used by planners, developers, and engineers to describe the long-term, unorganized creep of buildings, infrastructure, and humanity across the landscape.  A recurring backdrop to Neuromancer (1984), Burning Chrome (1986), Count Zero (1987), and Mona Lisa Overdrive (1989), such is the Boston-Atlanta Metropolitan Area (BAMA).  Though never explicitly stated, the urban enclaves of these two cities, along with those located between (New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, etc.), have spread outward until the suburbs and industrial zones, housing and commercial centers of each have conmingled with one another, creating a single massive urban zone that stretches the length of the American east coast.  Gibson using less than utopian terms, he describes BAMA as a mix of cookie-cutter streets filled with planned suburban housing, post-modern skyscrapers full of tech and money, block after block of urban tenements slowly crumbling alongside those freshly painted, and factories and warehouses in various states of decomposition - a haze lingering over all.  In other words, Gibson has portrayed the modular dimensions of present-day humanity evolving to a logical point in the future: new development is erected, the old remains, and all is subject to entropy. 

Like Philip K. Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, setting the scene in this fashion draws strong parallels to Spengler’s ideas concerning humanity’s cultural decline, rather than Golden Age modernist notions of a glorious, healthy future for the planet.  Gibson at no time portrays a world peace, shiny-happy-people, everybody-loves-their-neighbor state of existence.  Social Darwinism persists, each person eking out their existence.  Accordingly, commodities in the Sprawl prey upon individual’s desires and self-destructive habits rather than any collective perception of a sustained, cross-cultural aspiration to improve global living standards.  Environmental problems persist, crime continues to pervade, newer and trendier drugs ensnare and addict, and money and power--or lack thereof--remain the most common carrots luring individuals.  If it weren’t for the open hand with which Gibson offers the imagery, one might consider nihilism the theme of the series.

If the basic economic structure motivating societal effort has not evolved in the Sprawl, then what has?  The answer is technology.  The virtual world Case explores, the variety of pharmaceuticals and chemicals available to Mona, the holographic dreams of Riviera, the advanced biotech that nearly kills Bobby, the motivations of the AI constructs Wintermute and 3Jane, the ready availability of plastic surgery and physical enhancements to Angie, and the “free islands” in orbit around the earth all add dimensions to life available currently only to the imagination. 

The number of options and facets to life these advancements expose is myriad.  If one can afford it, earthly desires become heavenly in the hyper-Las Vegas style of luxury promoted on the Freeside orbital.  By jacking into cyberspace, a person can escape the exigencies of life and “fly” in another dimension.  Like Huxley’s ‘feelies’ in Brave New World, theater and cinema have been brought to the sensual level, simstim granting people the vicarious experience of being a supermodel or rock star--virtual realities available to match any fetish or desire.  And not only individually, these experiences can be combined, as Case does by consuming stimulants and jacking in for days at a time. Our current capitalist paradigm in full effect, if you’ve got money, then technology can supply your dreams. 

With the exception of Marley from Count Zero, the middle class is not represented in the Sprawl.  Gibson instead selects the opposite ends of the life quality spectrum as focal points for the narratives.  Occupying the upper echelons of power and wealth are characters like Virek, the Tessier-Ashpoles, and Kumiko and her yakuza family.  These, however, pale in number to what Gibson presents as the futuristic version of the common man.  Case is arguably criminal and poor, his acquaintances whores, drug dealers, pimps, bartenders, criminals and other “low” forms of existence.  Bobby’s life is detailed as being one which is far from certain financially.  His mother ignores the family, soothing her soul on soap operas in a dilapidated tenement, his father nowhere to be found.  Slick, Little Bird, Gentry, and Cherry are a group scraping by, their day to day life lived at an abandoned landfill, opportunities more than limited.  And lastly, Mona is an American teenager from a broken home, no money or family to care for her.  Raised by an indifferent uncle, she does what she can to get by, including prostituting herself and taking drugs to escape hardships.  Mona’s existence at the bottom of the barrel is one none envy.  The circumstances of these characters serve to highlight the disparity of life quality which Gibson envisions as being the natural result if the current shape of state market economy continues.  Money, via commercializing legal and illegal technology, is access to a higher quality of life, and vice versa.  Thus, based on the character viewpoints Gibson selects, it would seem the majority do not have access, and are sliding from middle class toward poverty, and the choices that accompany the mode. 

One such provision of technology through money is physical modification.  From those superficial in appearance to deeper, structural alterations, a full menu of reconstructions and remodels are available to humanity in the Sprawl.  People with money or financial backing no longer have to bemoan the crudity of morality.  Molly walks the streets with digital cues registering constantly in the spectacles mounted to her skull.  She also knows her surgically enhanced reflexes not only give her an advantage in defending herself from the criminals around her, but also make her a dangerous human weapon on the offense.  The slap-in-the-face opening paragraphs of Count Zero inform the reader in direct terms of the complete stripping and biological refurbishing Turner undergoes to return to stellar physical form after suffering horrible injury.  Mona is pressured and succumbs to having facial re-sculpturing to look like a famous superstar--an act which a person can easily imagine other young people in the Sprawl wanting to perform should they also have the means.

Beyond alterations of a person’s genealogical visage, however, mind modification, temporary and permanent, must also be taken into consideration when neurological advancements are available.  The zillionaire Virek spends part of his fortune keeping the deteriorated shell of his body alive in a vat while he pursues cyber-immortality in the matrix.   Along with drugs, Case is able to extend his conscious awareness beyond the physical and into virtual, cyber, and other dream-like realities merely by attaching electrodes to his body and plugging into a digital system with wires.  Angie in particular is representative of the mind-body changes possible.  A middle point between being pure human and being pure technology, she is the nexus of unaltered homo sapien sapien and AI.  Her brain hard wired with bio-filament, she can access cyberspace and communicate with AI constructs without the need to jack in, yet still need to eat, sleep, and perform the other necessary functions of a mortal.

The bio-physical enhancements such as Angie’s brain or Case’s built in hardware jack move the discussion from the physical to the psychological.  In other words, from physical, objective reality to the subjective manner in which reality is perceived.  And it is precisely at this turn that Gibson makes his point.

Time has yet to prove whether the human psyche is its greatest advantage or disadvantage.  Perception faulty, the brain depends largely on empirical evidence to support its suppositions. By establishing patterns and relationships, it paints pictures as to what general reality is or might be.  This reality can be foreboding (the imminence of death) and it can be effervescent (seeing a child born or a walk in nature), in turn requiring escape or immersion.  Through atypical experiences of reality, people garner respite from the stress, doldrums, ennui, and day-to-day activity that form the lion’s share of our existence.  In today’s society, this is accomplished in a variety of fashions, including travel, socializing, literature, media distraction, and, as Gibson directly asserts, drugs and alcohol.

The habitual usage of drugs by Case, Mona, Riviera, and others serves not only as a spotlight on their need to escape or better the reality they perceive, but also a parallel to the virtual realities in which they immerse their consciousnesses, for example, simstim or cyberspace.  As Neuromancer progresses, Case spends increasingly less time perceiving reality unhindered by drugs, such that by the time he arrives at 3Jane’s Straylight near the climax, the world seems more surreal than real - a point Gibson accentuates by adding the blind ninja, fish pool in space, and other esoteric elements of interior design.  Similarly, after Mona takes a hit and goes on a stroll around New York, she encounters people who seem not wholly human, and as a result her attitude toward them becomes equivocal under the influence of chemicals.  Friend or foe, she knows not what to make of them, and ends up lost, the deeper emotion of losing Eddie and not knowing what tomorrow will bring subconsciously motivating her desire to find something familiar and permanent.

Drugs being physical effectors, however, are only the first degree of separation from reality.  Add to this the variety of virtual realities available in the Sprawl and things become more than distracting.  Throughout Neuromancer Case switches between realities (objective reality, Molly’s simulated reality, cyberspace, and the simulated reality created by the AIs), and the fact he ends up inside an orbiting tube with irregular gravity--reality--only serves to confuse the senses further and stretch the mental line anchoring Case to objective, “earthly” reality.  Wholly a different view than in a mirror, the scene most exemplary of this stretching is when Case views himself through Molly’s eyes.  His slumped body and bloodshot eyes nearly unrecognizable, the sensations Case feels are not his own but yet are channeled through his own.  Further evidence is the loss of faith Case experiences regarding his memories when pondering the notion that the AI Wintermute may be manipulating him, making him see events and sequences which did not really happen, but nevertheless seem so lifelike and real. 

Though Case is able to pull through in the end and settle on which reality is real, Armitage is not.  Hallucinations, virtual realities, and simulated experiences serve to confuse him to the point he no longer knows what is and isn’t objective reality.  His mind snaps and Wintermute disposes of his psychologically torched husk as if it were rubbish.  It is through this extreme example that Gibson illustrates the potential danger of conflicting perceptions of realities.  Without clear distinctions between the memory of an objective experience and the memory of a virtual yet 100% realistic experience, a person’s psyche is left at odds with itself, and the baseline from which experiences are weighed loses clarity.

And what of the effect of this immersion in alternate realities on relationships?   It is interesting that not one of the Sprawl characters forms what would be considered a warm, loving relationship.  The alienation brought about by regular existence in alternate realities have broken characters’ trust not only in their own perceptions of reality, but distanced them from the web of social involvement.  Mona, searching for drugs with money gained by selling her body, uses people and is used by people, no attempt at making more emotional connections.  Distrustful of everyone, she never forms a significant partnership with anyone she meets, Eddy only a meal ticket.  Likewise, the relationship between Angie and Bobby, though surviving for seven years, is swallowed by the egoistic habits of each: Bobby a craving to dig into cyberspace as deep as the Finn and Angie to the media conglomerate of T-A as their superstar.  The mental games played on Case by Wintermute and 3Jane create a rift between his glowing memories of his former girlfriend Linda Lee and their depictions of her--for better and worse--in simulated reality.  Case walks away from Neuromancer unfit and unwilling to pursue any meaningful relationship.  And lastly, Gibson plays the stylistic game so well that Kimiko never knows if Thom, the little AI in her helper disk, is a conscious being or an extremely lifelike AI construct.  The ambivalence prevents her from forming a natural relationship with Thom, the disk serving her needs as those around Mona do hers.

But for all of the metaphysical and social questions facing the characters, Gibson is able to take discussion regarding the definition of existence a step further.  The end of Neuromancer finds Finn inhabiting the matrix, his physical form no longer functioning in the real world.  Likewise, the climax of Mona Lisa Overdrive sees the characters Bobby and Angie dead in the real world but alive in an aleph.  An homage to Jose Louis Borges (who wrote a short story of the same title), an aleph is an object that can reveal the entire universe--a point that contains all other points, into infinity.  These two’s personalities still alive and interactive--as proved by Gentry and Slick when they jacked into the aleph to meet Bobby--serious questions are raised regarding the actuality of existence for Bobby, Angie and the Finn.  Lacking physical form, are they alive?  Their personalities interactive and for all practical purposes conscious, how to categorize personas lacking tangibility?  Do they fall under the same set of laws as typical humans?  What are their limits and possibilities for experience?  As long as the aleph maintains a power supply, are they effectively immortal?  The fear of death and the goal of immortality desirable for many in Western culture, to what lengths would humanity go to achieve a similar state as the three?  And the list could go on.

With Gibson’s future vision drawing closer by the year, these and other questions begin to occupy significant space aside the variety of social concerns society faces - and all due to changes in technology, not humanity.  By presenting the world as such, Gibson’s moral point of view is obvious.  Perhaps inescapable, humanity nevertheless needs to be aware of the physical, moral, and psychological effects of developing and applying technology.  Though undoubtedly black-listed by religious organizations and fundamentalists, the Sprawl series is not a grand glorification of sex, drugs, technology, and violence, but rather a presentation of these aspects as the natural outcome of the current state of capitalism’s application of scientific developments.  Perhaps mostly a thought experiment, the potential reality, like Orwell’s 1984 or Huxley’s Brave New World, should make the reader think, and moreover, prepare.

The Sprawl trilogy covers a lot of ground.  The degree to which scientific advances are commoditized and dispersed and integrated with humanity day by day, as well as the aspects of human nature which tends toward self-destruction (drugs, ecocide, etc.) are some of the issues taking the stage.  The slow dissolution of character, from the innocently unaware to the hardened tech-head, and accordingly, it is also an examination of the meaning of life; if AIs and digitized consciousnesses have thought and intelligence, what fundamentally separates them from standard humanity?  Thus, at all levels does Gibson’s Sprawl plant its crosshairs squarely on the near-future of humanity and ask the metaphysical questions that need answering before existence evolves beyond the bounds of definition.

If looking for more information, below you will find my reviews of the books which comprise the Sprawl series:

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