Saturday, February 26, 2011

Neuromancer by William Gibson

Neuromancer by William Gibson is a science fiction novel released in 1984 that won numerous awards for science fiction and is generally regarded to have founded the genre known as "cyberpunk." It is an extremely intriguing tale of cybernetics, cyberspace, artificial intelligence, and the effect of high technology on the world.

The book is a fairly difficult read in the sense that at a given time it can be difficult to know if "you" are in the real world, cyberspace, on earth or in space so I'm going to give some background on each character and the general setting before getting to the summary & questions.


Wintermute - one half of a "Super-AI" that was created illegally by the TA family and they lost control of it. Needs to unite with it's other half "Neuromancer" to become the true "Super-AI" as it was illegal to create a singular "Super-AI" at the time of Wintermute's creation. It directs the team of Armitage, Case, Molly, and The Dixie Flatline to attempt to accomplish this goal.

Case - degenerate former computer hacker who had is ability to "jack-in" to cyberspace taken from him after he stole from one of his employers. Has this ability returned to him after Armitage (at Wintermute's command) pays for his nervous system to be repaired so he can help Wintermute.

Armitage - former military, part of an experimental program known as "The Screaming Fist" that has left him psychologically unstable. He is the head of the crew that Wintermute is putting together.

Molly - A "razorgirl" who is also recruited by Armitage. She has extensive cybernetic implants including implants granting her superhuman reflexes and retractable 4cm double-edged razor blades that come out from under her finger nails. She also has implanted mirrored lenses over her eyes with various optical enhancements (a heads up display of info., etc.). So where her eyes would be just looks like mirrors from the outside.

Peter Riviera - a crazy, hopelessly drug-addicted, thief who can project holographic images using cybernetic implants.

The Dixie Flatline - famous computer hacker, taught Case how to hack, became famous for surviving three flat-lines on his EEG while trying to hack an AI. He is now dead but his mind is stored on what is basically a flash drive. It is this "construct" that helps Case throughout the novel.

General Setting

A dystopian future where technology rules. The space where data flows freely is formally called the Matrix (I am not kidding, no relation to the movie), also known as cyberspace (Gibson invented this term). Organs and any kind of tissue can be grown in a lab. Instead of steroids there are "muscle grafts" where surgeons implant muscle grown in a lab onto people's bodies. Cybernetics are common place. Many people think of their body as "the meat" and the matrix is slowly becoming the new reality.


The novel starts off with Case as a low level drug dealer/hustler in the underworld of Chiba City, Japan. He is living a self destructive lifestyle, sleeping in 9' long 3' high "rooms" called coffins by day, and dealing drugs by night. It is a given that he will be killed if he continues living like he is much longer. Luckily for him Molly comes along and recruits him for Armitage's team with the promise of restoring his ability to enter the matrix. His ability is restored but sacs of poison are placed on his blood vessels that will re-disable him if he fails to complete the job in time. Case's first task is to hack into the network of a corporation called Sense/Net so that Molly can steal The Dixie Flatline from the building. After this is done Molly and Case start investigating Armitage and find out that he used to be Colonel Willis Corto. Many years prior the government had sent him on a suicide mission to test Russian air defenses. Corto didn't know it was a suicide mission and his survival was a problem for the government. They rebuilt him as he was extensively wounded during his escape from the Russians and used him to cover up the whole incident. However, Corto was left mentally unstable and the government abandoned him. This is when Case and Molly find out that it is the AI Wintermute that is actually calling the shots. The team then travels to Istanbul to recruit Riviera into the team. While in Istanbul Case and Molly find out that Wintermute was created by the TA family who's fortune alternates among members of the family who spend most of their time in cryonic preservation, only thawing for short periods of several decades to manage the company. They are housed in the Villa Straylight, a mansion on the space station called Freeside. Inside Villa Straylight the member of the TA family that is thawed currently resides and has the code that Wintermute needs to unite with Neuromancer. Case's job is to use a virus program to break down the barriers of Villa Straylight's network security so Molly and Riviera can get to this person. Riviera will use his abilities to obtain the code that Wintermute needs from the currently thawed member of the TA family, Lady 3Jane Marie-France (the third clone of the original Jane). Once the team of Molly and Riviera make it to Lady 3Jane Riviera turns on Molly and Case goes in after her. A standoff between Case, Molly, Lady 3Jane, Riviera, and Lady 3Jane's vat grown ninja bodyguard Hideo ensues. I will not ruin the ending for you.

Artist's rendition of what the matrix/cyberspace as portrayed in the novel might look like.

Random other interesting tech. in the story
-Molly has had a "simstim" implanted in her brain that allows Case to use his computer to connect with her brain and see through her eyes and feel what she feels. He can hear what she says and what goes on around her but she cannot hear anything he says.

-Molly's ranged weapon of choice is a pistol called a "fletcher" that shoots microscopic poison darts.

-The human-computer interface is handled by what are called 'trodes that plug into the person's skull. When these are plugged in it is referred to as "jacking-in"


1) With the success of Watson on Jeopardy humanity is coming closer and closer to being able to build computers that actually "think" (artificial intelligence) instead of just process data. An AI is one of the central characters in Neuromancer and is an extreme technological breakthrough but also is something that is able to kill people indirectly and appears to have no sense of morality or what might be referred to as a "soul." Do you think humans should continue trying to develop artificial intelligence? Why? What could some of the benefits be, a quick example is that IBM says Watson (who is not a true AI) could be used for medical diagnosis? Risks?

2) In the world of Neuromancer personal identity is an interesting concept. Who is a person really, what makes up someone's identity? Just their personality, as is the case with The Dixie Flatline? A combination of their personality and physical body, as it the case with Molly? Who they are in the matrix, as could be the case with Case as he is a drastically different "person" in the matrix then in the real world? Does an AI have an identity and if not then what is it? What does the matrix do to the concept of identity? Feel free to comment on any one of these questions.


Megan D. 11-12 said...

Technology has been used in many useful ways and has saved lives. This can be seen by simply walking into a hospital. My Grandfather had a major surgery to remove a cancerous organ and tissue and the doctor was able to use tiny robotic instruments for the surgery. Because of this, there was minimal muscle and tissue damage and he recovered from the surgery in a little under a week despite the fact that he is in his late 70's. That's just one example of the many pluses of advancing technology, and I believe that Watson is just the next step. Now, From my understanding, Watson is simply able to compile possible answers to any given question based on data that "he" has been given access to. I'm fine with this because his operation is reliant on humans. I do not, however, think that we should develop computers that think for themselves. They are not dependent on their makers and are not subject to the moral code of humans. They then could end up being a detriment to the human race instead of being an asset. This "Newromancer" sounds like an interesting book, by the way.

Jacob B 11-12 said...

I believe that humans should not be trying to create artificial intelligence computers that think for themselves. I believe that if we were to do this we would end up leaving many decisions to computers that need to be thought about with moral judgement. One such desicion could be (Im using a terminator reference now) decisions involving the military. The computers could end up killing many people because they didnt use moral judgement to make their decisions.

tyler k 13-14 said...

Answering question one, i do not believe that humanity should continue striving towards the creation and execution of artificial intelligence. Without emotion, moral, and/or mercy, machines would or could possibly exterminate the weak or second best (humans)out of the natural tendency to compete for existence.

Cassie M 11-12 said...

1. Honestly, artificial intelligence scares me. The idea is good, but for one thing humans will become lazy to the point of not being able to think for themselves. Also, I would not feel safe with a bunch of unfeeling computers around. They are more intelligent than any one thing should ever be. One could do anything, and would be almost impossible to control. The risks are not worth the benefits in my opinion. I don't think the
world is meant to be that way.

Cieran B. 5-6 said...

I think that AI computers are fine if you treat them with the necessary precautions. They should teach the AI right from wrong, and they should not to try and install perfection into their mind because if that happens like in all other movies and books they will think and realize humanity is imperfect and will treat it with a not so friendly response. Some of the benefits that they can monitor mass amounts of information that normal computers and humans cant and they can help to bring back a loved one through programming. Some of the risks however would be like before " the not so friendly response" and like in this book it can pose a threat to humanity.

Justin B. 11-12 said...

I agree with the people that say that AI is an interesting concept that could benefit the world, robots could do dangerous jobs that today are too complicated for a robot to understand for example, but we must tread very carefully as it would be walking on a razor's edge because the military would definitely want in on the tech. and I think that you cannot allow that to happen.

Clarification about Watson. The big deal about Watson is not that he can parse a huge database for answers, that's been around for years. The big deal is that he can understand what the clues on Jeopardy are asking even though they are usually filled with pop culture references, puns, slang, vague hints, plays on words, etc. So basically a computer is able to understand normal human speech in a question form.

Mrs. Sherwood said...

thread closed