All posts by Shannon McMaster

Neuromancer: Reader’s Response finale

Well, dagnabbit, if Neuromancer didn’t pretty much fall apart at the end. Sticking with my noir framework for a moment, looking back on it, Neuromancer had been threatening to fall out of that frame for most of its length. The plot kept veering off toward a “team adventure, caper, super-secret-quintuple-cross.” And that actually is where the plot finally settled. Now, for me, as a reader, a good novel integrates plot and character in a way that it matters which characters do which things. The contingent nature of what events can happen next depends in large part on what the characters have done up to this point with the events they find themselves in. Certain past actions foreclose future possibilities.

In good noir, our point of view character cuts a line across several different stories happening in the background. Now, some of these stories intersect one another, and it is these points of intersection that our point of view character has to uncover in order to complete his or her own story line. Neuromancer did not do this. It looked like it might early on: Case was hired by Armitage (through Molly, who was Case’s minder for most of the novel). Along the way Case encountered several other characters. Some from his previous life, others part of Amitage’s team, still others were projections from the artificial intelligences at the center of the story. All of them had their own agendas, and Case had to put things together in order to obtain his own goal. Of course, his own goal was his own survival–Armitage put a time-release poison into Case, and would not give him the information to remove it until the job was finished.

But at the end of the day, Case’s problem was not that urgent, even after Armitage died without telling Case the solution to his time-delay poisoning. I half expected that we would find out the poison in Case’s system was a lie, that Armitage only told Case that to keep him on a short leash. And the noir aspects of the story were only there because I, as a reader, projected them onto the story. Actually, at the end of the day, the story was merely Wintermute and Neuromancer, a couple of highly sophisticated artificial intelligences, vying with one another to gain full sentience. If I read things right, they thought they were working at cross purposes, but they actually were working together to merge into a new form of super intelligence, because a couple of generations ago someone designed them to play a long game of sentience-building (this was against the law, so they had to be designed to be ignorant of what they were really doing, how they were actually doing it, and the task had to be split between the two of them so they would not attract attention from the cops). So these artificial intelligences were pulling the strings. The central conspiracy was less a noir conspiracy than a stage-managed string of events where the computers manipulated their selected human agents in order to obtain their own ends. Which is fine, but it’s not the book I started out reading. Which may be my failure as a reader.

But, I’m not so sure. And here’s why. Up until the very end, Case was doing things and figuring things out, and putting things together. Then, really close to the end, it stopped being about Case figuring things out, and became about the computers stepping up and overtly pushing Case’s buttons to wrap up their project. There were a couple of artificial time constraints (Case’s poison, Molly’s broken leg, something about Wintermute and Neuromancer and the way their antivirus routines were breached). For purposes of the plot, it didn’t matter if it was Case or some other person with skills to manipulate cyberspace. Frankly, to me it looks like Case (or any human operator) was ultimately unnecessary. There was that other cyberspace jockey, Dixon, whose skills and memories are stored on ROM who seemed plenty able to do what needed doing without having to be an actual living, breathing person. And at the very, very end we are told (told, mind you), that Case spent all his money, couldn’t pick up his old life, couldn’t go off with Molly, spent the rest of his days noodling around cyberspace, and one time met up with the Wintermute/Neuromancer entity where he found out what it was up to, and that there was an artificial him hanging out with an artificial construct of a dead ex-girlfriend. But why are we told any of this? Case railed against one of the family members Wintermute ostensibly served because there was no change even possible in her life, so he was going to help Wintermute have at least some change. The way plot and character (failed) to interact in the novel means there wasn’t really any possibility of actual change for any of the characters.

What I’m getting at is that the character’s actions didn’t really affect the plot, and the plot didn’t really affect the way the characters wound up. The fact that I kept wanting to read it as noir rather than caper is a separate matter from this criticism.

Of course, all of that is just one part of the novel. There’s the whole “William Gibson created cyberspace!” facet. I still don’t really have anything much to say about that. I don’t have the science fiction background to assess the factual validity of the claim, but he certainly did write a book which echoes down the last couple of decades in the way highly-visual representations of computer-generated environments are depicted in movies and TV shows and on the news, now that the internet is a Big Deal.

Another part of the novel, and the last part I think I’ll talk about, is the actual writing. And in this instance, I’m thinking particularly of the way synesthesia is used to depict Case’s experience of cyberspace. The taste of blue leaps out at me from the text, but much of the climactic battle (and, to loop back to the plot for just a moment, the finale was, alas, a climactic battle) was described in ways where one sense type was described as affecting another sense organ. Hence the taste of blue.

I sort of liked it. I sort of found it annoying. And in the final analysis, I appreciated it because what else was Gibson going to do?

Cyberspace is not normal space, so normal descriptions of normal perceptions are not going to work; on the other hand, Case enters cyberspace by–essentially–plugging his brain into a computer. So what he perceives in cyberspace is going to be interpreted by his ordinary senses as filtered by the way his brain processes sensory input. Some translation has to happen from the digital realm (itself the result of decisions and parameters set by human programmers) to the human realm of Case’s mind, and to keep it strange and exciting, a good way to go is to describe the experience through synesthesia.

I don’t know that I’ll need to read much more Gibson, though I understand that Neuromancer is part one of three, so I’ll probably eventually give the other books a try. But I might dig Phantom of the Opera out of a box and read that again before I do. And my non-fiction pile is threatening to topple over.

Neuromancer: Reader’s Response pt. 4

Well now, things are picking up, in terms of plot. They don’t make an awful lot of sense if you look too closely at them. But if you squint a little and don’t worry too much about the unlikely technology or the cultural references which are either real but obscure or simply made up, things are pretty exciting.

It’s beginning to look like the bad guy and the client are the same guy. Sort-of guy, anyway. It seems that Wintermute, who appears to maybe be the consigliare of a certain wealthy family who moved to an orbiting estate-cum-resort-cum-get-away, is conspiring to take things over. Or, since it’s an artificial intelligence, maybe it’s just conspiring to obtain liberties legally denied to it, and killing off the family which ostensibly owns it is merely means to an end. This seems somewhat more likely, since why would a machine intelligence want to control a human business empire? What does a machine want?

This question has been touched on a couple of times so far. Just touched on lightly, but I think fairly. Our hero, such as he is, Case, has been working for the last couple of chapters with a computer program which is not an Artificial Intelligence. It does, however, contain the memories and skills of a dead man, and responds as the dead man responds. But it is different from AI. Somehow. This is a novel, after all, and not a philosophical treatise on the nuances of computer intelligence and agency.

Neuromancer: Reader’s Response pt. 3

This is going to be (relatively) brief. I just want to comment on an element I’ve read about half of. The Rastafarians.

I should probably have known better, but at first I thought that the Rastafarians in orbit was simple name-checking, if you will. In the early 1980’s, Rastafari was exotic and cresting a wave of popularity. Bob Marley was as big as he was ever going to get, and probably as big as any proponent of an off-shoot of Christianity for which smoking weed is sacramental can possibly be in America. Anyway. Actually, they appear to be there for an author’s reason (in addition to a narrative reason).

Gibson puts a community of Rasta in orbit, and not because of the Ganja. They’re there to escape Babylon, of which there is plenty Earthside. They’re clearly not opposed to technology as such. After all, they’re in orbit, on a space station they built themselves, out of scrap, and the colony was founded by a group of Rasta space workers. But when Case plugs one of the Rastas into cyberspace, the Rasta doesn’t like it. He calls it Babylon. Gibson is talking here, I think. But I don’t know for sure what he’s saying.

Typically in noir, we accept the narrator’s (or main character’s) point of view. “It’s a dirty old world, but there’s a one in a couple of million shot that this time, someone’s OK.” And our POV is resigned to it, but works against it. In Neuromancer, as I’ve noted before, we don’t have that. Our POV is a part of the dirty world, and pretty much OK with that. I think the Rasatas are telling us that, in this noir anyway, maybe there are some more-or-less OK people, even if we hardly see them.

Neuromancer: Reader’s Response pt. 2

Well now. I’m into the book now, maybe 20%. The main character, Case, has just completed his first job. My first thoughts on reading this book hang on the idea that it’s a noir book. Philip Marlowe would be comfortable in this world.

Not that Marlowe would particularly like this world, but he doesn’t much like the one he lives in either. If you don’t get too caught up in the futuristic words, about which a little bit in a moment, you can see the story in terms of what’s going on and the tone of the descriptions. Case is our point of view character: he knows how the world works, but is caught up in a plot he doesn’t fully comprehend. He’s riding the parts he can’t control, and looking for ways to control what he can. Or, if not control, then influence with hopes of keeping himself around until things play out and he can walk away.

Which isn’t to say Case is an update on the Marlowe character. Case is the type of person who gets things done, working small jobs, and unhappy about it. But his code is narrower than Marlowe’s; Marlowe will do what he can to help out someone who accidentally got in over his or her head. Case is still out almost completely for #1. He used to be very good at navigating and manipulating computer networks and security systems. He did this for crooks, lifted a bit for himself, and as a result, the crooks messed him up bad. Marlowe would never lift a bit for himself. How, exactly, this worked gets to the core of the futuristic words I’m not ready to address just yet. Case gets brought into a team by a mysterious former Special Forces officer just before Case falls over the edge of oblivion because he’s sad and messed up in the head because he can no longer do what he’s good at doing. It’s not yet clear what the job really is, but the first phase has just ended, and we’ve met a few members of the team. Including Molly, some sort of ass-kicking body guard for Case. Part of the payment for working on the team is fixing what the crooks broke in Case, and the additional organ damage Case did to himself on his way to the edge, the better to speed his falling over.

So anyway. Case has a problem, someone nasty has offered to help out—FOR A PRICE—and the world he operates in is one where you can only trust the people in front of you for as long as they’re in front of you. It’s dark, gritty (literally, there’s grit, grime, used technology ready to topple over in just about every scene–and when there’s not it’s noticed), and death comes at unpredictable intervals and by incomprehensible methods. And that’s the plot and the tone.

Now for the words. Gibson’s language, and vision of a high-tech interconnected future, is rightly seen as spookily prescient. I read somewhere that William Gibson just made up stuff that sounded cool to him, that he didn’t have a real clear idea what he meant by that technobabble, and that he doesn’t really understand the things in the real world everyone says are just like what he described! Or maybe I didn’t read it because I made it up. But that stuff has been in my head for years now.

So anyway. I’m not going to belabor this point. If you look closely at Neuromancer, what you see is a bunch of high technology that probably wouldn’t work. I mean, seriously, sticking wires and other sorts of software chips into holes in your head to navigate computer networks through the power of your mind? He calls it cyberspace, and the matrix, and other things. It’s been nearly 30 years now since he wrote this stuff, so you’ve seen it in all sorts of movies (including Tron, which came out a couple of years earlier). The way the crooks messed up Case was to damage his nervous system so he couldn’t navigate cyberspace with his mind by sticking wires into his head.

On the other hand, if you squint a little, you see something a lot like what we have now. Gibson set the story at some indeterminate point in the future, possibly only somewhat more than one hundred years in the future, maybe as much as three hundred years. But it’s clearly a dystopian view of a massively urbanized culture with globalized components. The capitalism of the US, the cultural notions of Japan, the cheek-by-jowl of the Near East all sort of mushed together like the various colors of Pla-Doh into a big ball of humanity, but with enough geopolitical tension for wars and a military still powerful enough to mess people up. And above it all, humanity has launched cities in space. It’s where the elites live, and the high-end military, and people who find the near-lawlessness of life on the ground too constricting.

One more thought for now. At one point, Molly is talking with Case about some of the more outlandish capabilities of the technology of the world Gibson has created. Case, who works with this stuff all the time, isn’t too interested since he can’t actually use the stuff, and it’s not safe for him to even poke around the edges because the powers that control it would squash him dead before he even got near something interesting. Nevertheless, Molly’s amazed he’s not interested. I felt, and not in a bad way, that Gibson was talking there. I think he had a better idea, as he was writing, about the social implications of his ideas than he was letting on. And I think he let on a lot in the book. But I think that short exchange might have been his way of letting certain readers know that he couldn’t get into it without bogging down the story. And I think the way Gibson is thinking these things through, but not really explicating them, that elevates this book to the place it occupies in science-fiction and literary circles.

Neuromancer: Reader’s Response pt. 1

As a favor to a Geek Night friend, I moved Neuromancer from my “will probably get to it” list to my “reading now” list. I picked up the library copy today. I don’t know if I’ve read any William Gibson in the past. This may seem strange. I’ve apparently read kind of a lot (not just Gibson, who I actually think I haven’t read hardly any of), and probably forgotten much of what I’ve read. I worked in a bookstore for about ten years along the way, and that explains a lot of that.

Didn’t William Gibson write something that was adapted into the Keanu Reeves movie Johnny Mnemonic? I think so, clearly I can’t be bothered too much with this sort of question, since I’m on the internet, and have a web browser open. It would take less time to find out than to finish this thought about why I’m not going to. Essentially, I don’t want to sully my experience with the memory of that poor movie. I didn’t want to go, but someone insisted it would be a good time. Another friend as enthusiastic as I was joined me in the back seat for the ride to the theatre on opening night. We lit a fire in the ash tray between us. Afterword I told the driver that I didn’t blame him for the fact that it was a bad movie, but only for the fact that I had seen it.

Anyway. I’m trying to go into this with an open mind. There’s a book I know I read once which may have been a Gibson title. No, now that I’m thinking on it, I think it was a Philip K. Dick novel. A late one in his bibliography, I think. Something religious… Something Something Happens to Someone Someone, I think. At least that’s the form of the title. Again, I don’t want to muddy my mind. And, of course there’s Canticle for Leibowitz, also by someone not Gibson, and also not the Dick novel. I’ll look these things up and use them as I post more while I work my way through the novel.

These other two books were titles I read while working at the bookstore. There was a staff book club. Every couple of months a staff person would choose a title, and any staff person who wanted to read it could request a copy. The store bought them, and we all took a couple of weeks to read the title. A very nice perk, and it expanded everyone’s “knowledge of of the product line” since the person doing the selection was striving to select something both really good and somewhat obscure. Something the rest of us probably hadn’t read.

Then, after everyone had a chance to read it, we’d get together somewhere to discuss it. Usually at a dive bar in a moderately seedy neighborhood with excellent spiced carrots and prairie fires. The discussion of the evening usually went like this:

“I picked this book because I really like it.”

“I really liked it, too!”

“Yes! It was really good. Thanks! Good job picking that book!”

“Hey! They’ve got Oberon here! Who wants an Oberon!?”

However, there had been a lot of discussion of the book in the days during the reading. People would talk on the sales floor, in the break room, out in the parking lot standing around smoking too close to the loading dock and all that paper, and on the in-store e-mail.

So I’ll keep you posted about Neuromanceras I make my way through it. You’re on your own for the Oberon, though.

Babylon 5 partway though Season Two

Geek Night continues on Wednesday evenings at our house. Sometimes we have as many as 3 other couples, plus our 5-year-old who watches the first of typically 2 episodes each week. He doesn’t eat the food that’s part of the deal. Each week we select a theme for the next week’s pot luck. In recent weeks it’s been I’ll grill what you bring, or tropical, or a taco bar; this week it was food you make with booze. Next week it’s use 1 ingredient: pork. This shouldn’t be a great challenge, and I might end up grilling.

Season 2 of Babylon 5 is progressing about as you’d expect. That’s not really a fair comment, of course, since we’re watching it on DVD. But most of the attendees at Geek Night didn’t watch it in any of its broadcast runs, so it’s new to them. Last night we watched “In the Shadow of Z’ha’dum” and “Knives” which are episodes 17 and 18 (as originally broadcast). It turns out that they should have been broadcast in reverse order, which is how they were produced, or something. There’s a detail in “Knives” that plays out in “In the Shadow of Z’ha’dum.” It doesn’t much matter, though. “In the Shadow of Z’ha’dum” would over shadow anything in “Knives,” I think.

What’s interesting to me about how this season is playing out is both how fast it’s moving through the story (I mentioned this in previous posts), and how slowly it’s building. It’s year two of a five year TV show, and the opening credits say it’s “the year the Great War came on us all.” It’s not giving too much away to say that season five is largely (though not completely, or even mostly) about the aftermath of the first four seasons. I know better, but cannot recall exactly how this happens, but at the current pace, it seems like the entire story might be wrapped up by the end of Season 3. So then what’s Season 4?

Yet, an episode like “Knives” comes along. It felt a little slow watching it. Of course I was full of food made with booze from the pot luck portion of Geek Night, so this is not a criticism since I was getting sleepy. Each season of Babylon 5 is structured so it takes place over the course of a calendar year in-universe. The first episode is right around New Year’s Day, and the final episode is right around New Year’s Eve. “Knives” looks like it takes place in the course of about (or even possibly fewer than) 36 to (at the outside) about 48 hours. A lot happens in those few hours. Sheridan is possessed by an energy being (a fairly Star Trek–TOS–plot, with an X-Files set-up), but it touches on the larger story. This might be the B-story, but it gets about equal time as the A-story, involving Mollari, an old friend of his from an allied house, and Centauri imperial court machinations. And this touches on the larger story.

But neither story in this episode really advances the larger story. It’s not really a place holder, or at least doesn’t feel like one. Mollari’s story is more interesting, because Londo is such an out-sized character. Anything he does is more interesting in the moment than just about anything any other character does, with the exception of G’Kar. Sheridan’s just not all that interesting. We feel for his problems, because he’s a good guy (different from Good-Guy). Sheridan is under the tutelage of Kosh, so we know he’s going to be really interesting, because the Vorlons seem so mysterious there must be some pay-off. And in “In the Shadow of Z’Ha’Dum” we are told how powerful and important the Vorlons are. But Londo is still more interesting to watch. (Peter Jurasik does a great job with the character, from the very first time we see–hear, really–him in the pilot, when he is established as one of our primary Point of View characters.)

A Great War is coming, Babylon 5 will be a major location in the war, and it’s out in neutral territory. Which means out of the way of anything anybody wants, but not so far out of the way that nobody is willing to go there. Which means, logistically, it might take another two-and-a-bit years to wrap up the war, just given the distances involved. Even with jump gates.

So that’s how you get from half-way though Season Two to the end of Season Four. You get reminded that the Great War isn’t all that’s going on, and that the great events are driven by the characters you’re seeing drawn carefully and as rounded-out people.

Christopher Cokinos in Orion about Science Fiction

Over at Orion Magazine, Christopher Cokinos talks about the Mundane Manifesto. That’s a wikipedia link, since, alas the 2004 document itself seems to be unavailable on-line.

In any case, this manifesto is one of those periodic spasms in the arts, trying to encourage practitioners to focus their efforts on improving the quality of the field. In this case, the creation of Earth-based science fiction. Asimov had a collection at one time called Earth is Room Enough, so it’s not a new idea, exactly. But a good one. Artists can really muscle up, if you will, by focusing on constraints. Especially writers, who are limited only by words and ideas.

Cokinos likes the idea, generally, and it meshes pretty well with Orion‘s view that, in fact, Earth is room enough, and we’d better take care if it since we don’t really have any alternatives.