Monday, August 5, 2013

The Basics Of Cyberpunk, Part Two: Neuromancer Is the Matrix

In "The Basics Of Cyberpunk, Part One" I pleaded with someone, anyone, to read the 1984 novel Neuromancer.  If I’ve convinced you to do so, then please wait to read this article.  Otherwise, I will spoil the novel’s ending.  And just so you know, when Roger Ebert described the 2010 movie TRON: Legacy as “a movie well beyond the possibility of logical explanation,” I thought it the perfect statement for Neuromancer.  It’s not an easy read, or at least not for me.  

And speaking of TRON: Legacy, after seeing it at our local theater I heard some opinions about how the movie ripped-off the 1999 movie The Matrix.  There are, I admit, many similarities which give rise to mash-up videos where Sam Flynn speaks with the voice of Neo and vice versa.  Even Daft Punk’s soundtrack is easily adapted to The Matrix.  However, it’s clear to me that Legacy is retelling and reclaiming its own mythology; that, in fact, the Game Grid came seventeen years before the Matrix.  So perhaps you can imagine how irked I became when I heard the comment: “TRON is just The Matrix on steroids.”  Clearly, that person didn’t see the 1982 release of TRON: The Original Classic:
TRON Classic:  A virtual battleship is “derezzed” and thus the computer code is eliminated.  Kevin Flynn jumps into the Master Control Program to rip its defensive code apart so TRON can defeat it with a light disc. 

The Matrix:  Neo jumps into Agent Smith and rips his code apart.

TRON Classic:  Kevin Flynn, as a User, discovers his god-like powers to reshape a recognizer as he sees fit.

The Matrix:  Morpheus tells Neo that as “the One” he can reshape the matrix.

There are numerous other examples since both are virtual worlds that are hacked into by the Users/Freed Minds on the outside.  Yet despite these similarities, I believe The Matrix is actually Neuromancer on steroids.

“What is the Matrix?”  Neo asks Morpheus, but fifteen years before that question came to theaters, William Gibson gave an answer when he wrote about Henry Dorsett Case:
“He’d operated on an almost permanent adrenaline high, a byproduct of youth and proficiency, jacked into a custom cyberspace deck that projected his disembodied consciousness into the consensual hallucination that was the matrix.”
In one sentence Gibson popularized the word “cyberspace” as well as innovating the concept of “jacking” into a “matrix.”

Gibson’s 1984 novel followed the 1982 classics Blade Runner and TRON and is infused with the cyberpunk of each respective movie.  The dystopian L.A. of Blade Runner is similar to Neuromancer’s Chiba City, while the Game Grid of TRON seems to have spawned Neuromancer’s “matrix” which “has its roots in primitive arcade games.”

Molly Millions, a woman in black leather and trained in martial arts, could very well be the model on which Trinity from The Matrix is based.

Furthermore, Henry Case is helped by Maelcum, a Rastafarian from Zion, a city in space.  Much like Neo who is helped by Tank who is born free as a true child of Zion, the last human city near the core where it is still warm.

Like Zion and jacking into a matrix, two other key concepts overlap between Neuromancer and The Matrix:  operator and construct.

In Neuromancer Gibson describes an operator as someone who accesses cyberspace by plugging-in:
Cyberspace.  A consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators...”   
Similarly, Tank serves as Neo’s operator, like a 20th century phone operator of old who must connect a plugged-in human to a hard-line - the only way out of the Matrix.

The construct in The Matrix is an independent system which allows Morpheus to practice fighting with Neo.  The construct is like the Matrix, but on a much smaller scale.  While the construct in Neuromancer is not so straight forward, it is a similar concept:
“We’re going to be pulling one hard core run, Case, just to get to the flatline’s construct...”
The fundamental difference between Neuromancer and The Matrix is the timeline.  Neuromancer occurs in a world where there are Turing laws against advanced artificial intelligences.  One can imagine that the Turning police kept the A.I.’s from dominating humanity. 

In The Matrix, there are no Turing regulations since humanity has already been defeated by A.I. machines.  I never tire of that conversation between Morpheus and  Neo about this reality: 
Morpheus“The Matrix is everywhere.  It is all around us.  Even now in this very room.  You can see it when you look out your window.  Or when you turn on your television.  You can feel it when you go to work.  When you go to church.  When you pay your taxes.  It is the world that has been pulled over your eyes to blind you from the truth.”

Neo“What truth?”

Morpheus“That you are slave Neo.  Like everyone else you were born into bondage.  Born into a prison you cannot smell or taste or touch.  A prison for your mind.”
Humanity, in fact, has become a crop that is harvested.  We are combined with a form of fusion and inserted into a power plant to serve as individual batteries.  Where Case’s body is defiled with drugs and surgeries, Neo’s body is fed intravenously with the liquid of the dead, then grown without any external perception of the real world.  What a mind job.

Then there’s Neuromancer where the A.I.’s are just starting to arise.  At the novel’s end there is the emergence of a system from the combination of two A.I.’s named Wintermute and Neuromancer:
Case“Wintermute had won, had meshed somehow with Neuromancer and become something else, something that had spoken to them from the platinum head, explaining that it had altered the Turing records, erasing all evidence of their crime...”
Gibson ends his novel with a conversation between Case and the entity that had “meshed” the A.I.’s Wintermute and Neuromancer together:
“I’m not Wintermute now.”
“So what are you?”  He (Case) drank from the flask, feeling nothing.
“I’m the matrix, Case.”
Like Morpheus’s description of the agents, the new entity describes itself as “Nowhere.  Everywhere.  I’m the sum total of the works, the whole show.”

Neuromancer is the Matrix.

By Mark Schelske

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