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Neuromancer, The Matrix, and the Organic Machine

Monday night we had our second official book club meeting. We read Neuromancer, a sci-fi novel from the 80’s by William Gibson, and watched 1999’s The Matrix, which was supposedly the movie equivalent of the book.

Firstly, I will say that whoever told me that The Matrix was Neuromancer as a movie was wrong. The only similarity was that they both talked about a matrix. The matrices were also different; Neuromancer’s appeared to be more like the regular Internet than The Matrix‘s virtual reality mainframe, although it was hard to tell with Gibson’s style. There was some parallel in the plot (Neuromancer: destroy the AI at the bidding of one half of the AI, without the half of the AI that doesn’t want to be destroyed stopping you; The Matrix: fight/destroy the Matrix…so sort of similar), but really I think we could call this at best a small inspiration.

Secondly, I’m sort of ambivalent towards both the book and the movie. I read Neuromancer really quickly, so I’m not going to say I didn’t like it until I’ve spent a little more time with it. However, it was very hard to follow. The world is similar to our own but with a lot of different jargon and behavior, and a lot of it wasn’t explained until three or four pages after the fact. Also, Gibson has a real pronoun problem. I frequently lost track of which character he was referring to amidst all the hes and shes and theys.

I was irresponsible and didn’t start reading the book until the day of the meeting, which is why I had to read it so quickly; but I was able to formulate one solid observation of both Neuromancer and The Matrix. Both works contained contradictory impressions of flesh versus machinery, organics versus mechanics. This seems to be a recurring them in sci-fi, since a lot of sci-fi involves AI and cyborgs and biotechnology; not that I’ve read a lot of sci-fi, but what I have almost always mentions this flesh-machine dichotomy.

(Mind you, this is a very informal discussion, so keep calm and have fun.)

Meat and Relational Metaphor

Neuromancer‘s main character, Case, provides us early on with some conflicting metaphors. Page six: “…the elite stance involved a certain relaxed contempt for the flesh. The body was meat. Case fell into the prison of his own flesh.” Clearly, this is a world that values the mechanical over the organic. He relates sensations in technological terms: “The pill lit his circuits” (19). Even his surroundings get this treatment: “…it was possible to see Ninsei as a field of data…” (16).

It gets interesting when you continue that last quote from page sixteen though: “…the way the matrix had once reminded him of proteins linking to distinguish cell specialties.” Oh? What we have here is an organic setting understood as data which connects in a way understood through organics. So when we consider the world of Neuromancer, which features advanced technology and rampant bionic augmentation–is this a world where we relate to technology through organics, or where we relate to organics through technology? If the body is meat and held in contempt by the cyberspace cowboys, how can it be that the matrix appears to be inspired by a basic bodily process?

The Body as Gadget

The fact is that in both Neuromancer and The Matrix, the body is treated like another gadget. In Neuromancer, the jargon for getting into/onto the matrix is “jacking in.” This immediately made me think of phone jacks, and it also produced an image in my mind of The Matrix, where the freed humans all have these cranial plugs, which they shove a spike into in order to connect to the Matrix. They are plugging themselves into the system, the way you plug in a TV, or an external harddrive, or any electronic.

In The Matrix, in fact, the humans are rather like computers, particularly in that they can download software programs to learn martial arts and how to fly helicopters, among other things. Now, it’s unclear in the film whether those skills are present both in the real world and in the Matrix, and I frankly don’t remember if the sequels address it. But could it work?

It honestly doesn’t seem too far-fetched. The brain runs on electrical impulses, after all. That’s why the machines use humans for energy: because we generate a lot of it on our own. If we had the technology, could the electronic data streams our computers create communicate with the electronic patterns of our brains? Virtual reality is already a thing using headsets and gloves; it doesn’t seem like too much of a leap to imagine jacking directly in with our brains.

It could possibly be accomplished with some of the bionic augmentation seen in Neuromancer. One character, Molly, is excited to show off the clock she’s had “chipped” into her eye, so that it constantly reads in the corner of her vision. The artificial intelligence Wintermute is able to hack the chip and cause the clock to read text as well, which it can send to her in real time. So theoretically, a microchip in the right part of the brain, perhaps chips in the digits to replace virtual reality gloves…and we may have a Matrix on our hands.

Drawing the Line

Neuromancer passes no judgment on technology, highlighting instead the self-destructive tendencies of humanity. The Matrix, on the other hand, draws clear battle lines of morality between the humans and the machines. Obviously, there are fundamental differences between an organic being and a mechanical being; but as I’ve pointed out, the line is not so clear between the two as Morpheus would have you believe. With increasingly advanced technology, there is an increased blending of biological and technological. Even today this is demonstrable, evidenced by Google’s proposed augmented reality glasses, for example.

Whether this is because, as Case says, the body is meat and a prison of the flesh, I don’t know. I don’t think we’re far enough along for that to be a common viewpoint. But ten years down the road, this discussion may be a lot more formal and a lot more relevant.