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William Gibson’s Neuromancer is a science fiction novel that is seen by many as the preeminent work of the “cyberpunk” genre. Neuromancer, like the countless others of its kind to follow, addresses themes concerning identity and/or lack there of. The “cyberpunk” genre as argued by Bruce Sterling was born out of the 1980's and was due in part to the rapid decentralization of technology. With the influx of computers, the internet, and virtual reality into the everyday household came technological discoveries that affected the individual. Certain themes that are central to “cyberpunk” involve implanted circuitry, cosmetic surgery, and mind invasions such as brain computer interfaces and artificial intelligence. (Sterling 346) With these issues in mind one must wonder what affect they have on the self or one’s identity. Within Neuomancer, Gibson creates a future where identities can become obscure/ambiguous, due to the sophisticated technology available which may alter various facets of a person’s physical or mental identity.
In Neuromancer, Molly’s sunglasses can be seen as a technological adaptation prohibiting her eyes from being seen. “...the glasses were surgically inset, sealing her sockets. The silver lenses seemed to grow from smooth pale skin above her cheekbones...” (Gibson 24) The eyes are said to be windows to the soul. Many emotions and states of mind are conveyed by the eyes. Molly, however, does not relinquish this power of perception to others. “The lenses were empty quicksilver, regarding him with an insect calm.” (Gibson 30) The mirrored sunglasses mask key characteristics of Molly’s identity (emotions).
Cosmetic surgery is another means by which characters in Gibson’s Neuromancer obscure their identities. On several occasions the reader comes in contact with individuals who have had surgery to make themselves appear more youthful or even to create a new face. Armitage and Riviera are two such characters who had faces created for them. “He was very beautiful; Case assumed the features were the work of a Chiba surgeon. A subtle job, nothing like Armitage’s blandly handsome blend of pop faces.” (Gibson 97) In this instance we have an example of two characters who have utilized state of the art technology to alter their physical identity. Referring to two policemen, “Case peered at them and saw that their youth was counterfeit, marked by a certain telltale corrugation at the knuckles, something that the surgeons were unable to erase.
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Brain-computer interfaces and artificial intelligence further distort identities and realities in this novel.
“...what you think of as Wintermute is only a part of another, a, shall we say, potential entity. I, let us say, am merely one aspect of that entity’s brain. It’s rather like dealing, from your point of view, with a man whose lobes have been severed. Let’s say your dealing with a small part of the man’s left brain. Difficult to say if you’re dealing with the man at all, in a case like that.” (Gibson 120)
Wintermute (AI) appears to Case in the form of an acquaintance named Deane. This illusion is indistinguishable from the real thing. The identity of the AI, as stated above, is made uncertain by the illusion and by the complexity of the AI’s mind (computer). Case is speaking with a part of the artificial intelligence. It’s computer brain is immense, capable of performing many tasks and having many thoughts at the same time.
The aforementioned quote not only applies to the difficulty Case encounters when attempting to ascertain the identity of the AI, but also to the situation that exists with the “puppet” prostitutes.
“...cause once they plant the cut-out chip, it seems like free money. Wake up sore, sometimes, but that’s it. Renting the goods, is all. You aren’t in, when it’s all happening. House has software for whatever a customer wants to pay for...” (Gibson 147)
In this instance we find an example of technology being used to “benefit” both the prostitute and the customer. The prostitute has an out of body experience of sorts when they are being used. The customer is provided with fantasies that are acted out by a computer manipulating the prostitutes body. On one hand the prostitute loses their sense of self and identity by leaving their body, and on the other hand the customer is interacting with a body and a computer. The computer software provides a virtual (false) self/identity for the customer to interact with. Here technology has been used to try to improve prostitution, and at the same time has estranged people from their experiences and has denied them their identity.
It has been suggested by some that the character Dix or the "Flatline" is actually just a computer with numerous human qualities. There is a question of whether or not Dix really exists. I feel that this relates to identity because you can in turn ask the question, "if an identity of a person or being is obscure or constantly changing, do they exist? Which one of the identities is in existence?"
In Gibson’s Neuromancer, the technology available has not really redefined, but rather stripped society of its original definitions of self and identity. Cosmetic Surgery, brain-computer interfaces, genetic alteration and others have obscured the boundaries and dimensions of personal identity. The term “true identity” can no longer apply due to the expanse of alterations one can do to their mind and body. In the world of Neuromancer, nothing is free from change; there is almost nothing that technology cannot change.
Gibson, William Neuromancer. New York, Ace. 1984.
Sterling, Bruce "Preface from Mirrorshades." Storming the Reality Studio. 1991.