Gibson, William

    Gibson and posthumanism

    Anna McFarlane

     

    William Gibson (1948-) is an American author who has been resident in Canada throughout his writing career. He is best known for his 1984 novel Neuromancer which has had an important impact on posthumanism, both philosophically and culturally. Gibson’s novel depicts a future in which subjectivity is not confined to the “human” and is one of the main influences on popular visualisations of posthuman beings such as The Matrix film trilogy (1999-2003) or the Japanese manga and film series Ghost in the Shell(1989-). While the humans in Gibson’s world rely on prostheses, artificially synthesised drugs, and their relationship with “cyberspace” (a term coined by Gibson), subjectivity is taken on by corporations, the media, and the titular artificial intelligence, Neuromancer. The action of the novel follows Neuromancer’s efforts to join with his counterpart, Wintermute, in order to become a fully-conscious, independent being. The novel succeeds in portraying a world where subjectivity is defined by its relational, self-reproducing or autopoietic qualities rather than by human biology. In addition to posthuman beings such as artificial intelligences, characters like Molly Millions are fitted with numerous prosthetic body parts, allowing the reader to imagine the transformation of the human body into something that can no longer be easily described as “human”.[1] The influence of Gibson’s work on posthuman philosophy appears in N. Katherine Hayles’ How We Became Posthuman (1999). Hayles argues that Gibson’s novels “present a vision of the posthuman future that is already upon us”.[2]

    Gibson’s first three books, including Neuromancer, are known as the Sprawl Trilogy (1984-88) while the next three are known as the Bridge Trilogy (1993-99). These novels continue to explore posthuman subjects such as Rei Toei, an idoru (Japanese pop idol), and artificial intelligence who is present in real space thanks to hologram technology but who, like Neuromancer, becomes an independent consciousness by the end of the trilogy. Although the idoru achieves consciousness, Gibson shows evidence of human exceptionalism as human beings are described as having superior pattern recognition skills which allow them to understand chaotic systems intuitively in ways that artificial intelligences cannot.

    In the Blue Ant Trilogy (2003-2010) Gibson turns to what is described by Veronica Hollinger as a change in genre, from science fiction to what Hollinger refers to as “science fiction realism”.[3] In coining this term Hollinger recognises Gibson’s use of science fictional imagery in a realist setting, a technique which alienates readers from their own contemporary period. Starting with 2003’s Pattern Recognition, the Blue Ant trilogy is primarily mimetic and, unlike Gibson’s previous work, has a contemporary, rather than a futuristic, setting. Hollinger speculates that this change in mode (from science fiction to science fiction realism) is due to the increasing speed with which technology and the political landscape are changing, making properly science fictional extrapolation impossible.[4] The change also reflects the insecurity of the period immediately following the Twin Towers attacks on the 11th of September 2001. Gibson’s main character, Cayce, loses her father in the attacks and we experience her paranoia and insecurity as a result of this event. Gibson’s use of science fiction realism has some impact on his depiction of posthuman subjectivity. Whereas the Bridge Trilogy had shown some signs of human exceptionalism by elevating human pattern recognition skills, Pattern Recognition and the following two novels consider this human ability to perceive patterns as “both a gift and a trap”.[5] Pattern recognition is necessary as a way for humans to perceive the world, but it is also a trap as it can put humans at risk of “faulty” pattern recognition (apophenia), leading to paranoia and a failure to understand new or unexpected phenomena. Arguably, this new trilogy has strengthened Gibson’s commitment to posthumanism more than any of his previous novels. While the trilogy’s contemporary and realistic setting limits its portrayal of obviously posthuman beings like Molly Millions, the depiction of a multinational corporation called Blue Ant evokes the posthuman as an effect of globalisation, a phenomenon that neglects the positionality and individuality of humanism, instead recognising power as the result of a network of beings and interests. Fredric Jameson approaches this realisation in his review of Pattern Recognition as he points to the ontology of commodities in the text, “which turn out, as Marx always thought they would, to be living entities preying on the humans who have to coexist with them”.[6]While Jameson reads Pattern Recognition through the lens of postmodernism, here we can see how postmodernism and posthumanism bleed into each other through recognising the networks of capital which disperse the agency of the individual.

    Gibson’s most recent novel, 2014’s The Peripheral, returns to a science fictional, futuristic setting but continues to develop Gibson’s posthumanist concerns. The posthuman entities of neoliberal capitalism remain and climate change is becoming a very immediate threat. This allows Gibson to imagine a posthuman “world without us”. The novel also features a soldier in a future war who has had “haptics” implanted on his skin, sensors which allow his body to be controlled remotely during the act of war. The use of the human body as a tool by the faceless entity of the army reduces human life to a part of a bigger system, one with a consciousness and with purpose, though without a human identity as we would understand it. While The Peripheral deals more directly with war and climate change than any of Gibson’s previous work it also includes a death in cyberspace which results in a real-world fatality, one of Gibson’s concerns since Neuromancer where the risk of “flatlining” due to neurological damage from the matrix is real and fatal. The evolution of Gibson’s posthumanist imaginings from Neuromancer to the present and the incorporation of new concerns such as climate change and automatic warfare underline his continuing influence on the developing field of posthumanism.

    — St Andrews University, June 2015

    Keywords: cyberpunk; Sprawl Trilogy; Bridge Trilogy; Neuromancer; Pattern Recognition; The Peripheral; cyberspace; flatlining

     

    [1] The importance of cyborgs, like Molly, to posthumanism and feminism is articulated by Donna Haraway in “A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century”, in Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature (New York: Routledge, 1991).

    [2]N. Katherine Hayles, How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature and Informatics (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999), p. 33.

    [3] Veronica Hollinger, “Stories About the Future: From Patterns of Expectation to Pattern Recognition”, Science Fiction Studies 33(3): 465.

    [4] Jaak Tomberg takes up Hollinger’s “science fiction realism” to analyse estrangement in the Blue Ant trilogy (also known as “the Bigend trilogy”), see “On the ‘Double Vision’ of Realism and Estrangement in William Gibson’s Bigend trilogy”, Science Fiction Studies40(2): 263-85.

    [5] William Gibson, Pattern Recognition (London: Harper Collins, 2003), p. 22.

    [6] Fredric Jameson (2003) “Fear and Loathing in Globalization”, New Left Review (23). URL (accessed 25 June 2015): http://newleftreview.org/II/23/fredric-jameson-fear-and-loathing-in-globalization


    Further Reading

    Cavallaro, Dani. Cyberpunk and Cyberculture: Science Fiction and the Work of William Gibson (London: Athlone Press, 2000).

    Gibson, William. Distrust That Particular Flavor (London: Penguin, 2012).

    Olsen, Lance. William Gibson (Washington: Mercer House, 1992).

    Westfahl, Gary. William Gibson (Urbana, Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2013).