Blade Runner on electro-steroids
cyber world of Neuromancer is
brought to the big screen in
Johnny Mnemonic. Martin Walker talks
to author William Gibson
The Hollywood launch of Johnny Mnemonic, William Gibson
presided over the ultimate premiÃ¨re: the first time in entertainment
history when an author saw his book launched simultaneously as a
movie and as a CD-ROM interactive video game.
Starring Keanu Reeves, Johnny Mnemonic (opening in South
Africa today) is based on Gibson's short story of a secure human
courier, secure because gigabits of data and corporate research
are sealed and coded inside his brain synapses. This is not just
another sci-fi movie.
It's the big experiment in synergy: to marry
Sony's hardware of consumer products with Hollywood's software
of dreams. Sony put $30-million into the movie, then spent another
$3-million making another movie on Betacam for the CD-ROM game,
and then even more money on the new interface system.
"It's so sweet you don't even know it's an interface,"
marvels Gibson. You can use a mouse, or a clunky old keyboard.
The hero faces trouble. Hit numeral one, and he kicks. Numeral
two to punch. Numeral three to block the enemy attack. The plot
re-adjusts itself accordingly. Hit shift, and you control Jones,
the cyber-dolphin, programmed by the US Navy to break codes in
return for regular shots of pure heroin.
We are in Gibsonland, a place "like a deranged
experiment in social Darwinism, designed by a bored researcher
who kept one thumb permanently on the fast-forward button".
As the man who coined the term cyberspace, Gibson
can very nearly claim to have invented it. Not that he even owned
a personal computer at the time.
"I wrote Neuromancer on an olive-green
Hermes portable typewriter, a 1927 model, that looked to me as
the kind of thing Hemingway would have used in the field. Even
now, I write on an ancient Mac, and my son has the real powerboard,
a Sentra with a 520C Powerbook on the side. When he trades up,
that'll go to my daughter, and her rig will go to my wife, and
I'm at the bottom of the food chain."
"Gibson provided an aesthetic of nerdish
machismo, the computer jock as hero,
that suddenly offered a literature for a
technology still being invented"
the first cyberpunk novel. It won the Hugo and Nebula Awards for
1984, which is the sci-fi writer's version of winning the Goncourt,
Booker and Pulitzer prizes in the same year. His short stories
in Omni magazine had already begun to earn him a name,
but Neuromancer invented a genre.
It begins in Japan, the seamy underside of Tokyo,
with a loner called Case. He used to be a brilliant cowboy surfer
of the data nets, a thief who stole corporate software for even
richer thieves. When he tried to steal something for himself,
they burned out his nervous system, and he is reduced to hustling.
From then on, it's a cybernetic western, a solitary
anti-hero who uses his contacts of the scum world to recover his
skills, go up against the big, bad guys, confound their knavish
tricks and survive.
But the vision was the dark new cyberworld itself,
like Blade Runner on electronic steroids.
(When he first saw Blade Runner, Gibson
staggered from the cinema in despair, fearing that someone else
had already cornered his nightmare future. Slowly, he realised
they had the street scenes and the landscape but not the mindscape,
not the alternative sensory universe of the Net.)
Gibson saw a future where nation states rotted
beneath a new triumph of corporate feudalism, where the matrix
of the data banks and computer networks was the sharp reality.
For his hero, Case, to lose his status on the computer networks
was to lose the only reality that mattered.
"For Case, who'd lived for the bodiless exultation
of cyberspace, it was the Fall. In the bars he'd frequented as
a cowboy hotshot, the elite stance involved a certain relaxed
contempt for the flesh. The body was meat. Case fell into the
prison of his own flesh."
Gibson provided an aesthetic of nerdish machismo,
the computer-jock as hero, that suddenly offered a literature
for a technology that was still in the process of being invented.
From Neuromancer and his next books to
Virtual Light (1993), he began writing of the Internet and
of virtual reality and of nerve-splicing that would merge and
hardwire human synapses into the cyberworld, just as the computer
labs began dreaming how to do it.
A collection of essays entitled Cyberspace,
published by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, tried
to map out the blueprints for Gibson's vision. The scientists
at the cutting edge of the software were starting from the assumption
that the embryonic Internet of a decade ago had already been defined
and its possibilities explored by Gibson's imagination. Where
would Gibson's manic dreams take us next?
"A bunch of hippy acid-heads
invented the personal computer. I love
this revenge of the hippies stuff"
They tried to define the way the interfaces and
the software would need to be sculpted to create Gibson's "consensual
virtual hallucination", in effect hard-wiring human sensory perceptions
into the limitless eco-system of the datanet, using each individual
human brain as its own central processing unit.
"What I love about this is the revenge of the
hippies," Gibson remarks. "A bunch of hippy acid-heads actually
invented the personal computer. Then, think about the Internet,
the idea of a free and accessible space for knowledge and communication
that no central power could control. That really develops with
the Well, which grew out of Bruce Sterling and that 1970 hippy
bible, The Whole Earth Catalogue."
Think back to what the computer was in 1970,
Gibson goes on. It was the big brain, so expensive that only governments
and huge corporations could afford one, a monopoly of computing
power that reinforced centralised authority.
Along comes the PC, and, like an inchoate army
of guerrillas, it becomes a subversive force, chipping away at
big brain and big government too.
"Tired as I am with all the hype about the Internet
and the info highway, I suspect that from a future perspective
it will be on a par with the invention of the city as a force
in human culture. People still don't understand that the Internet
is transnational. Cyberspace has no borders, and that's fine with
me because I had my fill of nationalism in the Vietnam war.
"On the Internet now, you can see
corporations trying to extract maximum
profit from public cyberspace"
He is no longer confident about the subversive
role of the PC and the Internet. Watching the Los Angeles riots
on TV, Gibson shrugged despondently when he saw the looters stripping
a Radio Shack store of TV sets and tapedecks. Just next door,
the windows were still unbroken on a computer store. Apple Powerbooks
and laptops were stacked up for the taking, their electronic empowerment
lurking inside their casings.
"I wanted to tell them they were looting the
wrong store. I'm fondest of the idea that the minorities and the
poor can be empowered by this technology, but I don't see it happening
in the real world.
"I guess what I see coming is what I wrote in
Virtual Light, an end-stage capitalism, in which private
enterprise and the profit motive are taken to their logical conclusion.
You see it now on the Internet, corporations trying to find ways
to impose private ownership and extract money from what should
be a public cyberspace.
"The characters in my books live between the
cracks of this kind of system. And there will always be misfits,
the tenacious weeds in the cracks, people not wanting to be consumers,
living on their own terms."
out this report by William Gibson (September 2001)
My Own Private Tokyo by William Gibson (External Link)
Gibson revisits Tokyo after the Bubble and gives his own special
view of where the Japanese are now. More Blade Runner than Blade
Runner in some ways!