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Happy Birthday, 'Neuromancer'

William Gibson's cyberpunk novel turns 30

Jan. 14, 2014
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William Gibson, one of the most innovative science fiction writers of the last 30 years, invented “cyberpunk” with the publication of his novel Neuromancer in 1984. Since then, cyberpunk has become a pervasive influence on rock music and films, impacting style and content.  Musicians and filmmakers such as Sonic Youth, U2, Radiohead, Nine Inch Nails, James Cameron, David Fincher, the Wachowski brothers and Christopher Nolan have all created work that demonstrates deep engagement with cyberpunk.

Gibson’s writing connects with these artists because of cyberpunk’s subversive nature and its criticism of the ever-growing system of corporate technological control. Gibson operates in the gray areas, where technology is a blessing and a curse, where good guys and bad guys are hard to tell apart. His work reflects the complex and blurry moral and ethical realities of our lives, not a futuristic fantasy world.

Written in response to the Reagan Administration, Neuromancer portrays a fallen America where multinational corporations use the cyberspace matrix—or, if you prefer, the Internet—to control the lives of citizens through highly addictive forms of entertainment, drugs and surgical procedures. Case and Molly, the cyberpunks of the novel, are computer geeks who illegally hack into the cyberspace matrix, creating havoc and mayhem in the very center of corporate technological power as they deconstruct the corporate definitions of good and evil.

In Neuromancer “The Sprawl” is the dank, violent, frightening urban sprawl that extends from Boston to Atlanta. It’s also a remarkable song from Sonic Youth’s 1988 album Daydream Nation and represents the band’s attempt to bring Gibson’s ideas to their listeners. A sprawl of its own, the song clocks in at 7:42 and goes through multiple movements of jarring punk-rock riffs and delicate waves of noise. The rhythmically repetitive lyrics—“Come on down to the store / You can buy some more, and more, and more, and more”—echo the mind-numbing corporatist ethos. In its anti-pop music stance, “The Sprawl” rebels against corporate authority, in the same way that Case and Molly do in Neuromancer.

Following the lead of Sonic Youth, U2 took a stab at cyberpunk. Responding to Neuromancer, they recorded Achtung Baby (1991) and Zooropa (1993) and developed the ZooTV tour. Technological-based ways of making music—for example, drum loops and samples—previously unheard on U2 albums, were suddenly there, as well as a newfound willingness to explore darker subject matter in the lyrics. Bono cited the influence of cyberpunk on the song “Zooropa,” whose noise attempted to re-create the feeling of Gibson’s “Sprawl.”  In addition, Gibson himself made contributions to ZooTV and interviewed Bono and The Edge for Details magazine.  Bono returned the favor by reading excerpts from Neuromancer in the Gibson documentary, No Maps for These Territories.

By the 2000s, the central ideas of Gibson’s cyberpunk had become so widespread and ubiquitous that it began to influence the ways bands released music.  Following the subversive lead of Gibson’s Case and Molly and their anti-corporate politics, Radiohead released their album In Rainbows without the assistance of a major, corporate label. Instead, the band used cyberspace to subvert the corporations, making In Rainbows available as a self-released digital download, for which fans paid however much money they wanted. They made a revolutionary cyberpunk strike against the major record companies that were becoming more and more reluctant to put out adventurous and challenging music.

Trent Reznor, the creative force behind Nine Inch Nails, also employed cyberpunk strategies to release new music. Year Zero (2007), Reznor’s final project for the major label Interscope, criticized the corporatist, militarist and Christian evangelical politics of the Bush administration by depicting a dystopic vision of an apocalyptic U.S. in the year 2022. Reznor’s politics weren’t just in the music, however, but in the way his use of the Internet displaced corporate authority over the distribution and meaning of the album. Yes, Year Zero was an album of music, but it was also an ever-growing and ever-changing alternate reality game that incorporated e-mails, cell phone numbers, videos, artwork and material found on USB drives that were hidden at concerts that listeners could upload to and circulate on Internet websites. With the Year Zero project, Reznor empowered his fans as cyberpunks, real-life anti-corporate anti-heroes who could have walked off the pages of Neuromancer.

With the albums Ghosts I-IV (2008), The Slip (2008), The Social Network (2010), and How to Destroy Angels (2010), moreover, Reznor continued to use cyberspace to confront corporate power by making his music available to fans for free or reduced prices. In effect, he had become the Case and Molly of the new millennium and an example for today’s artists and fans.

Gibson and the influence of cyberpunk feature prominently in the work of many of today’s most creative and visionary filmmakers. Three of James Cameron’s films—The Terminator (1984), Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991), and Avatar (2009)—incorporate elements of artificial intelligence, cyborgs, extreme violence and mega-corporations that are the very stuff of cyberpunk. In addition, Neo and Trinity, the heroes of the Wachowski brothers’ Matrix trilogy (1999-2003), could be avatars of Gibson’s Case and Molly because they bear similar neural interfaces that allow them to hack into the cyberspace matrix and disrupt the technological system that imprisons the population. The hero of Christopher Nolan’s Inception (2010), Dom Cobb, also comes straight from cyberpunk in his ability to use technology to enter people’s dreams and commit acts of corporate espionage. And isn’t David Fincher’s Mark Zuckerberg, the anti-hero of the Reznor-scored The Social Network (2010) and real-life founder of FaceBook, just a selfish and greedy cyberpunk, whose hacking skills make him a boatload of money?  As presented by Fincher, Zuckerberg is Cayce and Molly gone selfishly bad.

From the noise rock of Sonic Youth to mainstream films, Gibson’s cyberpunk has become a lens through which we view, understand and criticize contemporary politics and technological forms of control.  It’s not science fiction but the new realism.


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