NEUROMANCER by William Gibson

Book Quote:

“Just thinking out loud . . . How smart’s an AI, Case?”

“Depends. Some aren’t much smarter than dogs. Pets. Cost a fortune, anyway. The real smart ones are as smart as the Turing heat is willing to let ‘em get.”

Book Review:

Review by Devon Shepherd AUG 21, 2011)

One of the rare books to wear the coveted triple-crown of science-fiction, winning all three major prizes in the genre (the Hugo, Phillip K. Dick, Nebula awards), as well as being included on Time Magazine’s 1995 list, “All TIME 100 Best Novels,” it isn’t hyperbolic to claim that William Gibson’s 1983 classic, Neuromancer, is a must-read in our world of ubiquitous WI-FI, 24-hour connectedness, and the Blue Brain reverse engineering project, a world in which a recent Time magazine cover claimed The Singularity would be upon is in less than 40 years.

If  you – like me – are late to this party, and haven’t yet read this book, you’ll find it hard to believe it was published in 1983, and you’ll undoubtedly see the influence that it has had on a number of later works. Let me put the publication date in perspective: I was 5 and played Space Invaders on a Commodore-PET computer at school and it was almost a decade and a half later before I surfed the net (on dial-up, no less) or, even, had an email account. So I can’t imagine how Neuromancer – a book about hackers who jack into cyberspace and troll the matrix, essentially a virtual reality representation of all computers, and their data-structures, linked on a global network– was received in a 1983 world of Commodore computers.

Case is a “data-thief,” a hacker for hire, who loses his ability to jack into “a custom cyberspace deck that projected his disembodied consciousness into the consensual hallucination that was the matrix” when he makes the “classic mistake” of stealing from his employer during one of his runs. His punishment: forced administration of mycotoxin, the ensuing neurological damage locking him out of the matrix, a devastating punishment for a man who “lived for the bodiless exultation of cyberspace.” High on amphetamines and suicidal, Case scours black-medicine clinics in Chiba City, Japan, which has become, with its “poisoned silver sky,” a “magnet for the Sprawl’s [an eastern seaboard megacity that spans from Boston to Atlanta] techno-criminal subcultures.” That is, until he’s picked up by Molly, a street samurai, with silver lenses “surgically inset, sealing her sockets” and retractable scalpels embedded under her nails, who takes him to see her boss, Armitage .

Armitage, a former Special Forces soldier, has a job for him. He promises to repair Case’s neurological damage if he agrees to work for him. To ensure his complete co-operation, Armitage has time-sensitive sacs of the mycotoxin inserted into his arteries: if Case completes his assignment, Armitage will have the sacs removed; else, the mycotoxin will be released, his neurological restoration undone. Much to his chagrin, Case is given a new pancreas to boot – one that renders him insensitive to the amphetamines he was partial to. Faced with the prospect of living in his “prison of flesh” without the option of pill-popping escape, what choice does Case have but to agree?

But before he can get started on the actual job, Armitage needs a piece of hardware – a recording of McCoy Pauley’s consciousness, a legendary hacker, and one of Case’s mentors. The Dixie Flatline construct—McCoy Pauley survived brain death, or flatlined, three times while jacked into the matrix, hence his nickname, and the moniker for his construct– is locked away in the corporate headquarters of Sense/Net in Atlanta. With the help of a group of cosmetically modified radicals called the Panther Moderns, Case and Molly prepare to break into Sense/Net to steal the construct; they’ll need the Dixie Flatline’s expertise for the actual job. Rigged with a device that’ll allow him to toggle into a “simstim” stream of Molly’s “sensorium” while inside the matrix, Case will infiltrate Sense/Net’s security systems, breaking through the Intrusions Countermeasures Electronics, or ICE, to facilitate Molly’s passage through Sense/Net headquarters.

While things at Sense/Net don’t go exactly as planned – a riot breaks out; Molly breaks her leg – they succeed in lifting the construct, and so the group is off to Istanbul to retrieve the last member of their team, a heroin-addicted sociopath who gets off on betraying people, with a surgical implant that allows him to project images onto other people’s retinas – Peter Riviera.

But Case still doesn’t have any idea what they’re really up to or who Armitage really is. According to his research, there’s no record of Armitage being a part of Screaming Fist, a US military operation that sent US soldiers to infiltrate Russia on a doomed mission in order to glean information about the EMP weapons they knew the Russians would use to thwart the attack. And so, Molly has the Panther Moderns investigate Armitage: turns out he takes his orders from Wintermute.

Wintermute, an Artificial Intelligence, has been orchestrating the gig from the get-go, and now that its team is assembled, it arranges for them to fly to Freeside, a Vegas-like space resort that orbits Earth. Freeside is owned by a rich and mysterious family, the Tessier-Ashpools. No Tessier-Ashpool stock has been traded for more than 100 years, and it is rumored that the family – both original members and clones – exist in a state of cryogenic slumber in their labyrinthine space-station mansion, Villa Straylight, awaiting the time when technology renders man immortal.

Wintermute is housed somewhere in Villa Straylight, as is his AI sibling, Neuromancer. Two parts of super-intelligent entity, they were built with barriers between them to keep the Turing police, the law-enforcement body that regulates the construction of AIs, from destroying them. But to ensure their eventual consolidation and evolution, Wintermute was built with a single, overriding desire – to merge with Neuromancer. However, many non-digital safeguards were put in place, and in order for the fusion to happen, someone must speak a password into a console located somewhere in Villa Straylight. While Case breaks through the ICE that separates Wintermute from Neuromancer, Riviera and Molly will have to convince the only member of the Tessier-Ashpool family not in cryogenic freeze, 3LadyJane, to give them the password. If all goes according to plan, the two entities will fuse, creating an autonomous super-intelligence.

Believe it or not, this is a necessarily superficial sketch of a quite complicated plot, but for all its nuances and drama, I couldn’t get caught up in the suspense of it all: I was too impressed by Gibson’s enviable imagination, and it’s to his credit that the book never feels overburdened by detail. While, for the most part, the characters don’t rise above being clichés of the genre, this is an intelligent meditation on the conditions of autonomous intelligence.

Questioning the conditions of autonomous intelligence, or for lack of a better word, personhood, is as old as human society and has had many moral implications, from granting (and denying) women political participation to the emancipation of slaves, and I suspect in years to come, the ways in which we answer this question will be used to argue for (or against) the rights of machine intelligence. And yet, even as I type this, part of me balks at the assumption that machine intelligence, the kind of intelligence that deserves constitutionally entrenched rights and freedoms, is even possible. Although Turing’s famous test for machine intelligence is quite clear, I can’t ignore my resistance to the claim that any machine that behaves indistinguishably from an intelligent consciousness is an intelligent consciousness. Reading this book forced me to examine why that is: what about our minds am I so reluctant to admit might be reproduced in silicone?

In the current state of things, our brains are phenomenally superior to the best computers not in terms of memory, but of adaptability and processing power. The ways in which we learn and assimilate information is far more sophisticated than the way even the “smartest” computer program learns now. The Dixie Flatline construct, essentially a ROM construct, is not really alive, not really an autonomous intelligence, precisely because it cannot learn or adapt to new material.

In fact, it is the restriction of this capacity, the capacity to bring together information stored in disparate parts of the brain, that renders Armitage so unstable. As it turns out, Armitage did participate in Screaming Fist, known then as Colonel Corto. The sole survivor, Corto was physically and psychologically shattered. Wintermute first makes contact with Corto in a psychiatric hospital in Paris when he’s assigned to a computer-based rehabilitative program. Wintermute essentially constructs the Armitage personality around Corto’s broken psyche. The result is a personality with limited access to itself, and hence, limited assimilative and adaptive capacity, resulting in something more like an automaton, as Case notices, little more than “a statue.”

When Case asks “where had Corto been all those years,” he’s asking an age-old question about the nature not just of consciousness, but of our selves. While prostitutes, or “meat puppets” are able to disconnect the connection between their minds and their bodies, a neural cut giving a computer chip temporary control of their bodies– women literally objectifying themselves – in a way that suggests consciousness is strictly neurological, the language Mr. Gibson uses to describes Case’s experience in the matrix – “disembodied consciousness” – and the descriptions of Case’s consciousness piggy-backing on Molly’s experience through the simstim rig are more suggestive of embodied souls – Cartesian ghosts in the machine – than neurologically reductive consciousness.

And just as Case prefers the freedom and bliss of disembodied consciousness, Neuromancer, with its own stable personality, prefers solitary existence to the restrictive loss of self it believes merging with Wintermute would entail. But as the emergent Neuromancer/Wintermute super-intelligence suggests, the two are better together; and perhaps for all its advanced technology and autonomous Artificial Intelligences, Neuromancer really is a humanistic book; perhaps in encouraging Case to get emotionally involved in his work – to find his hate –Wintermute is pushing him to draw on his dual natures, rational and emotional, pushing him to be paradigmatically human.

At the end of all this, the Wintermute wins, and a superintelligent entity is born, one that is “the sum total of all works, the whole show.”  I, like Case and the Tessier-Ashpool matriarch who designed it, can’t really imagine what such an intelligence might be, but if Ray Kurzweil is right, and this day will soon be upon us, I look forward to one thing, the same thing that surprised and pleased me about this book: whatever a conscious AI entity looks like, whatever its motivations and character, whatever fortunes or calamities it spells for mankind, it will undoubtedly answer some of the important philosophical questions about what exactly it is to be human in this all too physical world.

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-4-0from 505 readers
PUBLISHER: Ace Trade (July 10, 2000)
REVIEWER: Devon Shepherd
AUTHOR WEBSITE: William Gibson
EXTRAS: ExcerptWikipedia on Neuromancer
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August 21, 2011 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags: , , , , ,  · Posted in: Classic, Debut Novel, Hugo Award, Japan, Nebula Award Winner, Philip K. Dick Award, Scifi, y Award Winning Author

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