Review: The Sprawl Trilogy

Neuromancer by William Gibson
Count Zero by William Gibson
Mona Lisa Overdrive by William Gibson

Title: The Sprawl Trilogy

Neuromancer
Author: William Gibson
Published: 1984
ISBN: 0441569595
Publisher: Ace
Publisher’s Blurb:  Before the Internet was commonplace, William Gibson showed us the Matrix—a world within the world, the representation of every byte of data in cyberspace. Henry Dorsett Case was the sharpest data-thief in the Matrix, until an ex-employer crippled his nervous system. Now a new employer has recruited him for a last-chance run against an unthinkably powerful artificial intelligence. With a mirror-eyed girl street-samurai riding shotgun, he’s ready for the silicon-quick, bleakly prophetic adventure that upped the ante on an entire genre of fiction.

Count Zero
Author: William Gibson
Published: 1986
ISBN: 0441117732
Publisher: Ace
Publisher’s Blurb:  A corporate mercenary wakes in a reconstructed body, a beautiful woman by his side. Then Hosaka Corporation reactivates him, for a mission more dangerous than the one he’s recovering from: to get a defecting chief of R&D—and the biochip he’s perfected—out intact. But this proves to be of supreme interest to certain other parties—some of whom aren’t remotely human…

Mona Lisa Overdrive
Author: William Gibson
Published: 1986
ISBN: 0553281747
Publisher: Bantam
Publisher’s Blurb:   Enter Gibson’s unique world—lyric and mechanical, sensual and violent, sobering and exciting—where multinational corporations and high tech outlaws vie for power, traveling into the computer-generated universe known as cyberspace.  Into this world comes Mona, a young girl with a murky past and an uncertain future whose life is on a collision course with internationally famous Sense/Net star Angie Mitchell.  Since childhood, Angie has been able to tap into cyberspace without a computer.  Now, from inside cyberspace, a kidnapping plot is masterminded by a phantom entity who has plans for Mona, Angie, and all humanity, plans that cannot be controlled . . . or even known.  And behind the intrigue lurks the shadowy Yazuka, the powerful Japanese underworld, whose leaders ruthlessly manipulate people and events to suit their own purposes . . . or so they think.

“Cyberspace. A consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators, in every nation, by children being taught mathematical concepts. … A graphic representation of data abstracted from banks of every computer in the human system. Unthinkable complexity. Lines of light ranged in the nonspace of the mind, clusters and constellations of data. Like city lights, receding.” (Neuromancer, p. 51)

This from a man who sat down at a typewriter and wrote what’s considered the seminal work of cyberpunk. On a typewriter. Gibson didn’t own a computer at the time, but he had this idea, which he almost gave up on after seeing Blade Runner.

Even in 2019, when cyberspace is a part of everyday vocabulary, and most have a general idea of what it means, none of us knows what it looks like.  Gibson got there first, hypothesizing what cyberspace would look, and feel, like and how humans might interact with it.

“[Case] jacked into a custom cyberspace deck that projected his disembodied consciousness into the consensual hallucination that was the matrix.” (Neuromancer, p. 6) Emotionally, it was “bodiless exultation,” (ibid, p. 7). “Nonspace of the matrix, the interior of a given data construct possessed unlimited subjective dimension.” (ibid, p. 63)

Disembodied, nonspace, grey, blob, or blotch.  All descriptors for that which cannot be described.  The books in this trilogy are filled with non-descriptive descriptions of what cyberspace looks like, and feels like. A “cowboy” jacks in by plugging a cable from the computer into a jack/port in their neck.  It made complete sense to me while I was reading.  Trying to describe it in my own words is difficult and stultifying.  How do you describe a banana to someone who’s never seen one?

Gibson’s writing is dense and often difficult to follow, which makes sense if you’re trying to describe something undescribable.  He only succeeds because he has a larger canvas to work with.

In Neuromancer,  AIs in search of their other half involve complex human machinations and architectural wonders which only work in space.  The AI Wintermute sets things in motion, leading Case and Molly on a merry search for its other half, the AI Neuromancer.  Wintermute is manipulative, pushing humans to do its bidding.  The reader’s mind isn’t the only one blown.

Two years later, in Count Zero, Gibson still grapples with describing the indescribable.  We bump against a more terrestrial landscape to set the stage, but are no closer to understanding what cyberspace is.

Vodou gods appear in cyberspace so as to interface with the humans inside the matrix.   It’s rumored the superconsciousness is losing bits, explaining the multiple gods encountered.  Or maybe it’s another AI shoving its non-existent weight around.

Again, Gibson uses vague notions to describe what it’s like, “…a flickering, nonlinear flood of fact and sensory data, a kind of narrative conveyed in surreal jump cuts and juxtapositions. … [changing direction randomly] with each pulse of nothingness. The data had never been intended for human input.” (Count Zero, pp.23-24)

And yet, humans keep trying to be a part of the landscape.  Building better and bigger tools to get inside, navigate, and stay inside.   Bobby Newman, aka Count Zero from Count Zero is comatose and jacked into an infinitely large cyberdrive called an aleph, a mathematical concept I cannot even begin to wrap my brain around.  It’s not infinity, it’s something else.  Theoretically, the aleph has uploaded the Count’s personality leaving enough room to evolve with access to all data in the known universe.

Gibson’s idea of cyberspace involves direction (up and downs), grids, and definitively shaped objects. More than that though, he uses nothingness, everythingness, all-at-once-ness.

So how does one explain the unexplainable, the invisible, the not physically there presence?  Gibson’s struggle continues to be technology’s struggle.  VR and AI are upon us, and engineers have to develop vocabularies to go along with it.  When all else fails, we fall upon what has gone before.

William Gibson wrote the framework, extrapolating to an existence which has yet to come.  Twenty years ago, the Wachowski siblings gave us The Matrix trilogy which carried the idea of machine overlords enslaving humanity in virtual reality as an energy supply.

Here too, there’s a struggle with vocabulary, although visual media has the ability to present a form of cyberspace which can be seen and, therefore, believed.  The Wachowskis and their matrix came 15 years after Neuromancer.  Gibson was at the forefront, and is given credit for coining the term and pushing us to think about a computer network’s relationship with humans.  The Wachowskis gave us one version of what that relationship might be.  There are many other versions, and we can’t possibly know which one is “right,” or “wrong,” because we’re still trying to describe the invisible undescribable space between bits of data.

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