A. Tariq West English 176, Winter 2010 Ursula Heise Paper #2
Visions of the Computer in Neuromancer and Oryx and Crake
In Oryx and Crake and Neuromancer, Atwood and Gibson respectively present visions of a world not so far separated in time or space from our own, a world at once shockingly foreign and chillingly familiar. In Neuromancer a description of Amsterdam complete with the streets all too familiar to anyone whose ever spent a weekend there and in Oryx and Crake a reference to a Harvard fallen off-the face of the earth a few decades hence and replaced by its symbolic equivalent, speak to a continuity, a natural progression between our world and the ones the authors present us with. This continuity, of course, occurs not just in terms of places. Both works engage powerfully with some of the chief concerns of our time – the specter of environmental degradation, corporate power, biotechnology, computing and the Internet.
Of these potentially world-shaping phenomena, the computer represents a particularly compelling technological artifact study because it is omnipresent in our lives today. Further, in the context of the two works, as is the case in our own world, it is difficult if not impossible to separate the computer from the Internet; computers are represented in the works as discrete technics certainly, but they are primarily interfaces for engaging with a networked space. Gibson and Atwood engage at length with the computer – their treatments differ significantly, however, in terms of the authors’ imaginings of the possibilities of the computer for good and ill, and the centrality of computers in a nearfuture society.
In Oryx and Crake, the computer is, while pervasive, an auxiliary technology in the sense that it is not the main technological force impacting people’s bodies and minds in the society that Atwood imagines. Snowman recounts, “There was too much hardware around, Said Jimmy’s father. Too much hardware, too much software too, too many hostile bioforms, too many weapons of every kind” (Oryx and Crake, 28). While clearly there are many technologies in play, the corporations – OrganInc, HelthWyzer, RejoovenEssence, AnooYoo – have built their immensely powerful fiefdoms around the ability to harness and commoditize biology. The most powerful technologies and most sought after commercial products of the age promise to transform the way people look, feel and think through biochemical and genetic means. “People come from all over the world – they shop around. Gender, sexual orientation, height, color of skin and eyes – it‘s all on order, it can be done or redone” (Oryx and Crake, 289). The hot consumer products are rejuvenation serums, skin replacement, aphrodisiacs and mind-body self-help programs; the food is synthetic “SoyBoy” burgers and engineered “ChickieNobbs” nuggets. Computers are primarily an infrastructural technology; they enable biotech certainly, but are not the society’s primary technological currency.
There are three main modes for the use of computers in Atwood’s imagined world. Computers are used most visibly by common consumers for multimedia and communications; in this popular usage, the central focus is consuming and distributing pornography – “HottTotts”, “Tart of the Day” – and playing online games – “Blood and Roses”, “Extinctathon” – while familiar tools such as email feature secondarily. Also, there is a convergence between TV and the computer as the web-enabled computer is the medium for accessing multimedia shows – “NoodiNews”, “At home with Anna K”.
In the corporate biotech world, computers serve as aides in the development of biotech science. Jimmy’s mother used a computer in her work, “On her computer screen she showed Jimmy pictures of the cells, pictures of the microbes, pictures of the microbes getting into the cells and infecting them and bursting them open, close up pictures of the proteins, pictures of the drugs she had once tested” (Oryx and Crake, 29). They also serve as surveillance and security tools in the maintenance of the corporate status quo. Crake alludes to this reality when telling Jimmy about his interaction with the MaddAddam group, “I won’t get caught, I’m only cruising. But do me a favor and don’t mention this when you email” (Oryx and Crake, 217). It is interesting to note, however, that the critical security threats which computers are engaged in addressing are not digital but rather biological in nature. Jimmy’s father recounts one representative incident, “…some fanatic, a woman, with a hostile bioform concealed in a hairspray bottle. Some vicious Ebola or Marburg splice, one of the fortified hemorrhagics” (Oryx and Crake, 53).
The third use of computers which appears in the novel is the counter to the CorpSeCorps use; rebels and radicals use computers to organize themselves, planning, recounting and obfuscating their activities – their actual attack vectors, however, are biological. One web update on the activities of the MaddAddam group read, “A tiny parasitic wasp had invaded several ChickieNobs installations, carrying a modified form of chicken pox, specific to the ChickieNob and fatal to it. The installation had had to be incinerated before the epidemic could be brought under control” (Oryx and Crake, 216).
Even as a somewhat secondary technology, however, computers and how people choose to use them in the society of Oryx and Crake, represent Atwood’s take on the dark potentials of the technology. Graphic abhorrent forms of pornography and dark, twisted gaming narratives dominate the common use of computers and the Internet. The higher- order uses of computers do not seem to yield any less disturbing an outcome as they enable big-brother-like corporate city-states and ugly, abominable commercial science. The positive potentials pale in comparison to the tendency towards the lowest common denominator, the basest tastes and desires.
While biotechnology also features prominently in Neuromancer, computers play a parallel and at least equally important role. Whereas Atwood’s engagement with how exactly computers and networks work and how people interface with them is shallow – in part, perhaps, because she avails herself of a common lexicon around computers unavailable to pre-90s authors – Gibson engages in detail with the computer, framing the technology as salient and central feature of his imagined society. Computer mediated “cyberspace” is described as, “A consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators, in every nation, by children being taught mathematical concepts” (Neuromancer, 51).
While the highly-expert usage of computers by net “cowboys” predominate in his narrative, we come to understand that the computer, and the “cyberspace” attached to it, is used pervasively not only in underworld dealings, but also in education and any number of other spaces. Corporations, which certainly profit from biotech and use its tools, are powerful primarily because of their stores of data or “memory” and access to “cowboy” talent that allows them to navigate and compete in a complex and dangerous digital landscape.
“Power, in Case’s world, mean corporate power…You couldn’t kill a zaibatsu [corporation] by assassinating a dozen key executives; there were others waiting to step up the ladder assume the vacated position, access the vast banks of corporate memory” (Neuromancer, 196).
Gibson does not construct the computer and Internet necessarily as lowest common denominator, basest instinct mediums. Taking a much more ambivalent stance, he highlights the exhilarating, almost transcendent experiences and opportunities which they can provide even as he narrates their use in the dark, morally relativistic underside of a corporate dominated world. Computers can mediate orgasmic, psychedelic escapes from the flesh.
“A gray disk, the color of Chiba sky. Now- Disk beginning to rotate, faster, becoming a sphere of paler gray. Expanding- And flowed, flowered for him, fluid neon origami trick, the unfolding of distanceless home, his country, transparent 3D chessboard extending to infinity…And somewhere he was laughing, in a white-painted loft, distant fingers caressing the deck, tears of release streaking his face.” (Neuromancer, 52)
Where Atwood’s treatment of computers is mundane, begging the question for instance of why email is still worth mentioning in her future-vision, Gibson’s is awe inspiring and dynamic in a way that seems to redeem the technology. In Gibson’s world, if computers represent a medium for corporate control and moral corruption, they also represent a frontier where the world’s information is at your fingertips.
In Neuromancer, computers and the Internet are full of magic and possibility even if they are tinged darkly by the grungy, dystopian world Gibson imagines. In Oryx and Crake they serve chiefly our most base desires and are seemingly unredeemable. Ultimately, Gibson’s enthusiasm for computers seems overblown given the state of the world he envisions and the role of computers in it; Atwood’s vision of the computer, on the other hand, is hostage it seems to a lack of imagination – she took all of the evil potentials which are today surfacing in our use of computers and made them the status quo in a dystopian future instead of doing the work of re-imagining the computer. In all fairness to Atwood, however, Gibson was privileged in a sense, to write in a time when the Internet and email and porn sites didn’t exist and so it figures that his possibilities were more exuberant.
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