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Visions of the Computer in Neuromancer and Oryx and Crake

Visions of the Computer in Neuromancer and Oryx and Crake

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Published by Tariq West

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Published by: Tariq West on Sep 07, 2010
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11/29/2012

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A. Tariq WestEnglish 176, Winter 2010Ursula HeisePaper #2
Visions of the Computer in
 Neuromancer 
and
Oryx and Crake
In Oryx and Crake and Neuromancer, Atwood and Gibson respectively present visionsof a world not so far separated in time or space from our own, a world at once shockinglyforeign and chillingly familiar. In Neuromancer a description of Amsterdam completewith the streets all too familiar to anyone whose ever spent a weekend there and in Oryxand Crake a reference to a Harvard fallen off-the face of the earth a few decades henceand 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 particularlycompelling 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 inthe works as discrete technics certainly, but they are primarily interfaces for engagingwith 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 near-future society.In Oryx and Crake, the computer is, while pervasive, an auxiliary technology in thesense that it is not the main technological force impacting people’s bodies and minds inthe society that Atwood imagines. Snowman recounts, “There was too much hardware
 
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around, Said Jimmy’s father. Too much hardware, too much software too, too manyhostile bioforms, too many weapons of every kind” (Oryx and Crake, 28). While clearlythere are many technologies in play, the corporations – OrganInc, HelthWyzer,RejoovenEssence, AnooYoo – have built their immensely powerful fiefdoms around theability to harness and commoditize biology. The most powerful technologies and mostsought 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 theworld – they shop around. Gender, sexual orientation, height, color of skin and eyes – it‘sall on order, it can be done or redone” (Oryx and Crake, 289). The hot consumer productsare 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 biotechcertainly, 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 andcommunications; in this popular usage, the central focus is consuming and distributing pornography – “HottTotts”, “Tart of the Day” – and playing online games – “Blood andRoses”, “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 themedium for accessing multimedia shows – “NoodiNews”, “At home with Anna K”.In the corporate biotech world, computers serve as aides in the development of biotechscience. Jimmy’s mother used a computer in her work, “On her computer screen sheshowed Jimmy pictures of the cells, pictures of the microbes, pictures of the microbesgetting 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 serveas surveillance and security tools in the maintenance of the corporate status quo. Crakealludes to this reality when telling Jimmy about his interaction with the MaddAddamgroup, “I won’t get caught, I’m only cruising. But do me a favor and don’t mention thiswhen you email” (Oryx and Crake, 217). It is interesting to note, however, that the criticalsecurity threats which computers are engaged in addressing are not digital but rather 
 
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 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 theCorpSeCorps 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 beincinerated before the epidemic could be brought under control” (Oryx and Crake, 216).Even as a somewhat secondary technology, however, computers and how peoplechoose 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, twistedgaming 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 theyenable big-brother-like corporate city-states and ugly, abominable commercial science.The positive potentials pale in comparison to the tendency towards the lowest commondenominator, 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 howexactly computers and networks work and how people interface with them is shallow – in part, perhaps, because she avails herself of a common lexicon around computersunavailable to pre-90s authors – Gibson engages in detail with the computer, framing thetechnology 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 hisnarrative, we come to understand that the computer, and the “cyberspace” attached to it, is

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