And now here he was– not a dream or a ghost, but flesh and blood. Or close enough.

Contact, Carl Sagan

In Neuromancer, the second book on my reading list, the protagonist Case finds himself forced into a lifelike simulation of a beach in Morocco. It is upon this manufactured spit of sand that Case first meets the AI personality, Neuromancer. He also speaks and spends the night with his dead girlfriend, Linda Lee; Case deduces– whether incorrectly or not is an eternal question– that she is just as artificial as the beach, though she resembles her one-time counterpart perfectly. Neuromancer tells him that it had her consciousness uploaded into the matrix. Simulated or not, does this fact make Linda any more or less “real”?

This entire beach scene in Neuromancer, one of the critical (oddly anticlimactic) moments in the novel when some of its deepest mysteries are finally laid bare, reminded me of another, quite similar moment on another simulated beach, in another science-fiction novel.

In Carl Sagan’s Contact, Ellie Arroway finds herself on a beach, created by the enigmatic Vegans far, far away from Earth. She comes face to face, not unlike Case, with a deceased figure from her past. In Ellie’s case, this figure is her father:

“So what do I owe this apparition to– robotics or hypnosis?”

“Am I an artifact or a dream? You might ask that about anything.”

What is real? Is a dream “real”? Is death “real”? On the imagined Moroccan beach, Neuromancer tells Case:

“to call up a demon you must learn its name. Men dreamed that, once, but now it is real in another way. You know that, Case. Your business is to learn the names of programs, the long formal names, names the owners seek to conceal. True names…”

“A Turing code’s not your name.”

“Neuromancer. …The lane to the land of the dead. Where you are, my friend. Marie-France, my lady, she prepared this road, but her lord choked her off before I could read the book of her days. Neuro from the nerves, the silver paths. Romancer. Necromancer. I call up the dead. But no, my friend…I am the dead, and their land. …If your woman is a ghost, she doesn’t know it. Neither will you.”

Both narratives illustrate a profound anxiety about what is real and true, and what is fake or false. And the underlying fear is that technology– Vegan or human or as product of an artificial intelligence– has blurred the boundaries to the point where it is impossible to tell the difference. Reality is subjective. Pattern and information is all that’s left to define that which exists. Where does the body fit in all that? What about the meat?

There was a strength that ran in her, something he’d known in Night City and held there, been held by it, held for a while away from time and death, from the relentless Street that hunted them all. It was place he’d known before; not everyone could take him there, and somehow he always managed to forget it. Something he’d found and lost so many times. It belonged, he knew– he remembered– as she pulled him down, to the meat, the flesh the cowboys mocked. It was a vast thing, beyond knowing, a sea of information coded in spiral and pheremone, infinite intricacy that only the body, in its strong blind way, could ever read.

This passage occurs on that simulated beach, when Case submits to his bodily urges and couples with the reconstruction of Linda Lee. What’s interesting is that, in reality, Case’s body lies dying somewhere within the Villa Straylight, his heart flatlined, his mind interfaced with the AI called Neuromancer.

So, as Hayles adamantly argues, is embodiment a fundamental, though oft-overlooked property of the cybernetic/posthuman paradigm? Or does the above passage only frustrate the relationship between body and information? Is information and the posthuman essentially bodiless, the body a separate construct from consciousness(es), an incidental affectation?

What is truly motivating Case’s urges, if his body lies prone and separate from the activity within Neuromancer’s matrix? The code of spiral and pheremone, does it transfer to this cybernetic medium? Does it hold its pattern, can it be properly interpreted by the matrix? If so, Gibson puts the lie to his own words, that in fact it is not the case that “only the body” can read this code, this information stream.

What about death? Why does Neuromancer say it is the dead? That its cyber-world is their land, its beach the “lane to the land of the dead”? Is it perhaps because this world is essentially bodiless? That it exists only to the point that someone alive and embodied like Case can experience it?

In Contact Ellie tries to discern the nature of her father’s apparition. It takes an effort of will on her part to keep from believing that it really is her dead father. For her, it seems perfectly real. She thinks, perhaps, that she could be dead, and that this beach, so warm and solid beneath her bare feet, could be some kind of afterlife:

There were human cultures that taught an afterlife of the blessed on mountaintops or in clouds, in caverns or oases, but she could not recall any in which if you were very, very good when you died you went to a beach.

I’m leaving this entry open-ended, partly because it asks so many of the fundamental questions that the notion of cyberliterature deals with. Partly because, in certain cases, there are perhaps no answers, and it is only the mystery that matters. Maybe it’s the purpose of this course to determine which one of these is which.

Sagan, Carl. Contact. New York: Pocket Books, 1985.

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