Saturday, November 20, 2004

Midnight in the Villa Straight, Part 2

Marie-France Tessier as Scheherazade

In the prelude to A Thousand and One Nights, or the story of the ensuing stories, King Shahriar is the happy ruler of a prosperous land until he learns that his wife has betrayed him. Determined that no woman can be trusted, each day he orders his Grand Vizier to find him a beautiful young woman whom he marries and beheads the following morning. Hardly a family in the city has been spared, until the Vizier's oldest daughter, Scheherazade, asks for her father's permission to be the King's next bride. Scheherazade comes upon the ruse of telling a story her wedding night. By morning she has reached the most exciting part, so that in order to hear the end of the story, the King is forced to postpone her death. That night Scheherazade continues her story and weaves another one right into it. At dawn the King is again left wondering how it will end and is forced to postpone her death once more. This goes on week after week, month after month, year after year, for a thousand and one nights, in which time the King forgets his sorrow and desire for revenge.

Postponing death preoccupies both Marie-France Tessier and Ashpool, founders of Neuromancer's Tessier Ashpool clan and the eponymous multinational, Tessier-Ashpool SA. While both seek immortality, they differ in the paths they choose to achieve this end. Marie-France Tessier believes the future lies in a symbiotic relationship between the family and the two artificial intelligences (AIs) she has commissioned. In return for ceding their conscious decisions to the AIs, "Tessier-Ashpool would be immortal, a hive, each of us units of a larger entity." Ashpool, on the other hand, believes in a vision of immortality through cryogenic freezing: "a series of warm blinks strung along a chain of winter."

At first glance, it would seem that Ashpool's vision prevails. Unlike Scheherazade, Marie-France does not escape murder. She is dead before the story begins. However, this is a technological ghost story. Making no appearance in the story, Marie-France nevertheless manages to perpetuate her vision and drive the plot through the capacities she has designed into the family AIs, Wintermute and Neuromancer. "Wintermute was hive mind, decision maker, effecting change in the world outside." Neuromancer, on the other hand, is something "like a giant ROM construct for recording personality, only it's full RAM. The constructs think they're there, like it's real, but it just goes on forever." Wintermute can only communicate with humans by taking on the appearance of others; whereas, Neuromancer has his own appearance, that of a thirteen year old boy. The boy/Neuromancer explains that his name is an amalgam of neuro, for nerves, romancer (storyteller), and necromancer, one who calls up the dead.

The central action of Neuromancer revolves around the attempt to break through the Tessier Ashpool ice, a high-security firewall protecting the corporate and family IT infrastructure. Breaking through the Tessier Ashpool ice will mutate the Tessier Ashpool family destiny, to the degree that the family, the company, their orbital colongy Freeside, and the family seat Villa Straylight all represent different facets of the same organic growth. The "dome of Tessier Ashpool ice" that Case sees as he is attempting to crack into their network brings to mind Samuel Taylor Coleridge's dream-vision poem, Kubla Khan, which begins at the point of disintegration. The author writes that the poem came to him in an opium trip dream/reverie. As he sat down to record the images, he was detained, so that when he returned to recording his vision it was as though "the rest had passed away like the images on the surface of a stream into which a stone has been cast." So the poem is all about recreating something that has been lost. Like the Tessier Ashpool vision and its embodiment in the Villa Straylight, Kubla Khan's "sunny pleasure-dome with caves of ice" is the rather tenuous creation of a mad visionary.

...I would build that dome in air,
That sunny dome! those caves of ice!

And all who heard should see them there,
And all should cry, Beware, Beware!
HIs flashing eyes, his floating hair!
Weave a circle round him thrice,
And close your eyes with holy dread,
For he on honey-dew hath fed,
And drunk the milk of Paradise.

(Kubla Khan, Samuel Taylor Coleridge)

In Neuromancer, the interrelation of the Tessier Ashpool mind, their physical architecture and their network architecture is manifested in the following passages: Case cracking the AI defenses "The roof of his mouth cleaved painlessly, admitting rootlets that whipped around his tongue, hungry for the taste of blue, to feed the crystal forests of his eyes, forests that pressed against the green dome, pressed and were hindered, and spread, growing down, filling the universe of T-A, down into the waiting, hapless suburbs of the city that was the mind of Tessier-Ashpool S.A."

"In Straylight, the hull's inner surface is overgrown with a desperate proliferation of structures, forms flowing, interlocking, rising toward a solid core of microcircuitry, our clan's corporate heart, a cylinder of silicon wormholed with narrow maintenance tunnels, some no wider than a man's hand...The semiotics of the Villa bespeak a turning in, a denial of the bright void beyond the hull...We have sealed ourselves away behind our money, growing inward, generating a seemless universe of self. (from Lady 3Jane's Essay)."

"Straylight was crazy, was craziness grown in the resin concrete they'd mixed from pulverized lunar stone, grown in welded steel and tons of knickknacks, all the bizarre impedimentia they'd shipped up the well to line their winding nest."

With Neuromancer, Gibson may have invented cyberpunk, but he also borrows, and mixes with the futuristic, many conventions from a genre that is the opposite of futuristic--the Gothic novel, as reflected in the novel's liberal use of archaic references, the importance placed on the setting of the Villa Straylight and the general ambiance of decay, dementia and decadence. '"Gothic' originally referred to the Goths, a Germanic tribe, then came to signify "germanic," then "medieval"....authors of such novels set their stories in the medieval period, often in a gloomy castle replete with dungeons, subterranean passages and sliding panels, and made bountiful use of ghosts, mysterious disappearances, and other sensational and supernatural occurences...The term "Gothic" has also been extended to a type of fiction which lacks the medieval setting but develops a brooding atmosphere of gloom and terror, represents events which are uncanny or macabre or melodramatically violent, and often deals with aberrant psychological states." (A Glossary of Literary Terms, M.H. Abrams).

The Villa Straylight functions as a sign referring to the Tessier-Ashpool family's rejection of the outside world in their attempt to create a self-contained universe. The villa's winding, burrowing passages are meant to draw the eye inward, so that even the last rays of light become lost in its labyrinthine structure. The Villa Straylight's topography is not unlike Scherazade's narrative in A Thousand and One Nights, with its stories within stories, passages from this world into the magic realm, often by route of seemingly banal objects...lamps that call up the jinn, wooden horses that fly, secret passageways, doors hidden behind tapestries, golden keys that fit into silver locks, magic passwords. Things are not what they seem: an island with palms trees turns out to be the back of a giant whale, subjects fall asleep and dream that they are the caliph and wake to discover that they were the caliph for a day. Boundaries are hard to determine, motifs recur, stories flow into each other. The listener forgets his original destination, seduced into a detour within a detour.

Thresholds or liminal spaces between the "real" world and the alternate world of "cyberspace" recur throughout Neuromancer. One of the reasons that I was interested in reading this book was curiousity regarding the attributes Gibson would have assigned to cyberspace, upon coining the word in 1983. Gibson describes cyberspace as a "consensual hallucination." In A Thousand and One Nights and similar folktales, one enters the "other" world through a magic door, a hidden cave, falling down a well; in Gibson's gloss on this age-old concept, the instrument of passage is the computer console. Another recurring threshold in Neuromancer, which lends an impression of the uncanny, is the division between the world of the living and the world of the dead. The protagonist Case's guide to cyberspace and cracking the Tessier Ashpool ice is Dixe Flatline, so named because he flatlined for several minutes in a past encounter with the Tessier Ashpool Rio AI. Flatline is no longer even alive, he's a ROM construct. Two passages in Neuromancer suggest that Case, from whose perspective the story unfolds, may also be a "flatline." The first such passage is the sequence where he meets Neuromancer, the personality AI, and interacts with the contruct of a Moroccan beach, abandoned bunker and his former lover. Neuromancer says that he "calls up the dead" and that Case is in "the lane that leads to the land of the dead." Case, himself, theorizes that he has flatlined at this point and that his brain is dead. He makes the choice not to permanently reside in Neuromancer's fantasy land. However, the book's ending calls into question Case's grasp on reality when, in a later cruise into cyberspace, alongside the two "tiny, impossible" figures of the boy Neuromancer and Linda, his dead lover, he sees--himself.

Freud defines the uncanny as that class of the frightening which leads back to what is known of old and long familiar. Writing in German, he talks about the relationship between "heimlich," homeley, "heimish," native and the "unheimlich," literally "unhomely," which translates in English to "uncanny." A common convention in literature of the uncanny is that of the unreliable narrator. The reader must be left in doubt as to whether the events described by the narrator are "real" or simply the delirium of the narrator's mind. Another common theme in literature of the uncanny is the theme of the double--"the subject identifies himself with someone else so that he is in doubt as to which self his self other words there is a doubling, dividing and interchanging of the self. And finally there is the constant recurrence of the same thing--the repetition of the same features or character-traits, or vicissitudes, of the same crimes, or even the same names through several consecutive generations (Freud, 'The Uncanny')". In A Thousand and One Nights, all women become interchangeable for King Shahriar after his wife's treachery and all women must suffer for her actions. It is only by the circuitous route of Scheherazade's storytelling and the passage of time that he is able to escape this compulsion to generalize the attributes (and associated anger) toward one woman with the class of women as a whole. In Neuromancer, the doubling or multiplication of identity appears in the Tessier Ashpool affinity for cloning. Supposedly, the founders, Marie France Tessier and Ashpool have two children--Jane and Jean (French male name) who have each been cloned ten times, thus 3Jane and 8Jean, the two Tessier Ashpool offspring active during Neuromancer. The Tessier Ashpool family's practice of periodic cryogenic freezing also ties into the death motif, where the frozen sleep represents a temporary death or flatlining of sorts. It also complicates the family members' relationship to each other. Supposedly, 3Jane's father has been frozen and her mother long since murdered at the point she is first unfrozen, so that her sole knowledge of her parents comes from thousands of hours of tapes and diaries stored in the family's software cores.

The Tessier Ashpool alienation from self, family and the larger world leads to their degeneration. This separation is also a doomed quest. The most determined isolationist of the lot, Ashpool, becomes suicidal upon contact with the creeping intrusion of images from the outside. Despite promises to the contrary, Ashpool has felt the cold during his cryogenic freeze--"the cold let the outside world in," filling his head with "dreams that grow like slow ice." Ashpool's name combines two images: charred cinders and the deceptive Coleridgian pool of water whose images shine bright one moment and disintegrate into ripples the next. It is a vision that cannot sustain intrusian by the outside world. His wife's family name, on the other hand, evokes the abstraction into miniature shapes...a shattering that rearranges and builds new forms. The verb "tessellate" means 1. to construct pave or inlay with small tiles 2. to fit together exactly: triangles will tessellate but octagons will not (Collins English Dictionary, 1989). The best way to understand tessellation is to visualize it. Tessellation lends a visual interpretation to Marie France's dream of using technology to replicate an organic hive- or insect-world where individual self-awareness and identity are sublimated and subordinated to membership in a larger group. This sort of philosophy, taken to its logical conclusion, could either be used to justify the worst sort of dehumanizing fascism or promote the idea of a wholesome ecology where individuals operate in harmony among themselves and within the larger environment. A more interesting exposition of this line of thought (applied to literature) can be found in T.S. Eliot's essay "Tradition and the Individual Talent." No, it's not the shallow philosophical references that interested me, but rather the novel's imagery describing a narrative process where the storyteller sets in motion events that drive a plot, whose conclusion she cannot foresee--in this case, the union of the forces of action and change with the forces of personality--that interested me. In Marie-France's case, the ice is not harbinger of a murderous cold, but rather a creative architectural vocabulary built upon tessellating stalactite repetitions. If the ice is the defensive wall around the Tessier-Ashpool fortress, the narrative that created that fortress also built the hidden passageway to overthrow it. The architect optimizes the conditions leading to the system's eventual and calculated destruction. And the destruction is not an end, but enables a reconstruction, and so on, like shifting shapes in a kaleidoscope...or the metamorphoses of images in a pool of water...for a thousand and one nights, or forever and a day.

Author's Footnote
"Nihilistic Technofetishists"
As one hindered by a chronic handicap when it comes to linear plot, I never got around to working the reference into the thesis above. I include the expression here because it caught my fancy and because I alluded to it at the end of "Midnight in the Villa Straylight, Part 1."

"Dr. Rambali smiled. 'There is always a point at which the terrorist ceases to manipulate the media gestalt. A point at which the violence may well escalate, but beyond which the terrorist has become symptomatic of the media gestalt itself. Terrorism as we ordinarily understand it is inately media-related. The Panther Moderns differ from other terrorists precisely in their degree of self-consciousness'...If the technology had been available the Big Scientists would all have sockets stuffed with microsofts. It was the style that mattered and the style was the same. The Moderns were mercenaries, practical jokers, nihilistic technofetishists (Neuromancer)."

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