Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Through a Mirror Shade Darkly: The Subtle Sublime of Cyberpunk Part 04

William Gibson’s Wintermute computer in Neuromancer also embodies this godlike artificially intelligence. At the end of the book Wintermute has joined it’s “hive mind” with the “personality” and “immortality” of Neuromancer, and has “become something else”. It has become, in its own words, “the sum total of the works, the whole show” (268-269). As Lance Olsen observes, “the spiritual infuses the material, the material the spiritual” (281).

This is seen as well in Ghost in the Shell when the Puppet Master says to the female cyborg Motoko, “Now we must slip our bonds and rise to the higher structure”. Given the film’s reference to 1 Corinthians 13:11, “When I was a child, my speech, feelings, and thinking were all those of a child. Now that I am a man, I have no more use for childish ways”, the spiritual connotations are inescapable. And Motoko’s union with the Puppet Master speaks of an inner yearning to be one with some form of divinity. However, Wintermute-Neuromancer and other godlike AI represent “vast knowledge which cannot be known by humans. It appears by means of indistinct intimations, whispers, a voice speaking out of a babel of tongues” (Olsen, 284).

This ‘babel’ of tongues calls to mind Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash, a work so thick with religious imagery that to cite and discuss it would alone take an entire essay. Like the cyberpunk writers before him, Stephenson uses religious imagery to construct his narrative world but maintains the earlier works’ ambivalence toward organized religion, and more importantly here, metaphysics.

Stephenson has created a narrative wherein cyberspace serves the function that the otherworld would have in mythic tales. Anyone with a computer can visit the Metaverse, but since Hiro is part of the elite few, those like the “technomedia priesthood of Mr. Lee’s Greater Hong Kong” (192) who have designed parts of it, he is able to do more than simply travel there – he can transform it, like some sort of cyber-shaman.

Unlike Gibson, Stephenson goes a step further by introducing a physical way in which the code that has constructed the Metaverse can be used as a form of magic, namely the nam-shub of Enki. Stephenson describes Enki as a sort of messianic figure, stating that Enki was “…a fully conscious human being, just like us…he created the nam-shub of Enki, a countervirus that spread along the same routes as the me and the metavirus. It went into the deep structures of the brain and reprogrammed them” (397-8).

This messianic aspect is reinforced by the further exposition that “the ministry of Jesus Christ was an effort to break Judaism out of this condition—sort of an echo of what Enki did. Christ’s gospel is a new nam-shub, an attempt to take religion out of the temple, out of the hands of the priesthood, and bring the Kingdom of God to everyone” (401). Here Stephenson is referencing Jesus’ words to the Samaritan woman at the well of Sychar, when he says that “a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem” but rather “the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth” (John 4:21, 23, NIV). If the words of the Christian messiah are merely an echo of Enki’s nam-shub, then the reader must conclude that Enki possessed a potent spiritual power.

Yet, despite the groundwork Stephenson has laid with this idea of the nam-shub being something that works both in and outside cyberspace, Hiro never attains the ability to use it. He is set up as a sort of Enki, but is never granted an actual nam-shub; his ability to transform reality remains limited to the Metaverse. Even the character of Juanita, who becomes a “ba’al shem” who can “hack the brainstem” (430) is treated dismissively by Hiro.

Given the metahistory the narrative has developed, this power should make her “an extremely righteous rabbi, someone possessing such deep penetration that he knows the unutterable name of God and can use it to control nature” (Porush, 568). Yet her awesome ability only serves to rescue Hiro so that he can reenter the Metaverse, the cyberpunk otherworld and foil L. Bob Rife’s plans using a computer hack. It seems that Enki’s magic is more along the lines of “subtle kind of magic, the only kind still possible in this overly explained world” as being a “magic that works exclusively in the mind” (Kelly, 68).

Porush sees Stephenson’s “rejection of the metaphysical turn not as a lack of insight, but as the residual restraint one of the most potent viral ideas in our culture has on Stephenson and on his hero: a commitment to orthodox rationalism” (569). I would apply this statement to most of the previously examined writers, with the exception of Bear, whose “Petra” has nothing to do with rationalism. It’s the most postmodern of the works examined here, allowing more than just reality to be considered a matter of perspective; reality is determined by perspective in a very real way.

Nevertheless, the absurdity of the premise for “Petra” does not allow for the wild verisimilitude of Snow Crash, which is built upon a mythology which demands that Stephenson acknowledge “spiritualism as an activity just as important to civilization as word-tech:
“The effect of the Babel/Infocalypse…was to enlarge the domain of human activity in two directions at once. The first leads to words…which from thence forward would never be enough. The second leads to a recognition of the spirit world, a domain that transcends physical presence and mechanical activity, a realm beyond words, which we can never utterly know…The inability of Snow Crash to confront its own metaphysics, the spiritual transcendence it conjures only to banish, comes from the fashionable unwillingness to grant any credence to narratives of metaphysics, even while so much of postmodern culture apparently yearns for it” (Porush, 569).


  1. Sci-fi is a hotbed of religious themes, commentary, and extrapolation. In fact, I think it does it better than any other genre.
    Certainly much better than Christian lit.

  2. Without a doubt Homie. It's been my contention for years that with few exceptions (the writings of Christians such as C. Williams and C.S. Lewis, or Latter Day Saint Orson Scott Card) that authors who would not profess Christianity write better about the numinous than so called believers. I think it's 1) because many Western Christians are effectively practical atheists and 2) because only certain forms of lit are acceptable in Christian mainstream. You can write science fiction if it's about the end of the world, Tim LaHaye style.
    That's part of what my MA thesis is going to concern, so it's an area of huge interest for me.

  3. Really? What exaclty is your thesis topic?

  4. Or the sci-fi is acceptable in "Christian" "Lit" if it's family friendly and has an alter call every four chapters..