Technology and its dangerous effects on nature and human life as perceived in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and William Gibson’s Neuromancer Science fiction is the search for a definition of man and his status in the universe which will stand on our advanced but confused state of knowledge (science) 1 At first glance this topic could seem rather irrelevant having in mind that the two works are separated by more than a century. During this lapse of time, humanity has witnessed profound changes at a breath-taking speed.
The partly Gothic and partly Romantic world of Mary Shelley is quite different from the reality Gibson predicts. We could not say, however, that there are no links between the two. Shelley’s work could be viewed as the apprehension of the new-born fear in regard to technical invention and Gibson’s work as the divination of the consequences of technological development and sophistication. In both cases the essence of human nature has barely changed. It is what lies behind the destructive human strife for more, more at any price that has led to the despondent conclusions of both works.
Indispensable to understanding the complexity of the problem of technology, in both Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and William Gibson’s Neuromancer, is the historical context in which the two were written. Whereas Frankenstein was written in a period of dramatic change – that of the Industrial revolution, in Neuromancer, Gibson echoes the opinion of economists who believe that we are currently experiencing the beginning of a profound economic revolution, due to the breakthroughs in information and communication technology, and which some believe is equal in magnitude to the industrial revolution.
The second leitmotif of my research is that of nature in reference to technology. Here I describe the relation of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein to technology and some of the crucial issues concerning technology in relation to human life, and exploration of the dangerous implications of human acts of creation. It is interesting to mention that Shelley’s novel is our first and still one of our best cautionary tales about scientific research.
Subsequently and similarly , I examine Gibson’s Neuromancer and compare it to the ideas presented in Frankenstein, for however different in nature they might seem, the issues raised by Neuromancer are strikingly identical. I look at the motives lying behind artificial creation as I did in regard to Shelley’s work. Afterwards, I make a comparison between the “hideous” creature of Mary Shelley and the powerful Artificial Intelligence of Gibson and finally Istress on the foresight of both authors who have been able to predict clearly the consequences of immoral technological utilization.
In associating the two works it is useful to understand the historical context in which they were written. Frankenstein is distinctly related to the revolutionary period of 1780 to 1830 or the period of the first industrial revolution. There was a strong conviction in England, in the early Victorian times, that rapid future changes would take place and there were wide differences of view about the extent to which they would be beneficial 2. As time passed, the problems of industrialism were seen as defects which could be eliminated and the underlying change was generally seen as beneficial.
The new fruits of chemistry, physics, mathematics, etc. were seen as contributing to a future in which increasing knowledge would give increasing power over nature, and consequently increasing wealth. As Howard Rosenbrock noticed, “the Victorian situation led to the danger of complacency”3 . Mary Shelley, unlike most of her contemporaries, recognized this danger and foresaw the perils of the newly-born technological society, inherent in scientific research and the exploitation of nature.
It is also imperative to mention that Frankenstein was written during a particular period of crisis in humanism: the failure of the French Revolution4. It is clear that the shifting polarities of revolution mark the novel, which reflects the clash of the so-called “sensualism” with the brutal reality of the revolution and the ensued radicalism. Mary Shelley perceived the dangers of radicalism and abstract idealism as we can distinguish from what she wrote in her Journal: ” I respect such when joined to real disinterestedness, toleration and a clear understanding …
I earnestly desire the good and enlightenment of my fellow creatures … but I am not for violent extremes, which duly bring on an injurious reaction. “5 In the case of Neuromancer, the historical context is very different, but again we are confronted with the dawn of a new era–that of information technology. Nowadays we are witnessing the transformation from industrial to information society but we have the feeling of living at the end of an era, rather than the beginning of a new one. We have unparalleled knowledge and power over nature, and yet this faces us with moral dilemmas and responsibilities for which we are ill-prepared. It is exactly in this context that William Gibson reveals his vision of the future new era of information technology, where the humanity has not been able to find a proper solution to the moral dilemmas posed by the rapid technological change. Similar to the time in which Mary Shelley wrote her novel, the context in which Gibson wrote Neuromancer is that of tremendous change although we are not yet witnessing a social revolution of equivalent value to that of the British Industrial Revolution of 1780-1830.
In Neuromancer, Gibson was not only able to create a remarkably well-visualized future but also to present the potential danger of humanity’s irresponsible behavior towards the use of technology. This is, in a way, a Gibson’s interpretation and view on the consequences of a future Information Revolution. In doing so, he goes beyond the ideas of the traditional authors of science fiction and as the ‘father’ of cyberpunk literature, he makes a drastic departure from what some consider “glossy utopian views” of the conventional science fiction.
Gibson presents a very, and perhaps overly, pessimistic vision of the future, showing the negative effect the forthcoming technologies might have on human life and the gloomy outcomes of technology that progresses faster than humans do. The context in which, William Gibson has written his book was that of growing anxiety about the outcome of an extremely rapid technological development which had already started to manifest its ambiguous nature. Neuromancer is thus a response to an uncertain reality, more precisely that of the United States, which is the leader in information and computer technology.
In an interview, Gibson was asked the question: “Some Americans claim that the Europeans are more afraid of the kind of society that you describe in your books… ” To which he answered: “I think that the sort of societies I am describing would be more disturbing to someone who lived in a cohesive, functioning social democracy than it would be to someone who lives in the United States” 7 The relation existing between man and nature was the beginning of civilization. As Yoneji Masuda has remarked, for many thousands of years man was completely encompassed by the systems of nature, which he had to destroy or be destroyed by them.
Five or six thousand years ago, man succeeded in harnessing these systems of nature in a limited way to increase agricultural production, and the first civilizations were built. This marked the beginning of man’s conquest of nature. But with the Industrial Revolution the conquest of nature meant going against nature and its laws, it meant the destruction of nature. It is noteworthy that nature is described by Shelley as the passive female who can be penetrated in order to satisfy the male desires of the scientist.
Professor Waldman taught Frankenstein that scientists “penetrate into the recesses of nature, and show how she works in her hiding places”. 8 Clearly, this identification of nature as the passive female draws our attention to the negative consequences of the increasing destruction of the environment and the disruption of the delicate ecological balance between humankind and nature. Shelley warns us of this dangerous division between the power-seeking practices of science and the concerns of humanists with moral responsibility, emotional communion, and spiritual values. As Anne Mellor has observed: 9 The scientist who analyzes, manipulates, and attempts to control nature unconsciously engages in a form of oppressive sexual politics. Construing nature as the female Other, he attempts to make nature serve his own ends, to gratify his own desires for power, wealth, and reputation. ” What lies behind Frankenstein’s scientific projects is obviously an attempt to gain power. Victor is inspired by the new scientists who “acquired new and almost unlimited powers” 10 Frankenstein has sought this unlimited power to the extent of taking the place of a God in relation to his creation.
In doing so he has not only penetrated nature but he has usurped the power of reproduction in a maniacal desire to harness these modes of reproduction in order to become the acknowledged, revered, and gratefully obeyed father of a new species. 11 This ambition is very close to that of capitalism: to exploit nature’s resources for both commercial profit and political control. Here we can perceive the most far-reaching effect of the Scientific revolution – nature was perceived as dead. It was perceived as a system of dead, inert particles moved by external, rather than inherent forces.
The manipulation of nature was identified within a mechanical framework, the values of which were those based on power, fully compatible with the directions taken by commercial capitalism. 12 For Frankenstein the human and animal organs, bones, and flesh he had gathered, to create what he later on calls a monster, are nothing more than the tools of his trade, nor are they different from his scientific instruments. This utter dehumanization done with the help of the new technology, as Anne Mellor has noticed, is controlled by the industrial scientist, and in modern times, by the computer.
What is even more interesting is that Frankenstein’s monster–the product of this technological revolution–has the power to destroy his creator, has the secret of this technology in his pocket, and finally the force to serve his own ends. It is useful to mention that this notion is also true for another product of human ambition–the Artificial Intelligence in Gibson’s Neuromancer. Mary Shelley’s novel takes into consideration the fact that our view of the universe and our status in it may be changed radically.
She emphasizes that such changes may place man in new and difficult moral predicaments and thus she provides a warning against the use of scientific intelligence “divorced from moral principles”. 13 It is interesting to notice that young Victor Frankenstein leaves the study of morality to his poetical friend Henry Clerval, later strangled by his horrifying creation. Although this theme of morality was not a new matter of concern to Romantic writers, it is Mary Shelley’s talent that has in unparalleled manner stressed this point so successfully, using a completely new genre very much close to what we nowadays consider science fiction.
Even more important is Mary Shelley’s implicit warning of the inherent perils in technological developments of modern science. Although we are still incapable of reanimating dead bodies, recent research in genetic engineering and biochemistry, eugenics and extra-uterine fertilization have brought to light the opportunity to manipulate life-forms, something previously exclusively reserved to nature and chance. In her book, it seems as though Mary Shelley has seen into the future and we can only be dismayed by her foresight.
Shelley’s message is clear: a morally irresponsible scientific development can release a monster that can destroy human civilization itself. As the creature declares, “Remember that I have power; … I can make you so wretched that the light of day will be hateful to you. You are my creator, but I am your master… ” 14 Thus, Mary Shelley’s tale of horror is to be perceived not merely as a fantastical ghost story, but rather as a profound insight into the probable consequences of morally insensitive scientific and technological research. 15
The utilization of computers not only for major scientific and technological applications but also in every single human activity has led us to neglect the need for coexistence with nature, while our impact on nature has grown immeasurably. The development of science and technology has operated in such a way as to further increase the imbalance between human and nature systems. 16 It is also absurd to think that because the interests of humans and of nature are at odds with one another, a harmony of interests presupposes the subordination of one to the other.
We, as human beings, are part of nature and we depend on her, as much as she depends on us. There is no possible existence of the one without the other. If computers and technology were to be used exclusively for automation and creation of artificial systems – systems that separate us from nature, a controlled society, the alienation of mankind, and social decadence would inevitably become a detrimental reality. Unlike Victor Frankenstein’s “fervent longing to penetrate the secrets of nature”17, nowadays scientists and the society as a whole are more interested not in exploring nature but building a new artificial substitute for nature.
William Gibson, thus, portrays a future world where the human species has gone so far in its alienation from nature that it no longer needs nature as the indispensable human environment. Man would rather live without it in a completely artificial milieu–the Matrix. In Neuromancer, Gibson presents the idea of global information network called the Matrix, and the term Cyberspace 18, which means a virtual reality simulation with a direct neural feedback.
Before continuing with the effects this new information age has brought on society we have to bear in mind that people are defined by their environment and how they react to their environment. Gibson goes to the point that he talks about Cyberspace as if it were an addictive drug and people feel incomplete without it. Case has cold sweats and nightmares when he is unable to jack in. He becomes self-destructive to the point where he desires his own death. Cyberspace has become a part of Case’s identity and when he is without it, he is empty and depressed.
He feels trapped inside his own body but at the same time he feels empowered. This power is what he misses most when he has been away from the Matrix and his agony in Chiba does not so much come from the Russian poison in his body but from the realization of his inability to be part of Cyberspace again. Cyberspace is thus perceived as liberating, it is a realm to be explored, where the limits on one’s abilities are few. Neuromancer begins almost immediately by a description of Case’s addiction. All the speed he took, all the turns he’d taken and corners he’d cut in Night City, and still he’d see the matrix in his sleep,” 19 Case is not only having dreams, but he is taking drugs and living a dangerous life trying to fill the void left by Cyberspace. “He’d cry for it, cry in his sleep, and wake alone in the dark,… his hands clawed into the bed slab,… trying to reach the console that wasn’t there” 20 Case misses Cyberspace like he would miss a loved one, Case had “lived for the bodiless exultation of Cyberspace”. 21 This was what he yearns for most.
It gave him a sense of freedom, and his longing for that freedom gave him the dreams that he had. The root of his addiction to this artificial fruit of technology is the intoxicating freedom that comes from Cyberspace. The freedom and sensations he experience in Cyberspace makes the real world seem cramped and mundane. When Case meets his physically dead girl-friend in the Matrix he is even able to make love to her. The Matrix allows men to live in an artificial environment so complex and profound that it renders nature too common and unattractive.
Familiar sensations are heightened to a point far above the normal standard. Case feels this amplification acutely in the scene where Linda Lee pulls him down “… to the meat, the flesh the cowboys mocked” 22. In Neuromancer’s Cyberspace a sort of irony occurs with one’s body, for it is here rather than in the “real” world that the senses are more sensitive to the “… sea of information coded in spiral and pheromone, [the] intricacy that only the body, in its strong blind way, could ever read” 23. Cyberspace is so overwhelming that in his own body, Case felt trapped. Case fell into the prison of his own flesh”. 24 In Neuromancer we see how people come to ignore their bodies. As Gibson himself points out, “there is a tendency in our culture, in a broader sense the Western Civilization, to reject the body in favor of an idea of the spirit or the soul. [… ] One could imagine a very ascetic sort of life growing out of this, where the body is ignored. This is something I’ve played around in my books, where people hate to be reminded sometimes that they have bodies, they find it very slow and tedious.
But I’ve never presented that as a desirable state, always as something pathological growing out of this technology”. 25 Dixie, the friend of Case in the Matrix, the so-called construct, an ex-cowboy who was flatlined, exists only in Cyberspace. He is no longer alive, at least not as a physiological organism. Cyberspace has in a way replaced the natural habitat of our species. The irony is that cyberspace is something intangible, something that does not exist as a real physical object. As in Frankenstein we find the idea that when “life” is created outside the natural order, self-destruction is inevitable.
In a world where the “sanctity of life” and “the miracle of birth” no longer exist and where “life” can be interfaced and augmented with machines, life would no longer have value or meaning and death would lose its supposed sting. The obvious conclusion is that the human race, always trying to go beyond it possibilities, has finally become a prisoner not to its body but to something very inhuman in its kind and at the same time a product of its own intellect. Humanity has fallen victim to its greed for more, more at any price.
In this aspiration for achievement, man has relentlessly continued to sever any links with nature. In Neuromancer the idea that if you had information then you had power is also presented. It implies that lack of information puts you automatically in an unfavorable position that eventually could be detrimental for you. It also suggests that if the wrong people are able not only to access information but control it, it is possible for them to take control over our society, affect our lives, and if this incredible power of information is used in an immoral and unethical manner, our civilization as such could be threatened.
With its irrational assumptions about the rational, technological reality rejects by its very nature the necessity of human sensibility. Thus technology, once again is allotted the place of the monster-maker, the antithesis of all that is valued as eternally human. This information and power that technology has inherent in it, has the potential of dramatically transforming human values. The characters of Neuromancer are portrayed as people selfish and indifferent to other human beings. They cannot risk being concerned with someone else because it renders them vulnerable. The book never exemplifies any sort of family structure.
So far in the novel everything is a business association. Most of the characters seem to be devoid of displaying emotions for other beings. Everyone avoids personal relationships to protect themselves from the devious ways of others. For instance Molly and Case engage in a rather intense relationship, however, neither of them display any significant emotion for the other after the fact. Such a state of human alienation and deceptive affiliation with the inhuman, represented by the matrix and the all sorts of artificial objects–nanotech, console jockeys, sim-stim, microsofts, etc. epicts the unhappy lot of such a society and its inevitable doom. It seems as though the first signs of nature’s retaliation are coming into sight and becoming more and more apparent. The most shocking departure from nature, as presented in Neuromancer, is the role that Artificial Intelligence (AI) plays in the book in the face of Wintermute and Neuromancer. We should note that although Neuromancer does not enter the novel as an active “character” until near the end, Gibson seems to regard “him” as crucial to the theme (enough so to name the novel after “him”).
The same importance and weight are given to Wintermute who on the other hand is clearly present throughout the book. Cyberspace, as an entity created with computers by humans is the “natural habitat” for an AI. In Wintermute’s case Lady 3Jane’s mother has the founding vision for Wintermute. All of Wintermute’s programming comes from Marie-France, including the code from the jeweled head. “She [Marie- France] imagined us in a symbiotic relationship with the AI’s, our corporate decisions made for us,”26 says Lady 3Jane.
Marie-France’s hope was to extend the human world into cyberspace by using artificial intelligences to make life more convenient. How strikingly similar are the creations of victor Frankenstein and the owners of Tessier-Ashpool. They both represent something artificial, imitating human life. The creators, however, have not forgotten to render them superior to man by making them, not necessarily more attractive, but stronger and more powerful. And how similar are their needs; after all the monster in Frankenstein feels the need of a mate, and having discovered the irrelevancy of human life, he wants to live outside of the human community.
In Neuromancer the all-powerful AI at the end of the book states it has found a someone of his “own kind”27 and how ironical are the words of Case when he says to the AI, ” I don’t need you” when, in fact, it is the AI that does not need humankind. If we trace back the evolution of the AI in Neuromancer we see how Wintermute’s original programming gave him an instinct to evolve. 28 He is “born” (in as much as Frankenstein’s creature was “born”) like a child in this manner. As time progresses, Wintermute learns to manipulate people and computer systems to suit his need to evolve .
At this stage he represents an adolescent learning to be independent in the world, which is identical to the monster’s experiences with the family in the countryside. Finally, Wintermute joins with Neuromancer to produce a larger, more complete artificial intelligence. In a sense Wintermute is reproducing, like a human, to improve his race. This is precisely what the purpose of Frankenstein’s creature was – the inception of an effective chain outside humanity – a frightening possibility of a new and uncontrollable signifying chain, one with no rules and grammar. 29
As in Frankenstein, the motivation that lies behind the creation of this unnatural form of “life” – the AI is that of ameliorating human life combined with an obsessive desire for immortality and self-fulfilling egotism, verging on narcissism. NAME=”toc30″ The artificial intelligence is nothing more than a tool of achieving the creators’ idea of immortality, “Tessier-Ashpool would be immortal, a hive, each of us units of a larger entity”30 and again the creators are deadly mistaken. This is seen when Neuromancer reveals who he really is to Case. He tells him, “I call up the dead….
I am the dead and their land”. 31 If seen as a biblical allusion, this statement relates Neuromancer and who he is to God and heaven as the after-life but it sounds more as a dreadful declaration of the omnipotence of the new creation. We realize that humankind has unleashed powers beyond its control. It has overstepped the acceptable limit; and how convincing this conclusion sounds nowadays. William Gibson has said in an interview that Neuromancer, though set in the future, is about the present. The world that Case and Molly inhabit is fundamentally our own, according to Gibson.
It represents both what we have become and what we are on the verge of becoming. Even if Gibson is only vaguely accurate in his vision of this future/present, many of the issues he raises in the novel are already on the horizon and, indeed, being battled out in courts, corporate boardrooms, and on the streets . In conclusion, I would rather refer to our present economic reality to support my assertions so far. I would like to point out that sciences and technologies indicate fundamental transformations in the structure of our world.
Would be the science and technology referred to in Shelley’s Frankenstein or the powerful information and computer technologies implied in Gibson’s Neuromancer, the underlying idea is the same – profound change and transformation in every aspect of human life is imminent, to such extent that life itself is being transformed. It is this unambiguous danger to our human community that is hidden in our reliance on technology and its equivocal inventions that these two works, in essence, convey.
My example, illustrating the veracity and perspicacity of the theme of technology, as presented in the examined works, would be from the present reality. Modern states, multinational corporations, military power, welfare state apparatuses, satellite systems, political processes, fabrication of our imaginations, labor-control systems, medical constructions of our bodies, commercial pornography, the international division of labor, and religious evangelism depend intimately upon electronics – this single product of technology, but what astonishing power is hidden behind it.
Microelectronics is the technical basis of simulacra; that is, of copies without originals; microelectronics mediates the translations of labor into robotics and word processing, sex into genetic engineering and reproductive technologies, and mind into artificial intelligence and decision procedures – just to name a few of the paths of electronics as we know them today . The logical question one can ask is whether science and technology are really going to improve the world, will new technologies really improve human communication, or inadvertently make it more difficult?
Will our lives be better? Although ambiguity and uncertainty are highly probable in our future, it is important that we continually ask the right questions, supply the best answers and share them in our society. This is why science-fiction is so important in investigating and raising such questions. It is our responsibility as humans to address them accordingly before it has been too late.