(Dis)embodied Meat, Cyborgs, and a Brain on a Hard Drive: The Posthuman Bodies in William Gibson’s Neuromancer


888628.jpgIn the novel Neuromancer by William Gibson, the body is described as merely meat.  Meat is something to be overcome or modified via technology.  In terms of addiction, meat is disposable.  Or it is mere a plaything.  According to Claudia Springer, “The word ‘meat’ is widely used to refer to the human body in cyberpunk texts.  Meat typically carries a negative connotation in cyberpunk … It is an insult to be called meat in these texts, and to be meat is to be vulnerable” (qtd. in Chilcoat 170).  Meat is nothing more than flesh and blood, and while it has its uses, it is vulnerable to disease and death.  The mind, not the body, is praised as the ultimate creation in this cyberpunk novel.

In a posthuman world of high technology, Gibson presents a variety of bodies in flux; bodies that crave and desire, bodies that cease to function, and bodies that are prisons for the mind.  Neuromancer is a novel filled with posthuman bodies, including the characters of Case, Molly, and Dixie.  With this in mind, the paper asks the complex question of how the posthuman body is produced, shaped, and examined in William Gibson’s Neuromancer.  Posthuman bodies in this literary representation play out the potential implications of humans and their relationship with technology, allowing the readers to understand the various possibilities of posthumanism.  Case is a critique of the disavowal of embodiment, as he desires to be a cybernetic being while trapped in his flesh by his addiction to drugs.  The cyborg body of Molly is a place where sex is currency, allowing the character to modify her body to gain more money and agency.  And Dixie is the result of a thought process that claims a disembodied brain will be the ultimate in immortality; his character proves that immortality is an existential hell as a brain on a hard drive.  In order to understand these characters and their place in posthuman literature, an examination of the world of science fiction and the subgenre of cyberpunk will explored.  If we are to understand Gibson’s novel, our reading must be based on the novel’s place in the larger context of literature, in general, and science fiction, in particular.

SF: Science Fiction

Science fiction is a genre open to exploration of all possible futures.  It is a testing ground for authors to understand the implications of technology and work out its breakdowns.  Science fiction is also the genre that explores how the human body interacts with various forms of technology. According to Scott Bukatman, “[T]he body already operates as an interface between mind and experience, but in contemporary SF … the body is also narrated as a site of exploration and transfiguration, through which an interface with an electronically-based postmodern experience is inscribed” (“Postcards” 343).  Science fiction (SF), as Bukatman suggests, is one of the few genres that can fruitfully explore the body’s connection to technology, the interface between body and experience, between being and doing.  From Mary Shelley to H.G. Wells, SF has looked at how technology can improve the human body or be a troublesome element in human evolution.  SF has actively changed the way people look at space, the future, and technology.  Cyberpunk—a subgenre of SF—is in particular concerned with technology and the body.


Cyberpunk emerged in the 1980s with the star of the movement being William Gibson.  Cyber was used to denote the subgenre’s obsession with computers and technology, while punk was taken from the popular underground music that drew rebellious teens into trashy dance clubs.  As Istvan Csicsery-Ronay states in his article “Cyberpunk and Neuromanticism,” “‘Cyber/punk’— [is] the ideal postmodern couple: a machine philosophy that can create the world in its own image and a self-mutilating freedom, that is that image snarling back” (270).  The image presents a strange combination; imagine Billy Idol at the keyboard of an Apple II.  Some claim that only Gibson’s work really formed the cornerstone of the cyberpunk literary movement, with Neuromancer being his crowning achievement.  In Technophobia!: Science Fiction Visions of Posthuman Technology, Daniel Dinello writes, “Neuromancer—which won the Hugo, Nebula, and Philip K. Dick awards—helped invent the language of the future and sparked the cyberpunk movement” (159).  For a brief, shining moment, cyberpunk was the cool new subgenre, but with the forward movement of technology, it faded.  By the 1990s other SF subgenres took its place.

Science fiction and its subgenres often address the future of technology.  Cyberpunk, according to Csicsery-Ronay, “has going for it is a rich thesaurus of metaphors linking the organic and the electronic” (274).  Neuromancer is an example of this as people jack into computers using electronic nodes, and many characters are seen with some form of technology modifying their body, i.e. Molly’s razorgirl fingernails.  Csicsery-Ronay goes on to say, “Cyberpunk is fundamentally ambivalent about the breakdown of the distinctions between human and machine, between personal consciousness and machine consciousness” (275).  This ambivalence can be seen in the way Case describes the matrix, calling it a “consensual hallucination” or the character of Dixie, a human brain on a hard drive (Gibson 5).  Where the mind and the computer meet is a space that is unknown and could be imagined as exhilarating or dangerous.

In this way, cyberpunk couples well with posthumanism.  This subgenre of SF asks questions concerning the place of the human body in the realm of technology.  As Dinello explains,

Reflecting the dawn of a new posthuman era of ubiquitous, autonomous, and intimate technology, cyberpunk articulated an intoxicating, liberating, and frightening vision of artificial intelligence, genetic manipulation, electronic and biological viruses, and brain-computer interface implants.  With amoral anti-heroes entangled in secret webs of power, cyberpunk dramatized the challenge of posthuman survival in the face of global corporate control, omniscient surveillance, and technological onslaught. (159)

Much like the best fiction, Gibson’s novel tapped into a world that could be a possible future.  The globalization of corporations, the surveillance state, and the constant distractions of technology have all come to pass and much more as predicted by Gibson.  The modern reader is not unfamiliar with Case’s fast-paced technological realm; it is a mirror that reflects our postmodern capitalist world filled with Google and Facebook.

The individual self and technology collapse together in cyberpunk and in Neuromancer in particular.  This collapse gestures at the theory of the posthuman.  As Bukatman summarizes, “The posthuman solar system is a comic-book world of infinite possibilities and cyborg multiplicities, defined in and through the technologies that now construct our experiences and therefore our selves” (“Postcards” 355).  Both cyberpunk and posthumanism meditate on the mingling of the human and technology; cyberpunk looks at a fictional future to understand the present, while posthumanist theory considers the present and its effect on the future.

The site of Bukatman’s “infinite possibilities and cyborg multiplicities” is the body, whether human or something else.  Neuromancer shows characters with a pink prosthetic limb, razors for fingernails, and clones.  In the novel, the main character refers to his body as meat.  This gory image signals the separation of the body (meat) from the conscious mind.  As Stephen Dougherty in his article “The Biopolitics of the Killer Virus Novel” notes, “[T]he meat-body trope is best understood as part of an ascetic strategy of bodily disavowal in cyberpunk” (6).  Gibson moves away from embodiment and the previous connectedness of mind and body and into a realm of disembodied minds and meat prisons.  Bodies are clay to be molded to one’s desires.  Bodies are used and cast away, but bodies are still the focus, even without the physical form present.  Even a disembodied character such as Dixie is exceptional because of his lack of body.  The line between body and mind is blurred by technology and the modification of the body.

The posthumanist idea of the body is present and center in Gibson’s novel.  Bodies are the masses, lights in the matrix, while individual bodies are used and wasted.  As Timo Siivonen states in “Cyborgs and Generic Oxymorons: The Body and Technology in William Gibson’s Cyberspace Trilogy,” “Traditional notions of the human body as a discrete and clearly delineated unit dissolve and the focus shifts to aspects that posit the body in relation to its environment and other bodies.  What is important is the ‘connectedness’ of the body and the subject” (227).  In the multicultural mega-capitalist world of Neuromancer, few individuals seem to exist.  People are bought and sold.  Case does not notice people on the streets but rather fields of data and business being done.  Everything becomes technology, and people become faceless.

In Neuromancer, the natural world is seen through a lens of technology.  Claire Sponsler, in her article “Cyberpunk and the Dilemmas of Postmodern Narrative: The Example of William Gibson,” notes, “[T]he natural world … is refigured as technological, cybernetic, and machinelike.  Trees, sky, plants, animals, even humans are identified, described, and apprehended only through the language and images of technology, which provides the dominant paradigm for the mediation of reality” (628).  The opening line of the novel, “The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel” signals this breakdown of the natural into the technological (Gibson 3).  Case, the main character, sees the world as if he were inside a computer program.  Case’s only point of reference is the matrix.

Case: Meat vs. Matrix

In many ways, Case is a standard character of the cyberpunk SF subgenre.  In her article “(En)gendering Artificial Intelligence in Cyberspace,” Sabine Heuser describes the average cyberpunk main character as “a young white male versed in the hard-boiled lingo of the hacker underworld…  [H]e lives for the very exploration of cyberspace, the matrix, the latest final frontier” (131).  This is also how one could describe the character of Case.  He is a middle class white male with an addiction to drugs and cyberspace.

Case, a “cyberspace cowboy,” desires to jack back into the matrix—using electrodes that attach to his head to enter cyberspace—when we first meet the character in Chiba City.  He experiences jacking in as a form of addiction.  He craves it.  Gibson writes, “[Case had] operated on an almost permanent adrenaline high, a byproduct of youth and proficiency, jacked into a custom cyberspace deck that projected his disembodied consciousness into the consensual hallucination that was the matrix” (5).  What Case yearns for is to be a disembodied consciousness surfing a proto-Internet.  His ultimate fantasy, something he dreams about at night, is to be beyond his body.  He longs to be disembodied.  This is an extreme form of techno-fetishism or “technolust,” to borrow a term from Wired magazine (qtd. in Fernbach 234).  According to Urban Dictionary, technolust is defined as “[t]he constant desire to have the newest, flashiest, fastest, shiniest gadget available” (“Technolust”).  William Gibson predicted modern technolust, and he did it decades before the rise of smart phones and the high connectivity of the Internet.

The character of Case sees his body as independent from his mind.  He wishes to become a posthuman body.  N. Katherine Hayles, in How We Became Posthuman, describes the posthuman as an environment where “there are no essential differences or absolute demarcations between bodily existence and computer simulation, cybernetic mechanism and biological organism, robot teleology and human goals” (3).  The boundaries between human and machine are blurred in the posthuman.  Once Case achieves his goal of jacking back into the matrix, he leaves his human body and moves into a computer, making him into a machine with a human mind.  But what frustrates Case is that the human meat remains; the separation from his body is never fully complete.  His meat prison demands food and shelter, and it functions like any other body, which includes the need to urinate.  Case considers these basic functions as distractions from his prized matrix.  He wants to escape his meat body.

Case’s desire to leave his human body is coupled with his technolust to become part of cyberspace.  As Hayles explains, “Existing in the nonmaterial space of computer simulation, cyberspace defines a regime of representation within which pattern is the essential reality, presence an optical illusion” (36).  To put it another way, Case wishes to trade his body of genetically coded DNA for the non-body of an information-coded avatar.  He even goes about his day, replacing real life with the matrix: “Because, in some weird and very approximate way, it was like a run in the matrix.  Get just wasted enough, find yourself in some desperate but strangely arbitrary kind of trouble, and it was possible to see Ninsei as a field of data, the way the matrix had once reminded him of proteins liking to distinguish cell specialties” (Gibson 16).  High on drugs, walking through the streets and back ways of Chiba City, Case cannot help but connect his physical experience to that of the matrix.  He has replaced the proteins he once imagined with data fields, connecting natural life and the matrix in his mind.

Technolust is not the only thing that plagues Case.  He is also physically addicted to drugs.  “Case washed down the night’s first pill with a double espresso.  It was a flat pink octagon, a potent species of Brazilian dex” (Gibson 7).  Designer drugs fill the pages of Neuromancer.  Although it may seem like a contradiction, Case is clearly addicted to these substances on top of his technolust.  Addiction is defined by Oxford’s Concise Medical Dictionary as

[A] state of dependence produced either by the habitual taking of drugs or by regularly engaging in certain activities (e.g. gambling). People can develop physical and psychological symptoms of dependence, which include a strong desire to take the substance or exercise the behavior … social and mental preoccupation with substance use or the given behaviour, and persistent use despite harmful consequences. (“Addiction”)

Case can never match the excitement of the first dose, whether it is a drug or the matrix.  His technolust is an addiction, a fetishism of technology.  Case even has the personality of an addict.  He is selfish, untrustworthy, and paranoid.  His mind may be addicted to cyberspace, but his meat body is chasing the high of powerful drugs.

Drugs may take Case’s mind off his loss of the matrix in the beginning of the novel, but the drugs do not last for long and he returns to his technolust for the matrix.  In “Transcendence Through Detournement in William Gibson’s Neuromancer,” Glenn Grant explains, “[D]rugs cannot duplicate the disembodiment of cyberspace, which is the freedom [Case] craves; the encumbrance of ‘the meat,’ his ‘case’ of flesh, leaves him with only his self-loathing.  Death is the last remaining escape hatch” (41-42).  Case’s ultimate desire is release from his body and therefore from his technolust and addiction to drugs.

Case wants to become an avatar in the matrix, a disembodied entity inside a computer.  He lives for “the bodiless exultation of cyberspace” (Gibson 6).  This desire for bodiless-ness is akin to death.  In his article “The Posthuman Future of Man: Anthropocentrism and the Other of Technology in Anglo-American Science Fiction,” Ralph Pordnik explains, “[Case] wishes to return to a previous state of inanimateness, of perfection in death or nonexistence.  He seeks a final unity with the other of the machine, with the transparent ideality and entirety it connotes” (151).  Pordnik suggests that Case’s wish to be disembodies is the same as wanting to die.  Case wants not to be in the matrix but to become it.  No one in the novel reaches this point, although the disembodied Dixie is the closest.  Pordnik seems to suggest that Case basically wants to be a disembodied mind, much like the artificial intelligence units Wintermute and Neuromancer.  There is one flaw in this argument: Case decides to go back to his body and not remain on the beach with Linda Lee, a construct created by the artificial intelligence Neuromancer.  Case could have stayed jacked in, letting his physical body waste away, but he finishes the mission of merging Wintermute and Neuromancer.

However, Pordnik is correct that Case is suicidal at the beginning of the novel.  As Molly explains to him, “You’re suicidal, Case.  The model gives you a month on the outside” (Gibson 29).  Molly is referencing a computer model based on Case’s behavior.  Without the matrix, Case is barely able to live.  As an addict, he does not do well with withdrawal.  Wintermute, via Armitage, has Case’s blood and liver replaced, making him “incapable of getting off on amphetamine or cocaine” (Gibson 36).  Case can no longer replace his technolust for the matrix with drugs and nearly goes insane for the week that he has to wait before he can jack back into the matrix.  “Seven days and he’d jack in.  If he closed his eyes now, he’d see the matrix” (Gibson 37).  Case is so engulfed by his technolust that he even relates having sex with Molly to the matrix, “[H]is orgasm flaring blue in a timeless space, a vastness like the matrix, where the faces of shredded and blown away down hurricane corridors, and her inner thighs were strong and wet against his hips” (Gibson 33).  Case only has the matrix on his mind.

Case as a character appears to be a warning for Gibson’s readers: beware the technolust.  Case’s addictions and desire to be disembodied are a response to the high connectivity of his environment in Gibson’s posthuman future.  As Dinello states,

The rejection of the body and the addiction to cyberspace … reflect the corruption of natural sensory perception and real experience in this posthuman world.  As cyberspace provides a powerful alternative to the natural environment, the technology of ‘simstim’—simulated stimulation—provides an alternative to living life, to feeling anything authentic. (160)

Case does not experience the world for himself but through his connection to Molly with the simstim.  He does not function well in the real world but he navigates cyberspace like an expert.  Case needs another person’s body—Molly’s—to experience the real world outside of the matrix.

The lack of connection between humans, embodied or otherwise, is a core theme in Neuromancer.  Many of the characters are plugged into their own little world, without much care for others.  As Dinello points out, “Neuromancer’s posthuman future abandons human-to-human connection.  Personal relationships and emotional involvement must be avoided because no one can be trusted.  Paranoia, selfishness, greed, and a lack of empathy afflict most people.  This state of human alienation is reflected in the addiction to cyberspace, simstims, and bionics” (161).  Humans no longer seem to understand one another.  Even the act of sex, which is the closest two people can be together physically, is not intimate but mechanical in Neuromancer.  This posthuman world does not seem like a pleasant future and Case’s desire to escape into the matrix or drugs is how he tries to cope with his feelings of desperation.  Case is surrounded by people but still seems alone.

Molly: Surrender Gender and Kill

The character of Molly is an example of what Donna Haraway calls a cyborg.  According to Haraway’s “Cyborg Manifesto,” “A cyborg is a cybernetic organism, a hybrid of machine and organism, a creature of social reality as well as a creature of fiction” (291).  Molly fits this description well as her organic body is technologically modified in many ways.  Her hands are altered, as Gibson writes, “She held out her hands, palms up, the white fingers slightly spread, and with a barely audible click, ten double-edged, four-centimeter scalpel blades slid from their housings beneath the burgundy nails” (25).  And her eyes have “glasses … surgically inset, sealing her sockets” (Gibson 24).  Molly’s modified body allows her to channel her desire to fight into a paying job, as an employee of Wintermute.  She uses her body as a weapon.

Molly is a hired assassin and a former prostitute, with her razors allowing her to charge top dollar for her services.  Molly is a killer cyborg, “the illegitimate offspring of militarism and patriarchal capitalism, not to mention state socialism” (Haraway 293).  Molly is seen as a killer.  Even sex for her is aggressive and violent.  Gibson writes, “She slid down around him and his back arched convulsively.  She rode him that way, impaling herself, slipping down on him again and again” (33, my emphasis).  Despite being a woman and gendered female, Molly’s sexuality is replaced with violence.  As Haraway declares, “The cyborg is a creature in a post-gender world” (292).  Molly’s gender is removed for most of the Gibson’s novel.  Her one moment of sex is described in violent terms, as being impaled.  For other characters in the novel, Molly is a tool to be wielded; her personality and gender are disregarded.

Molly’s body is often not her own.  Besides denying any gender and creating an androgynous character, Molly is also seen as barely human.  As Melissa Colleen Stevenson writes in her article, “Trying to Plug In: Posthuman Cyborgs and the Search for Connection,” “Humanity, much like gender, is a doing, not a being” (101).  Gibson erases Molly’s gender and humanity; she is seen as an assassin above all, not as a human being.  “Her clothes were black, the heels of black boots deep in the temperfoam [bed]…  The silver lenses seemed to grow from smooth pale skin above her cheekbones, framed by dark hair cut in a rough shag” (Gibson 24).  Jason Haslam[1] has noted Molly’s resemblance to another famous cyberpunk character, Trinity from The Matrix series.  Both women are counterparts for the male protagonist.  Ross Farnell notes the tendency to create characters—Trinity and Molly—who adhere to “old ‘norms’ in new digital clothes” (qtd. in Haslam 94).  Despite her function as a cyborg, Molly, like her fellow cyborg Trinity, is cast as the female love interest, downplaying her role as an individual.  Both women are sex objects for the male main characters while actual gender or sexual preferences are ignored.  Molly is part of a long line of science fiction female characters that are denied their ability to be feminine.[2]

As Molly tells Case, “I do hurt people sometimes, Case.  I guess it’s just the way I’m wired” (Gibson 23).  Molly does not seem to question her nature as a killer cyborg.  She uses her modified body as a weapon.  Molly’s body is also a surrogate body for Case when he plugs in to the simstim system.  Case has a low opinion of using the simstim, calling it “a gratuitous multiplication of flesh input” (Gibson 55).  Case is already disgusted with his own flesh, but in order to complete the mission, he jacks into Molly’s body using the simstim.  Case describes the experience as jarring, “The abrupt jolt into other flesh” (Gibson 56).  Everything that Molly feels, including injuries, passes through the simstim into Case’s nervous system.  Molly becomes an avatar in the real world for Case.  Molly and Case blur boundaries between self and other, male and female, and technology and bodies.

Molly’s body, as a modified cyborg body, is a mix of organic and artificial.  This blending results in what Sponsler calls, “a decentering of the human subject … the hallmark of the postmodern condition” (631).  In the postmodern cyberpunk world of Neuromancer, bodies are no longer mere markers of gender or self.  Modified bodies dissolve the binaries previously in place, and decenter the self in a world of cyborgs and posthuman bodies.  Sponsler explains, “Identity in this world is cast onto the surface of the body, but where the body can be so readily redesigned and customized, conventional notions of individuality and selfhood become meaningless” (632).  With the simstim, one’s identity is indistinct from another’s as identities and selves collapse in on each other.  As Sponsler notes, “[O]ne’s own experiences are no longer just one’s own and offer no mechanism for self-determination or self-definition” (633).  With the example of Molly and Case sharing a body, where does Molly as an individual person end and where does Case as body-observer begin?  The novel is not clear about this.  When Case is inside Molly’s body, he feels the same physical sensations as Molly.  With the simstim, the only boundary between Molly and Case is the physicality of bodies in space.

The character of Molly, as a cyborg, functions as a prosthesis in multiple ways.  She acts an extension for Case into the real world when they are breaking into places.  Molly is a double-prostheses as her own human body is modified, as discussed above.  The erasure of her gender and identity create a character that is more machine than human being.  Her ability to kill gives her some freedom but she is still used by Wintermute and Armitage.  In all of these ways, Molly is a blank slate, a figure to be modified and manipulated.  She is an appendage of a larger body, the Wintermute construct.  She has been programed to achieve Wintermute’s goal and nearly dies in the process.  Molly lives for the thrill of the kill, and any attributes her character may possess beyond that seem immaterial to both the characters and William Gibson.

Dixie: No Body, No Problem?

Disembodiment may be the goal for the character of Case, but it is reality for Dixie Flatline.  Dixie is a brain on a hard drive that Molly steals from Sense/Net.  As Dinello notes, “Despite the flesh-trashing in Gibson’s work, permanent disembodiment often comes off as unpleasant…  In Neuromancer, Dixie Flatline exists only as a personality pattern stored as data within a computer” (160).  Dixie is no longer a person; he is a brain pattern on a hard drive.  His human body was flat lined when he attempted to run some risky software.  He used to be McCoy Pauly but he is now “the Lazarus of cyberspace,” Dixie Flatline (Gibson 78).  Dixie is an immortal now, but he does not seem to think that is a good thing.  Grant suggests that it is not: “Experience leaves permanent memory-traces which define personality.  If unchangeable, this means a kind of static immortality … without any means of growth, escape, freedom” (47).  In other words, Dixie may live forever, but he will never change or grow.  Immortality is a static, bodiless existence in Neuromancer, a world where one is are no longer human.  This sounds more like a nightmare than a dream.

Dixie, as a disembodied personality, has no human ties or needs.  He no longer lives in his meat body unlike Case.  As Pordnik points out, “The biological brain, copied into the computer system of files, is no longer in need of its original medium or material framework… mind has been separated from body, unfastening all its former ties to physical embodiment” (149).  Dixie is a downloaded consciousness, an uncanny resemblance of a human being.  His laugh is unsettling and haunting to Case’s ears.  The image of a disembodied self is uncomfortable to Case and the reader because Dixie is not really human, not anymore.  The man Case once knew is gone; the Dixie construct is merely an echo of that man.

Dixie, as a brain downloaded onto a computer, is the ultimate avatar for the matrix.  He is the culmination of humankind’s desire for immortality, something scientists have strived for as a way of overcoming the defects of the human body.  Pordnik explains, “The unifying vision of the human brain or mind as part of a simulated, virtual reality world, gaining the ultimate privilege of immortality, has finally taken over the reins” (149).  Dixie is the disembodied posthuman.  He is a series of patterns on a screen.  He seems to have transcended his human body.  As Hayles notes, “The contrast between the body’s limitations and cyberspace’s power highlights the advantage of pattern over presence” (36).  If Dixie is the ultimate desire of the posthuman, why does he want to be erased?  Dixie asks Case for one favor: “‘Do me a favor, boy.’ ‘What’s that, Dix?’ ‘This scam of yours, when it’s over, you erase this goddamn thing’” (106).

Part of what makes people human is their ability to adapt and change.  Dixie can no longer do that, as Grant suggests, because he is now a static figure on a hard drive.

Having achieved the goal of immortality on a hard drive, Dixie is unhappy with his state of being.  He may have cast off what P. Chad Barnett calls, “burdensome wetware” for a new, digital being, but he does not want to be the Lazarus of cyberspace after he helps Case with their mission (qtd. in Haslam 93).  All the markers that denote a human are missing from Dixie because he does not have a body to mark.   As Sponsler notes, “Even death, that one event beyond all others that we might assume would put its signature on the individual, does not serve to define human identity” (633).  In death, Dixie is not allowed to die.  His body is gone but his mind is stuck on a hard drive.  He is even less of a human being than the AI units as Dixie does not have freedom of movement or influence beyond cyberspace.

Dixie is a memory, but in the world of SF, as Bukatman points out, memory is a commodity.  Bukatman writes, “In an era of bodily transformation, change, and dissolution, the mere (and ahistorical) fact of physical existence is no longer a guarantor of truth or selfhood” (Terminal 248-49).  Without a physical body, Dixie’s existence is in question.  He has no control over his physical hard drive; Molly must break into Sense/Net to steal it, and Case must access the drive in order to talk to Dixie.  Dixie as a construct has no input on the physical world if he is not plugged into a computer.   He has no agency if he has no body to have agency over.

The construct formally known as McCoy is merely a pattern that can be erased without his consent or knowledge.  He is a series of ones and zeros, much like a sequence of DNA.  As Sponlser points out, “In the world of cyberpunk, as the science of genetics has already suggested to us, humans are but machines directed by coded messages unknowable to consciousness, and another person’s memory tapes can be played by anyone’s machine” (634).  Dixie could be mobile and exist beyond his hard drive if he had a robot body but Gibson does not include that in his novel.  Instead, Dixie aids Case on his mission to unite Wintermute and Neuromancer and then Dixie is erased.  Without a physical body to protect and hold his memories, Dixie will dissolve into cyberspace, leaving no trace.

The artificial intelligence units echo Dixie in many ways.  All are disembodied minds on a drive, the only difference being that Dixie’s patterns were once held inside an organic casing, a human body.  The line between human and machine is once again blurred when it comes to the AIs and Dixie.  As Sponsler notes,

[T]he narrative makes quite clear that AIs are far more than mere machines and in fact operate in ways that are coded as strikingly human.  They take on human appearance and exhibit what seem to be human desires and motivations…  [E]ntities like Wintermute and Neuromancer, though artificial intelligences, aspire to be free, autonomous individuals complete with personalities (635).

Wintermute and Neuromancer desire to be actual beings, while Dixie, who was once a flesh and blood human, desires that his patterns cease.  The AIs appear to be more human without ever having a body than Dixie is since Case knew the human that this brain on a hard drive was once.

Brain Sex and Gender

Much of the emphasis of Neuromancer is embodiment or disembodiment.  The disembodiment or modified bodies of the characters raise the question of gender markers on a body that is no longer present.  When speaking of cyberpunk cinema and the new millennium, Michelle Chilcoat states, “[T]he projected obsolescence of the body also implied the loss of biological matter, traditionally viewed as the immovable or fixed material upon which to construct gender differences and inscribe male privilege.  The dislocation of the body created anxiety…” (156).  Case disregards his meat body but remains gendered as male even when he is inside Molly’s body via the simstim system.  Without his body, he should lose all labels and his gender should be in question, but Gibson does not raise this point.  Donna Haraway and Judith Butler, among others, have noted the construction of gender.  Judith Butler points out, without a body “there will be no way to understand ‘gender’ as a cultural construct which is imposed upon the surface of matter, understood either as ‘the body’ or its given sex” (qtd. in Chilcoat 158).  The brain, despite what some may think, does not have a sex; it is not wired as male or female.

Some scientists—beginning with Anne Moir and David Jessel’s Brain Sex: The Real Difference Between Men and Women—desire to make the brain fit into the gender binary that is already a social construct, not a biological one.  These brain sex studies seek to adhere to gender binaries when examining the functions of the brain.  As Chilcoat explains, “Cyberpunk cinema [and literature] and brain sex studies intersect on … conservative grounds largely out of anxiety over the shift from the industrial to the information age with its lure of disembodied experience” (157).  Characters in Neuromancer move beyond their bodies, notable Case and Dixie.  Both of these characters have male body—we are meant to assume—but that does not make their brains male.  Dixie remains male in the story despite being a disembodied brain on a hard drive.  Case explores the world through Molly’s body, but does not leave his maleness behind with his body.

Even as a disembodied brain, the mind may picture itself as gendered one way or the other.  As Timo Siivonven notes, “In discarding the body, the rational mind produces a new meaning to the system of sexual difference embedded in the body.  Here the body is a representation which may be molded, if necessary, into any form—also into a form with no more gender” (238).  A physical body may have gendered plumbing but a brain has not such appendages.  Dixie, for example, remains a male character because his disembodied brain thinks of itself as male.

Gender is a complex topic that deserves its own lengthy essay.  However, it is important to note not just the female character’s relationship to gender but the male characters as well.  Molly sells her body as a weapon or a meat puppet and this part of the novel is currently not fully addressed in the scholarship.  The gender construct falls apart when reader against changeable posthuman bodies.


Bodies, as shown above, are the locus of the novel Neuromancer.  The SF subgenre of cyberpunk is a way of addressing these bodies in flux.  The role of the body effects every character whether they are imprisoned by their body like Case, a modified body like Molly, or a disembodied brain like Dixie.  Gibson creates the character of Dixie to counter Case and show what disembodiment would really be, a static, unchanging hell.  Dixie is a warning to Case that says be careful what you wish for.  On the other hand, Molly lives for the excitement of violence.  She is a cyborg killer and proud of it.  She has modified her body in order to survive the postmodern capitalist world, where she was once a prostitute.  Molly, unlike Case, lives in her body.  She even shares it with Case on occasion, during sex and using the simstim.  Molly is the main character who enjoys the world of the flesh, even if she has to modify her own body to accomplish her goals as a cyborg and killer.

Case and others may want to overcome their meat bodies but even when this is achieved, the result is a creepy echo of a human on a hard drive.  More technology does not equal more happiness, as Gibson shows his readers.  Technological advances may be outpacing the ability of the human to cope with said technology.  Modern readers may recognize Gibson’s highly technical and capitalist world as our own but are we ready to give up our bodies to live forever on a hard drive?  Gibson spins out this question using Dixie as an example of the horror of living a disembodied life.  However much Case may dislike his meat body, living without a body is seen as a horrible existence.

Reading Gibson’s novel with the focus on posthuman bodies helps the reader understand their own embodiment as well as their body’s relationship to technology.  Although a modern computer user is not physically jacked into the matrix, there is a growing distance between the body and the mind.  Hayles shock at the idea of downloading the human brain onto a computer may one day be real but we must realize that this form of life is not really living.  However much society may shame our bodies, we exist without these cases of flesh and bone, for better or worse.  Our very status as human beings is at stake if technology reaches the point that a person becomes merely flickering patterns on a screen.

Works Cited

“Addiction.”  Oxford Concise Medical Dictionary.  9th  ed.  2015.  Oxford Reference. Web.  16 Apr. 2016.

Bukatman, Scott.  “Postcards from the Posthuman Solar System (Cartes du système solaire posthumain).”  Science Fiction Studies 18.3 (1991): 343-57.  JSTOR.  Web.  3 Feb. 2016.

——-.  Terminal Identity: The Virtual Subject in Postmodern Science Fiction.  Durham: Duke UP, 1993.  Print.

Chilcoat, Michelle.  “Brain Sex, Cyberpunk Cinema, Feminism, and the Dis/Location of Heterosexuality.”  NWSA Journal 16.2 (2004): 156-76.  JSTOR.  Web.  12 Mar. 2016.

Csicsery-Ronay, Istvan.  “Cyberpunk and Neuromanticism.”  Mississippi Review 16.2 (1988): 266-78.  JSTOR.  Web.  3 Feb. 2016.

Dinello, Daniel.  Technophobia!: Science Fiction Visions of Posthuman Technology.  Austin: U of Texas P, 2005.  Print.

Dougherty, Stephen.  “The Biopolitics of the Killer Virus Novel.”  Cultural Critique 48.1 (2001): 1-29.  JSTOR.  Web.  2 Mar. 2016.

Fernbach, Amanda.  “The Fetishization of Masculinity in Science Fiction: The Cyborg and the Console Cowboy.”  Science Fiction Studies 27.2 (2000): 234-55.  JSTOR.  Web.  2 Mar. 2016.

Gibson, William.  Neuromancer.  New York: Ace Books, 1984.  Print.

Grant, Glenn.  “Transcendence Through Detournement in William Gibson’s Neuromancer.”  Science Fiction Studies 17.1 (1990): 41-49.  JSTOR.  Web.  10 Apr. 2016.

Haraway, Donna.  “A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century.”  The Cybercultures Reader. Ed. David Bell and Barbara M. Kennedy.  London: Routledge, 2000.  Print.

Haslam, Jason.  “Coded Discourse: Romancing the (Electronic) Shadow in The Matrix.”  College Literature 32.3 (2005): 92-115.  JSTOR.  Web.  2 Mar. 2016.

Hayles, N. Katherine.  How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics.  Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1999.  Print.

Heuser, Sabine.  “(En)gendering Artificial Intelligence in Cyberspace.”  The Yearbook of English Studies 37.2 (2007): 129-45.  JSTOR.  Web.  12 Mar. 2016.

Pordzik, Ralph.  “The Posthuman Future of Man: Anthropocentrism and the Other of Technology in Anglo-American Science Fiction.”  Utopian Studies 23.1 (2012): 142-61.  Academic Search Premier.  Web. 4 Mar. 2016.

Siivonen, Timo.  “Cyborgs and Generic Oxymorons: The Body and Technology in William Gibson’s Cyberspace Trilogy.”  Science Fiction Studies 23.2 (1996): 227-44.  JSTOR.  Web.  2 Mar. 2016.

Sponsler, Claire.  “Cyberpunk and the Dilemmas of Postmodern Narrative: The Example of William Gibson.”  Contemporary Literature 33.4 (1992): 625-44.  JSTOR.  Web.  2 Mar. 2016.

Stevenson, Melissa Colleen.  “Trying to Plug In: Posthuman Cyborgs and the Search for Connection.”  Science Fiction Studies 34.1 (2007): 87-105.  JSTOR.  Web.  2 Mar. 2016.

“Technolust.”  Urban Dictionary.  Urban Dictionary, 2016.  Web.  1 May 2016.

[1] Haslam explores The Matrix series and the desire to whitewash science fiction characters.

[2] Besides Trinity from The Matrix, another prime example is Ripley from Alien or Sarah Conner from The Terminator.  All are strong characters, but their genders are erased.


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