Cyberevolution - William Gibson's evolutionary Ideas

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2005

24 Pages, Grade: 1,0



I. Introduction – Evolutionary Fiction

II. Nature and Technology
A. The Evolution of the Human Species
1. Invasion of the Body Shapers
2. Dissolving into Cyberspace
B. The Evolution of Human Culture
1. Intelligent Machines
2. The Notion of ‘Oneness’
3. Autopoietic Enterprises

III. Chaos and Order

IV. Conclusion

V . Bibliography

I Introduction - Evolutionary Fiction

Classic evolutionary theory always looks backwards. Darwin, his predecessors and successors put forward their theories by comparing present organic records with those of the past. Indeed some ideas of social evolution are imbued with a certain kind of perspective into the future, believing in an ongoing progression of human societies. Spencer, for instance, “believed that the end result of social evolution would be the elimination of social problems and the perfection of society” (McGee/Warms 12). Still, in order to prove the accuracy of those ideas, one had to rely on evidence taken from history or from cultures which were believed to be primitive and thus representing former states of societies. Science fiction’s view goes quite in the opposite direction: Here, the present marks the point of view from where we look into the future of society, the future of mankind. The following paper examines the notions of evolution we can find in William Gibson's work. I will try to deal with the question how we can perceive an evolution of the human race in his novels and what other ideas of evolution Gibson incorporates into his work.

Starting off with the query whether there is to find any sort of biological evolution in Gibson's work, the second chapter will deal with the picture of nature Gibson draws. How does he describe nature (meaning organic beings or biological environments), or to put it more correctly, how is nature conceived through the eyes of his protagonists? Then I will take a closer look at the dualistic relationship of nature and technology. What importance has technology for the societies Gibson sketches, and what effect has technology on their inventors? The main topic of this chapter will be the investigation of nature's and technology's evolutionary features in Gibson's work: How does the human species develop and which way does human made technology take? Finally, the chapter will deal with capitalism as a very own kind of evolutionary concept.

Chapter three will take a look at the concept of evolution in Gibson's work from a different angle, treating evolution not as concrete biological-technological development but more as some sort of abstract principle. The focus will shift here from the dualism of biology-technology to the dialectics of chaos and order. Does Gibson see evolution more as a force driven by chaos or as a force that creates structure, patterns and order from mere chaos?

II Nature and Technology

Looking closely at Gibson's work, one will soon come to the conclusion that he doesn't bother much with actual biological evolution. In his San Francisco trilogy (consisting of Virtual Light, Idoru and All Tomorrow’s Parties), he touches on this topic with the religious-mythical figure of J.D. Shapely, a former male prostitute who had been carrier of a non-lethal form of HIV. This form of HIV has proven to overpower its lethal relative and seems to be a good example of a ‘survival of the fittest’, the term Herbert Spencer coined which proved to survive the (dis)course of evolutionism itself. In the world Gibson creates, AIDS can be avoided by vaccination with the nonlethal HIV virus, which has resulted in an extinction of the lethal virus. There should be noted, however, that this evolutionary step is induced by human intervention, the Sherman Group's scientific researches and their practice of vaccination.

These kinds of human intervention can always be found when it comes to the topic of nature in Gibson's work. Nature here always seems to be mingled with human culture in one way or another, and there seem to be only a few forms of purely biological organisms or environments left on earth. The "squirrel wood" (178) in Count Zero is such a place, while Gibson's first novel Neuromancer is distinctive for its complete absence of natural elements. This leads to the effect that most of Gibson's characters have become estranged from nature: The meadow on the roof of Freeside's Intercontinental is filled with "what seemed to Case an unnatural number of trees" (Neuromancer 153), and the grass exudes an unpleasant odor: "'What's that smell?' he asked Molly, wrinkling his nose. 'The grass. Smells that way after they cut it.'" (154) Regarding nature as being unnatural seems paradoxical at first, but in Gibson's universe this paradox is cleared up, cultural and technological environment having invaded the space formerly occupied by nature. What seems to be biological has either been genetically or otherwise artificially constructed, like the meadow and trees on the Intercontinental's rooftop in Neuromancer or the simulacrum of the mountain with the sheep on top of the New Suzuki Envoy Hotel in Mona Lisa Overdrive, or it has been artificially supplemented. And what seems to be purely technological unfolds natural features: "The plane was smart, smart as any dog, with hard-wired instincts of concealment." (Count Zero 178) While such comparisons still do not make the plane a true biological being, we can also find instances where technological environments literally create natural phenomena:

The Sprawl's patchwork of domes tended to generate inadvertent microclimates; there were areas of a few city blocks where a fine drizzle of condensation fell continually from the soot-stained geodesics, and sections of high dome famous for displays of static-discharge, a peculiarly urban variety of lightning. There was a stiff wind blowing, as Bobby followed Lucas down the street, a warm, gritty breeze that probably had something to do with pressure shifts in the Sprawl-long subway system. (Count Zero 164)

Besides those references of the artificial actually becoming or creating the natural, there are innumerable metaphors and comparisons of artificial and natural intertwinings in Gibson's work. Daniel Cordle argues that this imagery calls "into question the natural-artificial divide, transgressing the border from both directions: there is a migration of things normally associated with the natural into machine territory, and vice versa." (115) Before I go further into this interweaving of biology and technology, I want to take a closer look at the evolution of each of these tracks separately as they are depicted in Gibson's writing, beginning with the field of biology – the human species.

A. The Evolution of the Human Species

1. Invasion of the Body Shapers

As I mentioned earlier before, evolution in a natural scientific understanding can scarcely be found in Gibson's work. Instead, the human species has brought forth its own means of development. Regarding his physical appearance, man has come to a point where he can model himself just as he likes, often resulting in a dim conformity: "The handsome, inexpressive features offered the routine beauty of the cosmetic boutiques, a conservative amalgam of the past decade's leading media faces. The pale glitter of his eyes heightened the effect of a mask." (Neuromancer 59) It should be noted that you find this kind of mass look mostly with characters the reader clearly isn't meant to identify with. Gibson's favored characters seem to be either not surgically altered at all or altered in a very distinguishing way which adds artificiality to them, like the 'razor girl' Molly or Porphyre, a hairdresser whose "depilated skull displayed a symmetry unknown to nature." (Mona Lisa Overdrive 60)

2. Dissolving into Cyberspace

While we have been dealing with physical alterations of greater or lesser extents so far, some of Gibson's characters have begun to despise their physical self in favor of a life mostly spent in virtual realities. Since the release of Neuromancer in 1984, the term 'cyberspace' has been so deeply imprinted on our cultural memory that it does not seem necessary to define it anymore. Case and the other cyberspace cowboys who ride the infinite planes of the matrix depicted in Gibson's Sprawl Trilogy (i.e. Neuromancer, Count Zero and Mona Lisa Overdrive) have evolved "a certain relaxed contempt for the flesh. The body was meat." (Neuromancer 12) Requiring no bodily appearance, cyberspace releases humans from the restraints of real life. To put it in David Porush's words: "Cyborg hackers take the next evolutionary step that was begun in Daedalus's dream of flight to become electronic angels, freed from the laws of physics." (109) While human existence in cyberspace is indeed disembodied, it should be noted that virtual existence is still connected to a body in real life, so that events in cyberspace can have an effect on the body: "[T]he great corporate hotcores burned like neon novas, data so dense you suffered sensory overload if you tried to apprehend more than the merest outline." (Count Zero 62) Even personality constructs like Dixe Flatline have some sort of bodily appearance, "a hardwired ROM cassette, replicating a dead man's skills, obsessions, knee-jerk responses." (Neuromancer 97) Daniel Cordle's argument goes in the same direction: "Importantly, there is a direct feedback from the virtual world to the real world – get caught by defence systems in the matrix and the operator can die, a fate which nearly befalls Bobby Newmark, an aspiring cyberspace cowboy and the eponymous hero of Count Zero." (110)


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Cyberevolution - William Gibson's evolutionary Ideas
University of Cologne
Between Chance and Adaptation. Reverberations of the Theory of Evolution in Ethnology, Literature and History
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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Cyberevolution, William, Gibson, Ideas, Between, Chance, Adaptation, Reverberations, Theory, Evolution, Ethnology, Literature, History
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Thorsten Felden (Author), 2005, Cyberevolution - William Gibson's evolutionary Ideas, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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