Artificial and virtual space in William Gibson’s Neuromancer
Talking about space in speculative fiction (i.e. fantasy, science fiction or supernatural fiction) touches upon several key aspects of the genre such as worldbuilding, perception of reality and the human condition: what kind of space do we create for ourselves, how do we attribute meaning to it, in which ways are we limited or isolated by its boundaries? Especially in cyberpunk, with its focus on near-future societies and the technologies of the information age, the space we live in and the space we send our minds to do not have to be the same, so the answers are manifold.
The following paper will discuss some basic configurations of world and otherworld in speculative fiction, give a short introduction to cyberpunk literature and William Gibson’s dual world of cyberspace and meatspace, briefly present Jean Baudrillard’s concept of hyperreality, examine the question to which extent the world of Neuromancer might be understood in terms of such a hyperreality, and offer some ideas about alternate realities we might already live in.
1. World and otherworld
The relationship between our world and any kind of otherworld provides a simple, yet useful way of distinguishing different kinds of speculative fiction.
In many high fantasy and science fiction stories the otherworld exists instead of our own, constituting a closed reality not affecting our sphere of experience.
A second category of stories also provides us with another world, but this world exists next to our own, with distinct laws or properties. However, it is safely separate, e.g. behind a magic mirror or dimensional rift, and travel between both worlds is possible, but accomplished only by a select few or by extraordinary, ‘magical’ means. Prominent examples of such ‘looking-glass’ worlds would be Carroll’s Wonderland or Star Trek’s Mirror Universe.
The third category is the domain of supernatural fiction and most of urban (or ‘contemporary’) fantasy from H.P. Lovecraft to Neil Gaiman: both worlds overlap and influence each other. John Clute calls this a “crosshatch narrative” and likens the intersection to the forest in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream,
“[where] two or more worlds may simultaneously inhabit the same territory”. The same holds true for any story of mystical creatures or alien invaders in which the epistemological conflict between both realities and the breach of our laws of nature is at the heart of the story.
While most fantasists tell their tales despite knowing them to be impossible, and many writers of the supernatural for the sheer fun of terror, advocates of science fiction have always believed it would be possible, at least somewhere and someday, to actually travel to other, yet-to-be-imagined places or even through time or to alternate universes. Along with this sense of mission and fuelled by the US spaceflight programs came science fiction’s own kind of frontier myth including the old stereotypical implications of cowboys and colonists.
However, almost no one expected that at the beginning of the 21st century we would not be exploring the space between stars but the space between our computers. One of the first to do so was William Gibson.
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