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Sunday, November 06, 2005

Parallels Between Terminator 3 And William Gibson's Neuromancer

An essay written for my Popular Literature, Sci-fi & Cyberculture class last week. Still busy working on my Shakespeare assignment, so you gotta make do with this.

William Gibson’s Neuromancer is considered the first proper cyberpunk novel when it was published in 1984. One of its themes is of the integrity of human identity itself, how a person’s sense of humanity can be severely affected if artificial intelligence can orchestrate the plot, personalities downloaded and uploaded into computer programs or other machineries. (Wood, 1996) Technology portrayed in the cyberpunk genre is usually different from traditional hard sci-fi, as apparatuses of technology in the latter are often seen as instruments for humanity to find and conquer outer space, an external instrument allowing humans to colonize the undiscovered outer space, whereas in Gibson’s Neuromancer, or in most other cyberpunk works, technology itself is the alien, and its otherness is a threat to humankind. (Siivonen, 1996) The cyberpunk genre centers upon the relationship between humanity and technology, and technology, once associated with rationality, will be shifted to irrationality.

Set in a dystopian future that is plausible enough to resemble current society, it is a novel that made many prophecies, and most of them seemingly accurate. There is a computer network called the matrix that is similar to the Internet of today, while multinational corporations have overpowered the traditional nation state, the authority and influence of these multinational corporations over mankind in Neuromancer mirrors real-life companies like Microsoft and Apple of today. Most of all, the intermingling of the human body and technology reiterates the fact that there are no binary oppositions in the world of Neuromancer or cyberpunk fiction in general, disparate elements of cultural dichotomies are melded: computers are also artists, people are also machines, and nature is also technology. The opening sentence of Neuromancer "The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel" is a redefinition of natural attributes by using imagery drawn from technology. (Leblanc, 1997)

As Neuromancer is written during the 1980s, which according to Sterling (1994), ‘are an era of reassessment, of integration, of hybridized influences’, technology was becoming pervasive and intimate. And Gibson, as a writer, had to deal with these effects that the technological and communication crises have on the social world. At present, the world of the early 21st century is rapidly being surrounded by massive interconnected cybernetic machines, and that our words have no recourse to truth or accuracy as guarantors of their behaviour. (Siivonen, 1996) The society of today requires humanity to immerse themselves within technology, either for recreational or professional reasons. The Internet had become an essential tool for modern life, technology a projection of the human nervous system. Or as Marshall McLuhan (1964) would put it: “To behold, use or perceive any extension of ourselves in technological form is necessarily to embrace it.”

The relationship between humanity and technology in contemporary post industrial information societies has been described often through the metaphor of the ‘cybernatic organisms’ or cyborgs. Many central characters in Neuromancer, like Molly, are cyborgs, they come into play especially when the boundaries between the human body and machines have been blurred, causing an uneasiness as the ‘eternal order of Nature’ has been upset. This tension between organism and machine hints humanity’s inability to ascribe meaning to the technology they themselves have created.

Although popular, high-grossing films such as Blade Runner and the Matrix trilogy are constantly regarded as prominent developments of the cyberpunk genre’s visual styles and themes, the Terminator films starring Arnold Schwarzenegger are seldom included in these discussions. It was said that Arnold was neglected by cyberpunk due to the ‘ostensibly right-wing ideology associated with his image and interests’. (Liu, 1993). While Neuromancer and Terminator 3: Rise Of The Machines are separated by almost twenty years, the link between these two works is obvious, especially the examination of the increasingly confusing relationship between humanity and technology, the similarities between the protagonists and their rejection of ‘authority’ represented by either megacorporations (Neuromancer) or the government (Terminator 3), and the conflict between ‘chaos’ and ‘rigidity’.

Terminator 3, released in 2003, is believed to be Arnold Schwarzenegger’s last film before he embarked upon a political career, and possibly also a conclusion of the Terminator series. All three Terminator movies involve time-traveling, where denizens of the future are sent back in time to help avert a catastrophic event that would trigger a war between mankind and the cyborgs. Although resistance implies opposition, it is nearly impossible to label these two warring factions as ‘mankind’ and ‘cyborgs’, or ‘humans’ and ‘machines’, especially in Terminator 2 and Terminator 3. In these two films, John Connor, leader of mankind, sends a reprogrammed cyborg (or Terminator) into the past to protect his younger self against enemy cyborgs. Even though humanity is waging war against products of technology, their reliance upon the technology remains just as strong. However, the same can also be said about technology’s reliance upon humanity, forming a symbiotic relationship on both sides, when the evil cyborgs sent to kill John Connor in the present-day have to adopt the looks of humans too. Technology has to immerse itself within humanity.

In Terminator 3, T-X, the cyborg sent to kill John Connor and his future lieutenants, assumed the appearance of a normal blonde woman and occasionally of other humans, which allowed her to move freely among other humans to carry out her missions. When pursued by a policeman early on in the film, a glimpse at a billboard of a lingerie advertisement with the words ‘What Is Sexy?’ and a well-endowed female model prompted her to enlarge her own breasts to mimic the model’s appearance, this revealed a machine conforming to the general perception of humankind for temporary acceptance. Further illustration of a machine’s resistance towards its own identity was in a scene when Arnold’s Terminator was being referred to as a ‘robot’ by John Connor, he immediately corrected him with ‘cybernetic organism’. A cyborg is a figure born of autonomy and automaton, for the Terminator, being called a ‘robot’ would have meant accepting that he was merely an automaton and denying his ‘autonomy-ness’.

As for the characteristics of the megacorporations and the technology created by them, it was said that American xenophobia and isolationism to the scientific and economic invasion of the Japanese manifested itself during the 80’s as the latter’s corporation practice presented a substantial threat to American capitalism. And Gibson was exposed to this when his home, British Columbia, was involved in more conflict with Japanese investments than most part of the country. America’s objections towards Japanese ownership of their estate and industry allowed Gibson’s text to be reexamined within the context of these conflicting interests. Even though Gibson had deliberately avoided noticeable anti-Japanese paranoia or its attendant racism and ethnocentrism in his book, the world of Neuromancer is ruled by megacorporations that form a clear antagonistic counterpoint to the heroes, megacorporations similar to the likes of Sony, Sanyo, Sendai and Fuji Electric with their familial and collective practice. (Nixon, 1992)

The good guys in Neuromancer are anarchic, individualistic American heroes, a console cowboy like Case. In Gibson’s novels, this masculine hero with ‘specially modified (Americanized) Japanese equipment, can beat the Japanese at their own game, pitting his powerful individualism against the collective, feminized, domesticated and therefore impenetrable Japanese ‘family’ corporations’. However, the T-X possesses the appearance of a female, meaning that like Neuromancer, technology is also feminized in Terminator 3. In addition to that, the Terminator reveals to John Connor in a conversation that he (along with other Terminators) ‘comes off from an assembly line’, and being a product of mass production confirms his lack of individualism. His individualism is attained after he was reprogrammed and helped John Connor in defeating the feminine T-X, and being Arnold Schwarzenegger, he epitomized masculinity.

During the Reaganite 80’s, moral majority had risen to unprecedented heights, along with revocations of the feminist advances of the 70’s and the decrease of most forms of social assistance, a nuclear family and a simple rural life was idealized. The Reaganite revision of the cowboy was no longer a solitary, autonomous hero but a man whose eventual home is constituted by a wife and range, Case settled down in the end and had four children. (Nixon, 1992) The protagonist of Terminator 3, John Connor, shares many similar traits with Case even though the film was made two decades after the publishing of Neuromancer. It was established in the beginning of the film that John Connor was a loner who lived ‘off the grid’ (“no phone, no address” to avoid being found), constantly traveling around the country by himself on his motorbike. Yet like Case, he was left with a wife when the film ended, and his wife, Kate Brewster would later become the second-in-command of his army in the war against the machines. America of the early 21st century, during the production of the film, was similar to the 1980s, fear and distrust pervaded the country after the terrorist attacks on September 11, coupled with the announcement of the Iraq war and high-profile corporate scandals like the Enron case, there was a return to what was idealized by the society in the 80s.

Terminator 3 depicts the U. S. military as the ones who has taken over Cyberdyne’s (a megacorporation destroyed in Terminator 2) duties in developing Skynet, the artificial intelligence network system that created the Terminators. Skynet was originally for searching and destroying an exponentially evolved online virus, but what was meant to help them turned out to cause more harm than good, perhaps similar to some people’s opinion of the Iraq war.

The notion of generative chaos is vital to the ‘punk’ aspect of cyberpunk writing. Chaos has to be accepted as a positive force. (Wood, 1996) This theme can be seen in both Neuromance and Terminator 3. Rigidity without chaos is a kind of static immortality, such as that of the Dixie Flatline’s construct. With no hope of transcendence as his limitations are hard-wired, he asks to be wiped. The same can be said about Armitage, a programmed human being who reverts to his original persona as Colonel Corto in chapter 16, and has self-destructive tendencies too, obsessively running the suicidal Screaming Fist operation until he finally killed himself. The Terminator is similar to the above two, as he is unable to change and incorporate new elements into his personality, his limitations are hard-wired too, and he is an obsolete model, therefore, there is not hope for him to survive in the end of the film, he has to trigger his internal hydrogen fuel cell, terminating both T-X and him. And that is why none of the Terminators can escape this fate in all films of the trilogy.

If Neuromancer is a book that pronounced many prophecies, then Terminator 3 is a film about fulfilling these prophecies. Neuromancer may have not been taken place in a future world, but a present cultural difference that arises less from pure imagination than from the harsher tendencies and contradiction of contemporary life. (Whalen, 1992) On the other hand, Terminator 3 is set in 2003, but a 2003 that is different from us.

“By the time Skynet became self-aware, it had spread into millions of computer servers across the planet. Ordinary computers in office buildings, dorm rooms, everywhere. It was software in cyberspace.”

This is John Connor’s voice-over narration when the nuclear war erupted in the end of the movie, heralding Judgment Day, human race nearly destroyed by the technology they built for themselves. Like Neuromancer, Terminator 3 has articulated criticisms of its modern society, where all hopes for human enlightenment are gradually exhausted during the Age of Information.

Cameron, J. (1991) Terminator 2. A motion picture starring Arnold Schwarzenegger. Distributed by Columbia Pictures.

De Zwan, V. (1997) “Rethinking the Slipstream: Kathy Acker Reads Neuromancer,” in Science Fiction Studies. Vol. 24: 464-465

Gibson, W. (1984) Neuromancer. HarperCollins. Great Britain.

Grant, G. (1990) “Transcendence Through Detournement in William Gibson’s Neuromancer,” in Science Fiction Studies. Vol. 17: 41-47

Leblance, L. (1997) “Razor Girls: Genre and Gender in Cyberpunk Fiction,” The Cyberpunk Project.
http://project.cyberpunk.ru/idb/genre_and_gender_in_cyberpunk_fiction.html (Accessed: 28th of October, 2005)

Liu, A. (1993) “The Last Days of Schwarzenegger,” in Genders No. 18 (Winter) pp. 102-112

McLuhan, M. (1964) Understanding Media: The Extensions Of Men.

Mostow, J. (2003) Terminator 3. A motion picture starring Arnold Schwarzenegger. Distributed by Columbia Pictures.

Nixon, N. (1992) “Cyberpunk: Preparing The Ground For Revolution or Keeping the Boys Satisfied?” in Science Fiction Studies. Vol. 19: 219-231

Siivonen, T. (1996) “Cyborgs and generic oxymorons: The body and technology in William Gibson’s Cyberspace Technology,” in Science Fiction Studies. Vol. 23: 227-241)

Sterling, B. (1994) “Preface,” in Mirrorshades: The Cyberpunk Anthology, ed. Bruce Sterling, London: HarperCollins, pp. vii-xiii

Whalen, T. (1992) “The Future of a Commodity: Notes Toward a Critique of Cyberpunk and the Information Age,” in Science Fiction Studies. Vol 19: 75-87

Wood, B. (1996) “William S Burroughs and the Language of Cyberpunk,” in Science Fiction Studies. Vol. 23: 14-15

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