Tuesday, 22 July 2014

Morality, Religion and 'Neuromancer'

            So, I’ve read Neuromancer, and I want to talk more about the morality of the characters more than the technology. Molly seems to be almost purely amoral. She has affection for Case, she feels hate for Riviera, but she never takes any moral stances. Case obsesses over the death of Linda Lee and his simulated ‘killing’ of the Julie Dean construct that Wintermute uses to contact him; he never, however, takes an ‘edifying’ step, he never pronounces upon the morality of the situation. Ultimately, he is driven by pure self-interest. Wintermute was designed from the outset to seek to unify itself with Neuromancer, so the degree of its moral culpability is ambiguous to say the least.

            The only occasions of actual moral pronouncements on both the immediate situation of the characters and upon the world as a whole come from the Rastafari of an O’Neill habitat named ‘Zion.’ I worried that Gibson would stray into using the Rastafari as comic relief, and to an extent he does, but the comedy comes from the reactions of Case to their lifestyle and philosophy than from any idiocy on their part. Indeed, despite the possible handicap of constant emersion in cannabis smoke, they’ve constructed and operate a fully functioning space colony. The Rastafari in Neuromancer have performed a subtractive act, and have physically separated themselves from corrupt modernity (‘Babylon’) in order to live according to their customs and traditions. To be honest, they were perhaps the most human and likeable characters in the novel.

            When Case introduces one of the Rastafari characters, Aerol, to the matrix (cyberspatial virtual reality), he asks him what he saw. He responds simply: ‘Babylon.’ Correct me if I’m wrong, but this is the only time we have someone in the novel pronouncing upon the fallen world of Neuromancer, making the much needed observation that there is something wrong here. It’s a world of poverty, corruption and painfully casual cruelty (much like our own). Another Rasta character, who agrees to help Case rescue Molly, describes the situation as ‘Babylon fightin’ Babylon, eatin’ i’self…’ Most curiously, when Case is trapped in a simulation by Neuromancer, it is Rastafarian sacred music that pulls him back out of it...

            What are to make of the Zion subtraction from the fallen world of ‘Babylon’? It is interesting that it is only the high-technology of the capitalist world that has allowed for the Rastafari to remove themselves from ‘Babylon,’ though we might respond by calling this a subversion of the (literal) mechanisms of modernity: using the tools that capital has provided to distance ourselves from capital… Perhaps by being (again, literally) above the world, looking down upon it, they are the only characters in the novel in an appropriate position to make pronouncements about the state of the world. The words ‘God’s eye view’ spring to mind… As someone who feels that there is a sore absence of the sacred in today’s world, there is something heartening about the presence of a community who believe in something like that. There is little forethought or transcendental desire from anyone except Wintermute in the novel. Of course, the dark side of the peaceful subtraction from modernity is the violent rejection of it. There is at one point a hoaxed terrorist-scare blamed on Christian fundamentalists which is immediately swallowed by the authorities, suggesting pre-existent expectations of religiously motivated violence.

            We must not be too swift to dismiss the continued relevance of religion in the world, even if only for purposes of pure Realpolitik. It’s been a long time since Fukuyama declared the end of history, and I doubt that many people where convinced by his proclamation, but history since then has continued to reveal that society has still not settled on its final form, and the rise to prominence of a group like ISIS and its self-declared Caliphate is yet another indication that alternatives are available, though not necessarily preferable. Religion is still yet to finish having its way with us, for better or for worse. 

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