REAGAN'S AMERICA:

SOCIETY, CULTURE AND POLITICS IN THE 1980s

Philip Jenkins

 

CLASS 5

How did America shift so dramatically into the new information economy? Can we say that this period, rather than the 1960s, marks the roots of modern American politics and society?

 

READ: Gibson, Neuromancer

 

Neuromancer was published in 1984. What economic changes had occurred in the US over the previous decade or two?

 

Was the US going through an economic revolution? How was it manifested? What had happened to the traditional pillars of the economy, such as steel, coal, cars? How about agriculture?

 

What had happened in hi-tech – not just computers, but mainly the information economy?

 

What were the social effects of these changes?

 

What were the racial effects of these changes?

 

What were the gender effects of these changes?

 

What effects had these changes had on the nation’s geography? Its urban structure? Tell me about the concept of the city, the sprawl, in Neuromancer?

 

What does the book say about drug use?

 

What effects had these changes had on the mass media?

 

What about education?

 

How had young people –especially teenagers – been affected, far more than their elders?

 

Briefly – how had the lived experience of ordinary Americans changed over the previous decade? What impact had economic and technological change made on everyday life?

 

What were the implications of these changes for international affairs? What kind of global situation does Gibson envisage? Was he right?

 

The book’s most famous passage: "Cyberspace. A consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators, in every nation, by children being taught mathematical concepts... A graphic representation of data abstracted from the banks of every computer in the human system." (51) How does that image compare to the real-life Internet?

 

Where does Gibson get his technology wrong? Where does he suffer from his early 1980s assumptions and setting? In what ways is the book a period piece?

 

We don’t have simstim yet – right?

 

What does the book say about the potential for medical innovation? What about the changing limits and definitions of humanity?  Tell me about the flesh/machine merger that seems so critical to cyberpunk?

 

Why is Case called Case? What does this tell us about the kind of genre the book does or should represent?

 

Tell me about the Asian elements of the book – have the world’s centers of power shifted decisively to East Asia? How far did this reflect fears and hopes of the age? What role does Asia serve in the American subconscious? Is it threat, model, or both? Is Gibson’s imagined “Japan” an image of where the US is headed? For better or worse?

 

So what happened to the Soviet Union anyway, according to Gibson?

 

Robert Heinlein famously said that a science fiction book could and should summarize a whole future world in a line or sentence (eg “the door dilated”). What lines or passages have a comparable effect in Neuromancer? Pick passages or lines that really struck you, that summarized this near-future world? What enchanted or horrified you?

 

The book had a vast contemporary impact, and generated countless imitators, the whole genre of cyberpunk. Why did it have such an impact?

 

List some of the new words that have become commonplace in the world of Neuromancer – what do they tell us about the culture and politics of this world?

 

Gibson imagines a world in which corporate and technological realities have largely supplanted politics. Was he right? Is he envisaging a kind of “End of History” on the lines suggested by Francis Fukuyama? What do such visions omit?

 

Looking at Gibson’s vision of the near future, how does he differ from the kind of futurology that would have been popular in the 1970s? How had the future changed – if you see what I mean?

 

What are the biggest developments of recent years that he gets wrong, or misses?

 

Reading Gibson today, how is his Prophecy Quotient? How surprising would his ideas have been at the time? Are they surprising today?

 

What are the book’s political implications, left or right? Reaganaut or anti-Reaganaut?

 

Just curious  - doesn’t reading Gibson help you follow The Matrix better?

 

In what ways is Neuromancer an artefact of a precise historical period, the early-mid 10980s? How might it have been done differently ten or so years earlier or later?

 

 

INTERVIEWS

 

For background on Gibson and Neuromancer, check out some of the interviews available easily online – see for example

  

http://books.guardian.co.uk/departments/sciencefiction/story/0,,2146989,00.html

 

http://www.scifi.com/sfw/issue146/interview.html

 

http://www.wordyard.com/dmz/digicult/gibson-8-4-94.html

 

A couple of interesting extracts from these meetings:

 

“What's most important to me is that Neuromancer is about the present. It's not really about an imagined future. It's a way of trying to come to terms with the awe and terror inspired in me by the world in which we live. I'm anxious to know what they'll make of it in Japan.When you read Neuromancer the impression is very complicated, but it's all actually one molecule thick. Some of it is still pretty much of a mystery to me. You know, the United States is never mentioned in the book. And there's some question as to whether the US exists as a political entity or if, in fact, it's been balkanized in some weird way.”

 

And another excerpt from an interview:

 

Q.Some Americans claimed that the Europeans are more afraid of the kind of society that you describe in your books...

A.That's interesting... I think that the sort of societies I am describing would be more disturbing to someone who lived in a cohesive, functioning social democracy than it would be to someone who lives in the United States. There are large parts of the United States today that must seem, I would think, to a European as dystopian and possibly more dystopian than I describe in my books.

 

FYI: Gibson's related story Johnny Mnemonic was made into a 1995 film. Not great. A film of Neuromancer is said to be forthcoming (http://www.neuromancer.org/)