The Good, the Bad, and the Cyborg

While William Gibson's cyborgs are often sub-dermally enhanced or modified in fashionable ways, as with Molly in Gibson's Sprawl trilogy, Neal Stephenson's satiric dystopia Snowcrash provides a more stereotypical, obvious cyborg. These "Gargoyles", as Stephenson dubs them, are ugly, visible, hung on all sides with computer gear: the quintessential geek.

Gargoyles represent the embarrassing side of the Central Intelligence Corporation. Instead of using laptops, they wear their computers on their bodies, broken up into separate modules that hang on the waist, on the back, on the headset. They serve as human surveillance devices, recording everything that happens around them. Nothing looks stupider; there getups are the modern-day equivalent of the slide-rule scabbard or the calculater pouch on the belt, marking the user as belonging to a class that is at once above and far below human society. They are a boon to Hiro because they embody the worst stereotype of the CIC stringer. They draw all of the attention. The payoff for this self-imposed ostracism is that you can be in the Metaverse all the time, and gather intelligence all the time. [Snowcrash 123-124, emphasis added]

In this permanent state of connectivity, the Gargoyle Lagos contrasts sharply with his closest analogue within Gibson. Angie Mitchell, from Count Zero and Mona Lisa Overdrive, can also access cyberspace without a traditional computer. It's built into her brain: she dreams the Matrix. It is not common knowledge, however, and she can only closely interact with those who know her secret. Though Angie and Lagos both sacrifice a normal life for the sake of constant connectivity, the two different worlds slip them into the top and bottom rungs of society. Angie Mitchell is a Sense/Net star, a pop idol in her world, dedicated to recording multi-sensory entertainment media to elevate the viewer from their quotidian existence. Lagos is an outsider, orbiting the fringes of the crowd (quite literally, in the scene referenced) to gather information for processing. While both Angie's job and her eventual departure from the real world (born again into a data-construct within cyberspace) relate to an escape from the Sprawl, Lagos' main activity is the detailed analysis and observation of environment, meticulously cataloguing the eccentricities of life Angie leaves behind.

These differences expose a basic separation of style between Gibson and Stephenson. Not only are the worlds of the characters dissimilar, but the characters' relationship to those environments are opposite. Neuromancer and Gibson's later books express a deep divide between the human body, casually tossed off as "meat", and the ethereal freedom of cyberspace. Gibson's superhacker Case is introduced as he wanders Chiba City, nearly suicidal in his apathy. His only desire is to return to the Matrix. Bobby, aka "Count Zero", hacks [badly] to try and escape his mediocre suburbanite life. Even Neuromancer and Wintermute, the two Tessier-Ashpool AI's in Gibson, desire to be free of their constraining programs.

Now, turn to Snowcrash. The people here are hardly escapist. They revel in their fractured world, Y.T. 'pooning cars between post-national franchises, hundreds of skateboard-wielding teenagers moshing in time to the sonic equivalent of an overdose. Why this pleasure among the chaos? The environment is hardly more welcoming than the Sprawl. Stephenson's satiric vision of the future renders the world so enfranchised, corporate and partisan that it's a miracle if anyone can make sense of it all, much less tolerate the confusion. Stephenson's environment creates the need for an information-processing cyborg. Angie's dreams gave her a perspective on cyberspace, hinted at the presence of a higher form. Lagos' constant analysis and reference is a perpetual race to stay on top of things. In the end, it is an ambiguous question who is the more truly cyborgic, Lagos and his assisted race to catch up with the times (he started as a librarian, not exactly pole position in terms of societal knowledge) or the hundreds of people who unconsciously integrate technology into every facet of their lives.

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