Virtual Reality vs. Experience, and Perceptions of Aesthetics

Paul Meier '10, English 65, The Cyborg Self, Brown University (Fall 2006)

William Gibson's Neuromancer pays more attention to with the world in which the work is set than to its characters or their actions. This future of unspecified proximity is a world technology allows unimaginably large information flow, extreme cosmetic body modification, and in this particular passage, a suggested loss of touch with reality, coupled with questions on aesthetics. Here the main character observes his surroundings, after describing a virtual reality experience:

"And it was like real?" she asked, her mouth full of cheese croissant. "Like simstim?"

He said it was. "Real as this," he added, looking around. "Maybe more."

The trees were small, gnarled, impossibly old, the result of genetic engineering and chemical manipulation. Case would have been hard pressed to distinguish a pine from an oak, but a street boy's sense of style told him that these were too cute, too entirely and definitively treelike. Between the trees, on gentle and too cleverly irregular slopes of sweet green grass, the bright umbrellas shaded the hotel's guests from the unfaltering radiance of the Lado-Acheson sun. A burst of French from a nearby table caught his attention: the golden children he'd seen gliding above river mist the evening before. Now he saw that their tans were uneven, a stencil effect produced by selective melanin boosting, multiple shades overlapping in rectilinear patterns, outlining and highlighting musculature; the girl's small hard breasts, the one boy's wrst resting on the white enamel of the table. They looked to Case like machines built for racing; they deserved decals for their hairdressers, the designers of their white cotton ducks, for the artisans who'd crafted their leather sandals and simple jewelry. Beyond them, at another table, three Japanese wives in Hiroshima sackcloth awaited sarariman husbands, their oval faces covered with artificial bruises; it was, as he knew, an extremely conservative style, on he'd seldom seen in Chiba.

"What's that smell?" he asked Molly, wrinkling his nose.

"The grass. Smells that way after they cut it." [124]

Discussion Questions

1. If "simstim" offers an almost real-world experience that can be altered to one's tastes, which do you think would be a happier lifestyle: a life completely without it or a life completely within it?

2. Does alteration to a natural beauty (such as the modification of the trees and the artificial tanning, mentioned above) enhance and highlight said beauty or degrade it?

3. If you find the final dialogue of the passage to be comical, why? Should he necessarily know what freshly cut grass smells like?

4. Why would bruised faces be fashionable? And considering how painful it is to receive an authentic bruise to the face, is an artificial bruise to be looked down on as much as other "fashion shortcuts," such as the clip-on tie?


Gibson, William Neuromancer. New York: Ace Books, 1984.

Cyberspace OV Cyborg  Mona Lisa Overdrive

Last modified 17 September 2006