The Samples of Neuromancer

Matt Pillsbury

Gibson Samples

Watch out for worlds behind you.

So goes the chorus of The Velvet Underground's "Sunday Morning". According to Gibson in interviews, the epigraph of Neuromancer would have read the same way. It's certainly fitting for a novel where people are constantly fleeing their pasts, and telling tales of the worlds they have left. However, it also points us to the first instance of Gibson's "Sampling" of other works.

"Sampling" is a distinctly postmodern way of making music--taking snippets of other songs, quotes from film or politics, and even random noises, and blending them into a new composition. And sampling also seems to be the way that Gibson wanted to write his novel. One of the first characters we meet, Case's ex-girlfriend.

But me I'm down around the corner
You know I'm lookin' for Miss Linda Lee.

Is it just coincedence that Linda Lee happens to be a character in VU's "Cool it Down"? That's rather unlikely, given Gibson's familiarity with the band, and the fact that his Linda is cut from the cloth of junkies, whores and losers which form the backdrop for so many of VU's songs.

It took a month for the gestalt of drugs and tension he moved through to turn those perpetually startled eyes into wells of reflexive need. He'd watched her personality fragment, calving like an iceberg, splinters drifting away, and finally he'd seen the raw need, the hungry armature of addiction.

This is hardly the only time Gibson performs this sort of appropriation. While most of the references are minor (i.e., he claims he got the idea of "meat puppets", computer-controled prostitutes from the name of early '80s punk band) there is at least one other sample which occupies a major point in the novel. When Molly is wandering through the Villa Straylight and confronts the patriarch Ashpool.

She got up slowly, her eyes fixed on the muzzle of a black automatic pistol. The man's hand was steady enough, now; the gun's barrel seemed to be attached to her throat with a taut, invisible string.... He wore a heavy robe of maroon silk, quilted along the long cuffs and shawl collar. One foot was bare, the other in a black velvet slipper with an embroidered gold foxhead over the instep.

There is a scene in Robert Stone's A Flag For Sunrise, written three years before Neuromancer, which parallels this almost exactly. His thief Pablo confronts an old Israeli diamond seller, Naftali, who greets him the same way.

Standing above Pablo was a hawk-faced man in a blue bathrobe and carpet slippers and carpet slippers who was pointing what appeared to be an automatic pistol down Pablo's throat. The hand holding the gun was unsteady but purposeful.

We have old men, readied for bed , the threatening presence of the gun, confronting their respective interlopers. There are differences, to be sure. Where Molly is collected,

"It would be customary," the old man said, "for me to kill you now." Case felt her tense, ready for a move. "But tonight, I indulge myself. What is your name?"


"Molly. Mine is Ashpool."

Pablo is panicked.

"Come visit," the man said to Pablo, "I been expecting you all night."

"Not me," Pablo said, "We both got the wrong people. See, I was playing a joke on a friend of mine."

"Ahah," the man with the gun said, "Funny."

"Honest to Christ," Pablo pleaded, "just take it easy!"

Yet as Molly spots the impedimentia of suicide at Ashpool's side,

The table was thick with vials, bottles of liqour, soft plastic envelopes spilling with white powders. Case noticed an old-fashioned hypodermic and a plain steel spoon.

Pablo spots the same table in Naftali's room.

The table was covered with bottles--one of Mexican brandy, abother of liquid Nembutal, clearly labeled in English, yet another small one of insulin with a syringe beside it.

Both man have chosen this night to die, and both are piqued when they are interupted by the invaders. Yet they both share their last thoughts with these stranger-thieves, Ashpool talking of the misery of cryogenic sleep, Naftali sharing the last time he saw his father before the Nazis took him. But these episodes, which began in almost the same way, end very differently. Molly feels no sympathy for the old man, interupting him.

She put his pistol down, picked up her fletcher, dialed the barrel over to single shot, and very carefully put a toxin dart through the center of his left eyelid.

Pablo considers an interuption, without malice.

As he reached down to take his clip and gun from beside Naftali's unconscious body, another thought came to him: that it might still be possible to bring the old man back, to get help, a doctor, and ambulance. But it was too late for that.

Gibson's razorgirl and Stone's speedfreak certainly respond very differently, but the situation is the same. Gibson changed it enough so that he could bring it from a Central American hotel to an orbital habitat, but no more. He wanted us to recognize the scene, just as Ministry wants us to recognize George Bush's voice in the song "N.W.O."

Neuromancer Samples

If his samples existed in a vacuum, Gibson would be doing little more than playing games. They might evoke a smile from the people who know the works he's referencing, but it would be possible to go through the novel blithely without picking up on them and nothing would be lost. At best it would be harmless, at worst it would be an irritating pretension. However, there is more to this sampling, because it embodies a major part of the world Gibson envisions.

[H]e stared through the glass at a flat lozenge of vatgrown flesh that lay on a carved pedastel of imitation jade. The color of the skin reminded him of Zone's whores; it was tattooed with a luminous digital display wired to a subcutaneuos chip.

This particularly baroque sample, a disembodied tattoo, is one of the first which we come accross. It's almost nothing, something Case notices in a shop window, but it shows a world where everything can be sliced out of its old context, and placed in a new one. In Straylight, all sorts of objets d'art end up in hideous places as the Tessier-Ashpools try to find some sort of comfort in the implacable hostility of space. Molly's suit of mimetic polycarbon takes the surfaces of the world around it and mimics them to provide cut-rate invisibility. Even Armitage's face is a blend of media personalities, giving him bland attractiveness.

It was called dub, a sensuos music cooked up from vast libraries of digitalized pop; it was worship, Molly said, and a sense of community.

So these samples extend beyond fashion, perverse interior decoration, and even tactical advantage. They weave together the only religious group that plays a major role in the novel. Even when he goes to fight, the Rastafarian Maelcum keeps his headphones on, not willing to be severed from the dub for anything. But in Chiba, in the Sprawl, and in cyberspace, furniture, texture, music and even flesh itself are not the end of the sampling.

It was disturbing to think of the Flatline as a construct, a hardwired ROM cassette replicating a dead man's skills, obsessions knee-jerk responses....

Gibson's world has moved to the point where even minds and memories are sampled. The cartridge that is all that's left of McCoy Pauly is one of the simplest examples. Wintermute builds slices of reality, and even surrogate personalities, from Case's memory. Neuromancer is even more impressive--he can take an entire person, including the spontaneity and soul that the Flatline lacks, and bring them into the world within himself. And that world is itself taken from the memories of Neuromancer's creator, Marie-France Tessier-Ashpool.

"I can't stop her," the boy said, his his gray eyes mild and beautiful.

"You've got Riviera's eyes," Case said.

There was a flash of white teeth, long pink gums. "But not his craziness. Because they are beautiful to me...."

Yet it is not until the very end that we see the full extent, when Case finally discovers the sample of himself which Neuromancer took of him, the one who was able to stay with Linda Lee, who taken out of the context of the contemptible meat, and placed in the context of cyberspace may have finally found what it is that he's always searched for.

And one October night, punching himself past the scarlet tiers of the Eastern Seaboard Fission Authority, he saw three figures, tiny, impossible, who stood at the very edge of one of the vast steps of data. Small as they were, he could make out the boy's grin, his pink gums, the glitter of the long grey eyes that had been Riviera's. Linda still wore his jacket; she waved as he passed. But the third figure, close behind her, his arm accross her shoulders, was himself.

Somewhere very close, the laugh that wasn't laughter.

Neuromancer Cyborg Cyberspace OV