Monday, March 23, 2009

Magic Me Up

Oh, Shadowrun for the Sega Genesis, how I remember your cover art, but not your game.  Something with an overhead map, I think.  My brother and I played you twice and wanted to like you more.  A book turned into a roleplaying game turned into a video game—you had to be a hit.  

For those not familiar with the Shadowrun world: it is an unhesitant cribber of Neuromancer.  Dungeons and Dragons owes to Lord of the Rings what Shadowrun owes to Neuromancer (imagine that analogy on the GREs).  Except Neuromancer was not jazzy enough for the roleplaying market in 1989, at least not in the opinions of the publishers at FASA (the company that owned the title for over a decade). Yes, there were street samurai, rippers who were heavily modified by cybernetics, and even hackers jacked into a matrix to do battle against corporate IC (even black ice).  But there were also elves.  And trolls.  And dragons. Magic had been injected, a giant glitzy Derm slapped atop the world of cyberpunk.

Gibson was not happy.  In a post on his blog in May of 2003, he wrote:


No relationship.  No permission.  Nothing.  Nary a word exchanged, ever.

Except that the admixture of cyberspace and, spare me, *elves*, has always been more than I could bear to think about.

I've just been ignoring it for years, and hope to continue to.

Obviously he is somewhat upset about royalties.  At least, not receiving credit.  But he also seems to have an honest distaste for fantasy.  He was much less impassive about the subject in 1998 when giving an interview to The Peak:

...the only negative thing I feel about it is that initial extreme revulsion at seeing my literary DNA mixed with elves.  Somewhere somebody's sitting and saying "I've got it! We're going to do William Gibson and Tolkien!"  Over my dead body!

Unfortunately for Gibson, they have been doing and continue to do it over his living body. The anger is understandable—I've never made anything someone could build a brand out of and not give me credit for, but I imagine that it must be infuriating.  

Still, "mancer," magician, is in the title, waiting for a little Tolkien to come by and sprinkle pixie dust into Molly's sleek, cybernetic eyes.  In fact, Cynthia Davidson uses William Covino to distinguish two types of magic at work throughout Neuromancer: arresting and generative.  Arresting magic binds and directs, a kind of summoning.  Generative magic multiplies and confuses, a kind of illusion.  Case is her summoner.  Riviera, her illusionist. 

It is an interesting schematic despite the fact that the two could be easily reversed.  Riviera, with his unwavering addiction and sadism, is often more single-minded, even more bound than Case.

In either Case, drugs, cybernetics, and the matrix have a great deal to do with the "mancing" in the book.  They are constant sources of hallucination, subverters of expectations, from Riviera's scorpions to Case's simstim switch.  One could say they are the elves, trolls, and dwarves in Gibson.  

Let us grant the elf-haters that elves are cliche.  Let us grant them that it is often easier to write "poof" than to research and explain the possible mechanics behind teleportation.  Let us grant them that the politics of swords and sorcery often lean right—into unspoken assumptions about a noble aristocracy and a noble peasantry, into the glory of warfare, into a celebration of big throbbing biceps.  

I grant the elf-haters all these things.  But what continues to make me snicker is the idea that science fiction is somehow less metaphorical than fantasy.  That elves don't belong in cyberspace.  That a street samurai is more real than a knight.  Here is the doubleness—a genre that celebrates its flights of imagination and yet defines itself against those who are too wild in their imagining.  An alchemist at war with a mystic. 

The mine that science fiction seems to be so intent on protecting and stripping is its prophecy.  It is one of the two main reasons for Neuromancer's fame: the first is its appropriation of vernacular rhythms of the 80s (which are really more the rhythms of Chandler in the 40s); the second is its soothsaying of widespread devotions to cyberspace.  Both are claims to realism.

(I'm not trying to cripple the book; I simply would praise it for other reasons.)  

So where have we lost our notion of metaphor?  Why so much reluctance to cast further off from the dock?  After all, elves are as confused as cyborgs.  Each are containers capable of generating a host of multiplicities.  To arrest them, to even divide them, is to mistake a fundamental mistake.

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