Can a Neuromancer TV Series Still Work After The Matrix?


After weeks of moving through scuzzy bars with off-beat cybernetic accouterment, toiling under a static-grey sky to gain control of cyberspace, our heroes have made it to Zion. The Rastafarians who greet these travelers from a ship named for an important historical figure pay little mind to our male protagonist. However, they cannot believe their luck in meeting his female companion, whose reputation far exceeds his.

Regardless of the chilly reception, the protagonist remains undeterred. Zion is, after all, a key part in mission to understand a powerful AI controlling reality.

You’d be forgiven for thinking that the above description comes form The Matrix, the groundbreaking sci-fi action movie from 1999 or its sequels. But I’m not describing Neo and Trinity aboard the Nebuchadnezzar. I’m talking about Case and Molly reaching the Rastafarian colony of Zion with help from their ship the Marcus Garvey in the 1984 novel Neuromancer by William Gibson.

The mistake is reasonable. By their own admission, The Matrix directors Lana and Lilly Wachowski borrowed heavily from Gibson, among others. But they are hardly the only creators to be inspired by Gibson’s groundbreaking sci-fi work. After all, the man coined the phrase “cyberspace” in the short story “Burning Chrome” from 1982, a term for a subgenre we all still read and watch today.

In fact, so great is the similarity between Neuromancer and The Matrix that one can’t help but question Apple’s decision to produce a 10-episode drama series based on Gibson’s novel. What, after all, could Neuromancer say about cyberspace and simulacra that The Matrix didn’t already cover decades ago on screen?

The Meaning of The Matrix

Yes, The Matrix is an awesome sci-fi action movie with cool kung fu sequences and a battle against robot monsters. It’s funny, well-acted, and still fantastic to look at, 25 years and two terrible (and one good!) sequels later.

But The Matrix is also a highly allusive work, one that builds on everything that the Wachowskis love, including anime, Shaw Brothers movies, and continental philosophy. It’s no accident that Neo hides his hacker gear in a copy of Simulacra and Simulation by Jean Baudrillard, a book about the construction of reality in the age of hyper-realist capitalism.

And so, The Matrix does owe a debt to Neuromancer. It’s not just the cyberpunk trappings which Gibson, along with writers such as Neal Stephenson and Philip K. Dick, pioneered. It also borrows the idea of “jacking in,” entering the internet as a space in which one can make their own identity.

That personal identity formation remains a powerful part of The Matrix, something that resonates with Trans viewers and anyone else who feels confined by perceptions of their bodies. Within the world of the internet, users can refashion themselves from pale office workers into leather-clad kung fu masters. That self-definition allows users to resist their masters and fight for liberation. Even through the (underrated!) Matrix Resurrections, the movies insist that liberation and self-definition is possible, regardless of what the “owners” demand.

Jacking into Neuromancer

That’s not to say Neuromancer doesn’t also have its own distinct flavor or anything to add on the subject. Coming off the Golden Age of sci-fi, cyberpunk novels from the New Wave of sci-fi tend to reject the optimism of their predecessors. For Gibson and others of his age, technology and scientific breakthroughs did not lead to a United Federation of Planets-style utopia. Instead, it led to more inequality and less liberty.

For all of the references to Neuromancer in The Matrix and its sequels, there’s a bitterness and fatalism to Gibson’s writing that one does not find in the Wachowski’s work. That’s most clear in the protagonist Case, a noir hero in the mold of Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe. Neuromancer begins with Case prevented from jacking in after being poisoned for ripping off a former employer. He’s recruited by freelancer Mollie Millions, who has blades for fingernails and sunglasses surgically implanted over her eyes. Mollie gets Case to work for mysterious employer Armitage, who needs the duo to help him on a mission involving powerful artificial intelligence called Wintermute.

Cool people on a secret mission for an employer who isn’t what they seem are well-worn tropes, beyond anything that the Wachowskis have done. Furthermore, the idea of making internet identities is no longer the domain of outsiders. That’s just a Tuesday in the social media age. As Gibson himself commented, the internet of today is “totally banal.”

But that truth also makes the nihilistic feel of Neuromancer more palatable today, especially against the Wachowski’s communal optimism. The internet has not become the wild world of possibility that it once promised. It’s been thoroughly commodified and contained, a place where fast food chains talk smack to one another on Twitter. Neuromancer‘s longing for something more and the insistence that nothing will ever change may be a necessary corrective to modern narratives about the internet.

The emotional core of Neuromancer involves two AIs, Wintermute and Neuromancer, manipulating humanity to subvert controls and join together. Gibson presents the plot as somewhat romantic, at least on Wintermute’s end. As “problematic” as that might be today, when AI is becoming a tool of the upper-classes to further disenfranchise workers, the plot might resonate beyond what The Matrix, or Gibson in 1984, could imagine.

In short, looking back at an angry work from the early days of the internet could force us to look anew at something that we all take for granted today, especially as folks become more complacent about the use of AI in the things they read and watch online.

The Power of Founding Myths

Perhaps the clearest answer to the question in the headline can be found in today’s cineplexes. Frank Herbert‘s Dune is a foundational text on the level of Neuromancer, one that inspired countless works that followed, including The Matrix, but most obviously Star Wars. One would think that after decades of the more simplistic and popular Star Wars, audiences would not take interest in Herbert’s more morally and narratively complex sci-fi novel about the young “hero” fighting the forces of evil in the galaxy.

And yet, Villeneuve’s Dune has been a huge, culture-defining hit, and Dune: Part Two, with its across the board rave reviews, will only solidify its status as the sci-fi saga of the 2020s. It’s possible that once the followers become the norm and as audiences become more genre savvy, they seem to long for the original.

If creators Graham Roland and J.D. Dillard can bring to their Apple TV+ bring the same care and critical view that Villeneuve brought to Dune, Neuromancer could be invigorating and challenging once again, this time for TV audiences.

The post Can a Neuromancer TV Series Still Work After The Matrix? appeared first on Den of Geek.

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