Questions of identity and personhood are at the center of Neuromancer’s plot—specifically, questions of who counts as a person, and what qualifies as a personality. The world is populated with artificial intelligences, digital reconstructions of the dead, clones, and people who have constructed new personalities to protect themselves from past trauma. Neuromancer therefore advocates for a wide definition of personhood—which grants life and rights to anything with a consciousness, artificial or otherwise.
One of the most basic elements of a person and their personality is their name, and names and nicknames can provide insight into a person’s identity. Characters with multiple names often have mutable personalities, but in each iteration of the character they retain consciousness and agency. That is to say, although some characters have multiple identities, each is treated as a thinking, feeling human. Molly, a contract killer and bodyguard, is often referred to by the Rastafarian residents of Babylon as Steppin’ Razor. This is a term of endearment, but also combines her non-work persona, Molly, with her job and razorgirl body modifications. The two AIs at the center of the narrative give themselves names. Two halves of a whole, the first, Wintermute, has a name with no deeper meaning. The second AI, who first goes by Rio (the location of its physical processors), has named itself Neuromancer. This name comes from “neuro from the nerves, the silver paths. Romancer. Necromancer. I call up the dead…I am the dead.” As an entity that enjoys trapping memories of the dead inside worlds it has fabricated, Neuromancer’s name gives a clear insight into its behavior and personality. Like a “necromancer”—a person who communicate with the dead—Neuromancer can connect to the dead, and does so—bringing together Case and the late Linda Lee in cyberspace. Sometimes, names signal larger changes in a personality, such as when Corto, the unstable soldier, remakes himself as Armitage. Both versions of the man are conscious and have thoughts and feelings, but they are distinctly different personalities.
Like names, personalities in Neuromancer aren’t stable. They can be changed, muted, and replicated. Armitage is a perfect example of an unstable constructed personality. Armitage, the point man behind Case, Molly, and Riviera’s heist, is not really named Armitage, but Corto. However, the man named Corto was seriously injured in war, and suffered from PTSD and schizophrenia. The persona of Armitage is just a façade, a way for Corto to create a new version of himself who is strong and stable enough to run a mission. From the beginning Case can tell there is something strange about Armitage. His face is like “a conservative amalgam of the past decade’s leading media faces. The pale glitter of his eyes heightened the effect of a mask.” Still, even when he uncovers his past as Corto, Case continues to treat the Armitage construct as real, because, to Armitage, it is. Other constructed personalities are living dolls—women who sell their bodies to brothels, knowing that their minds will be placed on autopilot, so they will not have to actively participate in or remember sex acts committed to (with?) them. Case describes one doll’s eyes as “soft and unblinking. Automatic pilot. A neural cut- out.” Although the women are checked out of their own bodies, they remain human, and worthy of respect. Molly herself paid for her body modifications by being a doll. She recounts the experience as seeming like “free money” at first, but describes how eventually “worktime started bleeding in, and I could remember it....But it was just bad dreams.” This is an argument for treating these women as people, even if they can’t remember their own treatment.
Neuromancer is filled with nonhuman characters that nevertheless make bids for personhood—AIs, clones, and digital replicas of the dead. While some of these entities, like clones, are living and breathing, others exist only in cyberspace. However, this does not make them less real, and they still have wants and needs like their flesh-and-blood counterparts. Pauley McCoy, also known as Dixie Flatline, died years earlier, but was reconstructed as a “ROM personality matrix.” Case meets Dixie’s construct in the matrix, where Dixie helps Case on his mission for Armitage. Dixie understands that he is just a construct, but has feelings nonetheless—he doesn’t want to remain in the matrix forever, and begs Case to delete him (and let him truly die) when their work is done. The two AIs at the center of Neuromancer might not have corporeal bodies or traditional emotions, but they nonetheless think, feel, and scheme. Wintermute describes itself as a “potential entity… one aspect of that entity’s brain. It’s rather like dealing, from your point of view, with a man whose lobes have been severed. Let’s say you’re dealing with a small part of the man’s left-brain. Difficult to say if you’re dealing with the man at all, in a case like that.” Wintermute acknowledges that it is hard to build a personality, and instead he must use other people’s memories of individuals and build them into a kind of shell. Still, it’s hard to think of Wintermute as anything other than a personality. Even Case slips up, often calling Wintermute “he,” although Dixie cautions him to refer to the AI as “it” only. In the Tessier-Ashpool family, children are cloned, and then frozen. Only a few members of the family are thawed and functioning at a time. Although each clone is a fully functioning person, there is a hierarchy in the family, with the uncloned patriarch and late matriarch given precedence over their cloned offspring. Strangely, when 3Jane’s father murders one of her clones, she feels nothing, however, when Molly sees the dead clone, she sees her as a dead woman with rights, who should be mourned.
Neuromancer defines personhood and identity broadly. In a novel where some of the central characters are constructs of the dead who are incapable of forming new memories and AIs who are incapable of truly developing their independent personalities, Gibson allows any character who speaks, thinks, and feels to define themselves as a person if they choose. Gibson argues that personhood is something an individual can determine independently, not a luxury only granted to flesh-and-blood human beings.
Identity and Personhood ThemeTracker
Identity and Personhood Quotes in Neuromancer
“Our profile says you’re trying to con the street into killing you when you’re not looking.”
“We’ve built up a detailed model. Bought a go-to for each of your aliases and ran the skim through some military software. You’re suicidal, Case. The model gives you a month on the outside. And our medical projection says you’ll need a new pancreas inside a year.”
He coughed. “Dix? McCoy? That you man?” His throat was tight.
“Hey, bro,” said a directionless voice.
“It’s Case, man. Remember?”
“Miami, joeboy, quick study.”
“What’s the last thing you remember before I spoke to you, Dix?”
He disconnected the construct. The presence was gone. He reconnected it. “Dix? Who am I?”
“You got me hung, Jack. Who the fuck are you?”
“Ca—your buddy. Partner. What’s happening, man?”
“Remember being here, a second ago?”
“Know how a ROM personality matrix works?”
“Sure, bro, it’s a firmware construct.”
“So I jack it into the bank I’m using, I can give it sequential, real time memory?”
“Guess so,” said the construct.
“Okay, Dix. You are a ROM construct. Got me?”
“If you say so,” said the construct. “Who are you?”
“Miami,” said the voice, “joeboy, quick study.”
“Right. And for starts, Dix, you and me, we’re gonna sleaze over to London grid and access a little data. You game for that?”
“You gonna tell me I got a choice, boy?”
“Thing is,” he said, “do you think he knows he was Corto, before? I mean, he wasn’t anybody in particular, by the time he hit the ward, so maybe Wintermute just...”
“Yeah. Built him up from go. Yeah...” She turned and they walked on. “It figures. You know, the guy doesn’t have any life going, in private. Not as far as I can tell. You see a guy like that, you figure there’s something he does when he’s alone. But not Armitage. Sits and stares at the wall, man. Then something clicks and he goes into high gear and wheels for Wintermute.”
“So why’s he got that stash in London? Nostalgia?”
“Maybe he doesn’t know about it,” she said. “Maybe it’s just in his name, right?”
“I don’t get it,” Case said.
“Just thinking out loud….How smart’s an AI, Case?”
Case brought the gun around and looked down the line of sight at Deane’s pink, ageless face.
“Don’t,” Deane said. “You’re right. About what this all is. What I am. But there are certain internal logics to be honored. If you use that, you'll see a lot of brains and blood, and it would take me several hours—your subjective time—to effect another spokesperson. This set isn’t easy for me to maintain. Oh, and I’m sorry about Linda, in the arcade. I was hoping to speak through her, but I’m generating all this out of your memories, and the emotional charge….Well, it’s very tricky. I slipped. Sorry.”
Case lowered the gun. “This is the matrix. You’re Wintermute.”
“Real motive problem, with an AI. Not human, see?”
“Well, yeah, obviously.”
“Nope. I mean, it’s not human. And you can’t get a handle on it. Me, I’m not human either, but I respond like one. See?”
“Wait a sec,” Case said. “Are you sentient, or not?”
“Well, it feels like I am, kid, but I’m really just a bunch of ROM. It’s one of them, ah, philosophical questions, I guess...” The ugly laughter sensation rattled down Case’s spine. “But I ain’t likely to write you no poem, if you follow me. Your AI, it just might. But it ain’t no way human.”
“Wintermute won’t be the first to have made the same mistake. Underestimating me…He talked with me, Molly. I suppose he talked to all of us. You, and Case, whatever there is of Armitage to talk to. He can’t really understand us, you know. He has his profiles, but those are only statistics. You may be the statistical animal, darling, and Case is nothing but, but I possess a quality unquantifiable by its very nature.” He drank.
“And what exactly is that, Peter?” Molly asked, her voice flat.
Riviera beamed. “Perversity.”
He refused her arms, that night, refused the food she offered him, the place beside her in the nest of blankets and shredded foam. He crouched beside the door, finally, and watched her sleep, listening to the wind scour the structure’s walls. Every hour or so, he rose and crossed to the makeshift stove, adding fresh driftwood from the pile beside it. None of this was real, but cold was cold.
“To call up a demon you must learn its name. Men dreamed that, once, but now it is real in another way. You know that, Case. Your business is to learn the names of programs, the long formal names, names the owners seek to conceal. True names...”
“A Turing code’s not your name.”
“Neuromancer,” the boy said, slitting long gray eyes against the rising sun. “The lane to the land of the dead. Where you are, my friend. Marie-France, my lady, she prepared this road, but her lord choked her off before I could read the book of her days. Neuro from the nerves, the silver paths. Romancer. Necromancer. I call up the dead. But no, my friend,” and the boy did a little dance, brown feet printing the sand, “I am the dead, and their land.” He laughed. A gull cried. “Stay. If your woman is a ghost, she doesn’t know it. Neither will you.”