Neuromancer takes place half in the organic world, and half in cyberspace. Although common sense would describe the world outside of computers as “real” and the matrix as an illusion, both are seen as equally real by the characters in the novel. Furthermore, their “real” world is populated by constructs that blur the line between reality and illusion—artificial intelligences take on the masks of real people to deliver speeches, and people are able to conjure holograms with their minds. Senses, which usually are depended upon to distinguish fantasy from reality, are instead easily tricked by illusion and technology. Because of technology, reality and illusion are intertwined—neither is better or more real than the other, and the novel makes explicitly clear that just because something is an illusion doesn’t make it bad, untrustworthy, or incapable of inducing real feelings. Similarly, just because something is real, doesn’t make it good.
The novel’s central setting is cyberspace, which, while ostensibly a nonphysical space that exists only in computers and the mind, has an outsized impact on the world beyond the consoles themselves. Cyberspace is described as an illusion—a “consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators, in every nation, by children being taught mathematical concepts.” It is “a graphic representation of data abstracted from the banks of every computer in the human system. Unthinkable complexity. Lines of light ranged in the nonspace of the mind, clusters and constellations of data.” Although cyberspace is just a “consensual hallucination,” it has physical effects—trauma and conflict in cyberspace causes more than one character to flatline (become braindead) in the so-called real word.
Cyberspace is the simplest example of a “non-real” space, but technology blurs the line between illusion and reality in myriad ways—from holograms to digital ghosts. Although these constructs aren’t tangible or physical, they can still communicate with or affect the emotions of the living, breathing characters at the novel’s core. Just because something is technically an illusion, doesn’t mean it doesn’t have the ability to help or hurt. Case interfaces with a digital reproduction of his dead friend Pauley McCoy, also referred to as Dixie Flatline. Although dead, with his memory stored on a disk Dixie is still real, and still has emotions and desires. Case feels like he’s talking to his friend, and Dixie helps him as a friend would. Although not technically real, he still instills warm emotions in Case. As part of their elaborate plot with Armitage, Riviera performs a kind of holographic puppet show. He includes a replica of Molly as a doll that he has sex with. Molly, who is sitting in the audience, is offended by this—both the lewd disrespect of her colleague, and the unhappy memories it dredges up of her time as a sex worker. Although the display is not technically real, it nonetheless brings up real distress. Sometimes, an illusion conceals the reality of a situation, such as when Riviera injects himself with a drug intravenously, but creates an illusion of a scorpion (the syringe), and a snake (his tourniquet) to entertain himself as he does it. Later, when the AI Neuromancer has trapped Case’s mind inside the computer, although he realizes he isn’t in reality, he acknowledges that it feels real enough. Shivering in a shack on a beach, he comments, “none of this was real, but cold was cold.” In the end, his senses, picking up on real sensations or manufactured ones, are what he trusts.
Related to the hallucinations and holograms brought about by technology are the illusions and images of memory upon which Case often dwells. Memories, like holograms, are not technically real, as they are not actually taking place in the present. Nonetheless, they carry great emotional weight, and therefore have outsized effects on characters’ psyches. The AIs Wintermute and Neuromancer manipulate Case’s memories. Wintermute always appears as a figure from his past, and occasionally conjures memories in hopes of bringing up certain emotional responses. Wintermute forces Case to remember burning a wasp’s nest built on his windowsill. Wintermute tries to get him to convert the rage and hatred he felt towards the wasps, present only in a memory, into present-day hatred of the Tessier-Ashpool family. Wintermute, inhabiting the body of one of Case’s colleagues, Finn, describes memory as a kind of hologram. Wintermute explains that for humans, “memory’s holographic,” and in a way, the holograms Riviera can create and the memories Wintermute and Case dredge up are similar kinds of experiences, on the border of the real and the illusionary. Case describes a memory of his ex Linda Lee, and when the memory disappears, he explains, “She was gone. The weight of memory came down, an entire body of knowledge driven into his head like a microsoft into a socket. Gone.” Although simply a memory, it causes a physical response.
Simply because memories have already taken place does not lessen their impact. Similarly, just because holograms and digital reconstructions of the dead don’t have physical forms, doesn’t mean they don’t feel real to the novel’s protagonists. The line between illusion and reality is thin, and in the end, what is real and what isn’t hardly matters. In the world of Neuromancer, reality is better defined as objects, images, and experiences that can induce an emotional or sensory response.
Reality and Perception ThemeTracker
Reality and Perception Quotes in Neuromancer
A year here and he still dreamed of cyberspace, hope fading nightly. All the speed he took, all the turns he’d taken and the corners he’d cut in Night City, and still he’d see the matrix in his sleep, bright lattices of logic unfolding across that colorless void….The Sprawl was a long strange way home over the Pacific now, and he was no console man, no cyberspace cowboy. Just another hustler, trying to make it through. But the dreams came on in the Japanese night like livewire voodoo, and he’d cry for it, cry in his sleep, and wake alone in the dark, curled in his capsule in some coffin hotel, his hands clawed into the bedslab, temperfoam bunched between his fingers, trying to reach the console that wasn’t there.
“The matrix has its roots in primitive arcade games,” said the voice-over, “in early graphics programs and military experimentation with cranial jacks.” On the Sony, a two-dimensional space war faded behind a forest of mathematically generated ferns, demonstrating the spacial possibilities of logarithmic spirals; cold blue military footage burned through, lab animals wired into test systems, helmets feeding into fire control circuits of tanks and war planes. “Cyberspace. A consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators, in every nation, by children being taught mathematical concepts… A graphic representation of data abstracted from the banks of every computer in the human system. Unthinkable complexity. Lines of light ranged in the nonspace of the mind, clusters and constellations of data. Like city lights, receding....”
The Panther Moderns allowed four minutes for their first move to take effect, then injected a second carefully prepared dose of misinformation. This time, they shot it directly into the Sense/Net building’s internal video system.
At 12:04:03, every screen in the building strobed for eighteen seconds in a frequency that produced seizures in a susceptible segment of Sense/Net employees. Then something only vaguely like a human face filled the screens, its features stretched across asymmetrical expanses of bone like some obscene Mercator projection. Blue lips parted wetly as the twisted, elongated jaw moved. Something, perhaps a hand, a thing like a reddish clump of gnarled roots, fumbled toward the camera, blurred, and vanished. Subliminally rapid images of contamination: graphics of the building’s water supply system, gloved hands manipulating laboratory glassware, something tumbling down into darkness, a pale splash….The audio track, its pitch adjusted to run at just less than twice the standard playback speed, was part of a month-old newscast detailing potential military uses of a substance known as HsG, a biochemical governing the human skeletal growth factor. Overdoses of HsG threw certain bone cells into overdrive, accelerating growth by factors as high as one thousand percent.
Case didn’t understand the Zionites.
Aerol, with no particular provocation, related the tale of the baby who had burst from his forehead and scampered into a forest of hydroponic ganja. “Ver’ small baby, mon, no long’ you finga.” He rubbed his palm across an unscarred expanse of brown forehead and smiled.
“It’s the ganja,” Molly said, when Case told her the story. “They don’t make much of a difference between states, you know? Aerol tells you it happened, well, it happened to him. It’s not like bullshit, more like poetry. Get it?”
Case nodded dubiously.
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.”
He vomited over a rosewood railing into the quiet waters of the lake. Something that had seemed to close around his head like a vise had released him now. Kneeling, his cheek against the cool wood, he stared across the shallow lake at the bright aura of the Rue Jules Verne.
Case had seen the medium before; when he’d been a teenager in the Sprawl, they’d called it, “dreaming real.” He remembered thin Puerto Ricans under East Side streetlights, dreaming real to the quick beat of a salsa, dreamgirls shuddering and turning, the onlookers clapping in time. But that had needed a van full of gear and a clumsy trode helmet.
What Riviera dreamed, you got. Case shook his aching head and spat into the lake.
He could guess the end, the finale. There was an inverted symmetry: Riviera puts the dreamgirl together, the dreamgirl takes him apart. With those hands. Dreamblood soaking the rotten lace.
Cheers from the restaurant, applause. Case stood and ran his hands over his clothes. He turned and walked back into the Vingtiéme Siécle.
Molly’s chair was empty. The stage was deserted. Armitage sat alone, still staring at the stage, the stem of the wineglass between his fingers.
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.
“No,” he said, and then it no longer mattered, what he knew, tasting the salt of her mouth where tears had dried. There was a strength that ran in her, something he’d known in Night City and held there, been held by it, held for a while away from time and death, from the relentless Street that hunted them all. It was a place he’d known before; not everyone could take him there, and somehow he always managed to forget it. Something he’d found and lost so many times. It belonged, he knew— he remembered—as she pulled him down, to the meat, the flesh the cowboys mocked. It was a vast thing, beyond knowing, a sea of information coded in spiral and pheromone, infinite intricacy that only the body, in its strong blind way, could ever read.
The zipper hung, caught, as he opened the French fatigues, the coils of toothed nylon clotted with salt. He broke it, some tiny metal part shooting off against the wall as salt-rotten cloth gave, and then he was in her, effecting the transmission of the old message. Here, even here, in a place he knew for what it was, a coded model of some stranger’s memory, the drive held.