Continued

The conclusion of the story leaves Casey trapped in a moral dilemma where he “can’t move at all” (141). Lise had become a star because of her appeal to dispossessed youth (and all youth are shown as dispossessed here). Caged in her exoskeleton, she made literal the social fate of her fans:

“She’s big because she was what they are, only more so. She knew, man. No dreams, no hope. You can’t see the cages on those kids, Casey, but more and more they’re twigging to it, that they aren’t going anywhere.” (134)

Little as they have, the young have enough purchasing power to buy Lise’s soft, Kings of Sleep, and make her a property so valuable that she can’t be allowed even to die. Before her physical body fails she is taken to Hollywood and her consciousness is transferred, at vast expense, into a computer. At the end of the story Casey is waiting to hear from “her” - that is, “whatever it is that she’s since become, or had built in her image, a program that pretends to be Lise to the extent that it believes it’s her. . . . our hi-tech Saint Joan burning for union with that hardwired godhead in Hollywood” (140).

The idea of putting a “mind in a bottle,” separating consciousness from its embodiment, is standard enough in science fiction.(n.12) Advances in computer storage and networking during the 1980s suggested plausible ways of actually doing it. If the complete contents of one computer’s “knowledge” can be transferred routinely over a network to another computer, one has a paradigm for “down-loading” personal consciousness into an electronic medium (or for loading the human mind with an external store of data, as in Gibson’s “Burning Chrome” and “Johnny Mnemonic”). It requires only a suitable interface between the computer and the brain (the concepts of “the jack” and “jacking across”), and a way of making compatible the knowledge-representations on each side - a non-trivial problem, but one that can be taken as solved in the future within the limits of sci-fi “suspension of disbelief.” Gibson exploits these concepts in his cybernetic vision of postmodernity, where the boundaries between human and machine, organic and mechanical, are constantly transgressed. Human consciousness extends itself further and further across the “matrix” of the electronic knowledge-sphere; conversely, the mind itself is more and more insistently invaded by information that originates in a machine, or is at least artificially boosted as it is transmitted from one mind to another.

Lise’s preservation in the memory of a computer is a “death and transfiguration” that is multiply determined by previous elements in the story. First, her “union with that hardwired godhead” (140) marks the replacement of traditional religion by the mysteries of electronic technology: it is the feats of the machine that are now feared and worshipped, rather than the archaic miracles commemorated in churches. The technology of the “soft,” as exploited by the pop culture industry, has an emotional impact that no other medium can rival.

Lise is also raised to a higher plane by her transfer from Vancouver to Hollywood: she escapes from a life that would always be mundane, because it belongs to an irremediably peripheral city. Finally, her dependence on a computer for her very existence can be expected to make her even more desperate than when she was imprisoned in her exoskeleton - and precisely that desperation will provide the raw material for new and salable softs.

Casey’s misgivings at the end of the story express a very Canadian suspicion of the Americans who have kidnapped Lise because there is profit in her. Yet the story’s conclusion also undercuts such scruples. Rubin points out that whether Lise is technically alive or dead scarcely matters: she must make another soft to justify the expense of keeping “her” in the computer, and Casey is uniquely qualified to edit the emotions she will express. All offers directed from Hollywood to Vancouver are offers you cannot refuse; and to make objections only confirms one’s status as a hick.13 When Casey gets his long-distance call from the “hardwired godhead” he will accept it, for he has always been unable to resist Lise’s emotional intensity, or to have confidence in the substance of his own life. These deficiencies make him, for good or ill, a true child of the city that has formed him in its own image.

Notes

12. Gibson may also have had in mind T.S. Eliot’s epigraph to The Waste Land: “For I saw with my own eyes the Sibyl hanging in a jar at Cumae, and when the acolytes said, îSibyl, what do you wish?’ she replied, îI wish to die.’”

13. One could say the same thing about Gibson’s own relation to Hollywood and the screenwriting commissions he has been given, such as the one for an (unused) script for Alien III. Indeed, journalists like to construct him as a Casey-like figure: “For him, life has been kind. He still can’t quite believe his success. In Vancouver - safe, sane, boring Vancouver - he passes unnoticed among his neighbors. He likes it that way” (Wood 30). The writer assumes that Gibson’s vision of places like Los Angeles in 2015 is “real”; but his actual existence, rooted as it is in “boring Vancouver,” must be insignificant.

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