Human consciousness, that poor cripple, that deformed and doomed thing, is about to be born.
— Thomas Pynchon, Gravity’s Rainbow
There is a pleasing irony in composing a think-piece about the mind’s capacity for thought. The topic has fascinated philosophers for centuries, its modern vocabulary and mode of inquiry deriving from the writings of René Descartes. In the wake of recent neuroscientific developments, scholars such as Daniel Dennett and Thomas Metzinger have offered provocative responses to the question of consciousness, including Dennett’s amusingly titled Consciousness Explained (1990) and Metzinger’s controversial Being No One: The Self-Model Theory of Subjectivity (2003). Despite the extent of reflection and research, however, there is little agreement among philosophers on what consciousness is and how it arose. If anything, many philosophical interventions on the topic only complicate the matter. The more we think about thinking, it turns out, the more we realize how much we don’t know about it.
Like philosophy, science fiction demonstrates a strong interest in the complexities and perplexities of consciousness. During the twenty-two years that separate William Gibson’s cyberpunk masterpiece, Neuromancer (1984), and Peter Watts’s inimitable Blindsight (2006), sf grew (and continues to grow) increasingly attentive to developments in neuroscience and philosophy of mind, exploring the ambiguities and assumptions that plague such discourses. Although there are numerous differences between Gibson’s and Watts’s novels, both partake of sf’s disenchantment of the human mind: Neuromancer by depicting thought as a quality of intelligent machines, and Blindsight by assaulting the notion that consciousness is anything more than an epiphenomenon of impersonal cognitive processes. For this reason, Watts has, on more than one occasion, described his own work as “neuropunk.”
Alongside such predecessors as steampunk, cyberpunk, and biopunk, neuropunk is virtually apocryphal. Its origin is most likely a 2008 blog post in which Watts responded to Nader Elhefnawy’s identification of a “new direction” in sf: “a kind of nihilistic counterpoint to the post-cyberpunk Singularity-huggers,” by which Watts likely means the works of writers such as Cory Doctorow and Charles Stross (“Speciation”). In a jab at the proliferation of marketable labels within speculative fiction, Watts writes “I call dibs on Neuropunk. Who’s with me?” The term evokes a playful recombination of cyberpunk and Neuromancer, conjuring the specter of Gibson’s seminal novel; but Watts’s neologism has failed to catch on. The lineage between Neuromancer and Blindsight is a telling one, however, and represents a significant portion of late-twentieth-century sf’s critique of consciousness.
In his lecture “Googling the Cyborg” (also from 2008), Gibson announced that “Science fiction’s cyborg was a literal chimera of meat and machine. The world’s cyborg was an extended nervous system: film, radio, broadcast television, and a shift in perception so profound that I believe we’re yet to understand it. Watching television, we each became aspects of an electronic brain” (249). Glancing back from 2008 to 1984, it is not hard to see Neuromancer as Gibson’s speculative metaphor for the condition to which he was already attuned; it is harder, however, to see precisely how consciousness factors into this metaphor. Although the novel does not challenge the conscious qualities of its (mostly) human characters, it presents an ambiguous perspective on the cognitive capacities of its artificial intelligences, Wintermute and Neuromancer: “I saw her death coming,” Neuromancer tells the protagonist, Case, near the end of the novel;
In the patterns you sometimes imagined you could detect in the dance of the street. Those patterns are real. I am complex enough, in my narrow ways, to read those dances. Far better than Wintermute can. I saw her death in her need for you, in the magnetic code of the lock on the door of your coffin in Cheap Hotel, in Julie Deane’s account with a Hongkong [sic] shirtmaker. As clear to me as the shadow of a tumor to a surgeon studying a patient’s scan. (250)
Neuromancer’s description of itself looks less like consciousness and more like extreme cognitive intelligence—complex pattern-matching, hyper-advanced interpretation of code. Yet the AI’s language is eerily poetic, expressive, even metaphoric. The text’s ambiguity arises from Neuromancer’s claim to be able to match patterns so well that it can replicate consciousness: “I need no mask to speak with you. […] I create my own personality. Personality is my medium” (250). Unlike the novel’s human characters, for whom cybernetic media are a means of communicating their minds, Neuromancer operates at a more complex level of awareness; for it, personality—the sign of purportedly genuine consciousness—is merely one more medium.
Gibson’s characterization of Neuromancer evokes a sense of indeterminacy: that is, it asks whether consciousness is a matter of quantity (how much a brain can think) or quality (what kind of brain is thinking). If a complex computer program is able to communicate in a convincingly human way and even creates its own kind of poetry, what is the justification for denying it consciousness? Gibson peruses this question when juxtaposing an AI (in this case, Neuromancer’s techno-sibling, Wintermute) with the ROM construct McCoy Pauley, a technological reproduction of a once-human mind. When Case asks if McCoy is sentient, the construct offers an uncertain reply: “‘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’” (128). The passage underscores the ambiguity of conscious thought while simultaneously reversing the reader’s expectations. The ROM construct derives from a human consciousness but cannot relate to language and thought in the way its human precursor did. By contrast, McCoy speculates that Wintermute may be able to compose poetry, foreshadowing Neuromancer’s lyrical lines later in the novel.
Neuromancer repeatedly asks what distinguishes the mental, or cognitive, states of humans from those of complex machines, but stops short of exploring the implications of this question for humans: “Things aren’t different. Things are things,” Neuromancer announces cryptically at the novel’s end (259). Yet things are different, according to Peter Watts, even if only different in perspective. A humanist might ask how complex machines are virtually any different from human beings, identifying their capacity for language and even aesthetic creativity. Watts intervenes from the opposite angle, asking how humans are virtually any different from complex machines, identifying the ancient biological processes that give rise to consciousness, as in the following memorable passage from Blindsight:
Evolution has no foresight. Complex machinery develops its own agendas. Brains—cheat. Feedback loops evolve to promote stable heartbeats and then stumble upon the temptation of rhythm and music. The rush evoked by fractal imagery, the algorithms used for habitat selection, metastasize into art. Thrills that once had to be earned in increments of fitness can now be had from pointless introspection. Aesthetics rise unbidden from a trillion dopamine receptors, and the system moves beyond modeling the organism. It begins to model the very process of modeling. It consumes evermore computational resources, bogs itself down with endless recursion and irrelevant simulations. Like the parasitic DNA that accretes in every natural genome, it persists and proliferates and produces nothing but itself. Metaprocesses bloom like cancer, and awaken, and call themselves I. (303)
The passage exposes the biological determinism that haunts the text and its characters, and that frequently finds its way into Watts’s lectures (for example, see his description of human beings as “chemicals and electricity” in “Reality: The Ultimate Mythology”). In Watts’s fiction, such concepts operate as psychological barriers, inviting a sense of Lovecraftian hopelessness as characters realize that there exists no Cartesian core to justify their compulsions: “it’s all just… raw instinct, at the center,” admits the protagonist from Watts’s “Flesh Made Word” (1994); “Left over from way back when the limbic system was the brain. Only now it’s just unskilled labour, right? Just one small part of the whole, to do all that petty autonomic shit the upstart neocortex can’t be bothered with” (131). In “Flesh Made Word,” as in Blindsight, the human organism is a palimpsest of prehistoric material processes.
“Flesh Made Word” follows the efforts of Russ Wescott to build a model of the human mind, before he eventually realizes that the mind is “nothing special after all. It’s not spiritual, it’s not even quantum. It’s just a bunch of switches wired together” (129). In addition to exploring the intricacies of the mind, the story also features an elaborate computer program that mimics the speech patterns of Russ’s ex-wife, among other personalities. The story builds a bridge between the thematic interests of cyberpunk and Watts’s neuropunk tendencies, and realizes this bridge as the indeterminate machinations of consciousness itself. In “Flesh Made Word,” the possibility of consciousness manifesting in (or being replicated by) a computer program dovetails with the deposal of humanity from its evolutionary throne: “Intellectual games. We’re so fucking proud of thinking ourselves to death that we’ve forgotten all about the old reptilian part sleeping inside, the part that doesn’t calculate ethics or quality of life or burdens on the next of kin, it just wants to live, that’s all it’s programmed for, you know?” (132). In the end, Watts’s human protagonist collapses under the weight of his own realization, unable to recuperate lived experience from what the science tells him.
Given such ruminations, readers may wonder how Watts sees any point in literary craft or aesthetics; and yet he does, as those familiar with Blindsight’s brilliant composition surely know. He has even resisted descriptions of his work as misanthropic:
The most fundamental underpinnings of human biology—that evolution tinkered us into existence using the same hit-and-miss processes that shaped every other life-form on the planet—are downright offensive to some. But these are not especially dark thoughts where I come from. It’s just biology: neutral, empirical, useful. I’ve grown up with these ideas. I think they’re neat. (“Outtro” 219)
Whereas for Gibson, an advantage of cyberpunk has been to explore the wild complexity of distributed thought in cybernetic machines, the advantage of neuropunk, for Watts, is the unsettling revelation of the ordinariness of cognitive processes. There is no doubt that we experience consciousness, but there is doubt that consciousness carries any special meaning in itself or represents the pinnacle of evolutionary achievement. This is not cause for despair but for curiosity, Watts suggests: we are not more than, or superior to, that which surrounds us. We are part of what surrounds us, comprised of the same matter and susceptible to the same conditions. We all answer to the same physical laws.
So what is the “punk” in neuropunk? The same punk, I am suggesting, that we find in cyberpunk, although Gibson does not present it as explicitly. Both weaken the cultural hierarchies that privilege consciousness, the cognitive territory that Western thought has colonized and through which it proclaims its superiority (over technology, animals, and even those humans excluded from the definitions and practices of agency): “Until the twentieth century,” N. Katherine Hayles writes in her recent revaluation of nonconscious cognition, “meaning and interpretation focused primarily on consciousness and its meditations” (207). Cyberpunk and neuropunk expand the realm of what counts as meaningful, of what is worth interpreting. In “Googling the Cyborg,” Gibson suggests that most of us tend to overlook the
union of human and machine […] because we are it, and because we still employ Newtonian paradigms that tell us that ‘physical’ has only to do with what we can see, or touch. Which of course is not the case. The electrons streaming into a child’s eye from the screen of the wooden television are as physical as anything else. As physical as the neurons subsequently moving along the child’s optic nerves. As physical as the structures and chemicals those neurons will encounter in the human brain. We are implicit, here, all of us, in a vast physical construct of artificially linked nervous systems. (249)
Gibson situates the neurological system as merely part of the technological, “artificially linked” network that extends beyond the boundaries of our skin. The brain might be organic, but it is no less artificial than this extended network. In this respect, the difference between cyberpunk and neuropunk is not a matter of theme or driving interest; both revolve around the question of consciousness. Their difference is one of scale and perspective. Whereas Gibson projects consciousness into the networks surrounding us (and in which we are imbricated), Watts dissolves the unified experience of consciousness into the organic hardware that produces and distributes it. In both cases, consciousness is technology; it merely depends on where we locate this technology.
Bio: Patrick Whitmarsh is a doctoral candidate at Boston University whose research addresses science-fictional styles and images in late modernist writing. His essays have appeared in Science Fiction Studies and Modern Fiction Studies. His forthcoming essay on communication theory and embodiment in the work of Samuel Beckett will appear in the Journal of Modern Literature.
Gibson, William. “Googling the Cyborg.” 2008. Distrust That Particular Flavor. New York:
Putnam, 2012. 243-255.
—. Neuromancer. 1984. New York: Ace, 2000.
Hayles, N. Katherine. Unthought: The Power of the Cognitive Nonconscious. Chicago: U of
Chicago P, 2017.
Watts, Peter. Blindsight. New York: Tor, 2006.
—. “Flesh Made Word.” 1994. Beyond the Rift. San Francisco: Tachyon, 2013. 117-133.
—. “Outtro: En Route to Dystopia with the Angry Optimist.” Beyond the Rift. San Francisco:
Tachyon, 2013. 217-230.
—. “Reality: The Ultimate Mythology.” YouTube, uploaded by ChiZine Publications, 9 February
—. (2008, August 25). Speciation Ahoy! [Web blog]. Retrieved from