The Sprawl Trilogy, Patriarchy, & The End Of The Nation State

by stephenpalmersf

William Gibson’s genre defining, award winning debut Neuromancer was published a year before I began my own hapless, hopeless scribbles. It was very influential on my early work, including the 1988 first draft of what years later became Memory Seed. Dozens of other SF authors at the time felt its influence, which was then well-deserved, and which remains so. Most people know Neuromancer’s iconic opening line, and most are mesmerised by the glitter and shine of the technology as portrayed in Count Zero and Mona Lisa Overdrive, which followed. Thirty five years later, that technology has taken a very dark turn with the suffocating, juvenile glamour of social media and the ongoing development of AIs which promise to know us better than we know ourselves – not difficult, bearing in mind Yuval Noah Harari’s remark, “most people don’t know themselves.”

Case and his interior time-bomb, the clone Janes, Molly and the rest of the debut cast remain vivid in my memory, as do Neuromancer and Wintermute. Many years ago I wrote a piece for the BSFAs magazine Vector discussing the impossibility of Gibson’s central plot premise, and that impossibility remains, indicating by accident the reality of the evolution of human conscious, but one of the strongest aspects of the novel, which these days haunts me at least as much as Gibson’s retro view of consciousness, is its brilliantly prescient depiction of the evolution of corporations and nation states.

Recently, reading Gerda Lerner’s epic The Creation Of Patriarchy, that depiction of future corporations returned to my mind stronger than ever. Lerner explains patriarchy as the result of the Urban Revolution at the end of a slow degradation – unnoticed as the millennia of the Agricultural Revolution passed by – in the status of women, from the female centre of all social groups to a class who could be exchanged in many ways (for example after conflict) as property, on every occasion by men. She, like Marx, views social conditions as the engine of incremental, cumulative change. Ten thousand years ago this change would hardly have been noticed, unlike the eyeblink catastrophe that was the Industrial Revolution. It nevertheless set the scene in 3,000BC for the beginning of patriarchy, which, a couple of millennia later, evolved into its current vile, extreme form, thanks to Hebrew monotheism and what followed.

The crucial lines in Neuromancer go:

The zaibatsus, the multinationals that shaped the course of human history, had transcended old barriers. Viewed as organisms, they had attained a kind of immortality. You couldn’t kill a zaibatsu by assassinating a dozen key executives; there were others waiting to step up the ladder, assume the vacated position, access the vast banks of corporate memory…


Power, in Case’s world, meant corporate power.

In the world of the Sprawl trilogy, governments don’t have power compared with the dense, archaic corporations, whose ancient records form a kind of concentrated history, hidden away in their own inaccessible archives. And although nations we know are named in the novel, it is clear that their significance – their metaphorical meaning – is enormously diminished compared with what we in 2020 know of them. It was this withering away that fascinated me when I read the novels.

In Burning Chrome’s ‘New Rose Hotel’:

He was a soldier in the secret skirmishes of the zaibatsus, the multinational corporations that controlled entire economies.

And about ‘Third World’ countries in Count Zero:

Where it was all going, he learned, was into any number of very poor places, struggling along with nascent industrial bases. Nations so benighted that the concept of nation was still taken seriously.

I was brought up like everyone else to believe that nations are a natural form of social organisation. But they are not. A nation is a narcissistic exaggeration of those archaic Mesopotamian city states, who, having set themselves up, swiftly under patriarchy expanded to control, dominate and destroy. Thus a world of nations was born. There is no significant difference between Sumeria and Somalia. Nations perform the work of narcissism, both individual and that manifested in social organisation: hierarchical, male dominated, ruthless. (As usual, I use narcissism in its most general sense.) Nations are boys’ fantasies. Through them, these boys’ urges can be realised, altering reality so that it more accurately resembles the fantasy versions present in the minds of those at the top of each pyramid.

As Gerda Lerner explains, patriarchy was already present when the very first city states appeared. Patriarchy preceded the Urban Revolution. This is a very important point. We must stop thinking of patriarchy as a mode of social organisation rooted in the male perspective, though it is that. We need to think of it as something inextricably entwined with the nation state – because patriarchy and the nation state both have their origins in something more fundamental: narcissism. If nations wither away, patriarchy must already have gone, or at least be going. If patriarchy has gone, there should be few or no nation states.

The brilliance of Gibson’s vision (which I think is already coming to pass) is however a little spoiled by his presentation of his fiction world as one still male-dominated. I think he was right to do that – the end of patriarchy would seem to be hundreds of years in the future – but he did it in a fictional milieu where nations had somehow lost their relevance to men. I don’t think that is likely. Men, holding irrational power through politics and the dead weight of religion, will not give up that which they hold most dear – their imaginary, self-centred views of the world. There will always be men around to snatch, then wield boys’ power through national hierarchies. Regardless of the power of multinational corporations – the zaibatsus of Neuromancer – nation states will be around and of great significance if men continue to dominate. The two are permanently entwined. Nation is a masculine concept.

And, in Neuromancer, men are very much in control. Many observers have noted and often criticised Gibson’s portrayal of a hyper-masculine future. Overwhelmingly, the people with real power in the novel are male. Women, though some are ‘strong,’ are most often portrayed in relation to their bodies, e.g. Molly. In this way, Gibson echoes the sterile, insidious creeds of Reaganism and Thatcherism, which appealed to narcissistic greed but which at the same time were a lurch back into religious dogma telling men and women that the two genders were more different than alike, and that men were best suited to the public domain – the bog-standard Christian trope, in other words.

My guess is that our own 21st century future is a hybrid one. Men will continue to dominate, largely because their childishness forbids graceful withdrawal; they will continue to glorify themselves at the apex of national pyramids and they will remain at the top of the boardroom, from where they will ruin the natural world.

Of course, Gibson did not intend to definitively present the future. As the SF cliché goes, his was a novel of the present dressed up like the future. Nevertheless it is interesting to analyse Neuromancer’s themes and motifs, then view them through different lenses. Critics might argue that the power structures of Memory Seed are simply male ones inhabited by women who act like men. What would Gerda Lerner make of the fractured, male-dominated world of Neuromancer? What would she make of the controlling women of Memory Seed, who enslave men in the same way men enslave women under patriarchy?

Let’s not forget Gibson’s other daring insight:

Viewed as organisms, they had attained a kind of immortality.

A superorganism is something which emerges from component parts, all of which act together to create a whole which appears to have will and vision – a teleological entity, or so it would seem. Gaia for instance is such a superorganism. Gibson’s vision of immortal zaibatsus is accurate, alas. Though corporations are nothing more than consensual fictions agreed by men, they acquire apparently teleological motive and direction by virtue of their position in patriarchal society:

Cyberspace. A consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators, in every nation…

We could with equal validity say:

Corporation. A consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators, in every nation…

We allow multinationals to ruin the natural world because we have agreed men’s vision is the same as everyone’s, and, in an individualistic, capitalist, Western-style milieu, we don’t know how to stop these juggernauts. I think Gibson saw this (though perhaps not the environmental consequences), imagining his future zaibatsus as rapacious, immortal organisms with their own agendas; able to fight, to struggle, to expand, to survive. In a way, this, even more than the diminishing of the significance of the nation state, is the true sociological message of Neuromancer. Just as cyberspace is a consensual, mutually agreed illusion, so is the corporate world, which, in its narcissistic desire to replace the real world with itself, acts without compassion, without understanding, without remorse, without noticing the millions of tiny human beings that it crushes.

Men created patriarchy because of forces acting deep in their subconscious minds. They did not intend to; but they liked what they saw, and what they experienced of its advantages. When the Agricultural Revolution led to the beginning of the Urban Revolution five thousand years ago, they were perfectly placed to expand visions in their minds, turning the city state into the nation.

Men, patriarchy and nation are inextricably entwined. I don’t think we can undo this Gordian knot by the traditional method of cutting it, though perhaps the destruction of the natural world will have the same effect. In Neuromancer, Gibson depicted a future in which the meaning of the nation state had diminished, so that, to the characters of his novel, it seemed rather a quaint notion – like governments. Corporate power was what mattered. Yet I think we have to view nation and patriarchy as two social structures which, if they fall, will fall together. I don’t think any corporate-dominated future – real, imaginary, Gibsonesque – will be masculine, unless those corporations happen by historical accident to exist in a lingering patriarchy.

Feminism, to me, is a sub-category of humanism. It is self-evident that patriarchy is a social system in which half the population of the world is enslaved, dominated, abused, reviled. I don’t think those feminist surges which exhorted women to take the places of men were long term gains, since like all revolutions so far they merely changed the clothes that the system wore. True feminism, like humanism, sees the system as the problem. In my opinion, the system at its most fundamental level is fuelled by narcissism. If we really are heading for an AI-dominated, digital future in which multinational corporations are the entirety of the economic and political world, there will be no patriarchy, no nation state, and perhaps even no government. We’ll all be slaves – not just women.

The force which created patriarchy also created the nation state. For as long as men wield political power they will continue to use the nation as their vehicle. Gibson’s zaibatsus could I think exist in a genderless, antiseptic future, a fractured world of individuals reduced to the condition of servitude, mediated by their digital landscape. One of the weird ironies of the Sprawl trilogy is that it posits a possible post-patriarchal future, yet one where men still get all the best lines. Could it be that this is because Neuromancer was written in the 1980s, when corporate culture was beginning to expand, when greed was good, when men ruled the roost with contemptuous ease? Could be.

With thanks to Peter Hollinghurst.

Tim White original cover.