William Gibson's "Neuromancer" manages to create worlds that are both an exercise n sensory overload and a frustrating lack of detail, leaving the reader confused as to the environment. What is perhaps most interesting in this detailed description is the attention Gibson pays to material. Scarcely a page goes by without some mention of a plastic window, a silk futon, a leather jacket, denim pants, or a fiberglass chassis. A large part of what creates the futuristic sense of Gibson's world is the development of new materials and the unfamiliar hierarchy of materials, consisting of both the new and the jarringly familiar substances. This hierarchy of material breaks down to two separate categories: body modification and environment.
While others on the blog have delved into the politics of body modification, the one point I would like to stress is the use of materials in body modification. Ratz, a bartender, has a pink plastic arm. There is a sense that Ratz has gone for a model that is somewhat similar to human flesh in color, and its function is to replace a lost limb, not to give him super-human powers. Molly, contrastingly, has been fitted with retractable steel claws (Wolverine, anyone? But better?) for fighting, masked by burgundy (dried blood colored!) nails. Her visual enhancement is mirrors and metal, soldered to her face so that her own eyes are no longer visible. Metal and silver-toned items have a warrior connotation in this world.
Yet all these enhancing devices are non-biological. The only real mention of biological-based modification is in Case, with his magic anti-drug pancreas and liver. There is also a brief moment when Wage is said to have "vatgrown eyes" (21) that only serve a cosmetic use. There is a sense that the non-biological enhances, while the biological can only replace and aestheticize or streamline and detract from what the body can already do.
When materials are used by people, not to form people, a reverse hierarchy is revealed. The Villa Straylight is filled with wooden doors and cabinets, wool rugs, glass cases and other natural substances. These "natural" items are considered luxuries, with the implication that as society developed, expanded, and sprawled, natural resources became increasingly rare. Interestingly, though, Molly continually is found on silk futons (28) and wearing leather (29, 176), both animal products. Case earns a "new leather jacket" (68) when he successfully completes his part of the mission to steal Flatline Dixie from storage. There is a premium placed on organic materials, creating the assumption of scarcity of such materials.
Contrastingly, almost every building seems to be made of rough concrete with plastic windows*. The structures of this new near future have been built for functionality and durability. Luggage is all nylon, making it more durable and practical. The scarcity of materials does not allow for a flagrant show of luxury items, particularly in places they are vulnerable to the elements and the public. Even the treasures of Villa Straylight are housed in a cold concrete shell.
While one might expect the Rastafarians to have some connection with nature, especially given that they are a completely self-sufficient space island (226), this is actually the world in which there is the least natural materials. Instead, rooms are broken up by sheets of yellow plastic, and clear caulk decorates the Zionist ships.
Though the raw materials of this future world are often very familiar to current audiences, the proportions of materials used is very foreign. By emphasizing the manufactured and cold steel and concrete, the world Gibson creates becomes colder and subtly more sinister than our current one, familiar yet disconcertingly alien.
The disconnect the reader feels with this slightly skewed "real" world serves as contrast to the completely new, yet somehow more understandable world of cyberspace. Cyberspace is a relatively simple world, composed of light, basic geometric shapes, and precise grids that allow for precise locations and documentation of movement. There is a simple order in cyberspace that is distinctly lacking in the real world. By making cyberspace a simpler space (at least until the AIs get involved and bring personality and humanoid constructs/hallucinations into the plain geometric world), Gibson seeks to create a greater connection between the reader and Case, to clarify Case's preference for cyberspace over the real world.
*While I will not refute the impressive durability of plastic, the one issue I took with its prevalence in the novel, a world that it is indicated is run by fusion plants (85) and full of "the rusting shells of refineries" (85), indicating that oil is no longer the fuel that runs the world, plastic is a petroleum byproductâ€¦ Poking around the internet, there's also cellulose-based plastic (celluloid) and nylon is completely synthetic, but neither of these are strong enough to serve in buildings. The only other info I can find helpfully tells me plastic is made from polymers. Is there some completely synthetic plastic that I'm missing? Is there an assumption that we will recycle plastic till we make miracle buildings that will stand forever? Or is plastic just meant to sound more durable and futuristic than glass? I realize it's probably this last answer, but I am also genuinely interested about plastics.