Brian Stonehill
English/Media Studies
Pomona College
Claremont, California USA

Pynchon's Prophecies of Cyberspace

Delivered at the first international conference on Pynchon, the University of Warwick, England, November 1994.

ON THE FACE OF THINGS, it would seem paradoxical if not plainly contradictory to claim Thomas Pynchon for the pantheon of cyberspace prophets. For one thing, the most challenging and most rewarding novelist of our period would seem to have a pronounced aversion to anything binary. How can cybernauts and cyberpunks have the nerve to claim Pynchon as a literary ancestor, when the implied author of Gravity's Rainbow so clearly thinks of the digital domain as fodder for fascism and as hospitable only to the forces of dehumanization?

Take Ned Pointsman, for instance, the evil experimental psychologist who can't wait to get his hands on a human subject. Pynchon's narrator tells us that

in the domain of zero to one, not-something to something, Pointsman can only possess the zero and the one. He cannot, like [Roger] Mexico, survive anyplace in between. Like his master I.P. Pavlov before him, he imagines the cortex of the brain as a mosaic of tiny on/off elements. [...] each point is allowed only the two states: waking or sleep. One or zero. (55)

To be somewhat brusquely shorthand about it, Pointsman (who's even explicitly named after the binary switcher at a railroad junction) is an evil character. He wants to use the poor, oblivious Yank, Tyrone Slothrop, and the map of Slothrop's sexual progress across London, to prove "the stone determinacy of everything, of every soul" (86), and thereby establish a Pavlovian "true mechanical explanation" for human behavior (89). And just in case we don't catch the dangerously anti-humane flavor of Pointsman's binary mindcast, "Roger will remember [Pointsman's] smile -- it will haunt him -- as the most evil look he has ever had from a human face" (89).

When it's not being associated with evil, as in Pointsman's case, the digital domain seems to be a side-manifestation of madness in Pynchon's novel. What else are we to make of these lines, applied to the Polish undertaker who takes a rowboat out in a storm to see if he can get hit by lightning?:

He's a digital companion all right, everything gets either a yes or a no, and two-tone checkerboards of odd shape and texture indeed bloom in the rainy night around him and Thanatz. (663)

Yet I would submit, despite the narrative's seemingly unambiguous hostility to the binary and its manifest ridicule of the digital, that Thomas Pynchon in his 1973 novel not only curses but precurses what we now glibly dub cyberspace. He does so in a variety of ways, foremost among which is his imbuing Gravity's Rainbow with a subterranean sense, as it were, that the planet we inhabit is itself alive. There's thus a central tension between Pynchon's suspicion of the digital realm and his hinting that the Earth itself is a sentient creature. And this tension is prophetic, since if the planet is growing itself a nervous system, that global neural web might well resemble the Internet. Down with the binary, yet up with the most global of circuitries -- here beats the ambivalent crux of Pynchon's prophecies of cyberspace.

* * *

Since there's no cogent way to address the entirety of this novel, I propose to look at four sample and perhaps representative sections: (1) the opening pages of Gravity's Rainbow ; (2) a vision attributed to Slothrop's uncle, the chemist Lyle Bland; (3) the "Story of Byron the Bulb;" and (4) the eventual fate of Tyrone Slothrop himself. Finally, by way of closure, I'd like to return to the image of the novel's title.

* * *

To quote the opening of Norbert Wiener's address on Cybernetics to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in March of 1950,

The word cybernetics has been taken from the Greek word kubernitis (ku-ber-NEE-tis) meaning steersman. It has been invented because there is not in the literature any adequate term describing the general study of communication and the related study of control in both machines and in living beings.

We mean by cybernetics, then, those activities and ideas that have to do with the sending, carrying, and receiving of information. With that definition in mind, it's clear that the opening section of Gravity's Rainbow is just teeming with potential cybernetic references.

"A screaming comes across the sky" -- from the start the theme is communication. On the literal level, the reference is understood to mean the post-impact sound of a missile racing to catch up with its supersonic source. But note that Pynchon's memorable initial sentence -- "A screaming comes across the sky" -- also invokes verbs of expression, transmission, and disembodiment. Expression, transmission, and disembodiment just happen also to be, are they not? the dominant features of electronic communication, or e-mail. Expression, transmission, and disembodiment.

When Pirate Prentice glimpses the far-off flash of one of the first rocket-bombs aimed at London, his involuntary thought is, "Incoming mail" -- a cybernetic sarcasm for the target's view of artillery headed its way. This view of the rocket as a signal launched, sent, and received as information -- less as a physical object than as a packet of information -- is a conceit that runs the length of Pynchon's novel. Pirate later in this opening episode receives a phone call -- another cybernetic jab -- from a military superior who "tells Pirate now there's a message addressed to him, waiting at Greenwich.

"'It came over in a rather delightful way,' the voice high-pitched and sullen, 'none of my friends are that clever. All my mail arrives by post" (11). The distinction is between a new communi-cations medium and good old snail mail -- snail mail, that is, avant la lettre.

In this same first episode we get a description of Pirate Prentice's "condition," which is that he receives, through unexplained but reliable means, other people's fantasies. The most comic and memorable of these is Lord Blatherard Osmo's adenoid fantasy, concerning a huge adenoid gland slurping up its victims around London and requiring hods of cocaine. Here again, in Pirate's Condition, we have a form of disembodied, apparently instantaneous communication of information -- in this case, information in the form of imagery, which makes Pirate something like a GIF file receiver. Pirate receives J-PEGs and GIFs as if through some disembodied spiritual cybernetic node. Pirate is, in a sense, a node.

The next relevant characteristic I'd like to note in the novel's opening are the curious relations between the animate and inani-mate, as complex and unstable in this episode as throughout the novel. We recall that Gravity's Rainbow is prefaced by an epigraph from Wernher von Braun concerning the "continuity of our spiritual existence after death." The dead persist in Pynchon, we know that well. There are sances, revenants, ghosts, and angels. In this first episode, Pirate's banana breakfasts are offered as a way of telling Death "to fuck off" -- a way of sending a message, as it were, to the Other Side. As Edwin Treacle says to Roger Mexico later in the novel,

"There are peoples -- these Hereros for example -- who carry on business every day with their ancestors. The dead are as real as the living. How can you understand them without treating both sides of the wall of death with the same scientific approach?" (153)

In a vein analgous to this porous boundary between life and death, Pynchon frequently blurs the line between the animate and the inanimate. In the dream of Pirate Prentice with which the novel opens, the human refugees are described as "stacked about among the rest of the things to be carried out to salvation." Stepping out like Buck Mulligan onto the roof of his Chelsea maisonette, Pirate groans as the cold "hits the fillings in his teeth" (6), reminding us that we compose ourselves from inorganic materials too -- way before the "six million dollar man" prostheses of TV fantasy.

Pynchon tells us about Pirate in this opening episode, in fact, that "His skull feels made of metal" (5) -- just as much later he'll introduce another character as a kind of smuggler across the animate/inanimate boundary: "In and out of all the vibrant flesh moves the mad scavenger Tchitcherine, who is more metal than anything else" (337).

In the novel's ethically Manichean division between Us and Them, clearly They are the forces of the inanimate, while the good guys are the forces of Life. But Pynchon continually focuses on the boundary between the two, and it dissolves beneath his scrutiny. A copious sentence on the novel's first page conjures up

the smells begun of coal from days far to the past, smells of naptha winters, of Sundays when no traffic came through, of the coral-like and mysteriously vital growth, around the blind curves and out the lonely spurs, a sour smell of rolling-stock absence, of maturing rust [...].

Just to begin unpacking these last phrases: coal is at the interface, an organic mineral, and so is naptha, another once-living "fossil fuel." The "coral-like growth," "mysteriously vital," depicts minerals behaving as if they were vegetables. "Blind curves" and "lonely spurs" are both anthropomorphic epithets for inanimate objects. And "maturing rust" likewise blurs the line between Inorganic and Organic chemistry, an image that seeps like a solvent across the inorganic/organic boundary.

I would compare Pynchon's strategy here to a recent study by Gregory Stock published in 1993 by Simon & Schuster under the title, METAMAN: The Merging of Humans and Machines into a Global Superorganism . Stock adopts the somewhat McLuhanesque conceit that when you use a computer, it's an extension of your mind. The difference between the memory banks in your head and the data on your disks is at root unimportant. One's memory means, in this view, being able to access, being able to download -- being able to search your memories and recall things. Recalling and downloading are basically the same thing.

Gravity's Rainbow does not speculate as explicitly or prosaically as Stock's valuable study, but Pynchon does, as we've noted, invoke a blurring of the boundaries between the animate and the inanimate -- in this opening episode and elsewhere. The first page observes that "the walls break down," just as the novel's very last lines continue to chip away at the line between animate and inanimate,

With a face on ev'ry mountainside,
And a Soul in ev'ry stone....
Now everybody --

By blurring the line between what's alive and what isn't, Pynchon enables us to see organic processes carried on by inanimate means. Metals in particular are understood to carry on life's electric impulses without loss of vital spirit. After a lengthy description of what happens, eventually, to "thousands of old used toothpaste tubes," Pynchon writes:

Yet the continuity, flesh to kindred metals, home to hedgeless sea, has persisted. It is not death that separates these incarnations but paper: paper specialties, paper routines. The War, the Empire, will expedite such barriers between our lives. The War needs to divide this way, and to subdivide, though its propaganda will always stress unity, alliance, pulling together.(130)

Our former engineering student's sense -- that the metallic can be made kindred to flesh if it's wired to the human spirit -- seems to foresee a path for the ultimate extension of human thought and expression across the phone lines, silicon chips, and phosphor screens of cyberspace.

There's even a prediction in Gravity's Rainbow of the future significance of silicon in extending life into the reaches of the inanimate. It comes, significantly enough, complete with a theological punchline, from infant Tyrone's tormentor and an inveterate binarist, Laszlo Jamf, in his annual last lecture to his students at Harvard:

"You have the two choices," Jamf cried, [...] "stay behind with carbon and hydrogen, take your lunch-bucket in to the works every morning with the faceless droves who can't wait to get in out of the sunlight -- or move beyond. Silicon, boron, phosphorus -- these can replace carbon, and can bond to nitrogen instead of hydrogen -- [...] move beyond life, toward the inorganic. Here is no frailty, no mortality -- here is Strength, and the Timeless." Then his well-known finale, as he wiped away the scrawled C--H on his chalkboard and wrote, in enormous letters,



The wave of the future (580)

-- observes Pynchon's prophetic narrator.

* * *

In a less Machiavellian, more cosmic mode, Slothrop's uncle, Lyle Bland, "imagines that he has been journeying underneath history; that history is Earth's mind, and that there are layers, set very deep, layers of history analogous to layers of coal and oil in Earth's body" (589).

Because it's hard to get over the wonder of finding that the Earth is a living critter, after all these years of thinking about a big dumb rock to find a body and psyche [...]. To find that Gravity, so taken for granted, is really something eerie, Messianic, extrasensory in Earth's mindbody... (590)

Pynchon articulates here a vision that it has become fashionable of late to refer to as the Gaia Hypothesis -- the idea, based on theories first put forth by English climatologist James Lovelock, that the life forms on Earth help to maintain a steady-state in the climate, and that, by extrapolation, the planet itself may best be thought of as a living meta-organism, and one to be named after Gaia, the ancient Earth goddess.

If we are to give this conceit the respect that Pynchon himself seems to accord it, then we are led to see analogies between such a global organism and an evolving nervous system that humans have woven for the planet in what we call cyberspace. Gravity's Rainbow's subterranean sense that the planet is alive invokes a level of connectedness, that is, that maps rather neatly onto a World Wide Web. For if the Earth is indeed evolving into what Pynchon's narrator calls "a living critter," then the farflung synapses of cyberspace would seem pretty clearly to embody that global entity's mind, or its conscience, or even its soul.

* * *

Perhaps the clearest prophecies of cyberspace occur in what a subtitle in the final Part of Gravity's Rainbow calls THE STORY OF BYRON THE BULB. You recall the scene: Pfc. Eddie Pensiero has been ordered to give a haircut to an unnamed but very garrulous Army colonel from Kenosha, Wisconsin, while Eddie's friend Private Paddy McGonigle hand-cranks a generator to power the electric light bulb overhead. Pynchon's narrator tells us,

Now it turns out that this light bulb over the colonel's head here is the same identical Osram light bulb that Franz Pokler used to sleep next to in his bunk at the underground rocket works at Nordhausen. [...] But the truth is even more stupendous. This bulb is immortal! It's been around, in fact, since the twenties, has that old-timery point at the tip and is less pear-shaped than more contemporary bulbs. Wotta history, this bulb, if only it could speak -- well, as a matter of fact, it can speak.

And so we get the aforementioned STORY OF BYRON THE BULB, who gets into trouble with the international light-bulb cartel by not burning out when he's supposed to. The other light bulbs notice his unusual longevity, and compare it to other cases they've heard of on what Pynchon calls, with a capital G, the Grid.

Other light bulbs can recognize his immortality on sight, but it's never discussed except in a general way, when folklore comes flickering in from other parts of the Grid, tales of the Immortals, one in a kabbalist's study in Lyons who's supposed to know magic, another in Norway outside a warehouse facing arctic whiteness with a stoicism more southerly bulbs begin strobing faintly just at the thought of. (650)

So "the Grid" is a kind of webspace, the global circuitry not of T-1 lines and telephone links but the primordial power grid itself, adopted for the sake of this fantasy to the needs of instant communication. In the style of a recent New Yorker cartoon, you might say that on the Internet of this prophecy, nobody knows you're a light bulb.

As Byron the Bulb's hours of use continue to climb, threatening to throw all the capitalist averages out of whack, the Committee on Incandescent Anomalies -- whose author knows we can spell that one out for ourselves -- the Committee on Incandescent Anomalies sends out a Berlin agent to unscrew Byron. The other bulbs watch, in barely subdued terror. The word goes out along the Grid. At something close to the speed of light, every bulb, Azos looking down the empty Bakelite streets, Nitralampen and Wotan Gs at night soccer matches, Just-Wolframs, Monowatts and Siriuses, every bulb in Europe knows what's happened.(650)

Well, such a global information network operating "at something close to the speed of light" was not even taken seriously as science fiction when Pynchon let Byron the Bulb shed his light, but clearly, in retrospect, the episode was prophetic, and now every bulb in Europe -- or every wired monitor screen in the world -- does know what's happened.

Interestingly enough, Pynchon mentions prophecy itself at the end of Byron the Bulb's story, for it is Byron's fate -- like that of so many e-mail addicts -- to have access to all the information in the world, yet be able to do little with it:

Someday he will know everything, and still be as impotent as before. His youthful dreams of organizing all the bulbs in the world seem impossible now -- the Grid is wide open, all messages can be overheard, and there are more than enough traitors out on the line. Prophets traditionally don't last long -- they are either killed outright, or given an accident serious enough to make them stop and think, and most often they do pull back. (654-55)

* * *

One of the hottest topics in Pynchon criticism has always been the interpretation of Slothrop's dissolution well before the end of the novel of which he is presumably the protagonist. In Joseph Slade's early reading, for example, Slothrop's disintegration is a metaphor for the helplessness of innocence before the immensity of power: "He literally fragments, cut to pieces by energy grids, the victim of his innocence, which is no defense against the complexities of the systems that reform after the war." William Plater cleverly reads Slothrop's disintegration as a metaphor for the Heisenberg uncertainty principle: "Slothrop even begins to disperse and spread throughout the Zone as his psychoanalytical observers learn more about the sexual energy he appears to derive from the Rocket." And according to Edward Mendelson, "Slothrop's disintegration [...] summarizes the historical fate of literary modernism."

In my own earlier work on the novel, I concentrated on Slothrop's falling apart as a metaphor for entropy and as a source of paradoxical power. But it now strikes me that Pynchon has tied Tyrone Slothrop's fate in no inadvertent manner to that of... paper itself! -- and that here lies a most relevant reading for the metaphor-mongers and hunters of cybertextual allegory among us.

Early in the novel, while laying out the Slothrop family's New England heritage, Pynchon, as it were, staples his character's identity to that of paper:

what stayed at home in Berkshire went into timberland whose diminishing green reaches were converted acres at a clip into paper -- toilet paper, banknote stock, newsprint -- a medium or ground for shit, money, and the Word. [...] Shit, money, and the Word, the three American truths, powering the American mobility, claimed the Slothrops, clasped them for good to the country's fate. (28)

When I read the call to this meeting, it was not on paper, that "medium or ground" for the Word -- it was on the luminous screen of my laptop, which, like Byron the Bulb's friends on the Grid, had received word of the latest data and gossip by pulses of electricity. E-mail, as we all know, is a disembodied medium, where information is sent instantaneously about the globe without killing a single tree or burning any petrol in a mailman's lorry. Paper shows up from time to time in the process, but it has lost its continuous, coherent agency in the communications enterprise for much of what we do.

What happens to Tyrone Slothrop when he grows faint, vague, and eventually invisible altogether is precisely prophetic of what is now happening to paper in the culture of information. The "claiming" and "clasping" of the Slothrops by paper, as Pynchon describes it, makes his protagonist's fate eerily iconic of the fate of materiality itself in a virtual world.

* * *

The title of Gravity's Rainbow , finally, invokes a colored band of light sent as a sign from God in the Old Testament, a multimedia icon signifying that God would never again wipe out humanity by a flood. If the digital domain of on or off is dear only to bumbling bad guys like Ned Pointsman, then the novel's title serves to remind us of the colorful spectrum between the extremes, the analog glories that hang suspended above the on-&-off of black & white.

Pynchon specifies, however, a rainbow that is subject to Gravity -- suggesting, perhaps, a subterranean loop that would complete the aerial parabola of the rainbow into an eternally returning cycle of wholeness. I offer cyberspace as this underground link-connector, since if you're familiar with the T-1 phone links that make the Internet possible, then you know that cyberspace is in fact a subterranean spectrum. The relay switches of geostationary satellites have been deemed too slow for the massive data transmissions of the Internet; and so we are dealing, in cyberspace, not with the "out-there" that the word cyberspace would seem to suggest, but with a "down-there," a nervous system whose links and branches flicker and spark beneath Earth's skin.

The Internet came into being, let us not forget, first as ARPANET and then as DARPANET -- that is, as the U.S. Government Department of Defense's array of research communications links among its nuclear missile sites. The very circuits that signalled the Cold War's threats of annihilation now make up the benign and gossipy information superhighway, just as the colorful sign of God's promise to Man was suspended on drops of moisture left over from the Flood.

For that is what Cyberspace has turned out to be, after all is said and done: a broadband subterranean spectrum of light-speed transmissions; in other words, a gravity's rainbow.

Thank you very much.

[ To Gravity's Rainbow Page ]

Copyright © 1995 Brian Stonehill