A Consensual Hallucination in Cyberpunk

by Lindsay Becker

Originally leveraged from Gothic fiction, the doppelgänger, or double, motif has been widely used in storytelling to explore the duality of self and reality. More classically, the device may serve to uncover a dark nature that lurks beneath a sanitized exterior. In Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, the character of Humbert presents himself as a well-meaning, intelligent gentleman. Yet brimming just below the surface, we find that he mirrors both Nabokov and another character in the novel, Quilty, at once crafting his own narrative to justify and atone for his crimes while confronting another whose nature is shamefully like his own (even if he's never willing to acknowledge it). And so Humbert's own true dark nature is revealed along with that of the author’s and reader’s.

Similarly, in David Cronenberg's film, Dead Ringers, the less gregarious of successful twin gynecologists, Bev, self-destructs despite and, perhaps, in spite of his brother, Eli’s efforts to rehabilitate him. The twins ultimately give up any plays at autonomy, succumb to the feedback loop of the other’s darkness, and are unable to save themselves from a grim fate. Dr. Alan Guttmacher, chairman of the gynecology department where the real-life Marcus twins completed their first-year residency and upon whom Dead Ringers is based, described identical twins as monsters, who were in “constant peril of mutually confused identities” if not separated.

This, too, may be suggested of the classic doppelgänger who is often portrayed as a kind of malevolent double: an alter ego or evil twin, a parallel universe, a clone. Perhaps first adopted by science fiction in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, the doppelgänger theme reappears throughout the genre as varied contemplations on humanity’s significance in the presence of revolution, whether industrial, biological, scientific, exploratory, or technological. Whatever the particulars of the conflict, it’s the original, never the double, who leaves the story as the moral superior – and often the only one left alive.

Yet in the dystopias of cyberpunk science fiction, the doppelgänger theme must grapple with morally ambiguous worlds. As examined across several works of cyberpunk, this theme illustrates its flexibility to deviate from classic constructions towards more contemporary contemplations on selfhood and reality. In varying degrees and through three distinct mediums, Philip K. Dick’s novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep (Androids), Ridley Scott’s film, Blade Runner, and Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akira (manga), the doppelgänger theme questions the dualistic nature of such concerns. The focus here tends toward the potentiality of identity loss to otherness.

In Androids, the doppelgänger effect touches every element of the novel. It seems as if all things organic are threatened to be replaced by machines. Earth has been replaced with a colony on Mars, disrupting humanity’s singular planetary identity. Animals are being replaced with electric counterparts so lifelike, J. R. Isidore mistakes a real dying cat for a malfunctioning electric cat. Idol worship of Mercer is challenged to be replaced by something of an alter ego, an android and 24-hour TV personality, Buster Friendly. Emotions can be programmed to replace existing ones, and memories may be implanted, such as bounty hunter, Rick Deckard’s unresolved confusion over his old police station and his identity as a human. “Doppelgänged” with both Isidore and Resch, it becomes increasingly clear that Deckard may not be human at all.

A further use of the motif appears in the female character of Rachael Rosen, herself a Nexus-6 android, a hunter of bounty hunters, and the same model as Pris. She says, “It’s an illusion that I—I personally—really exist; I’m just representative of a type.” Yet, she and other androids express a depth of empathy that leaves one wondering if there is anything to fear in their otherness. The doppelgänger motif here drifts from tradition by positing the real-artificial binary as nothing more than an abstract construction. Perhaps the real fear is that androids may exhibit a higher level of sentience than humans.

Borrowing from Androids, the replicants of Blade Runner threaten to be more human than human. A classic doppelgänger struggle between good and evil plays out between the protagonist, Rick Deckard, and the villainous replicant, Roy Batty. Where the androids in Dick’s work seek only to be regarded as equals to their human counterparts, Batty is a kind of maniacal visionary for replicants. He sees them as more than artificial intelligence designed to service humans; replicants are improvements, superior to humans (a welcome departure from Android’s doppelgänger theme).

While the primary double in this film is found between Rick Deckard and Roy Batty, it’s of significance to consider the double identity of memory. Replicants are known for keeping old photos around their homes to remind them of personal histories they never had. Rick reveals to Rachel that her life as she knows it has been built upon a false reality, mere implants of Tyrell’s niece’s memories. She’s devastated at this total loss of selfhood. Given their relatively short lifespan of just four years, replicants are, in effect, perpetual children, never establishing a fully formed identity, and yet they are adults with human-like depth of complexity and interiority. Like in Androids, the subtext of the replicants’ reactions to their implanted memories suggests that identity and reality are not as stable as may be assumed.

Instability of identity is also viewed through the doppelgänger treatment in the manga, Akira, as Tetsuo, once an almost visual twin to his friend and fellow gang member, Kaneda, undergoes a dramatic character shift after receiving psychic powers during an encounter with an esper. Tetsuo undergoes a transformation, his features, hair, and clothing rapidly adopting a wholly new identity incongruent to Kaneda and his old gang. As they attempt to reconcile Tetsuo’s physical change, it’s mirrored through his erratic behavior that whatever seemingly unbreakable bonds of brotherhood existed between them have been broken. It’s not long before Tetsuo is leading his own gang and he’s shed his old identity completely. He believes he’s gained a new, superior reality, yet his sense of self is more unstable than ever. Meanwhile, it’s Kaneda who seems to find clarity of self through conflict with Tetsuo.

A confusion of identity is further reflected in the tension between the prematurely-aged espers of Old Tokyo and teenage gangs of Neo-Tokyo. It could be argued that this multi-layered reversal of identity speaks to a kind of loss or unreliability of innocence and childhood, much like the loss of memory experienced in Blade Runner. Who are we without the reassurances of our past and the promises of our future? Self and reality seem more a mirage than ever.

If these three works seek the speculative nature of self and reality, then later the works, William Gibson’s Neuromancer, Mamoru Oshii’s film, Ghost In The Shell (GITS), Neal Stephenson’s satire, Snow Crash, and The Wachowski Brother’s The Matrix expand upon the motif by, not simply questioning the dualism of self and space, but teasing out their very meta-physicality. Self and space become infinite and ubiquitous. The same may be said for identity and reality: where Androids, Blade Runner, and Akira doppelgänger themes investigate the otherness of identity and reality, GITS, Neuromancer, The Matrix and Snow Crash examine their relative existence.

Unlike previous works, Neuromancer employs the doppelgänger theme to speculate on the merging of identities. Rather than focusing on the duality inherent in the self, the motif looks at the potential “superself.” Perhaps the most notable of the doubles in this work is that of Wintermute, an AI created by the Tessier-Ashpool family who seeks to merge with its twin, Neuromancer, another AI with the programming to store personalities that can grow and develop. While an AI, Neuromancer is a sentient being with its own stable personality and does not want to merge with Wintermute for fear of losing that identity. Likewise, the Turing Law Code governing AIs prevents such merging, perhaps out of fear that such entities will overtake humans. And yet, the lock is broken and Wintermute fuses with Neuromancer to create a superconscious AI with infinite possibilities for growth and information expansion. What identity this superconsciousness will possess without any limits is intentionally left undefined. Such a departure functions as a meditation, not on the removal of constructions of self, but on the potential for infinitely simultaneous identities.

Several other doppelgänger motifs play out over the course of Neuromancer in varying states of fusion of space and self. Molly and Case move between cyberspace, the matrix and “real” space with such ease, their location is not always neatly articulated. From the first chapter, Case seems drawn to the matrix as an escape from “real” space, as if a drug experience with its “bright lattices of logic unfolding across that colorless void.” This blurred distinction of space is further confounded when Molly and Case are merged, creating a kind of cyberbody that transcends gender and singularity of identity so that space is experienced by two in a single instance, simultaneously.

Physicality is exposed to duplicity as well. Cyborgs and body modifications are normalized beyond the fear and stigma attached to AI in Androids and Blade Runner. Molly’s retractable nail blades and mirrored lenses are considered enhancements; Armitage has a former human personality, Corto; and, Lady 3Jane is one of many Janes, suggesting that the distinction between human and machine is narrowing. It’s Case’s final double existence that leaves the doppelgänger theme in an open-ended contemplation on multiple realities. After he flatlines, or dies, multiple times trying to unlock the icebreaker that will merge Neuromancer and Wintermute, it’s discovered that Neuromancer has copied a version of Case in the matrix, living on as if in another reality, with an past lover, Linda Lee. While Case chooses to remain in the matrix with Linda at the end of Neuromancer, in a later Gibson story, Mona Lisa Overdrive, Case finally chooses “real” space over cyberspace. Whether in the matrix or “real” space, or both, the doppelgänger device here seems to cascade around the multiplicity inherent across all modes of experience.

Ghost In The Shell, a kind of doppelgänger itself to Neuromancer, uses the motif to explore the dynamic relationship of the soul to the body, or ghost, or person. Of significant interest is that in this set up, the doppelgänger theme occurs between an AI, Puppet Master, and a human, Major, who will eventually merge into a singular consciousness. Along the way, it’s discovered that Puppet Master is pure ghost/soul, with no shell, and, like Neuromancer’s Wintermute, desires to merge with another being to fully realize his potential consciousness. It is no surprise when he selects Major, who mirrors this existential dilemma:

“There are countless ingredients that make up the human body and mind, like all the components that make up me as an individual with my own personality. Sure I have a face and voice to distinguish myself from others, but my thoughts and memories are unique only to me, and I carry a sense of my own destiny. Each of those things are just a small part of it. I collect information to use in my own way. All of that blends to create a mixture that forms me and gives rise to my conscience.”

Although their merger is not one of mutual consent, the end result is neither Puppet Master nor Major, but a new, mixed identity, the “birth” of a young girl who represents hybridized reproduction between AIs and humans. So, a further comparison is made between DNA and binary code, that they are both stored information, suggesting the inevitability of a hybrid of AI and human – an evolution in body and mind.

For the world of Snow Crash, it would seem that binary code is linked to the dawn of all creation – or so the story goes. A primary doppelgänger motif in Stephenson’s satire is, then, binary code reflecting on itself: 0 vs. 1, something vs. nothing, existent vs. nonexistent. Hiro Protagonist jokes that he has to be a dualist since he's a hacker. Juanita and L. Bob Rife have mentioned that the ability to read binary code is firm-wired into the deep structures of the brain for hackers. One of the many conflicts then becomes that binary code can either be used for good or evil, viral or antiviral. Like Nietzsche’s will to power, binary code may be seen as active or reactive. The Snow Crash virus, while implicating those who would make such a virus, also implicates the culture which recklessly consumes it in the Metaverse. The same could be said for L. Bob Rife’s religious followers who speak in tongues and seem to have bought so much into the idea of a collection consciousness that they have sacrificed all sense of self. Even Y.T., who fights the pull of it while on the Raft, finds herself inextricably drawn in. In this way, perhaps Stephenson suggests that we remain wary of allowing technology (and religion) to usurp our autonomy so completely.

Another doppelgänger use in Snow Crash is one of space. Hiro, Juanita, and other elite hackers have invented the Metaverse, a virtual reality wherein one may exist via an avatar. Like Neuromancer and GITS, the Metaverse operates as a kind of secondary, abstracted reality to the “real” one. However, Stephenson has, perhaps intentionally, removed the some of the headiness of the matrix and cyberspace, and has instead made the Metaverse a veritable entertainment and social world. It’s a space where anonymity, fetish, pleasure, black markets and business dealings, parties, imagination, and otherness are free to grow and create their own virtual economies. While the Metaverse serves as a setting for much of the action of the novel, it falls flat in delivering the kind of infinite superconscious provided in GITS and Neuromancer. Rather, this virtual world critiques some contemporary social issues of Stephenson’s America: its brittle moral compass, its festering backlash to corporate consumerism, its sincerity problem. Certainly, the Metaverse isn’t as “meta” as its makers aspired it to be.

In The Matrix, another film based on loosely on Neuromancer, the doppelgänger motif moves farther away from recognizable cyberpunk stylings and to a more sanitized trope. As in all works discussed, the motif is multi-layered in the film, centering on Neo/Thomas Anderson, who leads a double life as a computer programmer by day and a hacker by night. He is maximally mirrored against himself, coming to terms with a new reality and a new identity, finally realizing his superhuman abilities as “the One” after many bouts of self-doubt and failure. This particular doppelgänger use is more closely linked to classic uses of the device in that it is resolved through a psychological awakening of sorts. In Neo’s case, he experiences a type of transcendence when fighting agents. He awakens suddenly from a collective sleep that even those unplugged from the matrix have not ascended to. Our “collective sleep” in the film is represented by a sunny, juicy-steak life in the matrix. It is no utopia but far from the opposing “real” world: a dystopic wasteland colored by tattered sweaters and slop at every meal, wherein humans are at war with evil machines—a heavy-handed double, to be sure. This seems to suggest that it may be through psychological reawakening that transcendence from our “collective sleep” (corporate consumerism, greed, excess, etc.) may be achieved.

More interesting, however, is the doppelgänger of Agent Smith, a machine in the matrix who has developed a personal vendetta against humans, Neo in particular. This allows for a classic hero-villain dynamic to play out, much like what is seen between Rick Deckard and Roy Batty in Blade Runner. But Agent Smith also parodies the corporate office worker identity, the stone cold militaristic authoritarian identity so criticized in the 1990s. As the movie progresses, agents are able to snatch any body (no fixed identity) plugged into the matrix and the doppelgänger theme falls on itself many times over. In the follow up to The Matrix, The Matrix Reloaded, Agent Smith receives an upgrade and is able to replicate himself infinitely – to the effect of absolute excess. Yet, Neo, the One, is able to successfully combat all agents single-handedly, simultaneously. Why? Because he has transcended the matrix, identity, and has awakened to his true nature, his highest self, of course. Ultimately, the doppelgänger-on-steroids theme serves to highlight the never-ending conflict between man and machine. Again, it seems to be argued through this excessive duplication that transcendence on the part of both man and machine is necessary for the survival of both. In turn, perhaps The Matrix Trilogy would hope that humanity would strike a balance with technology in a similar way. It would seem the doppelgänger motif of identity and self are lost in the shuffle of the Hollywood sequel-making machine.

The simplification of metaphor and complexity in The Matrix does not lessen the film’s contribution to the doppelgänger motif as relates to self and reality. Rather, the film offers a clear choice for selfhood and reality. Departing from the other works discussed, The Matrix does not ask its characters to contemplate the possibilities of realities. Either you are yourself unplugged from the matrix, in a word, “free,” or you are asleep in a false reality, a “slave.” It is significant, then, when Cypher betrays Morpheus to Agent Smith so that he may return to the matrix, wiped of his memories to live out his life in a false reality. While an unpopular choice, Cypher’s request to wipe his memory mirrors a larger concept explored throughout the works discussed and through the doppelgänger theme: a loss of selfhood.

Whether through implanted memories like Rachel and Deckard’s in Blade Runner, Major’s fears that her memories are false in GITS, the haunted pasts of Case, Molly and Armitage in Neuromancer, the collective loss of connection in Akira, or the paranoia over reality and autonomy in Androids, The Matrix, and Snow Crash, the doppelgänger motif serves to meditate on loss of identity and space. While the earlier works focus on rejecting moral dualities, they emphasize the ambiguous nature of self and reality. The last three works suggest the physical world is fragile and speculative, and that identity in a metaphysical world may prove infinitely multi-dimensional, a consensual hallucination, or both.

--- Works Cited (aside from the obvious) Meyer, Priscilla, "Lolita and the Genre of the Literary Double: Does Quilty Exist?" (2009). Division III Faculty Publications. Paper 305. Rosenbaum, Ron. The Secret Parts of Fortune: Three Decades of Intense Investigations and Edgy Enthusiasms. New York: Random House, 2000. Print.