Twilight Time

By Benjamin Aldes Wurgaft

Image uploaded originally by -alice-, June 25, 2008, CC License.

For years I have thought that William Gibson is our most insightful fiction writer on material things and what it is like to live with them, but also, and not paradoxically, on immaterial things and what it is like to live with them. The same writer who gave us “cyberspace” (the term, and also the first visions of what it could be like, in the 1984 Neuromancer) also gave us a Japanese reproduction of an American bomber jacket so lovingly described that readers got emotional when an antagonist made a hole in it with a lit cigarette (in 2003’s Pattern Recognition). The line between cyberspace and “meatspace” is on fine display in the two episodes of the X-Files Gibson wrote with his friend and colleague in the genre of cyberpunk, Tom Maddox. “Killswitch” (S5 E11) and “First Person Shooter” (S7 E13) both begin when someone—or something—crosses the line between the digital and seemingly immaterial and the stubbornly material world.

Both “Killswitch” and “First Person Shooter” are “monster of the week” episodes that follow the usual formula of Mulder and Scully following a clue to a location where something strange seems to press on the familiar. “Killswitch” (the main focus of this essay) begins in the Metro Diner in Washington, D.C., where a suit-wearing computer programmer sits at his laptop, typing commands, about to insert a CD into the laptop’s optical drive (it is 1997) when a gun battle breaks out between a team of U.S. Marshals and a bizarre aggregation of drug dealers, all of whom have filed into the diner because they received anonymous tips that Pico Salazar, a drug cartel leader with whom they have unfinished business, was going to be there. But when they show up at the eventual crime scene, Mulder and Scully are surprised to find the body of Donald Gelman, the programmer, among the corpses. Gelman is well known. He could have been another Bill Gates, we learn, but turned away from the fortune-makers of Silicon Valley because he was a visionary and not a capitalist (the tension between visionaries and capitalists, bohemians and industrialists, is a long-running theme of Gibson’s work, perhaps best developed in the Blue Ant trilogy of which Pattern Recognition is the first book).

Mulder takes the CD that Gelman was about to play in his laptop and inserts it into his car’s CD player. We hear “Twilight Time,” as recorded by the Black American singing group The Platters in 1958. This love song about a hoped-for meeting when the day is done turns out to conceal code, also on the disc, that has a purpose the episode will later disclose—it is meant to destroy the artificial intelligence that arranged the death of Gelman, its creator, by setting up the gun battle in the diner. “Sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is to have a thankless child,” Gelman says on the recording, as King Lear does (Lear, Act I, Scene IV, Line 815).

But Mulder and Scully do not know this yet. They take Gelman’s laptop, and the CD, which is the “Killswitch” for which the episode is named, to their friends the Lone Gunmen, a trio of conspiracy theorists and computer hackers who help them to find their next clue: the location of a shipping container identified in an email to Gelman which is signed by someone named (in the episode’s best joke) “Invisigoth.” Shakespeare? A song from 1958? A punning name that implies an ancient Rome-era Germanic tribesperson with the ability to disappear? If this is postmodern pastiche, the shipping container yard where Mulder and Scully go next reminds me of the networks of international trade that form the material basis of the postmodern era. “Invisigoth” turns out to be a woman named Esther Nairn (this name an intriguing pairing of Hebrew and Scots) who has been living in one of the containers: a computer and a mattress and a lot of bottled water, as well as a punkish leather ensemble, seemingly all her worldly possessions.

After a brief struggle, Mulder and Scully arrest Invisigoth, and the plot sweeps them up into a sometimes adversarial, sometimes cooperative trio of protagonists, as Invisigoth saves their lives by noticing, on her computer monitor, that a Department of Defense orbital weapons platform is targeting her shipping container. They screech away in the agents’ car as something – it’s somewhere between a lightning strike and a missile—turns the shipping container into fireworks. The burning display was, if Wikipedia is to be believed, one of the most involved and expensive special effects sequences the X-Files production crew ever pulled off during their time filming in Vancouver. 

Becoming disembodied and immortal, they would survive as pure mind, enjoying an intimacy that incarnation denies us.

The plot of this crammed episode allows for little recovery time, however. Mulder and Scully interview Invisigoth in their car, and she explains that Donald Gelman had created a form of artificial intelligence and artificial life: “Artificial slime, artificial life, one man alone achieving the equivalent of Copernicus, Magellan, and Darwin,” she smiles, approvingly, her raccoonish eye makeup crinkling. “What was your role in all this?” Scully asks, “Were you the bass player?” This insult gives Invisigoth a chance to respond with her own list of accomplishments; a genius-level programmer, she was, in fact, an integral part of a team, along with Gelman and David Markham, her lover, all of whom worked on the AI project. But Invisigoth and David had a secret agenda. They hoped to use the AI as a kind of scaffolding enabling them to upload their minds—consciousness, memories, personality—onto the Internet. Becoming disembodied and immortal, they would survive as pure mind, enjoying an intimacy that incarnation denies us.

The episode ultimately builds to a series of confrontations and climactic action sequences. Mulder tracks the AI to its physical base (for it seems to need one) in a trailer, but it traps him in a virtual reality simulation of the world, in which an elderly male doctor and young sexy female nurses try to coax from him the location of the Killswitch out of him—this is the AI acting to ensure its own survival—while seeming to amputate one of his limbs each time he refuses to answer. At first it seems that Scully saves him in a crowd-pleasing kung fu fighting sequence, but this Scully is merely another virtual representation, a diplomatic envoy from the AI seeking information about the Killswitch. When the real Scully, along with Invisigoth, actually saves Mulder, she uses no kung fu but simply drags him from cyberspace back into meatspace, limbs intact. Invisigoth avenges herself against the AI (which had killed David) by using the orbital weapons platform to destroy the trailer, even as she uploads her mind to the Internet, achieving her dream, renouncing meatspace for cyberspace.  

Copernicus, Magellan, Darwin? On reflection what seems odd about the triumvirate of scientists and explorers Invisigoth lists, is simply that each of them found something that preexisted their act of discovery. By contrast Gelman discovered something by creating it: in a sense, he discovered the possibility of the existence of his creation. Episodes of The X-Filesare often about a search for the truth about what’s out there, the truth about the existence of an alien or supernatural presence in the universe. “Killswitch” is instead about human artifice running beyond our control and becoming something new. The episode concerns itself with Promethean impulses, a long-standing theme in the cyberpunk genre. Our creations are not always pleased with us or grateful for us. In “Killswitch” (and in “First Person Shooter” as well) the source of mystery and anxiety lies in our own powers of creation themselves. The question hovering over us is one that the intellectual historian Hans Blumenberg posed eloquently in an essay of 1957 called “Imitation of Nature”: how do we feel about dwelling in a world of our own artifice, rather than the world “given” to us by nature? Will this new world be any better? Will it be home? Can it be?

Unsure of the meaning of our actions, or of how to live with our creations, like Donald Gelman contemplating their destruction, like Invisigoth contemplating our escape, we may be at once Hamlet and Lear. The song “Twilight Time” suggests the promise of lovers meeting, of Invisigoth and David together forever, having ascended to a kind of technological godhead, effectively becoming their own creations. But twilight conjures other musical references. It is hard for me to forget, as an orbital weapons platform stalks our agents, as Invisigoth abandons her corporeal shell, that Richard Wagner had his own “Twilight Time,” rendering Ragnarok in German as “Götterdammerung,” the twilight of the gods. It is to Gibson and Maddox’s credit that they promise no kind of happy ending, nor tell us what to make of this drama of creation unmastered.