Monday, July 27, 2015

The Gernsback Continuum [Guest Post]

By GW Thomas

Johnny Mnemonic
I know its cheeky to speak ill of the successful. They are after all... successful. But I can't help it. "The Gernsback Continuum" by William Gibson begs me to be cheeky. And suggest an... improvement. Let's back up for a moment.

William Gibson, a fellow Canadian, has been big since the early 1980s. My first encounter with him was "Johnny Mnemonic" in Omni (May 1981), later made into a film with Keanu Reeves. Gibson is best remembered for Neuromancer (1984), the quintessential Cyber-Punk novel, which I still haven't gotten around to reading yet. "The Gernsback Continuum," according to editor Terry Carr (in Universe 11 (1981) was his second story to be published.

Universe 11
When I heard of the story, probably in some random Gernsback search for pulp publishing details about the editor, I sat up and took notice. A story that supposes a universe based on Gernsback's magazine publishing? I'm in! This is going to be a crazy pulp ride! I had read Fredric Brown's What Mad Universe (1949), that supposes a universe created in a fanboy's mind, and liked it a lot, but here was a story that takes Gernsback head on!

So I found my copy of Universe 11 and read "The Gersnback Continuum" and before I know it, it's over. It's a rather short story. And I am profoundly disappointed. Here's why. The plot follows a photographer named Parker who is hired to do a shoot about 1930s futuristic architecture and culture. He does so much of it that after a while he starts to see things like a boomerang-shaped propeller-driven ship. The Gernsbackian reality is taking over in his mind. He talks to a friend, Merv Kihn, who reports for the UFO magazines but Kihn says it happens all the time and it doesn't mean you're crazy. The climax comes when Parker sees a man and a woman from that weird future-that-never-was. They're tall, blond, white, and robotic (in the sense that they appear less human). Parker flees the vision and the story ends with the photographer's numbing his sensitivity by focusing on the dullness and strife of today, keeping that past vision of the future at bay.

Frank R Paul
Which is pretty good but... it's not enough. I needed more to buy it all. I wanted the two people from the vision to take him to their world of the future. And in a plot right out of Gernsback's magazine, the visitor would see why this world is too perfect. Maybe there are no races anymore, only the Teutonic Nazi version. Maybe children are raised by machines and the air is filled with propeller ships and SHIELD-style flying fortresses. With the resultant pollution problem (heroically fixed by a single scientist who brilliantly saved the earth from fossil fuels), maybe Parker even starts to fall for one of these future gals. Come on, if you've read any 1930s SF you know what I'm talking about: an Edmond Hamilton plot within a Gernsback story, and in the end he saves himself from becoming one of these terrible future drones by a memory. A single memory of something so un-Gernsbackian, it draws him back to our reality. Perhaps something from the Hippie '60s (like listening to Zeppelin II for the first time) or even God-help-us the Disco '70s. Something that says the way the world went was better. (I'll leave that really hard part for Bill Gibson to figure out. He is collecting the check after all.)

So, that's what I was expecting. Now, it's not fair to put all that pressure on Gibson's second published story, but wait, there's more!

I thought someone might have adapted the story so a Google search told me I was right. A British short film from 1993 called Tomorrow Calling starring one of my favorite British actors, Colin Salmon. He's been in Bond films, on Doctor Who, but more recently he played Walter Steele on Arrow. The short film version sticks pretty close to Gibson, and only reinforced what I thought after reading the story. It's too facile; not Gernsbackian enough.



So where do we go from here? I don't think Gibson has any real desire to write about 1930s pulp anymore. He does like using the Raymond Chandler mode in his novels, but the futures he sees - like in his last novel, The Peripheral (2014) - are much darker than those goofy Frank R Paul drawings. "The Gernsback Continuum" exists for me in those crumbling pulp pages, but Gibson 's characters were too afraid to explore that shiny world of machines and machine-like people. I think I'll have to be satisfied with a little vintage Edmond Hamilton or A Hyatt Verrill, a world that is AMAZING and filled with WONDER, but as Gibson suggests, perhaps a little too haunting and cold.

Next stop? The Farnsworth Wright Protraction!

GW Thomas has appeared in over 400 different books, magazines and ezines including The Writer, Writer's Digest, Black October Magazine and Contact. His website is gwthomas.org. He is editor of Dark Worlds magazine.
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