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.
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|
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.