Thomas A. Bredehoft
The Gibson Continuum: Cyberspace and Gibson's Mervyn Kihn Stories
I was going to use a quote from an old Velvet Underground song—“Watch out for worlds behind you” (from “Sunday Morning”)—as an epigraph for Neuromancer. (William Gibson, quoted in McCaffery 265)
In a 1986 interview with Larry McCaffery, William Gibson recalled the conflict between his expectations and his first impressions of his own computer:
It wasn't until I could finally afford a computer of my own that I found out there's a drive mechanism inside—this little thing that spins around. I'd been expecting an exotic crystalline thing, a cyberspace deck or something, and what I got was a little piece of a Victorian engine that made noises like a scratchy old record player. (McCaffery 270)
The connection between computers and the Victorian period which Gibson mentions here is literalized in the Gibson-Sterling collaboration, The Difference Engine, but the image of a modern device concealing Victorian workings also occurs elsewhere in Gibson's fiction—but not, as we might expect, in relation to computers. Instead, Gibson uses this conceit to describe the products of futuristic 1930s designers in his 1981 story, “The Gernsback Continuum”:
After the advent of the designers, some pencil sharpeners looked as though they'd been put together in wind tunnels. For the most part, the change was only skin-deep; under the streamlined chrome shell, you'd find the same Victorian mechanism. (“Gernsback” 25)
The parallels between Gibson's descriptions of the futuristic 1930s pencil sharpeners and his own computer are striking, even surprising. In their reliance upon images of modern machines with Victorian mechanisms at their centers, both descriptions partake of the “worlds behind us” metaphor evident in the quotation which stands as an epigraph to this essay. In Gibson's use of this metaphor, such worlds manifest themselves as the hidden underpinnings of our most modern-looking, modern-seeming machines.
The importance of this metaphor to Gibson's first novel, Neuromancer, has not been sufficiently recognized. Like the futuristic pencil-sharpeners of “The Gernsback Continuum,” Neuromancer seems, on the surface, to be something new, with a new vision of the future; the old-fashioned mechanism it conceals is sometimes difficult to discover. While critics acknowledge cyberpunk literature as an outgrowth of earlier science fiction, cyberpunk is commonly described as a new “movement” within science fiction. Yet Gary Westfahl has suggested that Neuromancer, the prototypical cyberpunk novel, relies far more heavily upon Gernsbackian paradigms of science-fiction narrative than has been previously believed. Westfahl's argument has not been widely accepted by critics,1 but his suggestion that Neuromancer conceals a Gernsbackian machine is not without merit. As I shall argue below, the surprising Gernsbackian machine in Neuromancer is Gibson's much-discussed concept of cyberspace.
In cyberspace, Gibson provides an electronic manifestation of a science-fictional paraspace, “an alternate space, sometimes largely mental, but always materially manifested, that sits beside the real world” (Samuel Delany, quoted in Bukatman 157), where conflicts from the real world can be resolved. Postmodern theorists such as Scott Bukatman and Brian McHale have focused upon Gibsonian cyberspace as an alternative to the modern urban space as well as a locus for postmodern metafictional projects. Cyberspace is thus seen as a metaworld which “brings into view the `worldness' of the world.... The paraspace motif makes possible, in other words, metafictional reflection by the text on its own ontological processes” (McHale 253). Yet Gibson's vision of cyberspace is rooted in particular worlds behind us, and thus works most effectively as a commentary on the relationship between those worlds and the “real world” depicted in Neuromancer and his other cyberspace novels. Specifically, Gibson's visualization of cyberspace has its origins in hallucinatory iconography derived from literary representations of sixties-style acid trips and in the idealistic futurism of the nineteen thirties. In this essay, I argue that since the visual components of Gibson's conception of cyberspace are rooted in such hallucinatory and futuristic/technophilic iconographies, cyberspace itself functions less effectively as a commentary on the text's “own ontological processes” than as a warning about the dangers of the (nostalgic) escapism symbolized by such iconographies. Gibson's Mervyn Kihn stories, “The Gernsback Continuum” and “Hippie Hat Brain Parasite,” deal directly with these sources of imagery; although neither story concerns itself with cyberspace, it is to them we must turn in order to understand Gibson's vision of cyberspace as it appears in Neuromancer.
1. Re-Reading the Gernsback Continuum. “The Gernsback Continuum,” one of Gibson's earliest published short stories, is also probably one of his best-known works, having been anthologized not only in the Burning Chrome and Mirrorshades collections, but also in the recent Norton Book of Science Fiction. Critics of Gibson's work, however, have rarely examined it in detail;
instead they generally agree with Bruce Sterling's bombastic assessment: “`The Gernsback Continuum' shows [Gibson] consciously drawing a bead on the shambling figure of the SF tradition. It's a devastating refutation of `scientifiction' in its guise as narrow technolatry” (Burning Chrome x). To take just two examples, Carol McGuirk writes that “Gibson invokes the Golden Age intertextually only to undercut what he sees as its naive optimism about technology” (112), while Veronica Hollinger asserts that “`The Gernsback Continuum' humorously ironizes an early twentieth-century futurism” (214). Most critics' comments about this story occur only as portions of larger commentaries; the apparent critical consensus about “The Gernsback Continuum,” it seems, has resulted in few, if any, extended examinations of the story.
On the other hand, Gary Westfahl's examination of the Gernsbackian structure of Neuromancer also hints that the consensus about “The Gernsback Continuum” may not be justified. His comments regarding this story are instructive:
The Gernsback Continuum of the story is not a dying or dead world; it remains as a force influencing present day reality in its old artifacts and as a still-present alternate universe which continues to coexist next to reality—indeed the hero is still haunted by his vision of it as the story closes. (90)
As the narrator of “Gernsback” himself says, “the rockets on the covers of the Gernsback pulps had fallen on London in the dead of night, screaming” (27). The fact that the science-fiction community's Hugo award (one of the awards which Gibson received for Neuromancer) is named in honor of Gernsback and is itself shaped suspiciously like the V2 rockets which devastated London attests to the power the supposedly “shambling figure of the SF tradition” still exerts, as well as the destructive potential of the intersections between science fiction and the real world.
Precisely this sort of intersection is at the center of “The Gernsback Continuum.” The (unnamed) narrator of the story is a photographer charged with providing illustrations of “American Streamlined Moderne” architecture for a proposed book to be titled “The Airstream Futuropolis: The Tomorrow That Never Was” (24). As is explained by the book's author, Dialta Downes, such architecture was a product of the same designers and the same cultural moment which produced the wind-tunnel pencil sharpeners—forward looking, but with a vision of the future as deeply rooted in wishful thinking as in the past. Among the narrator's photographic subjects, for example, are gas stations with “superfluous central towers ringed with those strange radiator flanges” which “made them look as though they might generate potent bursts of raw technological enthusiasm” (27). Such designs produced nothing new, merely reshaping the surfaces of pre-existing items and structures. However, after immersing himself in examples of such visionary, if ephemeral, architecture, the narrator sees a phantom: “a twelve-engined thing like a bloated boomerang, all wing, thrumming its way east with an elephantine grace” (27-28). Unsure of his own sanity—his ability to accurately perceive reality—he takes his story to Mervyn Kihn, a “free-lance journalist with an extensive line in Texas pterodactyls, redneck UFO contactees, bush-league Loch Ness monsters,” (28) and the like.
Kihn's explanation is that such sightings are “semiotic ghosts,” “bits of deep cultural imagery that have split off and taken on a life of their own” (29). The “Gernsback Continuum” of the title is the future imagined by dreamers of the thirties, an extension of the futuristic dreams shared by real-world designers and architects as well as science-fiction pulp artists such as Frank R. Paul (25). Such futuristic dreams were necessarily science-fictional; they depended intimately upon freedom-granting American science, American technology, and American know-how, and imagined freedom from conflict, the restrictions of physics, and want. Kihn suggests that by focusing on architecture from this future-glorifying era, the narrator has become susceptible to hallucinations based upon such former dreams of the future. “That plane was part of the mass unconscious, once,” Kihn says (30), silently glossing over the fact that its appearance in the present suggests it is still part of the mass unconscious. Not entirely reassured by Kihn's logic, the narrator takes a “crumbling diet pill” (30) for the all-night drive back to California and has another, more sinister vision, a “dream Tucson” (32) and two of its inhabitants:
They were the children of Dialta Downes's 80-that-wasn't; they were Heirs to the Dream. They were white, blond, and they probably had blue eyes. They were American. Dialta had said that the Future had come to America first, but had finally passed it by. But not here, in the heart of the Dream. Here, we'd gone on and on, in a dream logic that knew nothing of pollution, the finite bounds of fossil fuel, or foreign wars it was possible to lose. They were smug, happy, and utterly content with themselves and their world. And in the Dream, it was their world.
Behind me, the illuminated city: Searchlights swept the sky for the sheer joy of it. I imagined them thronging the plazas of white marble, orderly and alert, their bright eyes shining with enthusiasm for their floodlit avenues and silver cars.
It had all the sinister fruitiness of Hitler Youth propaganda....
“John,” I heard the woman say, “we've forgotten to take our food pills.” (32-33)
“`Amphetamine psychosis'” (32) the narrator tells himself, in an attempt to banish the vision, but his diet pill and the couple's food pills are but two sides of the same coin. And after this latest vision, Kihn's only advice to the narrator is to “Watch lots of television, particularly game shows and soaps” (33). “Really bad media,” he insists, “can exorcise your semiotic ghosts” (33).
But Kihn's suggestion that a particular film, Nazi Love Motel, is just what the narrator needs (33) echoes the narrator's earlier reference to the Hitler Youth and suggests just how ineffective such exorcisms must be. The media are as deeply infused with the “Gernsback Continuum” as the narrator's visions are, because the products of thirties futurism are still with us. In fact, the very pieces of real-life architecture on which the narrator focuses his camera are described in much the same terms as Kihn's “semiotic ghosts”:
When I isolated a few of the factory buildings on the ground glass of the Haselblad, they came across with a kind of sinister totalitarian dignity, like the stadiums Albert Speer built for Hitler. But the rest of it was relentlessly tacky: ephemeral stuff extruded by the American subconscious of the Thirties, tending mostly to survive along depressing strips lined with dusty motels, mattress wholesalers, and small used car lots. I went for the gas stations in a big way. (26)
“It is possible to photograph what isn't there,” (26) the narrator tells us; the Gernsback Continuum extends from “movie marquees ribbed to radiate some mysterious energy” (25) to the narrator's vision of the “dream Tucson” and apparently to the media as well. At the end of the story, the narrator turns away from the media, and from Nazi Love Motel, exorcising his semiotic ghosts by submerging himself in “hard evidence of the human near-dystopia we live in” (35). “`Hell of a world we live in, huh?'” the newsstand proprietor says to the narrator at the end of the story; “`even worse, it could be perfect'” comes the narrator's reply (35).
The Gernsback Continuum is a true continuum, Gibson suggests, continuous and uninterrupted, a still-present legacy of blindly visionary thirties futurism and thirties science fiction. It is something we might not always see or feel, but something we can never wholly avoid or exorcise. Gibson is not simply repudiating or rejecting the technolatry of the Golden Age, but acknowledging the unavoidable and continuing presence of the Gernsback legacy, including its uncomfortably totalitarian resonances. The Gernsback Continuum is not just one of the worlds behind us; instead, it embodies the continuing influence of that world. The persistence of that “world,” this story tells us, is something we need to be warned about, and “The Gernsback Continuum” can be read as such a warning, a story firmly entrenched in the monitory branch of sf writing.
What “The Gernsback Continuum” suggests about the legacy of the nineteen thirties, “Hippie Hat Brain Parasite” (originally published in a “zine” and reprinted in the Semiotext(e) SF collection) does for the nineteen sixties. In “Hippie Hat Brain Parasite,” Mervyn Kihn makes a collect telephone call to the narrator of the story (“Bill”) and describes his sighting of an alien: a creature looking like a bad sixties-style leather hat (“Maybe the stupid kinda hat” 110) which perches on people's heads and controls them, marionette-style. Kihn has traced the creatures' origin to “Frisco circa '68” (110) and apparently connects them to sixties drug culture and its still-extant remnants: “They must've spread out from Haight-Ashbury, see, and now they're in these weird pocket areas of Sixties hipcult holdouts. You get some of these dudes in off the commune, man, they look pretty zombied-out anyway” (111-12).2 Kihn's assertion that this particular parasite is old or sick does little to reassure either him or us that this threatening remnant of sixties culture is no longer a hazard: the old or sick parasite is not just another “shambling figure” about to topple under its own weight but a valuable glimpse at a still-present danger. The phone call is both a warning and a request: “Merv, why did you call? I mean, why me?” Bill asks. “You write about stuff like that,” Kihn replies (112).
“Bill,” the narrator of “Hippie Hat,” is apparently intended as a figuration of Gibson himself. Significantly, Kihn (here described as the “author of nine paperback assemblies of Damned Things too unspeakably singular to warrant the attention of even the most depraved assemblers of modern apocrypha” 110) feels that this tale has more in common with what Bill writes than with his own material. Instead, as the end of his phone call indicates, Kihn is more interested in conspiracy theories such as the one he describes involving the CIA, L. Ron Hubbard, and “the Disney people” (112).
The appearance of another science-fiction figure here (Hubbard) provides a clue to the relationship between Kihn and “Bill.” Significantly, Hubbard is not only a “Golden Age” sf writer known for his adventure-style plots and heroes (“the Hubbard hero is generally a superman with highly developed mental powers destined to save the world” [Gunn 229]) but author of the popular-psychology best-seller Dianetics and founder of scientology. For Kihn, sf writers are even more “mainstream” than he is, players in the events which he studies.3 Paradoxically, science fiction writers are both those most suited to warning the reading public and those about whom the public needs to be warned. Kihn's encounter with the alien in “Hippie Hat Brain Parasite” is the sort of stuff a science-fiction writer should write about, instead of Kihn himself. Not that aliens are entirely outside Kihn's domain: as he says in “The Gernsback Continuum,” “I could buy aliens, but not aliens that look Fifties' comic art” (29).
But if it is not the alien which disturbs Kihn, it must be the alien's mimicking of the effects of sixties drug use. “Bill” writes about stuff like this, perhaps not because he is an sf writer concerned with aliens, but because he is concerned with the effects of the sixties. Like “The Gernsback Continuum,” “Hippie Hat Brain Parasite” does not function as a mere condemnation or repudiation of the sixties (the apparent moral, “when we put on our hippie `hats' we turn into mind-controlled puppets,” is too simplistic), but rather an acknowledgement of a continued presence. It is also a warning—not a warning against drug use, but against the temptation to give in to the power of alternate (outer or inner) spaces. If “Bill,” the story's narrator, really is a figuration of the author, it is a warning Bill Gibson will heed: in his own way, Gibson will be writing about the sixties, about drugs, and alternate spaces.
The results of this trend, however, are seen less within the story itself than in Gibson's descriptions of cyberspace. In the very term “consensual hallucination” which Gibson applies to cyberspace, he invokes what is perhaps the most widely-recognized feature of drug use in the sixties: the use of hallucinatory drugs such as LSD. But as I demonstrate in the following section, his descriptions of cyberspace likewise rely upon the iconography of acid trips, just as they rely upon the “Streamlined Moderne” architecture and design which figures so prominently in “The Gernsback Continuum.” By examining the nature of this reliance, I argue that, like “Hippie Hat” and “Gernsback,” Neuromancer's cyberspace is best interpreted as a warning about the persistence of these problematic influences.
2. The Roots of Cyberspace. Early cyberpunk sf was often disparagingly described as otherwise unremarkable science fiction with “sex, drugs, and rock and roll,” and the debt which much cyberpunk fiction owes to the nineteen-sixties can hardly be overestimated. In particular, a number of cyberpunk authors invoke sixties rock and roll within their novels and stories.4 Rock and roll musicians are central characters in John Shirley's Eclipse, Pat Cadigan's Synners, Norman Spinrad's Little Heroes, and Lewis Shiner's Deserted Cities of the Heart. Most are specifically described as either throwbacks to the sixties or survivors of them: to take just one example, Eddie, who becomes the Mayan god Kukulcan in Shiner's Deserted Cities, had once actually jammed with Jimi Hendrix and relives part of the experience in one of the novel's drug-induced flashbacks. While Gibson has acknowledged the influence rock music has had upon him (McCaffery 265): his fiction does not focus on the rock music aspect of the sixties (rock and roll is neither prominent in his “Sprawl” stories, the “cyberspace” novels, nor mentioned in “Hippie Hat”), although he does make use of the legacy of sixties drug culture.5
Gibson's debt to the sixties drug culture can be seen most clearly not in the many references to his characters' use of drugs but in his depiction of cyberspace, the much-discussed “consensual hallucination” experienced by computer users in Gibson's future world. In its details, cyberspace is described in terms plainly reminiscent of descriptions of acid trips.6 The voice-over narration of a simstim “kid's show” gives readers of Neuromancer the first real description of cyberspace:
`A graphic representation of data abstracted from the banks of every computer in the human system. Unthinkable complexity. Lines of light ranged in the nonspace of the mind, clusters and constellations of data. Like city lights, receding. . . . (Neuromancer 51)
Barring the references to data and computers, this description could just as well be applied to the famous “acid trip” sequence near the end of Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey; cyberspace is, in many ways, indistinguishable from the “inner space” supposedly made accessible by LSD. Conversely, Lewis Shiner's depiction of the effects of ingesting a hallucinogenic mushroom could serve as a description of Gibson's cyberspace:
He fell into graphite-colored darkness. A double spiral made of bits of red and green and yellow neon spin toward him. He had just enough sense of his body left to know that he wasn't moving, not physically. (Deserted Cities 94)7
Significantly, Shiner himself first published “Hippie Hat Brain Parasite” in his semiprofessional “zine,” Modern Stories. The very real influence of such hallucinogenically-derived inner spaces upon the representation of Gibsonian cyberspace has not been sufficiently noted: even Bukatman's detailed and enlightening discussion of space and “paraspace” in modern science fiction does little more than hint at the connection: “Hallucinogens provided an opportunity for the literary conception of radically different spatiotemporal orientations, an extension of the extant limits of the terrains of science fiction, and computers furnished a similar occasion (Gibson's `fluid neon origami trick')” (140). Indeed, Gibson's very visualization of cyberspace is in part based upon literary conceptions of hallucinogenic spaces; the relationship is not characterized merely by similarity, but by direct descent.
Understanding the influence of descriptions of LSD experiences upon Gibson's cyberspace helps clarify the reasons why Merv Kihn tells “Bill” that he “write[s] about that stuff like that” (112). Gibson is writing about hallucinogenic experience.8 Likewise, the brain parasite's claws, which hook into its victim's brains (“`I saw where the hat had had its claws in, kinda puppet trip'” 111) are disturbingly echoed in the numerous accounts of direct computer-brain interfaces in numerous cyberpunk works; consider for example, Case, who has his “dermatrodes strapped across his forehead” (Neuromancer 55) as he enters cyberspace.
But Gibson' depiction of cyberspace, besides being rooted in hallucinatory iconography, is also indebted to the visionary futurism of the 1930s which was at the heart of “The Gernsback Continuum.” Indeed, even the sixties themselves show up briefly in this story when Kihn hints that the narrator may be particularly susceptible to such hallucinatory visions, suggesting that when this story was written, Gibson already wanted to indicate a connection between the two:
Look, I'm sure you've taken your share of drugs, right? How many people survived the Sixties in California without having the odd hallucination? All of those nights when you discovered that whole armies of Disney technicians had been employed to weave animated holograms of Egyptian hieroglyphs into the fabric of your jeans.” (28)
The narrator's “hallucinations” of futuristic architecture and imagery from the thirties, however, function much like Case's vision of cyberspace (recall Westfahl's description of the Gernsback Continuum as “a still-present alternate universe which continues to coexist next to reality” ). Notice, for example, that the “fluid neon origami trick” (Neuromancer 52) which Case experiences when he jacks into cyberspace is explicitly anticipated in “The Gernsback Continuum”: “I nearly wrecked the car on a stretch of overpass near Disneyland, when the road fanned out like an origami trick and left me swerving through a dozen minilanes of whizzing chrome teardrops with shark fins” (34). Likewise, the vision of Tucson seems especially relevant when considering the roots of cyberspace:
Spire stood on spire in gleaming ziggurat steps that climbed to a central golden temple tower ringed with the crazy radiator flanges of the Mongo gas stations.... Roads of crystal soared between the spires, crossed and recrossed by smooth silver shapes like beads of running mercury. (31)
Reminiscent of the Emerald City in the 1939 film The Wizard of Oz (itself first seen from across a field of hallucinogenic poppies), this city seems related to the “exotic crystalline thing” which Gibson had expected to find within his own computer. This description of the “dream Tucson” also seems related to the abstract and colorful geometric forms found in cyberspace:
Inner eye opening to the stepped scarlet pyramid of the Eastern Seaboard Fission Authority burning beyond the green cubes of Mitsubishi Bank of America, and high and very far away he saw the spiral arms of military systems, forever beyond his reach. (Neuromancer 52)
Finally, when the Chinese virus program in Neuromancer finally breaks into the Tessier-Ashpool cores, Case sees “an endless neon cityscape” (256). “The Kuang program dived past the gleaming spires of a dozen identical towers of data, each one a blue neon replica of the Manhattan skyscraper” (256-57). The skyscraper in question is New York's RCA building—like the Empire State Building, a product of the “`futuristic' Thirties and Forties architecture you pass daily in American cities without noticing” (“Gernsback” 24).
And if the visual similarities failed to make the connection clearly enough, Gibson uses other details to paint Case as an inhabitant of a landscape like that of “The Gernsback Continuum's” dream Tucson. Like the blond-haired couple in “Gernsback,” Case forgets to eat when he is in cyberspace (“This was what he was, who he was, his being. He forgot to eat” ), and the Kuang he rides is likened to the shark-finned roadster of the Tucson couple: when the virus is released, Case sees, momentarily, “the ventral surface of the black chrome shark” (256). But any ideas we might have that cyberspace provides the kind of utopian environment promised by the dream Tucson should be tempered by Case's own vision of himself through Molly's broadcasting simstim rig: “A white-faced, wasted figure, afloat in a loose fetal crouch.... The man's cheeks were hollowed with a day's growth of dark beard, his face slick with sweat” (256).
3. Conclusions. Terminal Identity, Scott Bukatman's recent book on post-modern science fiction, asserts the importance of the utopian aspects of Gibsonian cyberspace: “While cyberspace frequently recapitulates the complexities of the postmodern `urban nonplace,' it frequently permits the subject a utopian and kinetic liberation from the very limits of urban existence” (146). Earlier in the same section, Bukatman also acknowledges that cyberpunk literature in general has been the heir to two separate sf traditions: the John W. Campbell-style hard science fiction of the 1940s and the experimental New Wave science fiction of the 1960s (138). Gibson's reliance upon the iconography of hallucinatory experience and the visions of thirties futurists indicates the importance of these influences in his own work. Cobbling these disparate influences together into the construct of cyberspace might be interpreted as a brash act of postmodern bricolage, but interpreters of Gibson's conception of and visualization of cyberspace need to acknowledge both of these very real influences on the structure of cyberspace, idealistic dreams which Gibson himself has treated with, at best, equivocal praise.
Gibson's re-use of what his fictional “pop-art historian” (“Gernsback” 24) Dialta Downes had styled “American Streamlined Moderne” in his visualization of the data-structures of cyberspace has the effect of locating “The Airstream Futuropolis: The Tomorrow That Never Was” in cyberspace itself. From its very foundations, cyberspace is a dream, with its own “dream logic that [knows] nothing of pollution, the finite bounds of fossil fuel, or foreign wars it was possible to lose” (“Gernsback” 32). Entering cyberspace is a willful act of accepting this dream-logic (recall Case's disinterest in “meat,” “a certain relaxed contempt for the flesh” ). However, rather than “permit[ting] the subject a utopian and kinetic liberation from the very limits of urban existence,” as Bukatman argues (146), accepting this dream-logic implicates one in the sinister totalitarianism of the Gernsback Continuum and its inhabitants.
Gibson's cyberspace is a surrogate present, a hallucinatory and addictive place where the Airstream Future comes true. The iconographies of hallucinatory experience and Gernsbackian futurism combine to designate cyberspace as a place where both such “Dreams” come true, and by extension, those who inhabit cyberspace are doubtless to be likened to the eerie “Heirs to the Dream” of “The Gernsback Continuum” or the “zombied-out” puppets of “Hippie Hat Brain Parasite.” Case, after all, is addicted to cyberspace. Cyberspace is the Gibson Continuum, and the ironizing presentation of sixties culture and thirties futurism in “The Gernsback Continuum” and “Hippie Hat Brain Parasite” function less to “[draw] a bead on the shambling figure of the SF tradition” (Burning Chrome x) than to serve as ironic comments prefiguring the hallucinatory fantasy-land of cyberspace itself. The narrator of “The Gernsback Continuum” remarks “even worse, it could be perfect” (35), and that horrible perfection is brought into existence in Gibson's vision of cyberspace.
Indeed, it seems likely that the “Gernsback” narrator's decision to immerse himself in the “human near-dystopia” (35) of his present implies that the Gernsback Continuum itself is in some ways responsible for the nature of that dystopia—just as Case's preference for cyberspace over his “meat” existence is simultaneously an acceptance of the hallucinatory Gernsback Continuum and a denial of his dystopic world. These departed dreams of the future are part of what has shaped our (and Case's) present. The Gernsback and “Hippie Hat” Continua are embodied in the construct of cyberspace, and so cyberspace is thus the machine which lurks at the heart of Neuromancer, a machine with its hidden roots in the thirties and the sixties. Images from these decades become the semiotic ghosts in the machine of cyberspace, literalized in the consensual hallucination of cyberspace and hence lurking on the edges of consensual reality. And just as Gibson's treatment of such imagery in “The Gernsback Continuum” and “Hippie Hat Brain Parasite” is monitory, rather than liberatory, so too does Neuromancer function as a monitory work. And cyberspace, the literal evocation of hallucinatory and futuristic dreams, is what we are warned against—when Case most fully enters the matrix, he “flatlines” going brain-dead.
Cyberspace functions as the embodiment of the past's utopian dreams; entering cyberspace, then, is entering a dream of the past. The world which lies behind Neuromancer most threateningly is not our own world of “the petroleum crisis and the nuclear energy hazard” (“Gernsback” 35) but the nostalgic world of the “dream logic” which knows nothing of reality. Neuromancer, then, is not about utopian liberation; like “The Gernsback Continuum” and “Hippie Hat Brain Parasite,” it is about the continuing dangers that nostalgia for former dreams of utopian liberation pose—the danger of convincing us to mistake escape for liberation and the danger of mistaking wishful thinking for reality.
NOTES. A shorter version of this paper was presented at the 23rd Annual Twentieth-Century Literature Conference in Louisville, KY, on February 25, 1995. I would like to thank the numerous colleagues who read drafts of this paper, not excepting the anonymous reviewer from SFS, whose comments greatly helped me sharpen my argument.
1. See, for example, Rob Latham's comments in his review of the Fiction 2000 collection which contains Westfahl's essay: “Westfahl's essay in particular goes much too far in arguing for Neuromancer as a virtually unmediated descendant of Gernsback's Ralph 124C 41+“ (269).
2. Drug references in this story do not get any more explicit than this. However, the implication seems clear, not only here, but in Kihn's final warning to the narrator to “stay out of those headshops” (112).
3. The appearance of Disney here and Disneyland in “The Gernsback Continuum” (as the site of one of the narrator's visions) not only presents another point of contact between the stories, but puts Disney (as a creator of fantasy worlds) on a par with Hubbard and other sf authors and forward-looking visionaries, implicated in the creation of “The Dream.” Consider, for example, Disneyland's well-known “Home of the Future” attraction.
4. Norman Spinrad discusses some of the connections between rock and roll, the nineteen sixties, and cyberpunk fiction in his essay, “The Neuromantic Cyberpunks.” Bruce Sterling's preface to the Mirrorshades collection also notes the influence of rock music upon the cyberpunk movement.
5. Maelcum's “dub” music, which is so crucial near the end of Neuromancer, is clearly a separate kind of music from the rock of the nineteen sixties. Likewise, the drugs used by Case and others are generally not hallucinogens. Gibson's avoidance in Neuromancer's “real” world of these features so commonly employed by other “cyberpunk” writers makes his use of hallucinatory iconography in the construct of cyberspace (which I describe below) all the more striking.
6. I owe this observation to my colleague, James S. Brown. Bruce Sterling's comment, “It is not for nothing that Timothy Leary proclaimed personal computers `the LSD of the 1980s'” (Mirrorshades xiii) is likewise significant in this context. The same sentiment is echoed approvingly by Bukatman, quoting Rudy Rucker, who in turn is quoting a “hacker comrade” (139). This equation has apparently nearly reached the status of a proverb.
7. The spirals in this description likewise seem to be closely related to the “spiral arms of military systems” (Neuromancer 52) which lie in the background of Gibson's cyberspace.
8. Of course, I am not implying that Gibson is writing from first-hand experience, any more than his writing about thirties futurism necessarily suggests that he lived through the nineteen thirties.
Bukatman, Scott. Terminal Identity. Durham, NC: Duke UP, 1993.
Cadigan, Pat. Synners. NY: Bantam, 1991.
Gibson, William. “The Gernsback Continuum.” Burning Chrome. NY: Ace, 1987. 23-35.
─────. “Hippie Hat Brain Parasite.” Semiotext(e) 14:109-13, 1990.
─────. Neuromancer. NY: Ace, 1984.
───── and Bruce Sterling. The Difference Engine. NY: Bantam, 1991
Gunn, James, ed. The New Encyclopedia of Science Fiction. NY: Viking, 1988.
Hollinger, Veronica. “Cybernetic Deconstructions: Cyberpunk and Postmodernism.” Storming the Reality Studio. Ed. Larry McCaffery. Durham, NC: Duke UP, 1991. 203-18.
Kubrick, Stanley. 2001: A Space Odyssey. 1968.
Latham, Rob. “Cyberpunk = Gibson = Neuromancer: The Slusser-Shippey Anthology Fiction 2000.” SFS 20:266-72, #60, July 1993.
LeRoy, Mervyn. The Wizard of Oz. 1939.
Le Guin, Ursula K., and Brian Attebery. The Norton Book of Science Fiction. NY: W.W. Norton, 1993.
McCaffery, Larry. “An Interview with William Gibson.” Storming the Reality Studio. Ed. Larry McCaffery. Durham, NC: Duke UP, 1991. 263-85.
McGuirk, Carol. “The `New' Romancers: Science Fiction Innovators from Gernsback to Gibson.” Fiction 2000. Ed. George Slusser and Tom Shippey. Athens, GA: U of Georgia P, 1992. 109-29.
McHale, Brian. Constructing Postmodernism. NY: Routledge, 1993.
Shiner, Lewis. Deserted Cities of the Heart. NY: Bantam 1989.
Shirley, John. Eclipse. NY: Bluejay Books, 1985.
Spinrad, Norman. Little Heroes. NY: Bantam, 1987.
─────. “The Neuromantic Cyberpunks.” Science Fiction in the Real World. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1990. 109-21.
Sterling, Bruce. “Preface.” Burning Chrome. NY: Ace, 1987. ix-xii.
─────. “Preface.” Mirrorshades: The Cyberpunk Anthology. NY: Ace, 1988. ix-xvi.
Westfahl, Gary. “`The Gernsback Continuum': William Gibson in the Context of Science Fiction.” Fiction 2000. Eds. George Slusser and Tom Shippey. Athens, GA: U of Georgia P, 1992. 88-108.