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What is “The Gernsback Continuum”?

A photographer is sent to take photos of old science fiction themed buildings for a coffee table book. He soon finds himself seeing visions of a 1980s that never was, dominated by the visions of future of the past.

Review

“The Gernsback Continuum” is William Gibson of 1981, looking back forty years to the the Golden Age of Science Fiction from the 1920s to the 1930s. While not quite as long from the Nineteen Eighties to the Twenty-Twenties, it’s pretty close and interesting to note that the same wistful nostalgia filter we have regarding cyberpunk as envisioned by Gibson and his contemporaries is the same that he was undoubtedly feeling when he wrote this story.

The premise is pretty simple, a photographer is sent to take photos of art deco architecture of a futuristic kind. Said photographer starts hallucinating an alternate 1980s with flying cars, massive highways, and people dressed like they’re from the planet Krypton. Anyone who has played Fallout has an idea of what this looks like as there’s the Red Rocket stations and Robbie the Robot-esque machines. His agent is surprisingly sympathetic to his losing his mind and says to basically “cool down” by watching a lot of porn and bad TV to shock his system back to normal.

The actual meaning of the story is debatable and has, indeed, been debated for decades. For most people, it’s a straight up ode to the classic science fiction world as envisioned by the early Pulp writers that never came to exist. There’s no Jetsons, Flash Gordon, or Buck Rogers-esque future. Life became far more mundane and there’s a wistful nostalgia for a world where UFOs and crystal spires might have replaced skyscrapers or planes.

I maintain that Gibson was far more critical in his short story of the world as it might have been and recognized the darker undercurrent that was lurking beneath the mind of many Pulp writers. People who were as often as not reactionary as progressive. For modern day fans, we can look back to Deep Space Nine’s “Far Beyond the Stars” to see how Pulp writers of the time period were really with all of the racism and sexism (arguably pretty toned down). Every HP Lovecraft fan certainly has to deal with the fact their author probably would have found some reason to hate them.

“The Gernsback Continuum” has a particularly haunting scene where the protagonist comes across a couple of Aryan superman looking folk staring at one of their cities. White, CIS, het, and vaguely fascist in a way the Pulps envisioned because they didn’t see anyone outside of those norms having a place in the future. It becomes interesting to contrast cyberpunk, so-called dystopian fiction, as very much having a place for queer or people of color among it. William Gibson’s writing alone for example.

Indeed, “The Gernsback Continuum” is a story that unwittingly sets itself up as the perfect metaphor for the current ongoing culture war between the Golden Age of Science Fiction and cyberpunk that it is a gateway story. The internet is absolutely filled with so-called speculative fiction fans that are furious at the inclusion of “woke” elements that represent the kind of reactionary future that cyberpunk challenged the assumptions of. To believe in a utopia in the 1930s was far easier for people who saw it as an extension of imperialist dreams and the status quo versus a dystopia that, ironically, promised an overthrow of the present order in the 1980s.

I’ve unironically had conversations with people who state that dystopian and post-apocalypse fiction was anti-progressive. The Disney movie Tomorrowland is based around the idea that refusing to believe things are getting better was somehow antithetical to it happening. That always brings me back to this short story and what I think the real message of cyberpunk is: recognizing the systemic flaws so that they can be corrected.

Writing my own cyberpunk, I think of it as a wistful nostalgia-filled dream of motorcycles, cybernetics, and katana. It is stuff from my childhood when I watched Ghost in the Shell, Akira, and Bubblegum Crisis. Sadly, the modern day is a place where we’ve got micro-computers, the internet, megacorps, computer criminals, and the massive wealth disparity but very few of the people rising up to cast down the man. I wonder what the next age looking back on us will be.

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