Gibson’s Merging Realities
William Gibson’s 1981 short story “The Gernsback Continuum” pays homage to sf while bringing it into a new age.
While “José Chung’s ‘From Outer Space’” calls into question the validity of extraterrestrial abduction, sightings, and existence, it nevertheless confirms the reality of its visual iconography in the popular imagination of our age. There remains a perpetual debate about the literal existence of supernatural entities and aliens, but when turning to William Gibson’s “The Gernsback Continuum,” the manifestation of alternate, possible realities becomes a bit more uncertain and indeterminate, if that’s possible.
While many critics suggest that “Gernsback” metafictively comments on the need for change in sf, from the utopian visions of the golden age of science fiction to a more socially critical and culturally conscious expression, others suggest that it and the collective dreams that it embodies plays a continued role in what Bruce Sterling in his preface to Mirrorshades calls a modern reform of science fiction. Thomas A. Bredehoft (quoting Gibson quoting the Velvet Underground) uses the phrase “worlds behind us” to make evident the cultural and intellectual history that manifests “as the hidden underpinnings of our most modern-looking, modern-seeming machines.” Gibson himself has reminded us several times that the computer itself is only a Gestalt of Victorian mechanisms packaged into a plastic box—a box that despite the stylish designs of Apple Computer’s candy colors and cubes retains its mechanical link to the past with spinning mechanisms and hard wiring.
The hard wiring of “Gernsback” might be explained away by semiotic ghosts, but, in a truly science-fictional theory, they might represent breeches by quantum realities that continued to exist and evolve even though they were passed up in the waning days of Gernsback by a narrowing view of reality and possibility. Certain paths were chosen—Hitler’s rise to power precipitated the post-holocaust cold war—so the images and desires of “I.G.Y.” remain only romanticized fictions, or do they?
Ray Kurzweil explains the theories behind quantum computing to the layperson in his The Age of Spiritual Machines. Based on the idea that phenomena need conscious beings to perceive and order them, quantum computing begins through paradox until the “answer” is determined through a decision, causing the ambiguity to resolve, or disambiguation. Like digital computing, quantum computing is based on bits: a one for on and a zero for off. In digital computing, these bits are either on or off (one or zero) and sequences of these bits form larger structures of information: text, graphics, word processors, etc. Instead of bits, the quantum computer would use qu-bits, or bits that are both one and zero at the same time, until the “process of disambiguation causes that particle to ‘decide’ where it is, where it has been, and what properties it has.” Like a beam of light hitting a pain of glass, each photon that makes up the beam either goes straight through the glass or bounces off of it, reflecting away. Each photon actually takes both paths until something observes the phenomenon and forces each particle to decide which path to take. While the outcome of research in quantum computing would be to dispel ambiguity and arrive at the correct answer to a particular problem, the theories behind quantum mechanics and the application are products of an Einsteinian view of physics that posits multiplicity and relativity as the norm—states of fluctuation that do not necessarily concur with human perceptions of actuality.
Since we live in time of flux and post-Einsteinian physics, Murray proposes that we have become more comfortable with uncertainty and ambiguity. However, while this opinion might hold credence in how we experience fiction, I suggest that we still want our everyday lives ordered, certain, and predictable. Gibson’s “The Gernsback Continuum” explores the implications of fiction entering the everyday, much like “José Chung.” “Gernsback” begins in medias res with the unnamed narrator trying to regain a more normal perception of reality by narrowing his vision “to a single wavelength of probability.” With mention of a “flying-wing liner” and “mad-doctor chrome,” the narrator flings us abruptly into his continuum, catching us off guard and forcing us to penetrate his reality: what happened to this zude?
The protagonist’s predicament begins when Dialta Downes, a British dilettante of American popular culture, hires him to photograph images for her newest book: The American Futuropolis: The Tomorrow That Never Was. The narrator comments on the British “obsession with the more baroque elements of American pop culture,” what Downes calls the “American Streamlined Moderne,” that are remnants of thirty’s and forty’s architecture “that most Americans were scarcely aware of.” He slowly realizes, showing that he is an example of “most Americans,” what she is talking about:
The movie marquees ribbed to radiate some mysterious energy, the dime stores faced with fluted aluminum, the chrome-tube chairs gathering dust in the lobbies of transient hotels. She saw these things as segments of a dream world, abandoned in the uncaring present; she wanted me to photograph them for her.
This “American Streamlined Moderne” is derived from both the realized expressions of this vision of the future in the architecture that can still be glimpsed everywhere from the Chrysler Building in New York City to the façades of McDonald’s in small, rural towns of Georgia. Yet coupled with those fading landmarks are also scenes from the “covers of old Amazing Stories pulps” that featured impractical glimpses of flying luxury machines:
I hesitated over one sketch of a particularly grandiose prop-driven airliner, all wing, like a fat symmetrical boomerang with windows in unlikely places. Labeled arrows indicated the locations of the grand ballroom and two squash courts. It was dated 1936.
“This thing couldn’t have flown . . .?” I looked at Dialta Downes.
“Oh, no, quite impossible, even with those twelve giant props; but they loved the look, don’t you see? New York to London in less than two days, first-class dining rooms, private cabins, dancing to jazz in the evenings. . . . The designers were populists, you see; they were trying to give the public what it wanted. What the public wanted was the future.”
Downes’ obsession pulls the narrator into her vision of an American dream world. This obsession, which slowly becomes that of the narrator as he attempts to “photograph what isn’t there” by thinking himself “into Dialta Downes’ America,” I would argue, is the point of trauma that introduces violence into the narrative and causes the intersection of quantum realities: the narrator’s and the one in which that giant wing liner can fly.
As the narrator becomes more involved in his assignment, some of his subjects begin to take on, at least in his perception, aspects of totalitarian and fascistic designs that were mixed in with kitschy car lots and motels. Images of Hitler and totalitarianism mixed with fictional representations of utopian/dystopian “martial architecture” begin to dominate the narrator’s thoughts as he photographs Downes’ America: “During the high point of the Downes Age, they put Ming the Merciless in charge of designing California gas stations.”
He begins to pose what-ifs, comparing his world with that of “the inhabitants of that lost future world,” which might be his point of trauma. Murray posits that often anxiety and trauma result from the continuous posing of what-if questions to oneself that allow doubt and uncertainty enter into one’s own choices and experiences that precipitated one’s current reality. The narrator’s “frame of mind” begins to focus increasingly on this “architecture of broken dreams” until he “penetrated a fine membrane, a membrane of probability” that ostensibly allows this world of half-fictions and fragments to break through and manifest itself in the narrator’s reality as a “twelve-engined thing like a bloated boomerang, all wing, thrumming its way east with an elephantine grace, so low that I could count the rivets in its dull silver skin, and hear—maybe—the echo of jazz.”
Shaken by his sighting, the narrator consults his friend Mervin Kihn, a free-lance Fox Mulder type who is in touch with the “loonier reaches of the American mind.” Kihn blames the sighting on what he calls a “semiotic ghost”; these are like a feedback loop that uses the mind to manifest into actuality the reality of popular culture, like The X-Files:
All these contactee stories, for instance, are framed in a kind of sci-fi imagery that permeates our culture. . . . They’re semiotic phantoms, bits of deep cultural imagery that have split off and taken on a life of their own . . . The plane was part of a mass unconsciousness, once. You picked up on that, somehow. The important thing is not to worry about it.
Seemingly, Downes’ obsession coupled with the narrator’s desire to photograph “what isn’t there” caused latter’s own traumatic sighting. The possibility exists, too, that the sighting was nothing but an odd hallucination caused by the narrator’s use of drugs in the sixties. Yet, Kihn easily dismisses the narrator’s trauma by suggesting that he is “obviously impressionable” and relates the case of a girl’s encounter in Virginia that sounds very similar to the case in “José Chung”:
“‘It was cold . . . and metallic.’ It made electronic noises. Now that is the real thing, the straight goods from the mass unconscious, friend; that little girl is a witch. There’s just no place for her to function in this society. She’d have seen the devil, if she hadn’t been brought up on The Bionic Man and all those Star Trek reruns. She is clued into the main vein. And she knows it happed to her. I got out ten minutes before the heavy UFO boys showed up with the polygraph.”
The narrator leaves Kihn unsatisfied, takes “a crumbling diet pill that had been kicking around in the bottom of [his] shaving kit for three years,” and begins his drive through the desert back to Los Angeles.
His trip through the desert is colored by his recent sighting coupled with the old diet pill, but he is able to limit his “vision to the tunnel of the Toyota’s headlights,” so he is fine until he stops for a rest on the side of the road “safe amid the friendly roadside garbage of [his] own familiar continuum,” or so he thinks. When a light shining from behind him wakes the narrator, he sees “an idealized city that drew on Metropolis and Things to Come . . . soaring up through an architect’s perfect clouds to zeppelin docks and mad neon spires.” He is quick to dismiss this vision as “amphetamine psychosis,” drawing on one of Kihn’s explanations and his recent ingestion of an old diet pill, but the manifestation of this city and its two citizens on the road beside him begin to convince him otherwise:
They were blond. . . . He had his arm around her waist and was gesturing toward the city. They were both in white: loose clothing, bare legs, spotless white sun shoes. Neither of them seemed aware of the beams of my headlights. He was saying something wise and strong and she was nodding, and suddenly I was frightened, frightened in an entirely different way. Sanity ceased to be an issue; I knew, somehow, that the city behind me was Tucson—a dream Tucson thrown out of the collective yearning of an era. That it was real, entirely real.
The word “real” remains problematic, suggesting that indeed this scene is real, having been imagined in the books on Thirties design that the narrator kept in his trunk; and the images contained in these books also are part of, as Kihn suggests, the mass unconsciousness, and so represent semiotic phantoms that the narrator is so sensitive to because of his assignment to photograph Downes’ streamlined moderne. Downes’ obsession with this lost aspect of American culture has, to some extent, been passed to the narrator like a virus and therefore has influenced his perceptions of his reality, as if he were feverish, suffering from a particularly virulent strain of the flu. Sickness makes one aware of the reality of one’s situation—of the physical dis-ease that has invaded the body at the same time it distorts perception. Here, perhaps, the virus, rather than biological, is informational, attacking cognitive abilities and perhaps growing and mutating within the host.
Virus, here, is not necessarily pejorative, though the narrator seems to think so. Perhaps, the informational virus has made the narrator not only aware of the multiplicity of his reality—his material and experiential history that has molded his mind just so—but has somehow allowed him to penetrate the folds of quantum realities in order to glimpse a path that was taken by his culture in another fork in time, space, and perception. Like in Borges’ “Garden of the Forking Paths” where the flow of time is not a single path—it only appears to be based on how we experience it. Once a choice is made and a path is chosen, it is traveled with only the occasional musing about where other paths would have led.
In “Gernsback,” Gibson not only addresses the residue of a Gernsbackian future left over in a cultural consciousness, but suggests that time is not as linear and uniform as it appears to our perception; time may be very much like a web that intersects every possibility. The narrator becomes conscious of the “pullulating possibilities of life,” but his conception of time is linear and absolute, not fluid and multiform. He cannot process the splitting of his real world by that of Gernsbackian view of the future made real. “The Gernsback Continuum” represents a postmodern view of parallel possibilities that do not remain separate, but can merge through linked points of trauma, infection, or dis-ease, much like reading a hypertext. Our narrator, via diet pill, semiotic ghosts, or cultural overdose, has ended up in this quantum flux in the middle of the Arizona desert experiencing “all the sinister fruitiness of Hitler Youth propaganda.”
Not only does this alternate present seem totalitarian to the narrator based on the images that he has photographed so far, but suggests another layer to the metaphor. The narrator sees this Gernsbackian reality being forced upon him, perhaps trying to replace the current reality of his world, leaving him stranded in what he sees as a fictional world. Yet, if this alternate reality is indeed another parallel time, then its appearance points to the complete fictionality of the quantum path we call reality. Even while photographing these various aspects of American culture before going “over the Edge,” the narrator muses about “what the inhabitants of that lost future world would think about the world I lived in.” Indeed, while attempting to cure himself of his visions, the narrator espies, perhaps the ultimate icon of American totalitarianism: Disneyland.
Veronica Hollinger suggests that “Gernsback” “warns against the limitations, both humorous and dangerous, inherent in any vision of the future which bases itself upon narrowly defined ideological systems which take it upon themselves to speak ‘universally,’ or which conceive of themselves as ‘natural’ or ‘absolute’” Perhaps “Gernsback” is also a warning about our perception of time and reality. These ideas seem absolute and certain, but only insofar as we agree to them. Technological advances may one day show the possibility of time and space travel that crosses the, perhaps arbitrary and deceptive, borders made solid by our perception of them. The first step to realizing that technology, if it is indeed desirable, would be to imagine it, or else keep our vision narrowly focused on the small point in front of us.
The narrator’s cure, as we found out in the beginning of the story, is to narrow his perception into “a single wavelength of probability.” And slowly, through hours of watching television, movies like Nazi Love Motel, and other “really bad media,” he begins to exorcise his semiotic ghosts and block out the other possibilities through the mundanity of game shows, soap operas, and porno movies. Yet, some residue of the experience remains with him, for the flying wing makes one more appearance. Yet, we are able to assume that his actual writing of his experiences was able to purge most of his system of his quantum information virus, much like the narrator suggests in Julio Cortázar’s “Axolotl”: its writing becomes the obsession, purged to a piece of paper that can now be spread to the readers. So his writing becomes an anti-viral, which ironically passes the informational virus to the reader.
- Sterling, Bruce (1986). "Preface". Mirrorshades. New York: Ace. p. xv.
- Bredehoft, Thomas A. (July 1995). "The Gibson Continuum: Cyberspace and Gibson's Mervyn Kihn Stories". Science Fiction Studies. 22: 252. Retrieved 2019-12-31.
- Kurzweil, Ray (1999). The Age of Spiritual Machines: When Computers Exceed Human Intelligence. New York: Viking Penguin. p. 110.
- Murray, Janet H. (1997). Hamlet on the Holodeck. New York: Simon & Schuster. p. 136.
- Gibson, William (1986). "The Gernsback Continuum". In Sterling, Bruce. Mirrorshades. New York: Ace. p. 1.
- Gibson 1986, p. 3.
- Gibson 1986, pp. 3-4.
- Gibson 1986, p. 4.
- Gibson 1986, p. 5.
- Gibson 1986, p. 7.
- Gibson 1986, pp. 6–7.
- Gibson 1986, pp. 7, 8.
- Gibson 1986, p. 8.
- Gibson 1986, p. 9.
- Murray 1997, p. 35.
- Hollinger, Veronica (1991). "Cybernetic Deconstructions: Cyberpunk and Postmodernism". In McCaffery, Larry. Storming the Reality Studio. Durham: Duke UP. p. 39.
- Gibson 1986, p. 1.