The Gibson Continuum: Cyberspace and Gibson's Mervyn Kihn Stories

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Bredehoft, Thomas A. "The Gibson Continuum: Cyberspace and Gibson's Mervyn Kihn Stories." Science-Fiction Studies 22.2 (July 1995): 252-63.

Bredehoft allies with Gary Westfahl's assertion that William Gibson's Neuromancer relies on Gernsbackian paradigms while still being a futurist text. Cited in Hal Hall's "Approaching Neuromancer: More Secondary Sources." (Maly, 01/07/02)


Bredehoft opens with a headnote with a quotation from Gibson in a 1986 interview saying that he thought of using for an epigraph to Neuromancer "'Watch out for worlds behind you" from "Sunday Morning" by the Velvet Underground, and moves on to Gibson's noting in that interview his mild surprise at finding in his first computer a drive mechanism: "a little piece of a Victorian engine." TAB compares that comment to the line in "The Gernsback Continuum," on "the products of futuristic 1930s designers" who would design pencil sharpeners to look "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)" (in Bredehoft, p. 252). TAB asserts that the image of worlds behind us is important for Neuromancer since that work "seems, on the surface" — like the 1930s pencil sharpeners — "something new, with a new vision of the future; the old-fashioned mechanism it conceals is sometimes difficult to discover [...] Yet Gary Westfahl has suggested that Neuromancer, the prototypical cyberpunk novel, relies [... Bredehoft, p. 252] heavily upon Gernsbackian paradigms[...]," and TAB takes seriously Westfahl's "sugestion that Neuromancer conceals a Gernsbackian machine," which is no less than "Gibson's much-discussed concept of cyberspace" (pp. 252-534). Quoting Westfahl: "The Gernsback Continuum of the story is not a dying or a 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)."

From Bredehoft's Abstract: His essay

examines William Gibson's concept of cyberspace, [...] in [...] Neuromancer, in the context of his Mervyn Kihn stories, "The Gernsback Continuum" and "Hippie Hat Brain Parasite." These stories deal directly with present-day survivals of the nineteen sixties and the nineteen thirties; Gibson's use of hallucinatory iconography associated with the sixties and "visionary futurism" associated with the thirties in his visual descriptions of cyberspace hints at the relevance of these stories for [...] cyberspace. Ultimately, rather than presenting cyberspace as a liberatory, utopian space, as some postmodern theorists would have it, Gibson's treatment of hallucinatory and futuristic iconographies suggests that cyberspace functions as the embodiment of past "Dreams" of the future, dreams which, Gibson hints, are at least partially responsible for the "near dystopia" of the present.[1]

Note from the body of the essay in TAB's own voice:

The Gernsback Continuum is a true continuum [...], a still-present legacy of blindly visionary thirties futurism and thirties science fiction. It is something we might not always see [...] but something we can never wholly avoid of exorcise. Gibson is not simply repudiating or rejecting the technolartry of the Golden Age, but acknowledging the unavoidable and continuing presence of the Gernsback legacy, including its uncomfortably totalitarian resonances. (p. 256)
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 [...] 'consensual hallucination' experienced by computer users in Gibson's future world. In its details, cyberspace is described in terms plainly reminiscnet of descriptions of acid trips. [... On the V-O narration of the kid's-show description of cyberspace] Barring the references to data and computers, this description could just as well be applied to the [...] "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. (p. 258) 
[. . . In "Gernsback Continuum,] 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 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) (p. 259)

Bredehoft compares this vision with the Emerald City in THE WIZARD OF OZ (1939), what H. Bruce Franklin would see as an example of THE WONDER CITY OF THE FUTURE.

In his conclusion, BAT holds that in Neuromancer and (perhaps) Gibson generally

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 [...] 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 mistaing wishful thinking for reality. (p. 261)

RDE, 19May19