In William Gibson’s The Gernsback Continuum (Gibson, 1981) an unnamed photographer is sent on an assignment to photograph old futuristic buildings, a style of architecture popular in Thirties and Forties America, described by another of the characters as ‘American Streamlined Moderne’.
The protagonist sees these buildings as exemplars of an alternate reality “as a kind of alternate America: a 1980 that never happened. An architecture of broken dreams” (Gibson, 1981). As he delves into his assignment, studying, watching and photographing his subjects, he unexpectedly begins to hallucinate visions of this alternate reality:
Every so gently, I went over the Edge And looked up to see 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. (Gibson, 1981)
He describes this experience as “penetrating the membrane of probability” (Gibson, 1981).
Panicking about his apparent loss of sanity he takes his story to a friend, Merv Kihn, who is described as:
[a] free-lance journalist with an extensive line in Texas pterodactyls, redneck UFO contactees, bush-league Loch Ness monsters, and the Top Ten conspiracy theories in the loonier reaches of the American mass mind. (Gibson, 1981)
Kihn tells the photographer not to worry, that these visions are perfectly normal, examples of “semiotic ghosts” (Gibson, 1981), artifacts which are “fragments of the mass dream” (Gibson, 1981). He advises the photographer to subsume himself in popularist “low art” (Gibson, 1981), telling the photographer to “watch lots of television, particularly game shows and soaps. Go to porn movies. Ever see Nazi Love Motel? They’ve got it on cable, here. Really awful. Just what you need.” (Gibson, 1981)
Kihn explains that immersion in a gritty, grimy reality will help to exorcise these semiotic ghosts, repressing visions of the world as it could have been, instead grounding the photographer firmly in the world as it is. The photographer attempts to take this advice and the story closes with him managing to partially push back his hallucinations; yet he remains on the edge, on the cusp of another world.
The Gernsback Continuum poses interesting questions about why we yearn for a utopian future, but never seem to get there. Much of the story is concerned with the imperfections of humanity, how messy and flawed the real world appears when compared to an alternate world that never came to be.
But are these imperfections what make us human? In his hallucination of the ‘perfect’ futurist couple, the photographer hears the woman remind the man that they haven’t taken their food pills yet that day. Good food is one of the most fundamental joys in life, universal to everyone and yet in this apparently perfect alternate reality it’s been removed, only to be replaced by bland and insipid pills. It might be cleaner, simpler and more efficient, but is that really what makes people happy (and what makes them human)?
Describing the scene of this imaginary couple, the photographer says “it had all the sinister fruitiness of Hitler Youth propaganda” (Gibson, 1981). There is something unsettling about this perfection, something too close to the uncanny valley. The Gernsback Continuum feels like an call to accept the imperfection inherent in humanity, to embrace our flaws and stop trying to chase a ‘perfection’ which is not perfect at all. Gibson explicitly references this in the final paragraph of his story:
Hell of a world we live in, huh?” The proprietor was a thin black man with bad teeth and an obvious wig. I nodded, fishing in my jeans for change, anxious to find a park bench where I could submerge myself in hard evidence of the human near-dystopia we live in. “But it could be worse, huh?”
“That’s right,” I said, “or even worse, it could be perfect.” (Gibson, 1981)
The Gernsback Continuum links to theories around pattern recognition in the exchange between the photographer and Merv Kihn. Kihn’s theory that we’re all predisposed to see these kinds of “semiotic phantoms” (Gibson, 1981), and that this is at the root of UFO sightings, alien abductions and conspiracy theories, links back to Michael Shermer’s concept of agenticity and the idea that human pattern recognition exists on a continuum that encompasses both genius and madness.
Another second link between Gibson’s short story and everything else that I’ve written about so far is the importance of room for a personal interpretation. The photographer is drawn to the future, yet afraid of it. The comment that he makes about Hilter Youth propaganda hints at a utopian society that has achieved harmony by removing disharmonious elements rather than incorporating them. It seems to be a homogeneous culture, which has only one way of thinking; there is no freedom to interpret anything differently from this sanctioned ‘truth’.
The openness to interpretation of film, especially analogue film, gives us the freedom to see our own patterns in it. Is it the restriction of this freedom, the oppression of both genius and madness, which the photographer fears?
Gibson, W (1981) The Gernsback Continuum, Available from: http://writing2.richmond.edu/jessid/eng216/gernsback.pdf [Accessed on 10 December 2015]