Hinterlands (short story)
|Published in||Omni, Burning Chrome|
|Publication date||October 1981|
|Preceded by||"The Gernsback Continuum"|
|Followed by||"New Rose Hotel"|
"Hinterlands" is a science fiction short story written by William Gibson in 1981 and published in his short fiction collection Burning Chrome in 1986. The story is a fable about the 'cargo cult' mentality. "Hinterlands" explores the consequences for cultures and civilisations when confronted with artifacts - from an unknown but likely superior source - that are dangerous but nonetheless valuable. The word "Hinterland" comes from the German (literally "behind land") and means a remote or less developed area behind something more central or developed, for example the land behind a coast, a harbour or a city.
The history begins with Soviet cosmonaut Olga Tovyevsky, who disappears from radar while en route to Mars shortly after a routine scientific experiment. She returns into space-time two years later, and after being discovered her spacecraft is towed back to Earth orbit to be examined. Tovyevsky is in a catatonic state, and the spacecraft itself has been sabotaged in an attempt to make it impossible to find, and to hide any details of the missing two years. In her hands she has a seashell, the like of which is unknown in Earth's biosphere. Tovyevsky never regains her sanity.
The Russians send out another probe to the same coordinates in space. The solo astronaut disappears at precisely the same point, after performing the same experiment, and returns dead 234 days later. He has committed suicide before anyone can reach him. This continues, most often with the astronaut returning dead, and insane if still alive. Almost all have at least attempted suicide, and many more astronauts are lost in the same way. Attempts to send through unmanned spacecraft all fail, and some manned ones are simply never picked up for reasons unknown.
Presently, the Russians enlist other countries in their search for answers. The process continues and interest wanes as the smartest minds humanity has to offer are destroyed. Everything changes when a Frenchman returns dead, carrying an iron ring encoded with information that proves to be the "Rosetta Stone for cancer." From that point on the astonishing frequency of the events creates a cargo cult mentality, with line-ups of prospective astronauts ready to take the trip regardless of its inescapable fatal end. The coordinates are the same each time, and referred to as the Highway, Metro or River by various cultures.
A space station is established near the Highway, designed to be a paradise for returned astronauts, nicknamed Heaven. The station is an attempt to keep any still-living astronauts alive as long as possible, in order to find out any tidbits of information they might mention before they always eventually kill themselves. Halpert is one of the astronauts who had volunteered to go to the Highway, but, to his shame and disappointment, was rejected by whatever is out there. The same fate befell his girlfriend Charmian. Their role is to meet returning astronauts, soothe their transition to the station, and allow scientists to analyze their findings.
What information is returned shows that the technologies on the other side of the Highway are different, but not necessarily more advanced. None of what comes back could possibly explain how the Highway works, and it is assumed the same is true for the other races the astronauts apparently meet on the "other side". Halpert likens it to houseflies meeting in an international airport, happy to converse but utterly unaware of how they got there.
The story is being told as Halpert is being readied to meet a returning female astronaut who is still alive – a "meat shot". While racing to meet the spacecraft, Halpert suffers a massive agoraphobia, called The Fear, a Lovecraftian sensation of being overwhelmed by the Highway's significance. Forced by electric shocks to enter the capsule, he finds the astronaut recently dead and discovers that she has reprogrammed her robotic surgeon suite to assist her suicide. Diagrams for incredibly powerful molecular switches are scrawled on the walls.
"Hinterlands" makes extensive use of metaphors. For instance, the story's wormhole is referred to as The Highway. From this metaphor, Gibson creates several other metaphors. The Highway's travelers are referred to as 'hitchhikers,' 'flies,' and 'hicks.' These words have a figurative rather than a literal meaning. The story's title is also a metaphor, comparing the known space to a backwoods area that is far from civilization. The destination at the end of the wormhole is figuratively 'the big city.' 
Comic book adaptation
"Hinterlands" was adapted and illustrated as a comic in 1995 by Vancouver artist Gavin Lonergan. The William Gibson Aleph has called the comic an "interesting evocation of the fake paradise of the short story". The comic was twenty pages in length, anthologised in two sections which appeared in Freeflight #5 and #6, Dec/Jan 95 and Apr/May 95. The look of the comic is similar to Moebius and Gibson was directly involved in the adaptation process.
- "Hinterlands" at the William Gibson Aleph