The Gernsback Continuum

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"The Gernsback Continuum"
AuthorWilliam Gibson
Genre(s)Science fiction, cyberpunk
Published inUniverse 11, Burning Chrome
Publication typeAnthology
Media typePrint (hardback and paperback)
Publication date1981
Preceded by"Johnny Mnemonic"
Followed by"Hinterlands"

"The Gernsback Continuum" is a 1981 science fiction short story by American-Canadian author William Gibson, originally published in the anthology Universe 11 edited by Terry Carr. It was later reprinted in Gibson's collection Burning Chrome, and in Mirrorshades, edited by Bruce Sterling. With some similarity to Gibson's later appraisal of Singapore for Wired magazine in Disneyland with the Death Penalty, as much essay as fiction,[1] it depicts the encounters of an American photographer with the period futuristic architecture of the American 1930s when he is assigned to document it for fictional London publishers Barris-Watford, and the gradual incursion of its cinematic future visions into his world. The "Gernsback" of the title alludes to Hugo Gernsback, the pioneer of early 20th century American pulp magazine science fiction.

Plot summary[edit]

Assigned to photograph 1930s period futuristic American architecture by London publishing figures Cohen and Dialta Downes, an American photographer begins to enter the worlds of his subject with increasing vividness. Characterised by Downes as 'American Streamlined Moderne', a "kind of alternate America...A 1980 that never happened, an architecture of broken dreams", or what Cohen calls 'Raygun Gothic', his encounters with a world of California gas stations, fifth run movie houses likened to "the temples of some lost sect", a utopian 'continuum' of flying wings and air cars, multi-lane highways, giant zeppelins and Aryan, distinctly American inhabitants, lead him to hallucination as the scenes of the period spill into reality. His US agent Kihn attributes this to what he calls 'semiotic ghosts', the remnants of mass culture in the collective unconscious, and advises immersion in a pulp diet of pornography and TV. In references to the architecture of Nazi Germany, the Hitler Youth and period sci-fi like Flash Gordon, Fritz Lang and H. G. Wells, the modernist vistas of the 'golden age' are contextualized in period political visions as the protagonist clings to a familiar and preferred postmodern present. Having completed the job, Barris-Watford's hired photographer retreats to San Francisco and books a plane to New York, still trying to rid himself of the nightmare vision in the current disasters of global news. An attendant tells him that the world scene “could be worse.” The photographer replies, “Or even worse, it could be perfect.”

Critical reception[edit]

In a review of Burning Chrome for Tangent magazine, Nader Elhefnawy observes Gibson's disposal of the idealised futures of the 1930s, comparing his critique to that of Moorcock and Pynchon:

Continuum is very much about a central tenet of cyberpunk, that this world is one where "the capital F future isn't going to arise," as Gibson later put it... because, here, at least, that vision of the future is insanity. Gibson's treatment of this theme is softer than, for instance, Michael Moorcock's or Thomas Pynchon's, but then his story is firmly set in the southwestern United States in the disenchantment following the oil embargo and Vietnam, rather than Nazi Germany... Twenty-six years later, we still live in a world where a great many pretend to know "nothing of pollution, the finite bounds of fossil fuel" or defeat in foreign wars - which may be another reason to think Michael Moorcock has a point when he says this kind of critique is becoming more rather than less relevant.[1]

Bruce Sterling declared:

'The Gernsback Continuum' shows [Gibson] consciously drawing a bead on the shambling figure of the SF tradition. It's a devastating refutation of 'scientifiction' in its guise as narrow technolatry.[2]

Thomas Bredehoft, writing on Gibson's treatment of cyberpunk, cyberspace and the recurrence of agent Kihn in the author's fiction, suggests that the media and dystopian realities in which Kihn urges Gibson's character escape the idealism of his visions are symptomatic and in part caused by the worlds he photographs.

The media are as deeply infused with the "Gernsback Continuum" as the narrator's visions are, because the products of thirties futurism are still with us. In fact, the very pieces of real-life architecture on which the narrator focuses his camera are described in much the same terms as Kihn's "semiotic ghosts".[2]

He draws parallels between Gibson's descriptions of 1930s futuristic design, the author's encounters with computer technology, and the cosmeticism of a vision of technology infused throughout Gibson's work and particularly in Neuromancer. Comparing the language of drug narratives, Gernsback's worlds of the future and cyberspace, he suggests a cyberpunk born of the dual influences of the golden age of the 1930s and 40s and the New Wave, arguing that the futurist utopianism derided in the likes of Gernsback is in fact one feature of a 'Gibsonian' cyberspace itself.

Cobbling these disparate influences together into the construct of cyberspace might be interpreted as a brash act of postmodern bricolage, but interpreters of Gibson's conception of and visualization of cyberspace need to acknowledge both of these very real influences on the structure of cyberspace, idealistic dreams which Gibson himself has treated with, at best, equivocal praise... Cyberspace functions as the embodiment of the past's utopian dreams; entering cyberspace, then, is entering a dream of the past.[2]

Peio Aguirre has compared The Gernsback Continuum to the concept of hauntology by Jacques Derrida[3]


"The Gernsback Continuum" was adapted during 1993 as Tomorrow Calling, a short TV film by Tim Leandro for Film4 Productions.[4] Originally shown on Channel 4, the film was also presented at the British Film Festival, 4–10 October 1996.

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