‘The Gernsback Continuum’ by William Gibson
But this story led the way. It was a cooly accurate perception of the wrongheaded elements of the past – and a clarion call for a new SF estethtic of the Eighties.
That from the Sterling’s brief introduction to ‘The Gernsback Continuum’ which also notes that it is Gibson’s first professional publication. This is surprising not just for its immediate quality and Gibson’s already distinctive sensibility but because it much more closely resembles his current work, rather than what I think of when I think of his early cyberpunk period. It is set in the present (which is to say the Eighties), can be read as entirely mimetic and features none of the trappings we would usually associate with cyberpunk. Gibson may have become stylistically more oblique but the protagonist of this story wouldn’t seem out of place in Pattern Recognition:
I’d gone over to shoot a series of shoe ads; California girls with tanned legs and frisky Day-Glo jogging shoes had capered for me down the escalators of St. John’s Wood and across the platforms of Tooting Bec.
The photographer is commissioned to gather images for a coffee table book of “American Streamlined Moderne”, real world examples of the sort of architecture Paul R Frank drew for Hugo Gernsback. Gradually this never was world of fluted chrome and aluminium starts to impinge on his reality.
In terms of linking the story to anything Sterling identifies in his preface, that internationality is there from the beginning but otherwise it is hard to spot the nascent germ of cyberpunk. Rather this seems like an instinctively Ballardian story, albeit seen through the lens of a fresh generation. It is all there: architecture, 20th Century American history, invisible literature, commodity fetishism, alienation. As I said though, Gibson’s own sensibility shines through. To start with, he is a rather more open writer (although this has changed as his career has progress); a Ballard protagonist would never come out and refer to “my little bundle of condensed catastrophe”. There is more to it than that though. A line like “really bad media can exorcise your semiotic ghosts” makes you sit up and take notice. It is distinctly Ballardian but already distinctly Gibsonian. Really quite wonderful.