There’s this William Gibson short story, from way back at the beginning of his career, called “The Gernsback Continuum”. You could argue it’s a neat encapsulation of everything the cyberpunk literary movement was all about.

It’s about a photographer who gets hired to travel through the US and take pictures for an art book, of buildings built using this very specific sort of 40’s-50’s architecture. You know the one: aerodynamic fins and flanges everywhere, meant to look “futuristic” in a robots-and-spaceships kind of way. Of course, the story takes place in the 80s so everyone there knows the future these buildings were alluding to never came to pass. That’s what the art book is going to be about, that nostalgic lost future feeling.

Sometimes the fins have flanges.

Our protagonist gets so into it that he starts hallucinating that future. Silver teardrop-shaped cars driving on the highway or flying in the sky above it. A plane that’s a huge flying wing with twelve propeller engines, two squash courts and a ballroom.

It culminates in an entire city (Tucson, IIRC) visible on the horizon being replaced by a version of itself that’s all impossibly tall flanged towers linked by crystal roads and swarming with those silver cars and with Beautiful People in Togas. There’s a couple of them right beside our protagonist, though they don’t see him. They talk to each other with sweeping gestures and bold statements that can be summarized as “Isn’t the future great? And it’s all ours!”

At that precise moment, our protagonist freaks the fuck out. I was a dumb teenager when I first read this story, so I didn’t quite get what was so horrible about that moment. Now I do. Every one of those Beautiful People in Togas is white, blond and blue-eyed. What the heck did they do to everyone else? Perhaps that lost future never coming to pass isn’t a bad thing at all1. In the end the protagonist gets rid of the hallucinations through a steady diet of crappy media and headline news about the oil crisis.

The story’s title refers to Hugo Gernsback, the man responsible for editing the science fiction magazine Amazing Stories from 1926 to 1936. I’m guessing everything our poor photographer sees comes from that magazine, too, or from other publications influenced by its style stretching into the 50s. Gernsback also lends his name to the Hugos, one of the two top literary prizes in the field of SF.

The cyberpunk movement, whose writers would end up winning quite a few Hugos themselves, was in large part a reaction to this style of science fiction. As the introduction to Guardians of Order’s Ex Machina so aptly puts it, cyberpunk stories were about outsiders trying to survive and find happiness in the face of an oppressive society. Cyberpunk protagonists, Gibson’s in particular, were often criminals, drug addicts, poor, kids, people of color, or more than one of the above at the same time.

The worlds of classic literary cyberpunk had all sorts of social problems that were directly inspired by the present in which those stories had been written. They weren’t exactly extrapolations, but rather commentary on the present. Since the stories were set in the future, I think they also ended up presenting us with another message: those issues don’t just go away because technology advances. If you ignore them today, they’ll still haunt you tomorrow.

By now I’ve read a bunch of online discussions where people say the cyberpunk genre is dated or outright obsolete. We’re no longer in the Eighties. Things have changed. The tech looks either retro or absurd to our modern eyes, the USSR imploded, Japanese companies didn’t take over the world.

I feel this argument is kinda missing the point. The specific technologies and setting elements that appear in classic cyberpunk stories are indeed a product of their time, but they’re just props. The themes and motifs behind those props are timeless. It’s quite possible to write a story with more up-to-date props that still feels cyberpunk. Heck, Gibson himself never stopped doing exactly that.

Overly focusing on the props is a mistake a I feel a lot of people make. These people include a good number of RPG writers and fans, unfortunately. I clearly remember reading an article that talked about just such a thing once, but unfortunately I can’t remember where. So when I next talk about this, I’m going to be writing my own version of that article.

  1. Me not getting the horror of this situation was a spectacular feat of unmitigated dumbassery. The comparison between this vision of the future and Nazi propaganda was right there in the story.