The Gernsback Continuum and The ‘postmodern condition’

Cartoon of Disney’s Tomorrowland

In The Gernsback Continuum by William Gibson, Dialta Downes is almost obsessed with the American 1930s futuristic thought process. The actual history of America is riddled with falsehoods and decay, yet Downes looks past all of those qualities and only requires the narrator (a photographer) to capture images of a ‘perfect’ America. In Chapter 5 of The ‘postmodern condition’ it says, “…a defining sense of the postmodern as ‘the disappearance of a sense of history’ in the culture, a pervasive depthlessness, a ‘perpetual present’ in which the memory of tradition is gone” (110). At the beginning of the story, the narrator is somewhat out of the depthlessness that engulfs other countries (France, England, etc). Gibson writes, “There’s a British obsession with the more baroque elements of American pop culture” (Gibson 458). Towards the beginning of the story this shallow mindset is more focused on versus the narrator, who will eventually be susceptible to this thought process. Gibson constantly mentions the superficial obsessions of Dialta Downes dream world. For example, at the end of the story Gibson mentions Disney and Hollywoods attempt at a furturistic appeal. What the narrator was seeing at this point encompasses the baroque elements of an 1930’s American mindset and overall the theme of the story.

Eventually, the narrator falls into “Dialta Downes never-never land” (Gibson 458) trying to capture the futuristic America she seems to have dreamed up. In The ‘postmodern condition’ the article focuses on images and their ability to warp the mind into believing a false reality.

It says in Chapter 5, “For many postmodernist, we live in a society of the image, primarily concerned with the production and consumption of mere ‘simulacra’. Information, by now, is just something we buy” (112).

Before the narrator goes “over the Edge” he has a realistic view of what American looks like. Gibson writes, “ …the rest of it was relentlessly tacky: ephemeral stuff extruded by the collective American subconscious of the Thirties, tending mostly to survive along depressing strips lined with dusty motels, mattress wholesalers, and small used-car lots” (Gibson 459). At the beginning of the story, the narrator see’s the American 1930’s as more imperfect versus the image that Dialta Downes has, which almost mirrors Hilter’s ‘perfect society’. At this point, the narrator hasn’t been effected by Downes ideals.

Retro Future Space Suit 1960 People of the Future from “Tomorrowland

The narrator, mentions Hilter-esque images in America’s capitalistic past. Gibson writes, “When I isolated a few of the factory buildings on the ground glass of Hasselblad, they came across a kind of sinister totalitarian dignity, like stadiums Albert Speer built for Hilter” (Gibson 459). Gibson seems to make the point that perception is everything. The narrator see’s something completely different from that of his employer.

This story also reverts back to idea of whats considered a utopia or dystopia. Dialta Downes envisions a America where “…the children were Heirs to the Dream. They were white, blond, and they probably had blue eyes. They were American. Dialta had said that the Future had come to America first, but had finally passed it by” (Gibson 463). Dialta is stuck in a 1930s American utopia that she has envisioned, while the narrator, through the lens of his camera, see’s the dystopia that it has become. This goes back to the question of what exactly is a utopia or dystopia? It seems to all depend on perspective. In Gibson’s story, two of the main characters (the narrator and Downes) are looking at the same place through a different lens.

In summary, postmodernist recognize that what is real is distorted and manipulated in a way to please the consumer.