Gibson and Butler: Reality?

William Gibson’s “The Gernsback Continuum (1981) is a short science fiction story about a photographer who was hired to photograph old futuristic architecture. Gibson describes several futuristic ideas as “segments of a dreamworld, abandoned in the uncaring present” (Gibson, p. 458). This architecture embodied the generation’s concept of the future. Some of these concepts are flying cars, neon signs, buildings fluted with aluminium, chrome-tubes. During his work, the narrator was having issues trying to find subjects to photograph. He had to think of his subject as “a kind of alternate America: a 1980 that never happened. An architecture of broken dreams.” (Gibson, p. 460).

Airliner №4 (ca. 1929–1932) by Norman Bel Geddes / Harry Ransom Center

Shortly after, the narrator was setting up to photograph on the outskirts of Bolinas, he begins see Dialta Downes’s alternate reality. It began delicately and then became vivid.

Ever so gently, I went over the Edge — (Gibson, p.460)

The narrator believes that he has seen an airliner that cannot exist. Thus, he takes the picture and brings it to one of his colleagues, Merv Kihn, who dismisses it as not being a “semiotic ghost” which he later describes as “bits of deep cultural imagery that have split off and taken a life of their own” (Gibson, p.461). These cultural images are what the narrator is seeing in the alternative reality that he is currently in.

Christopher Butler wrote Postmodernism. Specifically, Chapter 5 titled “The ‘Postmodern Condition’ ”. Butler’s work goes hand in hand with the idea of unreal images of Gibson. According to Butler, “we live in a society of the image” (Butler, p. 112), specifically simulacrums. However, we are content with living in a world of false images. We choose to buy into those false images such as fast food, cosmetics, and television are just to name a few.

Wendy’s Broccoli Cheese Baked Potato

When one orders a Broccoli Cheese Baked Potato, it rarely looks as appetizing as the image to the left. However, we allow the company to give us false images to sell us the product. We allow for simulacrums in our lives on multiple occasions because we understand that no two objects will ever be exactly alike.

These simulacrums can be seen in Gibson’s work several times. The narrator even hints at it in the very beginning.

“In retrospect, I see here walking in beside Cohen under a floating neon sign that flashes THIS WAY LIES MADNESS” (Gibson, p. 457)

Not only does this prepare the reader for the story that is about to be told and the way that it will be told, it also shows that the initial image of Dialta Downes is a simulacrum. While she was described as a beautiful woman, it is what lies underneath the beauty that is false.

The narrator, at the end of The Gernsback Continuum, choose the real world, the imperfect world, rather than the Dream because he has gotten a taste of how terrifying utopias can be because they can only be the creation of a single person or small group of people. Thus, one person’s utopia is another person’s dystopia.