“…superfluous central towers ringed with those strange radiator flanges that were a signature motif of the style and which made them look as though they might generate potent bursts of raw technological enthusiasm if you could only find the switch that turned them on….”
William Gibson’s “The Gernsback Continuum” was published first in the anthology Universe 11 (1981), then Gibson’s own collection Burning Chrome (1986), and the anthology Mirrorshades (1988), before being reprinted far and wide: Seminal cyberpunk texts all, in which it always stuck out, just a bit.
It’s a nasty little story, it puts the “punk” out in front, to dramatize and make visceral the grimy modernist/postmodernist conflicts the most literary cyberpunk always meant to be about: A photographer of retro-futurist architecture finds himself falling in and out of a sideways dimension in which pulp mainstays of futures-meant-to-be had come to fruition. Strange buildings like the one described above, yes, but also increasingly dark, Man in the High Castle stuff: Food pills, “smug” Aryan Übermensch, a TV program called Nazi Love Hotel, and so on. Eventually he gets free of this oppressive “perfection” by reveling in the grungy ickiness of our real world, and that’s the moral of the story, as it stands.
Nowadays, we get it a lot: every forefather, every inventor and statesman and philosopher, comes with of-his-time, sometimes shockingly vile, baggage. Every Utopian vision, from a mind sufficiently removed from our era, is tainted with some callous disregard or another, some precursor to eugenics or slavery or some other gross thing: Stranger in a Strange Land and The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress are wonderful imaginative worlds to visit, as long as you’re a straight white man; Henry Ford and Charles Lindbergh loved their Nazis, and the Nazis loved them right back.
It’s not the sense of betrayal that interests me, though: it’s that they were drawing lines toward the future, these men, and to them those lines looked straight. Flannery O’Connor gets a lot of heat for her harsh bright line, “Tenderness leads to the gas chamber,” but in these cases it literally did: the first person who ever stumbled into eugenics wasn’t thinking about hurting people, he was thinking about saving them. Perfecting them.
To me, a too-young tween discovering Gibson for the first time, those clashes and brain-teasers were a long way off: a problem for my future self, as it were. I was struck more by the imagery, the way a past-future artifact could act as an emotional tesseract, connecting moments by physical juxtaposition: that future never existed, yet you are looking at it, in this one. Almost the opposite of steampunk, rather than a sister to it—looking back fondly at a past world’s dream of the future, measuring the distance between that and this one we are stuck in.
It was the aesthetic, the compound nature of it, I was responding to—and it wouldn’t be too long before I understood that the wrenching contradiction I was feeling in my gut was what these authors intended us to feel in our heads, metabolizing past and past-future, feeling them jumbled up together. It’s still got power, tons—look at Bioshock’s Fordian art deco, or of course the ultimate example: The Fallout series, which makes the past’s future such a romantic and melancholy and absolutely real place that merely being there, among the ghosts, is addictive.
“Think of it,” Dialta Downes had said, “as a kind of alternate America: a 1980 that never happened. An architecture of broken dreams.”
Which is, after all, the problem of Star Trek. A truly Utopian world first pitched by Gene Roddenberry in 1964, in which nothing was the matter, but there were still problems. Chop off almost the entirety of Maslow’s pyramid and deal with what’s left: Love, unity, confrontations leading only ever upward into synthesis. That’s my kind of story—the line between Star Trek and Gossip Girl, particularly in this sense, you could hop over even in heels—but it’s not a very action-oriented one. And so, of course, every iteration finds itself grittier and more distanced from the impossible perfection of TOS and TNG: Voyager left the Federation behind completely, Deep Space Nine twisted it inside out, and—in a rather smart twist—Enterprise took us back to the time before even existed, when everything was still all kind of messed up.
Star Trek began its life cycle so indelible and pure—so perfectly Gernsbackian—that we’ve spent the rest of the franchise walking that promise back. I love every iteration I’ve seen, even the ones you’re supposed to feel weird about: for one example, Janeway’s four-season fostering of the Borg orphan Seven of Nine is a powerful and compassionate story, one that in many ways prefigures the grand themes of Battlestar Galactica even more poignantly than Moore’s Deep Space Nine itself:
You know if you bring the snake into your house, that when she bites, you’ll have only yourself to blame. And then you do it anyway, because you must: still the largest, scariest, most beautiful thing I’ve ever heard.
But between those series and the new movies—speaking of Battlestar—something big happened: 9/11. Enterprise did its best, and wasn’t operating under the daydream rules of TOS to begin with, but an illusion broke, the rules shifted. The raw technological enthusiasm drained out when nobody was looking.
The difference between Roddenberry’s America and the future we live in is that back then, they weren’t pretending to feel safe. Their belief in certain institutions was only beginning to sour; being an American wasn’t a daily struggle past the ugliness to find home again. It was naked-Adam-and-Eve in the Garden time, and nobody even knew it. America wasn’t purely an act of faith.
And so, as by-the-book as the films have been—new bar set high by the first Abramsverse film, a magical journey we still haven’t quite recaptured in the series—there is something almost comforting in the corruption and doublespeak, the almost Starship Troopers nature of its uneasy, glib love of both war and peace. You might say a Roddenberry redux would feel cheesy—in the same way we hated happy boring Superman, until we met his raging, violent twin—but I think it’s more correct to say that it would feel dreadfully sad.
When I think about the two universes of the Star Trek canon in tandem, I’m reminded of nothing so much as that beautiful through-line in the messy, poetic Southland Tales: Seann William Scott’s incredible performance of two soldiers, one broken by war and one innocent and whole. If they touch, the world will end. It will end in love, true, but end nonetheless. Our hearts are not big enough for both states at once.
Imagine meeting your young and carefree self, somewhere along the Gernsback Continuum, and telling them all the ways you’d failed. Yes, we have cell phones and tricorders and supercolliders like we promised you; no, gay people still aren’t people and black people are still murdered on sight several times a week. Yes, almost any advertisement includes minorities and women; no, that doesn’t accurately represent corporate boardrooms or bodies of governance. I wouldn’t want to have that conversation, would you? I don’t want to disappoint Captain Kirk; I don’t want to look Beverly Crusher in the eye and admit we’ve already failed her.
Because the truth is, we haven’t, and the trick to that is, the future is always better than the past. There isn’t a point to measuring the distance between a fifty-year-old fantasy of perfection and the world we live in today. But there is a point—verging on the mythic, the numinous—in bringing those icons of our childhoods, and our parents’ childhoods, and increasingly their parents’, into a world that at least makes sense, touching ours at that Gernsback point. It doesn’t have that visual Fallout postmodernism, but it feels the same; it accomplishes the same effect. There is no melancholy in it, because it’s only that emotional tesseract in a new form: That future didn’t exist, but we do—and we are strong enough to talk about it.
And to think of it instead, as Gibson’s Dialta Downes might say, as a kind of alternate America: A 2016 that still hasn’t happened yet. An architecture of broken dreams, and all the tools to fix them.
Geek Love is a column on the art of politics, the affliction of writing, and the care and feeding of your geeks.
Jacob Clifton is a former Television Without Pity writer and Gawker editor. His favorite Gibson book is Pattern Recognition, his favorite Star Trek character is Julian Bashir, and his preferred sitting-down style is Riker.