The Gernsback Continuum

The lead story in Steampunk II: Steampunk Reloaded is The Gernsback Continuum, by William Gibson. This story is quite different from the Difference Engine, the novel by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling.

In this story, some sort of temporal rift enables the narrator to see a future that never was. All the great impossible dreams of the 1930s exist, beyond the veil of reality. In some ways, I felt like I was reading a Philip K. Dick novel, except in Gibson’s story, the character never fully enters this vision of the past.

The Gernsback Continuum is a great story for introducing the concept of retro-futurism, one of the recurring signifiers in steampunk, according to noted steampunk scholar Mike Perschon. According to Perschon, “If a writer wants to convey the future without any nods to the past, they don’t fly in airships. Airships are a failed technology that require fictional motive power or construction materials to be made viable.” It’s the sense of unharnessed potential that slipped away. In steampunk works, retrofuturism tends to emphasize the aspects of a proposed technology which are most impossible, like “a twelve-engined thing like a bloated boomerang, all wing, thrumming its way east with an elephantine grace, so low that I could count the rivets in its dull silver skin, and hear–maybe–the echo of jazz” (Gibson).

Gibson’s story gives a glimpse of these grand visions from the past, and evokes a sense of nostalgia for these monuments to what might have been. This story is quite interesting when compared to the main body of Gibson’s work, which rarely looks to the past. With the Gernsback Continuum, Gibson unleashes the limitless potential of the 1930s, were it not for the pesky laws of physics. It’s interesting how much of the story is dedicated to the aesthetics, an important aspect of steampunk. Ultimately, this story is a celebration of the imagination, about the dream that never came to fruition.

It’s a good opening to Steampunk Reloaded, giving a feel to the retrofuturistic aesthetics. Instead of going for the neo-victorian feel, Gibson instead evokes the unbridled optimism of early 1930s American architecture and design.

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