The Never-Was

William Gibson is known for many works, not least Neuromancer and the Sprawl trilogy. I consider him one of the century’s great writers, easily displacing James Joyce (ugh!), for The Difference Engine, a steampunk story of the invention of the computer in the Victorian era, which draws on circularity, artificial intelligence and Kurt Goedel’s Incompleteness Theorem (it’s a hell of a book), and for The Gernsback Continuum, a short story that appears in the vastly influential Mozart in Mirrorshades collection. I can’t stress enough how brilliant all of these stories are, but the last one draws me back to a theme I’ve been working on for a while.
The Gernsback Continuum tells the story of a photographer putting together a coffee-table book of 1940s Futuristic architecture. The 40s were a time when people looked to the future, and they built accordingly, mixing space-age technology with Art Deco to create a style that some people these days call Raygun Gothic. As the photographer of Gernsback becomes more obsessed with this architecture, and what it says about the world we live in, he starts to perceive, or thinks he perceives, an alternate universe overlaying our own – an alternate 1980s where these futurism predictions came true. Yet rather than being captivated, our photographer is scared, because he perceives just how awful this future would have been:

Very carefully, without moving my head, I turned the headlights on. And saw them. They were blond. They were standing beside their car, an aluminum avocado with a central shark-fin rudder jutting up from its spine and smooth black tires like a child’s toy. He had his arm around her waist and was gesturing toward the city. They were both in white: loose clothing, bare legs, spotless white sun shoes. Neither of them seemed aware of the beams of my headlights. He was saying something wise and strong, and she was nodding, and suddenly I was frightened, frightened in an entirely different way. Sanity had ceased to be an issue; I knew, somehow, that the city behind me was Tucson a dream Tucson thrown up out of the collective yearning of an era. That it was real, entirely real. But the couple in front of me lived in it, and they frightened me. They were the children of Dialta Downes’s `80- that-wasn’t; they 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. But not here, in the heart of the Dream. Here, we’d gone on and on, in a dream logic that knew nothing of pollution, the finite bounds of fossil fuel, or foreign wars it was possible to lose. They were smug, happy, and utterly content with themselves and their world. And in the Dream, it was their world.

The world of tomorrow was the ideal world of the 1940s. It was a world where everybody was genetically perfect, financially secure, and free to indulge in good American past-times. In short, it was a sanitary nightmare, where everyone was white, blonde and Conservative. The technology on show at the last of the World’s Fairs illustrated this perfectly. It was a world where everyone was homogeneous, well-looked-after and intellectually non-threatening. It was, bizarrely, Hitler’s perfect world. Nobody was a minority, nobody was ill or degenerate or iconoclastic, and everybody played tennis through the long, hazy summer afternoons, safe from the world in climate-controlled bubbles. It’s odd to think that so many futurologists drew on this propagandized vision of the future. With this in mind, it’s hard to watch The Jetsons in the same way.

"We are from a society much advanced over your own! A society driven by sprockets! "
“We are from a society much advanced over your own! A society driven by sprockets! “

Which brings me to my point: the future world we imagined in the 30s and 40s never came to pass, yet we still draw on these hopes and aspirations even today. I mentioned yesterday that I’ve been watching a lot of Adam Curtis documentaries, and I don’t want to keep banging on about the same subject, but a recurring theme is that ideologies have failed us repeatedly and at great cost. The ideology of the FUTURE as being a place where all problems were solved, as in Gernsback, eerily mirrors the Soviet ideology, that political and social changes would effect a change in the population. The early Soviet leaders fervently believed that Communism would change the way people behaved, so that they would abandon notions of greed, personal property and ownership, and become the New Soviet People. The result is clear: greed, disproportionate wealth and poverty, government mandates, secret police and mass starvation have ever been the hallmark of Communism – one only has to look at Cuba, Russia, China or North Korea to see that Communism only works when it is imposed by jack-booted thugs. Communism in the Second World was matched as an ideology by Progress in the First World. In Britain after the Second World War, Socialism became the way to change the future and bring about better living, as did Modernist Architecture, Planned Cities and Government Subsidies. Whether these things have worked, or whether Britain is a nightmare Socialist state, depends on the observer. It’s both. It’s neither. It is neither the perfect future of fervent imaginings or the nightmarish past of George Orwell’s The Road To Wigan Pier. America, by the same token, is a land where people either have too much money or not enough, where you can buy a gun for sixpence but you can’t have an abortion, and where poor people are fat and rich people are skinny. These are the worlds our ideologies led us to. And it is a perfect world of sorts. The Gernsback Continuum concludes:

I rushed into the nearest newsstand and gathered up as much as I could find on the petroleum crisis and the nuclear energy hazard. I’d just decided to buy a plane ticket for New York. “Hell of a world we live in, huh?” The proprietor was a thin black man with bad teeth and an obvious wig. I nodded, fishing in my jeans for change, anxious to find a park bench where I could submerge myself in hard evidence of the human near-dystopia we live in. “But it could be worse, huh?” “That’s right,” I said, “or even worse, it could be perfect.”

To paraphrase Oscar Wilde: there’s only one thing worse than not getting what you want, and that’s getting it. The fevered dreams of all of those Futurologists of the 40s would have led us down a dark road – a road of sterility, oppressive normality, where everything was achievable and nothing was worth having. Father’s daily commute to the moon would have been as humdrum as anything else, while mother would drink white wine and watch the housebots hoover the carpet. This world starts to resemble a sci-fi version of Bret Easton Ellis’ nightmarish Less Than Zero, in which the young and the old rich fill their time emptily, taking drugs, drinking and screwing and feeling miserable because there is no meaning to be had in any of it. This world would have extended from coast to coast and country to country. So what prevented this nightmarish perfect world?

In all likelihood, Television
In all likelihood, Television

  People. People prevented it. People do not change to fit ideologies, thank god. The problems that assail the modern world : AIDS, infant crack addicts, suicide bombers, fallout, global warming, SUVS, Justin Bieber and the global economic depression all come from the same places: greed, lust, hate, fear and despair. We, human beings, will never be the perfect people required to fulfill the prophecies of our forefathers. We are the same people they were, but they expected us to adapt to their vision of How Things Should Be. In the event, it is our own immutable nature that saved us, the nature that we see reflected back at us from Shakespeare or The Iliad or The Bhagavad-Gita. We have been rescued from the Perfect Future of nightmares by our inability to adapt overnight. As a result, we live in a colourful, chaotic world with no absolute standard of behaviour, no perfection, and no ultimately achievable ideology. 1376210879283 Something else to be thankful for.

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