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http://www.americanheritage.com/articles/magazine/it/1988/1/1988_1_...

We all know William Gibson as one of the founding fathers of cyberpunk and for his pioneering work in The Difference Engine, but did you know he also wrote dieselpunk? Only not really?

Let me explain.

The above is a link to a short story Gibson wrote in the late 1980s (later republished in his 1989 anthology Burning Chrome). The plot of the story is short and simple: an unnamed freelance photographer is sent on assignment down the byways of America to shoot pictures of buildings built in the "futuristic" style endemic to low American architecture in the 1940s and 1950s. On his trip across the southwestern states to California, he begins to hallucinate artifacts of pulp fiction coming to life.

The really interesting thing about this piece, besides Gibson's classically wired prose, is that it is, at heart, a rather strident critique of the school of American science fiction (which can be roughly dated from 1926 to 1960) exemplified by the magazines run by Hugo Gernsback and John W. Campbell. Their stories, and the vision of the world they proclaim, are constantly criticized by the protagonist as myopic, smug, and of no relation to the real world. The greatest moment of terror in the story is the discovery of inhabitants in that unreal pulp world, content blinkered triumphalists that inhabit and, in all likelihood, control our world while keeping one foot in fantasy. It's an epitath to a type of SF that passed into oblivion at the beginning of the 1990s (after keeping a rigor mortis grip on the genre for several decades), and a concise statement of Gibson's attitides towards SF. (For a look at Gibson's take on the Apollo-tinged dream of space exploration, I'd recomment reading "Red Star, Winter Orbit" in the same anthology.)

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William Gibson is a great author and his new novel, Zero History, is supposed to be released next year.

I had never heard of this short story, but it definitely sounds interesting.
For more information on Hugo Gernsback check out a new biography available on Amazon.

The document was found by me when we closed down Gernsback Publications in 2003. It was an old ms that I edited and produced as a book.

Follow the link and you can go to the book and thanks to Amazon’s “look inside” feature, you can even get an idea of what it covers.

http://www.amazon.com/Hugo-Gernsback-Well-Ahead-Time/dp/1419658573/...

Hope you find it interesting.

For more information feel free to contact me, Larry Steckler, at PoptronixInc@aol.com
I have to wonder if Gibson ever read any story published in an early Gernsback magazine.

The sf of early pulps was many things, including violent, racist, sexist, classist, and often profoundly depressing. It was not, however, smug, myopic, or triumphalist, and indeed could not be, because of the nature of the market. By the 1920s, the days had passed when the long, didactic story of the glorious future (you know, the one where we are all assigned numbers and jobs by the Central Planning Board) could hold readers' attention. The pulp market demanded short stories or episodic serials that delivered non-stop thrills, which meant, in practice, constant conflict, threat, danger, and violence. That's not exactly possible if your setting is a shiny technotopia. The settings for early pulp sf stories were, therefore, either frankly dystopian, or showed a society under severe strain, e.g. from war (of all types of futuristic story, the future-war story was the most common, and indeed the most venerable type of the genre), from crime, from economic or social collapse, from the unforeseen consequences of technological innovation.

Unless one finds it an unpardonable optimism to imagine humanity as having a future at all, it's difficult to intelligently accuse early sf writers of painting too rosy a picture, or of failing to address themes related to human suffering and weakness. The generations which had experienced World War I and the Great Depression were acutely aware of both. Their principal failure was simply that most of them were not very good writers, and their language, plotting, and characterization failed to keep up with their ideas.

Gibson seems to be extrapolating, not from actual sf published by Gernsback, but from the illustrated technology-of-the-future articles that were found every month in Popular Mechanics and similar pop-tech magazines, and slightly less often in more general-circulation weeklies or dailies. That sort of thing had a very different, and probably more numerous, readership than the sf pulps of the 20's and 30's. Gibson also makes an offhand comparison to Nazi propaganda, though the design features he mentions pre-date the Nazis' rise to power. Where comparisons can be justly made, it just shows that the Nazis hired designers who worked within the same design paradigms as other people in the 1930s -- though the Hitler/Speer vision of a future 'Germania' has no resemblance at all to Gibson's very American Futuropolis.

But Gibson's real objection seems to be to the exuberance of such visions. Nowadays we're comfortable with very short-range forecasts: next year's car design, next month's handheld computer, the new cell phone that also does your laundry from 10,000 miles away. But anything more than a year in the future, anything bigger than an automobile, and we can't seriously imagine it. We've become allergic to the total vision of the future: our horizon of imagination has contracted, from Future Earth to Future Suburb to Future House to Future Appliances. The future will arrive, if it arrives at all, in dribs and drabs, spare parts added here and there to extend the life of an ancient, rusting engine.

Perhaps that's a realistic expectation of a real future. Perhaps, in general, we can't expect people to see the approach to the future as a coherently linked set of problems to be solved rather than an atomized set of random kludges. But it is disturbing to see a writer, who presumably depends for his livelihood on his imagination, deriding an imaginative vision that doesn't precisely match his.

Time has, however, played the ultimate trick on Gibson: the imagined future of his own early stories now looks oddly dated, somehow always bringing to mind downtown Tokyo in 1985. Probably not too much time will pass before some young writer produces the equivalent of "The Gibson Continuum".
Ah, the good old Gernsbeck Continuum! Originator of the term "raygun gothic", IIRC.

Though I hold a special place for the story and it's monumental place in retrofuturism, I have to tip my hat to Caerulator and his biting deconstruction of the deconstruction. Most of those great quasi-utopic visions were questioned even then. Look at the mother of all futurist films, Metropolis, far from smug abject optimism about humanity's technotopia.

Still, though, it really resonates with me for how it captures that dusconnection we of the present have with the future we were promised ("Where's my flying car?") as well as Modernism's dark doppelgangers Fascism and Soviet Communism. It's like David Zhondy (sp?) said in his intro to Tales of Future Past where he mentions the dissillusion of those great sleek streamline rockets of the future falling down on London.
Cap'n Tony said:
Still, though, it really resonates with me for how it captures that dusconnection we of the present have with the future we were promised ("Where's my flying car?") as well as Modernism's dark doppelgangers Fascism and Soviet Communism. It's like David Zhondy (sp?) said in his intro to Tales of Future Past where he mentions the dissillusion of those great sleek streamline rockets of the future falling down on London.

The "sleek streamline rocket of the future" looked just like a V-2 because it was modelled on the V-2. Before Germany's Wunderwaffe was revealed, the rocket of the future was a stout behemoth, something like a cross between an airplane, a submarine, an ocean liner, and a zeppelin, studded all over with ports and bristling with bulges and bubbles, with a lot of useless-looking little rockets clustered at its rear.

The victims of the V-2, in London and Antwerp and elsewhere, of course never had a chance to see what hit them; the rocket moved faster than sound, and when it had exploded there was not much left. It took a good deal of intelligence work on the part of the Allies to figure out what the Germans were up to.

When that information was shared with the general public I'm not sure, but in early 1946 a new style of spaceship starts showing up on sf magazine covers: sleek, bullet-shaped, single-engined, devoid of external ports: looking, in fact, like oversized V-2s. Art had in this case been overtaken by technology, and art had to move fast to catch up.

The V-2 look dominated spaceship art for the next dozen years, until new rocket technologies overtook it once again; it's the look seen in almost all the sf films of the 50s (unless they chose the flying saucer look), and those great EC comics covers from the same period. But it was unknown before 1945.

The important part of this transformation is that the reaction (among those who knew that rockets were used for other purposes than launching fireworks) was not "Rockets over London? How our dreams have turned to ashes!" but (after the war was won, anyway) "That's an amazing piece of machinery; we need a piece of that!" The fact that it was a weapon developed by a hated enemy didn't become a point of controversy until much later, and then largely in the context of the race to develop nuclear missiles.
While you're right about the V2's impact on design post-war, I have to disagree that pre-V2 rockets weren't "streamlined". They may not have looked as sleek and aerodynamic as the V2, but they were hardly big fat bulky things. In fact, Von Braun's designs were undoubtedly influenced by the sci-fi designs seen in Gernsbeck's periodicals.

Take the ever-popular Flash Gordon serial rockets, which certainly predated the V2:


I'd call that slick and streamlined, personally.
Cap'n Tony said:
While you're right about the V2's impact on design post-war, I have to disagree that pre-V2 rockets weren't "streamlined". They may not have looked as sleek and aerodynamic as the V2, but they were hardly big fat bulky things. In fact, Von Braun's designs were undoubtedly influenced by the sci-fi designs seen in Gernsbeck's periodicals.

Take the ever-popular Flash Gordon serial rockets, which certainly predated the V2:


I'd call that slick and streamlined, personally.

That design dates from 1930; it was originally the ship to Mars in that year's (and perhaps history's) only science fiction film musical, "Just Imagine". The prop was re-used on the Flash Gordon serials.

But you're right; those 1930s pulp cover rocket designs were streamlined in the artistic sense; just not in the mechanical sense. Flash's rocket does look sleek(ish); but it probably wouldn't do very well in a wind-tunnel test.

The V-2 design was mechanically streamlined, and for two good reasons. First, its entire flight took place in the atmosphere and for maximum range it was desirable to reduce drag to a minimum. Second, it was the first large-scale vehicle to have to undergo sustained supersonic flight. You couldn't simulate supersonic speeds in a wind-tunnel, and aircraft approaching Mach 1 showed a tendency to break up under the intense stress; so there were no large-scale models to follow in designing the V-2. However, there was a small-scale model: a rifle bullet, which travelled straight, without tumbling, at supersonic speeds: just the characteristics the designers wanted. So the V-2 was shaped to emulate a rifle bullet, with the addition of fins to stabilize it in flight.

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