25 August, 2009

A Very Technical Boy

If you've seen the movie version, starring Keanu Reeves, forget it — you've been tainted. The 1981 short story "Johnny Mnemonic," by William Gibson, is pure cyberpunk flash far superior to the big-screen adaptation that followed more than a decade later. Amid neighborhoods under geodesic domes, high-tech implants aplenty, and even a talking cyborg dolphin, it's the tale of a turning point in the life of Johnny, a cybernetic data courier, whose head contains secret information that's got a Japanese organized crime syndicate hard on his tail. Every sentence is amped-up pulp noir, with heaping helpings of smart jargon and grit.

Remember, this was '81. It's all got the whiff of cheesiness and cliché because this sort of story's been told for almost thirty years. At the time, few had actually written anything resembling this yet. Gibson's was the talent that, if not birthed the genre, at least made it readable. He invented the term cyberspace; it's hardly overstating when I say his work is visionary.

The introduction I received to Gibson took the form of his first novel, Neuromancer. An über-geek friend of my father's loaned it to me when I was thirteen. The next book I read, though — the one I chose on my own, having barely let Neuromancer's back cover close — was Burning Chrome, the collection of Gibson shorts in which "Johnny Mnemonic" features.

If all this stuff didn't inspire me to lose countless teenage nights in front of a glowing monitor, it at least fed the beast that was my growing obsession. A few months into my teens, I was already irrevocably plugged into the world of PCs. An avid BBSer, my cobbled-together computer was a 33mHz 486 with a huge 500-megabyte SCSI hard drive and 32 screaming megs of RAM. My pass to the thrilling world of online message boards with color ANSI graphics was a 14.4 US Robotics I paid almost two hundred dollars for. Not having to wait those interminable seconds for a blocky dragon image, made up entirely of pound signs and ampersands, to scroll into view in the Terminal window — that was a totally worthwhile trade for that year's birthday money.

At the breakfast table, I'd pore over pages of the phonebook-sized Computer Shopper catalog while absent-mindedly spooning Shredded Wheat into my face. For me to miss the school bus because I'd been eyeing the latest selection of processors ("Whoa, Pentium!") was hardly uncommon. When my father asked what I wanted for my fifteenth birthday, I didn't hesitate to tell him about the sale on Sony Trinitron monitors at CompUSA. In the truest instance of ignorance being bliss, my mother got away with non-peripheral gifts only because she didn't know the first thing about computers. Otherwise, she would not have been spared that particular hell of hearing me discourse ad nauseam on clock speed and resolution, on our way to the grocery store or dentist's.

Gibson appealed to me because nothing could have captured my teenage brain more than the idea of a future in which people ubiquitously melded with computers. The advantages to that, the pure sensibility of it, seemed so obvious.

By the time I was living on my own, there could have been no doubt I'd become a full-fledged geek. My computer rendered and raytraced, edited video and sound and pictures, answered my telephone, stored my CDs as MP3s, screened movies, beat me at Quake II, ordered pizza, gobbled down my HTML, and stood in as my alarm clock, secretary, and TV. I'd have carried it around in my skull if only it'd been small enough.

In that first apartment of mine, if no friends were over, my station was at the keyboard, typically with a cat curled contentedly in my lap. Perpetual music pumped from my speaker towers — retro futurist synth-pop fare, like Kraftwerk or Gary Numan, that would have been called bleeding-edge if the term had existed twenty years prior.

Gary Numan. Yes, I'm especially keen on Gary Numan. Most associate the name with the early '80s song "Cars." A one-hit wonder. Writing him off this way could be justified if your only metrics for determining musical worth are commercial radio play and chart success. They aren't mine. I've cultivated a fandom for the man's music bordering on rabidity. True, he hit a mid-career low with bad albums like The Fury and Strange Charm but to these I turn a blind eye (as any good, true fan should).

My first listen to Gary Numan came at sixteen, in my best friend's basement. The album my friend put on was Replicas, the cold, complex 1979 epic. Numan's otherworldly integration of punk's edginess with full, smooth synthesizer drones, combined with his affectingly personal (if oddly so) sci-fi lyrics, were like nothing I'd ever heard. I quickly accumulated his albums, starting from his days with Tubeway Army, and making my way up through his discography to the contemporary stuff — 2000's Pure and the dark, anthemic 2006 release, Jagged. Despite the music's dour lyrical themes, it's music that somehow resonates, makes me feel really, really good. A friend once observed that a particular expression forms on my face whenever I'm listening to Numan's music: simple, beatific joy. I've seen a couple of photographs, snapped at exactly the right time, and am inclined to agree. The slight curling upward of the corners of my mouth could mean nothing else.

So here it is, practically eighteen years after that first encounter with William Gibson's visions, and fifteen after discovering the alienated android rock of Gary Numan. Since those memorable moments, my life has taken a drastic turn. The last time I so much as checked my e-mail was eight years ago. Still, the tech-addict in me is covetous as ever: I still fantasize about jacking my brain into the Net, about those pricy Zeiss Ikon eyes Gibson wrote about, before I even knew how to read, in "Burning Chrome." Seeing the spine of that book of the same name — in front of me again for the first time — on the prison library's new-book shelf, my reach-and-grab was automatic. It was as if my body had been craving it.

Back in my cell, I kicked my shoes from my feet with uncharacteristic carelessness, I let them land where they may, one on its side, as I climbed onto my bunk with the slim Burning Chrome in hand.

Could it have been more right that the CD in my portable player happened to be Gary Numan's atmospheric 1980 release, Telekon. I pressed play, and those five familiar, fat notes of "This Wreckage" teleported and time-shifted me. Once again, I was back in my leather high-back, tweaking lines of JavaScript, a tiny cat wound warm and Möbius-like by my knee. The first terse paragraphs of "Johnny Mnemonic," at the same time, phasing me into that perilous theoretical future I used to dream about nightly.

It sounds contradictory, this revisiting of a pasts imagined future. In a way, I suppose it is. I can't explain it any better. All I know is that slowly, oh so slowly, as I read to the tones of Moogs and synthesizers reverberating through my headspace, the mottled concrete walls of this cell diminished, eclipsed by the spreading of a once-familiar expression of singular joy across my face.