The genre of science fiction has always departed from mainstream literature in its portrayal of the concepts of time and history. In many science fiction stories, the temporal setting occurs in the future, as opposed to mainstream literature, in which the default time period can almost always be assumed to be the present or the past. In addition, the representation of history in mainstream fiction is typically linear and chronological (at least until the widespread advent of a more postmodern sensibility in recent years), while history is often approached in a more fluid, nonlinear fashion within science fiction texts.
This unique portrayal of time and history is further refined and developed in one of the more recent sub-genres of science fiction, cyberpunk. In fact, one of the defining characteristics of this genre is its marked divergence from the relationship to time and history that is commonplace in mainstream fiction. William Gibson’s fiction, widely viewed as the defining work of the genre, comprises a wide array of unconventional approaches to the notions of history and time. In this paper, I will explore the way that history and time are manipulated and distorted in three of the short stories from William Gibson’s Burning Chrome collection, “Johnny Mnemonic,” “Fragments of a Hologram Rose” and “The Gernsback Continuum.” In conclusion, an overarching assessment of the significance of Gibson’s portrayals of time and history within the larger context of the cyberpunk aesthetic will be presented.
The time period that serves as the setting of Gibson’s “Johnny Mnemonic” is an unspecified future era. In Gibson’s future dystopia, the human body has become degraded and belittled to the point that it is used as a receptacle for data storage. Johnny’s description of his chosen trade sounds remarkably close to prostitution, as he notes that his services are “not cheap”. The economic basis of this future seems to be largely criminal in nature, and much of the population live in near-animalistic squalor.