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Watching the Future
by Derek Johnson

[Editor's Note: Here you will find the other Watching the Future columns.]

Installment 16
Missing the Golden Age by Two Years…and How It Made Me Appreciate Science Fiction More

Omni In late May or early June 1981, my father picked up my sister and me from our condo in Houston to spend the summer in the small town outside of Austin where he lived. (Said small town isn't so small anymore. The 1980 U.S. Census Bureau listed the population at 650 then; today it's near 20,000.) As we left the Houston city limits and headed west on I-10, I realized that I didn't bring anything to read for the journey. So when we stopped in Columbus, the nearest small town, for gas, I looked for reading material, and chose two science magazines. One of them, Omni, also ran fiction. This particular issue carried a story titled "Johnny Mnemonic," by a writer I (nor anybody else at the time) had heard of: William Gibson. It was science fiction, and at age thirteen I'd sampled almost nothing from the genre apart from some Wells, Verne, and Bradbury. (I knew some media sf: Star Wars, Star Trek, and the year before discovered The Twilight Zone. But that's another story for another time.)

This story, however, cracked my brain open in ways I couldn't begin to describe. As a result, I became a regular reader of the magazine. Most of the writers became mentors in a way: Robert Silverberg, Stephen King, William Kotzwinkle, Gardner Dozois, Clive Barker (whose work I first discovered in the magazine in 1986). Some I got to meet and have conversed with: Dan Simmons, George R.R. Martin, Lucius Shepard, Pat Cadigan, Bruce Sterling, Lewis Shiner, Peter Straub, K.W. Jeter.

Chariots of Fire This lays the groundwork for 1982, when I went to see Chariots of Fire at the Fox Theater in Austin in 1982. I tried to see Academy Award winners when I could, even at that age, and so braved a movie about... running? Well, okay, I'd give it a shot.

So I went, and the preview that played before the movie began was for the major Harrison Ford release that summer, Blade Runner. I cannot remember a single scene from the movie I saw, but I can tell you, almost shot for shot, nearly thirty years later, exactly what happened in that preview. I remember walking out of the theater babbling about it, and how it was like nothing I had ever seen.

My father sent a copy of the book upon which the movie was based -- Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick, of course -- a week later. I devoured it (on the day he died, oddly enough), and was moved to tears because, frankly it seemed to know exactly what went on in my own head.

Blade Runner The movie itself, upon initial release, set almost no box office records. Its leisurely pace and dreary setting, like a futuristic Raymond Chandler novel with the dials turned up to eleven, spelled failure in a summer that saw the release of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, John Carpenter's remake of The Thing, George Miller's The Road Warrior, and, of course, Steven Spielberg's E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial... all now considered genre classics. Even Disney's Tron, which confused the hell out of everybody upon its initial release, seemed to have more impact, at least initially, than Ridley Scott's atmospheric slice of postmodern noir.

And yet, for all of the movie's flaws upon its initial release, including Ford's monotone voiceover and the tacked-on ending, never left my cerebellum. And at that point, I don't think it could have. Mere days after its release, I read Gibson's "Burning Chrome" in the recent issue of Omni, and found myself easily superimposing the Los Angeles's futuristic neon- and rain-saturated mean streets over the Sprawl. Bobby Quine and Automatic Jack, I assumed, shared a similar genre zip code as Chu's eye manufacturing laboratory. I could imagine Chrome himself nestled somewhere in the warrens of the Tyrell Corporation's pyramids, making his money transfers. Sure, the corridors of the Enterprise, even with the redesign, still possessed their charms, and I found a great deal of visual poetry in The Road Warrior's wastelands, but Blade Runner kicked my interest in science fiction into overdrive.

And it led me, ultimately, to print science fiction.

But it did so two years after its Golden Age... which, as David Hartwell states in his critical study Age of Wonders, is twelve.

Neuromancer At the same time Blade Runner and Omni rewired my fourteen-year-old genre neural pathways, Bruce Sterling and John Kessel kicked the cyberpunk-humanist debate into high gear. I wasn't aware of fandom, Cheap Truth, or Neuromancer's watershed win of science fiction's triple-crown awards. None of these things mattered to me. I just wanted science fiction that could do what Blade Runner did to me when I first saw it. I gave the Big Three a try, yet Asimov, Clarke, and Heinlein more often than not bored rather than excited me. Bradbury, despite his deserved popularity, seemed curiously old-fashioned to me despite all of the Martians and time travel safaris. A crop of more recent writers and novels wasn't doing it for me, either. Larry Niven's Ringworld proffered a breathtaking vista, yes, but it slid through much of my imagination like water through a sieve, never sticking as the spires of Blade Runner's Gothic megalopolis had.

Ringworld But there was Neuromancer. I also found Rudy Rucker about the time I was discovering the Beats, so he seemed like a natural fit. Lewis Shiner's Frontera took all of the Martian landscapes found in Ray Bradbury's The Martian Chronicles and incorporated some Robert Stone and Joseph Campbell... and also some pretty keen Zen ideas, which I also was devouring. And I expanded the number of science fiction magazines I read: Isaac Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine (where I first encountered James Patrick Kelly's "Solstice" and "The Prisoner of Chillon") and The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction (where I encountered Bruce Sterling's "Swarm"). And there were other great novels written around the time the big Three were writing their masterworks that not only read better but also felt more contemporary, despite in many cases having been written several years before I was born: Fritz Leiber's The Big Time, Alfred Bester's The Stars, My Destination, Theodore Sturgeon's Venus Plus X. And, of course as much PKD as I could find.

Since then, Blade Runner has gone through several iterations (I saw Blade Runner: The Final Cut in January 2007), and despite now thoroughly grounding myself in the genre, despite having seen it so many times that I know every frame by heart, it still does it. Like such recent novels as Chris Roberson's Here, There and Everywhere and Charles Stross's Accelerando, it has The Stuff. But it has no idea that it truly started me down the path to geekdom.

Copyright © 2011 Derek Johnson

Derek Johnson's critical work has appeared on SF Site, SF Signal, and Revolution SF. He lives in Central Texas with the Goddess.

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