Notes   /   7 March 2024

Interfacing the Airstream Futuropolis

NB: This is the text of a brief talk I delivered at MLA 2015. At least, I think that's when it was. Here are the slides

The Peripheral offers the reader many points of contact with Gibson's earlier fiction, with broad themes or detailed signifiers readily antecedent such as cybernetic disembodiment, nanotechnology, the posthuman drift of unaccountable wealth, etc. But one vivid image from the opening pages of his newest book suggests that perhaps the most illuminating connection lies between The Peripheral and his 1981 short story, "The Gernsback Continuum."

The image that anchors this connection is an immobilized Airstream trailer down by the creek, where Burton and Flynne first access the 22nd century stub. It's a clear callback to the "Airstream Futurolopis" of Gernsbackian provenance. The occluded aerodynamics of the trailer's mad-doctor chrome establishes an image that echoes within The Peripheral in various ways, including its direct descendant in Lev's 22nd century Mercedes "Gobiwagen" to the foiled shell of a meticulously-acquired breakfast burrito, even the brushed metal of the book cover carries this theme.

So what should we make of this connection? and what does it reveal about Gibson's work as a writer and his intersections with contemporary media? What does an Airstream trailer offer to or as new media theory? In these few minutes, I want to suggest that there are at least three starting points: mobility, interface, and memory.

First, Mobility.

"To place the great wide world at your doorstep for you who yearn to travel with all the comforts of home."

As icon, an Airstream trailer implies power through potential motion, progress, and the aeronautical affectation of its gleaming fuselage. But thinking of it as a good example of raygun gothic aesthetics only reinforces one side of its potential implication. The Airstream is, of course, designed for travel. It is appropriate, therefore, that in the "Gernsback Continuum", the narrator's most disturbing slip into a parallel retrofuture occurs while he's driving.

Both RVs in The Peripheral are fixed in place, however: Burton's 20th century Airstream is literally stuck in the exigencies of 21st century poverty, Lev's is abandoned by the boredom of 22nd century wealth (as well as, one would assume, the availability of surrogate bodies obviating the need for expensive, first-person travel).

But immobilized homes do more than conceal the basic Victorian mechanism of a single-family home, they invite us to consider the ideology of domestic mobility that propels the recreational vehicle in the first place.

"To provide a more satisfying, meaningful way of travel that offers complete travel independence, wherever and whenever you choose to go or stay."

Ideologically, access is the inherent privilege and prerogative of the traveler, via a strata of archaic self determination. The world is out there, not in here. It's just waiting to be moved across and over.

Second, Interface

"To open a whole world of new experiences…a new dimension in enjoyment where travel adventure and good fellowship are your constant companions."

As a convergence point of several mediatic contrasts, it is worthwhile to consider the RV through the logic of interface. As Alex Galloway describes it, an interface is an agitation, a recognition of difference. Furthermore, an interface is not a thing, but rather an effect, a process, a translation. The mysterious Chinese server may be the fundamental enabler of interchronological agitation, but its effects are only possible because of the social stratification both trailers reinforce against their own contexts.

But there are other interfaces. Gibson's fiction shows a recurring interest in design: the inherent history of everyday things, where do-si-do skeuomorphism blithely registers nostalgia for what once was to come alongside the veiled threats of what still might be. When industrial designers invent an interface between function and form, they also invent the social situation of that function.

The airstream trailer and the stub it facillitates is of course a fertile nexus of many further contrasts -- not just the near future and far future, but also between poverty and wealth, country and city, between ends and means. And ultimately the latent, double-logic premise of a "mobile home" is to see the world without having to live in or depend on it.

"To lead caravans wherever the four winds blow…over twinkling boulevards, across trackless deserts…to the traveled and untraveled corners of the earth."

In "The Gernsback Continuum," preservation motivates an interface to an alternate present, an interface channeled through the medial lense of photography, but "Gernsback's" optimistic futurism of the 1930s, a dream come partly true in The Peripherals cyclopean London architecture with vehicles smooth "like beads of running mercury," is, in Galloway's terms, an "unworkable" interface, always anxious and external.

Finally, Memory

"To keep alive and make real an enduring promise of high adventure and faraway lands…of rediscovering old places and new interests."

Of course, Burton's Airstream trailer is not only a conduit to the future, its presence touches down on several points in history. We know it was built in the 1970s, a time when the Airstream aesthetic was already retro, since its roots date to the 1930s with a rise to mass popularity in the 1950s. More locally, this trailer's insides are coated with a transparent, amber polymer that Leon correctly observes is curatorial, "how you could peel it all out before you put your American classic up on eBay."

Memory or its other is also interesting from the 22nd-century's point of view as well. The particularities of Gibson's solution to time-travel paradoxes means that Flynne's 21st century is not the past of Wilf's 22nd century because the connection between the two creates a unique stub off of the original timeline. Flynne's present is always Wilf's virtual past, a past that might have been, like the mythology of recuperative nostalgia.

In both timelines, then, a thematic reflection on memory requires an immobilized mobile home to act as a site of memory. The cumulative effect, one might say, also "obliquely propels the reader through an elaborately finite set of iterations, such that skeins of carnal memory manifest an exquisite tenderness, delimited by mythologies of the real, of embodiment."

"To play some part in promoting international goodwill and understanding among the peoples of the world through person-to-person contact."

To conclude, the Airstream trailer seems to me to be a rich and meaningful vector for thinking about the politics of mobility and access, the poetics of unworkable interfaces, and the performativity of memory through the specifics of location. But these are just suggestions and starting points. I look forward to unpacking these and other ideas further in the discussion to follow.