Today’s feature will be ‘Johnny Mnemonic’. But plot twist, I will be talking about the short story, and not the ill-fated movie starring Keanu Reeves that has a Rotten Tomatoes score of 14%. Though, it should be noted that the screenplay for the movie was written by William Gibson, so it’s hard to know where the movie went wrong… you know, other than the fact the short story somehow remains to feel like a possible future, whereas the movie has lines like “I can store nearly 80 gigs”. Yeah, sure Johnny… We’ll talk when it’s 800o terabytes.
Though, the real reason is probably that it sacrifices the best part of the short story in order to actually make Johnny Mnemonic the main character.
Sure, I know what you’re thinking right here. Isn’t it called ‘Johnny Mnemonic’? Shouldn’t he be the main character?
Yes. It is named after him. It’s even narrated by him in first person in a neo-noir detective kind of way. But the real star and action hero is Molly Millions.
For those who have read the Sprawl Trilogy (starting off with the famous ‘Neuromancer’), you’ll probably recognize that name, and may even remember her mentioning Johnny. But this short story ha a special place because it was written in 1981, and this was the first time she was ever been introduced. That’s right folks. You have this short story to thank for Molly Millions.
Anyway. In the world of ‘Johnny Mnemonic’, people can act as dead drops by storing massive amounts of data. They basically will download information from a source, and then upload it without ever knowing what that information is. Johnny is pretty successful at this job until the man who downloaded information into him doesn’t come back to get it… and then puts a hit out on him.
Poor Johnny then finds out that he has dangerous information on his person that he can’t access or get rid of. Worse yet, even if he did, there are still ways for someone to get the trace data, so his would-be killers would still want him dead anyway because he is a liability. In steps Molly Millions, a bad-ass with surgically placed cybernetic mirrored sunglasses who basically talks and bluffs her way into Johnny’s conversation with his fence, and saves Johnny. So yeah, Johnny might be watching what happens, but Molly really is the main character. He just follows her along for the ride while they try to get rid of the information through different cyber-
So yeah, Johnny might be watching what happens, but Molly really is the main character. He just follows her along for the ride while they try to get rid of the information through different cyber-dystopic environments where she has connections with junkie/navy veteran dolphins, and various other interesting sci-fi people/creatures. She uses her wits to help them survive, and in the end, Johnny starts up a detective agency with the dolphin and Molly… which, let’s face it, would be an amazing book or movie. I would promise to go pay for tickets at the theater four times if that was what it took to get it made.
The next time we hear about his life is through Molly in the Sprawl Trilogy, who tells how his story ends.
Honestly, ‘Johnny Mnemonic’ isn’t going to win awards for best prose, or even best pacing in a short story. Gibson has stories like ‘Hinterlands’ that proves he is the master of truly harrowing and thought-provoking sci-fi I chose ‘Johnny Mnemonic’ simply because it engages with a lot of topics that are still feasible today. I.e, Gibson’s science fiction rarely feels outdated, even 30 years later. Plus, it atypically puts the man in the backseat to a female action hero who is probably the best part of the whole Sprawl Trilogy anyway. The short story is really more of a thought experiment about “what if humans were used to store information?” which is a question we’re still asking ourselves today. Usually it’s with ‘Assassin’s Creed‘, but it’s even present in daily life as we realize that DNA itself could be used as a hard drive.
Essentially, it’s not the best short story ever written, but it’s a quick-read, action-packed, has evocative imagery, and forces the reader to really reflect on a lot of “what ifs” along the way, which all you really need for a sci-fi pick-me-up.
If you’re interested, you can find the story in “Burning Chrome” alongside Gibson’s other amazing short stories.