Johnny Mnemonic • 1981 • Cyberpunk short story by William Gibson


Plot twist: This post is NOT about the abysmal 1995 movie featuring Keanu Reaves, reaching a low 12% at rottentomatoes. Instead, I review the original short story from 1981.

Warning: Heavy spoilers here. Please, skip the synopsis if you are about to read the story.

First sentence:

I put the shotgun in an Adidas bag and padded it out with four pairs of tennis socks, not my style at all, but that was what I was aiming for: If they think you’re crude, go technical; if they think you’re technical, go crude.

Synopsis: Johnny is a data courier, carrying data in his head. He can’t access it, because he’s in “idiot/savant mode” with the data being encrypted and only accessible using a password only his client knows.

He decides that he’s waited long enough to being paid by his customer Ralfi and confronts him in a bar. The data is obviously valuable and dangerous, because the Yakuza sends an assassin. Ralfi gets killed, and Johnny barely gets away with the help of a super cool fighting lady Molly Millions.

Baring the password, Johnny accesses the data with the help of Molly’s friend, who happens to be a genius military cyborg in the form of a dolphin.

Johnny and Molly confront the Yakuza assassin on a fighting stage in Tokyo’s Nighttown in a great showdown.

Review: Action heavy, evocative atmosphere, super cool characters, and – yay – Molly Millions who has an extended role in Neuromancer, where she also tells the further fate of Johnny. Insofar, the story works as a prequel to the Sprawl trilogy.

Neuromancer has a very similar plot, setting, and protagonists, but this story is even denser than the novel, and far more colorful. It is fun to read, accessible, a stylish popcorn shot with no intention to win a prose award, and weak in pacing. Another thing missing is a memorable impact beyond all the action and flavor – and Gibson is capable of that, as he demonstrates in his story Hinterlands.

The story aged well, exactly 40 years after its first publication. Yes, there is the laughable amount of “hundreds of megabytes” which would need to be translated to terabytes; and we would rather encode it in the DNA instead of using the brain itself, just like in Assassin’s Creed. On the other hand, the story engages a pair of lesbians, the “Magnetic Dog Sisters” in the cast with one of them a transgender, giving the story a contemporary touch:

They were two meters tall and thin as greyhounds. One was black and the other white, but aside from that they were as nearly identical as cosmetic surgery could make them. They’d been lovers for years and were bad news in the tussle. I was never quite sure which one had originally been male.

While you can read the story online, I’d rather recommend buying Gibson’s collection Burning Chrome, which includes a lot of memorable stories, like New Rose Hotel, or Winter Market.

Meta: isfdb. Available online. I’ve read it in Gibson’s collection Burning Chrome.

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30 Responses to Johnny Mnemonic • 1981 • Cyberpunk short story by William Gibson

  1. Wakizashi says:

    Really enjoyed this story and the whole collection “Burning Chrome.” Early Gibson is my favourite. Glad to hear it was good for you, too!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Gibson is one of the (many) authors I have not managed to read yet, and now I might start exactly from here… 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Ola G says:

    I’ve only read Gibson’s Neuromancer – this sounds cool, way cooler than the movie 😉

    Liked by 1 person

  4. bormgans says:

    Yeah Burning Chrome is the best I’ve read from Gibson so far…

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Joachim Boaz says:

    I tried to watch the movie recently…. big mistake. It had some cool moments but couldn’t make it through more than 30 min.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Andreas says:

      I watched it in cinema when it was fresh. Even then, I hated it. Watching it now would feel antiquated additionally. Lacking a concise story and really bad characterizations doesn’t help then.

      Liked by 1 person

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