LITR 4632 Literature of the Future

Sample Student final exams 2009

 Paul Acevedo

The Zesty Metaphors of “Hinterlands”

            When I saw that our class would be reading Burning Chrome, a collection of short stories by William Gibson (whose parents, I imagine, must have been terribly disappointed that he did not go into the guitar manufacturing business), I was not excited. As a teenager I read Neuromancer, Gibson’s ground breaking cyberpunk novel. But I did not like it. That book was so dry, so cold. I never connected with it. Still, just because a person eats one hot dog that tastes bad, that does not mean that all hot dogs are bad. It is actually their alarmingly high rat hair-to-meat ratio that makes them bad, but I digress. I usually read novels and short stories for their entertainment value without analyzing their literary value. How many classics have I breezed through and loved without knowing why they are so special? And so there was a hole in me - a gap in my learnings of literature - that clearly needed to be filled. The Literature of the Future filled that hole with lots of tasty knowledge. Figurative language adds flavor to writing. Extended metaphors, those which recur and run throughout a piece of literature, turn the piece into a gourmet meal. “Hinterlands” surprised me by not only being a much more humane story than Neuromancer, but also being quite flavorfully written. A series of metaphors tie the entire story together, creating a masterpiece of short fiction.

            “Hinterlands’” central conceit is “The Highway,” a wormhole which allows certain individual astronauts to travel to an unknown destination among the stars, returning some time later with random extraterrestrial artifacts and information.  Gibson’s word choice in naming the wormhole is deliberate and deftly-considered. The Highway runs throughout the story, and many more metaphors branch from it like feeder roads. Consider the language used to describe those who travel through it. “Olga [was the] first hitchhiker, the first one to stick out her thumb on the wavelength of hydrogen” (67). The Highway’s human travelers must rely on an alien intelligence to pick them up from known space and return them at a later date, just as hitchhikers rely on people with cars to take them from one place to another. And like the real life activity of hitchhiking, this is dangerous for the rider, though much more so. People who reappear from the wormhole inevitably die, go insane, or both.

            The story’s language becomes increasingly more elaborate as the narrator muses on the relationship between the humans entering the Highway and the mysterious beings who take them there:

“We’re like intelligent houseflies wandering through an international airport; some of us actually manage to blunder onto flights to London or Rio, maybe even survive the trip and make it back. ‘Hey,’ say the other flies, ‘what’s happening on the other side of that door? What do they know that we don’t?’” (75)

Gibson could easily switch back to literal language after the first phrase, explaining its meaning in plain words. But he does something much better. He transitions from a simile into a metaphor and keeps developing the imagery. After stepping away from the fly metaphor for a couple of paragraphs, the author jumps back and devotes nearly an entire page to it. This extended metaphor reveals humanity’s complete insignificance, our utter lack of maturity as a species compared to whatever pulls us through the wormhole. The author knows that readers cannot easily think in scales of such magnitude, so he puts things in terms that we can definitely take in.

Gibson also uses the remarkable fly metaphor to broach the existence of further alien species as well. “We aren’t the only flies who’ve found their way into an airport,” he reveals (76). The implication of these fellow travels alleviates some of the discouragement from our lesser-being status. As primitive as humanity may be when measured against the Highway’s unknowable creators, at least we are not alone in our evolutionary infancy. One imagines that humanity could establish friendly relations with these fellow primitive aliens if only we could meet them in a safer environment than the Highway. Yet the various space-faring races have a long way to go before any of them will possess the technology to find each other outside of the Highway. We are all essentially “hicks” and “[stowaway] pack rats in the hold of freighter… dreaming of the bright lights, the big city” (76). The hicks, highway, and big city metaphors also explain the story’s title, which is a metaphor itself. Hinterlands are rural back country, far from big, industrialized cities. Humans (and those like us) come from a less developed area (the hinterlands), travel through a wormhole (the Highway), and reach a destination with superior technology (the “big city”).

            William Gibson’s “Hinterlands” just works on so many levels. The story creates a sense of wonder with its mysterious wormhole and whatever lies beyond it. Gibson uses a variety of metaphor and other figurative language to make the wormhole and other fantastic concepts comprehendible. At turns the Highway’s travelers are labeled hitchhikers because of how they rely on the mysterious creators of the Highway to pull them through it and send them back. Then the travelers are flies, since they are so miniscule and powerless compared to the Highway’s creators. Finally, they are hicks, backwater travelers from the hinterlands that travel along the Highway to the big city, full of promise and wonder. These extended metaphors create a cohesion that elevates “Hinterlands” beyond pulp science fiction. Not only is it tasty reading, but totally free of rat hair, too!