A Summary and Analysis of William Gibson’s ‘Johnny Mnemonic’

By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)

‘Johnny Mnemonic’ is a 1981 short story by the Canadian-American author and cyberpunk pioneer William Gibson. Although many people, when they hear the name ‘Johnny Mnemonic’, will probably think of the 1995 film starring Keanu Reeves, Gibson’s story is somewhat different from the film which it inspired, and so some words of analysis may be illuminating.

First, however, here’s a quick summary of the plot of Gibson’s story.

‘Johnny Mnemonic’: plot summary

The story is narrated by a data courier (to whom the story’s title, ‘Johnny Mnemonic’, refers). He is able to store vast amounts of sensitive data in his head, thanks to a cybernetic implant, and earns a living by trafficking information for criminal bosses or large corporations. He has recently undergone surgery to have his features altered and has adopted a new identity, Eddie Bax.

At the beginning of the story he is preparing to meet one of his customers, Ralfi Face, at a bar. Ralfi has also recently had his face altered (hence his newly acquired surname), and has had the face of a dead singer, Christian White, transplanted onto his own. Ralfi wishes to retrieve some data from Johnny, but Johnny soon learns that Ralfi has placed an assassination contract on him.

Ralfi’s bodyguard, a martial arts expert named Lewis, incapacitates Johnny when Johnny threatens the pair with shotgun he has brought along in a gym bag. Ralfi then reveals that the information in Johnny’s head belongs to the Yakuza, the Japanese organised crime syndicate.

However, Johnny is rescued by Molly Millions, a kind of bionic woman who is known as a ‘Razorgirl’ because her the razor blades under her fingers. When Lewis goes to attack her, she cuts his hand and when Ralfi tries to pay her to go away, she grabs Johnny and instead they kidnap Ralfi, with Johnny hiring Molly to be his bodyguard.

However, as the three of them are leaving the bar, a Yakuza assassin kills Ralfi, and Johnny and Molly barely get away themselves, with Johnny failing to kill the assassin with his shotgun.

Johnny tells Molly that to save himself he needs to have the sensitive data removed from his head, but he cannot do this himself since the password is only available to certain people. He needs to go to a Squid (‘Superconducting quantum interference detector’) to retrieve the password. Molly takes him to ‘Funland’, an amusement park, to meet a cyborg named Jones, a dolphin who had worked for the Navy.

In exchange for drugs, Jones finds the password and Johnny falls into a trance which will enable him to retrieve the data in his head by ‘singing’ it out. They then leak some of the data to the Yakuza, threatening to release all of it unless they ‘call off the dogs’ and stop trying to assassinate Johnny.

Molly takes Johnny to a vast mall where the Lo Teks, a group of anti-technology outcasts live in hiding away from society. They are still being stalked by a Yakuza assassin, but Molly lets him follow them, baiting him to a place known as the Killing Floor: a trampoline-like dancefloor wired up to an amp and synthesiser.

As Molly goads the assassin by dancing around him, her feet create a drumbeat as she steps across the Floor. She tricks the assassin into wounding himself and, disoriented by the ‘culture shock’ if this strange place, the assassin falls through a hole in the Floor and plummets to his death.

Johnny concludes his narrative by telling us that he is living with Molly among the Lo Teks in their hideout, with both of them using Jones’ Squid apparatus to recover traces of the data he has couriered over the years, and then blackmail his former customers with the information. He reports that he is now making more money than he ever made before.

‘Johnny Mnemonic’: analysis

Technology is obviously a key theme in ‘Johnny Mnemonic’, with Gibson playing off the high-tech (especially bionic adaptations to the human body and brain) against the decidedly low-tech (Johnny’s sawn-off shotgun in his gym bag; and, chief of all, the Lo Tek people themselves). This, indeed, is part of the fun of this inventive story, whose plot is in many ways a rather conventional action story involving narrow scrapes, a man being hunted by assassins, and a helper who kills the bad guy and enables the hero to survive.

Indeed, in several respects ‘Johnny Mnemonic’ might even be regarded as a futuristic folk tale or even fairy tale, in which technology replaces the supernatural. In many fairy tales, magic or supernatural forces are often used by evil witches or magicians as a way of corrupting or destroying their (good) adversaries; magic is more rarely used by the good guys to save the day, with good old-fashioned pluck, bravery, or ingenuity often being more important, albeit with a little enchantment sometimes to help things come right again.

‘Johnny Mnemonic’ uses technology in place of these magical spells and enchantments, but the everyman hero – the name by which the story’s title refers to him, ‘Johnny’, being perhaps the ultimate American everyman name – must, as in many fairy tales, leave behind his ‘home’ or normal habitat (eventually finding a new home among the geodesic domes where the Lo Teks reside), escape his deadly adversaries (Ralfi, Lewis, the Yakuza), and gain a trustworthy helper (Molly Millions) in order to defeat his enemies and for order to be restored.

Of course, Gibson takes these ingredients of the folk tale (which Vladimir Propp described and delineated in his ‘Morphology of the Folk Tale’) and offers a subtler twist on them, with ‘Johnny’ turning his years of trafficking data to his advantage by partnering up with Molly and recovering traces of this past data and using them to blackmail powerful people. If this is an example of the hero and heroine gaining riches and living happily ever after together, it’s a somewhat more cynical and gritty take on that traditional folk-tale ending.

Like many of Gibson’s early stories, ‘Johnny Mnemonic’ explores the interface between technology and the human (or, in Jones’s case, the dolphin), from Johnny’s ability to store data in his head like some sort of human computer, to Ralfi’s celebrity face (we might compare such a feature to SimStims in Gibson’s other fiction), to Molly’s razorblade implants.

But has such technological advancement augmented the human, or subtracted from it? Johnny seems unaware of which ‘memories’ are his own and which belong to one of the data files he has couriered.

Perhaps an even bigger theme of the story is what we mean by ‘identity’ and how what it means to be human might be compromised or even endangered as technology encroaches upon the human body – and the human mind.

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