Keanu Reeves has never been worse—which, in his special case, is understood to mean better—than he was in Johnny Mnemonic. The 1995 cyberpunk almost-classic captures a pre-Matrix, pre-Cyberpunk 2077 Reeves at his most cartoonishly buttoned-up, all hunk and monosyllabic monomindedness. His first line of dialog, “Yeah,” pretty much says it all: I am here, in bed with a hooker, so yeah, let’s do this. The movie has never been considered classy cinema, but thanks to the interoperability of stay-at-home orders, streaming, and the Keanaissance, nerd-dom revived it in 2020, and not a moment too soon. Because 2021—welcome!—is the year in which Johnny Mnemonic, the story of a mysterious epidemic and the one man who might put an end to it, is set.
Does science fiction predict the future? The question, particularly that verb, predict, irritates all the greats. The genre ain’t predictive, huffed Le Guin, it’s descriptive. I’m a preventer of futures, claimed Bradbury, not a predictor of them. (Let’s see about that next year, if/when the 2022 of his Fahrenheit 451 comes to pass.) In 1981, a then-unknown William Gibson, raised on writers like Bradbury, published a hot little neon-noir in Omni called “Johnny Mnemonic.” Many years later, enthroned as the father of cyberpunk, he’d say of his work that “it’s not prescient.” Look around, though. Prediction might not be the intent of science fiction, but humanity seems to suffer a desperate, ever-darkening desire to see as much of it as possible come true.
Johnny is a digital-era delivery guy. If you need some data transported hypersecurely, simply load it into his head and off he goes: your very own walking—more often running, from bad guys—USB air-gapped meatstick. So what if the gig comes with memory lacunae and the risk, in the event of information overload, of brain-burst, to say nothing of the Yakuza at your back, who are more than happy to carry out a file transfer by way of decapitation? It pays well, and you look cyber-cool doing it.
Of course, the Yakuza aren’t the real villains. Neither is the random psychotic bionic street preacher played by Dolph Lundgren, whom Gibson and first-time/last-time director Robert Longo, when they went to turn the short story into a movie, had to make room for. (Blame the studio.) Turns out there’s an evil shadow corporation behind it all, Pharmakom. They’re the ones who sic the Yakuza on Johnny, because they know what’s inside Johnny’s computerbrain: the cure to a mass plague called NAS. That’s nerve attenuation syndrome, aka the black shakes. If it stays incurable, Pharmakom can keep treating it half-assedly. They don’t want Johnny spoiling their profits.
So it’s a big Big Pharma cover-up. In our 2021, in our global pandemic, could such a plotline be construed as, in fact, prophetic? Pfizer, Moderna, et al. aren’t withholding any cures. Quite the opposite: They’re rushing out efficacious Covid vaccines, in lockstep with federal guidelines, to the people who need them most. Yet Pharmakomish suspicions still remain. Even a small, deep-down part of you may want to believe them, these big, out-there seductions. Microchips in the medicines. Cheaper therapies “they” are actively suppressing. Paranoia has coursed through this Covid catastrophe like water (which fluoridation has definitely made stupidifying). In the first week of 2021, New York magazine published a cover story by a novelist claiming SARS-CoV-2 was born in a lab. Not as a weapon, no no; this isn’t science fiction. Just some US-funded Chinese virologists hot-swapping mutant spike proteins in the name of research and in the process manufacturing a human-infecting virus that accidentally gets out and spreads globally. Sort of like what happens in 28 Days Later, or Rise of the Planet of the Apes. And, you know, not unlike the technopharmacological fuckups at the center of Splice, Mission: Impossible II, The Boys, etc. etc.
Such is human nature. People in every time and place, from skeptics in Ancient Greece to 21st-century 4channers, are always and only a single connect-the-dot away from being convinced that hidden forces—gods, deep-staters—have secret designs on their wealth and well-being. The reach of the conspiracy theory is proportionate to the depth of the perceived betrayal, which is why pharmaceutical giants are the most sus. What if the very institutions tasked with saving lives were all along in cahoots with the machinery of death? It’d be a scandal of profoundest upset, even as it made a sick degree of sense. Though Gibson has said a story like Johnny Mnemonic is about the “politics of information”—too true, as well, of these Covid times—it’s also about the economics of information: how many bodies, how many dollars. What it’s predicting (describing, hoping to prevent, inadvertently causing, whatever) is our shameful, secret hope that there’s actually more going on here.
In the end, the world is saved by a cybernetic dolphin named Jones. He doesn’t talk, but his ee-eeks! are still more expressive than Keanu’s “yeah”s. In Gibson’s 2021, dolphins excel at decryption; the Navy likes to shanghai them into service during times of war for use in counterespionage. His skull on the verge of exploding, Johnny speeds to Jones’ hideaway tank, where the cetacean supergenius, wired to a network through which he can perform various quantum codebreaks, yanks the data out just in time. The cure to NAS is broadcast worldwide, and Keanu can, finally, relax.
Our Navy really has experimented on dolphins for next-gen sonar, but here in the present, our biocryptography efforts are mostly limited to snapping photos of random T cells to generate unclonable, uncrackable security keys. Which is awesome, and possibly our best theoretical defense against Jonesian quantum hacking, but not sexy enough for sci-fi. Not that Gibson wasn’t onto something, however. In fact, his most prescient—yes prescient—point goes far beyond information warfare and the machinations of megacorporations. It’s about the physicality, the very corporeality, of the web itself.
Gibson’s cyberspace was always bound up with the body. Data can be wet-wired; manipulating files requires Power Gloves and an “Eyephone.” When Johnny jacks in, it kind of hurts. Such meat-meets-metal has, in the quarter-century since Johnny Mnemonic came out, been called a failure of prediction. Our internet ended up disembodied, virtualized, socially distanced, our iPhones more of a figurative prosthesis. Yet, this last year, we sat slack at our desks, muscles atrophying, nerves attenuating, as we doomscrolled our way to new aches, new anxieties, new ailments. Some wild-eyes went so far as to claim that 5G triggered the pandemic, which is the most Gibson-sounding conspiracy of all. In Johnny’s world, the black shakes are caused not by a virus but by a signal. Epidemic through technic. There’s something in the air, no matter what you do. You’re already sick, you’re already dying. Connectivity is killing you.
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