“Johnny Mnemonic” is a short story by Nebula Award-winning author William Gibson that was originally published in 1981 in the science fiction magazine Omni.
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The Story: Running Through The Streets Of Nighttown
Johnny is a special kind of courier, whose head is used to store corporate data (usually stolen) in an “idiot-savant” mode. His job is to run the data from Point A to Point B without getting caught, but he finds himself in trouble with the Yakuza, or Japanese-style Mafia, and ends up befriending a strange young woman by the name of Molly Millions. They partner up on this mad quest to get the latest data out of Johnny’s head and get rid of the deadly cloned ninja assassin sent by the Yakuza to silence Johnny.
The Cast: A Little Technical With Just The Right Amount Of Crude
Johnny is the narrator, protagonist, and main character of this little tale, which makes sense when you consider that the data locked in his head is the big prize in his race against the Yakuza. Molly Millions–who had a similar but larger role in Gibson’s novel Neuromancer–makes a great appearance here, popping up out of nowhere and proving more sympathetic to Johnny’s cause than she does elsewhere. She also gets a fantastic scene near the end of the story to demonstrate just how deadly a fighter she can be, even when going up against cloned ninja assassins with razor-wire hidden in their thumbs.
There’s also a dolphin-turned-supergenius who helps Johnny and Molly figure out the code to unlocking the data in Johnny’s head. It’s a surreal addition to the plot, but it makes sense in context: the dolphin is a veteran of a military experiment to give dolphins cybernetic upgrades in naval operations. Oh, and the dolphin is also addicted to narcotics and needs his fix every so often, just in case you thought this character couldn’t get even more bizarre.
The Tone: Jumping Headfirst Into The Madhouse
Gibson goes for more color and oddities in this story than he does in his novel Neuromancer, which has a somewhat similar plot and cast. This is the kind of story where squatters live up in the rafters over a hi-tech-driven city, where dolphins need cybernetics and smack, and where a smiling salaryman might turn out to be an utterly ruthless Yakuza hit man. It’s fast, furious, and fun to watch unfold.
Final Verdict: A Quick Fix Of Pure Punk
Essentially, “Johnny Mnemonic” is a precursor to the plot and cast of Gibson’s bestselling novel, Neuromancer. It jumps like a frog in a dynamite pond (a line I stole from The Rum Diary, by Hunter S. Thompson) and isn’t afraid to explore the fictional setting of Nighttown and its mad residents. It’s a great way to start off this anthology, and while I haven’t finished the collection yet, I’ve no doubt that “Mnemonic” is going to be one of my all-time favorite stories.
Bibliography: Gibson, William. “Johnny Mnemonic.” Burning Chrome. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, Inc., 1986.