Burning Chrome, by William Gibson
William Gibson was made famous by his 1984 novel Neuromancer. Before that though he was already well known on the SF scene, and he’d had a number of short stories published.
1986 saw those short stories gathered together into one volume, Burning Chrome (also the title of one of the short stories). It’s an interesting collection to read today. Gibson’s short stories aren’t as good as his novels, but they are interesting historical documents and there is a certain pleasure to be had in seeing the seeds of the ideas that would later prove so influential when put in novel form.
The first story, Johnny Mnemonic, is probably the most famous of the collection, due to a frankly terrible film adaptation starring Keanu Reeves. Here’s the first couple of sentences from it, which give a good idea as to the style:
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. I’m a very technical boy.
Johnny Mnemonic is set in the milieu that would later be used for Neuromancer, and indeed Molly Zero who is a key character in Neuromancer makes her debut here. Already there’s casual violence, criminality and interestingly a brand reference – Adidas. In Gibson’s future brands matter and this will prove a recurring theme in these stories and in his work generally (most notably in the relatively recent Pattern Recognition). Gibson’s future was consumerist, and writing this in 2010 on that front he looks pretty accurate.
Johnny Mnemonic and Burning Chrome itself are both essentially crime stories. The characters may be hackers or have surgically altered brains, but in the end what they do and how they live would be recognisable to Chandler. These stories are fun and they’re interesting as a demonstration of how Gibson’s ideas were developing, but they’re not the best in the collection. The best oddly enough are those least typical of his later work.
In Fragments of a Hologram Rose a sleepless man contemplates a failed relationship and the debris of it remaining in his apartment and his memory. Published back in 1977 it’s a strangely elegaic work, about the impossibility of really knowing another person and the unreliability of recollection. There are elements of what’s to come later (“In the bedroom, Parker prods the brushed-aluminum face of his Sendai Sleep-Master.” – there’s those brand names again), but the mood is very different to what was to follow.
Other stories are more straightforwardly traditional SF. Hinterland is a solid tale of humanity’s first contact (of sorts) and of how alien aliens could be. It’s good stuff, but it’s not genre defining. Many feature what will later be almost standard Gibsonian elements such as capsule hotels, temperfoam slabs for beds. hostile corporate extractions and an awful lot of chrome (seriously, a lot of chrome). Again, most are fun but if it wasn’t for his later works these wouldn’t be remembered now.
There are exceptions though, and this collection includes what is probably my favourite story by Gibson, The Gernsback Continuum. Here’s the first paragraph:
Mercifully, the whole thing is starting to fade, to become an episode. While I do still catch the odd glimpse, it’s peripheral; mere fragments of mad-doctor chrome, confining themselves to the corner of an eye. There as that flying-wing liner over San Francisco last week, but it was almost translucent. And the shark-fin roadsters have gotten scarcer, and freeways discreetly avoid unfolding themselves into the gleaming eighty-lane monsters I was forced to drive last month in my rented Toyota. And I know that none of it will follow me to New York; my vision is narrowing to a single wavelength of probability. I’ve worked hard for that. Television helped a lot.
This is nothing like the other stories. Here there are none of the femme-fatales Gibson is so fond of (a lot of the stories feature women seducing men to get what they want then betraying them, Chandler again) and there’s no vision of the future. Well, that’s not quite right. There is a vision of the future but it’s not Gibson’s. It’s a previous generation’s vision of the future which now seems both absurd and vaguely threatening.
The Gernback Continuum is the story of a photographer in the then modern day who is given an assignment to photograph surviving remnants of the futuristic architecture of the 1930s. As he does so, he starts to see it around him for real – as if he’s falling into the shining future that was once imagined.
When I first read this story as a teenager I took it literally, as a tale of an alternate timeline intersecting with ours. It’s not though. Reading it as an adult it’s much more interesting than that. The photographer has clearly lost his grip on reality. He’s seeing the articles he’s read about his subject matter and their illustrations as if they were real. He’s seeing a future that never happened, something people once thought would be in place of the dull reality of what is.
It’s a great story, and there’s a huge irony in having it here. The Gernsback Continuum is a paean (and challenge) to an outdated form of science fiction and because it’s not about an imagined future (but about memories of a future that really was once imagined) it’s not dated at all. The other stories though feature Soviets in space, cold war politics continued, and now they’re as quaint as Edwardians with their dreams of frock-coats on Venus.
The only story in this collection which isn’t now a historical artefact is the one about how science fiction futures can become irrelevant and dated. There’s something splendid in that.
Otherwise, Gibson’s prose isn’t always stellar but it definitely has its moments. Gibson isn’t a master of dialogue and his characters are generally straightforward (though that’s often an issue with short stories). Gibson, like most science fiction writers, isn’t primarily interested in describing inner states.
What Gibson is interested in and where his real talent lies is creating and describing worlds. He writes in one story of “legless beggars with wooden bowls under animated holograms advertising French software”, and for me that captures the essence of the cyberpunk genre in one phrase. That right there is a whole brief literary movement in a part sentence.
Elsewhere, I liked a description of a holographic business sign being displayed “over a display of dead flies wearing fur coats of gray dust.” Gibson reminds us that the future is born of the present, and therefore unlike the perfection glimpsed in The Gernsback Continuum wherever we’re going will be much like now. It may have new machines, new vices and new crimes but it will still have rich and poor and in the end what will really matter will not be the technology but the people using it, and they will be much as we are now and much as we always were.
Gibson isn’t a psychological writer, but he doesn’t forget the human element. I think that’s a large part of why his fiction is outliving its period specifics.
Finally, while the part-sentence above encapsulated cyberpunk for me, there is one phrase which is generally seen as being the essence of the genre. It’s a phrase so classic that I used a variant of it for the title of my last blog entry on Gibson. It appears here for the first time, a harbinger of a literary wake up call that would shake the moribund SF scene of the late 1970s and introduce something new and much more interesting: “the street finds its own uses for things.”
Gibson’s stories here draw on a range of different traditions, some more successfully than others. The weakest are the most traditional, the best the least. In between are a handful where Gibson experiments with fusing crime genre concepts onto SF and it was those experiments which helped give birth to the cyberpunk genre (along obviously with writers such as Rucker and Sterling). This is where it began. If you’re not interested in what followed then the only story here worth seeking out is The Gernsback Continuum. If you are though it’s a fascinating insight into the shape of things then to come.