Its edge was bright as new chrome.

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 Gibson’s short stories aren’t as good as his novels, but they are interesting historical documents and there is a certain pleasure to be had in seeing the seeds of the ideas that would later prove so influential when put in novel form.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.

Burning Chrome

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19 Comments

Filed under Gibson, William, Science Fiction, Short Stories

19 responses to “Its edge was bright as new chrome.

  1. This actually sounds quite interesting. Probably the blend of SF w/crime as you mentioned.

    I am trying to spend at least some of the last of 2010 on books I meant to get to but didn’t, and I’m also hoping to revisit some of the new-to-me authors I discovered this year.

  2. leroyhunter

    I think I missed the boat with Gibson, I never read Neuromancer when it was new / cutting edge etc so I wonder what the point would be now. The themes of his later books sound interesting but he’s not really on my radar. I’m probably being unfair but I’m less likely to force myself in this kind of direction having been terribly disappointed by my dalliance with China Mieville earlier in the year.

  3. leroyhunter

    That’s a tough break about Troubles as well! I was really looking forward to your take on it.

    Annoying habit that the rest of life has of intruding on the important things….

  4. I read neuromancer years ago but nothing else by him ,only read neuromancer to see what fuss was about ,do remember I quite enjoyed it ,Know praise for this new one on whole has been positive ,and a clever mix of genres ,all the best stu

  5. If you’re new to Gibson I’d start with Neuromancer Guy. It’s that which sparked the passion for him and which made his reputation, and the crime influence is very clear in it.

    What Mieville did you try Leroy?

    Regarding Gibson, if the concepts interest then he’s worth reading but he’s not one of those writers where you want to run out into the street and grab people and force them to read him.

    The thing with Troubles is annoying, though I do plan to get back to it soon. Dark and funny, it looks great.

    Mixing genres is one of Gibson’s talents really, but if you weren’t fired up enough by Neuromancer to want to read more Stu I doubt the latest stuff will be worth your while.

  6. leroyhunter

    It was The City & The City Max, much-trumpeted both as a concept and a read. The idea is interesting but I thought clumsily executed and really poorly written for a book that has attracted such praise.

  7. Ah, well, I think a lot of people regard that as his best. I saw it argued it should have been Booker listed (I can’t speak to that, I’ve not read it).

    So, if you didn’t like that I doubt you’ll like any of his. I’ll probably try it at some point, but I find the sheer density a touch offputting.

  8. Max: I watched the film version of Troubles & have read the book–both are wonderful.

  9. leroyhunter

    I gave it 77 pages and then called it a day: being honest, it would have been well out of its depth on a Booker shortlist (but no more then some of this year’s crop seemed to be).

  10. GB Steve

    I was disappointed by The City & The City too. Mieville is still better as an ideas man and short story writer than the long form, something Barker and Gaiman also suffer from.

    With Gibson, there’s a real maturing process visible in his work. He starts out gung ho, Chandleresque but without consistently finding the turn of phrase. “The sky was the colour of a TV turned to a dead channel” is the way Neuromancer starts. It’s as if he was either trying to make a new language for science fiction to use or to reinvent the noir. But he couldn’t keep it up and he has gradually moved away from his hard-boiled debut towards a more spare Paul Auster kind of world. I like that he’s not afraid of this and develops and embraces his idiom. Also the more recent the book, the less SF it becomes.

  11. Jonathan McAlmont over at Ruthless Culture (it’s in my links) gave The City and the City the most excoriating review I’ve seen in ages (JMcA can excoriate with the best of them).

    Mieville’s books always seem to clock in at hundreds of pages. Some terseness might do no harm.

    Gibson has always tried to push at the edges of genre, it’s part of what I like about him and part of what makes him important. It’s interesting how he and Bruce Sterling both started writing contemporary fiction, the message I think being that we’ve now arrived in the future they used to write about.

  12. LaurencePritchard

    Max,

    Any later Gibson to recommend? I dipped it to one a while back and found the prose too clunky but have forgotten which one it was.

  13. To be honest Laurence, I’m less of a fan of his later work. Pattern Recognition is interesting, but he reuses ideas from Count Zero and I think he used them better the first time round.

    For me, Neuromancer remains his best. He’s talking about returning to SF with a new concept. If he does that will probably be interesting so I’d wait and see what he does next.

    Have you read any Bruce Sterling? He’s the other main man of cyberpunk fiction and he’s produced a lot of interesting sf over the years. He’s also a columnist for Wired (not perhaps a reference really) and a fairly well respected futurologist. I liked his Holy Fire which was relatively recent. That said, he’s a writer I’d recommend highly to anyone interested in SF but not necessarily to those who aren’t.

  14. Although I write about the 30s, I never thought about the “futuristic” architecture. Interesting.

    But where “femme fatale” starts, creativity stops.

  15. Megan Abbot is interesting on that point Shelley. I’ve read one of hers, Die a Little (it’s blogged here actually) in which part of what she’s doing is the internal perspective of someone another author would have characterised as a femme fatale.

    For a weaker author, it’s a one dimensional portrait which serves in place of a character – it’s an objectification. Where it gets interesting is where the character whom some see as a femme fatale also has their own perspective.

  16. LaurencePritchard

    Max, thanks for the tip, will check out Sterling.

  17. Schizmatrix is an earlier Bruce Sterling which had a lot of impact, Holy Fire is probably more accessible though being set in something recognisably derived from our present world. Schiz is set much further in the future.

  18. I have Gibson’s new one, Zero History on my TBR pile. I’m not sure its up my street though but will give it a go later. Your article has provided me with all the background I need to go into it with higher expectations than I had before!

  19. Sorry Tom, you got spamfiltered somehow. I’ve not read that one myself. I know the one before got fairly bad reviews, so I’ll be interested to hear what Zero History is like.

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