Thursday, March 29, 2012

Review of "Burning Chrome" by William Gibson

William Gibson is a unique figure in science fiction.  Able to parallel and juxtapose prescient technology across profound social and cultural lines in literary style, his writing can be both appreciated by genre fans and savored by an aesthete.  Published in 1986, Burning Chrome is a collection of Gibson’s short fiction from the early part of his career, 1977-1985.  Despite that much of the content pre-dates the success of Neuromancer, all the elements which inform the Sprawl world and the novels which follow can be found here.  Thus, the collection is a great introduction to not only that series, but the author’s worldview and style in general.  What follows is a short commentary on each piece in the collection.

“Johnny Mnemonic” – Unlike the film, the original does not try to jam all of Gibson’s ideas into a two hour popcorn marathon, nor does it translate to the imagination in such tones of… unintentional comedy.  The short story is tightly focused plot and character-wise and contains some of the most overt description of the Sprawl in print.  Not the best of the collection, it’s nevertheless a solid opener. 

“The Gernsback Continuum” – This piece highlights Gibson’s wider spread interests as an artist and presents his view of the genre of science fiction.  Modernist gushing of the early 20th century in focus, the hope and dreams of another time find their meaning changed in the future.  One of the best in the collection, this story is one of the defining moments of the cyberpunk movement--thematically, that is.

“Fragments of a Hologram Rose” – James Cameron would later (unadmittedly) borrow the premise of this story for his movie Strange Days, namely: what the effect of being able to replay memories has on lost love.  Suffice to say, Gibson’s original possesses none of the Hollywood flair and is relayed in far more convincing tones. 

“The Belonging Kind” (with John Shirley) – This look at the bar scene is the story of an introverted man trying to fit in.  Dostoevsky’s Notes from the Underground springing to mind (the surreal version, that is), the story is a harsh or uplifting commentary on nightlife and humanity's social side, depending how you view it.

“Hinterland” – Daily life on Straylight, or a shorter, lonelier vision of Pohl’s Gateway, either way, it is a haunting story of humanity and companionship in the isolation of space.

“Red Star, Winter Orbit” (with Bruce Sterling) – Perhaps the weakest in the collection, this story is of the cycles of political, societal, and technological power that Russia and the USA have had, have, and most importantly, perhaps will have.

“New Rose Hotel” – A hauntingly poetic entry, Gibson finds his groove in a Sprawl biotech deal gone wrong, the conspirator holed up in a Japanese tube hotel (a-la Case at the beginning of Neuromancer), fearing for his life. (Note: this story was made into a film starring Christopher Walken, Willem Dafoe, and Asia Argento.  Easily outpacing Johnny Mnemonic, it is the best screen adaptation of Gibson's work produced thus far.)

“A Winter Market” – A Sprawl story that lays the groundwork for Slick, Gentry, Cherry, and Little Bird in Mona Lisa Overdrive, it asks the question: what if you could escape physical pain without committing suicide by casting aside your mortal body for a digital life inside cyberspace?

“Dogfight” (with Michael Swanwick) – Perhaps the most fun and entertaining of the collection, this story takes the joy of video gaming to the next level, and drags along with it drugs, tech, and the angst of youth.

“Burning Chrome” – The icing on the cake, this Sprawl story caps the collection in glorious fashion.  Harddrives smoking, ‘trodes channeling the matrix, and reality two steps behind, this is stereotypical cyberpunk in a neon nutshell - and may be the best of the collection.

In the end, Burning Chrome is not one of those short story collections intending to simply cash in on a writer's early success.  Though some stories are stronger than others, all have been crafted with the same literary care Gibson invests in his novels.  Each sentence, phrase, and word is parsed for meaning and impact.  Moreover, almost all the themes and plot devices which can be found in his novels can be found here in capsular form.  Thus, if you’re unsure of whether or not to invest yourself in Gibson’s works, this is a great place to start without having to worry about the filler publishers often try to push on readers.  For those who have read the Sprawl series but not Burning Chrome, then the recommendation is obvious: I wish I had read it first.

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