Book review: Burning Chrome

Burning Chrome.Burning Chrome by William Gibson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

If you wanted to only read one ‘cyberpunk’ Gibson book and still take away the nut graf of his world, this would probably be it. Burning Chrome is a collection of shorter fiction: ten stories, three co-written with others. The title story is where the term cyberspace – so ubiquitous these days – first appeared.

It’s likely that I should’ve read this book before I embarked on Gibson’s Sprawl trilogy, but there’s something neat about discovering these stories after the fact. It’s almost as if they’re a crib sheet for what’s to come in the trilogy. These are the seeds that grew, equally informative as they show Gibson’s talent for creating meaningful, engaging stories in shorter spaces. That, and his ability to invent junky dolphins.

And yet, the essential secret of Gibson’s appeal is strongly in effect here: this is SF for people who don’t like SF. There’s tech, sure, but it’s in service of the story, not set-dressing. The tech isn’t as someone like George Lucas would use it – to create distraction in the hope we ignore a story’s failings. It’s just… there. Like your phone, or a watch, or a bus. It frames the world but it’s not the focus. What’s important are emotions: there’s pity here (the decayed Soviet pioneer, floating above a world he can’t return to), body-horror there (Jesus, those eye-cameras), and a general desperation, a sort of Runyonesque huckstering. Each slightly ick emotion is touched, raw, creating that licking-a-nine-volt-battery charge. Zang.

What’s interesting about these stories is how they jangle the nerves. From outside, a lot of SF literature seems clean – all sterility and dust-free environments. Gibson’s isn’t. Everywhere there’s decay, be it in surrounds or in characters. Sometimes it’s overtly physical – the orbit-induced withering of ‘Red Star, Winter Orbit’ – and elsewhere it’s mental or moral. The world is built on gomi, on rubbish, and I think the development of Japan as such a big theme, and the juxtaposition that country represents (the battle of centuries of craftsman tradition versus the ’80s tech boom) stems from the desire to provide some respite from the junk – albeit one with a price.

There’s a sadness pervading everything in this work, too. There’s an excellent meditation here on the sadness of alien contact which places such hopeful, I-want-to-believe stories as Spielberg’s in the shadow of big fear. Memory is also a big concern, much more important than I’d originally thought. Perhaps most touchingly it features in the title story’s evocation of a sort of Lang-inspired Yoshiwara section: a place where, for a moment, one can escape their past, through the degradation of another’s present.

In the introduction to this collection, author Bruce Sterling writes of Gibson as a “one-two combination of lowlife and high tech”, which is possibly the best description of the work I’ve read. He also mentions the author’s awareness of the secret narrative behind life – Ballardian invisible literature – which subtly shape our times. The astounding thing about the stories here is that it’s this link with those invisible forces – seen through the emotional experiences of the writing’s characters – which keep the texts from aging, from becoming irrelevant. Everything here is possible, and in the time of the Oculus Rift, of tap-and-go payments, of body augmentation, of global corporations and shuddering militaries, almost likely.

My Goodreads profile is here.

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