We are very spoiled, and very privileged, to live now in the twenty-first century. We look back on works of science fiction from the 1950s, 1960s, and onward that reference the 1990s or 2000s as "the future" and make grandiose predictions: we'll have flying cars! a eugenics war! robot apocalypse! It's interesting to note that such extrapolation, while often falling very short of the mark, tends to be conservative when it describes the technological platforms through which we acquire these flying cars, supermen, and killer robots. The twenty-first century of the early twentieth century still involved cassette tapes and analog computers. The digital revolution is a true paradigm shift in science fiction just as it has been in the rest of our society, rendering such visions of the present future quaint. For people more open-minded than myself, this is often not a problem. I have difficulty immersing myself in stories that allude to now-obsolete technology as if it were the future—I can do it, as is evident by my enjoyment of the original Star Trek series, but it is difficult. I'm a child of the digital age, and I'm spoiled that way.
William Gibson is a special case. His work, too, is vulnerable to the effects of aging. Yet he is rightly called a visionary and a prescient master of this field: after all, he coined the term cyberspace, and his descriptions of virtual reality have influenced its depictions in film and literature ever since Neuromancer first appeared on the scene. So even though Gibson's stories have aged as his future never came to pass, they remain amazing and brilliant. He infused them with ideas and conflicts that continue to grip readers even as the futures these stories depict turn into alternative versions of history.
Burning Chrome is a wonderful treasure trove of Gibson's genius. I did not like every story within, but every story is brilliant in its own way. I never liked the film version of Johnny Mneumonic, and the short story, though substantially different, did not change my mind. Gibson throws around some intriguing ideas, but he never really explores them with the depth I'd like. I wonder if I would feel the same way about "Burning Chrome" if I hadn't read Neuromancer: like the novel, it makes computer hacking into an exciting, adrenaline-fuelled experience, as the name "console cowboy" might suggest. And I really enjoyed "Burning Chrome" for the way its narrator judges the relationship between Bobby Quine and Rikki. Unlike "Johnny Mneumonic," Gibson establishes the backstory just enough to justify the main action but not so much that one feels like one is missing out on the larger picture. (But if you do, and you haven't read it, then you really should go get a copy of Neuromancer.)
Though "Johnny Mneumonic" is very well-known and "Burning Chrome" lends its title to this entire collection, these were not the most memorable stories for me. Those stories are tame compared to some of the utterly weird stuff that Gibson has displays in between them. From recorded personalities lurking just off stage to a man slowly discovering he might not be human after all, Burning Chrome delivers stories that demonstrate Gibson's grasp on the breadth of what science fiction can accomplish.
I'm not sure how to describe "The Winter Market." I could say a recording engineer discovers an artist who, encumbered by an exoskeleton and suffering from a terminal illness, uploads herself to a computer. That's pretty accurate, although it doesn't quite capture the nuances that Gibson infuses into the story. As the main character questions whether the recorded version of Lise's personality is actually "her" (all the while dreading the moment "she" calls him), we're treated to a flashback explanation of how they met and how her detached attitude toward life has made him dissatisfied with his own. It's interesting that so many of Gibson's protagonists are young, dissatisfied males who are down on their luck and fall in with a mysterious woman who owes him no particular allegiance: Johnny Mneumonic, Case (from Neuromancer), Parker, Bobby, the narrator of "The Winter Market," and Deke all fall into this category. They are certainly not the same characters—not even close!—but it's an intriguing recurring motif.
"Red Star, Winter Orbit" is one of those stories of a future that never was. Space has been largely abandoned, except for a communist, Russian space station and bubble-like domes inhabited by Americans. But Russia wants to retire its space station, which is bad news for Colonel Korolev, the first man on Mars. Thanks to an accident years ago, Korolev is unable to return to Earth and must live out his remaining days aboard the Russian space station. So when it gets decommissioned, naturally, he isn't very happy. Together with several sympathetic members of the crew, they hatch a plan to leak word to the rest of the world what Russia intends to do to its hero. It's a touching story with a nice twist at the end.
In contrast, "Dogfight" is also a touching story but does not have the endearing twist. Deke is the main character, but I hesitate to call him a protagonist. He starts low and falls farther as he seeks pre-eminence in his new obsession, combat with holographic, mentally-directed biplanes.
"The Belonging Kind" is a really weird, almost purely psychological tale about a man who meets a shapeshifter in a bar and becomes obsessed with her. I don't want to spoil the ending, although it's a little predictable, just because Gibson and co-author John Shirley do such a good job bringing it about.
However, the real star of Burning Chrome has to be "Hinterlands." It's a somewhat dark, depressing vision of how we might join the interstellar community. In "Hinterlands," Russian Colonel Olga Tovyevski accidentally discovers an anomaly near an L-5 point. Her space capsule disappears through it, returning years later with a catatonic Russian on board, trashed communications equipment … a seashell of extraterrestrial origin.
Boom, as they say, goes the dynamite.
You can imagine what would happen if that occurred today, except you don't have to, because Gibson describes it for us. The world's governments leap into action, and "exobiology suddenly found itself standing on unnervingly solid ground." They soon discover an awful catch to this wormhole phenomenon (which the Americans dub "the Highway"): every pilot returns dead from suicide or mad, and the mad ones usually commit suicide shortly thereafter. So why bother to pay the price of a ticket? Our narrator, Toby, explains:
If the first ones to come back had only returned with seashells, I doubt that Heaven [the space station] would be out here. Heaven was built after a dead Frenchman returned with a twelve-centimeter ring of magnetically coded steel locked in his cold hand, black parody of the lucky kid who wins the free ride on the merry-go-round. We may never find out where or how he got it, but that ring was the Rosetta stone for cancer. So now it's cargo cult time for the human race. We can pick things up out there that we might not stumble across in research in a thousand years. Charmian says we're like those poor suckers on their islands, who spend all their time building landing strips to make the big silver birds come back. Charmian says that contact with 'superior' civilizations is something you don't wish on your worst enemy.
To me, this paragraph shows why William Gibson is a master of the science fiction field. It's a somewhat chilling interpretation of the role humans might have if we ever enter into contact with a larger, established interstellar community: we'll be the primitive species. We won't necessarily communicate effectively or benignly, but we will acquire advanced technology and then ask for more, and it might very well destroy us. In Star Trek, despite the fact that they are the new kids on the block, humans go on to become the founders of the United Federation of Planets (along with the older, more stoic Vulcans and the volatile Andorians). Science fiction often portrays humans as special (warning: TVTropes), which is not surprising considering the species of both the writers and their audience. So it's refreshing when authors take a step back, think critically, and present a different perspective, even one as bleak as this: we're just rats, pushing a button to make food come out.
Toby and his lover Charmian, by the way, were rejected as pilots and now serve as "surrogates" on Heaven. They greet the returned pilots—the live ones, that is—and try to help bring them back to something approaching a normal mental state. As Toby explains, they are seldom successful. Whatever happens to pilots who go through the Highway, it breaks them. Yet "Hinterlands" concludes with Toby's laments that he and Charmian were found unsuitable for being pilots and his description of their continual longing to go on this almost-certainly fatal adventure. It's an amazing story, both in concept and in execution, and it alone is worth finding a copy of Burning Chrome.
William Gibson fans, put Burning Chrome on your to-read list if it's not already there. And for those of who you haven't read William Gibson, this would be a fine place to start (though I still recommend Neuromancer as well). This anthology is a snapshot of Gibson at his best, from the familiar milieu of his Sprawl world and beyond, to even weirder and more imaginative places. Gibson is a source of great ideas, and he always manages to wrap them in even greater stories.