1977, 1980s, 1981, 1982, 1983, 1984, 1985, 1986, Ace Books, anthology/collection, Bruce Sterling, Cold War, cyberpunk, John Shirley, Michael Swanwick, Omni, Richard Berry, science fiction, short fiction, Sprawl Trilogy, William Gibson
William Gibson is known for the impact his novel Neuromancer made in 1984, and that novel’s importance often overshadows the author’s earlier work. The truth is that Gibson had written those very same cyberpunk stories for several years before Neuromancer came out, crafting visions of a digital world in the pages of Omni magazine: glittery chrome and circuitry cloaked in neo-noir, a global and cut-throat world, as rich in data as it is in sensory details and nods to future pop-culture, the space where man and machine intersect with culture and technology. His writing is pretty bleak and gritty, with melancholic overtones pervading these tales of future espionage, rusty space stations, and get-rich-quick schemes. Combine futurism with cynicism, present it in a fragmented, surrealistic writing style, and you have Burning Chrome, collecting 10 stories from 1977 to 1985.
Johnny Mnemonic – Omni, May 1981
Johnny is a data trafficker with a data storage system implanted in his head, and he’s made the mistake of storing a few hundred megabytes of unknown data for Ralfi Face. Face is not eager to pay, and when Johnny confronts him, it’s revealed Face put a contract out to terminate Johnny since the data was illegal Yakuza info that the crime syndicate doesn’t want anyone to see. Lucky for Johnny, he bumps into the razorgirl Molly Millions (see Neuromancer) and offers her a fat share to keep the Yakuza off his back. This story is a precursor vision to the Sprawl trilogy, as bleak and gritty and rapid-fire as any of those novels; a dozen or so brilliant ideas are contained within, though the future jargon and blistering pace make for a chaotic read—either keep up or get left behind. Nebula nominee.
The Gernsback Continuum – Universe 11 (1981)
A photographer is hired to do a photo shoot of a specific kind of ephemera: the abandoned buildings littering the American landscape built in the old “atompunk”/”raygun gothic” art style, all streamlined brushed-aluminum and art-deco predictions of a future that never was. But in his travels, he begins to see this dieselpulp world coming to life: flying wings soaring overhead, zeppelins landing on crystal cities emerging from the desert. Is he peering into an alternate reality where that future was real, or is he hallucinating from spending too many miles on the road? A fascinating question to ponder, and one that also gives a deserved rap on the knuckles to the sterile Aryan technocracies envisioned by Hugo Gernsback and others.
Fragments of a Hologram Rose – Unearth, Summer 1977
A man named Parker re-lives his past and that of his ex-girlfriend, going through her collection of sense-recordings. We see how their relationship was shaped through bits and pieces, from his apprenticeship at a Japanese megacorporation to the killing fields in a war-torn America. It’s a bleak and bittersweet story, full of haunting imagery: as if the end of a relationships wasn’t painful enough, Parker engulfs the sense-recordings of his like an addict, replaying those moments from every angle to try and interpret and analyze the meaning of this hologram rose. Powerful stuff, especially when you consider it was Gibson’s first published story.
The Belonging Kind – Shadows 4 (1981) with John Shirley
Michael Coretti is a lonely sociology professor spending his night at the bar, when he becomes fascinated with one of the women there. He follows her from bar to bar after he realizes that she shapeshifts between stops, shedding her clothes and appearance to fit the new locale’s atmosphere, blending into every environment she finds herself. She seems to exist off nothing but alcohol, producing cash from the folds of her skin whenever needed. Fascinated, Coretti tries to track her down, his search costing him his job—and what he uncovers is more bizarre than he ever expected. Given the story’s theme of fascination with the abhorrent (night of the living “uncanny valley”), it’s no surprise that co-author John Shirley was a horror writer; it nails that creepy feeling of dread unease.
Hinterlands – Omni, October 1981
Human space travel changed forever when one Soviet cosmonaut disappeared for four years on a routine trip—she reappeared years later, quite dead but clutching a seashell of alien origin. Since then, an entire space station has built to send explorers through this wormhole like a futuristic cargo cult; some return with alien artifacts, most return dead, and a rare few are but broken shells of their former selves. The narrator is one of the therapists who tries to help the few who come back alive, with little success. It’s a story rich in mystery, and while one of those alien gizmos cured cancer the tale is just as cynical as most of Gibson’s others. Despite its dark and depressing nature, this story’s writing and world-building are top-notch, and it’s one of my favorites here.
Red Star, Winter Orbit – Omni, July 1983 with Bruce Sterling
Many years ago Colonel Korolev was a triumphant hero, the first man to walk on Mars. But after decades in space, injuries and free-fall have left him too withered to return to Earth’s gravity; instead he resides at the “Museum of the Soviet Triumph in Space” in Kosmograd (“Cosmic City”), a space station of linked Salyuts including a gun platform for shooting down American ICBM’s. With the United States having lost its superpower status, Kosmograd is now scheduled for decommission; Korolev plans a last-ditch effort among the civilian crew to save his home in the stars… The story just oozes detail; I love the textured backstory of Soviet stellar dominance, the US resorting to high-altitude solar-farm balloons for energy. It’s also nice to see a Cold War-era story treat Soviet characters as something other than villains. Another of my favorites in the collection.
New Rose Hotel – Omni, July 1984
Another Sprawl story, “New Rose Hotel” follows a pair of headhunters who move “human capital” from one megacorporation to another, extracting top employees from rival firms. The protagonist and his partner team up with a new girl Sandii to extract a scientist from a German research company, but after he starts working at his new company’s lab in Africa, the entire lab are killed by a deadly infectious disease. Realizing they’ve been betrayed, the headhunters start to flee—but how far can you run from a vengeful megacorp? As usual, Gibson’s view of future corporate espionage is rather bleak, with ’80s Reaganomics and globalization taken to gritty cyberpunk extremes.
The Winter Market – Vancouver Magazine, Nov 1985
In a future Vancouver, Casey meets a disabled girl in an exoskeleton named Lise who has some of the most intense, pure emotions he’s ever experienced. As a sense-recording engineer, Casey realizes he could have a huge hit on his hands selling digital copies of her intense emotions. They ride to stardom on sense-recordings of Lise’s hate and despair, and her album goes triple platinum, though this fortune does not lead to happiness, with her use of designer drugs spiraling out of control. A deep and layered story that deals with a superhuman darkness and longing for “normalcy,” set at the border between humanity and technology where immortality is just a download away. Hugo, Nebula, BSFA, and Aurora nominee.
Dogfight – Omni, July 1985 with Michael Swanwick
A drifter named Deke rolls into a small-town truck stop and becomes obsessed with Spads & Fokkers, a World War I biplane game in the arcade. He makes it his goal to win the medal owned by the game’s local champion, a disabled pilot clinging to the shadow of his past aviation glories. Deke happens to shack up with a spunky computer programmer who may hold the key to his victory—but he casts aside everything in his lust for victory, abusing all of his gains to achieve a hollow victory. It’s an interesting moral fable of Pyrrhic victories and loneliness, both from Deke the aimless drifter, and from allusions to the battered and broken vets of Asian wars that populate the town. Earned well-deserved Hugo and Nebula nominations.
Burning Chrome – Omni, July 1982
When console cowboy Automatic Jack buys a mysterious piece of software that turns out to be untraceable Russian hacking software, he isn’t sure what to do with it. But his buddy Bobby Quine has an idea: their plan is it to burn down Chrome, a well-connected, high-level criminal who launders the money for crime syndicates. Bobby wants to do it to impress his new girlfriend, Rikki, a stimsim addict desperate to get the same flashy designer eyes that all the cool stimsim stars. Bobby’s head over heels in love with her, and Jack has fallen for her too—but everything in the Sprawl is fleeting, and this love-triangle won’t last forever. As the first Sprawl story, this is something like a proof-of-concept for Neuromancer, covering similar themes of data heists, high technology, love and loss in a tight-knit short story. Nebula nominee.
The Bottom Line
One of cyberpunk’s definitions involves “high tech, low life,” and that’s very apparent when reading these stories. The characters are inundated with high-technology and data-rich environments, but live on the underbelly of society—take Johnny Mnemonic and his high-tech storage drive used to store illegal data, or the headhunters in “New Rose Hotel” who heist rival companies’ employees instead of mere prototypes or ideas. Far from the glittering utopias SF presented in its early days (as in “Gernsback Continuum”), cyberpunk takes its future technology and space travel into a future that’s bleak and messy, Reaganomics and Globalization run amok. Corporations have become more powerful than governments, and corporate espionage has evolved into deadly warfare. And cyberpunk has an international vibe, too; the Soviets, Japan, and Europe all make appearances as distinct entities, which SF in ages past had too often treated as “1950s Manhattan, only somewhere else.”
You could read Burning Chrome as the precursor to the Sprawl trilogy, the prototypes and early-stage developments of cyberpunk, arguably the most influential movement within SF during the ’80s. Or you could it as a standalone of top-shelf, awards-nominated short stories. The tales in this collection are downers: they depict fast lives cut short in the search for greed and glory, love and loss as mutual inevitabilities, decaying governments and corporate capitalism without restraint, stories that owe more to James M. Cain’s short noir tales than to Foundation or Childhood’s End. They can also be hard to get into, written in a rapid-fire surrealist style that demands you catch hold of the high-tech jargon and layered plot on your own time, because this story has places to be. Nit-picks aside, Burning Chrome contains some of Gibson’s best fiction, and it’s one of those collections that deserves a space on your TBR pile.
I read this as part of the 2017 William Gibson Readalong.
Title: Burning Chrome
Author: William Gibson
First Published: 1986 (collection of short stories from 1977-1985)
What I Read: Ace Books pb, 1993
Price I Paid: $3.50
MSRP: $13.90 tpb / $8.39 ebook
ISBN: 0060539828 / B00ICMWZH4