Friday, August 24, 2018

August's Book: Burning Chrome

Burning Chrome by William Gibson
Science Fiction (1986/2003* - 204 pp.)

Finally, some William Gibson on this blog!

Burning Chrome is, roughly speaking, his ten most famous short stories he published from 1981-1986, so around the time he released Neuromancer. He wasn't as well-known during this period as he would be later on, but he wrote some of his most iconic material. It's almost all the first wave of cyberpunk. Enough type has been shed on the fusion of cybernetics with humanity that I'll focus on the few of the more obscure aspects of Burning Chrome here: the way it rockets its characters into its settings, and its use of clipped style.

Gibson's love of Eastern Hemisphere settings comes through in stories like "Johnny Mnemonic", "Red Star, Winter Orbit" and "New Rose Hotel" . "Johnny Mnemonic"'s opening of Yakuza, "Squids", a.k.a. Superconducting Quantum Interference Detectors, (10) and Jones the drug-addled talking dolphin blends Japanese gangster movies with Blade Runner-esque cyberpunk. (In a bizarre way of Gibson predicting the future, though, Jones's talking is surprisingly realistic.)

"Red Star, Winter Orbit" deals with the disturbing USSR-era term "military custody", (94) is based on politically motivated psychiatric treatment. (Although scary Cold War-era institutionalization was available in other countries, including the US, as well.) From its beginning, Gibson makes the Western reader feel like a foreigner: "He'd never liked the boy's father, either - an easygoing party man, long ago settled into lecture tours, a dacha on the Black Sea, American liquor, French suits, Italian shoes..." (85) The geographical otherness the Western reader feels reinforces the strangeness of the stories' more overtly science fiction features.

Similarly, the titular hotel of "New Rose Hotel" is just outside Narita Airport in Tokyo, yet the characters try to transform away from Japanese-ness. The initial description of the person to whom the story is narrated is "Eurasian, half-gaijin... Dark European eyes, Asian cheekbones" (110), and then later, the same character says, "I'm Dutch now, you said. I'll want a new look." (117) A meeting between the narrator and a Welshman in Berlin is for the express purpose of "disappearing" one of the few still-totally-Japanese characters, Hiroshi, yet the narrator admits that "Europe is a dead museum." (116)**

Gibson's American settings are full of drug addicts. In "The Gernsback Continuum", the narrator suffers from amphetamine psychosis. (33) In "Fragments of a Hologram Rose", Parker wakes to find unexplained cocaine in his pocket. By the time "Burning Chrome" hits, the compilation has read like a story in which the characters are so fried they are no longer real; they are instead distinguishable from aspects of a computer program, "Chrome: her pretty childface smooth as steel..." while Rikki acts like a video game character. (180)

In "Dogfight", after Deke falls asleep while operating the flight simulator, his experience combines Parker's cocaine-planted awakening in "The Gernsback Continuum" with the programming cartridge as power model of "Burning Chrome": "He woke to the rancid smell of frying krillcakes and winced with hunger. No cash, either. Well, there were plenty of student types in the stack. Bound to be one who'd like to score a programming unit." (155)

Stylistically, a few key patterns emerge throughout Burning Chrome. One is the clipped, conversational, fragmentized nature of Gibson's writing. This ties into his often first-person narratives of people who think in short bursts. In "The Belonging Kind", when the protagonist Coretti's obsession with his unnamed, prospective love interest takes over his life: "He'd missed classes too many times. He'd taken to watching the hotel when he could, even in the daytime. He'd been seen in too many bars. He never seemed to change his clothes." (54) In "Hinterlands", when Toby discusses the space travel highway: "The promise of pain. It's there each time." (75) The block-quoted Rules 1-3 add to the staccato narration. In "The Winter Market", the album Kings of Sleep obsesses the characters.^ Our narrator describes part of it as "Amazing. Freedom and death, right there, right there, razor's edge, forever." (132)

If Burning Chrome has any weakness, it's not to do with Gibson's storytelling. Gibson could have used a better editor; sentences frequently start with coordinating conjunctions, which is one of the few writing rules I actually think shouldn't be broken. Secondly, the last five stories take up a combined 60% of the compilation, which makes it feel longer as it progresses. This is tough to avoid, as 8 of the 10 stories are within a page or two of 25 pages, but the two shorter stories (8 and 16 pages each) could have been split up rather than placed back to back. Again, no fault of Gibson's, as far as I know.

Burning Chrome is sophisticated enough for a cold night in with a snifter of cognac, but I read it on the balcony with a beer.

Ease of Reading: 6
Educational Content: 2^^

*Burning Chrome was first released as a compilation in 1986. My edition has an additional preface Gibson wrote in 2003.

**Funnily, though, West Germany still exists in the future of "The Winter Market". (125)

^Perhaps a reference to another fictitious, never quoted, omnipresent King in Yellow?

^^I originally had this as a 1. Click the link above where I refer to Jones the dolphin's conversational skills.

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