BURNING CHROME and other stories – William Gibson (1986)

burning-chromeOn the final page of the final story – the title story – Gibson envisions a possible future for prostitution.

The customers are torn between needing someone and wanting to be alone at the same time, which has probably always been the name of that particular game, even before we had the neuroelectronics to enable them to have it both ways.

It struck me how much reading books satisfies the same urge: wanting to be alone and needing someone at the same time.

Burning Chrome‘s 10 stories are populated by Gibson’s usual kind of characters, and deal with Gibson’s usual themes – although I probably shouldn’t make a sweeping statement like that, as I’ve only read two Gibson novels so far: Neuromancer & Virtual Light. Those two reading experiences weren’t fully successful, but reading this collection was, 100%.

The stories were published between 1977 and 1986, and are rather short: about 15 pages each, and not one of them above 30 pages. They fly by like a breeze, snappy, in prose that’s top notch. Here’s Gibson – in the voice of a photographer – on some building:

I shot one in San Jose an hour before the bulldozers arrived and drove right through the structural truth of plaster and lathing and cheap concrete.

That sentence alone should convince you.

Three of the stories are situated in the Sprawl universe: Johnny MnemonicNew Rose Hotel and Burning Chrome. Three others have a co-author: The Belonging Kind was written with John Shirley, Dogfight was written with Michael Swanwick, and Red Star, Winter Orbit had Bruce Sterling helping out. Not that The Gernsback ContinuumFragments of a Hologram RoseHinterlands and The Winter Market are less remarkable: the quality throughout is consistent – a rare thing in most short fiction collections.

Some of the stories are seeped in 80ies gloom: what else explains Gibson thinking shady people in the not so distant future would feel the need to implant Doberman teeth? Some obviously were written during the Cold War – future Germany still split up, the Soviet Union still a player. Some speak of pollution, the petroleum crisis and nuclear fear. But while noticeable, these things don’t get in the way of the stories themselves. I’d go as far and say these stories are timeless, and will remain so for a long, long time – paradox intended. Okay, there still are floppy drives, but who cares about that?

Aside from those Doberman teeth, there’s hardly anything extravagant in Gibson’s future projections – one of my main issues with 1993’s Virtual Light was how far off he was with his future projections there. It struck me how subdued Burning Chrome‘s stories are, with the exception of Johnny Mnemonic – and indeed my least favorite of the bunch.

It’s bordering on the incredible how Gibson is able to evoke a fully fleshed out future atmosphere in under 15 pages time and time again. And each time a different future: these stories are diverse! There’s an original take on first contact, there’s action on an orbital space station, there’s hacking & cyberspace, bar adventures, sleep deprivation, computer game sport. Not only fleshed out futures, but fleshed out characters too. These are stories about people, not cardboard.

It’s no coincidence the word ‘chrome’ is used in all but one of the stories. Gibson is a chroniqueur of smug appearance, exposing surfaces that are symbolic, shiny, deceitful. He is the very bulldozer of that second quote. Chrome is cheap, and underneath the veneer multinationals are predators too. William Gibson knows humanity, and its cultural history.

The Thirties had seen the first generation of American industrial designers; until the Thirties, all pencil sharpeners had looked like pencil sharpeners – your basic Victorian mechanism, perhaps with a curlicue of decorative trim. After the advent of the designers, some pencil sharpeners looked as though they’ve been put together in wind tunnels. For the most part, the change was only skin-deep; under the streamlined chrome shell, you’d find the same Victorian mechanism.

In a way, the same goes for Gibson’s characters. Underneath the exoskeletons and the neural interfaces, you’ll find the same old stuff: love, loneliness, ambition, angst.

Highly recommended.

For those interested, Graham of Who’s Dreaming Who is organizing a Gibson read-along in 2017, starting with Burning Chrome in January. Check out the details here:

You can read the title story for free on Bean.

9 responses to “BURNING CHROME and other stories – William Gibson (1986)

  1. (As good place as any to reiterate my belief that it’s a pity Gibson basically left short-story writing behind. He is indeed a magician of sparse characterisation, but his longer plots often, to me, feel clunky and endings unsatisfying, perhaps because of his “character-driven” writing method without much pre-planning. Maybe I’d just be happy if he had a sterner editor?)

    Liked by 1 person

    • Based on what I’ve read I fully agree he should have written way more shorts. I’m not sure if an editor could fix big chunks of ploting in his longer form.

      Btw, it was your comment on my Virtual Light review that prompted me to read this – so thanks for that!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Gibson is one of those authors I missed in my reading because his genre is not one I enjoy – or maybe until now I’ve only attempted to read “copies” of his works and I should have started at the… source. And some of your remarks about contents being now outdated have been at the root of my avoidance – until now, because I’ve become curious about those “predictions” and how close, or far, they are from actual reality. It might be a very fascinating exercise, and the fact that these are short stories means I will not need to become invested in a full novel. And who knows? I might change my mind in the end… 🙂
    Thanks for sharing!

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  3. This may be where I need to start with my foray into Gibson’s work. I’ve read even less than you: Zero! And I have to admit that I’ve enjoyed “discovering” authors through collections of short fiction in the past. I almost grabbed the newly released Barnes and Noble hardback of Neuromancer with the Neil Gaiman intro in it the other day, but I try to avoid buying much for myself before Christmas.

    I do like the idea that books fulfill our need for being alone and not being alone at the same time. I certainly have had reading experiences that have fit in that description, and there are several books I could name that I consider old friends. We have spent time together time and time again.

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    • There’s so much to read I hardly reread anything. But I do plan to reread Dune in 2017. It’s one of the first SF novels I’ve read, I’m curieus how it will hold up with a lot more speculative milage. Neuromancer is on my reread list too, I feel I approached that one with the wrong mindset.


      • For many years I did as much re-reading as reading, then I got away from re-reading for quite a while. Now I’m finding myself wanting to go back and re-read books more often. Don’t know if that is because I am getting older, getting more sentimental, or what.

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  4. Pingback: Burning Chrome (1986) by William Gibson | Who's Dreaming Who

  5. I’ve read a lot of Gibson’s books over the years, but had never got around to this collection. Considering how early in his writing career he penned these tales, I was delighted to discover how great they all are. As you say, it is “incredible how Gibson is able to evoke a fully fleshed out future atmosphere in under 15 pages time and time again.”

    As you know, I recently reread Neuromancer for the third time. I definitely got the most out of it this time. It is a book that seems to improve with further readings. I’ve read a fair bit of criticism about how complicated or inaccessible it can be to the first-time reader. (On my first read, I didn’t “get” all that was going on, but I loved the ideas and atmosphere of it. That was a long time ago, though.) We can simplify it as being a heist story set in a future setting with some original vocabulary. But I’m waffling on too much.

    I just wanted to say “Nice review!” and a big “Thank You” for posting a link to my Gibson Read-Along. I’m halfway through Count Zero and it’s very, very good so far. It’s more ambitious than Neuromancer, with the narrative following three main protagonists and their individual stories. I’m interested to see how they will all connect.

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