William Gibson is one of those authors whose style is so distinct that it’s immediately recognizable. Anyone who’s read one of his novels could pick up another and, without looking at the cover, probably identify it as Gibson’s merely by reading the first page. His popularity indicates that legions of readers love his neon-infused plastic sheeting-coated visionary style, but as evidenced by reviews of his novels at Amazon and other places, many readers just don’t appreciate William Gibson. They complain about a wooly writing style and vague incomprehensible plots. Having been enthralled by Neuromancer and Count Zero, just slightly annoyed by Mona Lisa Overdrive and All Tomorrow’s Parties, and completely frustrated by The Difference Engine, I can understand both views.
Whether you’re already a Gibson fan or a newbie who’s trying to decide if you want to give Gibson a try, Burning Chrome is exactly what you need. This is a collection of all of Gibson’s short stories which he published up until 1986. He has published only a couple of short stories since (as of February 2012). Many of the stories in Burning Chrome are very recognizably Gibson, and many take place in one of the worlds that he explores more fully in his novels. Thus, Burning Chrome is an excellent starting place for new readers and it serves to fill in some background for established fans. These are the stories you’ll find in Burning Chrome:
- “Johnny Mnemonic” is a cybernetic smuggler. He’s got a computer chip with secret industrial research data stored in his brain and suddenly his client wants him dead. This 1981 story introduces Molly Millions, probably William Gibson’s most iconic character — the woman in black leather who has mirrored lenses implanted over her eye sockets and razorblades for fingernails. Other notable characters include the Magnetic Dog Sisters, the Lo-Tek with doberman tooth-bud transplants, and the smack-addicted cyborg Navy dolphin. (You gotta love that.) This story is way better than the unsuccessful movie starring Keanu Reeves, so don’t let that put you off.
- In “The Gernsback Continuum,” (1981) a photographer is working with an American pop-culture expert to produce an illustrated architectural history book about the Art Deco “Raygun Gothic” style of the 1930s. At that time, Americans envisioned a future utopia that never arrived but which is still reflected in the architecture and designs of that era — cars with wings, gas stations with neon towers, beautiful happy people, and lots of chrome, crystal, and marble. As he captures these images on film, before they’re gone forever, he begins to hallucinate and, eventually, he wonders if we really would have been happy living in the type of world we envisioned back then.
- “Fragments of a Hologram Rose” (1977) is the first story Gibson published and it introduces us to his near-future dystopian America and the “SimStim” technology that’s a major part of his SPRAWL trilogy. With the help of SimStim, Parker re-lives fragments of his history with the woman who dumped him. For a first story written while Gibson was in his 20s, this work seems quite mature.
- “The Belonging Kind” was written with John Shirley and published in 1981. Coretti is a linguistics professor who doesn’t fit in and doesn’t know how to act in changing social situations. He often feels like an alien. One night he observes a beautiful woman in a bar who adapts her speech patterns and personality to fit in with those around her. Desperate to know her secret, he follows her for months and eventually discovers The Belonging Kind. This story is haunting and suspenseful.
- In the SF story “Hinterlands,” (1981) humans have discovered a singularity in space through which some cosmonauts have gone and returned with highly advanced technologies, tools, or information. But those who return are affected by the “Fear” — they always go mad and commit suicide. Toby Halpert is a “surrogate,” someone who meets returning explorers and tries to keep them sane, at least until they can reveal information about what they’ve experienced. This deeply psychological story focuses on the human desire to explore the unknown, even when we’re afraid of it. It’s different from Gibson’s other work and is a good example of character-driven science fiction.
- “Red Star, Winter Orbit” was written with Bruce Sterling and first published in 1983. Colonel Korolev, who was the first man on Mars, has been manning a Soviet space station, but the Soviets plan to shut it down and blame him for its demise. Korolev and his crew have other plans. I thought this was the dullest of the stories in this collection. Perhaps because it seems so dated, but I should note that I also did not enjoy the novel The Difference Engine, another collaboration by Gibson and Sterling.
- We’re back to cyberpunk with “New Rose Hotel,” first published in 1984. This story introduces Maas Biolabs and Hosaka which are featured in the SPRAWL trilogy. These megacorporations compete for hot scientists and pay agents to lure them out and talk them into defecting. The world has become so lawless that they can get away with kidnapping, blackmailing, and murdering in order to get the best research scientists. The narrator of this story is lamenting the latest of these deals gone bad. It’s a touching story with beautiful characterization, and I can’t help but love the idea of research scientists being such a hot commodity. If you haven’t read Count Zero yet, I suggest reading “New Rose Hotel” first.
- “The Winter Market” is a rather hopeless feeling tale featuring a suicidal disabled woman named Lise whose vivid dreams and nightmares are discovered by Casey, a man who edits dreams so they can be published as software. Lise’s new software, Kings of Sleep, becomes very popular, especially with the hopeless and dispossessed who can’t afford to buy it. Lise uses the money she earned to buy a way out.
- Though I didn’t like the one novel I’ve read by Michael Swanwick, I did like “Dogfight,” his 1985 story collaboration with William Gibson. Instead of flying iron dragons, this time it’s miniature Fokker and Spad airplanes that dogfight over a pool table and are controlled with neural consoles placed behind the ear. When Deke discovers the game in a bar in Virginia, he becomes obsessed with beating the crippled veteran who’s the local champion. It’s too late when Deke discovers that there’s a high price for success.
- “Burning Chrome” is practically a must-read prequel for Gibson’s most famous novel, Neuromancer. It was published in 1982, before Neuromancer, and is Gibson’s first work set in the Sprawl. It introduces the concept of the matrix, Intrusion Countermeasures Electronics (ICE), ICE Breakers, the hackers called console cowboys, and SimStim. You’ll meet The Finn, who’s a mysterious resident of the SPRAWL trilogy, and you’ll see the first usage of the word “cyberspace” in print. If you haven’t read Neuromancer yet, I’d suggest reading this story first.
Story collections are a great way to get to know an unfamiliar author, and Burning Chrome is an especially satisfying collection because almost all of the stories are very good. Burning Chrome contains a nice representation of William Gibson’s cyberpunk work, but also shows Gibson’s range and ability by featuring some horror, hard and soft SF, stories written from various points of view, a couple of touching character studies, and three collaborations. Anyone who considers himself a Gibson fan should not miss Burning Chrome, and it’s a nice way for newbies to ease themselves into the strange cyberpunk worlds you’ll experience in Gibson’s novels.
Brilliance Audio has recently produced Burning Chrome. Each story is read by a different reader, which works very well because it makes each story feel distinct. One of my very favorite readers, Jonathan Davis, disappointed me by mixing up his voices in “Johnny Mnemonic,” but I forgive him, and I heartily recommend the audio format.