William Gibson, Burning Chrome (Eos, 2003)
Originally published in 1986, Burning Chrome contains ten short stories authored (or co-authored) by William Gibson in the late 1970s and early 1980s, augmented by a new introduction by Gibson himself. Hindsight is 20-20, they say, and Gibson is keenly aware of this with respect to his own stories when he says of early science fiction authors, "They knew exactly where we were coming from, exactly where we were, and exactly where they thought we were going. And they were largely wrong on all three counts, at least as seen from much farther up the tracks." And so it is with Gibson himself.
It's not so much that Gibson was incorrect in his scientific predictions, although his cyberpunk visions are still leaps and bounds beyond the possible of today. More importantly, each and every story in this collection is inescapably colored by a Cold War perspective. It's very clear that while he was writing these stories, Gibson believed the former Soviet Union and Japan would continue to be dominant powerhouses in today's world the Soviet Union for its military and technological might and Japan for its robust economy and structured society. Much has changed since these stories were first published. The Soviet Union has crumbled and Japan has been in a recession for more than ten years; neither has the power they wielded during the early 1980s. Gibson turned out to be pretty far off base with some of his "predictions" predicated on this belief. For example, in "Johnny Mnemonic," the Yakuza have come to completely dominate world organized crime, overwhelming the competition (Triads, Mafia, etc.). The overall effect is to bring a bit of the near past into our present (Gibson's then future). These stories capture a once possible future rendered now obsolete by history's inexorable march.
Gibson seems to have been keenly aware of this potential obsolescence when he originally wrote the stories. How else to explain the eerily prescient second story, "The Gernsback Continuum," wherein a photographer becomes haunted by literal glimpses into a future that never came to be. He sees 1940s' imagined luxury airplanes, held aloft by twelve propellers, peeking from behind Los Angeles skyscrapers, an impossibly sleek and modern city and disturbingly perfect men and women. Gibson's poor protagonist does his best to OD on current pop culture, to keep the visions at bay and cling to his sanity, with some success. Can't help but wonder what might happen if any of us took a genuine step back from the constant barrage of media that surrounds us what we might see lurking on the periphery.
While Gibson is vaunted for his leading-edge vision of technology, what shines in this collection is his keen sense of the human condition, technology notwithstanding. The stories that work best are those that focus on the characters' emotions and motives, even if the technology is central to the plot. Consider his collaboration with John Shirley, "The Belonging Kind," a disturbingly surreal look at the barfly scene and what it means to belong to a social group. Nary a neural network in sight, just lonely, needy people. "Dogfight," co-written with Michael Swanwick, is all about the illusions we cling to when we've lost everything else and the painful truth of a Pyrrhic Victory (and can I just say the imagery of tiny planes dogfighting over pool tables is just plain neat?). "Winter Market," though vitally tied to the idea of creating films directly from people's thoughts, is at heart about loss: one such movie auteur gives up her damaged physical body to live eternally in silicon, leaving her editor behind to cope with her choice.
It would be impossible to finish a review of this collection without mentioning the bookend stories, "Johnny Mnemonic" and "Burning Chrome." The movie which shares its name with the first story draws very heavily on the latter as well. "Johnny Mnemonic" explores Japan's dark underbelly, a quick glimpse into the future of haves and have-nots in an information age taken to extremes. "Burning Chrome" is less action, more emotion, exploring the results of human lives destroyed or damaged in the vicarious quests for emotional thrills or physical perfection.
Gibson mentions also in his introduction how difficult it is to excel at the short story form. He need not have worried, though. This collection is engaging and thought-provoking, a good introduction to Gibson's literary worldview.