“It was one of those nights, I quickly decided, when you slip into an alternate continuum, a city that looks exactly like the one you live, except for the peculiar difference that it contains not one person you love or know or have spoken to before.” – The Winter Market (p.161)
Released two years after Gibson’s Hugo Award winning debut novel Neuromancer (1984), Burning Chrome is a collection of ten short stories penned by the author between 1977 and 1985. Three of the stories are collaborations: The Belonging Kind (1981) with John Shirley, Red Star, Winter Orbit (1983) with Bruce Sterling, and Dogfight (1985) with Michael Swanwick. This collection also includes Gibson’s first published story Fragments of a Hologram Rose (1977). I will limit my review to the stories which impressed me the most.
“Johnny Mnemonic” kicks off the collection. I was wary of this story due to the bad reputation of the film adaptation starring Keanu Reeves*. I needn’t have worried as it’s a solid Sprawl story which is notable for introducing Molly Millions, the “razor girl” character who later appears in both Neuromancer and Mona Lisa Overdrive. Johnny is a data courier who carries his clients’ sensitive information in his head. When his latest client puts out a contract on him, Johnny must find out why, and quickly. *(I’ve since read that the two stories are quite different, and that a separate movie-novelization by Terry Bisson was published in 1995.)
“Fragments of a Hologram Rose” is a fascinating story about love, memory and loneliness. Imagine if you could re-experience the memories of your friends, family or lovers. Would you be tempted, especially if you still had feelings for the one that got away?
“Fast-forward through the humming no-time of wiped tape – into her body. European sunlight. Streets of a strange city. Athens. Greek-letter signs and the smell of dust…” – Fragments of a Hologram Rose (p.56)
“Dogfight” was co-authored with Michael Swanwick and should be a joy to read for all video gamers out there. Two gamers – the reigning champion and the cocky challenger – battle it out in a CG dogfight involving WWI era biplanes. It’s a lot of fun getting caught up in this tale as Gibson and Swanwick envisage a possible future of 3D gaming. As you read, it’s easy to forget that this story was published over thirty years ago. Prescient, entertaining stuff that still stands up today!
“A Winter Market” – The Philip K. Dick-esque quote at the top of this review is taken from this 1985 short story by Gibson. Lise’s body is dying but she wants to live; so much that she is considering “uploading” her consciousness into a computer. The author poses questions about death, disease, humanity, and existence. If we do manage to transplant our consciousness, will we still be the same? Can we “live” without the body?
“New Rose Hotel” is another Sprawl story. It opens with the protagonist hiding out in a recycled capsule hotel, reminiscing about an ex-lover and the deal that went wrong. It’s an atmospheric noir full of Japan-cool terminology and a gradual reveal.
“He was a soldier in the secret skirmishes of the zaibatsus, the multinational corporations that control entire economies.”- The New Rose Hotel (p.128)
“Burning Chrome” is Gibson’s 1982 short story which Bruce Sterling labels “incredible” in his preface to this collection. It is the third and arguably best Sprawl story in here. This tale of a couple of low-life hackers attempting a heist in cyberspace is essential reading, especially if you are going to read Neuromancer.
“Bodiless, we swerve into Chrome’s castle of ice. And we’re fast, fast. It feels like we’re surfing the crest of the invading program, […]” – Burning Chrome (p.200)
Burning Chrome begins my 2017 William Gibson Read-Along. It’s an excellent collection of short stories and has left me wondering why I didn’t read it sooner. Gibson creates stunning worlds filled with giant, faceless corporations, bio-technology that feels solid and real, class division, alienation, and love, especially lost love. It’s a book that soars with imagination yet also feels grounded by its characters. These are people we can relate to, people down on their luck trying their hardest to make it, hoping to rekindle the flame that burnt so brightly, pushing themselves to make that one final deal that will solve all their problems.
For another perspective, please check out this review by Admiral Ironbombs at Battered, Tattered, Yellowed and Creased.
And this one by Bart at Weighing a Pig Doesn’t Fatten It.