Book Review – Burning Chrome, by William Gibson

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Burning Chrome is a selection of some of the best of William Gibson’s early short stories, including some of the most iconic stories like “Johnny Mnemonic” and the titular “Burning Chrome”. Now, having heard William Gibson cited for years as the godfather of the Internet and/or cyberspace (a term he himself coined, as a matter of fact), it was only a matter of time before I plunged into the body of work spanning his frankly astounding career. And what better place to start than the stories that introduced the ideas and mindblowing concepts that seared the inner worlds of many of his later works indelibly on the mass consciousness of the outer world.

Burning Chrome introduces characters, stories, and technologies that predate eerily similar ideas and concepts that we generally take for granted now – and captures quite succinctly the idea of a world where today’s latest, cutting edge gadgets are tomorrow’s worn out, cheap, mass produced knock-offs gathering dust in a low-tech flea market. Arguably the birthplace of the entire cyberpunk movement, the world of William Gibson introduced in this collection (and fleshed out in other works like his seminal novel Neuromancerwhich I also just read) is a place where virtual reality means literally plugging into someone else and feeling what they touch, feel and see – pain as well as pleasure. And of course, this incredible technology is edited, produced and marketed as entertainment for the masses with “simstim” stars accorded as much blind adoration as any celebrity of the present day.

This is a future where corporate espionage involves much more than simply stealing smartphone patents – what’s at stake is things as delicate as genetic engineering and the risks higher than any money is worth. Where being a drug mule is so passé – cranial information storage is where it’s at.

The world of these stories is not the Future – it’s the future after the future, when everything that’s shiny and new now is just ephemera in the background of a world of burned out cities, corporate entities more powerful than countries and governments (ahem), a world of effortless and jaded sub-orbital and space travel, and where the protagonists and heroes and are anti-heroic in the extreme.

The thing I like best about William Gibson’s writing is that as soon as you begin to read his work, you begin to feel like you’ve always known him, always known these worlds. And in a sense, perhaps you have. This collection was published in 1986, drawing from stories he had produced since the 1970s. But it seems I’ve always been aware of this world weary of itself, no longer impressed by its own dulled-chrome gleam. He doesn’t make the effort to explain away every new device introduced – and in fact gives a strange sense of temporal vertigo by describing as dated technology things that we haven’t even begun to dream into existence. This feeling is heightened when you realize that the future he’s writing about isn’t all that distant, either.

Science fiction is a unique literary genre in that it writes about the future while simultaneously evoking and laying bare the present. I’ve been a fan of the genre possibly since I learned to read, and was reared on the early greats – Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, Ray Bradbury. But with a writer like William Gibson, as with the best of sci-fi, it becomes about so much more than the brilliant technology imagined and what it can potentially do to either elevate or desolate humanity.

His writing becomes about humanity itself, about people and how they live; the science is merely the background in which they live and react to age-old concerns like love and power, compulsion and obsessiveness, tenderness and loyalty, and the driving urge to better oneself, whether it means feral tooth implants to render a mouthful of wolf-like canines, or retractable scalpel blades beneath perfectly manicured nails.

Gibson, with this and other works, has in fact been credited with having significant linguistic impact in terms of both the literary and real-world adoption of many of the terms he coined or popularized (case in point – cyberspace. I mean…dude.) But he also created unforgettable, unbelievably complex characters who are as relatable as they are inscrutable.

Perhaps the reason why it all seems so familiar, despite the utterly fascinating strangeness of things like businessmen being implanted with brain-chips according to seniority and tattooed with their company logos, to cyberspace “cowboys” jacking into decks to virtually infiltrate ICE – potentially real-world-deadly firewalls – is that much of the way I, and possibly a couple of generations besides, view the world today is informed by the way things like technology, corporations, globalization and the internet have evolved in almost parallel patterns to the almost-dystopian society that Gibson has inhabited in fiction for decades.

He, in essence, wrote a blueprint for the post-modern era, and now we’re living it.

Does this mean we live in a dystopia? Who knows. But as soon as I heard murmurs about Google Glass a few months ago (late to the party, I know) and then saw subsequent images of what the face-mounted device could do to virtualize the “real” world, all I could think was that this, perhaps, is the cyberspace that Gibson was writing about in back in 1982.

Burning Chrome is available for sale here, among other places, and is probably at your local public library, too. (Shout out to Toronto Public Library! :P)

Here’s a wikipedia-found list of the short stories included in the collection. Don’t get lost in the ‘pedia!

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