Tuesday, May 31, 2011


"Burning Chrome" is an oddity, made more so by the way I read it. This is a collection of William Gibson's earlier short fiction, most of which you could categorize as Cyberpunk and the remainder which is cutting-edge modern sci-fi. I read the book over a series of backpacking trips, far away from cell phones, computers, and other modern conveniences, often through dappled sunlight pouring in through oak leaves or on black sand by the Pacific coast.

Yeah, it was a bit unusual.  Escaping from the trappings of technology, only to escape from the natural beauty around me by immersing myself in a fantastic world of technology.

It's hard to think of much to say about Gibson's early writing that hasn't already been said before, and more eloquently. Gibson's writing is highly kinetic and visceral. He doesn't really know what he's writing about; he uses computer lingo the same way that Star Trek writers invoke science talk. It's hard to find any technology he writes about that's actually prescient in the way of Stephenson or Asimov; but, he does a fair job at capturing a lot of the social changes that have accompanied our culture's deepening involvement with electronic communication over the last three decades.

The most famous story in the collection has to be "Johnny Mnemonic," which was turned into a movie that I have yet to see. The main characters in his stories are all male and tend to be on the fringes of society: computer hackers, or artists, or hustlers. There's a profound loneliness that cuts through all these tales. It seems to echo many of the complaints we've heard recently, that technology is isolating us from one another; but, really, I think that's a fairly universal feeling.

The stories tend to be bummers, but not exactly in the dystopic sci-fi vein, where they're bummers because of the mess humans have made of the world; rather, they're bummers because characters live in disintegrating worlds and aren't able to thrive in them. Sometimes this is because of poor decisions they make, other times because of their bad luck.

Also noted: it feels really weird to be reading cyberpunk as a historical artifact. The genre defined itself by firmly placing itself in the future, and now that its content is in the past, its breathless enrapturement at high tech feels jarring. It's a bit like talking with someone who can't get over how FAST their 4400 baud modem is.

Anyways, the stories are intriguing, and certainly worth checking out if you're a fan of Gibson. I don't think I liked anything here better than Neuromancer or his recent work, but there is more variety here of characters and concerns.

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