Burning Chrome

By William Gibson

Essay by Ted Gioia

Back in 1982, William Gibson coined the term “cyberspace,” and his first
Neuromancer, published two years later, explored a virtual reality
landscape with a vividness of detail and intensity of conception that
proved remarkably prescient.  As a result, Gibson is now heralded as
the great prognosticator.  But his accuracy in predicting the future has
led many to forget just how well Gibson writes.  

Of course, the received wisdom on genre writers is that they are
sometimes clever in their plots or in their raw ideas, but their prose is
invariably banal and plodding.  Certainly, any number of famous science
fiction writers deserve this criticism.  Most of Isaac Asimov’s
trilogy is built out of cardboard prose, but his blazing imagination
redeems the work.  Philip K. Dick is the classic case of a writer who
dazzles on a conceptual level, but rarely produces a really good
sentence.  Many, many other examples could be cited.  But Gibson
defies the conventional wisdom.  His writing is breathtakingly good, and if
it fails to match the brilliance of his insights, it is only because the latter
are even more flamboyant.

Burning Chrome, a collection of short stories from the early 1980s,
shows Gibson at his best.  The difficult of depicting a realistic future
landscape in any degree of detail forces many otherwise talented writers
to fall back on small-scale effects – isolated vignettes or one-trick pony
tales which seem flat even when they work their magic.  Gibson’s
landscapes, in contrast, have depth.  We get a flavor of social groups
and demographics, but never in a heavy-handed way.  We sense the
sprawling cities – and almost all of Gibson’s story-telling is situated in
densely populated urban areas  --  and even grok what may lie on its
outskirts or its hidden recesses.  We feel the pulse of society, its
nightlife, its compromises, its vices and blind spots.  And all of these
elements feel both familiar and strange -- it is a future that we can
recognize as an outgrowth of our dysfunctional present.

But we also have the
heroes of the stories.  They hardly qualify as
heroes, even if we root for them, cheer on their successes, and lament
their failures.  The human element in a Gibson story can be summed up
succinctly in a phrase – his protagonists are almost always lowlifes with
totally rad technology.  Gibson fetishizes technology, especially
dangerous cutting-edge gadgets that his dissipated characters covet.  
Often the device plugs into their brain, or some other part of their body.  
Or they swallow it hole, or get it surgically implanted.  If necessary, they
lug it around in a suitcase.  But it is always hot stuff, three years ahead
of what everybody else on the street is using.  

I have little patience when Gibson gets into his laundry list of gadgets,
but for him this is foreplay in a highly erotic game.  Here is a dose from
“New Rose Hotel” in
Burning Chrome:  “A freezer. A fermenter. An
incubator. An electrophoresis system with integrated agarose cell and
transilluminator.  A tissue embedder. A high-performance liquid
chromatograph.  A flow cytometer . . .”  You get the idea.  These are the
mementos that the narrator's ex-girlfriend left behind – like the old pop
song, “these foolish things remind me of you,” only instead of the
“cigarette that bears the lipstick traces” we get “four gross of borosilicate
scintillation vials.”

But don’t let the jargon and gadgets dissuade you from dipping into
Gibson.  Although his stories appear, on a superficial level, to focus on
technology, they are really about the ways that waves of change, the
fast-forward ethos of modern-day life, simultaneously empower and
cripple people and societies.  As such, he is neither overly utopian or
dystopian.  Indeed, more than any science fiction writer of his
generation, Gibson is comfortable with the equivocal and sometimes
even paradoxical nature of our love affair with the gizmos.  The
characters in a Gibson story are like Michael Jackson and plastic
surgery – they can’t get enough of it, even when they sense its
destructive toll.  By comparison the apocalyptic writers of yesteryear – or
even last year, if one considers Cormac McCarthy’s  Pulitzer Prize
winning novel
The Road – seem heavy handed by comparison.  The
future, Gibson seems to tell us, will never be
that simple.  

And this is the reason, I suspect, that Gibson has been so successful as
a fortune teller, as a futurist charting our rapidly changing social
landscape.  Other writers have tried to simplify the story, trace the broad
outlines of a purely linear progression into the future. But Gibson knows
that reality is much more multi-layered, full of unintended consequences
and second-order effects.   And this is a sensibility that is rare in any
writer, whether they are looking into the future, or probing past and
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