Burning Chrome

By William Gibson

Essay by Ted Gioia

Back in 1982, William Gibson coined the term “cyberspace,” and his first
novel,
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
Foundation
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
present.  
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Abbott, Edwin A.
Flatland

Adams, Douglas
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

Aldiss, Brian
Barefoot in the Head

Aldiss, Brian
Hothouse

Aldiss, Brian
Report on Probability A

Allende, Isabel
The House of the Spirits

Amado, Jorge
Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands

Amis, Martin
Time's Arrow

Apuleius
The Golden Ass

Asimov, Isaac
The Foundation Trilogy

Asimov, Isaac
I, Robot

Atwood, Margaret
The Handmaid's Tale

Banks, Iain M.
The State of the Art

Ballard, J.G.
The Atrocity Exhibition

Ballard, J.G.
Crash

Ballard, J.G.
The Crystal World

Ballard, J.G.
The Drowned World

Barth, John
Giles Goat-Boy

Bester, Alfred
The Demolished Man

Blish, James
A Case of Conscience

Borges, Jorge Luis
Ficciones

Bradbury, Ray
Dandelion Wine

Bradbury, Ray
Fahrenheit 451

Bradbury, Ray
The Illustrated Man

Bradbury, Ray
The Martian Chronicles

Bradbury, Ray
Something Wicked This Way Comes

Brockmeier, Kevin
The View from the Seventh Layer

Bulgakov, Mikhail
The Master and Margarita

Bunch, David R.
Moderan

Burgess, Anthony
A Clockwork Orange

Card, Orson Scott
Ender's Game

Carpentier, Alejo
The Kingdom of This World

Carroll, Lewis
Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

Chabon, Michael
The Yiddish Policemen's Union

Chiang, Ted
Stories of Your Life and Others

Clarke, Arthur C.
Childhood's End

Clarke, Arthur C.
A Fall of Moondust

Clarke, Arthur C.
2001: A Space Odyssey

Clarke, Susanna
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

Crowley, John
Little, Big

Danielewski, Mark Z.
The Fifty Year Sword

Danielewski, Mark Z.
House of Leaves

Davies, Robertson
Fifth Business

Delany, Samuel R.
Babel-17

Delany, Samuel R.
Dhalgren

Delany, Samuel R.
The Einstein Intersection

Delany, Samuel R.
Nova

Dick, Philip K.
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

Dick, Philip K.
Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said

Dick, Philip K.
The Man in the High Castle

Dick, Philip K.
Ubik

Dick, Philip K.
VALIS

Disch, Thomas M.
Camp Concentration

Disch, Thomas M.
The Genocides

Doctorow, Cory
Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom

Donoso, José
The Obscene Bird of Night

Ellison, Harlan (editor)
Dangerous Visions

Ellison, Harlan
I Have No Mouth & I Must Scream

Esquivel, Laura
Like Water for Chocolate

Farmer, Philip José
To Your Scattered Bodies Go

Fuentes, Carlos
Aura

Gaiman, Neil
American Gods

Gaiman, Neil
Neverwhere

Gibson, William
Burning Chrome

Gibson, William
Neuromancer

Grass, Günter
The Tin Drum

Greene, Graham
The End of the Affair

Grossman, Lev
The Magicians

Haldeman, Joe
The Forever War

Hall, Steven
The Raw Shark Texts

Harrison, M. John
The Centauri Device

Harrison, M. John
Light

Heinlein, Robert
The Moon is a Harsh Mistress

Heinlein, Robert:
Stranger in a Strange Land

Heinlein, Robert
Time Enough for Love

Helprin, Mark
Winter's Tale

Herbert, Frank
Dune

Hoffman, Alice
Practical Magic

Huxley, Aldous
Brave New World

Keret, Etgar
Suddenly, A Knock at the Door

Keyes, Daniel
Flowers for Algernon

Kundera, Milan
The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

Kunzru, Hari
Gods Without Men

Lafferty, R.A.
Nine Hundred Grandmothers

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Dispossessed

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Lathe of Heaven

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Left Hand of Darkness

Leiber, Fritz
The Big Time

Leiber, Fritz
Conjure Wife

Leiber, Fritz
Swords & Deviltry

Leiber, Fritz
The Wanderer

Lem, Stanislaw
His Master's Voice

Lem, Stanislaw
Solaris

Lethem, Jonathan
The Fortress of Solitude

Lewis, C. S.
The Chronicles of Narnia

Link, Kelly
Magic for Beginners

Malzberg, Barry N.
Herovit's World

Mann, Thomas
Doctor Faustus

Márquez, Gabriel García
100 Years of Solitude

Markson, David
Wittgenstein's Mistress

Matheson, Richard
Hell House

Matheson, Richard
What Dreams May Come

McCarthy, Cormac
The Road

Miéville, China
Perdido Street Station

Miller, Jr., Walter M.
A Canticle for Leibowitz

Millhauser, Steven
Dangerous Laughter

Mitchell, David
Cloud Atlas

Moorcock, Michael
Behold the Man

Moorcock, Michael
The Final Programme

Morrison, Toni
Beloved

Murakami, Haruki
1Q84

Murakami, Haruki
Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the
End of the World

Nabokov, Vladimir
Ada, or Ardor

Niffenegger, Audrey
The Time Traveler's Wife

Niven, Larry
Ringworld

Noon, Jeff
Vurt

Obreht, Téa
The Tiger's Wife

O'Brien, Flann
At Swim-Two-Birds

Okri, Ben
The Famished Road

Percy, Walker
Love in the Ruins

Pohl, Frederik
Gateway

Pratchett, Terry
The Color of Magic

Pynchon, Thomas
Gravity's Rainbow

Rabelais, François
Gargantua and Pantagruel

Robinson, Kim Stanley
Red Mars

Rowling, J.K.
Harry Potter & the Sorcerer's Stone

Rushdie, Salman
Midnight's Children

Russ, Joanna
The Female Man

Saramago, José
Blindness

Sheckley, Robert
Dimension of Miracles

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Mindswap

Sheckley, Robert
Store of the Worlds

Shelley, Mary
Frankenstein

Silverberg, Robert
Dying  Inside

Silverberg, Robert
Nightwings

Silverberg, Robert
The World Inside

Simak, Clifford
City

Simak, Clifford
The Trouble with Tycho

Smith, Cordwainer
Norstrilia

Smith, Cordwainer
The Rediscovery of Man

Stephenson, Neal
Snow Crash

Spinrad, Norman
Bug Jack Barron

Stross, Charles
Glasshouse

Sturgeon, Theodore
More Than Human

Sturgeon, Theodore
Some of Your Blood

Swift, Jonathan
Gulliver's Travels

Thomas, D.M.
The White Hotel

Tiptree, Jr., James
Warm Worlds and Otherwise

Tolkien, J.R.R.
The Hobbit

Updike, John
The Witches of Eastwick

Van Vogt, A.E.
The Mixed Men

Van Vogt, A.E.
Slan

Van Vogt, A.E.
The Voyage of the Space Beagle

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The World of Null A

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Emphyrio

Verne, Jules
Around the Moon

Verne, Jules
From the Earth to the Moon

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Journey to the Center of the Earth

Vonnegut, Kurt
Cat's Cradle

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The Sirens of Titan

Vonnegut, Kurt
Slaughterhouse-Five

Wallace, David Foster
Infinite Jest

Walpole, Horace
Hieroglyphic Tales

Wells, H.G.
The First Men in the Moon

Wells, H.G.
The Island of Dr. Moreau

Wells, H.G.
The Time Machine

Wilson, Robert Anton & Robert Shea
The Illuminatus! Trilogy

Winton, Tim
Cloudstreet

Woolf, Virginia
Orlando

Zabor, Rafi
The Bear Comes Home

Zelazny, Roger
Lord of Light

Zelazny, Roger
This Immortal



Special Features
Notes on Conceptual Fiction
When Science Fiction Grew Up
Ray Bradbury: A Tribute
The Year of Magical Reading
Remembering Fritz Leiber
A Tribute to Richard Matheson
Samuel Delany's 70th birthday
The Sci-Fi of Kurt Vonnegut
Curse You, Neil Armstrong!
Robert Heinlein at 100
A.E, van Vogt Tribute
The Puzzling Case of Robert Sheckley
The Avant-Garde Sci-Fi of Brian Aldiss
Science Fiction 1958-1975: A Reading List

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