William Gibson was hailed as one of the saviours of Science Fiction when he came onto the scene in the eighties. Burning Chrome is a collection of 10 short stories from the pen or more likely word processor of the man who coined the term “cyberspace”. Some written in collaboration with other writers.
“The Gernsback Continuum”
“Fragments of a Hologram Rose”
“The Belonging Kind,” with John Shirley
“Red Star, Winter Orbit,” with Bruce Sterling
“New Rose Hotel”
“The Winter Market”
“Dogfight,” with Michael Swanwick
Johnny Mnemonic the first story is about a courier of sensitive information, who has had cybernetic surgery to have the data stored in his head. The data can only be seen by the recipient with an appropriate password. Johnny is in trouble because the data he is carrying has been stolen from the Yazuka, who desperately want it erased and Johnny with it.
The stories in Burning Chrome are littered with exoskeletons, Japanese culture, new drugs like wizz, shapeshifters, space stations, ice (Intrusion Countermeasures Electonics), virtual dogfights, glove-leather Ginza monkey boots, cybernetic enhancements and even one terminally ill girl who uploads herself onto a computer. Its a weird mix.
Sometimes the ideas are at the expense of the storytelling. Sometimes you fell you need more of a background in the writings of Gibson, to make sense of it all.
Dry dreams are neural output from level of consciousness that most people can only access in sleep. But artists, the kind I work with at the Automatic Pilot , are able to break the surface tension, dive down deep, down and out, out into Jung’s sea, and bring back – well dreams.
(The Winter Market)
Some of the stories written in the early eighties, extrapolated into the future have aged, they didn’t fully foresee the digital revolution, (ironically, as this is the guy who coined the term “cyberspace”), so they are still using analogue tapes in this fictitious view of the twenty first century and the Soviets have a space programme.
For me the stand out story in the collection is “Hinterlands“. It’s a somewhat dark, depressing vision of how we might join the interstellar community. In “Hinterlands,” Russian Colonel Olga Tovyevski accidentally discovers an anomaly near an L-5 point. Her space capsule disappears through it, returning years later with a catatonic Russian on board, trashed communications equipment … and a seashell of extraterrestrial origin.
The world’s governments leap into action, and “exobiology suddenly found itself standing on unnervingly solid ground.” They soon discover a dreadful catch to this wormhole phenomenon (which the Americans dub “the Highway”): every pilot returns dead from suicide or mad, and the mad ones usually commit suicide shortly thereafter. So why bother to pay the price of a ticket? Our narrator, Toby, explains:
“If the first ones to come back had only returned with seashells, I doubt that Heaven would be out here.
Heaven was built after a dead Frenchman returned with a twelve-centimeter ring of magnetically coded steel locked in his cold hand, black parody of the lucky kid who wins the free ride on the merry-go-round. We may never find out where or how he got it, but that ring was the Rosetta stone for cancer. So now it’s cargo cult time for the human race. We can pick things up out there that we might not stumble across in research in a thousand years. Charmian says we’re like those poor suckers on their island, who spend all their time building landing strips to make the big silver birds come back. Charmian says that contact with “superior” civilizations is something you don’t wish on your worst enemy.”
If we ever come into contact with a larger, established interstellar community: we’ll be the primitive species. We we will acquire advanced technology and then ask for more, and it might very well destroy us. It is not like Dr Who or Star Trek where humans are particularly special in the cosmological sense but more like flies hitching rides at an airport.
Toby and his lover Charmian, by the way, were rejected as pilots and now serve as “surrogates” on Heaven. They greet the returned pilots—the live ones, that is—and try to help bring them back to something approaching a normal mental state. As Toby explains, they are seldom successful. Whatever happens to pilots who go through the Highway, it breaks them. Yet “Hinterlands” concludes with Toby’s lament that he and Charmian were found unsuitable for being pilots and his description of their continual longing to go on this almost-certainly fatal adventure.
I read a lot of science fiction in 1980 and 1981 and then virtually stopped. Of the new science fiction writers, I prefer Neal Stephenson to William Gibson, I found Snow Crash more readable. Gibson has some great ideas but sometimes the storytelling is lacking.
“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, hanging ten above the seething glitch systems as they mutate. We’re sentient patches of oil swept along down corridors of shadow.”
(from the title story Burning Chrome)
Written in the eighties the imagined future still has some oddities for the twenty-first century reader like analogue tapes and Soviet cosmonauts.
My rating 3 out of 5