Monday, May 7, 2018

Book Review: Burning Chrome

Book cover for Burning ChromeNewer editions have better covers. This was the 1987 cover, which is the one I own.

This is a short story collection of Gibson's early work, ranging from 1977-1985. In it, he lays the groundwork for his Sprawl trilogy, which includes Neuromancer, Count Zero, and Mona Lisa Overdrive. But more importantly, he gave sci-fi a much needed boost in the arm by securing the foundation of what would become known as cyberpunk.

One has to remember that during the time that Gibson wrote these stories, the internet was a domain limited to a select few militaries, government institutions, and universities. The web didn't even exist until 1991. But he saw the potential of where it could lead. While his biotech visions are just starting to show signs of emergence, by and large, he got his computer technology right.

First up is "Johnny Mnemonic." How a 22-page short story led to the movie of the same name is beyond me. It's like the studio cherry-picked several elements from the story that they liked and came up with something else entirely. This story is fine. It rushes by so fast, everything is lost in the world building. I had to re-read a couple of passages as the segues were easily overlooked.

The story was published in 1981, it helped define a cyberpunk future that fortunately hasn't come to pass, though some of the technological elements ring true. Though with the ubiquity of high-density, tiny storage devices (i.e. thumb drives), requiring someone to have wetware for a few megabytes of info is quaint. Tera- or Petabytes would've impressed.

"The Gernsback Continuum": While on assignment, a photographer starts hallucinating about a future that was forecast in the 1930s.

"Fragments of a Hologram Rose": Trying to put a broken heart back together with holograms in a ruined American landscape.

Gibson co-wrote "The Belonging Kind" with John Shirley. In this one, a socially awkward man is smitten by a woman at a bar. As he follows her through the city, he soon learns that she's more than she appears to be, which only makes her even more intriguing.

In "Hinterlands," humanity accidentally stumbles upon interstellar travel, but it's really rough on the people that experience it. There's a team at the L5 station that do their best to help those that come back. It's about as easy as putting a broken egg back together.

After cornering the oil market, the Soviet Union forced the US to concede human spaceflight in "Red Star, Winter Orbit", co-written with Bruce Sterling. Colonel Komarov, the first person on Mars, calls the Soviet space station home, but after two decades in space, it's also a prison. Returning to Earth's gravity would crush him, but that's exactly what the government wants.

"New Rose Hotel": Being a headhunter in the biotech market is a ruthless business. Like love, there's nothing that stings more than betrayal. Substitute thumb drives for diskettes and you'll be ok.

"The Winter Market": When dreams sell like popular music does today (or yesterday), it'll give rise to its own rock stars, complete with their own tragic stories.

In "Dogfight," co-written with Michael Swanwick, a loser drifter decides that he's going to make his mark by being the best holovideogame player in the whole podunk town, and he's willing to do anything to accomplish it, even if it means being a dick.

"Burning Chrome" wraps up this collection with the quintessential cyberpunk story: Two console jockeys set out for that one final score that'll make them rich. To do it, they'll need to take down a criminal kingpin via the internet matrix.

The first three stories are too obsessed with describing Gibson's world and throwing cool, new jargon at the reader than in crafting good stories. Style over substance. But after that, the real storytelling begins. Gibson eases off the nuevo lingo, particularly when writing with others, to develop the characters into people we can recognize beneath the veneer of tech. Definitely worth checking out to see a successful writer when he was still hungry and passionate about writing down his vision of the future.

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DED