Tuesday, April 17, 2012

One From The Stacks: Burning Chrome

My copy of "Burning Chrome" by William Gibson
The future has already arrived. It's just not evenly distributed yet.” - William Gibson

I reserve one shelf of my library for books whose age or condition makes them unsuitable for gen pop. Most of these volumes – which include such gems as a Partisan Review from 1952 (featuring the Camus essay “Art and Revolt”), a tattered Hillman paperback of Cheever stories from 1961, and the original catalogue from a 1953 show of Fauvist art at MoMa – are preserved in plastic report folders with a single black snap. It's a lame strategy, I know; and if it's worked at all it's only because in their sequestered state they are rarely toyed with. A few of these books, however, boil with such literary and/or historic intensity that they demand the occasional fondling (you know the type). William Gibson's story collection “Burning Chrome” is one of them.

Published in 1987, the copy of the Ace Books paperback version of Burning Chrome in my possession is not especially old; but time has not been good to it. The binding is cracked and the metallic silver of the original cover is partially gone, bent and abraded to a soft pulpy white from repeated readings at subway stops, cafes and bars (my three favorite reading haunts). The pages are all intact and they smell like old binding glue and cigarette smoke.

I say “in my possession” because my copy of Burning Chrome does not technically belong to me; as such it stands as a testament to one of my most enduring book rules: Never lend out a volume that you are not willing to lose. (The person who lost this one is an old bandmate and cyberpunk enthusiast who I haven't seen in nearly a decade).
What the book should look like

There are a number of writers who can rightly be called prescient: Aldous Huxley comes to mind, certainly Jules Verne and Orwell would count themselves in such a group. But for those of a certain age, William Gibson is unique; by the time I read “1984” the book was nearly four decades old; Madonna topped the music charts and George Bush the elder was in the White House. Sure, Big Brother had made it into our lexicon, but he wasn't staring down at us from a “telescreen.” And while I remember (barely) “Brave New World” as a jarring and tantalizing read (all that implied sex, you know), life in Huxley's totalitarian World State seemed too far-fetched to be anything but pure dystopian fantasy.

For readers from my generation,William Gibson stands above them all for drawing us a topographical map to our future. Gibson conjured up images of an fully connected, globalized world -- and all the things that could go wrong in such a world -- before most people had ever seen a personal computer and cell phones were the size of shoe boxes.

Gibson's stories are hardboiled affairs bubbling with what Bruce Sterling called a combination of “low life and high tech.” By the time the title story, “Burning Chrome,” appeared in Omni magazine in July 1982, Gibson had already conceived of the Matrix, prophesied the rise of hacker culture, and was sending his own “console cowboys” into cyberspace (a term he coined, by the way) to snatch booty from rival zaibatsus and ethereal crime syndicates. (All this a month before the first Commodore 64s hit stores).
“Bobby was a cowboy. Bobby was a cracksman, a burglar, casing mankind’s extended electronic nervous system, rustling data and credit in the crowded matrix, monochrome nonspace where the only stars are dense concentrations of information, and high above it all bum corporate galaxies and the cold spiral arms of military systems. Bobby was another one of those young-old faces you see drinking in the Gentleman Loser, the chic bar for computer cowboys, rustlers, cybernetic second-story men. We were partners.” 
Burning Chrome contains Gibson's first published story: Fragments of a Hologram Rose – which was written as an assignment for a science fiction class he took at University of British Columbia in 1977 (the same year that Tandy introduced the world's first PC, the TRS-80 Model 1.)
Tandy TRS-80 circa 1977

In Fragments, Gibson paints his archetypical protagonist – the disenchanted nihilist-cum-samurai seeking purity is a diseased world. In this case it's the lovelorn Parker who subsists on a diet of cigarettes, coffee and Apparent Sensory Perception against a backdrop of shantytowns, illegal immigrants, indentured servitude, shadow corporations and unending brownouts known as the “Sprawl.” This toxic megapolis turns up in a number of Gibson's stories; and three of his novels – "Neuromancer" (1984, the first ever novel to win the Hugo, Nebula and Philip K. Dick Awards), "Count Zero" (1986), and "Mona Lisa Overdrive" (1988) – are known collectively as the Sprawl Trilogy (none of which I own).

Universally recognized as the father of cyberpunk and for making hacking cool at a time when most hackers couldn't get a date to the prom, Gibson tackles not only the soul-sucking tendencies of technology, but the alienating inequity of globalization and the ascendency of multinational corporations as unfeeling empires feeding wanton profit-lust.

His prose is often juiced with an acetic rhythm and slick vernacular that recalls the Beats – who were an early influence – and 1940s-era dime-store pulp fiction: Sam Spade meets Blade Runner with some William Burroughs thrown in for good measure.
“I took you to Barcelona a week before I took you to Vienna. I remember you with your hair tucked back into a gray beret, your high Mongol cheekbones reflected in the windows of ancient shops. Strolling down the Ramblas to the Phoenician harbor, past the glass-roofed Mercado selling oranges out of Africa. The old Ritz, warm in our room, dark, with all the soft weight of Europe pulled over us like a quilt. I could enter you in your sleep. You were always ready.” – New Rose Hotel.
In his preface to the Ace paperback edition, Sterling opines: “If poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world, science-fiction writers are its court jesters. We are Wise Fools who can leap, caper, utter prophesies, and scratch ourselves in public.”

Gibson did all of those things (although I'm not entirely certain about the scratching part). And while we may not have drug-addled dolphin warriors, virtual reality “sistim” addicts or a sleep-inducing ASP machine yet, Gibson got it right enough for me. His foresight and creativity places him among a select few writers who are ahead of their time, and yet will never be outdated (unlike my sad sorry copy of "Burning Chrome.")


Burning Chrome (paperback)
By William Gibson
Published by Ace Books (1987)
Originally published: Arbor House (1986)
Introduction by Bruce Sterling
Purchase date/price: N/A Borrowed from bandmate sometime in the late 1990s
Condition: poor (significant cover damage, pages ok)

About this project