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Burning Chrome, William Gibson, Ace, 1986, 191 pp.

Burning Chrome is a collection of short fiction by William Gibson. It collects all of his short work up to that point in his career, just after the publication of his second novel, Count Zero. Since then, Gibson has written few short pieces, a number of which have been incorporated into his books like Virtual Light and All Tomorrow's Parties. The title story and a handful of others in this collection fit in with Neuromancer and its sequels, and demonstrate how Gibson was precisely developing his vision of the future.

The first story in the collection is "Johnny Mnemonic" which was made into an abysmal movie of the same name (and Gibson's screenplay is also available and it gives clear evidence that Gibson was not to blame for the resulting mess). Johnny is a courier who carries data in his head, or rather, in a secure storage device that happens to be located in his head. He can't access the data, but when Johnny ends up with some data stolen from the Yakuza, the Yakuza don't care about that. Johnny is just a loose end. "Johnny Mnemonic" is an appropriate story to open this collection, as it introduces many of Gibson's key concerns.

"The Gernsback Continuum" is a hilarious savaging of sf tropes. It's told in first person by a photographer who takes a free-lance assignment: to photograph the detritus of an era in the 30s and 40s when wild visions of the future affected the design of buildings, gas stations, and home appliances. These visions seem to cross over into reality when he has been on the assignment for too long, and he's desperate to get it all out of his head. "The Gernsback Continuum" is considerably different than the other stories in this book, most of which resemble Neuromancer stylistically if not also in substance. Considered in another way, this story shows us why the old had to go, which is the flipside of Neuromancer, which showed the sf audience something new.

"Fragments of a Hologram Rose" was Gibson's first published story, from 1977. Fragments indeed, but it's a remarkable showpiece for what was to come in Gibson's writing.

"The Belonging Kind" was co-written by John Shirley and Gibson. This story features a strange transformation from human to... something else. Coretti meets a girl in a bar, follows her to another bar, and notices that along the way, she has morphed into someone completely different. Later, he's obsessed with finding her again, but will he know her in an altered form? And what is the endpoint of his obsession?

"Hinterlands" turns the human race into practitioners of a cargo cult. A Soviet cosmonaut accidentally triggers an FTL device and comes back with evidence of a visit to an alien planet. She is also totally insane. Soon, a system is put in place to try to keep the flood of volunteers sane or even alive; Toby is the main character and he is one of the people on staff at the station. It's a grim story. As Toby's coworker puts it: "Charmian says that contact with 'superior' civilization is something that you don't wish on your worst enemy" (70).

"Red Star, Winter Orbit" was co-written by Bruce Sterling and Gibson. The story is set on an aging Soviet space station. Colonel Korolev was one of the first humans to walk on Mars, and now he has been in orbit around the Earth for so long that he can't go home. The bureaucracy on the ground wants to shut down the station, so he has to figure out who else on the station will help him in his fight.

"New Rose Hotel" is about corporate espionage in the future, and it's told in the first person by a narrator who has set up a deal to steal a geneticist named Hiroshi from one company and set him up at the next. His partner Fox doesn't leave well enough alone once the deal has been made, and there's also the enigmatic figure of the girl named Sandii. One of the stories in Burning Chrome that fits in with the future of Neuromancer and sequels.

"The Winter Market" prefigures Gibson's later book Idoru in many ways. The protagonist is named Casey, a name that draws a parallel with both Neuromancer and Pattern Recognition. Casey edits neural output, part of the lucrative business that has replaced records and movies. Kings of Sleep is new product that he helped a woman named Lise put together; Lise has some degenerative disease and uploads her consciousness into a computer. Casey doesn't think he can deal with it, especially since he will probably be working with her in the future. An intriguing prototype for Idoru.

"Dogfight" was co-written by Michael Swanwick and Gibson. I find this story interesting because I recently read a collection of Swanwick's early fiction, Gravity's Angels. When I compare the two authors and their early work, I would have to say that Swanwick can write in many different styles -- "Dogfight" feels more like Gibson's work than Swanwick's, and in Gravity's Angels, Swanwick does a dead-on PKD pastiche -- whereas Gibson is more focused on one particular style. "Dogfight" is about a partial-VR flight sim and the battle between a newcomer and an established champ. The story was overwhelmingly downbeat and it felt predictably so.

The book closes with the title story, "Burning Chrome." Jack and Bobby want to do one more big job, Bobby mainly to impress his new girlfriend, Rikki. Jack lucks into a military-grade hacking virus, and they target a rich company for their blaze of glory. The story mixes past and present, and is told in first person by Jack. Apart from "Johnny Mnemonic," "Burning Chrome" is the one story in this collection that is most emblematic of Gibson's world and concerns.

All in all, Burning Chrome is essential reading for those who want to know how Gibson got his start. The stories complement Neuromancer and form a counterpoint, with that book, to the future-is-now approach of Pattern Recognition.

Last modified: April 12, 2004

Copyright © 2004 by James Schellenberg (

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