Burning Chrome, by William Gibson: Cyberpunk as an Alternate Now

Burning Chrome, William GibsonWilliam Gibson blew the Science Fiction world wide open in the mid eighties with his cyberpunk novels, particularly the Hugo, Nebula, and Philip K. Dick award winning Neuromancer. Ridley Scott gave us the visual aesthetic with Blade Runner, but Gibson firmly established Cyberpunk as a literary movement. As a genre it would go on to live a fairly short life, plateauing in the late eighties, followed by a handful of peak post-cyberpunk moments in the nineties (Snow Crash, Ghost in the Shell) culminating in The Matrix and then almost immediately fading into relative obscurity.

Burning Chrome collects Gibson’s short fiction, mostly published in OMNI magazine in the early eighties. Unlike a lot of short fiction collections, this one isn’t a totally mixed bag, most of the stories ranging from “good” to “great”. Three of them, (Johnny Mnemonic, New Rose Hotel, and Burning Chrome) are set in the same universe as Gibson’s Sprawl series (Neuromancer, Count Zero, Mona Lisa Overdrive), with some of their characters and events mentioned or referenced in the main novels.

William GibsonAs a rambling aside, I was born in 1984, making me much too young to have experienced cyberpunk when it was new and revolutionary. When I read cyberpunk now, nearing the third decade of the twenty-first century, it’s hard to think of it as anything other than a form of retrofuturism. The technological tropes of the genre were one possible direction for things to head. In reality, they didn’t. Instead of the cumbersome and clunky virtual reality user interfaces, and “jacking in”, we went with the more boring, economical methods: a little white search box on a screen, and fingers on keys or key analogs. Just as space opera was written back before anybody knew the realities of space travel, cyberpunk was written before anyone knew the realities of the internet. All we knew was that it was going to change everything, no one knew how exactly.

There are of course still giant multinational evil corporations, another trope of the genre, but instead of inspiring monolithic dread, they have friendly, marketable faces. We all know that Amazon is terrible to their employees, and drives small businesses into the ground, but it’s just so.. convenient. We all know that our devices are made by slaves, but those new animated emoji are just so cute. In the twenty-first century we adore the giant evil corporation. We buy their devices to put in our homes and listen to our conversations, so it’ll be easier to order things with our voices. Convenience kills us, slowly but assuredly.

“It was hot, the night we burned Chrome.”

This current drowning-in-technology age has brought with it a sort of resurgence in, not specifically cyberpunk, but a more modern interpretation of its core theme: alienation among ubiquities connection. Being alone together. Television shows like Black Mirror embody this better than anything else currently around. There has also been a cyberpunk resurgence in pop culture, specifically music, visible primarily in the retrowave / synthwave / “outrun” genre of electronic music. Retrowave is a Baudrillardian simulacra of eighties electronic music usually created by those too young to have first-hand experience of eighties culture. It’s created with postmodern sensibilities, as an idea of what eighties culture could’ve been, not what it actually was. A sort of copy of a copy of some collective idea that never existed, except in the imaginings of its purveyors. Highly influenced by multimedia created in the eighties, specifically science fiction and horror films and books, it’s dark and menacing, and accompanies with it a mental image of dystopic science fictional landscapes. It’s the aural version of cyberpunk.

I say all of this because I think right now, with all of these elements converging, is the perfect time to read cyberpunk literature. Our temporal distance from its inception gives us the perspective to appreciate it as retrofuturism, and the relational closeness of the technological and emotional aspects of our lives to its themes, creates this nebulous landscape that makes it highly relatable to our modern moment. Our technology makes us chrome and neon and dark inside, but externally we’re living it up on social media while we collectively experience a sort of soul-death alone behind our screens, our modern day mirrorshades.

It’s a weird ass world, and these stories give us a glimpse into a stranger one that could’ve been, had just a few things played out differently. Cyberpunk is an alternate now.

High points: The Hinterlands, New Rose Hotel, and Burning Chrome

Low Points: Johnny Mnemonic, Red Star, Winter Orbit

Johnny MnemonicJohnny Mnemonic: 2/5
I find Gibson’s writing very difficult to digest here. The structure of the writing is unlike anything else I’ve read, and I think it’s safe to say that no one quite saw the world the was that he did. Weird concepts, weird execution. Set in the Sprawl universe. This was adapted into the not-so-great Keanu Reeves film in the mid nineties.

The Gernsback Continuum: 4/5
A man gets stuck in an idea of a future 1980s that never was. Built out of the retrofuturism of 1930s design. Great little paranoid Philip K. Dickian story.

Fragments of a Hologram Rose: 3/5
A melancholy take on lost love and being out of place in the world. The ASP tech is a cool idea, and it seems to be the analogue of reading someone’s journal, in a sense.

The Belonging Kind: 3/5
Nice analog for social anxiety, it was fun but nothing special.

The Hinterlands: 5/5
This is a new personal favorite. It’s written in exquisitely beautiful prose, and has such a unique story, like nothing I’ve ever read. I actually read it twice in a row, because I was initially confused by the first few sections. It all became much clearer with the accompanying context of the rest of the story. A great little tale about loss, alien contact, and psychology. I loved it.

Red Star, Winter Orbit: 1/5
Very difficult to follow, kind of boring.

New Rose HotelNew Rose Hotel: 5/5
A great corporate espionage noir. For me, this is the definitive high-tech low-life story. It was adapted into the eponymous Christopher Walken/Willem Dafoe film by Abel Ferrara in 1998. Set in the Sprawl universe.

The Winter Market: 4/5
Entertainment in an age where we’ve moved beyond the audiovisual form, and into something much stranger. I enjoyed the existentialism.

Dogfight: 3/5
A drifter on the way to Florida picks up a competitive VR game, and befriends a college student.

Burning Chrome: 4/5
The most ‘Cyberpunk’ story in the collection. Set in the Sprawl universe.

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