Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Burning Chrome

by William Gibson

Introduction by Bruce Sterling

You’ve got that title. It conjures images of leather-clad automobile fetishists, Kenneth Anger’s ‘Kustom Kar Kommandos,’ machinery molded into an eroticized dream frame. A cybernetics of desire. ‘Burning Chrome’ collects all of William Gibson’s pre-Neuromancer’ short fiction, including ‘Fragments of a Hologram Rose,’ his very first completed work of fiction, as well as collaborations with John Shirley, Bruce Sterling, and Michael Swanswick. As such, it tracks William Gibson’s developmental pangs, as one of speculative fiction’s most rewarding and incisive writers ‘learns the ropes.’ It’s amazing just how many of the ideas Gibson has refined and explored in his later novels find their first stirrings in these ten early stories. The book itself is a fascinating collapse of the twentieth-century’s concepts of frontier, both within speculative fiction as well as fringe pop culture. Gibson imagines an endpoint for the twentieth-century outlaw as the motorcycle junkies of the 50s and the punks of the late-70s find their corollaries in Gibson’s cyberspace cowboys, the Bobby Quines and Automatic Jacks of these stories. William Gibson reconfigures the dreams and clichés of our out-moded futures; these stories are posts in the road. This collection takes to task the misguided futures of our recent past.

“Burning Chrome” is a strange book - that’s evident from the title. There’s both dime shop surrealism and homoerotic machismo buried down somewhere in there. “Burning Chrome,” as I mentioned, calls to mind an apocalyptic vision of automobile decals melted down to a violent liquid. But that’s not what’s actually going on, is it? This title isn’t literal. Well, at least not in the manner which is self-evident. The short story in question begins “It was hot, the night we burned Chrome.” Ok. So, Chrome is a person, actually, “she was one of the Boys, Chrome, a member in good standing of the local Mob subsidiary. Word was, she’d gotten started as a dealer, back when synthetic pituitary hormones were still proscribed. But she hadn’t had to move hormones for a long time. Now she owned the House of Blue Lights.” Not only is Chrome a person, a gangster, but she also isn’t what she seems, just like the title of the story. Her abuse of pituitary hormones has physically halted her growth, leaving her a perpetual fourteen year old. None of the characters know just how old Chrome is, but everyone knows that ‘seemed’ and ‘is’ are two different things.

The word ‘burning’ doesn’t refer to a physical immolation, but is itself a sort of low-rent hipster code. The story’s cyber jockeys, Bobby and Jack, hack Chrome’s financial network and reallocate her funds. They give “…the bulk of Chrome’s Zurich account to a dozen world charities. There was too much there to move,” so Bobby and Jack cut ten percent for themselves, “…and shot it through the Long Hum setup in Macao. They took sixty percent of that for themselves and kicked what was left back… through the most convoluted sector of the Hong Kong exchange.” Being ‘burned’ is code, and ‘Burning Chrome’ deals in the dangerous consequences of code and information transferal. The story is a basic riff on noir tropes, there is even a mysterious dame right there in the middle of it all, “Rikki Wildside, Bobby called her, and for those first few weeks it must have seemed to her that she had it all, the whole teeming show spread out for her, sharp and bright under the neon.” But what Gibson does in these early stories, especially the Sprawl stories like “Burning Chrome,” “Johnny Mnemonic,” and “New Rose Hotel,” is take the crime noir, and foreground its modernist subtext – the anxiety of information and the alienation accompanying a culture founded on its transference.

This is a culture of aggregated nodal points much like what he later described in his Bridge trilogy, only without the more seasoned Gibson’s streamlined prose. As early as ‘Johnny Mnemonic,’ Gibson writes “We’re an information economy. They teach you that in school. What they don’t tell you is that it’s impossible to move, to live, to operate at any level without leaving traces, bits, and seemingly meaningless fragments of personal information. Fragments that can be retrieved, amplified…” Like Colin Laney’s nodal points in ‘Idoru.’ What Gibson is also formulating is a holistic mainframe that pieces together the shards of contemporary experience, while still acknowledging their disjunctive nature.

Gibson’s first finished story, “Fragments of a Hologram Rose,” is composed of a series of fragments drawn from the life of the emotionally devastated Parker, as he contemplates a holographic rose. He considers that “A hologram has this quality: Recovered and illuminated, each fragment will reveal the whole image of the rose. Falling toward delta, he sees himself the rose, each of his scattered fragments revealing a whole he’ll never known – stolen credit cards – a burned-out suburb – planetary conjunctions of a stranger – a tank burning on a highway – a flat packet of drugs – a switchblade honed on concrete, thin as pain… we’re each other’s fragments…” The confluence of violence and imperial fallout in these early stories reminds me of Kathy Acker, as narrative itself is reconfigured in lieu of cultural trauma.

While it is fascinating to recognize the roots of ‘Mona Lisa Overdrive’s stimsim celebrity culture of in earlier stories like ‘The Winter Market,’ the collection is most fascinating in the promiscuity and sheer strangeness of the young Gibson. ‘Johnny Mnemonic’s Fuller domes may be familiar to readers of ‘Neuromancer,’ but what to make of Jones, a bio-enhanced dolphin that the Navy hooked on junk? Jones prowls his mildewed tank, showing Johnny Mnemonic “…the crusted plates along his sides, a kind of visual pun, his grace nearly lost under articulated armor, clumsy and prehistoric. Twin deformities on either side of his skull had been engineered to house sensor units. Silver lesions gleamed on exposed sections of his gray-white hide.” Gibson’s worlds have always been dense with body-modification and corporate-farmed AIs, but Jones seems strangely out of place in his body of work. Even though Jones ostentatiously exists in the same world as ‘Neuromancer’s Case and ‘Count Zero’s Bobby, it is difficult to see this bio-engineered dolphin interacting with them. These rare deviations from Gibson’s single-minded vision are a pleasure in and of themselves, if only for their aberrance.

My personal favorites amongst the stories in ‘Burning Chrome’ were ‘The Gernsback Continuum’ and ‘Hinterlands.’ Both pieces allow Gibson to flex different muscles than usual. JG Ballard hangs heavy on these stories, which says just as much about Gibson’s influences as my own tastes. ‘The Gernsback Continuum’ is particularly revelatory, as we see a young writer working through his influences, grappling with the legacy of science fiction. In his introduction to this collection, Gibson explains that “…in the 1980s, cultural models of modernity were starting to lose resolution. The dissatisfactions I brought to their writing, the burrs under the saddle of my early method, had to do with some sense of that – of the Modern starting to suffer from bit rot, and from a conviction that science fiction hadn’t quite been doing its best job about that.” These early stories are an attempt to grapple with failed modernities and futures. The intergalactic optimism of the space race, as seen in the space operas of Asimov and Heinlein, is subsumed by the orbiting derelicts that populate Gibson’s collaboration with Bruce Sterling, ‘Red Star, Winter Orbit.’ Yes, even half-abandoned satellite colonies seem laughable in our planet-bound 21st century, in a world that is stricken by dwindling natural resources, but Gibson’s vision of a failed and limpid space race is still remarkably prescient, especially compared to the jingoist galactic empires of 50s pulp SF.

‘The Gernsback Continuum’ is a direct rejoinder to Gibson’s expressed dissatisfaction with the genre. The story is written under the aegis of JG Ballard and the members of “…another, variant species of science fiction, unnamed but to my mind somehow distinct, which seemed to start from less fixed assumptions of history, a fiction whose writers seemed willing to entertain ideas that suggested we might, in fact, not know where we’d come from, or even where we were – that we were perhaps failing to recognize where we were for what it most basically was.” This is a science fiction of broken history, or more accurately, it is a speculative fiction of ambiguous history, instead of an over-confident linearity. We also see early traces of Gibson’s obsession with architecture and sociology.

The narrator of ‘The Gernsback Continuum’ is a photographer hired by a book publisher to document a faded 20th century futurism that never came to be. He photographs the kitschy vestiges of ‘raygun Gothic’, “…those odds and ends of ‘futuristic’ Thirties and Forties architecture you pass daily in American cities without noticing; the movie marquees ribbed to radiate some mysterious energy, the dime stores faced with fluted aluminum, the chrome-tube chairs gathering dust in the lobbies of transient hotels… segments of a dreamworld, abandoned in the uncaring present…” This forgotten architecture is complicit in the arrogance and discrimination of our forefather’s imagined futures. As the photographer delves deeper into his project, he sees vivid hallucinations of impossible flying machines and fluted cityscapes.

These hallucinations culminate in an encounter with the children of this misplaced Modernism, “They were blond. They were standing beside their car, an aluminum avocado with a central shark-fin rudder jutting up from its spine and smooth black tires like a child’s toy. He had his arm around her waist and was gesturing toward the city. They were both in white: loose clothing, bare legs, spotless white sun shoes… they were Heirs to the Dream. They were white, blond, and they probably had blue eyes. They were American… the Future had come to America first, but had finally passed it by. But not here, in the heart of the Dream. Here, we’d gone on and on, in a dream logic that knew nothing of pollution, the finite bounds of fossil fuel, or foreign wars it was possible to lose. They were smug, happy, and utterly content with themselves and their world. And in the Dream, it was their world.” Gibson’s worlds are based on ownership, on a corporate-controlled late-capitalism where no one individual can truly own anything.

Gibson attacks the entire imperialist conceit of the earlier generations of pulp science fiction – the petty arrogance and entitlement that saw its grotesque culmination in hack writer L Ron Hubbard’s Church of Scientology. ‘The Gernsback Continuum’ identifies the gross errors modernism of speculative fiction – compare this with Michael Davidson’s suite of poems, ‘Bad Modernism,’ which “…attempts to deal with more problematic or embarrassing aspects of modernism – its will to power, its racism, its imperialism…” Gibson does just such a thing in ‘The Gernsback Continuum,’ and has offered alternative paths throughout his prestigious body of work, much of which has been explored elsewhere on this blog.

NEXT: George Bataille's The Accursed Share, Vol. 1

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