Friday, November 14, 2008

Middle Shelf Selection: William Gibson's Burning Chrome

If the novel is a sojourn in a foreign land, short stories are trips to the municipal park. Much of their provinciality is a function of length. Long-form fiction has the space to luxuriate in detail, dwelling on tertiary characters, describing each bit of their surroundings and spawning hydra-headed plots that wriggle every which way. But while the novel remains the champion of the marketplace, it can seem downright clumsy when compared with the elegance of a well-written short. This is doubly true when it comes to the pieces collected in William Gibson’s Burning Chrome.

I put the shotgun in an Adidas bag and padded it our with four pairs of tennis socks, not my style at all, but that was what I was aiming for: If they think you're crude, go technical; if they think you're technical, go crude. I'm a very technical boy. So I decided to get as crude as possible.
If Gibson’s first novel had a flaw, it was that the overgrowth of its imaginative setting choked out plot and character development. Burning Chrome pares back the speculative material, and the results are cleaner, better-ordered, even when they share the same world. The best-known of the bunch is “Johnny Mnemonic,” a man-on-the-run tale that reads like a genre recombination of techno-thriller, hardboiled and dystopia. (Unfortunately, most of its fame is due to being made into an execrable movie starring Keanu Reeves.) “New Rose Hotel” takes a noir-ish turn, with a mercenary specializing in corporate defections narrating the final moments of his life, sweaty hands clasped around a cheap Chinese .22. The title story comes across as an early iteration of Neuromancer, all the archetypes of data thief and cybernetic heavy and unattainable beauty in play.

When Hiro hit the switch, I was dreaming of Paris, dreaming of wet, dark streets in winter. The pain came oscillating up from the floor of my skull, exploding behind my eyes in a wail of blue neon; I jackknifed up out of the mesh hammock, screaming. I always scream; I make a point of it.
The remainder veer into different territory. In one, humanity comes in contact with a superior spacefaring species, the grim result being not exactly the stuff of Star Trek (“Hinterlands”). Another has a shy linguistics professor discovering a race of chameleon-like humanoids who can blend in with any social setting (“The Belonging Kind”). “Dogfight” and “The Winter Market” pivot on the idea of hamartia, the “fatal flaw” of classical tragedy. The former features a grifter desperate to win a championship in an underground gambling ring, the latter a wasted woman determined to become an artist in dreams before disease claims her life.

I put the trodes on and reached for the stud on the fast-wipe. I'd shut down its studio functions, temporarily converting eighty thousand dollars' worth of Japanese electronics to the equivalent of one of those little Radio Shack boxes. "Hit it," I said, and touched the switch.

Words. Words cannot. Or, maybe, just barely, if I even knew how to begin to describe it, what came up out of her, what she did ...
Yes, some of the stories have aged poorly (“Red Star, Winter Orbit”) or feel more like ideas than proper narratives (“Fragments of a Hologram Rose”). But those intimidated by the breadth and density of Gibson’s Nebula-, Philip K. Dick- and Hugo-winning work should try his stories. Don’t judge them by their modest lengths. Chrome shines bright.

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