"Fragments of a Hologram Rose"
"The Belonging Kind" (with John Shirley)
"Red Star, Winter Orbit" (with Bruce Sterling)
"New Rose Hotel"
"The Winter Market"
"Dogfight" (with Michael Swanwick)
Two decades later cyberpunk no longer seems revolutionary. Today it is common to speak of it as a category, one with fairly ill-defined boundaries since what at least appeared to be radical in the 1980s (I will not here rehash the debate over just how much "punk" there really was in cyberpunk) has long since been assimilated by the broader genre. The tropes pop up everywhere, not just in print science fiction, but also the media type which tends to lag behind it. (Consider, for instance, the television series Andromeda, where cranial jacks, cyberspace jaunts and upgraded bodies are as common as Golden Age images of spaceships and robots—and the planets seem to consist mostly of neon-lit back alleys.)
"Post-cyberpunk" writers like Neal Stephenson and Ken MacLeod certainly did their part in this. So did that rush of computer-themed movies and television shows which erupted in the mid-1990s, and made the hacker so common a figure of fiction and film that when I recently heard about yet another plan underway to make a movie out of William Gibson’s 1984 novel Neuromancer, I found myself wondering if it could really bring anything new to the screen in this post-Matrix era.
Of course, the pervasiveness of its influence only makes that body of work all the more worthy of reexamination, and perhaps Gibson’s contributions especially. While there is ample room for debate over just what was the best literature the movement produced, his Neuromancer is widely regarded as the quintessential cyberpunk novel, perhaps because Gibson comes closer than anyone else to the Platonic vision of cyberpunk’s essence Sterling describes in the Mirrorshades preface. He also has both the highest mainstream profile (as his recent bestsellers demonstrate), and the greatest respect that any of the Movement’s members currently command at the upper levels of the literary establishment.
Burning Chrome, first published in 1986, collects ten of his early short stories. Three of them were cowritten with genre luminaries John Shirley, Bruce Sterling, and Michael Swanwick, and three others (namely "Johnny Mnemonic," "New Rose Hotel" and "Burning Chrome") are "Sprawl" stories which lay the groundwork for his highly influential trilogy of Sprawl novels—Neuromancer, 1986’s Count Zero, and 1988’s Mona Lisa Overdrive. Most of these stories have been repeatedly anthologized in the years since, and those interested in an extensive if somewhat dated listing of other places where they have published should check out Gibson’s lengthy entry in the Locus Index to Science Fiction. Students of the science fiction magazine market might also note that six of the ten stories reviewed here appeared in the important but now-defunct Omni Magazine, which had Ellen Datlow as its fiction editor.
The stories are accompanied by another insightful preface by Bruce Sterling about the Big Picture as it seemed to the cyberpunks generally and Gibson particularly (from which, in fact, I derived the above quotations), and since the publication of the 2003 edition, "Source Code: An Introduction," a piece by Gibson himself which explains his development as a writer, as well as how these specific stories came together.
"Johnny Mnemonic," the first story in this collection, first appeared in Omni in May 1981. Perhaps the most recognizable of this group because of the 1995 film version starring Keanu Reeves, with a script written by Gibson himself, it is the first "Sprawl" story to appear in print.
Just as in the film, the titular Johnny is a courier "who has hundreds of megabytes stashed in [his] head on an idiot savant basis," on the run from the Yakuza, which is after the information. "Mnemonic" begins well into the chase, with Johnny heading into a meet, hoping to wind up the deal.
As is the case with more classics than you will usually hear people admit, the story certainly has its flaws. Gibson’s storytelling can be as muddled as his prose style can be dazzling, the strength of his plotting and descriptions of the action inconsistent for all of the flash of a single word choice or sentence—weaknesses which are particularly evident in this early tale. Readers new to his writing are likely to find "Mnemonic" confusing, even impenetrable in places, because they so often have to work to figure out what is going on from the strokes of his verbal paintbrush, and often left wondering if they missed anything despite their best efforts. Along with the story’s thinness, this keeps it from building up the tension that this tale of a man on the run for his life should have. (Indeed, for all its flaws, Gibson’s film script actually developed the story much further.)
However, "Mnemonic" is notable for setting the tone for later Sprawl stories, something that the film, incidentally, did a good job of capturing. Gibson’s world of dark, dank dives and back alleys, of upscale manipulators and futuristic slum-dwellers comes alive. Brian Aldiss put it quite nicely in his book Trillion Year Spree: Gibson’s is "a society glimpsed from its heights and its stygian depths . . . one cannot imagine anyone normal living there and bringing up their kids: only the punks and the powerful," anything remotely like a middle-class life conspicuously absent. (And why not? In the world of the Sprawl, the state has withered away as the neoliberals imagine it doing, with the unseemly consequences neoliberals generally deny or shrug off, everyday life become "a deranged experiment in social Darwinism, designed by a bored researcher who kept one thumb permanently on the fast-forward button" as Gibson later put it in Neuromancer.) There is also a strong sense of the ubiquity of information technology and biotechnology, particularly as manifested in casual cyborgization (an idea that has notably become less popular in science fiction, depictions of such radical bodily modification being rarer), the bizarre fluidly presented as a not-particularly-remarkable detail. Last but not least, "Mnemonic" introduced Molly Millions, a character who is also prominently featured in Neuromancer (and whose experiences in "Mnemonic" are a part of her back story in that book).
"The Gernsback Continuum," which first appeared in Terry Carr‘s Universe 11 anthology in 1981, has also been republished by American Heritage magazine, on the website of which you can now find a copy. While clearly set in the present day, "Continuum" is very much about a central tenet of cyberpunk, that this world is one where "the capital F future isn’t going to arise," as Gibson later put it. The story explores the theme through the eyes of its narrator, an architectural photographer who is helping put together a book with the working title The Airstream Futuropolis: The Tomorrow That Never Was, about an "alternate America . . . that never happened," one where the future widely envisioned in the 1930s and 1940s actually came about. Accordingly, he finds himself immersed in the futurist, Art Deco aesthetic so evident in southern California, so that in places the story feels like a catalog of such items, from old films and pulp magazines to pencil sharpeners that look "as though they’d been put together in wind tunnels." (Not surprisingly, the story "actually began as a long review of an illustrated history of the streamlined Moderne," as Gibson explains in his introduction—one that was incidentally rejected by the fanzine to which he submitted it "as being bafflingly off-topic.")
Eventually the narrator’s immersion in these items, the stuff of now-broken dreams, makes him start seeing "Art Deco futuroids" the way other people see flying saucers—as "semiotic phantoms, bits of deep cultural imagery that have split off and taken on a life of their own . . . Fragments of the Mass Dream" epitomized by science fiction writer and editor Hugo Gernsback.
This leaves the narrator struggling to avoid being snared by them and sucked down into the insanity from which they came—because, here, at least, that vision of the future is insanity. Gibson’s treatment of this theme is softer than, for instance, Michael Moorcock‘s or Thomas Pynchon‘s, but then his story is firmly set in the southwestern United States in the disenchantment following the oil embargo and Vietnam, rather than Nazi Germany. The future on which "Continuum" focuses, which "knew nothing of pollution, the finite bounds of fossil fuel, or foreign wars it was possible to lose," seems more naïve and irrelevant than threatening, but like those other writers, Gibson makes the connection with darker things, describing American futurism as having "the sinister fruitiness of Hitler Youth propaganda" and evoking the stadiums built by Albert Speer.
The things that never happened aside, the things that did come to pass had a way of going terribly wrong, "the rockets on the covers of the Gernsback pulps . . . fallen on London in the dead of night, screaming," the wingless cars that everyone settled for darkened the sky and "ate the marble and pitted the miracle crystal" with their fumes. In the end, it seems that it was probably all for the best that it never came about.
"Continuum" works well, in part, because it is rooted in Gibson’s strengths (his eye for detail, his strong sensibility about past, present and future) rather than his weaknesses (like his plotting)—and the specific references that date it are, ironically enough, things that can be said of our own time. Twenty-six years later, we still live in a world where a great many pretend to know "nothing of pollution, the finite bounds of fossil fuel" or defeat in foreign wars—which may be another reason to think Michael Moorcock has a point when he says this kind of critique is becoming more rather than less relevant.
A final note: while the film most commonly identified with William Gibson is 1995’s Johnny Mnemonic, "The Gernsback Continuum" was actually turned into a short film first, British television’s 1993 Tomorrow Calling. (That it is a British production makes the story seem almost prophetic given that the impetus for its narrator’s architectural photography project was "a British obsession with the more baroque elements of American pop culture.")
"Fragments of a Hologram Rose," the first story Gibson finished ("in lieu of a term paper for a course in science fiction taught by the late Dr. Susan Wood at the University of British Columbia in 1977"). It was also the first he published, appearing in Unearth 3 in 1977. The title is only too appropriate given its structure, which consists essentially of fragments of the conscious life of its protagonist, Parker, a continuity writer for "broadcast ASP," an electronic sleep inducer of the kind he personally has not been able to sleep without for two years. Together these fragments produce a picture of Parker’s life.
"Hologram Rose" is not Gibson’s most accomplished work, but the story is dense, the detail striking. Its main interest, however, may be how it anticipates the concerns which would come into clearer focus in later stories from "Johnny Mnemonic" on—a bleak future, the way the "street finds its own uses for things," the electric prose style that would later become a Gibson trademark.
William Gibson and John Shirley’s "The Belonging Kind" first appeared in the 1984 Shadows 4 anthology. Another story which might be set in the present, it is about a community college lecturer in introductory linguistics named Coretti who, ironically, is given to hanging out in bars because of his inadequacies as a communicator. At one of the watering holes he frequents, he finds himself drawn to a woman of the sort he had always found unattainable—not only because she is beautiful, but because she somehow always seems at ease wherever she is, to fit in everywhere just as Coretti never fits in anywhere.
Given that Shirley is a coauthor, one might guess that her ease is more than purely natural, the whole premise reflecting his particular brand of surrealistic fantasy, such as you can find in abundance in his Really, Really, Really, Really Weird Stories collection. In fact, Shirley’s influence actually struck me as predominant in the story, and it did not come to me as a surprise when Gibson later explained that "The Belonging Kind" was [Gibson’s] "uninvited attempt at rewriting a John Shirley manuscript, the ultimate in longhand criticism . . . with John turning the tables on me by promptly selling it as our collaboration."
Gibson’s next story, "Hinterlands," which first appeared in the October 1981 Omni, moves the action up and out into space. In this piece, Soviet cosmonauts have stumbled on a wormhole. However, rather than marking the discovery of an interstellar New World, and the start of humanity’s triumphant march to the stars, it reduces the participants in the most advanced scientific programs of the greatest technological powers to primitives, making human sacrifices out of their best and brightest for the gifts of the gods. They send astronauts through "the Highway," and they invariably come back mad or dead—but perhaps with a cure for cancer in their cold, dead hand. Gibson’s meditation on the implications of that situation (like in "The Gernsback Continuum," a version of the future as it was not supposed to happen), made it for me one of the most intellectually compelling in the whole collection.
"Red Star, Winter Orbit," cowritten with Bruce Sterling (with whom Gibson would later collaborate on the influential alternate history/steampunk novel, The Difference Engine—a partnership to which this story helped lead). First appearing in the July 1983 issue of Omni, as the title implies, it too has the Soviet space program as a major plot element. This time around, the story focuses on Colonel Yuri Vasilevich Korolev, an aging cosmonaut who was the first man to walk on Mars but is now living on "Kosmograd," a large space station in the process of being abandoned by a troubled Soviet empire. (Instead of an active effort, it would be a museum which would host visits from astronauts from friendly Third World countries.)
As is often the case in this collection when Gibson has a cowriter onboard, the style is comparatively restrained, the plotting a bit more developed. Additionally, while its basic premise dates it, the story retains an inherent interest for those who remember the drama of the Mir’s demise, which "Red Star" eerily seems to anticipate for all of the differences—as well as for its transfer of cyberpunk’s sensibility from the back alleys of the United States and Japan to this less familiar setting (which "Hinterlands" did not attempt). Korolev, as it happens, is not a traditional Hero of the Soviet Union in Gagarin’s mould, but a "long-haired child of the Soviet elite" from the Eighties who is now all grown up, which makes an important difference. The absence of nostalgia for more optimistic days here is not a cartoonish dismissal of the existence of Soviet patriotism of the kind that Tom Clancy and others of his ilk specialized in, but rather a reflection of real changes in the world.
As in "The Gernsback Continuum," the dreams of an earlier age are a distant thing, and there is only the rot of the present; Gibson and Sterling’s Russians just happen to be as alienated as Gibson’s Americans (excepting the fact that Russian alienation sometimes manifests itself in political dissent). At the same time, it is notable that while this is a story of Soviet decline, it is not one of American triumphalism. The decay of the United States is well advanced, too, the reader constantly made conscious of the country’s declining industrial base and decaying cities (problems which didn’t really go away, but which we seem to have stopped talking about some time around the celebration of the release of Windows 95). "Canaveral is in ruins," as one character informs us, and this being a Gibson story from the 1980s, it is Japan that is leading the way with its orbital factories.
That image of Japanese ascendancy, along with the idea that the Soviet Union could have lasted as long as it did, may make some readers smile, but in retrospect, the story may also work as alternate history. "Red Star" makes reference to a Treaty of Vienna in which the U.S. apparently ceded the Soviet Union a stranglehold on the world’s oil supply. Interestingly enough, heightened Soviet influence in the Middle East, letting it get high prices for its own oil exports and put pressure on Western economies, seems to be a fairly typical feature of counterfactuals about how the Soviet Union might have survived up to our own time. (For one, admittedly slanted, take on the subject, check out David Isby‘s essay "Afghanistan: The Soviet Victory" in Peter Tsouras‘s anthology Cold War Hot.) Indeed, where future history is concerned, I got the feeling at times that this was a prehistory to the world depicted in Sterling’s Shaper/Mechanist stories of the early 1980s ("Swarm," "Spider Rose," "Cicada Queen," "Sunken Gardens," and "Twenty Evocations," as well as his novel, Schismatrix).
In the Sprawl and its counterparts, power rests with the corporations, who have not come together here in a cozy monopoly the way they did in, for instance, the original Rollerball (which masterfully showed how totalitarianism can just as easily emerge from the private sector as the public), but are instead at each other’s throats. "New Rose Hotel," which first appeared in the July 1984 Omni, transfers the Cold War motif of the defecting scientist to the "secret skirmishes" between the mostly German and Japanese business empires dominating the world economy. Here, two of the hustlers who seem to be the Sprawl’s main life form, the nameless narrator, and Fox ("a point man in the skull wars, a middleman for corporate crossovers"), try to use a third, the seductive Sandii, to lure a prize scientist away from Maas Biolabs, over to its rival, Hosaka. The result is a tale of love and betrayal, related by the narrator from his "coffin" in the capsule hotel of the title, just outside Narita International Airport in Tokyo.
The twists and turns of that bleak story, glimpsed only from the perspective of the hunted, broken protagonist who was all but clueless until things finally fell apart, are not a particular strength of the story. Presented as a succession of remembered moments which let Gibson dazzle us with his striking images, but this is certainly a much more polished attempt at this sort of storytelling than "Fragments of a Hologram Rose" (of which I found it reminiscent), the narrative flow stronger. The prose is as elegant as ever, the visual detail razor-sharp and replete with the luxuriant as well as the grimy, and the heights Aldiss mentioned rather more evident (and the fall from them which culminates in his being at the New Rose Hotel). The quick but concise characterizations are also more compelling than in much of the other early Gibson stories. The narrator’s anguish, his need for Sandii after all they have been through as he lies in his coffin, hoping desperately for a meeting that will never happen, may be fairly standard noir, but still lend him a poignancy shared by few of Gibson’s protagonists.
This mix of strengths and weaknesses, interestingly enough, carries over to the 1998 Abel Ferrara film version. Quite faithful to its source material, it is thin as full-length film goes, and certainly short on action and suspense, but visually stylish and reasonably atmospheric, with its strong core cast left to provide most of its interest. Including Willem Dafoe as the narrator (here credited as "X"), and Christopher Walken as the irrepressible Fox (who gets the film’s best lines), the clear stand-out is a young Asia Argento as Sandii. (She would turn in a comparably smoldering performance as another neo-noir femme fatale in B. Monkey that same year.)
The next story, "The Winter Market," which first appeared in the November 1985 issue of Vancouver magazine, has for its narrator Casey, an editor of "dry dreams"–"neural output from levels of consciousness that most people can only access in sleep." Artists like the ones Casey works with, however, "are able to break the surface tension, dive down deep . . . into Jung’s sea, and bring back–well, dreams," accessible to neuroelectronics, which make those experiences as marketable as music is today. (The analogy to the twentieth century recording industry is strengthened by an eloquent description of Casey’s father’s work as an audio engineer, hyperconscious of its "clunky, quasi-Victorian" mechanical quality.)
Just as "New Rose Hotel" has as its core its narrator’s reminiscences about Sandii, "The Winter Market" is centered on Casey’s remembrance of Leni, a damaged young woman who became a star in the field through her powerful unconscious expression of the despair of her generation—which, ironically, bought her a way out. As Casey recalls her at the story’s start, Leni has already used the money she made to trade her "polycarbon and hated flesh" for "ROM on some corporate mainframe," the bodily escape that the console cowboys find temporarily in cyberspace a permanent condition for her.
Where in "New Rose Hotel" the plot structure required that Sandii remain a closed book to the narrator, "The Winter Market" requires Casey to get inside Leni in the most literal, technological terms, as Gibson only rarely does in his focus on surface detail. The result here is not only one of Gibson’s best composed stories, but perhaps the most resonant expression of the loneliness and alienation of the future he describes in the entire collection.
"Dogfight," which first appeared in the July 1985 Omni, saw Gibson collaborate with a coauthor again, in this case, the noted short story writer Michael Swanwick (whose recent collection, The Dog Said Bow-Wow, I review here). The story is not set in the present day like "The Gernsback Continuum," or very far in the future (or at least not our future), a "ninety-three Lotus" apparently the automotive state-of-the-art and the technology being comparatively subtle (it would seem there are no console cowboys because there are no consoles). Still, it is there, and does figure into the story. Especially with its "Second Cold War" touches (crippled veterans of new wars in Latin America and Asia are everywhere here), it seems like a place where a future like the Sprawl is clearly in the cards, but has not been fully realized yet.
Not surprisingly, compared with Gibson’s "point men in the skull wars," the Johnnys and Foxes and all the rest, the story’s protagonist Deke is an underachiever—a career shoplifter who has just been run out of Washington D.C. There is no big score ahead of him, just a drift southward as he does his best to make it through the day. He doesn’t get very far south, however, before something catches his interest. When he steps off his Greyhound "Flying Dutchman" at Frank’s Truck Stop in Norfolk, Virginia, he discovers a holographic video game in which the players do battle with World War I-era biplanes—the dogfight of the title. The game, clearly, obsesses the "kickers," far and away the best of whom is Tiny, a veteran Air Force pilot crippled when "some anonymous nationalista with an antique SAM tore him out of that blue-green Bolivian sky and slammed him straight down to Richmond Road."
Deke ends up staying, and in the process he makes a friend in Nance Bettendorf, an engineering major at William and Mary who has up until now led a sheltered life (her strict career parents perhaps as close as one gets to "anyone normal living there and bringing up their kids" in this world), which certainly has its interest. He is also driven to best Tiny at "Spads & Fokkers" at almost any price, setting up the core conflict.
Perhaps more than the other pieces Gibson cowrote with other authors in this volume, there is a clearer compromise between two different styles—Swanwick’s more direct storytelling and Gibson’s flashier prose. While the story is still ambiguous at a key point (enough so that theorizing about exactly what happened in a particular scene dominated the conversation in one of my classes), I felt that ambiguity was only fitting given the story’s concentration on the protagonist, and his approach to life, rather than a stylistic excess. The result is, on the whole, quite readable.
The titular and final story of this volume, "Burning Chrome," first appeared in Omni back in July 1982. While not Gibson’s last short story, or the last of these to appear in print, it feels to Gibson "like the end of [his] career in short fiction," for "within it gun the engines of Neuromancer," with which his career as a novelist began.
Others had written computer networks into their stories before, of course. Orson Scott Card‘s 1978 Ender’s Game, for instance, offered a fair approximation of the Internet as we now know it. However, it is to this and succeeding Gibson stories that we owe the notion of cyberspace as a place where information manifests itself in visual metaphors that can be manipulated like physical objects inside a virtual reality. Gibson’s "matrix" is a "consensus hallucination" abstractly representing "the relationships between data systems," on a "3-D chessboard, infinite and perfectly transparent" on which data takes brightly colored geometric shapes, "corporate galaxies and the cold spiral arms of military systems" so as to "facilitate . . . the handling and exchange of massive quantities of data."
Later writers have been quick to point out not only the disparities between this concept and the page-based Internet we commonly use, but the implausibility of this design—though in all fairness, this is partly because the concept has been homogenized. Handling and exchanging data represented by visual metaphors is exactly what Windows has let users do for a decade by enabling them to "pick up" manila folders that stand for computer files with their mouse and drop them into a "recycle bin" shaped like a trash can.
Perhaps more important than the precision of its prediction, however, is the story’s character as a response to a problem Aldiss noted, namely that contemporary science and technology do not present "issues which can readily be dramatized." This is especially the case with computer science, as innumerable films have demonstrated. Having an actor hammer a keyboard as they stare at a computer screen is decidedly not cinematic. (Indeed, I must admit to having been somewhat irked that James Bond spent half of the new Casino Royale doing just that in what occasionally felt like a really long cell phone commercial.) Visual impact aside, the depictions also give no real sense of what hacking involves, instead turning it into the nerd equivalent of black magic.
Gibson’s cyberspace, for all its flaws, represents an interesting effort to overcome exactly that obstacle. The reader is aware that Bobby is sitting bodily in the physical world, typing commands on a keyboard, but the highly visual descriptions of his virtually disembodied mind moving among data structures and killer defense systems make the number-man’s tapestries of 1s and 0s accessible to those unversed in the mathematical languages of the computer. Others would take it a step further than that, turning the comparatively abstract imagery of Gibson’s matrix into conventional cityscapes and avatars, rather than the acid trip-like experience of "Burning Chrome" and later Sprawl stories—but as even the title of The Matrix trilogy indicates, a lineage is clearly evident. (As for "Burning Chrome" itself, this story has not been filmed to date—though it has been turned into a stage play—but 1995’s Johnny Mnemonic offers an effective screen depiction of what Gibson’s Matrix looks like.)
Publisher: Eos (July 2003)
Paperback: 224 pages