Burning Chrome, by William Gibson (1986).
Score: timeless classic.
Gibson is a difficult author, the way I see it. He can come off as vague, though he’s not. He not so much explains things as suggests them. He uses as few words as he can get away with, so you need to pay close attention, because every single word counts and you need to fill in the gaps. He also loves in medias res and that’s part of what makes his stories so interesting. Explaining the plot of one of the stories in Burning Chrome is kind of spoiling it, because half the fun is piecing the information together, hunting for clues about the setting, the past of the characters and the chronological sequence of events.
Burning Chrome is a collection of ten short stories, publised originally between 1977 and 1986. Its pages are inhabited by hustlers, petty thieves, technicians, hackers, assassins, astronauts, journalists and artists, and everything is made of neon and chrome. “The Gernsback Continuum” could very well be the manifesto of the latest great revolution in science-fiction, cyberpunk: we are no longer interested in this proto-fascist future where progress is taken for granted and knowledge is unambiguously used for the greater good. The future is here and it is gritty, edgy and spliced with celluloid tape. “The winter market” revisits the legend of the tormented artist with a delicious oniric, transhuman twist. I choose to read “The belonging kind” as a truly inspired allegory on alcoholism, while “New Rose Hotel” and “Burning Chrome” are fascinating twists on the classic noir narration. “Hinterlands” is some of the most eerily beautiful prose I’ve ever read.
Sometimes it’s hard to wrap your head around the idea that Gibson has never been able to see the future; being one of the most influential writers in the history of science-fiction will do that. Still, this is not one of those books you read solely for their historical significance, it’s one that you can enjoy today, with no strings attached (once you’re over the fact that the society of information ended up being digital, not analogical). Let me insist: with motifs like people living their lives through the eyes of simstim stars and actually holding a job being a symbol of status, it is truly amazing that the author managed to see the things we are struggling with now coming for us thirty years ago.
Also, you might want to bring this up the next time someone says that science-fiction lacks literary quality. Within his narrative minimalism, Gibson is a wizard of metaphors and similes. ‘Directly beneath the clock, the flat eyes of somebody’s grandpappy’s prize buck regarded Deke from a framed, blown-up snapshot gone the slick sepia of cockroach wings’ he writes, as pretty much the only description of a room where war veterans gather to bet on virtual airplane fights. ‘Her other palm came up to brush across the feed-back pads, and it rained all afternoon, raindrops drumming on the steel and soot-stained glass above Bobby’s bed’, and that’s how much Gibson needs to say so we understand that Automatic Jack slept with his best friend’s girlfriend. ‘The Finn’s place has a defective hologram in the window, METRO HOLOGRAFIX, over a display of dead flies wearing fur coats of gray dust’. It’s a passage that doesn’t give that much information, but says it all.
All in all, delicious to read, take in, reread beautiful passages out loud, look out the window on a rainy afternoon and wonder where the future we were promised went.