burning chrome

lance olsen
© 1992


No one can change the future. All anyone can do is try to be a part of it.
—Lewis Shiner, Deserted Cities of the Heart


An illuminating place to begin such a process is Burning Chrome (1986), in which Gibson collects the shorter pieces he wrote and published between 1977 and 1986. Prefaced by another Sterling manifesto, these pages evince Gibson's early development as a craftsman. Sterling argues that with these stories Gibson has been instrumental in waking 1980s SF from "its dogmatic slumbers" by casting it "from its cave into the bright sunlight of the modern zeitgeist." Throughout the course of these pieces Gibson moves from experimentation at the level of technique to experimentation at the level of idea, evolves the near-future geography that will become his signature, and even tries to interrogate traditional notions of authorship by collaborating on three stories with other cyberpunks. Meanwhile, he also explores a number of themes that will become central to his major work.

"Fragments of a Hologram Rose" (1977) is his first, briefest, and stylistically most innovative short fiction. He wrote it in 1976 in lieu of a final paper for a science fiction course he took at the University of British Columbia. It was published a year later by Unearth, a low-circulation Boston magazine. Parker, the story's protagonist, was an indentured servant to a Japanese combine when a teenager. Now he is a thirty-year-old dream-merchant who programs proto-simstim devices called ASP (Apparent Sensory Perception) decks. Ironically, his own dream, a love-affair with a woman named Angela, has recently failed. While searching through her closet Parker discovers an emblem of their love, a postcard of a hologram rose, which he throws down the garbage disposal. He then jacks into an ASP tape containing some of Angela's perceptions only to realize how little he has understood of her past and point-of-view. He recognizes that, suggestive of the shreds of the hologram rose, "we're each other's fragments." We are never able to see the total picture of each other, the world, or even ourselves. We must learn to live with pieces in the absence of wholes.

Gibson himself points out four key themes evident in the story "in larval form." First is "the protagonist who seems barely able to drag himself out of bed." Second is the "theme of memory, of cybernetic systems as a metaphor for the working of human memory." Third is "a sort of prefiguring of Punk." Fourth is "the sense of Big Corporations moving around in the background, and the idea of indentured servitude to the same."(1) To these, the reader should add at least two other important ones. Gibson juxtaposes the tranquil pristine dreamscape of ASP with the painful material world, thereby anticipating the mind/body dualism that will eventually take the form of cyberspace/reality. Furthermore, the reader learns for the first time that man makes love with his machines because he cannot make love to other human beings.

Still more interesting is Gibson's early experimentation with narrative technique. Like the hologram rose of the title, this story is fragmented into small sections. It is a story about fragmentation: of the self, of human relationships, and even of language. Intensely poetic sentence shards appear throughout the piece, as do such surreal images as the cabby who, dressed in respirator and goggles, looks like an ant as he drives Angela away through acid rain. Gibson occasionally switches from third- to second-person point-of-view, emphasizing the relativity of perception. He self-reflexively inserts a passage from a fictitious history of the 1990s into his narrative, refuses to spend much time fleshing out Angela's character, and withholds such traditional motivational information about Parker as why he wanted to escape from the American subsidiary of a Japanese combine. In other words, he foregrounds innovative form over traditional content, hence generating a general lack of affect both at the level of character and tone.

Nothing could be less true of "The Gernsback Continuum" (1981) which adopts a first-person point-of-view and conventional narrative strategy. This time the unnamed protagonist is a photographer, initially a believer in the mimetic, who travels to London to shoot a series of shoe ads. Through Cohen, his boss, he meets a pop-art historian, Dialta Downes, currently at work on an illustrated history called The Airstream Futuropolis: The Tomorrow That Never Was about the American SF imagination of the 1930s which predicted a streamlined future that never happened. The photographer flies to the southwest to shoot 1930s architecture for Downes, only to discover that somehow he has "penetrated a fine membrane, a membrane of probability." "Semiotic ghost[s]" from this fictional future begin seeping into his world. The story culminates in a vision of a Tucson complete with crystal roads, golden temples, and gyrocopters shaped like dragonflies. In a Todorovian move, Gibson keeps two possibilities open at once: either the photographer's vision is a fantastic prophecy, or it is simply speed-induced hallucination. Gibson thereby short-circuits the gravity of mimesis in which the photographer initially believed.

Gibson's plot is highly reminiscent of Jorge Luis Borges's in "Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius" (1941), in which a fantastic ideal world called Tlön gradually penetrates the real one. Both fictions depict apparently ideal imaginary worlds that in fact turn out to be dangerous. In the former, contact with the Tlönic universe slowly disintegrates the real one; in the latter, the Jungian "subconscious of the Thirties" carries with it "a kind of totalitarian dignity, like the stadiums Albert Speer built for Hitler." Both pieces suggest that human beings prefer artificial and potentially deadly order to the all-too-real chaos of everyday life. Both point to the inherent instability of a reality into which epistemological and ontological illegality can irrupt at any moment.

But "The Gernsback Continuum" also functions as a kind of self-reflexive gloss on the genre of which it is a part. Sterling, in his preface to Burning Chrome, correctly asserts that Gibson is "consciously drawing a bead on the shambling figure of the SF tradition." While technically a much more conservative fiction than "Fragments of a Hologram Rose," "The Gernsback Continuum" nonetheless is thematically a much more subversive one. Gibson employs intertextuality in order to sabotage the SF tradition. As McGuirk notes, the fiction's climactic scene recalls the plot of John Campbell's "Twilight" (1934) in which a superman from the future materializes in the Nevada desert.(2) Such a strategy directly challenges science fiction's Golden Age embodied by Hugo Gernsback who began Amazing Stories in 1926 and who informs this story's title. The future our past imagined reveals the past's conservative subconscious, and it is no coincidence that this past finds such a congenial home in the politically conservative 1980s. The photographer witnesses a perfect young couple materialize in the Arizona desert, a beatific vision of Tucson in the background. The couple is white, blond, and blue-eyed. They wear spotless white clothing and are "smug, happy, and utterly content in themselves and their world." They are too perfect, too clean, and too content. Their presence conjures "all the sinister fruitiness of Hitler Youth propaganda." Gibson thus makes the claim that the grubby and chaotic real future might well be preferable to the ideal one imagined by the mass subconscious of the 1930s.

The "perfect" couple are emblems of idealized conformity. Their danger lies in the fact that they are utterly static unindividuated representatives of a closed system. They accordingly register Gibson's deeply Pynchonesque suspicion of normalcy, a theme which he probes again in "The Belonging Kind" (1981), another tale of invasion. Gibson recalls it began as a private joke between John Shirley and him. Shirley sent him "a very very long manuscript, and I thought it was an overly serious, and somewhat absurd piece of work," Gibson explains. "I wrote a certain parody of what he had written. He altered it a little bit and sold it."(3)

The plot has more to do with horror's investigation of subconscious fear than with science fiction's investigation of technological innovation. Michael Coretti teaches linguistics at a community college. About thirty, he lives on the fringes of society, seeing himself as "the Martian dresser, the eavesdropper, the outsider, the one whose clothes and conversation never fit." He frequents bars, where one night he meets a woman named Antoinette who interests him because she perfectly mimics the speech, walk, and appearance of others. When he follows her, he finds she literally sheds one personality and takes on another so that, chameleon-like, she can fit into any environment in which she finds herself. Like the perfect couple in "The Gernsback Continuum," she becomes "the personification of conformity." Obsessed with her, since she offers him what he has never been able to have, Coretti misses classes, loses his job, and moves into a dingy apartment. He rides home with Antoinette and her male friend one night to stumble upon a hotel room full of virtually identical reptilian creatures masquerading as humans. Over time, desperate to belong, Coretti turns into one of them.

Coretti becomes a "real human" only by sacrificing his humanity. Like the designers who created the future that never happened in "The Gernsback Continuum," Coretti is a populist "trying to give the public what it wanted." He tries so hard to do so that he becomes something less than human, appropriating the gills and tentacles of the belonging kind. Not only an indictment of normalcy, this fiction is also a statement about the radical contingency of selfhood. It considers how near the self continually is to metamorphosing into something other than self. The implication is that matters of identity, life, and death are completely beyond one's control. Insidious change is spontaneous and irresistible.

Next comes "Johnny Mnemonic" (1981), start of the Sprawl series that will also include "Burning Chrome" (1982) and "New Rose Hotel" (1984). For the first time, Gibson begins to sketch in the geography of the matrix trilogy. "The triumph of these pieces," as Sterling writes in his preface to Burning Chrome, is "their brilliant, self-consistent evocation of a credible future. It is hard to overestimate the difficulty of this effort, which is one that many SF writers have been ducking for years." "Johnny Mnemonic" marks a new kind of character, a new tone, and a new high-density style for Gibson. The paradigmatic American — hard, isolate, stoic, and a killer — surfaces. The tone fuses Gibson's earlier hip irony of Pynchon and Burroughs, with the tough-guy prose of Chandler and Hammett. The style moves toward characteristic ambiguity: dialogue tags drop out, pronoun references blur, futurist concepts and devices are mentioned without being explained, prose and poetry bond, detail abounds, and information density increases exponentially. The outcome is a linguistic maximalism that triggers plurisignification. Gibson confronts the reader with so much gomi that he or she must sort through it selectively, choosing this detail over that, supplying connections where no sure connections exist, often arriving at a conclusion about meaning that will differ to a fairly large degree from that arrived at by other readers.

Johnny, the protagonist, has stored espionage data for a gangster named Ralfi Face on a chip implanted in his brain. He goes to a bar intending to kill Ralfi, having heard Ralfi has put out a contract on him. Ralfi tells him the data came from someone who stole it from the Yakuza, the Japanese mob which itself probably stole it for ransom from the Ono-Sendai corporation. Molly, an early version of the hired gun who will play a central role in the trilogy, makes her first appearance when she suddenly intervenes, significantly showing up out of the darkness, hoping to make money by protecting Johnny. A Yakuza assassin murders Ralfi, but Molly and Johnny escape into Nighttown, a fringe society under the three southernmost kilometers of a geodesic dome in the Sprawl. There they first visit a dolphin named Jones, suggestive of those almost human ones in Mooney's Easy Travel to Other Planets, who with its jacked up sonar reads the code for releasing the information stored on Johnny's chip. Then they visit a pirate broadcaster who records the stolen program and transmits a message to the Yakuza telling them to call off the assassin or Johnny and Molly will broadcast the data. The Yakuza assassin who killed Ralfi catches up with them far above Nighttown, among the dim labyrinthine world inhabited by the Lo Teks, a group of savage youths akin to those in Golding's Lord of the Flies. Molly murders the assassin on the ritual Killing Floor, she and Johnny become partners and lovers, and the story seems to conclude. But in Neuromancer the reader learns that the Yakuza didn't forgive or forget. They simply bided their time before taking revenge. Having given Johnny and Molly several years to gain a false sense of security, they sent an assassin to kill the former, thus punishing the latter (chap. 15).

The reader pierces the overwhelmingly vast, powerful, and mysterious web of multinational corporations like Ono-Sendai, and gangster rings like the Yakuza. Like the Tristero in The Crying of Lot 49, these are "magic, anonymous and malignant."(4) Betrayal, violation, and ruthless manipulation are key themes, underscored here by images of disguise. Johnny has had plastic surgery and calls himself Edward Bax. Ralfi Face, whose very name implies false identity, has been altered to look like a once-famous rock'n'roll star. Molly's mirrorshades mask her eyes, her mechanically altered fingertips her scalpels, the Yakuza assassin's artificial thumb his weapon. The cyborg dolphin, a drug addict from the war, is encrusted in armor, and its skull has been deformed to house two large sensors. The Magnetic Dog Sisters, bouncers at the bar where Johnny meets Ralfi, have made themselves identical through cosmetic surgery, and another Dog, the fifteen-year-old Lo Tek who lives above Nighttown, wears fangs, scars, and a gaping eye socket that form "a mask of total bestiality." These images suggest the idea of chic vanity turned horrific, the belief in humans as animals, and the objective correlative between internal and external disfigurement. The last of these shares in the southern tradition of the grotesque that evinces subjective malformation through objective malformation. Johnny's mind has been invaded and deformed by the chips within it just as his body has been invaded and deformed by plastic surgery. He has become a data-storage techno-centaur that literally lives off of other people's memories. Like most of the other characters in this fiction, he has become something less than human. It is appropriate, then, that most of the story takes place in and above Nighttown, a metaphor for the dark, irrational, and reptilian part of the human brain.

"Hinterlands" (1981) is another examination of invasion. This time, however, emphasis falls on cultural rather than individual trespass. Through extensive use of flashback, two plotlines converge. The first centers on the past life and death of Lieutenant Colonel Olga Tovyevski, a Soviet cosmonaut whose spaceship disappeared — apparently into another dimension — en route to Mars. When it suddenly reappeared two years later, the rescue team found Tovyevski insane. In her right fist she clutched an extraterrestrial seashell. She was made into a martyr, while the CIA and KGB joined forces to find what lay beyond the magic entry point in space referred to as the Highway. Their attempts failed. Recording instruments came back blank. Astronauts who followed Tovyevski's path either committed suicide or went mad before they could be debriefed. The second plotline centers on the present attempt by the CIA and KGB to provide returning astronauts with an orbital womb-like environment called Heaven and a series of psychological surrogates. These are designed to ease the astronauts reentry into this world, enabling them to report what they have seen. One surrogate, Toby Halpert, prepares to decondition an astronaut named Leni Hofmannstahl, only to find she too has killed herself.

At the heart of this fiction lies the realization of human ignorance. The CIA and KGB try to uncover the nature of the beyond, of a radically different and advanced culture, yet all they ultimately uncover is their own uncertainty about matters of knowing and being. As Toby comes to realize, their attempts at understanding the Highway are analogous to those of flies in an international airport that by chance blunder onto flights going to exotic countries, unaware of where they are traveling, how, or why. "Flies are advised not to ask too many questions," Toby reminds himself. "Flies are advised not to try for the Big Picture." Such tries lead, not to truth, but to the creation of fictions, "like those poor suckers on their island, who spend all their time building landing strips to make the big silver birds come back." They lead, as with the cargo-cults, to the creation of false metaphysics and religion. Consequently, Olga Tovyevski is martyred although she is no more than an insane cosmonaut. Heaven proves to be a fake, filled with recorded birdsongs, artificial trees, and plaster Alps. Humankind, advanced as it might appear to be, is only a "hinterland tribe . . . looking for scraps," forced, like Parker in "Fragments of a Hologram Rose," to live with pieces in the absence of wholes. The only real knowledge, Toby comes to understand, is of the Fear, "the very hollow of night, an emptiness cold and implacable," a Conradian existential terror before chaos, meaninglessness, uncertainty, ignorance, and death.

Piggy-backing the plotline of the gangster heist (itself one more example of the invasion tale), "Burning Chrome" (1982) again moves out of the realm of spotless space stations, vague alternate universes, and reptilian aliens, and into the realm of a grungy near-future, crisp detail, and high-tech lowlifes. Gibson thereby begins to develop his distinctive insignia, writing about the matrix simulator, prototype for cyberspace; Tom Maddox's creation, ICE, or Intrusion Countermeasures Electronics; the techno-centaur in the guise of Jack Automatic and his myoelectric arm, Rikki Wildside and her Zeiss Ikon eyes; the surgical boutique; the simstim deck; World War III as an event already in the past; and the puppet house, where prostitutes work drugged three-hour shifts in an approximation of REM sleep. He also creates the forerunners of four characters who will play significant roles in the trilogy: Bobby Quine, the aging twenty-eight-year-old console cowboy, who shares much with Bobby Newmark; Rikki, who will become part Mona and part Angie; Finn, the seedy fence; and Tally Isham, the simstim star.

The theme again involves betrayal, violation, and manipulation. Bobby Quine and Jack Automatic exhibit only vestigial emotion and morality as they break into Chrome's computer system, rob the child-faced witch with cold gray eyes, destroy her power base, and as much as murder her by sapping her of her ability to defend herself against her enemies.(5) Bobby and Jack use Rikki Wildside, a naive teenager who sells her body to a puppet house in order to make enough money to buy a fashionable pair of new eyes and fly to Hollywood in the hopes of becoming a simstim star. Jack buys a Russian virus-program from Finn, who in turn bought it from someone who apparently killed the program's original thief. Using that program, Bobby violates Chrome's computer system. He uses the communication web to subvert the communication web. Jack helps Bobby violate Chrome while also betraying his friendship with Bobby by having an affair with Rikki. Rikki betrays her love affairs with Bobby and Jack by selling her body in the puppet house. In metaphorical rapes, Bobby and Jack penetrate Chrome's computer defenses, and Rikki's psychological ones, in order to drain them of their strength. Ironically, although much is made of Chrome's cold gray eyes and Rikki's beautiful new blue ones, both characters are blind to what happens to them. Each character, devoid of genuine human connections, is motivated by a ruthless need for control, be it in the form of money for Bobby and Chrome, or of simstim fame for Rikki. Each attempts to manipulate others to attain his or her goal. Bobby attempts to teach Rikki about the "wild side" of life, "the tricky wiring on the dark underside of things," but it is perhaps Jack who learns the most about this. In the end, he is the only character to feel a residual moral disgust when he realizes they have just murdered Chrome and allowed Rikki to go into prostitution. In a gesture of expiation, he uses some of the money he has just stolen to pay for a first-class ticket for Rikki to her dreamland in Japan. This is too little too late, but it is the best such characters can do.

Written with Bruce Sterling, "Red Star, Winter Orbit" (1983) represents a step back into fairly conventional science fiction. It is clearly much more the product of Sterling's imagination than Gibson's, as Gibson admits. "Bruce sent me a long version of the story," he recalls, "one that I essentially edited. It was more of an editing job. I shortened it. I rewrote it, but it mostly involved removing segments."(6) Elderly Colonel Korolev, first man on Mars, finds the Soviets have decided to scrap Kosmograd, the space station he has lived on for twenty years. Korolev and six of the thirty-two-member crew go on strike to protest the shutdown, but to no avail. In the final scene, Korolev, now the sole survivor on the space station, waits for Kosmograd to burn in earth's atmosphere. He begins to hallucinate, and in what Gibson has called a kind of "Heinlein dream" Korolev witnesses the invasion of the space station by a set of merry young American spacesquatters.(7)

Initially, the story appears to be about a new generation overtaking an old. Like Johnny Mnemonic, Korolev lives in other people's memories. While he often wants to remember the high point of his life, the Mars voyage, all he can do is recall media representations of it. Like the "popping, humming, and wheezing" space station on which he lives, Korolev is outdated. He is arthritic, suffers from calcium loss, listens to music from his childhood in the 1980s, and inhabits the Museum of the Soviet Triumph in Space. Opposed to him are the energetic young adulterous couple who continually makes love, and the Americans who in the end overrun the space station. But upon closer examination, the Soviets less represent youth than the aged gravity of pragmatism, believing that space is "a dream that failed." "We have no need to be here," one cosmonaut tells Korolev. Opposed to them, Korolev is then associated with the "wonderful lunacy" of the Americans who are idealistic and industrious visionaries. "You have to want a frontier — want it in your bones," one says. The story thereby comes to suggest the struggle between static prosaism (the winter orbit of death) and vital idealism (the burning red star). Which vision ultimately wins out depends on how the reader views the story's conclusion. If Korolev actually sees Americans enter the station, idealism is shown to triumph as it is passed from one generation to the next. If Korolev simply hallucinates his visitors, idealism is shown to be a sham, the hallucination of a dying way of life.(8) Once more a Todorovian gesture, the authors keep both possibilities open at once.

If "Burning Chrome" is a blueprint for Neuromancer, then "New Rose Hotel" (1984) is one for Count Zero. The third of the Sprawl series, its plot concerns corporate defection. An unnamed narrator waits to be murdered in a small sleeping compartment (appropriately called a "coffin") in a Japanese hotel. He passes time by recalling the events that led up to his current situation. He addresses his tale to Sandii, his lover and betrayer. It turns out that Maas Biolabs, a multinational, hired the narrator and a man called Fox, a middleman in corporate crossovers, to bring Hiroshi Yomiuri, an important genetic engineer, from Maas Biolabs to Hosaka. The narrator and Fox in turn hired Sandii, a beautiful and seemingly naive young woman, to seduce Hiroshi in a Viennese hotel. The plan seemed successful at first. Hiroshi fell for Sandii and defected one October afternoon. But soon it became evident something had gone wrong. Someone had sabotaged Hiroshi's research project. The saboteur turned out to be Sandii. She had been secretly hired by Maas Biolabs to short-circuit Hiroshi's defection. Instead of meeting the narrator at the New Rose Hotel when everything had blown over as she promised, Sandii introduced a deadly meningial virus program into Hiroshi's DNA synthesizer and then vanished. In a conventional plot twist, then, the Fox is outfoxed. The victimizers become victims. Having evaporated their credit, Hosaka sent assassins to kill Fox and the narrator. It succeeded in the first case. In the second, as with Johnny in "Johnny Mnemonic," it is only a matter of time. The story ends as Hosaka's deadly helicopter zeros in on the New Rose Hotel where the narrator is waiting.

We again meet the by now familiar themes of betrayal, violation, and manipulation. But instead of Chrome's relatively small business, or even the vast and powerful Ono-Sendai and Yakuza, here the reader finds what Fox calls "corporation as life form." If an alien were to come to earth intending to identify the dominant form of intelligence on the planet, Fox claims, it would have to choose the multinational whose "structure is independent of the individual lives that comprise it." The multinational's blood is information, not individuals. Humans like Hiroshi become merchandise to be guarded, stolen, and destroyed. If the guiding metaphor in "Burning Chrome" is human-as-prostitute, and in "Johnny Mnemonic" human-as-animal, here it is human-as-commodity.

As if to underscore this point, Gibson emphasizes how little identity each of the characters has. Sandii reveals a new past each time she tells her history, "and always the one, you swore, that was really and finally the truth." She becomes, as Fox understands, no more than "ectoplasm, a ghost called up by the extremes of economies." Fox, a romantic figure searching for the Edge just as Gentry in Mona Lisa Overdrive will search for the Shape, is no better off. In an image reminiscent of Gibson's first story, Fox often empties his wallet late at night, "shuffling through his identification. He'd lay the pieces out in different patterns, rearrange them, wait for a picture to form." The narrator's past has also sunk into oblivion, "lost with all hands, no trace." Significantly, we never learn his name. After the defection he adopts a new identity as easily as he has done innumerable times before. The very story he narrates is an attempt to create a viable past through the act of telling, but for all the reader knows it may be no more reliable than those tales manufactured by Sandii, Fox, or even Hosaka itself which quickly erases the other players from its corporate memory when its espionage plot fails. Each of the characters, then, is a kind of artist intent on producing a fiction, a cosmos out of chaos. But in each case Gibson reminds us that art, like Sandii, always promises the tale that is really and finally the truth, only to fail forever to deliver the goods. In "New Rose Hotel," whose title (like that of "Fragments of a Hologram Rose") perverts traditional associations of the flower with love, innocence, and purity, chaos remains chaos. Art proves futile, memory defective, relationships impossible, humans ruthless, and selfhood unstable.

"Dogfight" (1985), written with Michael Swanwick, touches upon many of the previously discussed themes. It explores betrayal, violation, manipulation, the impossibility of human connection, and the role of the techno-centaur. It carries with it the feel of the Sprawl series in its emphasis on the dingy near-future, sharp details, and seedy high-tech lowlifes. But it is also the first story by Gibson to examine in depth the mind/body dualism suggested by ASP in "Fragments of a Hologram Rose," cyberspace in "Burning Chrome," and data-storage chips in "Johnny Mnemonic." Deke, a down-and-out petty thief and drifter, has been exiled from Washington D.C. for shoplifting. He takes a bus as far as Tidewater, Virginia, where he finds a gameroom filled with people playing Spads & Fokkers, a new kind of 3-D video involving antique planes. Fascinated, Deke steals a projective wetware wafer housing the game from a nearby giftshop. He rents a room in a tenement and meets Nance Bettendorf, a well-off student wetware wiz who offers to upgrade his game so he can play against the pros. The extra edge Deke needs to win comes, not from his own determination and skill, but from a military drug called hype that increases one's reflexes and concentration. Nance scores two hits of it and Deke bullies her out of one, thereby wrecking her college career since she needs both hits for a project she is working on. Then he heads to a bar where he challenges the Spads & Fokkers champ, Tiny Montgomery, a crippled combat vet who with the help of hype flew in the South American war. Spads & Fokkers is Tiny's life. Deke raises large bets, beats him, and ends virtually where he began: alone, inhumane, a thief and a drifter. His only dim revelation is that he no longer has anyone with whom to recount his tale of fraud and victory.

As with ASP and cyberspace, characters who jack into Spads & Fokkers leave their bodies behind and lose themselves in a mental landscape. The drug-like result is "so perfect, so true" it makes the material world around one "look like an illusion." Accordingly, one abandons the decadence of the body and penetrates the brilliance of the mind. When Deke steps off the bus in Tidewater, he notices his legs feel "like wood" and seem "to have died already." He lives in poverty and hunger. Tiny too has bad legs. He is confined to a wheelchair, having been shot down over Bolivia and crippled with high doses of hype that have led to braincell attenuation. The police have put a brainlock on Deke so he cannot bear the idea of returning to Washington, and Nance's parents have put a chastity lock on her so that she cannot bear the idea of being touched by another human. None of the characters, then, can control his or her own body. Just as the beautiful erotic images Nance produces with her projective wetware are trapped within flame, so each character's brilliant mental essence is trapped within flesh. Deke, Tiny and Nance are artists who use their creations to transcend the ugliness of the material world. This is what makes Deke's final victory over Tiny horrific. Their dogfight is not one between toys, but between imaginations. Deke both robs Tiny of his title and of his method for escaping his deformed body. After winning, Deke wants to tell everyone the story of his success, "going over the victory time and again, contradicting himself, making up details, laughing and bragging." Yet, like the narrator of "New Rose Hotel," he no longer has anyone with whom to share his tale. He has used the very people who might have listened to win his egotistic and destructive game. He may think he has just triumphed for the first time in his life, but his victory has been dishonest and ruthlessly self-serving.

"The Winter Market" (1986) also contemplates the role of the artist. Whereas "Dogfight" emphasizes the artist's ability to transcend the material world, "The Winter Market" emphasizes the pain the artist must endure in that world before transcendence. Casey, the narrator, is an editor of simstim recordings at a company called Autonomic Pilot.(9) Through Rubin Stark, a sculptor-friend, he meets Lise, a sensitive and angry down-and-out woman with Hollywood aspirations who, because of a congenital disease, is confined to a polycarbon exoskeleton. Impressed by the intensity of Lise's feelings, Casey introduces her to the recording industry and helps edit her first simstim, Kings of Sleep, which turns out to be a success. Her health deteriorates, partially as the result of her disease, partially of her addiction to a drug called wizz. Before she dies, she enters her personality construct into a computer so that she can continue to make art from beyond the grave.

Gibson presents two views of art in "The Winter Market." One is romantic, one postmodern. Lise represents the former. When Casey listens to her voice, he hears "levels of pain there, and subtlety, and an amazing cruelty." She is literally isolated from others, living in her exoskeleton, helpless without it. She is self-absorbed, able only to take from rather than give to others, unable to make love. She is self-destructive as well, refusing to tend to the sores on her wrists caused by the exoskeleton, or to her addiction to wizz. When Casey jacks into her mind, he is so startled and moved by what he feels that he cannot stop himself from crying. Like the characters in "Dogfight," her deformed body is controlled by forces outside herself, but her imagination is dark brilliance. Unlike Rubin, she is "able to break the surface tension, dive down deep, down and out, out into Jung's sea, and bring back . . . dreams." Like Rikki, Tiny, and Sandii, she uses her talent to buy her way out of this world. She escapes her body and enters the purity of cyberspace, but, like Coretti in "The Belonging Kind," she ironically finds peace only by sacrificing her humanity.

The postmodern view of art is represented by Rubin Stark. A gomi no sensei, he never likes to refer to himself as an artist. A predecessor of Slick Henry in Mona Lisa Overdrive, he wanders the city "like some vaguely benign Satan" gathering junk to make whimsical deconstructive robotic sculptures suggestive of those produced by Mark Pauline's Survival Research Laboratories. Child-like, he is not overly concerned about success, and he does not take his art especially seriously. For Rubin, as for Gibson at this point in his career, art is fun, no more than a "defective toy." Art enables him to maintain his sanity and his humanity.

To sum up briefly, then, the stories in Burning Chrome mark Gibson's movement from experimentation at the level of technique to experimentation at the level of idea. They evince his gradual evolution of near-future geography that will become his signature in the matrix trilogy. Throughout the course of these fictions, the reader can chart the rise of thematic complexity, the paradigmatic American character, emotional depth and resonance, and linguistic density. A number of characters who will surface in Gibson's major work make their initial appearance here. Many themes which will become central to Gibson's project also occur for the first time. These themes include the impossibility of real human connection, the instability of selfhood, the megacorporation as life form, man as commodity and techno-centaur, the role of the artist, the role of memory, mind/body dualism, the suspicion of normalcy, betrayal, violation, and manipulation.


1 Joseph Nicholas and Judith Hanna, "William Gibson," Interzone 1.13 (1985), 18.

2 Carol McGuirk, "The 'New' Romancers: Science Fiction Innovators from Gernsback to Gibson," paper delivered at the Fiction 2000 conference at the University of Leeds, June 28-July 1, 1989. Gibson asserts his use of Campbell's "Twilight" was unconscious on his part.

3 Takayuki Tatsumi, "An Interview with William Gibson," in Science Fiction Eye 1.1 (Winter 1987), 16.

4 Thomas Pynchon, The Crying of Lot 49 (New York: Bantam, 1966), 11.

5 Gibson feels my reading of these characters is too harsh.

6 Tatsumi, 16.

7 ibid., 16..

8 Sterling and Gibson did not intend the second reading, in which Korolev hallucinates his visitors.

9 "Autonomic Pilot" is a phrase donated by Lewis Shiner.