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Near-future science fiction can age poorly, and the stuff that seemed coolest in its time often fares the worst. But though his books are always firmly rooted in their era, William Gibson somehow consistently manages to escape this. Maybe it’s that he seemed to be winking when he put his characters in black leather and mirrorshades: yes, I know they’re trying too hard. Maybe it’s because his worlds were self-contained enough that they now feel like alternate histories where people still use cassettes rather than a failed attempt at predicting the future. Whatever the reason, you owe it to yourself to at least take a look at Burning Chrome, an early short story collection that shows him at his strongest.
You’d be hard-pressed to find a piece of tech that’s in use today, but characters interact with it in a way that rings true
Gibson’s novels have received the most attention, and that’s justified: Neuromancer was so influential that practically everything in it is now a cliche, and Pattern Recognition created a new genre of present-day SF. But for the uninitiated, Gibson novels can involve slogging through a series of apparently unconnected events, looking for a plot that never seems to arrive. It’s easy to read through so many stunning set pieces that you forget to even pay attention: until about my third read of Neuromancer, I could have explained the style of stenciled tan worn by a trio of secret agents better than why they’d showed up in the first place. His short stories, by contrast, focus on a single event, a diamond-hard point around which vast ideas coalesce.
The title story, "Burning Chrome," is a tiny and perfect encapsulation of everything wonderful about 1980s Gibson. His characters are straight out of a hard-boiled novel, haunted by wars held only in the future of our past. It’s a heist story, with the protagonists pitted against a monstrous woman-child heading a criminal empire, but it’s punctuated by moments of peace: a shopping trip in an East Coast mega-city or a reconnaissance flight through the neon pyramids of cyberspace. Though you’d be hard-pressed to find a piece of technology that’s in use today, characters interact with it in a way that rings true, using new tools to forget the people they think they are and remember who they want to be — even if it all backfires in the end.
When your thoughts, actions, and even eyes are all replaceable, who are you?
In some of his tales, these changes are literal: "The Belonging Kind" describes people who find their place in the world by becoming empty, shapeshifting animals. Other characters navigate the perils of trying to figure out who you really are when your thoughts, actions, and even eyes are replaceable and reproducible. It’s far from straightforwardly dystopian, but it’s usually bittersweet: a paralyzed artist in "The Winter Market" uses a sort of dream recorder to communicate with others more intimately than she ever could with touch, but she’ll always remain disconnected from the world around her. Several of the stories are set in Gibson’s iconic cyberpunk Sprawl, but others offer tiny glimpses of life on a Soviet spaceship or an eerie present filled with the ghosts of futures past.
None of the stories in Burning Chrome are "relevant," exactly. You can draw parallels with things that would later happen, but the stories within are so good precisely because they aren’t limited to predicting the future or commenting on the present. "Cyberspace" -- Gibson’s most famous coined phrase -- never turned out to be the virtual reality he imagined, but Burning Chrome manages to capture how technology can change who we are.