William Gibson – Burning Chrome (1986) Review


This short story collection showcases William Gibson’s first work before he won all the awards with Neuromancer (1984). And from the very first start of his career he shows himself to be a tremendously talented writer. 

Fellow SF writer and Gibson-collaborator Bruce Sterling gives an illuminating introduction to this collection and it’s worth looking at for a moment. He says that science fiction in the 1970s was pretty depressing. It was full of post-apocalyptic tales. When SF writers tried to look for a more positive near-future to write about, they needed to take into account the new scientific and technological developments that were growing up around them, like information technology, cybernetics, genetics, and it wasn’t easy to create something believable, something realistic and positive out of that. These technologies were like a looming monster slowly edging closer and many writers didn’t know what to say about it. It is easier to write about post-apocalyptic Earths, or fantasy lands or galactic empires, than about a believable near-future world that had these technologies. And Gibson dared to do just that and to look that future straight in the eye. His stories of lowlifes and high tech, couched in literary techniques, blazed a new trail for science fiction to follow.

I guess this is true, except that I see very little that is positive about Gibson’s future worlds. He himself seems to address this fact in the second story of the collection: The Gernsbach Continuum. It’s about someone who is haunted by visions of the positive, idealised future as it was imagined by Americans in the 1930s and 40s. He makes them go away by reading newspapers and submerging himself in the near-dystopia of the real world. If this also reflects Gibson’s attitude towards writing sci-fi then he might have been telling himself that his future worlds are more realistic, and that that is something he was trying to go for. I can’t be sure. Let’s look at the rest of the stories.

Johnny Mnemonic. Just 20 pages that feel like an entire movie (and a movie adaptation indeed exists of this short story). A total submersion in a crazy near-future world with exquisite worldbuilding and a couple of highly unusual characters, including a cyborg dolphin. It’s just amazing how much Gibson can accomplish in so few pages. One character, Molly, we meet again in Neuromancer (1984) so this story is set in the same universe, and it also feels like a proto-Neuromancer story. It has the same future Japanese milieu, the same clueless main character on the run, a Yakuza hitman chasing him, like a trial run for the novel to come.

Gibson’s writing is sometimes mocking and thorny, sometimes poetic. He takes science fiction ideas and melds them into the shape of dark fairytales. Most of the stories are about lonely young men who sink into some never-never land of technology and emotion. Maybe some variety is missing in the choice of protagonists, but what Gibson does he does very well. Fragments of a Hologram Rose is a poetic story about recorded memory and lost love, and the feeling of becoming someone else. Felt like a good start of a fuller story that never followed. The Belonging Kind. A dark story with whiffs of horror, set in the nighttime fantasy land of bars and clubs. It has a wistfulness to it, and feels like the result of Gibson sitting alone in too many bars feeling uncomfortable.

Stories like New Rose Hotel (also turned into a movie) and Burning Chrome give more hints of the Neuromancer novel to follow, but even if we take those short stories from under the shadow that Neuromancer casts back, then they are fine stories on their own. Hard-edged stories of cybercrime, with the sentimental cores of doomed loves against neon-lit backgrounds. These futures may not be very positive, but Gibson found beauty where other SF writers didn’t dare to tread.

I think there is only one story in here that doesn’t mention the word “chrome”.

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21 Responses to William Gibson – Burning Chrome (1986) Review

  1. Bookstooge says:

    I remember reading Johnny M and at the end going “so where’s the rest of it?” I didn’t realize it was a short story :-/

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yeah many of his stories have the same effect. but I guess that Neuromancer is a valid answer for the rest of the story. After this collection I feel like I’ve read Neuromancer three times over because he reused lots of material from these short stories.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Bookstooge says:

        I had a very bad reaction to Neuromancer back in ’11, so that was pretty much the end of my exploration of Gibson.

        Do you think you’ll try for some more of his stuff? You don’t seem to hate it 🙂


        • I don’t know. We often have an opposite reaction to writers who have a very distinct style, like Swanwick, Harrison and now Gibson. I love them, you don’t. And Burning Chrome is very similar to Neuromancer in every way. I don’t know about his other books, though. Maybe his newer series are different. Maybe Bormgans nows.

          Liked by 1 person

  2. Andreas says:

    I’m glad you liked it! Remember your comment in my review where you noted that you should start reading Gibson? There it is and I hope it won’t be your last work from him!


    Liked by 1 person

  3. And here goes another author I always meant to read and have not started yet…
    Thanks for sharing! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  4. bormgans says:

    This might be his best title. Glad you liked it!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Ola G says:

    I might give this a go, sounds like my cup of tea. I enjoyed Neuromancer but I have a feeling Gibson might be better in short form.


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