William Gibson: Burning Chrome

This collection contains ten stories, seven of which are solo works by William Gibson and the other three are collaborations. Nine appeared previously between 1977 and 1985 and one was new for this collection.

Gibson writes hard, technical cyber-punk SF with the art of a real master of the short story genre. Good SF shorts are of course all about ideas, situations and snappy plot twists but great examples of this genre also pack in characters that you can understand and root for and worlds that come to life in your head. It is hard to do that and only a handful of writers can turn out work of this quality.

The opening shot in the book, "Johnny Mnemonic" is one of those rare tales that burns its way into your head. Reading it is almost like being there watching the events unfold. The narrative makes the outlandish grunge-tech future come to life and it is easy to see how this tale inspired the making of a movie.

It is a powerful start and the rest of the book does not disappoint. From the anonymous barfly world of "The Belonging Kind", up into the dying orbit of an old Russian space station in "Red Star, Winter Orbit" and back to the seedy hacker world of "Burning Chrome" Gibson delivers a set of tales for which the phrase "assault on the senses" is no exaggeration.

The book is a fine introduction to both Gibson and the cyber-punk genre and it is a book that every SF fan should own and re-read regularly. If you like it and to want to explore similar work, I'd suggest "A Good Old Fashioned Future" by Bruce Sterling, or the "Mirrorshades" anthology.

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My rating

Ten out of ten. Essential.

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Detailed Contents

Johnny Mnemonic
Johnny is a memory man augmented with tricks inside his head to allow him to hold information. He holds it securely but one day, he finds that he is caught in a battle between a client and the mob that actually owns the data that he has stored. It would suit everyone else if Johnny was to die but he has other ideas and flees into the dark regions of his city to find help. It's a bit like a cross between "The Thirty Nine Steps" and the world of "Blade Runner" and it just might be the best cyber-punk story ever. 10/10
The Gernsback Continuum
A photographer gets an assignment to assemble a portfolio of pictures for a book about the futuristic architecture of fifties America. As he does the work, he finds that he is breaking through into an alternative world that embodies the dreams of the architects. 6/10
Fragments of a Hologram Rose
At the end of a romance, a man is left with just a few fragmentary memories of his lover. As he destroys them, he remembers his previous life in a world of social disintegration. 5/10
The Belonging Kind (with John Shirley)
Who are the people who inhabit the world of seedy late night bars. Can it be that they are not really people at all but another kind of life that exists for nothing more than the passage from one bar to another and just belongs in each? Perhaps this is an idealised fantasy sought by alcoholics. 6/10
Hinterlands
Mankind finds a wormhole through to another place. Nobody knows where or even what it is but if you send somebody there, they will come back with something. Some strange souvenir of another universe. It may be worthless but it may be priceless so people continue to go. The trouble is that there is a price. Everyone who goes must leave their sanity behind when they return. 7/10
Red Star, Winter Orbit (With Bruce Sterling)
Presaging the death of Mir some decade and a half later, this story tells that tale of the last days of a Soviet space station that is abandoned by a regime that has other priorities and no money. 7/10
New Rose Hotel
An attempt at industrial espionage and personnel poaching goes wrong and leaves the perpetrators to be hunted down by a remorseless industrial combine. The survivor, holed up in the New Rose Hotel waits to be trapped and reflects on the woman who double crossed him 8/10
The Winter Market
An artist seeks both death and eternal life though a computer matrix. The engineer who set it all up and helped her to achieve her goal is the only person who really has any sense of loss over her passing. The author really conveys that in this fine story. 9/10
Dogfight (With Michael Swanwick)
A punk gets hooked on a virtual reality game and wants to take on the champ. He is prepared to throw everything that he has into the effort. But if he succeeds, will the cost be worth it and what would be the cost to his opponent? This is a brilliantly crafted update on the old theme of the young upstart taking on the big guy at Poker or Pool. 9/10
Burning Chrome
Two hackers set out to make the big kill. They want to take down the richest baddest business on the net. They are inspired to this goal by a girl but is she what she seems and what does she really want? A great tale with lots of hacker tech and a neat twist at the end. 10/10