William Gibson – Burning Chrome

The characters in William Gibson’s fiction are essentially either ciphers or stock character sketches, depending on how you want to read them – describing them in terms of genre-fiction-cinema imagery (noir, Western, mob, etc.) implies the latter, but postmodern theory implicates them as the former in acknowledging that those terms and references are all that writers have to describe real people, who are themselves under the mass influence of such tropes and images. When you contrast this line of thinking and technique of characterization with that of someone like Dostoevsky – lengthy omniscient dissections of personal histories, secret detailed thoughts and fears, and unique metaphors or examples for what kind of man or woman someone is – you have to wonder if this difference reflects an actual distinct depth of personality that has somehow become more shallow (or simply more mimetic) over the centuries, or if shifting authorial economics toward churning out mass-market paperbacks dictates that one appeals to the only concepts recognizable to diverse international audiences, i.e. previously extant mass-market media. This would seem to explain why there is almost no idiosyncratic style to the largest film blockbusters, and why there is increasingly little of intelligence, nuance or unfamiliarity to be found in the dialogue or the emotional displays, because it is easier to translate such films (not to mention novels operating for similar purposes) quickly in both the visual and functional-plot-talk senses for the largest possible crowd.

With a little more consideration the above wondering question is partly answered, though, because one – presuming the organism sitting at this computer calling itself I am not the only one – often has the shuddering realization that one’s particular personality is worn much like this film distribution technique: wanting to appear attractive or witty or intelligent or friendly for employers or peers or teachers or random strangers, one unconsciously smooths over the weirdnesses and peculiar humors and personal idioms and experiences that interfere with some imagined expectation of how the interaction should proceed comfortably and appropriately. I’m supposed to continue linking together moderately reasonable statements pertaining to the short story collection Burning Chrome by William Gibson that eventually end in a satisfyingly conclusive turn of phrase, for instance, because I’m writing a book review that I must somehow want other people (maybe even a lot of other people) to read, but if I only did that, I and perhaps you would not really feel satisfied or elevated in any meaningful way, a way that actually stops either of us in our tracks for at least a few seconds before we proceed to the next website and block of text and touches us in a way that genuinely breathes life into the word “touching” by physically altering the state of our minds and bodies, producing some worthwhile and memorable state of excitement, exhilaration or even sudoriferousness. What I feel I should also do is irrelevantly to describe the silly (and horribly bad) posture I’m in as I write this, leaning forward meekly with hunched shoulders and overly close wrists; to mention that the words to the right of and including that last semicolon are being written roughly 32 hours later than those prior, and the posture has not much improved; to say that the words are being written after 2:30am because I’ve been up late playing video games with a brother 16 years my junior and I’m still sticking fast to a New Year’s resolution set close to 365 days ago in which I decided to commit to writing (not just in a diary, not just letters) every day; to give voice to the central heating rattling above the ceiling vent in this room, where I’m soon to lie down in a sleeping bag; to include the silent odorless flatus I just released into the air.

These things very clearly have nothing to do with the book except that they are fabulous examples of the kind of divergence, strangeness and curiosity that Gibson has nothing to do with in these stories – nor, based on my limited exposure to them, in his longer works. The reader is pushed forward, as if in a side-scrolling platformer, exactly in the same manner as the protagonists are bidden inexorably toward their actions by shadowy corporate conglomerates and enticingly mysterious (and often superintelligent) strangers. This is not bad, for the stories do compel as they propel, yet one is admiring a snowglobe of sorts, rapt for a time by the scenes inside yet unable to gain direct access to the hearts of their figurines. Instead the point of connection and appreciation is more the imagined verisimilitude of the futuristic situations through extrapolation from current (in the ‘80s, but mostly still persistent) social trends and the distillation of psychological concepts and tendencies into technological modifications and bizarre subcultures. Filthy and ugly combat-ready augmented rebel derelicts excavate the walls of structures built above cities; solitary chameleon people shapeshift and barhop across the nights in a megalopolis; tattooed biker gangs occupy taphouse poolrooms for holographic virtual warfare tournaments – even as I summarize to evoke these sketched images, the memories send those little chills gliding through my arms to recall the sheer remove of them from the usual square boxes I live in and their value at encapsulating and exploring little strands of people within more engaging environments than sociology textbooks and lecture halls. Individual nuance is traded (though never fully excised, to be fair, perhaps due to the contributions of multiple coauthors) for conceptual sweep and breadth, for a sort of well-crafted powerful motherboard circuitry, to use a lurid metaphor apropos of Gibson’s typical technological milieux. Within his webs there is always some useful insight or important recognition flashing through the midst of the stories’ appealing and imaginative architecture.

One outwardly progressive aspect of Burning Chrome and many other works of science fiction is an indeterminacy of identity by which race, gender and sexuality seem to be equated and interchangeable, but this again smacks of a certain hollowness rather than a richness of freedom or possibility. The characters are so effectively post-identity-politics that they have none of the distinguishing tics, histories and perspectives that furnish the cultural-human backbone of their personalities – there are no internal struggles or characteristic uniquenesses about fitting in or playing one’s role, everyone has a course and a similar no-nonsense worldview about getting through it. There is evidently a point to be made about the way that institutional structures would like to view people, and the way that people themselves adopt such an empty view to cope – terrifying as a probable utopia for whatever demiurge propagates these interlocking and unaccountable bureaucracies – but the slant from which this fiction is narrated might do better to appropriate the inner worlds of our strivers instead of the reductive nightmare visions of our status-quo maintainers.

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