Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Future, Tense

In 1975 it was clear to me as a teen reader that the future was not going to look like what was promised back in the 1950s.  Even now, sixty years after those flights of architectural and aeronautical fancy first filled post-war imaginations, we are nowhere near living on other planets, getting around by flying car, or residing in floating Fuller Dome cities in the oceans. I think the reason for this failure of vision was that technology was viewed as means to an end product for consumers – Look at all the nifty futuristic things we can own!  Even robots were seen as servants to our lifestyle, not as artificial intelligence that would further mankind's thinking.

Skip ahead now to the mid-1980s.  Images in popular culture of our future no longer seem so rosy.  There is a world on our horizon filled with people using technology to augment their dreary reality, as a means to escapism.  Some rent themselves out as living memory caches, others jack themselves in to muck around inside the digital Matrix for a heist, and there are the corporate raiders who intricately deal and double-deal genetic designers in elaborate cat-and-mouse games.  Its a world where hackers fly to NYC to buy stolen Russian microprocessors, then to Hong Kong and back to fence their wire transfers to Zurich, then back to LA to bring down a Mob-run empire with the ease we know today of flying daily commuter routes and surfing the internet on our cell phones.  This is the world of William Gibson's collection of stories, Burning Chrome.

I came back to this collection, which has remained in print since it's original release back in 1986, just to see how well it would hold up for teen readers today.  Would mention of the Matrix elicit smirks from teens who first heard that term uttered from the mouth of Keanu Reeves?  My fear was that the writing would feel as dated as sci-fi movie effects looked back then, pre-digital, when obvious cutaways between a latex head and the wooden acting of Arnold Schwarzenegger didn't quite mesh in The Terminator.  Happily (though I shouldn't have been surprised) Burning Chrome remains both solid in its cyberpunk visions and as an introduction the work of William Gibson.
Written between 1977 and 1986, the stories in Burning Chrome are less traditional science fiction and more firmly rooted in noir detective fiction of the 1930s and 40s.  The hardboiled detectives in search of a truth have been replaced on the new frontier by gumshoes of a different sort; marginal characters who have carved out a life on the fringes seeking answers most people would rather be kept swept under a virtual rug.  Many of the same elements are there – people trying to escape their pasts, the blind ambition of fame and greed, the duplicity of love – all buried in a gritty world of junk electronic components and dampened by domed-in metropolitan humidity.  Its ugliness, and Gibson's ability to find the human emotions that intersect with cybernetics, are what keep these stories fresh even a quarter century later.

Each of these ten stories has the breadth and scope to be their own novel, or their own movie.  "Johnny Mnemonic" certainly did, and with Keanu Reeves as the guy who, for a price, will store your vital digital information in a processor in his head, to be retrieved at a later date.  And it's been generally accepted that a good portion of The Matrix owes a serious debt to the title story, about a pair of hackers who access a mainframe computer network in order to bring down a notorious cyber criminal named Chrome.  In all these stories there are moments, flashes of images, that leave a deja vu taste in the mouth.  Gibson's view of cyberspace (a word he coined) is now so completely part of the fabric of our visions of the future that we see in movies it's almost difficult to believe he imagined them first. 

First-time readers of Gibson's work might find it difficult to remember that these stories were written when a mass-market-sized Walkman was the height of sound technology and the memory of a desktop computer was augmented by floppy disks, though occasionally some of that "old world" shows through.  Occasionally a digital tape cassette pops up here, a cumbersome motherboard there, but in the improvised world of Gibson's future this detritus serves as a link with the past that creates a through-line of technological process that places the reader firmly in the middle.  The past and the future coexist at the crossroads where the reader gets to decide whether or not Gibson was a visionary, or whether his visions will turn out to be as off-base as those of the 1950s seem to us today.

Burning Chrome
and other stories
by William Gibson
Eos, Voyager, and other publishers

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