The Plot (Magill's Guide to Science Fiction and Fantasy Literature)
A collection of primarily near-future stories, Burning Chrome demonstrates the style, ambiguity, and dark vision characteristic of William Gibson’s work. The ten stories in this collection can be divided into four groups on the basis of their settings.
“New Rose Hotel,” “Johnny Mnemonic,” and “Burning Chrome” are stories of the Sprawl, set in the early twenty-first century Earth further developed in the novels Neuromancer (1984), Count Zero (1986), and Mona Lisa Overdrive (1988). High technology, organized crime, powerful megacorporations, and an economy driven by information services dominate a world divided sharply into haves and have-nots. These three short stories set up the basic patterns of Sprawl conflict: individuals against powerful corporations, individuals against organized crime, and low-power individuals against high-power individuals. In “New Rose Hotel,” the nameless narrator details the machinations of corporate headhunters and the inexorable, deadly vengeance of their employer after a defection goes wrong. The title character of “Johnny Mnemonic” is a walking safebox for other people’s data. He is left with data stolen from the Yakuza, the Japanese crime syndicate, locked in his head after a client is killed. With the help of Molly Millions, a surgically enhanced bodyguard/assassin, and Jones, a drug-addicted former Navy Dolphin, Johnny evades the Yakuza and begins to make use of...
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Gibson injected new life into a science fiction genre that seemed tired to many in the 1980s. As Bruce Sterling accurately noted in the introduction to the Ace Books edition, the apocalypse so essential to classic 1950s-generated cold-war sci-fi is a nonconcern for Gibson: "The triumph of these pieces was their brilliant, self-consistent evocation of a credible future." In a marked departure from cold-war post-apocalyptic science fiction, life goes on in Gibson's collection.
Readers of Gibson's stories sometimes complain that the components of the worlds he creates are never explained. For example, "The Winter Market" never mentions the word simstim but does employ the same feel to the experience. The kids Casey gets to test Kings of Sleep he has "smeared saline paste on their temples, taped the trodes on" is similar enough to the description in "Burning Chrome" of Rikki wearing the "contact band across her forehead like a gray plastic tiara." Readers who seek a neat, one-to-one picture of Gibson's world will be disappointed however. In true postmodern fashion, there is no coherent world. Each character presents a different world to the reader, because for each character the world is different. Reading Gibson's stories requires a tolerance of chaos and enough imagination to fill in the gaps as best the reader can.
It is in "Burning Chrome" that simstim is explained as "simulated stimuli: the world—all the interesting parts, anyway—as...
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Ideas for Group Discussions
1. Drastic cosmetic surgery is the norm in the world of "Johnny Mnemonic" and "Burning Chrome." Johnny Mnemonic wants to keep a "Caucasoid" appearance, while the girls at Under the Knife want to give him epicanthic folds. Ralphi, like many others, it is implied, "wears" the face of his favorite celebrity. Molly Millions has her eyes sealed off with mirrored inlays—permanent sunglasses, permanent cool—and has retractable scalpels under her fingernails. Even the Lo Teks ("low technique, low technology"), supposedly protesting/resisting the high-tech popular ideology, have clearly modified their bodies to achieve their desired image: ". . . he regarded us with his one eye and slowly extruded a thick length of grayish tongue, licking huge canines. I wondered how they wrote off tooth-bud transplants as low technology." In "Burning Chrome," Rikki gets Zeiss Ikon brand eyes, which include the name written on the corneas. Given that Gibson wrote these stories in the 1980s, when the popularity (and controversy) of cosmetic surgery was on the rise, was his vision of the future accurate? Was it meant to reassure or frighten his audience?
2. Because Gibson champions the underclasses in his stories, many of the narratives are about the characters' triumphs over obstacles. Given the broadening chasm between the rich and the poor in our society (between those who can afford new technology and those who cannot), will it be possible for those born in the lower classes...
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Burning Chrome is a collection of William Gibson's science-fiction short stories. He wrote this collection in the 1980s as the computer revolution was becoming part of popular culture, and most of the stories deal with man's relationship to technology. Literary texts exploring this relationship have been common since the Industrial Revolution, but the sub-genre of cyberpunk to which theses stories belong arose in the 1980s. The word comes from cybernetics, which is the study of the relationship between human control systems, such as the brain and nervous system, and complex electronic systems like computers. Characters in cyberpunk stories cross the boundaries between man and machine. W. A. Senior defines cyberpunk novels as having "a rigorous intellectual base that permits hard extrapolative questions about the future of technology and its effect on man; a society/ culture permeated by various technologies so that humanity has begun to fragment as a result; a frequently grim setting where the gap between rich and poor has become unbridgeable and where the middle class seems virtually to have disappeared; and a freewheeling aesthetic vision obtained from 'punk' culture" (Senior, "Blade Runner and Cyberpunk Visions of Humanity").
In Gibson's fictional world, technology has proliferated to such an extent that one can sometimes no longer tell where man ends and machine begins. Although there are characters in Gibson's stories who use technology...
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Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote "Artist of the Beautiful," "Rappaccini's Daughter," "The Birthmark," House of the Seven Gables. One of Hawthorne's recurrent themes was the effect of technology on man. "The Birthmark" makes for an especially good comparison to Gibson, since Aylmer's drive to remove the hand-shaped birthmark from his wife's cheek is often read as a precursor to cosmetic surgery. Aylmer's incessant efforts are ultimately successful in removing the mark, but his wife dies as a result. H. Bruce Franklin writes in Future Perfect that "Aylmer, who represents the Faustian, over-reaching, over-intellectualized, and over spiritualized aspect of science, sacrifices his nearly angelic but real wife Georgiana to the ideal of perfection."
The early concerns over daguerreotyping represented in The House of the Seven Gables are forerunners of Casey's discomfort over Lise's translation into a computer. Rubin points out to him that she's going to call him soon, because the computer construct will behave the same as the original Lise would have, but Casey wants to know, "is it her," questioning the authenticity of the construct. In The House of the Seven Gables, the characters have doubts as to the reliability of even the daguerreotype. This arises in part because of the physical characteristics of the plates themselves. As Phoebe Pyncheon remarks, ". . . they are so hard and stern; besides dodging away from the eye and trying to...
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Burning Chrome presents a broad spectrum of Gibson's capabilities. The Strand stories set the stage for his most acclaimed novel, Neuromancer, which in some ways is a more detailed version of the story "Burning Chrome." Molly Millions reappears in Neuromancer and near the end of the novel reveals further information about her partnership with Johnny Mnemonic. Two characters from "Burning Chrome" join Molly as well. Case, the main character and narrator, was trained as a cowboy by Bobby Quine, Jack's partner in "Burning Chrome." Molly knows Quine too, a "real asshole," she says, which conflicts with the lovelorn version of Quine that Jack presents in "Burning Chrome." Case and Molly do not need Quine for this venture however, but the construct of Case's other teacher, McCoy Pauley. Molly then arranges to hire the Finn, "a fence, a trafficker in stolen goods, primarily software" (Neuromancer), to arrange some security measures. The hightech corporation Hosaka from "New Rose Hotel" makes the counsels of choice for Case (no mention of Maas).
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Johnny Mnemonic. Dir. Robert Longo. Perf. Keanu Reeves, Dina Meyer, Dolph Lungren, Takeshi Kitano, Ice-T, Henry Rollins. Screenplay by William Gibson. Tri-Star Pictures, 1995.
The premise of the film remains the same, and the ending, though noticeably different, retains the theme of the original story. Instead of Molly, Jones, and Johnny making a private profit by outwitting the technology of the elites, the movie version of Johnny Mnemonic makes the Lo Teks a band of noble freedom fighters who broadcast pirate television messages to the downtrodden lower classes excluded from the immense wealth of the cities. The issue of class is more prominent in the film than in the short story. Gibson's original story was one of three individuals profiting by bucking the system; the film seeks revolution. The film begins with scenes of decadence: a posh hotel room, giant television screen, and an expensive call girl. As Johnny heads to a new client across town, his suit and tie and clean-cut looks contrast sharply with a mob of poorly clad and ungroomed protesters outside the hotel.
Instead of Molly Millions, Johnny is rescued by Jade, who has no mirrored implants and no fingernail razors but has been modified to jack up her reflexes. But she also suffers from a disease called Nerve Attenuation Syndrome (NAS), which causes her to have fits of uncontrollable shaking, which makes her more vulnerable than Gibson's original character. The cause...
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Bibliography (Magill's Guide to Science Fiction and Fantasy Literature)
Cavallaro, Dani. Cyberpunk and Cyberculture: Science Fiction and the Work of William Gibson. New Brunswick, N.J.: Athlone Press, 2000.
Easterbrook, Neil. “The Arc of Our Destruction: Reversal and Erasure in Cyberpunk.” Science Fiction Studies 19, no. 3 (November, 1992): 378-394.
McCaffery, Larry, ed. Storming the Reality Studio: A Casebook of Cyberpunk and Postmodern Science Fiction. Chapel Hill, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1991.
Olsen, Lance. William Gibson. San Bernardino, Calif.: Borgo Press, 1992.
Slusser, George, and Tom Shippey, eds. Fiction 2000: Cyberpunk and the Future of Narrative. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1992.
Tabbi, Joseph. Postmodern Sublime: Technology and American Writing from Mailer to Cyberpunk. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1995.
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