William Gibson’s Burning Chrome

The narrator of William Gibson’s story “The Gernsback Continuum” is a photographer who, commissioned to snap examples of the sort of futuristic architecture America produced in the thirties and forties, finds himself slipping into a reality where that future actually happened, as he sees an enormous propeller-driven, boomerang-shaped aircraft gliding impossibly against a cityscape of “zeppelin docks and mad neon spires” (something similar to the one brought to life in 2004’s Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, perhaps).

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It’s fitting Gibson should touch on that thirties/forties dream, because it was the only even vaguely optimistic future the 20th Century produced — till Gibson’s came along in the eighties, that is. By that time we’d long since ceased to believe in the sort of technological utopia promised by those hover-cars and jetpacks of the early SF pulps, but Gibson’s future had the advantage of not being limited by the possibilities of the real world. His idea, cyberspace (which he also referred to as the Matrix), was another reality altogether, a world we could jack ourselves directly into, a landscape of computer data turned into geometric shapes in “Bright primaries, impossibly bright in that transparent void”. A world curiously reminiscent of Disney’s wonderful 1982 film Tron, in fact.

It’s now more than twenty years since Gibson’s cyberspace made its first appearance (in “Burning Chrome”, 1982), and we don’t look much closer to achieving it. Excel might be able to produce nice looking pie-charts of your expense accounts, but it comes nowhere near the “electronic consensus hallucination” of Gibson’s computer reality where we’d exist as bodiless intelligences in a world of pure data.

Gibson’s fiction still feels relevant, though. Not because cyberspace is a possible future (I’m sure jacking your brain directly into a computer is as far off today as it was when Neuromancer first came out). Cyberspace wasn’t really a re-imagining of the future, it was a re-imagining of the imagination itself. It is once-upon-a-time land updated in neon colours, with data instead of gold and computer programs instead of magic spells. It’s just as full of angels, demons, ghosts, animal helpers and monsters as the world of the Grimm Brothers’ fairy tales.

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One image that has really stuck in my head from my (very) early reading was a double-page spread in The Usborne Book of the Future. It had two views presenting two possible futures. One was all dark skies and people in gas-masks, the other was bright sunshine and people with wristwatch TVs. I remember staring at those two images for hours, hoping with all my might that the future I’d live in would be, if not the wristwatch TV one, at least not the dark skies and gas-masks one. Outside of cyberspace, Gibson’s rundown, citified future is much more reminiscent of the darker of those two alternatives, though in this he’s generally acknowledged to have borrowed from Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, another powerful exploration of how the future might be, partly inspired by Philip K Dick, but more derived from Scott’s encounters with massive industrial processing plants in contemporary England.

I know this seems to be reducing Gibson’s future to the influence of two films — Blade Runner and Tron — but I love his work too much to leave it at that. His real strength lies not in prediction, but in writing about how people deal with a changing technological culture. In a potentially de-personalising world of mega-corporations (a dystopian nightmare prevalent in late seventies and early-eighties SF films like Rollerball, Alien and Blade Runner), Gibson’s characters use technology to emphasise, not erode, their individuality. He’s often at his best when writing about people whose (usually artistic) talents are only really released by technology, as in, from his story “The Winter Market”: “…you wonder how many thousands, maybe millions, of phenomenal artists have died mute, down the centuries, people who could never have been poets or painters or saxophone players, but who had this stuff inside, these psychic waveforms waiting for the circuitry required to tap in…” His future is a digital bohemia our iPod-equipped world is coming more and more to resemble, even if we don’t get to actually jack into it via cyberspace. (Do white earplugs count?)

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