“An architecture of broken dreams”: Burning Chrome and the Gibson Marathon

Since the backpacking lifestyle doesn’t involve work or any major responsibilities, I took it upon myself to get ahold of all of William Gibson’s work with the idea that I would read it all through, in chronological order. I finished the first three books – the Sprawl trilogy – and, unsurprisingly, got worn out of the idea and went looking for something else to read. I’d read those first three novels maybe three or four times now, and I think that I’ve gotten everything out of them that I ever will. Neuromancer is always great, because it doesn’t really sound like a science fiction novel sounded up to that point – you can hear how much of the paranoid 70’s counterculture Gibson had taken in by then (and he cites Robert Stone’s excellent Dog Soldiers, specifically, when talking about major influences).

Gibson  admits that he had not been ready to write an entire novel when he wrote Neuromancer, but he got it to work. Upon reading Count Zero, the follow-up, it almost feels like he got lucky the first time out. Not much about this novel still interests me. Enough has been said about how well Neuromancer described the increasing presence of technology and the looming influence of corporations in the 1980’s, but I feel that Count Zero not only brought nothing new to the table, it also fell victim to all of the cliche trappings of the cyberpunk genre. And even if cyberpunk hadn’t yet calcified into a silly catalogue of genre conventions by the time of Count Zero‘s publication, this novel certainly lays them out: the primary antagonist is a corporate head who has become so wealthy that he lives in a suspended state of undeath, and his wealth has become so immense that he himself exists as an abstract corporate idea.

I mean, to be fair, there are a few things here that are still interesting: Marly, the art dealer, is an unusual character to find in a science fiction novel, and the idea of the authenticity of art in an increasingly artificial world is an under-appreciated idea. But I think that this was easy for Gibson, who finds this sort of thing more interesting (thankfully) than being “a science fiction writer.” I think that the success of Neuromancer was so surprising that Gibson got caught up with it and wrote a novel that, at least in part, he consciously thought would build on the successful science-fiction elements of the the novel, because he still had those doubts about his own ability. Mona Lisa Overdrive was an improvement, but it still doesn’t grab me like it used to.

I think that I took a month-long break because it was the first time that I realized that these novels, which have been my favorites since those teenage years in which I discovered good science fiction, could actually be flawed. Which is something that we eventually realize with everything; you can never go back to that feeling of being totally swept up in the discovery of something. I remember the following three novels – the Bridge trilogy – as being those which really exhibit Gibsons’ strengths describing the shifting weirdness of modern life without the sci-fi dressing.

I wanted to go back to Burning Chrome before moving on. I think that I passed over this collection of short stories because they lacked the polish of his more refined novels (while I know that some of these stories were written earlier than the novels, I’m a little rough on the order of most of them). And I really like most of them, this time around. Fragments of a Hologram Rose is pretty forgettable, as is Johnny Mnemonic, which everyone likes to remember how horrible its movie adaptation was.

The central draw, here, is The Gernsback Continuum. It’s atypical, as it isn’t a stylized science-fiction story – it’s set in the early-80’s – but it’s the ur-Gibson work, as well as a mission statement of sorts. The story is about a photographer locating leftover ‘raygun gothic’ architecture – the 1930s’ shiny-metal-rocketcars and cloud-cities aesthetic that represents a pre-war obsession with a future that would never happen.  They’re a “dreamworld, abandoned in the uncaring present” – these relics are always found in worn-out strip malls, obsolete and forgotten. The photographer eventually hallucinates entire cities and cars, in the distance, having somehow tapped into the psychic residue, “semiotic phantoms” of a past “mass unconscious”.

This is the central theme, I think, of all of Gibson’s work: the distance between preoccupations with an idealized future and the unexpected realities of a present which contains all these stratified layers of ‘past futures’, stacked up all around us. The American visual landscape is littered with the physical remnants of what everyone wanted the future to look like at any given time. Fashion and design trends exist as aesthetics of an ideal being projected into the future which only reflect the culture from which that aesthetic originates. When cyberpunk became a fashion subculture it became the best example of this process: it attempted to describe the near future of dense urban environments, completely buried by technology and information commerce. But it looks and feels exactly like the future only if the 80’s never ended. It’s a future of omnipresent VHS decks and floppy disks, and it missed the point of an information society because it inevitably focused on window dressing.

The past decade of William Gibson’s fiction has been pointedly non-science-fiction because, he maintains, the present day has become so strange and unpredictable and develops in such interesting ways that it is now useless try to describe what the future may look like. It is useful only to describe this post-modern feeling that there is no inherent meaning, no predestined future ideal, towards which society progresses. This is all anticipated in The Gernsback Continuum; that raygun gothic style, that longing for a future of shark-finned tube-cars and crystal city spires, becomes grotesque as an aesthetic ideology which failed to anticipate the horrors of the Second World War, or Vietnam, or of the meaningless modern age. To the story’s main character, who has been through the roller coaster of the counterculture and the cynicism of the 70’s, these apparitions – these realizations of a past-future fantasy – are more terrifying than an uncertain reality. Because, I think, a designed future – a reality designed by idealists of the past – is the worst kind of predestination; it is one that has no relation to the circumstances of reality. It is the opposite of the modern world that Gibson describes as having no inherent meaning, no linear connection of cause and effect.

It’s easy to forget that the ‘punk’ suffix of cyberpunk did once have a practical meaning. Gibson and that generation of writers rejected the romantic sentimentality and moral polarities of Heinlein and Asimov, who represented the ideological exceptionalism of the industrialists that were eventually responsible for Vietnam. Cyberpunk was a protest which took inspiration from Dick and Delaney and Ballard and adopted their experimental forms of science fiction to address the fragmented and hallucinatory substance of reality.

Golden Age-era science fiction has this notion that the future looks shiny and new and that everything is clean surfaces, a-la 2001. But the central subversion in Gibson’s work is that there is always this fascination with old architecture and antiques, the ghostly remnants of the past – and junk. Gibson famously said, in this collection, that the ‘street finds its own uses for things’ and that nothing, in the stylized future, is still used for its original purpose.

I think that The Gernsback Continuum, while adopting that same attitude of rejecting the Golden Age of Science Fiction’s disconnected optimism, was an instinctive early moving-away from typical science fiction form. It’s a subversive move away from an already subversive form, and it’s the strongest piece in the collection. I really enjoy Hinterlands and The Winter Market in a way that I enjoy really human science fiction stories, but I think that if Gibson’s entire career sprung from those stories alone, we wouldn’t be talking about him today. Gernsback is the moment that we realize, from a historical perspective, why Gibson became so important, and not just a genre pioneer. There’s a strength to a science fiction writer that can cover the same territory without having to write science fiction.