Fragments of Reality

Fragments of a Hologram RoseWilliam Gibson’s brilliance was to take the sex out of William S. Burroughs. For years, I thought that Gibson had combined Burroughs and science fiction, but this isn’t true because there really is no science fiction in his writing. Sure: he pretends to write science fiction, but it is really all about the mind. And that had been the trend of the most interesting science fiction from its beginning. Certainly no one would have been ready for Gibson without Philip K. Dick.

I like Gibson’s writing. Still, I think his best work is his earliest, and not because it is what I first read because it isn’t: Fragments of a Hologram Rose. (It’s on line, so go read it now.)

Is it too obvious to note that the narrative is fragmented? The story depends upon ASP (Apparent Sensory Perception) machines that allow people to play back the sensations that others have recorded on tape. The narrator tells his life’s story in the context of a relationship that has just (God help me!) shattered. After she leaves, he goes through her remaining stuff and finds a hologram of a rose and an ASP tape that she recorded before she knew him. He destroys the hologram by putting it in the disposal unit where it “emits a thin scream as steel teeth slash laminated plastic and the rose is shredded into a thousand fragments.” Then he plays his girlfriend’s ASP tape and for a few moments he is able to be her, even if he cannot be with her.

That sounds like the point of the story, but it isn’t. It is the opposite.

Parker lies in darkness, recalling the thousand fragments of the hologram rose. A hologram has this quality: recovered and illuminated, each fragment will reveal the whole image of the rose. Falling toward delta, he sees himself the rose, each of his scattered fragments revealing a whole he’ll never know—stolen credit cards—a burned out suburb—planetary conjunctions of a stranger—a tank burning on a highway—a flat packet of drugs—a switchblade honed on concrete, thin as pain.

Thinking: we’re each other’s fragments, and was it always this way? That instant of a European trip, deserted in the gray sea of wiped tape—is she closer now, or more real, for his having been there?

She had helped him get his papers, found him his first job in ASP. Was that their history? No, history was the black face of the delta-inducer, the empty closet, and the unmade bed. History was his loathing for the perfect body he woke in if the juice dropped, his fury at the pedal-cab driver, and her refusal to look back through the contaminated rain.

But each fragment reveals the rose from a different angle, he remembered, but delta swept over him before he could ask himself what that might mean.

What that might mean is that there is some reality that undergirds all of our fragmentary perceptions. Or it could be that reality is nothing more than the sum total of all of our perceptions. Thus it could mean that reality is absolute or relative. That’s a very powerful (and frustrating) way to end a story. No doubt Beckett would have been proud.[1]


[1] Beckett lived long enough not only to read this short story that was published in 1977, but to read it in Burning Chrome, Gibson’s book of short fiction published in 1986. But somehow I think he never read it. Beckett died at the end of December 1989.

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