“Dogfight” by Michael Swanwick and William Gibson: A Burning Chrome Review

Copyright © 1986 by William Gibson.

Dogfight” is a short story by Nebula Award-winning author William Gibson and sci-fi author Michael Swanwick that was originally published in 1985 in the sci-fi magazine Omni.

Plug in the trodes, flip the switch, and let’s get this review started!

The Story: What People Will Do For Their Own Gratification

Deke is a young drifter who, at a Greyhound bus stopover in Virginia, comes across a video game called Fokkers & Spads, which simulates war planes in dogfights on a detailed virtual reality plane.  He also comes across a rich engineering student named Nance, who becomes his new roommate and confidant.  Deke uses a few cheats and Nance’s help to become good at the game, eventually entering a tournament series and going up against “Tiny,” the top F&S player.  However, victory is bittersweet for Deke, as he’s made himself so grand as to remain friends with no one.

The Cast: Rich Meets Poor, Winner Meets Loser

Deke is the protagonist and somewhat sympathetic in his determination to win at Fokkers & Spads.  However, the more sympathetic character is Nance Bettendorf, an engineering student from a wealthy background who, like Deke, has a “brainlock” that makes physical contact agonizing.  They bond over this shared detriment at first, but as time goes on, Deke becomes more of a tragic character, becoming obsessed with his own victories and less friendly or supportive to Nance’s own career path.  It highlights the divide between them, as Deke comes from a world where he has to claw his way to the top, while Nance’s future has always been secure from the beginning.

The Game: Is Anyone Else Reminded of Nintendo and Sega Games?

Maybe it was just me (and I obviously can’t speak for the authors), but I had a strong impression that this in-story game, Fokkers & Spads, is based on the combat flight simulator games that were popular around the late Eighties, or perhaps it was just the 1982 game Microsoft Flight Simulator.  There’s this feel of older graphics that just stuck in my mind, which isn’t a slight against the authors–just me considering what era the story was written it.  There’s also the phenomenon of playing in an arcade against other gamers, which–for me, anyway–is a little anachronistic, but it does capture the excitement of arcade tournaments and the like.

Final Verdict: It Can Still Suck When You Finally Reach The Top

“Dogfight” is one of those tales that really hits home at the end, capturing the gritty feel of a cyberpunk narrative with a cast of acutely-suffering loners and rejects.  But it’s interesting because it’s not your usual hackers vs. corporate interests tale, but just one ruthless kid against a series of veteran gamers.

Bibliography: Gibson, William.  Swanwick, Michael.  “Dogfight.”  Burning Chrome.  New York: HarperCollins Publishers, Inc., 1986.

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