"...for the first time, Coretti knew what they were, what they
must be. They were the kind you see in bars who seem to have grown there,
who seem genuinely at home there. Not drunks, but human fixtures. Functions
of the bar. The belonging kind."
Short (17 pages) Story published in Shadows 4, 1981 by William Gibson and John Shirley; later appears in Gibson's anthology Burning Chrome.
WARNING: Plot spoiler
The most interesting thing about The Belonging Kind is that it isn't part of Gibson's cyberpunk vision of the future, yet illustrates many of the qualities used to great effect by him in such works. The main character, Coretti, is a loser rather than a hero. We follow him through a never-ending series of bars, backstreets and hotels, sharing in the stalker experience as he tries to track down the mysterious "Antoinette", one of the eponymous Belonging Kind.
The "Belonging Kind" are shapeshifters, expert mimics, who change their appearance, voice, opinions and choice of drink to match perfectly their current venue and clientele- Coretti notices that when a pair of them are sitting together, they don't actually speak unless someone is within earshot, and they borrow from the conversations and vocal styles of those around them. Initially we are only introduced to one, a female (at least in human form) who calls herself "Antoinette" when Coretti first buys her a drink. Although he is startled by her ability to respond perfectly (Coretti is a linguist, a dialectologist that recognises the too-accurate shifts in style, the just-correct amounts of laughter) we do not learn of her shapeshifting until on impulse he follows her out onto the street and watches as she changes forms, ready for another venue. As the story progresses we learn more of the belonging kind- Coretti observes how alcohol consumption seems to have no effect on them; she meets up with another, male; their ability to make money, literally, disgorging damp bills from red gill-like slits and to extrude key-shapes from their palms to open doors; and finally their roosting in groups, the illusion of humanity utterly shattered in sleep.
The counter to this increasingly surreal picture is Coretti himself and the bars. Where the Belonging Kind always fit, Coretti never does- the clothes are wrong, his mannerisms out of place and his constant choice of Bourbon at odds with Antoinette's ever shifting drink of preference: the preference being that of the rest of the bar, rather than her own. The bars are described with an attention to minor detail that could be considered a hallmark of Gibson's work- just enough to ground the story in reality, to balance the bizarre goings on with recogniseable facets of our world. Coretti's pursuit of Antoinette is something we can understand too- the increasing grip of obsession with another, escalating from a late night chase through town to a constant search of every club and bar, the loss of his job, the inability to eat properly. All of this is perfectly conceivable, and helps contribute towards the necessary suspension of disbelief.
Inevitably, Coretti becomes one of the Belonging kind, the irony being that he fits in better as one of them than he ever did as a human, even one specialising in the science of conversation. By this point it is not necessary for his human character to provide the balance to the unreal mimics- they have become so extreme that even as one of them Coretti still somehow seems normal.
What is absent from this piece is just as interesting as what is present. It is really just a snapshot; a portrait of obsession and the outline of an intriguing idea. There is no technology involved, no clues as to a timeframe: whilst there are recognisable snippets of the present day such as Visa cards, neon and waterford crystal, Coretti's musings on their origins suggest that they have evolved from humans, presumably requiring a considerable length on time. Other than these thoughts, we are given no explanation as to where the Belonging Kind come from or how many there are.