The Best Science Fiction Stories Ever Written: “Burning Chrome” by William Gibson

WHO WROTE IT:

William Gibson, the pioneer of that interesting little sci-fi subgenre known as “cyberpunk.”

Andrew Timothy Post science fiction novelist William Gibson Burning Chrome cyberpunk
William Gibson on his 60th birthday.

Gibson began writing in the late 1970s. He tended to favor stories set in the near-future that had a criminal, noir-ish sort of theme to them. With ruthless abandon he toyed with the implications and effects of computer networks and cybernetic technology on the human condition. Hacking and programming figure quite highly in Gibson’s works—so it’s unsurprising that many of his die-hard fans are hardcore computer geeks.

It’s important to note, however, how prescient Gibson was. He was writing in the late seventies and early eighties, long before the Information Age dawned, and before the great technological singularity (the personal computer) entered every home and hand in the world. His works have aged remarkably well, and provide inspiration for some of our most beloved movie franchises.

Some of you may have heard of Gibson, some of you may have not. But his name carries tremendous weight in the science fiction world. Gibson’s influence on modern TV and film—and the way we treat computers and cybernetics in science fiction today—cannot be understated. This is, after all, the man who coined the term “cyberspace”…in the very story which this blog post concerns, “Burning Chrome.”

WHERE IT WAS PUBLISHED:

Gibson sold “Burning Chrome” to Omni. It appeared in the July 1982 issue.

Omni magazine July 1982 Burning Chrome William Gibson cyberpunk

Before that, though, Gibson read it aloud at a science fiction convention in 1981, in front of an audience of just four people…including Bruce Sterling. Gibson would later say that Sterling, another writer who helped shape the cyberpunk genre, “completely got” Gibson’s story. You could argue that this moment marked the birth of cyberpunk as we know it.

WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

“Burning Chrome” follows two friends and business partners whose business is hacking. “Automatic Jack” narrates the story and knows all there is to know about computer hardware. His partner Bobby Quine is a software whiz. In Gibson’s parlance, the security systems of large corporations surround themselves with impenetrable firewalls which hackers have nicknamed “ice.”

Quine has become smitten with a girl called Rikki and wants to get rich and woo her. Jack procures a powerful program from Russia known as an “icebreaker,” which can penetrate the toughest security systems. At Bobby’s suggestion, the two men decide to use the icebreaker against the security system of a notorious criminal known only as “Chrome.” (Hence the title, “Burning Chrome.”) Chrome, who launders money for organized crime syndicates, has a vicious reputation—reportedly infecting enemies with terminal cancers that work slowly and rob the victim of all semblance of humanity before they finally die. Despite knowing this, Jack and Bobby proceed with the operation, stealing all of Chrome’s money.

Not long after this, Bobby and Jack discover that Rikki works in a brothel controlled by Chrome…

Andrew Timothy Post writer William Gibson Burning Chrome cyberpunk
And apparently has a thing for cybernetic eyes.

BIG QUESTIONS IT ANSWERS:

Hold onto your hats, people. This is a pretty big one:

“What is cyberspace, and what does it look like?”

I’ve alluded to this already, but Gibson pretty much defined how we think, write, and dream about cyberspace. He envisioned a world similar to a deep-sea trench: a dark world, a dangerous world, utterly alien to human beings. Cyberspace, as Gibson imagines it in “Burning Chrome,” is a world where time and space conform to the rules of computer systems, a world of lines and grids and matrices, of numerical phosphorescence, of walls and corridors and antechambers, and great voids where titanic, hostile leviathans wait to pounce on and destroy the unwary. Gibson envisioned a near-future Earth that was overcrowded, hot, crime-ridden, violent, and dystopian in every sense. The only way out of poverty and the urban hellscape is to become a hacker and venture into that dark world with criminal intent.

The essence of cyberpunk, in other words.

Gibson also imagined cyberspace as a sort of alternate dimension (a concept Neal Stephenson would later build on in his novels, especially Snow Crash), where enormous sums of money would exist entirely in cyberspace, protected by state-of-the-art security systems and under threat from hackers. Sounds pretty similar to what we’ve got today, right?

And speaking of “cyberspace as an alternate dimension,” doesn’t that sound kind of like the plot of The Matrix?

Plot elements and tropes from “Burning Chrome” (and Gibson’s seminal novel, Neuromancer) can be seen in almost every science fiction heist film and cyberpunk dystopia you’ve ever seen or heard of. If you think about it long enough, the implications of Gibson’s “Sprawl” stories are incredibly far-reaching. The man played an enormous role in defining what cyberspace actually is and what it could mean for the average Joe, not just computer nerds.

WHY I THINK IT’S GREAT:

Well, for starters, Gibson has always been fantastically good at writing openings for his stories. Like a drug, they hook you immediately and don’t let you go until the story’s done. “Burning Chrome” is no exception.

It was hot, the night we burned Chrome. Out in the malls and plazas, moths were batting themselves to death against the neon, but in Bobby’s loft the only light came from a monitor screen and the green and red LEDs on the face of the matrix simulator. I knew every chip in Bobby’s simulator by heart; it looked like your workaday Ono-Sendai VII, the “Cyberspace Seven,” but I’d rebuilt it so many times that you’d have had a hard time finding a square millimeter of factory circuitry in all that silicon.

We waited side by side in front of the simulator console, watching the time display in the screen’s lower left corner.

“Go for it,” I said, when it was time, but Bobby was already there, leaning forward to drive the Russian program into its slot with the heel of his hand. He did it with the tight grace of a kid slamming change into an arcade game, sure of winning and ready to pull down a string of free games.

A silver tide of phosphenes boiled across my field of vision as the matrix began to unfold in my head, a 3-D chessboard, infinite and perfectly transparent. The Russian program seemed to lurch as we entered the grid. If anyone else had been jacked into that part of the matrix, he might have seen a surf of flickering shadow roll out of the little yellow pyramid that represented our computer. The program was a mimetic weapon, designed to absorb local color and present itself as a crash-priority override in whatever context it encountered.

“Congratulations,” I heard Bobby say. “We just became an Eastern Seaboard Fission Authority inspection probe. . . .”

That meant we were clearing fiber-optic lines with the cybernetic equivalent of a fire siren, but in the simulation matrix we seemed to rush straight for Chrome’s data base. I couldn’t see it yet, but I already knew those walls were waiting. Walls of shadow, walls of ice.

Chrome: her pretty child face smooth as steel, with eyes that would have been at home on the bottom of some deep Atlantic trench, cold gray eyes that lived under terrible pressure. They said she cooked her own cancers for people who crossed her, rococo custom variations that took years to kill you. They said a lot of things about Chrome, none of them at all reassuring.

So I blotted her out with a picture of Rikki. Rikki kneeling in a shaft of dusty sunlight that slanted into the loft through a grid of steel and glass: her faded camouflage fatigues, her translucent rose sandals, the good line of her bare back as she rummaged through a nylon gear bag. She looks up, and a half-blond curl falls to tickle her nose. Smiling, buttoning an old shirt of Bobby’s, frayed khaki cotton drawn across her breasts.

She smiles.

“Son of a bitch,” said Bobby, “we just told Chrome we’re an IRS audit and three Supreme Court subpoenas. . . . Hang on to your ass, Jack. . . .”

So long, Rikki. Maybe now I see you never.

And dark, so dark, in the halls of Chrome’s ice.

Ain’t that a trip? Even if you don’t fully grasp the technical aspects of the story, you can still appreciate the superb writing. The tension oozes from every syllable. The prose has the raw, gritty, tactile nature of Chandler or Hammett. The narrator’s voice is often rueful and sardonic, just like a noir hero. I don’t even like cyberpunk, but I love “Burning Chrome.”

Burning Chrome Neuromancer cyberpunk William Gibson Andrew Timothy Post writer

WHY YOU SHOULD READ IT:

You should read “Burning Chrome” immediately if you…

  • Want an easy introduction to Gibson’s “Sprawl” stories (I’d highly recommend you read ’em, even if you don’t like cyberpunk);
  • Enjoy stories about hackers fighting the system and smashing their way through redoubtable firewalls;
  • Appreciate the noir genre and love to see it applied to sci-fi;
  • Like Philip K. Dick or Bruce Sterling or Charles Stross or Vernor Vinge, and gotta have more cyberpunk;
  • Also like Cory Doctorow or Neal Stephenson and want to know which giant’s shoulders they’re standing on;
  • Love having your heartstrings plucked by a master of fiction writing who makes you sympathize with his characters, even though they’re criminals;
  • Want ruthless, murderous artificial intelligences to terrify the living daylights out of you;
  • Want to shudder at the implications that all-powerful AI holds for the human race
  • Desire to take terrifying acid-trip plunges into the strange, alien world of cyberspace

Seriously, go read “Burning Chrome.” Right now. It’ll keep you glued to your seat the whole time, I promise.

WHERE YOU CAN FIND IT:

Burning Chrome, published in 1986, is a collection of Gibson’s short stories. You can find the short story “Burning Chrome” in it. You can also find one of Gibson’s other famous short cyberpunk stories, “Johnny Mnemonic” (which, funnily enough, was made into a movie starring Keanu Reeves).

Andrew Timothy Post writer William Gibson Neuromancer cyberpunk Burning Chrome