Burning Chrome • 1982 • Cyberpunk novelette by William Gibson

Rating: 5 out of 5.

First sentences

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 time that you’d have had a hard time finding a square millimeter of factory circuitry in all that silicon.

Synopsis: Narrator “Automatic Jack” is a hardware nerd who forms a hacker team with software specialist Bobby Quine. Bobby is quite a womanizer who wants to impress his new flame Rikki. Rikki wants to get famous in the hollywood scene and longs for one of those luxurious Zeiss Ikon Eyes, replacing her own eyes with those cyborgish mirrorshades.

Both want to break into big time criminal Chrome’s bank account which is protected by expensive “Intrusion Countermeasures Electronics” (ICE) security programs. Chrome is said to use even “Black ICE”, capable of killing the intruder. 

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.

Jack acquires a Russian military “icebreaker” program from a fence which he’s going to use to penetrate Chrome’s security system, thereby “Burning Chrome”.

Review: Together with Johnny Mnemonic (review), this novelette provided the booster detonation for the baby subgenre Cyberpunk back in 1982. Gibson coined the word “cyberspace” in this text and laid the groundwork for his Sprawl trilogy starting with Neuromancer (review). The “matrix” (leading to the 1990s film trilogy), recreationally “jacking into stimsims”,  Bobby Quine as mentor of Neuromancer’s protagonist, Finn the fence – they all make appearances in Gibson’s later works.

Bobby was a cowboy, and ice was the nature of his game, ice from ICE, Intrusion Countermeasures Electronics. The matrix is an abstract representation of the relationships between data systems. Legitimate programmers jack into their employers’ sector of the matrix and find themselves surrounded by bright geometries representing corporate data.

Gibson tried to imagine how cyberspace would look like. Some fourty years later, we can say that it isn’t anything fancy like those 3D ice walls but simple, lackluster data transfer and technical interfaces. For literary purposes, Gibson’s physical construction works far better, more vivid and interactive. Something that anyone can imagine, and we have to thank the author for this kind of accessibility. Of course, there are those black monitors with falling down green scripts turning into readable text at the lower half, but the action is restricted to the 3D matrix.

Where Johnny Mnemonic was a far more simple adventure story, Burning Chrome reaches deeper into human relations: love and loss, projected emotions, and the inner workings of a hacker team embracing a love triangle. Emotions start creeping into their work. Money can’t buy happiness – but we all know that already, right?

You can’t beat Gibson, when he’s at the height of his cool, tautly-written style – who doesn’t want to be a cowboy hacker riding down the matrix, huh?

This brilliant story is truly a milestone of SF which aged very well (please ignore those telephones). If you read only one story by Gibson and want to be transported back to the 1980s, then this is the story for you.

Meta: isfdb. I’ve read it it in the collection Burning Chrome.

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16 Responses to Burning Chrome • 1982 • Cyberpunk novelette by William Gibson

  1. Ollie says:

    I have this collection on my shelf to read, I’ve been looking forward to it and this review makes me even more excited to get to it!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. bormgans says:

    The entire collection is gold.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. pdtillman says:

    Yeah, boy peaked early. The best of these early stories, plus NEUROMANCER — he never came close to matching later. Same ‘problem’ John Varley had with his Eight Worlds stories: he never could match those later. Frustrating for the writer, I suppose. Unlike Varley, Gibson kept writing well-received and best-selling books. They’re just not to my taste! And not to many others, I think.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Ola G says:

    I remember that story; I’ve read only this and Neuromancer by Gibson, glad to see this is actually the best of what he wrote 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I should start reading Gibson some day. Hopefully this year.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I’ve been telling myself for a long time to give Gibson a try, so I thank you for the reminder and – more important – for the reassurance that this older story stands up to the trial of time 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Jeanne says:

    I do like to be transported back to the 80’s. Sounds like this is the story to find (going downstairs to look at our SF collections and see if we own a copy).

    Liked by 1 person

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