Wednesday, 13 August 2008

Burning Chrome, by William Gibson

A collection of short stories first published 1986


Gangsters, double crosses, hustles, hallucinogenics, neural interfaces, virtual reality: elements of the past and future fused together. Burning Chrome is a drug-fuelled, high-tech, rollercoaster ride in the dark. Packed with fragmented sentences and jargon, Burning Chrome is not an easy read, but a compelling one. These stories will not be to everyone’s likening. They are a difficult read, packed with unpleasant characters in uncomfortable situations. Sometimes there is a lesson to be learned, but generally only the winning matters. They are as beguiling as a car crash. In some other books, the future is bright. In Burning Chrome, it may be orange but it is dark and scary. Inhabited with gangsters committing high-tech crimes or bio-terrorism, this is not a pleasant place to be. Gibson’s aggressive poetry is brutally beautiful. The prose is fragmented; quantum. Perception jumps. Vision blurs as if through a drugged haze. Jargon real and invented beguile and bamboozle. Gibson himself, like Philip K Dick, was no stranger to narcotics and his experience is made flesh in these stories. Published in magazines between 1977 and 84, these stories came at the start of the revolution in popular computing and a sea change in science fiction. The cyberpunk stories of Gibson and his collaborators threw out the shiny futures and political dystopias, and brought in a new dystopian vision where mega-corporations and organised crime ruled (though sometimes it is difficult to tell the difference). These stories are not Star Trek, but criminals with computers; lock, stock and two smoking hard drives. The future has brought technology but it has not cured us of the sins of humanity; it has only enabled new ones. This is classic cyberpunk in bite-sized portions.

What is Cyberpunk?

Cyberpunk: high-tech and low-life. According to Lawrence Person (sci-fi writer) in his Notes Toward a Postcyberpunk Manifesto, “Classic cyberpunk characters were marginalized, alienated loners who lived on the edge of society in generally dystopic futures where daily life was impacted by rapid technological change, an ubiquitous datasphere of computerized information, and invasive modification of the human body.” Gibson originated the term “Cyberspace” in the story “Burning Chrome” and popularised it in his novel “Neuromancer”. “Cyberpunk”, on the other hand, was coined by Bruce Bethke.


Johnny Mnemonic

First published 1981 in Omni. Part of the Sprawl series of stories Johnny is a data courier using RAM chips embedded in his head. Unfortunately for him, and several of the other characters, the latest job goes rather wrong…

The Gernsback Continuum

First published 1981 in Universe II. Independent story A photographer sets out to record the surviving examples of futuristic American architecture from the 1930’s and 40’s, only to experience visions of how America might have been if the predictions had come true.

Fragments of a Hologram Rose

First published 1977 in Unearth 3. Independent story Parker’s life is fragmented and revealed like the hologram of a rose he shreds. How much of his memories are his and how much from the immersive ASP machines?

The Belonging Kind

With John Shirley, first published 1981 in Shadows 4. Independent story Barflies sometimes metamorphose and outsiders may just find more than companionship but a whole new life.


First published 1981 in Omni. Independent story In the depths of the solar system, the Highway is the gateway to another dimension. Unfortunately, no one returns sane or alive long enough to tell what they saw; only bringing tantalising glimpses.

Red Star, Winter Orbit

With Bruce Sterling. First published 1981 in Omni. Independent story In the orbiting Salyut, revolution and counter-revolution engulf the crew. Will Colonel Korolev, the first man on Mars, be the last man in space?

New Rose Hotel

First published 1981 in Omni. Part of the Sprawl series of stories In Tokyo, a biotech deal goes very wrong for Fox

The Winter Market

First published in the Vancouver Magazine in 1985. Independent story Life and death become confused in the arthouse of neural recordings.


With Michael Swanwick, first published 1985 in Omni. While not directly part of the Sprawl series, it is very compatible. Deke flies virtual fighter planes with his mind, but finds that in winning he can loose more than he bargained for.

Burning Chrome

First published 1981 in Omni. Part of the Sprawl series of stories and the origin of the term “Cyberspace” Bobby and Jack raid a gangster’s computer fortress.

Related books

The Sprawl Trilogy are Gibson’s first novels: Neuromancer, Count Zero, and Mona Lisa Overdrive. They share characters and settings with the short stories Johnny Mnemonic, New Rose Hotel and Burning Chrome.


Perception, science and society

In many of the stories, the characters interface with the world through a virtual environment. Technology enables and enhances the communication with the world as well as introduces barriers between people: they are simultaneously both closer and further apart. People not want to see the world as it is. Virtual reality or drugged haze, not real reality, is the preferred mode of perception.

Success and failure

A recurring theme is that success and failure are two sides of the same coin.
  • Johnny Mnemonic escapes from the Yakuza assassins, but at the price of remaining for the rest of his days in the Nighttown roof.
  • Korolev, in Red Star, Winter Orbit, sees his friends escape to Earth but he is trapped in space by his handicap and lack of transport. The Soviets won the space race, but ultimately American squatters occupy the space station.
  • In the Winter Market, Lise’s death is not her end.
  • In Dogfight, to win the game Deke betrays, assaults and robs his solitary friend, only to find that winning is pointless without someone to share it with.


Cyberspace & virtual reality

Computing technology is the central theme of most of Gibson’s stories. The characters interact with each other via neural / computer links. They see visualisations of data and carry each other’s memories without understanding.


Rugs – like technology – enhance, warp and hide the real world. Both are man made but only one is socially acceptable.


Science has brought material improvements, but has not changed the human spirit. Criminals use technology to commit crimes impossible in an earlier age.

Bodily enhancements

The natural body is not enough for Gibson’s characters: they have to be enhanced. Molly’s sunglasses are embedded into her face, the Yakuza assassin replaces his thumb with a killing bolas, the Nighttown residents replace their teeth with dog’s, others have grafted muscles, and many have computer plugs into their brains.


Molly’s glasses

Surgically embedded into her face, her vision is sealed from the outside world: mirrored glasses filter her perception. Like so many characters in these stories, technology changes the way that they look upon the world: “through a mirror darkly”

Johnny’s RAM chip memory

The computer memories in his head are inaccessible to Johnny Mnemonic. Technology can enhance our natural capacities without making things better for us.


  1. best use it as reaction mass
  2. pot boiler suitable for the space port
  3. ok
  4. a good book
  5. genre defining classic that other books will orbit around

* * * * Very nearly a cyberpunk genre defining classic, but that crown has to go to Gibson’s Neuromancer

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