‘Burning Chrome’ is a 1982 short story by the author William Gibson, who is widely considered the father of cyberpunk. The story was first published in the science-fiction magazine Omni before being collected in Gibson’s first short-story collection, which is also called Burning Chrome.
This story – which is often cited as the first place where the term ‘cyberspace’ was used in print – is dense in its imagery and symbolism, so some words of analysis may help to illuminate it. It’s the first Gibson I ever read, and I was immediately hooked.
‘Burning Chrome’: brief plot summary
The story is narrated by a professional computer hacker, Automatic Jack. Along with his friend and fellow hacker, a twenty-eight year-old man named Bobby Quine, Jack is trying to hack into a system so he can steal money from a powerful criminal: the ‘Chrome’ of the story’s title. Chrome, it turns out, is a powerful woman in the mob world, who worked her way up from sex work and drug dealing to become a well-connected career criminal.
Jack travels to New York and buys a piece of software from a man known simply as ‘the Finn’. Even the Finn isn’t sure precisely what the software is or does, but Jack takes a chance and buys it anyway.
The software turns out to be Russian hacking software which Jack and Bobby use to carry out the job. Bobby’s girlfriend, Rikki, is with them: Bobby picked her up in a bar known as the Gentleman Loser, as Jack explains Bobby often went and found a new girl whenever he felt he was losing his touch as a hacker. Jack recalls the night Bobby brought Rikki back to their apartment and he had to leave them alone so they could make love, while he went and slept in a hotel.
However, as Bobby begins to lose interest in Rikki, she and Jack grow closer. Jack realises that the mysterious software he has bought offers a way into Chrome’s computer.
Jack and Bobby are successful, and manage to steal money from Chrome, whom they also take down in the process. Meanwhile, Bobby’s girl, Rikki, leaves to go and seek her fortune in Hollywood.
‘Burning Chrome’: analysis
‘Burning Chrome’ is rich in symbolism. The virtual world of Chrome’s data software is figured as being like a castle: a vast, sturdy, impregnable structure. The metaphor of ice is also repeatedly used to describe Chrome’s solid defences. Later in the story, Jack uses the metaphor of ‘black ice’: not only cold and solid but dark, and dangerous because it is dark. (On the roads, black ice is such a hazard to drivers because it cannot be seen on the road.) So Jack and Bobby’s mission to ‘burn Chrome’ sets heat against cold.
The person who usually gets the credit for coining the term ‘cyberspace’ is the author who has probably done more than any other to imagine our own age of digital and virtual communication, networks, and relationships. Gibson is normally named as the author who coined the word. Indeed, even the Oxford English Dictionary claims that the word was ‘Apparently coined by William Gibson’, and directs us to a citation from ‘Burning Chrome’, where the word is used in the opening paragraph.
Gibson undoubtedly popularised the term, but it had, in fact, already been coined. For the term ‘cyberspace’ first appeared in the visual arts in the late 1960s, when a Danish artist named Susanne Ussing (1940-1998) and her partner, the architect Carsten Hoff (b. 1934), exhibited together under the name Atelier Cyberspace. Two installations about ‘sensory spaces’ which were influenced by human input and human movement were created using this name.
However, Gibson was the one who applied this new term to the virtual plane which computers were creating in the early 1980s. And ‘Burning Chrome’ is, on one level, about the tension between the real world and the world of the virtual: Bobby needs to find a girl in the real world in order to undertake his work on the shadowy, icy plane of software-hacking.
By the same token, these two worlds cannot continue to coexist: once he commits to the virtual world again, he cannot give his time and attention to what’s literally and physically around him, leading him to neglect Rikki.
Another way of analysing or interpreting this is to say that ‘Burning Chrome’ also explores the parallels, and contrasts, between male hackers work in cyberspace and their relationships with women. Bobby’s ‘hustle’ is a curious complement, or even flipside, to his sexual drives: he needs to ‘score’ with girls in order to remain at the top of his game as a hacker. The risk and adrenalin which accompany both (the thrill of the chase and the thrill of the ‘hack’, we might say) are, to an extent, symbiotic, two sides of the same coin.
But once Bobby has ‘won’ Rikki and seduced her, he loses interest in her: she was merely his gateway back into the dark underworld of computer hacking. Now he’s rediscovered his confidence, he neglects her, driving her into the arms of Jack.
Rikki herself, though, is plugged into the virtual world, via ‘simstim’ (short for ‘simulated stimuli): Gibson’s coinage for the virtual reality entertainment which enables a user to access the sensory experiences of someone else, usually some beautiful ‘star’ who records their experiences and sells them to others.
When we consider how virtual reality technology has taken off in the last few years, and the ways in which millions of people vicariously experience the lives of social media stars and influencers via their Instagram, YouTube, or TikTok channels, we realise how prophetic Gibson was.
In the last analysis, then, ‘Burning Chrome’ explores the curious intersections – and clashes or tensions – between the real world and the virtual, at a time when ‘cyberspace’ was still a wholly new and largely unheard-of concept to the majority of readers.