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Remembering the Classics: BURNING CHROME by William Gibson

When I spent a couple months in Vancouver one summer, while writing and dogsitting and housesitting for a relative that was vacationing in Italy in this beautiful house in Vancouver, I walked around the city constantly wondering if I might time things just right at just the right bookstore or museum or coffee shop, to run into the one of the men who invented the internet on a typewriter, when no one outside a few difficult disciplines even knew such a thing was possible. Part of my eyes was always peering into the edges of things. I didn’t want to bother the man, necessarily. I mean, I’ve been around some famous authors before at conventions and the like, and the thought of a strange guy walking up out of nowhere in the middle of the city – not even a convention, anymore – and calling out a name just seems crass, to me. But, I’d like to see him, once. I was in Vancouver, and I kept my eyes peeled.

Cyberpunk is almost by definition about futuristic criminal activity, whether the criminal is a sentient corporation, a self-aware artificial intelligence attempting to find a life and love, or just a lowlife with a brain full of memory and a shotgun in a bag. Cyberpunk is all about the edge cases, and people who are far from the halls of power, but see a different kind of power. A lot of what we think about when we think about computer hacking in the zeitgeist really began with cyberpunks. And, the seminal work of computer hacking, one that resonated and became a node of influence, shifting ideas and cultural forces, was William Gibson’s little short story, “Burning Chrome.” The title story of an anthology that is a force of change in its time and place, where cutting edge SF seemed to cross over from mere cyberpunk into something else. It’s a collection that still feels fresh, today. A woman removes her own eyes to livestream her life to the adoring audience on-line, for example, which is something that feels like it’s happening, now. Company workers live in dormitories that feel like monastaries with company hymns and hand their whole self over to the machines of capitalism. Cutting edge artists plug their heads in to have their dreams recorded like albums, handed around for other people to experience. And, in this one story, that seems to invent computer hacking as a mode and an idea, a couple console cowboys enter cyberspace with some hot, new, underground code that they can unleash upon the secure Chrome network, melting its defenses in the web, and stealing – “burning” – the company. It feels just a couple steps down the path away from modern iterations of computer hacking, and when the writers at Mr Robot were writing their dystopian techno-thrills, I have no doubt a little collection of William Gibson stories was somewhere sitting on a shelf among their prized books.

When people in this field think about crime fiction intersecting with SF, cyberpunk is at the top of the mind. It’s the cool edge of mirror sunglasses and heists and hitmen in the moody shadows chasing bits of data and modifying the flesh to keep information or distort it. Not every crime in the future is a cyberpunk crime, but it comes to mind.

It comes to mind. And, when I read stories, my eyes are always open at the edges for the places where cyberpunk crept in.

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Categories: Book Reviews, Short Story Collections

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