It was hot, the night we burned Chrome.
A short story (from the anthology of the same name) by William Gibson, Burning Chrome can be considered the first sketch of the cyberpunk world illustrated by Neuromancer and its sequels in the Sprawl series. A story about a cowboy, his hardware guy, a run against ICE and, ultimately, a girl, if Neuromancer is the attack then Burning Chrome is the proof-of-concept. The hallmarks of Gibson's later works are there, such as the non-linear narrative- we start off in the run on Chrome's matrix presence and the details of the build up are interspersed with it, flashback and reminiscence. Also typically, the main characters have their flaws. Bobby Quine is the console cowboy, has the skills but unmotivated by standard greed for money or power. Instead, he
used women as counters in a game, Bobby Quine versus fortune, versus time and the night of cities. And Rikki had turned up just when he needed something to get him going, something to aim for. So he'd set her up as a symbol for everything he wanted and couldn't have, everything he'd had and couldn't keep.
Ironic perhaps that the flaw of the software guy is in his mental attitude, whilst that of his partner, Automatic Jack, the hardware guy, is physical- his arm lasered off whilst hang-gliding in Kiev. Jack is the narrator of the tale, through him we both watch the run and learn the details that so enrich Gibson's carefully crafted universe.
I felt like a punk who'd gone out to buy a switchblade and come home with a small neutron bomb.
Screwed again, I thought. What good's a neutron bomb in a streetfight?
Many parallels with Neuromancer can be found- a run on a network defended with black ice, using a conveniently acquired military-grade icecracker (russian in this tale, chinese in Neromancer) by a pair of protagonists, one software and one hard (in the case of Neuromancer, Case's partner is literally hardware, a ROM construct of the Dixie Flatline), snatched glimpses of ideas, places and characters that will already be familiar to readers of the sprawl series such as sim-stim, the Finn, arcane financial services, Chiba City and the service they sell in the house of blue lights:
The customers are torn between needing someone and wanting to be alone at the same time, which has probably always been the name of that particular game, even before we had the neuroelectronics to enable them to have it both ways
It is Chrome who runs the house of blue lights, and in flashback we learn something about it from one of the more depressive moments of Jack's past. Driven by her desire to be a sim-stim star, Rikki, the girl Jack seems to love and Bobby could have had he not set her up as unattainable, worked at the house to purchase her Zeiss Ikons. Molly in Neuromancer also worked for such a setup in the past, Gibson's line "so popular, it's almost legal" hinting at the general lack of lawlessnes in this future, of market forces and corporations wielding more power than anything else.
And of course, there is cyberspace, the matrix, 15 years ago groundbreaking and still intriguing today as much for its inaccuracies as its relevancies. The idea of data visualised and roamed in 3D, towering constructs of corporate data, piped straight into your head. The legitimate networks used by millions daily, separated by walls of ICE from Bobby's world, the world of the hustler, the burglar, stealing data, not goods- although cowboys such as Bobby tended to go after a particular type of data- credit transfers.
But is it really about the tech, or is that just scenery for a simple tale, one about two guys and a girl? It is this fusion of the exotic (charging through cyberspace in the wake of a russian ice cracker to steal meaninglessly large sums of credit) with the familiar (love and all its difficulties) that grounds Gibson's work, gives it a strength and conviction that many visions of the future, to me, lack.
He was fading fast, and smart money was already whispering that the edge was off his game. He needed that one big score, and soon, because he didn't know any other kind of life, and all his clocks were set for hustler's time, calibrated in risk and adrenaline and that supernatural dawn calm that comes when every move's proved right and a sweet lump of someone else's credit clicks into your own account. It was time for him to make his bundle and get out; so Rikki got set up higher and farther away than any of the others ever had, even though I felt like screaming at him she was right there, alive, totally real, human, hungry, resilient, bored, beautiful, excited, all the things she was...