Burning Chrome – by William Gibson – from the collection: Burning Chrome

18 Jan

servers by hisperati

servers by hisperati

I remember back in my computer studies class in high school, my teacher repeatedly showed us the movie, Sneakers starring Robert Redford and River Phoenix. Perhaps she was hoping to inspire one of us to try and hack into the Pentagon, get caught and get our small country town on the 6 o’clock news. As far as I know, none of my classmates managed to force their way into a high security system. That movie however has always remained with me, so when I was reading Burning Chrome, all the images of cracking systems came flowing back.
Burning Chrome is famous, at least in sci fi circles for introducing the word ‘cyberspace’ into the lexicon. I would think that it would be one of the greatest achievements of a writer to create a phrase that enters popular parlance, but Gibson seems to have an ambivalent attitude towards the term. I guess the problem is that writers don’t get to pick and chose what is remembered of theirs, he describes it as a term that is ‘evocative and essentially meaningless’. Since he coined it however, much has been made of the phrase.
In the short story, Burning Chrome, two computer hackers, Bobby and Automatic Jack are going for one last big score, one that can net them enough money to allow at least Bobby, to retire. They hope to intercept the electronic transfers of Chrome, a hacker who works for the mafia and launders their finances. To do so, Automatic Jack uses a stolen Russian military code breaker and the two of them go into the matrix and penetrate the defences of Chrome’s computer systems.
There is a subplot about Rikki, a girl that Bobby is seeing but Automatic Jack secretly loves, and it gives the story weight and poignancy. But what I love about the tale is the description of the physical space of the internet. The two hackers being immersed in a world of the cyber attack. They flow through walls of encryption and ward off deadly online attacks, in order to slip inside the defences of the network. The story is an evocative travelogue through pillars of information and computer networks. Part of it is the imagining of a future that is still distant, but one that still holds probability.
If there ever been a popular and well received movie made from a William Gibson novel, I’m sure we would have watched that also in my computer studies class. Unfortunately, any attempts to adapt his works into film seemed to have been doomed to failure, a la Johnny Mnemonic. However, Gibson will be remembered for his contributions to science fiction, even if people who use the term cyberspace, have no idea where it comes from.

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Posted by on January 18, 2012 in Uncategorized


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