Skip to main content

The Classics: 'Burning Chrome'

The Classics: 'Burning Chrome'


A bittersweet reminder of how technology changes who we are

Share this story

Burning Chrome Classics
Burning Chrome Classics

The Classics are must-see, must-read, must-play works revered by The Verge staff. They offer glimpses of the future, glimpses of humanity, and a glimpse of our very souls. You should check them out.

Near-future science fiction can age poorly, and the stuff that seemed coolest in its time often fares the worst. But though his books are always firmly rooted in their era, William Gibson somehow consistently manages to escape this. Maybe it’s that he seemed to be winking when he put his characters in black leather and mirrorshades: yes, I know they’re trying too hard. Maybe it’s because his worlds were self-contained enough that they now feel like alternate histories where people still use cassettes rather than a failed attempt at predicting the future. Whatever the reason, you owe it to yourself to at least take a look at Burning Chrome, an early short story collection that shows him at his strongest.

You’d be hard-pressed to find a piece of tech that’s in use today, but characters interact with it in a way that rings true

Gibson’s novels have received the most attention, and that’s justified: Neuromancer was so influential that practically everything in it is now a cliche, and Pattern Recognition created a new genre of present-day SF. But for the uninitiated, Gibson novels can involve slogging through a series of apparently unconnected events, looking for a plot that never seems to arrive. It’s easy to read through so many stunning set pieces that you forget to even pay attention: until about my third read of Neuromancer, I could have explained the style of stenciled tan worn by a trio of secret agents better than why they’d showed up in the first place. His short stories, by contrast, focus on a single event, a diamond-hard point around which vast ideas coalesce.

The title story, "Burning Chrome," is a tiny and perfect encapsulation of everything wonderful about 1980s Gibson. His characters are straight out of a hard-boiled novel, haunted by wars held only in the future of our past. It’s a heist story, with the protagonists pitted against a monstrous woman-child heading a criminal empire, but it’s punctuated by moments of peace: a shopping trip in an East Coast mega-city or a reconnaissance flight through the neon pyramids of cyberspace. Though you’d be hard-pressed to find a piece of technology that’s in use today, characters interact with it in a way that rings true, using new tools to forget the people they think they are and remember who they want to be — even if it all backfires in the end.

When your thoughts, actions, and even eyes are all replaceable, who are you?

In some of his tales, these changes are literal: "The Belonging Kind" describes people who find their place in the world by becoming empty, shapeshifting animals. Other characters navigate the perils of trying to figure out who you really are when your thoughts, actions, and even eyes are replaceable and reproducible. It’s far from straightforwardly dystopian, but it’s usually bittersweet: a paralyzed artist in "The Winter Market" uses a sort of dream recorder to communicate with others more intimately than she ever could with touch, but she’ll always remain disconnected from the world around her. Several of the stories are set in Gibson’s iconic cyberpunk Sprawl, but others offer tiny glimpses of life on a Soviet spaceship or an eerie present filled with the ghosts of futures past.

None of the stories in Burning Chrome are "relevant," exactly. You can draw parallels with things that would later happen, but the stories within are so good precisely because they aren’t limited to predicting the future or commenting on the present. "Cyberspace" -- Gibson’s most famous coined phrase -- never turned out to be the virtual reality he imagined, but Burning Chrome manages to capture how technology can change who we are.

Today’s Storystream

Feed refreshed Sep 24 Striking out

External Link
Emma RothSep 24
California Governor Gavin Newsom vetoes the state’s “BitLicense” law.

The bill, called the Digital Financial Assets Law, would establish a regulatory framework for companies that transact with cryptocurrency in the state, similar to New York’s BitLicense system. In a statement, Newsom says it’s “premature to lock a licensing structure” and that implementing such a program is a “costly undertaking:”

A more flexible approach is needed to ensure regulatory oversight can keep up with rapidly evolving technology and use cases, and is tailored with the proper tools to address trends and mitigate consumer harm.

Andrew WebsterSep 24
Look at this Thing.

At its Tudum event today, Netflix showed off a new clip from the Tim Burton series Wednesday, which focused on a very important character: the sentient hand known as Thing. The full series starts streaming on November 23rd.

The Verge
Andrew WebsterSep 24
Get ready for some Netflix news.

At 1PM ET today Netflix is streaming its second annual Tudum event, where you can expect to hear news about and see trailers from its biggest franchises, including The Witcher and Bridgerton. I’ll be covering the event live alongside my colleague Charles Pulliam-Moore, and you can also watch along at the link below. There will be lots of expected names during the stream, but I have my fingers crossed for a new season of Hemlock Grove.

Andrew WebsterSep 24
Looking for something to do this weekend?

Why not hang out on the couch playing video games and watching TV. It’s a good time for it, with intriguing recent releases like Return to Monkey Island, Session: Skate Sim, and the Star Wars spinoff Andor. Or you could check out some of the new anime on Netflix, including Thermae Romae Novae (pictured below), which is my personal favorite time-traveling story about bathing.

A screenshot from the Netflix anime Thermae Romae Novae.
Thermae Romae Novae.
Image: Netflix
Jay PetersSep 23
Twitch’s creators SVP is leaving the company.

Constance Knight, Twitch’s senior vice president of global creators, is leaving for a new opportunity, according to Bloomberg’s Cecilia D’Anastasio. Knight shared her departure with staff on the same day Twitch announced impending cuts to how much its biggest streamers will earn from subscriptions.

Tom WarrenSep 23
Has the Windows 11 2022 Update made your gaming PC stutter?

Nvidia GPU owners have been complaining of stuttering and poor frame rates with the latest Windows 11 update, but thankfully there’s a fix. Nvidia has identified an issue with its GeForce Experience overlay and the Windows 11 2022 Update (22H2). A fix is available in beta from Nvidia’s website.

External Link
If you’re using crash detection on the iPhone 14, invest in a really good phone mount.

Motorcycle owner Douglas Sonders has a cautionary tale in Jalopnik today about the iPhone 14’s new crash detection feature. He was riding his LiveWire One motorcycle down the West Side Highway at about 60 mph when he hit a bump, causing his iPhone 14 Pro Max to fly off its handlebar mount. Soon after, his girlfriend and parents received text messages that he had been in a horrible accident, causing several hours of panic. The phone even called the police, all because it fell off the handlebars. All thanks to crash detection.

Riding a motorcycle is very dangerous, and the last thing anyone needs is to think their loved one was in a horrible crash when they weren’t. This is obviously an edge case, but it makes me wonder what other sort of false positives we see as more phones adopt this technology.

External Link
Ford is running out of its own Blue Oval badges.

Running out of semiconductors is one thing, but running out of your own iconic nameplates is just downright brutal. The Wall Street Journal reports badge and nameplate shortages are impacting the automaker's popular F-series pickup lineup, delaying deliveries and causing general chaos.

Some executives are even proposing a 3D printing workaround, but they didn’t feel like the substitutes would clear the bar. All in all, it's been a dreadful summer of supply chain setbacks for Ford, leading the company to reorganize its org chart to bring some sort of relief.