A review of Virtual Light by William Gibson.
A Bantam Spectra Book, 1993.
"He's been in cryo, oh, nine years now, but I've never liked to
think of his brain tumbling around in there like that. Wrapped in foil.
Don't they always make you think of baked potatoes?"
William Gibson has done what most ambitious writers would like to do:
He has created his own genre: cyberpunk, a sub-category of science fiction
that characteristically depicts a near-future, computer-dominated world
society; and computer-criminal protagonists who function on the back-alley-hustler
level. A term given to these black market dealers of stolen information
and government classified software give cyberpunk its name, as defined
in Gibson's trilogy of earlier novels; Neuromancer, Count Zero,
and Mona Lisa Overdrive.
Science fiction is at its best when satirizing present day culture rather
than predicting the future. However, William Gibson, in his fourth novel,
Virtual Light, integrates the two perspectives. He shows us a landscape
twenty years down the road that doesn't boggle the imagination once the
reader gets it in focus -- a landscape that appears to turn our current
situation into a joke.
The nucleus of this high technological tale of intrigue is a pair of
weighty and unusual sunglasses that every highly financed cop and rent-a-cop
from L.A. to San Francisco is trying to find. The shades are so dark you
can't see out of them. But, hit a button... The fancy eyewear is in the
hands of Chevette Washington, a spike-haired child-of-the-streets bicycle
courier, who makes the fatal error of stealing them while crashing a hotel
party after she makes a delivery.
The San Francisco Bay Bridge, in this early 21st Century scenario, is
now a suspended shantytown -- a street peoples' condominium -- complete
with bars, coffee houses, and flea markets. On the top "floor", Chevette
shares a homemade flat with Skinner, an elder wildman/wiseman, who serves
as an archetypal storyteller/historian for the reader. (He was the first
guy on the bridge after the takeover.) An ex-Knoxville-cop turned L.A.-rent-a-cop
named Rydell gets himself into the action and jumps sides to help Chevette
when confronted with the corruption of "real" policemen. The distinction
between the hired security officers and the public servants is difficult
to draw for the average citizen in Gibson's book.
"Billy Holiday was probably a guy like Elvis [Chevette] thought,
with spangles on his suit, but like when he was younger and not all fat."
Gibson's story is a little too cloak-and-dagger cliched for me, a devoted
Gibson fan. But, for anyone who has enjoyed his earlier works of cyberfiction,
it is well worth the read for his sardonically witty, and sometimes downright
hilarious insights into our present day culture. I can't remember reading
a science fiction book that made me laugh out loud.
Gibson's description of this America-to-come has post-cold-war-fugitive
Russian policemen, deserted and barren shopping malls, a Christian cult
that worships television as containing the word of God in every movie
rerun, and an obsessive professional killer who has had "lots of therapy"
because he didn't know his father. This vision is beyond startling in
its plausibility. The story of the confrontation leading to the Bay Bridge
becoming a homeless high rise could appear in next year's (or next month's)
This is a book every self-respecting subversive subculturalist should
read. Virtual Light is not William Gibson's best, but it is
"Rydell took his hand off the wheel, clicked the lights, double-clicked
them to high beams. Two cones of light bit into a wall of dead shops,
dead signs, dust on plastic. The one in front of the left beam said
'Why'd anybody ever call a store that?' Rydell said.
'Trying to fuck with my head, Rydell?'
'No,' Rydell said, 'it's just a weird name. Like all those
places look like gaps, now...'"