Copyright © 1994
by Wayne Klick

First appeared in NuCity, 2/14/94

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) newspaper.

This is a book every self-respecting subversive subculturalist should read. Virtual Light is not William Gibson's best, but it is great.

"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 The Gap.

'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...'"

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