About a dozen years ago, I spent a very long and drunken evening in a Capitol Hill bar with another writer (for convenience sake, let's call him Paul Witcover) arguing about the relative importance of science fiction as a viable literary genre, say, compared with the works of James Joyce. Paul at that time a recent Clarion graduate and already a published writer, and then as now an eminently worthy opponent Paul came down firmly on the side of Joyce; whereas I felt that a hundred years hence, Joyce would be a footnote and unread by any save scholars, but SF would still have grungy hordes of readers pouring over the works of Asimov, Delany, Wolfe, et al. I was of course playing devil's advocate: in truth I was willing to put James Joyce right up there with literary giants like Arthur C. Clarke or Zenna Henderson or Fritz Leiber, and certainly beside Samuel R. Delany.
Alas! Time, that thief, robbed me of what I felt was certain victory, and much sooner than I would have thought. Because of course no one reads anything any more, except perhaps for comics and graphic novels (although some people may scan the vitae in those Dewars Profiles). "What is the use of a book without pictures or conversations?" wondered Alice, and so now we have nothing but pictures and conversations, and in the case of some writers (Kathy Acker pole-vaults to mind) even those have been appropriated from their elders. As our century and our millennium reach the end of their long sad trajectory, an air of exhausted disbelief seems to be the prevailing wind blowing nobody any good: why else the proliferation of all those Real Life TV shows, movies, books? It used to be that science fiction (at least) could claim to be a literature of prediction, and very occasionally a brilliant writer might turn mere forecasting into vision; but now even that small gift has been stolen from the beleaguered genre. When was the last time an SF writer actually anticipated the future?
Well, William Gibson with Neuromancer, of course, and the short stories and novels (Count Zero, Mona Lisa Overdrive) that came in its wake. Gibson was one of the best, and certainly the most important and influential, of the new writes to emerge in the 1980s. His impact has been felt far outside the SF ghetto, in television, film, advertising media, fashion. I would not be at all surprised to learn that his books have given shape and substance to the very food we eat. Even if Neuromancer had literary and cinematic precedents and it did, as far back as Alfred Bester's The Stars My Destination and The Demolished Man, and as concurrent as Ted Mooney's 1981 novel Easy Travel to Other Planets, and in films such as Blade Runner and Tron (and, in its surreal fusion of menace and the everyday, maybe even Carol Reed's great Odd Man Out) the book was still the genuine item, a science fiction novel that anticipated the shape of things to come. Although in this instance it was less a matter of turning one's sights on the stars, than of standing on tiptoe to peer over the shoulder of the guy ahead of you and glimpse The World of Tomorrow, which nowadays looks more like The Week After Next.
Which brings us to Virtual Light, Gibson's new novel and a subtle departure from his earlier books. While in many ways similar to his pyrotechnical cyberpunk trilogy, Virtual Light is a far more mature work, in both language and characterization. The plot is pretty standard issue, a not-too-dizzying trope on the corporate/data espionage that is Gibson's answer to Cold War heroics. But one doesn't read Gibson for plot although Virtual Light is a real page-turner by anyone's standards any more than one watches Hitchcock to learn who done it. One reads Gibson to indulge that atavistic taste for strangeness and wonder that lures many to genre fiction in the first place; one comes to him for ambiance. And if God is in the details, this author has certainly achieved demiurge status by now. Virtual Light is as rich in the minutiae of the future as the author's cyberpunk trilogy, although its narrative engines are not as heavily reliant upon argot and brand name recognition as in those earlier novels. I got a very particular sort of headache when I first read Neuromancer, and now years later recognize the same cerebral throbbing when I indulge in MTV. Mercifully, Virtual Light deploys plot with more precision and subtlety, and its characters are more memorable than the software.
But ten-plus years down the line, the barrio has become Broadway. What once were vices now are habits; the aesthetic apprehension, the novelty and vision that informed Neuromancer and a few of its imitators, has now become the stuff of soft drink ads. Forty years ago people heralded the artistic and educational opportunities that television would bring to us all: Shakespeare on the airwaves! Horowitz in the nursery! But now we have seen the future, and it is the Home Shopping Network (and, for those of us with small children, Barney). Proponents of virtual reality make the same hyperbolic claims for their hardware: anyone want to bet on Chekhov and Mishima and Peter Greenaway being filtered through rose-colored glasses?
Gibson, clever fellow that he is, neatly sidesteps the issue of topping himself by tossing much of his cp baggage overboard. That's not to say Virtual Light doesn't have magic spectacles, plucky punks, fascist architecture, and shopping malls quite literally to die for. It does; but it also has gasp! a heart, beating loudly if arrhythmically in that brushed-steel body.
Virtual Light is not so much a science fiction novel as it is a thriller that just happens to be set in the very near future. Its protagonist, Berry Rydell, is an ex-cop from Tennessee cast adrift in the Californias, So and No, sometime early in the next century. But, in one of the twists that gives Virtual Light much of its charm, Rydell is neither cynical and hardbitten, nor a bourbon-swigging refugee, but an engagingly earnest naif, more Boy Next Door than Good Ol' Boy. His career in the Knoxville P.D. was derailed by the threat of litigation seems Rydell literally jumped the gun in dealing with an apparent domestic dispute-turned-hostage situation. In the wake of this unfortunate turn of events, Rydell is tapped to be one of the eponymous Cops in Trouble on a popular tabloid TV show, but his fifteen minutes of fame (and the money they'd bring the impecunious Rydell) are up about fourteen minutes too soon when he's upstaged by another true crime, the heinous pedophilic Pooky Bear murders. So Rydell becomes a rent-a-cop, and when that career is sabotaged he goes the route of many a good man before him; namely, hired gun-cum-patsy for a nefarious and mysterious P.I., here called Lucius Warbaby. Warbaby wants Rydell to help him locate a young woman who has absconded with a pair of VR spectacles you didn't really think you were going to get out of this one without magic glasses, did you? and the cross-hatch of double/treble/googol-cross begins.
I won't go into the plot here, not because it's too complicated but because it's not. Suffice to say that if you've read John Buchan or Agatha Christie or Robert Ludlum, or seen that vile Wild Palms well, never mind. Forget the plot. I did, and Virtual Light still kept me going way past my bedtime. Gibson has gone from being a fine genre writer to being a fine writer, period, able to hold his own with the best of them. He also has become a very funny writer, deconstructing his own mythos before anyone else needs to, and thus cleverly dodging any charges of self-plagiarism that the literary establishment (ever snarling after successful authors) may sling at him. Virtual Light is nearly as original as its predecessors, but much more accessible. Gibson turns an eye cool and multi-faceted as an insect's upon the fin-de-millenair decadence of the present day. What he projects back at us doesn't resemble a vision of the future so much as it does an eyewitness account.
In some respects, this may work against Virtual Light. It lacks the scope and thrilling noir grandeur of Neuromancer and its sibs; it's also not quite as ambitious as The Difference Engine, Gibson's collaboration with Bruce Sterling. But, judged solely on its readability, Virtual Light is a great success, and as a catalog of the cunning little horrors that make up modern life it's sheer perfection.
"They were talking about this chain of Japanese gyms called Body Hammer. Body Hammer didn't offer much in the way of traditional gym culture; in fact they went as far as possible in the opposite direction, catering mostly to kids who liked the idea of being injected with Brazilian fetal tissue and having their skeletons reinforced with what the ads called 'performance materials.'"
Gibson also has fun with 12-step programs, such as Adult Survivors of Satanism, and neo-fundamentalist sects, like the one Rydell's friend Sublett, "a refugee from some weird trailer-camp video-sect" near Waco belongs to.
"So they watch tv and pray, or what?"
"Well, I think it's more like kind of a meditation, you know? What they mostly watch is all these old movies, and they figure if they watch enough of them, long enough, the spirit will sort of enter into them."
"We had Revealed Aryan Nazarenes, up in Oregon," she said. "First Church of Jesus, Survivalist. As soon shoot you as look at you."
The problem with this sort of thing is that it's getting kind of hard these days to stay ahead of the curve. Probably, when he wrote Virtual Light, William Gibson did not possess prior knowledge of David Koresh and sundry other late-breaking news items
Or maybe he did. Maybe Oliver Stone should know about this
But what keeps his novel from being just another cp wannabe is Gibson's virtuoso prose style, his humor and audacity and vision. Who would have thought to populate America's police battalions with Russian emigrŽs? Or give the LAPD its own fascist crimewatch network, the Southern California Geosynclinical Law Enforcement Satellite (nicknamed the Death Star)? Or populate South Central with nouveau riche buppies who frequent a Ventura Boulevard gallery called Nightmare Folk Art?
"There was a whole section of these nasty-looking spidery wreath-things, behind glass in faded gilt frames. The wreaths looked to Rydell like they were made of frizzy old hair. There were tiny little baby coffins, all corroded, and one of them had been planted with ivy. There were coffee tables made out of what Rydell supposed were tombstones, old ones, the lettering worn down so faint you couldn't read it. He paused beside a bedstead welded together from a bunch of those pickaninny jockey-boys it had been against the law to have on your lawn in Knoxville. The jockey-boys had all been freshly-painted with big, red-lipped, watermelon-eating grins. The bed was spread with a hand-stitched quilt patterned like a Confederate flag. When he looked for a price tag, all he found was a yellow SOLD sticker."
Okay, maybe everybody has thought of this stuff already, but I didn't. Granted, one could (pretty successfully) argue that fundamentalist groups and television and the disgusting habits of the very wealthy are just too safe and reliable, the Classic Chanel Suits of this sort of fiction. Pop will eat itself, et al. It's still great fun.
The single most memorable thing in Virtual Light is not its imaginary software (though the VR porn lop called McDonna is pretty good) or even it's characters, but what Gibson does to the San Francisco/Oakland Bay Bridge. In the wake of some major shakedowns, both geopolitical and geological in nature, the bridge has become a truly wondrous thing, part zen arcade, part anarchic Amerika; populated by the homeless, homeboys, homos and all the other postmod-fallout fellaheen who are already taking up residence above and beneath other, smaller, bridges across these benighted states. The bridge was the site of a short-short story called "Skinner's Room" which outclassed much of the competition in last year's Year's Best SF anthology. It would be wonderful to encounter it again in another work: it's as magical and thrilling a creation as Gibson's cyberspace, and well worth further exploration.
If I have a major caveat with Virtual Light (beyond the observation that, as a plot device, Northern California real estate does not have quite the same frisson as the threat of nuclear war or even the disposition of certain types of nanotechnology), and Gibson's oeuvre in general, it is that it lacks the moral underpinnings that elevate the works of other equally gifted writers from their humble genre origins. Robert Stone, Graham Greene, P.D. James, Ian McEwan, have all forged beautiful glittering things from the same humble alloy of espionage, detective fiction and pop culture that Gibson employs here, and to more lasting effect.
But I think Gibson's best work is still ahead of him, and if we are to look at Virtual Light as but a part of a literary apprenticeship, it's a remarkable achievement. Plus, you can dance to it, and who ever said that about Brighton Rock?
[This review originally appeared in SF Eye #12. It was reprinted with the permission of the author and Eye editor Steve Brown. Thanks for all your help, Steve!]
Bantam, 1993, $21.95
280 pp., ISBN 0-553-0499-7
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