18 October 1999
In terms of concrete influence, William Gibson is probably the most important novelist of the last two decades. His 1984 debut, Neuromancer, invented the concept of “cyberspace”, and the literary genre of cyberpunk: a sharp fusion of noirish thriller and searingly imagistic futurism. Together with its sequels, Count Zero and Mona Lisa Overdrive, it laid the conceptual foundations for the explosive real-world growth of virtual environments in videogames and the Web. The world would be different without him.
But what does a seer do next? You wouldn’t expect Gibson to be able to repeat the trick, and he hasn’t tried to. All Tomorrow’s Parties is the scintillating culmination, after Virtual Light and Idoru, of his second trilogy, and it completes his development from science-fiction hotshot to wry sociologist of the near future. Today’s politicians blandly delight in a friendly, homogeneous wave of technological change; Gibson does the important job of imagining what such change might mean to people on the ground. Who will be empowered, who dispossessed?
This is a future of accelerating geopolitical fragmentation. Devolution has split the state of California into two halves, north and south. Many major cities now have “autonomous zones”, such as San Francisco’s bridge. Closed to traffic after a quake which compromised its structure, it is now home to a neo-communist hacker shanty-town. “The bridge […] is a medium of transport become a destination: salt air, scavenged neon, the sliding cries of gulls.” (This burnished image is pure Gibson: the laconic juxtaposition of nature and hardware, the metaphoric economy of “scavenged”, invoking the bridge’s inhabitants as gull-like themselves.)
Such autonomous zones are Gibson’s picture of the new bohemias. The old bohemias became extinct, one character explains, because: “A certain crucial growing period was lost, as marketing evolved and the mechanisms of recommodification became quicker, more rapacious […] They went the way of geography in general.” Geography is obsolete, and with it the politics of geography: another character reprises this piquant idea, chuckling: “Nation states. Remember them?”
One politico-cultural victory is assured: the Americans of this novel eat Japanese food, listen to Japanese rock music, and Rei Toei, in Gibson’s previous novel the world’s biggest media star despite being a thoroughly digital confection of Japanese programmers, makes a pleasing reappearance here. She, along with a Japanese convenience-store chain called Lucky Dragon, is mysteriously central to the novel’s plot.
Laney, a man who can discern patterns in the global ebb and flow of data, lives in a cardboard box in a Tokyo subway station. He is convinced that a “nodal point” in history is incipient: everything will change, in unpredictable ways. Laney knows that Cody Harwood, a shadowy Bill Gates-style technocrat, is somehow involved in this process, and that it will centre on the Bridge. He hires ex-Lucky Dragon security man Rydell to investigate. Meanwhile, an anonymous assassin stalks San Francisco, wearing under his armpit “a knife that sleeps head down, like a vampire bat”, another group of unlovely toughs is following Rydell, and Rydell’s ex-girlfriend gets unknowingly involved.
Despite his increasing fascination with politics, Gibson has not allowed the gleaming edge of his prose to rust. His writing still has a fabulous texture of vatic sensualism: this is a future to be smelled and felt as well as seen. The technological and the biological intermingle: the mysterious hitman is pictured as “wolfishly professorial, in a coat of grayish green, the color of certain lichens”, his hi-tech knife in action becomes “a long wet thumb”; and even studenty squalor takes omnipresent silicon as a given: in one woman’s house, “Every flat surface […] was solid with unwashed dishes, empties, pieces of recording equipment.”
Technical language itself becomes a new metaphoric resource: Laney decides that he has no persistent self, just a collection of “sub-routines” in his brain. And when a new world order is emerging from intangible data streams, what is solid becomes fetishized: old military “eyeglasses” or mechanical wristwatches are lovingly detailed, and each of the three major Stateside characters carries a knife: ceramic edges or switchblades, such weapons are celebrated for their multipurpose engineering. As the Taoist assassin muses: “That which is overdesigned, too highly specific, anticipates outcome; the anticipation of outcome guarantees, if not failure, the absence of grace.”
At rare moments here the reader might judge Gibson himself guilty of overdesign: doing something because it is what he feels a mature, literary writer ought to do, rather than out of conviction. There is a certain absence of grace in the cliche of an autistic little boy, Silencio, who has a genius for data retrieval. But there is a strand of vivid, sympathetic absurdism in his painting of other minor characters: especially the Suit, an impoverished ex-salaryman who roams the Tokyo subway in a shirt kept white with paint, and tarred ankles for socks.
Gibson aficionados will also enjoy the pleasing inventions – an intelligent wall-covering that eats graffiti, or the central idea of nanofax, by means of which solid objects can instantaneously be transmitted over large distances – as well as the usual musical jokes: the Velvet Underground reference in the title, or a wry nod to the Sisters of Mercy. And while this is the most politically interesting of Gibson’s novels so far, it still heats up into a beautifully cinematic climax at the bridge, which in the end furnishes Gibson’s image of hope. It is in the spaces between the girders of power that humanity will thrive.