All Tomorrow's Parties

William Gibson has had all manner of praise and scorn heaped upon him for being one of the fathers and most visible writers of "cyberpunk." What most of the praise skips past, and most of the scorn willfully ignores, is that the man can write beautifully. He's got far more talent in terms of putting words in a line to make mental pictures than any of the dozens of would-be imitators who peopled books with mirror-shade-wearing ninja hacker assassins. Which probably explains why he's published by Putnam these days, while most of the imitations are gathering dust on the shelves of used bookstores somewhere.

Of course, for all his evident talent, there's a sort of abstract-art quality about a lot of his prose. He's a master of catchy opening sentences ("'Heroin' declared Durius Walker, Rydell's colleague in security at the Lucky Dragon on Sunset. 'It's the opiate of the masses.'" opens one chapter) and striking images:

In Market Street, the nameless man who haunts Laney's nodal configuration has just seen a girl.

Drowned down three decades, she steps fresh as creation from the bronze doors of some brokerage. And he remembers, in that instant, that she is dead, and that this is another centruy, and this quite clearly another girl, some newly minted stranger, one with whome he will never speak.

And passing this one now, through a faint chromatic mist of incoming night, he bows his head some subtle increment of honor of that other, that earlier passing.

He even throws in a few proto-Neal Stephenson cultural asides:

Looking past the display, she could see a lot of old hardware side by side on shelves, most of it in that grubby beige plastic. Why had people, for the first twenty years of computing, cased everything in that? Anything digital, from that century, it was pretty much guaranteed to be that sad-ass institutional beige, unless they'd wanted it to look more dramatic, more cutting edge, in which case they'd opted for black.

(I'm particularly amused by this quote, as the computer in my office at home is sad-ass institutional beige, while the much faster machine on my desk at work is black...)

Still, while the quality of the prose is sort of compelling, and makes the reading a joy, I can't quite think of another author who has written quite so many books that left me saying "What the hell was that?" Certainly not one I buy in hardcover. This is largely due to Gibson's signature mixture of "low life and high tech" (as Bruce Sterling put it)-- he tells big stories of world-changing events from the perspective of rag-tag bands of misfits and outcasts who somehow get swept up in the plot, but never really understand what's going on. Which tends to leave the reader similarly bewildered. You can usually piece together what really happened later, but the end of the actual book tends be be disorienting.

This book is actually better than most of his others in that respect. He returns here to the future world of Virtual Light and Idoru (language aside: I thought it was pretty cool that Japanese would have a word suitable for describing a virtual construct, until I actually went to Japan, and realized that "Idoru" is just a transcription of the Japanese pronunciation of the English word "Idol"...). He pulls together characters from both books (Berry Rydell and Chevette Washington from Virtual Light and the information-addict Colin Laney and the title character Rei Toei from Idoru), which may leave readers who don't recall the earlier books somewhat confused But that's only fitting, given that for most of the book, the characters aren't sure what's going on, either. When the plot finally resolves itself, though, the manner of the resolution is clear to the reader, and more satisfying than some of his other books.

It's hard to summarize the plot of this one, given that by the time anyone understands what the plot actually is, it's all but over. In the vaguest possible terms, Laney sees patterns in the global flow of information that tell him events are shaping up which will change the entire world, and arranges to send Rydell to San Francisco, which the locus of change will be. Also in or headed to San Francisco are Chevette Washington, a nameless assassin, Rei Toei, an assortment of San Franciscan riff-raff, and Cody Harwood, a sort of uber-Bill Gates figure. All these people come together on the Bridge (one of Gibson's more memorable settings), and the world changes.

The real pleasure of this book, though, is not so much the grand arc of the main plot, but the tangle of subplots which surround it, and end up entwining everyone. A random act of kindness by a stone-cold killer provides the Intrepid Heroes with the key to success. Rydell hitches a ride with an alcoholic country-western singer who ends up supplying the soundtrack to some crucial scenes. Chevette flees an abusive boyfriend, and winds up back on the Bridge, listening to country music and running into Rydell. Gibson does a nice job of bringing these people and their seemingly petty concerns into the foreground, and making the changing of the world seem like a minor distraction. In many ways, this is a book-length expansion of those passages in Guy Kay's Lord of Emperors which discuss the way the rise and fall of kings and princes have little actual effect on the lives of the common people. The world is about to change forever, and Buell Creedmore is more concerned with landing a record deal than the future of humanity, and that's as it should be.

I won't give away the ending here, but it's nicely done, both resolving some hanging plot threads from earlier books, as well as showing the nature and magnitude of the change Laney had sensed all along. It's very understated, but that's sort of what you expect from Gibson, who for all the flash of the writing and nifty props of the setting, has always been a low-key writer at heart. Hard-SF purists will sneer at Gibson's technical ignorance (as usual, though there were a couple of odd missteps here that threw me as well), and fans of whiz-bang adventure will mostly hate it, but this is a nicely imagined and well written piece of work.

Last modified: 4 November, 2001