BOOKS

California screaming

A ‘cyberpunk’has a 21st-century nightmare

DIANE BRADY September 6 1993
BOOKS

California screaming

A ‘cyberpunk’has a 21st-century nightmare

DIANE BRADY September 6 1993

California screaming

A ‘cyberpunk’has a 21st-century nightmare

BOOKS

VIRTUAL LIGHT By William Gibson (Seal, 325 pages, $24.95)

More than a few techno-junkies groaned when, in 1991, William Gibson abandoned “cyberspace,” his imaginary world beyond the computer screen. That year, after a series of three so-called cyberpunk novels starting with the groundbreaking Neuromancer (1984), Gibson made a startling departure: instead of revisiting cyberspace, he shifted to Victorian England with The Difference Engine, a sci-fi tale co-authored by Bruce Sterling. But in his latest work, the Vancouver author has gone back to the future. In some respects, Virtual Light draws more from current headlines than Gibson’s enormously popular cyberpunk works, which explore the information age with the iconoclastic attitudes of punk rock. Although the new book takes place in the next decade, it presents a world littered with late-20th-century references. And Gibson seems more intent on giving readers a cutting analysis of the present than a bleak vision of the future.

In Virtual Light, Gibson reworks the traditional cops-and-robbers plot, adding his trademark cheeky cynicism and ambivalence about technology. Set in the year 2005, the novel gets going when female bicycle courier Chevette Washington sneaks into a party, is harassed by a drunken lecher and steals a pair of glasses from his pocket in revenge. Unknown to her, the glasses are actually a precious commodity, designed to allow the viewer to see “virtual” images. What’s more, they are programmed with industrial secrets. As in the computer-generated world of cyberspace, data are potent currency in Virtual Light’s California of the near future.

Berry Rydell, a jaded ex-cop from Tennessee, enters the fray when he becomes chauffeur to Lucius Warbaby, the bounty hunter hired to retrieve the glasses. When Rydell discovers that Warbaby is part of a conspiracy surrounding the glasses, he switches allegiance, fleeing with Washington and the stolen property—whose original owner has been killed. With the help of some rebel hackers, the dynamic duo take on corrupt cops and a Central American drug and information cartel. They also discover love among the ruins.

Gibson’s world 12 years from now is slowly slouching towards destruction. California, divided into the tense sister states of NoCal and SoCal, is in tatters. Following a major earthquake, San Francisco’s Bay Bridge has become a makeshift misery village—home to hundreds of squatters, including Chevette Washington. The community has the feel of an anarchic carnival, with tattoo parlors, betting shops, video arcades and unsavory bars dotting the bridge’s neon-lit skeleton.

The entire Western world has degenerated into a disturbingly familiar wasteland where high-tech toys exist alongside poverty, violence, environmental destruction and excessive greed. Television is an opiate for the masses, who keep themselves otherwise amused with body-piercing, designer drugs and other forms of self-destruction. The tone of alienation is set in the first chapter, in which a nameless man sits in a sterile Mexico City hotel room, quaffing Japanese vodka and watching Russian pornography. Outside, in the brownish air of the squalid city, the man sees “fine dry flakes of fecal snow billowing in from the sewage flats.”

Gibson has foreseen the future—the logical outcome of a disquieting present—and he is not amused. Yet some of the details of Virtual Light are highly amusing. Rydell’s hyper-allergic partner, Joel Sublett, has fallen away from a video sect that believes God’s word is revealed through B-movies. And Gibson’s comments on the misuses of technology are often slyly satirical: in one scene, a woman tries to move her dead husband’s brain to a more luxurious cryogenic facility where it can stay frozen in its own private tank.

Surprisingly, the author who has become a hero to computer hackers emerges in Virtual Light as a champion of the techno-peasant in the age of information. He allows the low-tech good guys to conquer the hightech bad guys, and thoughtful analysis to beat out glib predictions. But Gibson also seems to suggest that technology can save humans from the horrors wrought by their own technological recklessness. The main character in Neuromancer wore false mirrored eyes as a fashion statement. In Virtual Light, such mirrors are used to ward off intense radiation from the sun.

As it carries readers along on its often gripping—if somewhat dense—narrative, Virtual Light does offer elements of hope. One character, James Shapely, carries a non-deadly strain of HIV that eventually saves millions from dying of AIDS. Common sense and human instinct manage to prevail over gadgets. And the creative urge that pushes society towards the edge of destruction, Gibson implies, also has the power to save it. The hackers, whose skills can undermine the foundations of Gibson’s information-based society, instead use their talents to help defeat the powerful forces seeking to control information.

Despite the futuristic jargon and the technological complexity of the world that Gibson describes, the novel’s strength lies in how it retells the age-old story of the battle between the forces of light and darkness. The outcome is never in doubt—the hackers and the loners will triumph. But Gibson knows that his fans wouldn’t have it any other way.

DIANE BRADY