The most influential American writer in the last two decades of the twentieth century was not John Updike or Toni Morrison, Thomas Pynchon or Raymond Carver, Joyce Carol Oates or Stephen King. That honor belongs to William Gibson.
Born in 1948 and raised in Virginia, Gibson emigrated to Canada in 1968 and in 1972 moved to Vancouver, where he earned a B.A. in English at the University of British Columbia. His first novel,Neuromancer (1984), swept all the major science-fiction prizes and introduced the world to “cyberspace” (“the consensual hallucination that was the matrix,” as Gibson put it), a term that he had coined in a 1981 short story. In Neuromancer, Gibson appropriated a well-worn science- fiction concept—neural implants that allow a person to “jack in” directly to a vast computer network—and invested it with a seductively hip aura. (Connoisseurs of irony like to point out that the novel was written on a manual typewriter.)
Neuromancer became the signature work of a science- fiction movement known as cyberpunk and spawned a host of imitators, in so-called mainstream fiction as well. More than a handful of young writers could quote from memory its marvelous beginning (“The sky was the color of television, turned to a dead channel”). Yet the influence of Gibson’s vision—his kinder, gentler nihilism—extended well beyond literature to film and the culture more generally. The 1999 film The Matrix, for instance, while drawing from an eclectic range of sources, could never have been conceived without Neuromancer.
With the two novels that followed, Count Zero (1986) and Mona Lisa Overdrive (1988), Neuromancer became part of a loosely linked trilogy. Gibson also published a collection of stories, Burning Chrome (1986), and collaborated with Bruce Sterling on a historical science-fiction novel, The Difference Engine (1990). With the 1993 publication of Virtual Light, Gibson began a second trilogy of novels, continued with Idoru in 1996 and brought to conclusion with All Tomorrow’s Parties.
Unlike his first trilogy, the novels in this second trio are closely linked.Virtual Light is set largely in the San Francisco Bay Area in 2005. California has divided into two separate states, and the story touches on both, though chiefly Northern California, or “NoCal.” Idoru takes place roughly a year later, mainly in Tokyo, and All Tomorrow’s Parties, at a time shortly after that, is set primarily in San Francisco, secondarily in Tokyo.
Virtual Light is by far the longest book of the three and the richest stylistically. Consciously or not, Gibson seems to have switched gears after that book. Idoru, one of whose two protagonists is a fourteen-year-old girl, is simpler, even at the level of vocabulary. “Simpler” does not necessarily mean inferior. Robert Heinlein’s “juvenile” science-fiction novels from the late 1940’s and the 1950’s include some of his best work—books such as Citizen of the Galaxy (1957) and Have Space Suit—Will Travel (1958) that are readily enjoyed by adults but with a special claim on younger readers. Nothing about the marketing of Idoru or All Tomorrow’s Parties suggests a similar aim, but the books themselves raise the question. (No doubt marketing the books as “young adult” fiction would alienate the most adventurous young readers, the ones most likely to read Gibson.)
Like many books aimed first at young people—teenagers, college students, even twenty-somethings—this trilogy of novels presents a world in which all authority is corrupt. Governments play second fiddle to multinational corporations, and the whole world seems in many ways to resemble Russia after the fall of communism: a playground for gangsters and entrepreneurs. As a picture of the very near future, it is not credible—the same can be said of the technology casually deployed throughout the trilogy—but it is not intended to be realistic in its details, and the dating supplies a frisson that a more distant future would lack.
Gibson’s protagonists are little...
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