Virtual Light (Magill's Literary Annual 1991-2005)
Set in a Los Angeles where the rich and powerful hunker down in Stealth Houses protected by armed patrols and a contrasting San Francisco that so far has still defied corporate America, William Gibson’s science-fiction novel virtual Light fascinates with its clever extrapolation of current trends, its uncanny vision, and its plucky protagonists. In typical fashion, Gibson drops his reader straight into the brave new world of the year 2005, which comes complete with its own slang, new designer drugs, and illegal data havens, giving the effect of a fast-forwarded contemporary Amenca.
Stranded in Los Angeles after losing his job as a police officer in Knoxville, Tennessee, Berry Rydell has become one of a legion of private security guards. His chance to star on the hit television show Cops in Trouble evaporates when a female officer turns vigilante against a serial killer of children. So Rydell now cruises the mean streets of the city in a Hotspur Hussar, a fully armored six-wheeler apfly named Gurihead by his pal Joel Sublett. The escapee of a strange fundamentalist sect who sought the Lord’s subliminal message in B-movie after B-movie, Sublett is both a caricature and a walking lexicon of films historic and imaginary, and it takes a trained reader to detect the difference.
Rydell trips up again when he responds too vigorously to a false alarm caused by “The Republic of Desire,” a group of super hackers, and crashes in...
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The Plot (Magill's Guide to Science Fiction and Fantasy Literature)
Although set in the same technologically stratified world as William Gibson’s earlier novels, Virtual Light presents a much more naturalistic and less hard-edged vision. The story concerns the theft and eventual recovery of a pair of Virtual Light glasses capable of transmitting images directly to the optic nerve. Their ability, though, is not nearly as important as the information the glasses contain: the technical details of a global corporation’s plan to rebuild San Francisco. These two elements of technological intricacy and global corporate domination identify the novel as cyberpunk and form the backdrop for the characters, who only vaguely understand the implications of either the technology or the corporate plotting.
The two protagonists of the story are Berry Rydell and Chevette Washington. They are naïve and trusting individuals trying to make a living, and it is their naïveté that puts them at a disadvantage in a world in which knowledge and distrust mean power and control. Rydell, a former police officer, moved to Los Angeles in the hope that a television show, Cops in Trouble, would solve the problems surrounding a killing in the line of duty. Through chance and bad luck, he finds himself in San Francisco, working for Lucius Warbaby and other renegade security agents and police officers hired by DatAmerica, an information and security broker. Their goal is to locate and retrieve the stolen Virtual Light glasses....
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Virtual Light continues to display Gibson's inventive use of surface texture to create a vivid future world. Details of clothing, smells, colors, and textures are densely created along with the strange new customs and language of a post-earthquake California. Gibson creates new language for his new world. Perhaps the most memorable are the phrase proj on, a 2005 biker version of the concept of "keep on truckin,'" and the term a Thomasson to describe a "pointless but curious" and interesting phenomenon like the Bridge community. Denizens of Gibson's NoCal and SoCal frequent a bar called Cognitive Dissidents, listen to a band called Chrome Koran singing "She God's Girlfriend," and favor body piercing and tattoos.
Although Gibson writes in an impressionistic, fragmented style that has become one of his trademarks, the novel is less frenetic than Neuromancer and, in many ways, less unconventional. Plot development, as in Mona Lisa Overdrive, uses multiple stories before the plot finally comes together, but again the technique is less scattered, focusing as it does primarily on the stories of two characters rather than on the four or five of Mona Lisa Overdrive (please see separate entry).
What is most distinctive about this novel is Gibson's increased interest in satire — of religion, the police, California, television, and pop fads. The work is also funny and character-centered. The plot is convoluted...
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Ideas for Group Discussions
Gibson's work provokes the same strong responses generated by punk music and punk fashion. His work attracts an audience beyond those who normally read science fiction because of his unique vision of computer cyberspace, a vision that has begun to become reality in the lives of many readers. Gibson has consciously tried to react against what he saw as a number of sterile conventions of science fiction. Although Gibson does not present his near-future world as either utopic or dystopic, clearly his vision of one possible near-future invites discussion of such topics as the impact of technology and war on society, the role of multinational corporations, and the impact of living in a world where nature has receded.
1. Gibson introduces several communities in Virtual Light — the religious camp of Paradise, the gated homes of SoCal, the Bridge. Compare them to one another and consider how these communities reflect the realities of the future world Gibson creates.
2. Who is J. D. Shapely, and why is he an important figure in the novel?
3. What is the relationship between Chevette and Skinner? Between Yamazaki and Skinner?
4. If you are familiar with Gibson's other novels, in particular the Sprawl novels, discuss the differences and similarities between the visions of the future depicted in each.
5. Explain how Berry and Chevette use the Republic of Desire to carry out their plan.
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Gibson's early Matrix novels, Neuromancer (1984), Count Zero (1986), and Mona Lisa Overdrive, created a punk-inspired future world centered on the renegade underground of computer cowboys, drugs, and crime. In Virtual Light, Gibson chooses to enter the novel from the other side of the moral spectrum — from the perspective of characters trying to establish lives that are useful, but who are thwarted by bad luck, innocence, or the vices of others. Berry Rydell, one of the central characters of the novel, wants to be a straight arrow policeman, and Chevette Washington, the other central figure, tries to make a life for herself as a bike messenger. Both are caught up in a plot that forces them to confront their own weaknesses and to come to terms with the consequences of their actions. Virtual Light continues to pursue the Gibson preoccupation with the impact of technology on individuals' lives and on the threatening and violent forces of the world that cause wounded and vulnerable people to come together to overcome adversity.
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If Mona Lisa Overdrive is Gibson's heist caper, then Virtual Light is the cops and robbers story. It plays upon the ambiguities of whether the police are good or evil and the concomitant plot twists. In addition, Virtual Light borrows from the tradition of two kids on the lam, running from the villains who are threatening them because they know too much or saw too much. Chevette steals the virtual light glasses on a whim and then finds that she has information that is crucial to the secret plan to rebuild the city. She and Berry must evade their pursuers in a scenario where they do not know who is friend and who is foe. Even the nice little old lady in the white van turns out to be a spy.
Another primary influence both on the setting and the style of Virtual Light is the work of Raymond Chandler. Virtual Light is hard-boiled and knowing, but it does not take itself too seriously. Like Chandler's California, Gibson's SoCal is "full of mysteries," with "stricter regulations for who could and couldn't be a hairdresser" than for who could be a security guard.
Virtual Light is also a very media conscious novel. It is extremely visual as are all of Gibson's works, but this one also seems designed to be a film. Gibson even puts in a suggestion for an actor to play Berry — at the police academy Berry learns he is a Tommy Lee Jones look-alike.
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Virtual Light is not directly related either in setting or character to other Gibson works, but it continues to be concerned with the interaction of humans and technology and the power of corporations to manipulate society. After Neuromancer Gibson seemed to focus more on character relationships and experimentation with plot and to move away from the conception that made him famous, cyberspace.
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Bibliography (Magill's Guide to Science Fiction and Fantasy Literature)
Sources for Further Study
Byte. XVIII, September, 1993, p.49.
Chicago Tribune. August 8, 1993, XIV, p.1.
The Christian Science Monitor. August 26, 1993, p. 11.
Library Journal. CXVIII, August, 1993, p.159.
Los Angeles Times Book Review. October 17, 1993, p.13.
New Statesman and Society. VI, September 24, 1993, p.55.
The New York Times Book Review. XCVIII, September 12, 1993, p.36.
Publishers Weekly. CCXL, September 6, 1993, p.70.
The Times Literary Supplement. October 1, 1993, p.21.
The Washington Post Book World. XXIII, August 22, 1993, p.5.
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