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 on a sadomasochistic encounter between a client and her gardener. After he is officially removed from the payroll of IntenSecure, the best arnong Los Angeles’ booming private security
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providers, Rydell is rehired as an independent contractor with the official task of driving Lucius Warbaby, an imposing hulk of a private detective of Asian and African descent. Here and elsewhere, Gibson’s satire works doubly well: He not only outlines existing trends, such as corporate America’s increasing reliance on private security providers, but also transcribes these very real practices onto the world of criminal cartels and their henchmen and enforcers.
Arriving in San Francisco, Rydell soon finds out that his true mission is to help recover a stolen set of sunglasses. Their razor-thin lenses contain a cyberspace databank that holds plans for turning San Francisco into the ultimate corporate themepark. Chevette Washington has purloined the glasses from their Serbian courier (code-named Hans Blix) because his rude come-on at a party offended her. This act of freelance thievery quickly not only ends Chevette’s career as one of the fog city’s fastest bicycle messengers but terminates Blix’s as well.
The main conflict of the novel is thus set between the demands of an ultimately demeaning corporate structure, which sets robotlike efficiency as its goal, and human creativity and spontaneity, which take the latest in technological invention and subvert it for personal satisfaction. The pleasure of the tinkerer who bends a machine to his or her bidding, not merely to follow what it has been programmed to do, ranks very high in Gibson’s world. His perfect symbol is the bike messenger, who joins his or her fine-tuned, muscular body to the ultralight products of a new technology that liberates rather than oppresses. Just as women bicyclists spelled the end of an era of sanctimoniously imposed Puritan decorum at the turn of the nineteenth century, so Gibson’s irreverent Chevette Washington thumbs her nose at the representatives of a global corporate network that demands unquestioning compliance to the tenets of capitalism. Throughout virtual Light, Gibson’s sympathies lie not with his fellow travelers along the information superhighway but with the superhighwaymen.
Rydell and his new employers, Lucius Warbaby and the computer- toting factotum Freddie, first receive a detailed fax and then visit the (almost cleaned up) scene of the...
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