Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1744
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 people caught between implacable forces. Yet the vision of these books is not exactly dystopian. In this imagined near-future, an earthquake (the “Little Big One”) has rendered the Bay Bridge unsafe for travel. Shut off to traffic, the bridge has become a haven for all sorts of people who otherwise do not fit, and they have erected there an unstable warren of structures of every imaginable variety and serving every imaginable purpose.
This anarchic community is close to Gibson’s heart, though he tries not to be utterly sentimental about it. It embodies the attitude that he implicitly urges on his readers throughout the trilogy: a provisional stance, an alert openness to a new reality that sometimes violates deep instincts about human life and the order of things (such as the familiar distinction between the natural and the artificial).
So among Gibson’s principal villains are Christians (usually referred to as “fundamentalist Christians”), who figure repeatedly as examples of blind adherence to outmoded notions of what is natural and right. Members of one sect, though, the Fallonites, are adapted to modernity sufficiently to believe that God is somehow present on television: “Kind of like in the background or something.” They are utter fools, but nicer than the Revealed Aryan Nazarenes or the Crucified Jesus People, who carry chrome nails in leather neck-pouches and every once in a while crucify someone.
One of the characters who appears in all three books of the trilogy is Shinya Yamazaki, a Japanese “student of existential sociology,” one part critic Walter Benjamin and two parts bumbling cartoon character Mr. Magoo. Through this appealing individual, who records observations in his ever-present notebook, Gibson is able to throw his voice when it is convenient.
All Tomorrow’s Parties begins with Yamazaki on an escalator descending into the bowels of a Tokyo train station. His destination is a cluster of cardboard hovels, makeshift dwellings of the “homeless,” in one of which Colin Laney is living.
Laney, the coprotagonist of the previous novel, Idoru, is “an intuitive fisher of patterns of information,” an ability he gained through a secret U.S. government experiment gone awry. (As a child at an orphanage, Laney was an unwitting test subject.) In Idoru, he is hired by associates of Rez, lead singer of the popular rock group Lo/Rez. Rez is engaged to be married to Rei Toei, an idoru or Japanese “idol- singer.” The typicalidoru is a teenage girl who probably is not even singing her own songs but who presents a marketable if ephemeral identity. Rei Toei, however, is not a human being; she is a computer-generated “personality construct, a congeries of software agents, the creation of information- designers.” How can a person marry a “congeries of software agents”?
That is precisely what worries Rez’s minders. (They are not turning the question around and wondering if a celebrity is a “person,” but Gibson nudges readers in that direction.) Yes, their motives may be selfish in part—how will they be affected by this proposed union?— but above all it is the sheer unnaturalness of Rez’s interest in Rei Toei that troubles them. (They have not learned the first commandment of Gibsonland.) So they hire Colin Laney to find out what is really happening.
Laney determines that Rei Toei—who seems, one might say, to “have a mind of her own”—is a benign force. Idoru ends ambiguously, with a sense of great impending change. The first question that faces the reader of All Tomorrow’s Parties is how Laney has gone from the inner circle of Rez and Rei Toei to this cardboard house, where he is clearly unwell. Quickly the reader learns that not long after the events at the end of Idoru, Rei Toei “left” Rez. The sense of impending change that Laney was tuning in to has become even more urgent, however, and that is what obsesses him now.
It should be remembered that All Tomorrow’s Parties was published late in 1999, at a time when millennial speculation was all the rage and before the “Y2K bug” proved to be less than fearsome. In the world of the novel, the millennium has come and gone, more than five years past. Yet that does not mean the expectation of great change—an expectation that seems to have been building since the 1960’s—was utterly mistaken.
Laney reaches up and removes the bulky, old-fashioned eyephones. Yamazaki cannot see what outputs to them, but the shifting light from the display reveals Laney’s hollowed eyes. “It’s all going to change, Yamazaki. We’re coming to the mother of all nodal points. I can see it, now. It’s all going to change.
“I don’t understand.”
“Know what the joke is? It didn’t change when they thought it would. Millennium was a Christian holiday.”
Yamazaki should have remembered what he saw on the bridge in Virtual Light: “We are come not only to the century’s closing . . . , the millennium’s turning, but to the end of something else. Era? Paradigm? Everywhere, the signs of closure.” Modernity is at an end, he concludes, and what comes next is yet uncertain.
In an interview with the online magazine Salon after the publication ofIdoru, Gibson was asked about the “enigmatic” ending of that novel. “If I provided a more apparent closure,” he replied, “it wouldn’t satisfy me. It might satisfy the more literal-minded part of my readership, but it would have left me feeling that I had faked it.”
This is also the case with the ending of All Tomorrow’s Parties, which is the ending of the trilogy. Through all three books, various forces have conspired to control and make use of nanotech: a metaphor of sorts for fabulous change, the seemingly fantastic becoming suddenly possible. In the last mini-chapter of All Tomorrow’s Parties, which appears to be an epilogue of sorts, set some time after the main action of the novel, the reader sees nanotech at work, but in a very “ordinary” setting: cleaning a watch.
Yes, great change is impending, Gibson says, but the world goes on. “I don’t think that there’s anything worthy of belief,” he said in another interview, “in more than the sense that some things are worthy of being worn for a season. The human belief systems are disposable and replaceable and I suppose we need them but there’s some strange part of me that’s just never been very enthusiastic for the ultimate answer. It’s more the process.”
Sources for Further Study
Booklist 96 (September 1, 1999): 7.
Library Journal 124 (October 15, 1999): 110.
Time 154 (December 6, 1999): 120.
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