The Barnes & Noble Review
Virtual Confrontation From the beginning of his career, William Gibson's fiction has dealt with the emerging interface between human beings and the furiously evolving field of information technology. His famous first novel, Neuromancer, popularized the concept of cyberspace and provided an entire generation of science fiction writers with a working model of the digitized society that is just around the corner. With All Tomorrow's Parties, his sixth and latest solo novel, Gibson reaffirms his position as the prose poet of the information age, giving us a complex, densely imagined portrait of a near-future society poised on the edge of a profound and mysterious change.
All Tomorrow's Parties is the concluding volume in a loosely connected trilogy that began six years ago with Virtual Light and continued, three years later, with Idoru. In the world of these novels, the millennium has come and gone, leaving in its wake an America that is battered and balkanized but still essentially itself. As the new novel opens, Colin Laney digital prognosticator and protagonist of Idoru has come to the conclusion that larger, more fundamental changes are on the way and will shortly put an end to the governing paradigms of the early 21st century.
Laney is one of Gibson's most unique creations, a man who was subjected to an illegal drug experiment as a child and who has since developed a singular talent: He can immerse himselfinanonymous streams of data and identify what he calls the "nodal points," the crucial turning points in the lives of individuals and in the histories of entire societies. All Tomorrow's Parties concerns Laney's ongoing attempts to understand the nature of the massive new nodal point he believes is imminent and to prevent, if possible, a dimly perceived series of post-millennial catastrophes.
Although he knows very few things for certain, Laney believes that California will be the starting point for the forthcoming change. He therefore contacts an old acquaintance named Berry Rydell a hard-luck ex-policeman and the hero of Virtual Light and sends him to San Francisco to act as his agent-in-place. Laney also believes that the prime mover behind this unspecified change will be billionaire industrialist Cody Harwood, whose "signature" appears over and over again in the oceans of data that surround the nodal point. Subsequent investigation reveals that, years before, Harwood had voluntarily subjected himself to the same experimental drug that gave Laney his peculiar ability; that Harwood is himself capable of discerning the nodal points in the world's data stream; and that he has spent years manipulating events in order to insure himself a dominant position in the reconfigured world, a world whose essence will be altered by the new technologies that Harwood himself will sponsor and control.
The resulting drama which is, in effect, a no-holds-barred struggle for the soul of the future is played out against an array of brilliantly realized settings, some actual (such as the Bridge, a squatter's haven built on the ruins of the structurally damaged San Francisco/Oakland Bridge) and some virtual (such as the vast, multifaceted Walled City, a gigantic software construct built and maintained by outlaw hackers who have effectively seceded from the human mainstream).
Characters caught up in the drama are likewise divided along physical and virtual lines. Included among them are Virtual Light's Chevette Washington, the former bicycle messenger who was once Berry Rydell's lover; Silencio, a damaged, perhaps autistic adolescent with an uncanny ability to find his way through the unmapped regions of cyberspace; Shinyu Yamazaki, existential sociologist and perennial student of 21st century culture; and, most centrally, Rei Toei, the Idoru of Gibson's previous novel, a beautiful, artificially intelligent entity who is described as "a sea of code, the ultimate expression of entertainment software." Rei Toei is a new order of being, a constantly evolving artifact of the digital age, and she will play a pivotal role in the climactic confrontation with Cody Harwood.
All Tomorrow's Parties is typical, top-level Gibson: elegant, alternately hard-edged, and dreamlike, filled with the sights, sounds, smells, and textures of a future that is at once deeply familiar and intensely strange. As in all of Gibson's work, the brilliance of the book lies in its extraordinary sense of detail. There are no throwaway moments in this novel, no poorly constructed sentences, no vague or imprecise descriptions. Gibson pays attention to everything, from the "interstitial" societies of the decaying urban wilderness to the gaudy technological marvels of the virtual world. The result is a believable, frightening, and thoroughly imagined portrait of the shifting realities of post-millennial America. All Tomorrow's Parties is William Gibson at his visionary best, and it comes highly recommended. Anyone with an interest in contemporary science fiction or in literate, intelligent, exploratory fiction of any sort needs to read this book.
Bill Sheehan reviews horror, suspense, and science fiction for Cemetery Dance, The New York Review of Science Fiction, and other publications. At the Foot of the Story Tree, his book-length critical study of the fiction of Peter Straub, will be published by Subterranean Press in the spring of 2000.
Read an Excerpt
1. Cardboard City
Through this evening's tide of faces unregistered, unrecognized, amid hurrying black shoes, furled umbrellas, the crowd descending like a single organism into the station's airless heart, comes Shinya Yamazaki, his notebook clasped beneath his arm like the egg case of some modest but moderately successful marine species.
Evolved to cope with jostling elbows, oversized Ginza shopping bags, ruthless briefcases, Yamazaki and his small burden of information go down into the neon depths. Toward this tributary of relative quiet, a tiled corridor connecting parallel escalators.
Central columns, sheathed in green ceramic, support a ceiling pocked with dust-furred ventilators, smoke detectors, speakers. Behind the columns, against the far wall, derelict shipping cartons huddle in a ragged train, improvised shelters constructed by the city's homeless. Yamazaki halts, and in that moment all the oceanic clatter of commuting feet washes in, no longer held back by his sense of mission, and he deeply and sincerely wishes he were elsewhere.
He winces, violently, as a fashionable young matron, features swathed in Chanel micropore, rolls over his toes with an expensive three-wheeled stroller. Blurting a convulsive apology, Yamazaki glimpses the infant passenger through flexible curtains of some pink-tinted plastic, the glow of a video display winking as its mother trundles determinedly away.
Yamazaki sighs, unheard, and limps toward the cardboard shelters. He wonders briefly what the passing commuters will think, to see him enter the carton fifth from the left. It is scarcely the height of his chest, longer than the others, vaguely coffin-like, a flap of thumb-smudged white corrugate serving as its door.
Perhaps they will not see him, he thinks. Just as he himself has never seen anyone enter or exit one of these tidy hovels. It is as though their inhabitants are rendered invisible in the transaction that allows such structures to exist in the context of the station. He is a student of existential sociology, and such transactions have been his particular concern.
And now he hesitates, fighting the urge to remove his shoes and place them beside the rather greasy-looking pair of yellow plastic sandals arranged beside the entrance flap on a carefully folded sheet of Parco gift wrap. No, he thinks, imagining himself waylaid within, struggling with faceless enemies in a labyrinth of cardboard. Best he not be shoeless.
Sighing again, he drops to his knees, the notebook clutched in both hands. He kneels for an instant, hearing the hurrying feet of those who pass behind him. Then he places the notebook on the ceramic tile of the station's floor and shoves it forward, beneath the corrugate flap, and follows it on his hands and knees.
He desperately hopes that he has found the right carton.
He freezes there in unexpected light and heat. A single halogen fixture floods the tiny room with the frequency of desert sunlight. Unventilated, it heats the space like a reptile's cage.
"Come in," says the old man, in Japanese. "Don't leave your ass hanging out that way." He is naked except for a sort of breechclout twisted from what may once have been a red T-shirt. He is seated, cross-legged, on a ragged, paint-flecked tatami mat. He holds a brightly colored toy figure in one hand, a slender brush in the other. Yamazaki sees that the thing is a model of some kind, a robot or military exoskeleton. It glitters in the sun-bright light, blue and red and silver. Small tools are spread on the tatami: a razor knife, a sprue cutter, curls of emery paper.
The old man is very thin, clean-shaven but in need of a haircut. Wisps of gray hair hang on either side of his face, and his mouth is set in what looks to be a permanent scowl of disapproval. He wears glasses with heavy black plastic frames and archaically thick lenses. The lenses catch the light.
Yamazaki creeps obediently into the carton, feeling the door flap drop shut behind him. On hands and knees, he resists the urge to try to bow.
"He's waiting," the old man says, his brush tip poised above the figure in his hand. "In there." Moving only his head.
Yamazaki sees that the carton has been reinforced with mailing tubes, a system that echoes the traditional post-and-beam architecture of Japan, the tubes lashed together with lengths of salvaged poly-ribbon. There are too many objects here, in this tiny space. Towels and blankets and cooking pots on cardboard shelves. Books. A small television.
"In there?" Yamazaki indicates what he takes to be another door, like the entrance to a hutch, curtained with a soiled square of melon-yellow, foam-cored blanket, the sort of blanket one finds in a capsule hotel. But the brush tip dips to touch the model, and the old man is lost in the concentration this requires, so Yamazaki shuffles on hands and knees across the absurdly tiny space and draws the section of blanket aside. Darkness.
What seems to be a crumpled sleeping bag. He smells sickness-
"Yeah?" A croak. "In here."
Drawing a deep breath, Yamazaki crawls in, pushing his notebook before him. When the melon-yellow blanket falls across the entrance, brightness glows through the synthetic fabric and the thin foam core, like tropical sunlight seen from deep within some coral grotto.
The American groans. Seems to turn, or sit up. Yamazaki can't see. Something covers Laney's eyes. Red wink of a diode. Cables. Faint gleam of the interface, reflected in a thin line against Laney's sweat-slick cheekbone.
"I'm deep in, now," Laney says, and coughs.
"Deep in what?"
"They didn't follow you, did they?"
"I don't think so."
"I could tell if they had."
Yamazaki feels sweat run suddenly from both his armpits, coursing down across his ribs. He forces himself to breathe. The air here is foul, thick. He thinks of the seventeen known strains of multi-drug-resistant tuberculosis.
Laney draws a ragged breath. "But they aren't looking for me, are they?"
"No," Yamazaki says, "they are looking for her."
"They won't find her," Laney says. "Not here. Not anywhere. Not now."
"Why did you run away, Laney?"
"The syndrome," Laney says and coughs again, and Yamazaki feels the smooth, deep shudder of an incoming maglev, somewhere deeper in the station, not mechanical vibration but a vast pistoning of displaced air. "It finally kicked in. The 5-SB. The stalker effect." Yamazaki hears feet hurrying by, perhaps an arm's length away, behind the cardboard wall.
"It makes you cough?" Yamazaki blinks, making his new contact lenses swim uncomfortably.
"No," Laney says and coughs into his pale and upraised hand. "Some bug. They all have it, down here."
"I was worried when you vanished. They began to look for you, but when she was gone-"
"The shit really hit the fan."
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 up on 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. I've been looking at history, Yamazaki. I can see the nodal points in history. Last time we had one like this was 1911."
"What happened in 1911?"
"It just did. That's how it works. I can see it now."
"Laney," Yamazaki says, "when you told me about the stalker effect, you said that the victims, the test subjects, became obsessed with one particular media figure."
"And you are obsessed with her?"
Laney stares at him, eyes lit by a backwash of data. "No. Not with her. Guy named Harwood. Cody Harwood. They're coming together, though. In San Francisco. And someone else. Leaves a sort of negative trace; you have to infer everything from the way he's not there..."
"Why did you ask me here, Laney? This is a terrible place. Do you wish me to help you to escape?" Yamazaki is thinking of the blades of the Swiss Army knife in his pocket. One of them is serrated; he could easily cut his way out through the wall. Yet the psychological space is powerful, very powerful, and overwhelms him. He feels very far from Shinjuku, from Tokyo, from anything. He smells Laney's sweat. "You are not well."
"Rydell," Laney says, replacing the eyephones. "That rent-a-cop from the Chateau. The one you knew. The one who told me about you, back in LA."
"I need a man on the ground, in San Francisco. I've managed to move some money. I don't think they can trace it. I dicked with DatAmerica's banking sector. Find Rydell and tell him he can have it as a retainer."
"To do what?"
Laney shakes his head. The cables on the eyephones move in the dark like snakes. "He has to be there, is all. Something's coming down. Everything's changing."
"Laney, you are sick. Let me take you-"
"Back to the island? There's nothing there. Never will be, now she's gone."
And Yamazaki knows this is true.
"Where's Rez?" Laney asks.
"He mounted a tour of the Kombinat states, when he decided she was gone."
Laney nods thoughtfully, the eyephones bobbing mantis-like in the dark. "Get Rydell, Yamazaki. I'll tell you how he can get the money."
"Because he's part of it. Part of the node."
Later Yamazaki stands, staring up at the towers of Shinjuku, the walls of animated light, sign and signifier twisting toward the sky in the unending ritual of commerce, of desire. Vast faces fill the screens, icons of a beauty at once terrible and banal.
Somewhere below his feet, Laney huddles and coughs in his cardboard shelter, all of DatAmerica pressing steadily into his eyes. Laney is his friend, and his friend is unwell. The American's peculiar talents with data are the result of experimental trials, in a federal orphanage in Florida, of a substance known as 5-SB. Yamazaki has seen what Laney can do with data, and what data can do to Laney.
He has no wish to see it again.
As he lowers his eyes from the walls of light, the mediated faces, he feels his contacts move, changing as they monitor his depth of focus. This still unnerves him.
Not far from the station, down a side street bright as day, he finds the sort of kiosk that sells anonymous debit cards. He purchases one. At another kiosk, he uses it to buy a disposable phone good for a total of thirty minutes, Tokyo-LA.
He asks his notebook for Rydell's number.
From "All Tomorrow's Parties" by William Gibson. (c) October, 1999 , William Gibson used by permission.