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.