Filler content with virtual light

A review that originally appeared back in 1997 in #8 of a magazine called Maelstrom:-

Virtual Light by William Gibson. Published by Penguin. Paperback, 296pp, £9.99.

It is 1995 as I write this review and Cyberpunk, which only a short time ago looked set to turn the science fiction world on its head, now seems slightly passé. Writers within the genre have assimilated the stylistic quirks of the movement, which Cyberpunk in its turn borrowed from the hard-boiled school of detective fiction, while reality itself seems to have caught up with the technological tropes that were its brand mark. Phrases like ‘surfing the Net’ and ‘information super highway’ have become part and parcel of our everyday experience, and only social historians of the future will have any hope of realistically assessing the extent to which fiction informed life and vice versa.

Against such a backdrop Virtual Light, the new novel by Cyberpunk doyen Gibson, seems almost an anachronism. Reading it I was reminded of nothing so much as Hammett’s hard-boiled classic The Maltese Falcon. Instead of wisecracking Sam Spade we have Berry Rydell, ex-cop and ex-private security guard, a hero who simply muddles through, managing to do the right thing. Instead of the curvaceous Miss Wonderley we have Chevette Washington, an ace bicycle messenger, skinny and punk coiffured. And instead of the jewel encrusted bird as a McGuffin Gibson gives us that archetypal Cyberpunk icon, a pair of mirrorshades.

These glasses are stolen by Chevette from a man who annoys her at a private party she has gate-crashed. It’s an act of pique, but the consequences are deadly serious. The mirrorshades are virtual light glasses containing information that certain parties do not wish to become public knowledge. Chevette finds herself on the run, pursued by a posse of bad guys that includes renegade policemen, the skip-tracer Lucius Warbaby and a ruthless assassin called Loveless. Berry works for Warbaby, but changes allegiance when he realises that his employer intends to off Chevette. There follow assorted acts of derring do and low-down treachery before Berry and Chevette get it all sorted with a little help from the Republic of Desire, a secret brotherhood of computer hackers. End of story. Gibson avoids the temptation of having them marry and live happily ever after, but there’s a strong hint the relationship will develop in this direction post the final paragraph.

There are some well-rounded characters in this novel and Gibson’s writing is always a delight to read, his terse prose driving the narrative along at a cracking pace, but anyone expecting the originality of Neuromancer will be sorely disappointed by this book. I’m not even sure that it should properly be regarded as science fiction; as Gibson himself acknowledges, much, if not all, of the technology he so adroitly stage manages is already in existence. Rather, Virtual Light seems to me like a run of the mill detective story by a better than average writer with some science fictional trappings tacked on almost as an afterthought.

And the sad thing is that those trappings, peripheral as they were, had far more potential than the main story. I didn’t care all that much about Chevette and Berry. I already had a fair idea what was going to happen with them after the first fifty pages, and nothing that followed held any surprises for me. But I did want to know more about how California got split up into two states, North and South. I wanted to know more about the shantytown built on the Golden Gate Bridge and the Japanese sociologist who comes to study its people. I wanted to know more about the Christian sect that watches TV in the hope of hearing God speak to them on the soundtracks of old films. Gibson could have told me about these and many other things besides, but instead he just uses them for window dressing in a not particularly interesting cops and robbers story, perhaps with his mind already on the possibility of a lucrative film deal.

With Virtual Light William Gibson has written a good novel, an enjoyable novel, one that I do not hesitate to recommend as escapist entertainment. I’m just not convinced that he has written the right novel.

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