So, there I am, re-reading for the umpteenth time one of my favorite books of all time (Neuromancer) by one of my favorite authors of all time (William Gibson) for a grad school class. I’ve roped myself into giving a lecture on the book because I happen to be the one person in class who’s read everything Gibson has published in book form. Having my professor label me the resident Gibson expert means, of course, that I’d better give a pretty damned good lecture, so I’m doing the requisite research and lo and behold! it turns out I haven’t read everything by Gibson!
Sneaking out onto bookstore shelves in October of 1999, with little of the fanfare that previous books by Gibson have received, is his latest effort, All Tomorrow’s Parties. So, being the diligent student that I am, of course I rush right out to the store and pick up a hardbound copy (I’m also a collector of Gibson first editions). In the three days I had before the lecture, I read All Tomorrow’s Parties so I could maintain my status as the classroom expert.
For those of you not familiar with William Gibson, his first novel, Neuromancer, was published in 1984 and is notable for many things. For one, it was one of the first novels to seemingly embrace much of the postmodern philosophy emerging in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. It also launched the science fiction genre of cyberpunk into the mainstream, gaining critical acclaim and a large fan base. Neuromancer also introduced the world to the concept of cyberspace, some eight years before the explosion of the Internet.
For this novel, Gibson won a shaky status as a cultural and technological prophet, although he has eschewed this label and he acknowledges both past influences from Mary Shelley, Phillip K. Dick, and Thomas Pynchon. But in essence, Neuromancer was a breakthrough of tremendous proportions. He is to cyberpunk what Douglas Coupland is to Generation X.
Gibson’s reach didn’t end with Neuromancer, however, and the two novels that followed it (Count Zero and Mona Lisa Overdrive) both acted as sequels to his first book and further cemented his position as an important writer. He also can be credited with creating the sub-genre of “steampunk” for writing The Difference Engine with Bruce Sterling (another seminal cyberpunk writer). He returned to a less futuristic but still cyberpunk science fiction with Virtual Light and Idoru. His latest, All Tomorrow’s Parties, is the third book in that series.
If you haven’t read Virtual Light and Idoru, it wouldn’t make any sense to read All Tomorrow’s Parties or to read a review that covered it’s plot. Suffice it to say that Gibson continues his explorations of the sociological effects of a technocratic culture. If you have read them, then rest assured that Gibson’s uncanny ability to weave various plot lines into a whole that knots up in the conclusion is still fresh. Characters from the first two books make their appearances here, such as the “netrunner” Colin Laney, to virtual construct/pop star Rei Toei, the bike messenger streetkid Chevette, and the happy-go-lucky security guard Rydell. In fact, what makes All Tomorrow’s Parties unique as a William Gibson book is that he’s playing with lots and lots of characters and their respective points of view this time out. Neuromancer is primarily told from a single character’s P.O.V., while his subsequent novels have explored a multiple perspective on his futuristic worlds. It has become an almost trademark structural device to have three major character-perspectives that seem disparate but that actually build into a collision at the climax. If you enjoy this the way I do, then you’ll be happy with All Tomorrow’s Parties.
But, to my dismay, I have to report that Gibson is not quite up to par with his latest effort. There is really no comparison between the Sprawl series (Neuromancer, Count Zero, Mona Lisa Overdrive) and the as-yet-unnamed trilogy that All Tomorrow’s Parties completes. Part of the problem with this is historical perspective. The world of the Sprawl series was seemingly a century away from 1984 (Gibson was careful not to give exact dates), whereas the last three novels have taken place perhaps 20 or 30 years into the future. Cyberspace still plays a large role, but Gibson has pulled more of contemporary culture into the explanation of cyberspace such as the referents to websites and virtual reality. This paradoxically works to make cyberspace seem less futuristic and also less interesting than its depiction in the Sprawl series. The death of history plays an important thematic role in All Tomorrow’s Parties, and yet Gibson resorts to such obvious devices as showing how one of the characters cannot give the proper name for a vinyl record or a cassette tape. In the future of Neuromancer, their absence said more than their reference without historical memory does here.
However, Gibson’s characterization is still strong and the plot line is still fun. Going back to the character of Rydell was a good move on his part since he seems to play the part of the viewer of science fiction reality: he doesn’t really understand the world he lives in and his commentary helps the reader through their own confusion. There is still a fair amount of action, and the depiction of the world of All Tomorrow’s Parties is as complete as ever. However, it’s probably a good thing that he ended this series. There’s a sense that he really had to scrape together a good idea to pull this one off. The ending is characteristically as obscure as any of the others, leaving us with more questions that answers, but it seems a little contrived. Perhaps the belief that cyberpunk is dead is really only validated by All Tomorrow’s Parties.
Hopefully, if we give Gibson a couple of years to sit and contemplate, he’ll dazzle us the next time around with a new reality in which to propel ourselves in our postmodern fashion. If you’re a fan, then this book is definitely for you, but don’t expect the best from the best. If you haven’t read Gibson before, don’t even attempt this without reading Virtual Light and Idoru first. In fact, just go back to the beginning and pick up Neuromancer and take a look at the future we’re headed towards as it was predicted 15 years ago.