Sunday, April 19, 2009
by William Gibson
As we now move onto 1993’s “Virtual Light,” let us remember the importance of codes, that is, of patterning, within William Gibson’s work. The obvious metaphor, one that has perhaps been far too fore-grounded in previous discussions of his work, is that of binary code and cyberspace. There is just so much to William Gibson! And in lieu of Gibson’s actual technological naivety, it will perhaps be more fruitful to investigate his work through the same methodology he himself utilizes – a metaphorical lens. Information technology consists, after all, of sequences, accreting patterns of shift and dataflow. Can’t writing itself be described in a similar fashion, though? Writing is an organizational agent - the sorting and structuring of endogenous data. Gibson’s body of work is composed of patterned elements; one of his defining characteristics is his use of pre-existing genre-based patterns and reconfiguring them into a speculative criticism of contemporary social and technological pattern growth.
“Virtual Light” is William Gibson’s fourth solo novel, and following “The Difference Engine,” a steampunk collaboration with Bruce Sterling, the first volume of his second trilogy. The book follows Berry Rydell, a marginally employed security guard, and Chevette Washington, a bike messenger, as they become embroiled in a plot involving nascent nanotechnology and incipient arcologies, all within the framework of a fast-paced crime thriller. His first three novels, “Neuromancer,” “Count Zero,” and “Mona Lisa Overdrive,” can be grouped into an informal sequence – the Cyberspace or Sprawl trilogy. “Virtual Light” introduces a second speculative thread continuing through “Idoru” and concluding in “All Tomorrow’s Parties.” These three novels have been dubbed the Bridge trilogy, as they center around a squatter community that has conflagrated on the ruins of the San Francisco- Oakland Bay Bridge. Whereas the Sprawl trilogy posited a far future where a fully-integrated virtual interface has trickled down to street culture, “Virtual Light” takes place in 2005, just over ten years in the future from the novel’s 1993 publishing date. Why does Gibson do so, placing his future-vision in such close proximity to its date of composition? Neil Gaiman has said no genre dates itself with such generous speed as science fiction, but could “Virtual Light” really be called dated? As I write this from 2009, is a science fiction novel that takes place in 2005 archaic? I would argue that doing so misses the point Gibson is making with the Bridge novels.
The general consensus in the science fiction community regarding William Gibson is that the three Sprawl novels are a series of diminishing returns, and the more contemporous setting of the “Virtual Light” and the subsequent Bridge novels is something of a disappointment – supposedly, Gibson is playing against his strengths by grounding his novels in a more recognizable near-future. For me, “Virtual Light” is something of a revitalization of Gibson’s futurist vision following the comparatively murky “Mona Lisa Overdrive.” That novel failed to significantly further the thematic terrain introduced in “Neuromancer” and expanded in “Count Zero.” With the Bridge novels, Gibson has succeeded in reorienting himself in lieu of a futurological present.
Our present, on account of technological dispersal and communication spread, consists of planes of temporal scaffolding. Some people live in what could very convincingly be called the future, while others, due to poverty or post-colonial degradation, languish in a nightmare past. But then, what we are really discussing here is history, and not temporality. One character in “Virtual Light,” Joel Sublett, puts it aptly when he describes how television has effectively collapsed temporal segregation: “ Time on tv’s [sic] all the same time…” Time folds on top of time. Science Fiction, I would argue, is more about history and relation than it is about linear time. In that sense, even though William Gibson’s novels have in the past twenty years inched closer and closer to the present, they have simultaneously pushed further into a speculative futurology. This investigation of history must recognize the shift of patterns as previously discussed.
How does William Gibson utilize patterns within his own prose? It’s worth noting that of the great science fiction writers, Gibson is also one of the most ostentatiously conventional. He doesn’t engage in the aesthetic experimentalism of Joanna Russ, Samuel Delany or JG Ballard, and he, by and large, conforms to the market-fueled trilogy structure the genre has fallen, or been pressured, into. All five of the Gibson-related novels I have discussed on this blog are also, in terms of plot, fairly conventional thrillers. So what is it that differentiates Gibson, aside from the obvious strength of his imagery and hard-edged prose? I mentioned in my “Neuromancer” post Gibson’s heavy use of pastiche and surface. What he does is sequence his well-worn genre tropes and expectations into visionary infrastructures – something resembling the animated accretions of data and refuse that make up Gibson’s cyberspace.
In “Virtual Light,” he returns to, and consolidates, his speculations regarding social conflagration and architectural interface. Much has been made of Gibson’s ability to viscerally describe futuristic technology -conveyed through metaphor rather than hard, science-based data. But a good case could be made that his best prose occurs when centered on one of three recurrent obsessions – food, particularly the culture and conventions that spring up around coffee, fashion, and architecture. William Gibson has honed both his characterization and his plotting as his career has progressed, but that isn’t necessarily where his strengths lie. It is important to note that “Virtual Light” and the larger world of the Bridge trilogy grew out of “Skinner’s Room,” a short story composed for Visionary San Francisco, a 1990 art exhibition investigating the architectural futures of the Bay area.
The arcologies of Gibson’s Sprawl trilogy are presented here in a larval stage of cultural development. Godzilla and Le Grande - two massive earthquakes that shattered the foundations of their respective cities, have decimated the metropolises of Tokyo and San Francisco. Out of this destruction, nanotechnology has begun to replicate eerie approximations of a lost environment. Trees, like horses in the Sprawl novels, have been mostly destroyed by the collision of a damaging technology with a vulnerable natural world. Instead of real palm trees, Los Angeles’ streets are lined with “A-LIFE INSTALLATIONS, NANOTRONIC VEGATATION,” that is, “…things that kind of grew, but only because they were made up of all these little tiny machines… these new trees were designed so that all kinds of birds and rats and things nest in them, just like the ones that had died.” These simulacra remind me of that famous first sentence of “Neuromancer” and its eerie collapse of artifice and authenticity.
Bike messenger Chevette describes these nanotechnological trees as “…kind of like the Bay maglev, or like what Rydell and Sublett said that the Sunflower company was going to do in San Francisco…” That is, what we see is an integrated techno-organic development of urban zones - a possible origin point for the arcologies of the future. The Sunflower company hopes “…to rebuild San Francisco. From the ground up, basically. Like they’re doing to Tokyo. They’ll start by layering a grid of seventeen complexes into he existing infrastructure. Eighty-story office/ residential, retail/ residence in the base. Completely self-sufficient. Variable-pitch parabolic reflectors, steam-generators. New buildings, man; they’ll eat their own sewage.” Sounds like the byzantine Projects that Bobby Newmark visits in the earlier “Count Zero,” doesn’t it? What is interesting is how Gibson doesn’t necessarily pass judgment upon the architectural ambitions of the Sunflower company. Instead, he baldly presents the clandestine, often brutal, machinations that unfortunately accompany many architectural and mediated large-scale cultural programs.
The squatter community of the Bridge presents an intriguing contrast to the cold mediation of the Sunflower company. A burgeoning community of outsiders and fringe-dwellers has grown amidst the ruins of the San Francisco- Oakland Bay Bridge, which was fractured in the earthquakes that accompanied the split of California into the sister-states of NoCal and SoCal. This squatter community is at least partially modeled after China’s Kowloon Walled City, a closed urban zone of unprecedented delegalization and high-density construction demolished by the outraged Chinese government in the 1980s. The Bridge mirrors such an autonomous urban growth, as well as the nanotechnology elsewhere described in “Virtual Light.” The novel’s protagonist, Rydell, considers the Bridge, with “…none of it done to any plan, not that he could see. Not like a mall, where they plug a business into a slot and wait and see whether it works or not. This place had just grown, it looked like, one thing patched onto the next, until the whole span was wrapped in this formless mass of stuff, and no two pieces of it matched. There was a different material anywhere you looked, almost none of it being used for what it had originally been intended for. He passed stalls faced with turquoise Formica, fake brick, fragments of broken tile worked into swirls and sunbursts and flowers. One place, already shuttered, was covered with green-and-copper slabs of desoldered component-board.” Whereas waste in Phillip K. Dick’s work constitutes an oppressive element, kipple, postmodernist William Gibson looks to this refuse as constructive – the apparition of possible accretions.
Rydell makes a comparison between deliberate late-capitalist urban centers such as malls and the incipient sprawl of the Bridge. This illuminates much of Gibson’s conception of futurist urban growth – a sort of futurography. The sprawl and multiplicity of the Bridge renders the centralized malls obsolete. The bounty hunter Loveless takes Rydell and Chevette to an abandoned mall – to the husk of its failure. Here, we see “…a wall of dead shops, dead signs, dust on plastic.” One of the shops is a disemboweled GAP. Rydell observes “…it’s just a weird name. Like all those places look like gaps, now…”
“Virtual Light” is about what will fill these gaps - what will grow in the once-dead spaces.